Southern California Appetizers – Gray, Yellow, Gold and Spotless

In Washington I may travel even a great distance to chase a single bird.  I no longer do this just for a single new bird for the year like I did in my Big Year quests, but will do so for a new state life bird or a new state life photo.  Beyond Washington though, there have to be multiple targets or motivations.  This was the case for my just completed return to Southern California.  I was going to go on my first San Diego pelagic trip (which I will write about in my next blog) as the main course with appetizers being my continued pursuit of a ABA First Photo of my nemesis Lawrence’s Goldfinch and a first ABA observation of a Yellow Footed Gull. Depending on what was around and the success of those adventures, maybe there would be other possibilities as well.

My plan was to get to San Diego early, rent a car and drive to Kitchen Creek Road – about 90 minutes away and look for the Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  Mid August is not the best time for this species in the area, but San Diego birding friend Mel Senac suggested this spot as a good place to look and it was mostly on the way to the Salton Sea, the place to find the Yellow Footed Gull.  I had met David and Tammy McQuade on my North Carolina pelagic trip and learned they would be on the San Diego trip as well.  We compared notes and they told me they had seen Lawrence’s Goldfinches at Kitchen Creek this year also – but in the spring.  This is where networking really pays off.  I was so focused on the Goldfinches that I had no awareness that this was also a good area for another species that was on my ABA Photo “needs” list – a Gray Vireo.   The McQuades had found a pair at Kitchen Creek in the Spring also and Dave sent me details.

From San Diego to Kitchen Creek Road

San Diego to Kitchen Creek Road

It was almost 11:00 when I got to Kitchen Creek.  It was hot, dry and pretty quiet.  I first tried for the Goldfinches along a trail that connects to the Pacific Crest Trail.   I played the songs and call notes of both the Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the Gray Vireo but had no luck.  I then went to what looked like a riparian area maybe a quarter mile further east.  No water there now, but I guess it is good in the spring.  No Goldfinches of any kind but I heard and had a brief view of a Bullock’s Oriole in flight.  The Gray Vireo was probably the “better” bird to find, but I had missed so many times on the Goldfinches, I was really focused on them.  I almost forgot to try again for the Vireo, since it had been seen in the first area I had birded and not here.  Fortunately, I tried once more.

As soon as I played the song of the Gray Vireo, a single bird flew directly towards me from across the road at least 100 and probably 200 feet away.  It landed in dense brush next to me.  I got a mostly obstructed partial view.  At least in the view I had it was plain and essentially without field marks.  That would fit with Gray Vireo, but I could not get a photo and could not be sure.  I played again and had no movement.  After 5 minutes without any more views, I wondered if it had flown out the back of the brush, and I decided to work another area and then try again.  My guess must have been correct.  After another 5 minutes of birdless looking, I played the Gray Vireo song again.  This time, I heard a responsive song, and again a bird flew from across the road and came to the same brush.  When it landed it gave the “eh-eh-eh” call of a Gray Vireo and I knew I had my bird.  It took some doing and no pictures came out real well, but I finally got a photo – an ABA first for me.

So I had been looking for “gold” and ended up with “gray”, but as I have written many times, you cannot find anything if you are not out there looking and sometimes the consolation prizes are as good or even better than the prize you thought you were seeking.

Gray Vireo – Kitchen Creek Road, San Diego County (Poor Photo)

Gray Vireo

I tried once more for the Goldfinches at the original spot with no success and figured it was time to move on.  The original plan had been to stay the night in Brawley – fairly close to the Salton Sea and to bird the area in the early morning when it would not be so hot.  It was just after noon and Brawley was another 80 miles away.  Although it was definitely getting hot, I figured I would first drive to the Salton Sea and scout the area, staying in my air conditioned car and maybe get a view of one of the Yellow Footed Gulls, an ABA Lifer.  This would maybe save time in the morning since I would know the lay of the land (or the Sea).

Kitchen Creek to Salton Sea

Kitchen Creek to Salton Sea

Yellow Footed Gulls were previously thought to be a race of Western Gull but is recognized now as a very distinct different species.  It nests only in the Gulf of California, between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. In the summer, after nesting, many of the gulls come north across the desert to the Salton Sea.  A few may have over wintered and stayed in the area, but those observations are questionable.  The time to see one is in July through September – when temperatures are over 100 degrees and often over 110.  It is also a time when odors at the Sea are also pretty strong.  Not a pristine birding condition.

Mel Senac had given me excellent specific information about where to look for the gulls, so I went directly to Young Road and drove along the sea wall.  It was distant but I quickly found a large dark mantled gull.  I did not have a scope, but I had a good enough view to know that I had a new lifer.  I took a record photo, but it just barely showed the yellow feet.  The shore of the lake at first was pretty far out.  I could see many shorebirds but had no idea what they were except for may larger ones that were Willets.  I kept driving along Young Road and saw several more dark mantled gulls and many more shorebirds including a large number of Black Necked Stilts.  There were also Egrets and Brown Pelicans.

I came to a spot where the shoreline was a lot closer (maybe 200 yards) and I had a much better look at a gull with distinctly yellow feet.  There was no question that this was a Yellow Footed Gull.  The mantle was even darker than that of a Western Gull which has pink/red feet.  Despite the heat (over 105 degrees) and the nasty smell, I decided to walk out into the gunk and see if I could get close for a photo.  Maybe the adrenaline overcame the heat and smell as they mattered not, and I was able to get within about 100 feet and got some really nice photos, ones that I figured would be my best ones.  I was very satisfied and it was worth the yucky stuff on my boots which I would scrape off.

Yellow Footed Gull – First Good Photo


It was nice to get back to the air conditioning of the car and even though it was very dry, I was sweating hard.  I continued north and found a number of small ponds close to the road and had great looks at American Avocets, Black Necked Stilts, Long Billed Dowitchers and mostly Western Sandpipers.  A little further out at one spot, I had some Marbled Godwits and at least one Stilt Sandpiper.

One of the places Mel had suggested as a likely spot to find the gulls was at Obsidian Butte where the road is very close to the Sea.  When I got there I could see two very close Yellow Footed Gulls on the rocks below with a Snowy Egret.  It was a partially obstructed view from the car, but I was able to get out and get killer photos.  I was elated.  I later saw several more Yellow Footed Gulls in the distance – probably at least 10 and maybe as many as 14 in all, not being sure if some were ones I had seen earlier and had relocated.  A flight shot of one of the gulls accentuates the yellow feet.

Yellow Footed Gulls

Yellow Footed Gulls Obsidian

Yellow Footed Gull Takeoff

The Salton Sea is a fascinating place – over 340 square miles and located over the San Andreas Fault.  It’s elevation is  226 feet below sea level.  Some history.  It is a saline lake that was formed when the Colorado River breached its levees in 1905 flooding the “Salton Sink” for two years before the breach was stopped.  At first it was seen as a miraculous paradise with resort communities, yacht clubs and good fishing.  It was a favored spot of Sonny Bono and even the Beach Boys, but by the 1970’s it was becoming a disastrous ecosystem.  There was no drainage outlet and almost no new rainfall. Runoff flowed in from nearby farms and the sea was polluted with pesticides and was saltier than the Pacific Ocean.  Many of the birds that had made the Sea their home were poisoned by the pesticides and botulism.  It is as far from a resort as you can imagine today.

Almost 400 species of birds have been seen in the area – including some rarities.  For example Little Gull, Black Headed Gull and Ross’s Gull have all been seen there.  There are several records of Blue Footed Booby.  One was reported shortly before my visit, but it was not an authenticated record.  As I drove around the area in the heat I found large flocks of Black Bellied Plovers, White Faced Ibises and Cattle Egrets.  It was too hot to really search diligently and I headed to my hotel in Brawley with a new plan in hand.  I was more than happy with the Yellow Footed Gulls I had seen and photographed already so instead of birding the area early as originally planned, I would head north to continue my quest for a Lawrence’s Goldfinch photo.

There were Ebird reports for two places during the past 10 days for Lawrence’s Goldfinches that were “relatively” nearby in San Bernadino County.  The first was Wildwood Park on Wildwood Canyon Road about 120 miles from Brawley.    I think it was primarily set up for horses.  Lots of scrubby habitat and trails and I was pretty sure I heard some Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  I tried hard to find them and to draw them in but I was not successful.  I added Phainopepla, Oak Titmouse and Nuttall’s Woodpecker for the trip.  Then it was on to Glen Helen Regional Park which was another 35 miles north and west.  This was my last and best hope as there had been multiple reports of 12+ Lawrence’s Goldfinches at this location.

When I got to the Park, I was a bit dismayed.  It was a large area with many different spots to check.  I had no clue where to start.  As soon as I parked at the first place, I saw a lot of birds fly out of shrubs and into the grass and then back again.  Could it be that easy?  Nope.  It was a large flock of Lark Sparrows.  The main feature at the Park is a large pond for fishing.  I decided to head that direction and as soon as I parked I heard what I was pretty sure were Lawrence’s Goldfinches in trees between the parking area and the pond.  There were lots of birds but they were staying high in the trees and moving from one invisible spot to another.  I got a few quick fairly open looks and saw mostly young birds or females.  I was pretty sure these were my targets but I had trouble getting a photo and besides I really wanted a male both for ID purposes and also because the male is very fine looking.  It took many minutes to get any photos but even though they were not of the male, the yellow/gold wing patches were enough to distinguish them from Lesser Goldfinches which might also be present.

Finally I found several males and with some coaxing and prayers to the bird gods, a couple showed themselves well enough for my much desired ABA First Photo.  And finally I would no longer have to consider this species a nemesis.

Lawrence’s Goldfinch Male

Lawrence's Goldfinch Male-1

It was getting hot again, but I had hit the target and could relax and see what else was around.  I did not bird real hard and am sure I missed many birds but I found a small group of Rufous Crowned Sparrows which I had mistaken initially as Chipping Sparrows.  I also had some Western Bluebirds and a female Western Tanager.  The best bird however, was a rare for the area Neotropic Cormorant.  It was drying its wings on some snags near the water’s edge on the pond and seemed oblivious to the fishermen or to me.

Neotropic Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant 1

Now I had added Gold to Gray and Yellow.  I would hopefully be adding Black in the form of a Black Storm Petrel to my bird accomplishments on the pelagic trip.  But that was still two days away.  What now? I knew of no other birds of color to target.  I was 120 miles from San Diego and it was only just after noon.  There were no more targets – well, except maybe one.  Spotted Dove would be a Life Bird.  They had been seen off and on in a couple of parks in Los Angeles earlier this year including by Dave and Tammy McQuade.  There were no recent reports.  Dave was going to look for them again today with his friend Dave Alpeter who had joined them on this trip and would also be on the pelagic.  I had texted Dave earlier to see how that try had gone but had not heard back.  It was about 60 miles to the most likely place to try and I had nothing else to do, so I decided to give it a go.

Surprise, surprise.  When I arrived Dave and Dave were sitting on a bench in the park looking for the Dove.  They had been there without success for 40 minutes.  We visited and watched together for another 20 minutes – again nothing.  They left and I remained for another 20 minutes – nothing.  It was not yet 2:30 and I figured there would be traffic but it would be worse if I did not get going.  I got going.  It is hard to believe the traffic could have been worse.  It was 120 miles to my hotel.  I figured maybe 2.5 hours.  My figuring was an hour short.  But at least it wasn’t raining and the air conditioning worked.

It had been an excellent two days but as my contrived Blog Title states, without spotting the the Spotted Dove, my record had not been unblemished.  Gray? Yes thanks to the Gray Vireo.  Yellow? Most definitely with the Yellow Footed Gulls and most importantly Gold with the Lawrence’s Goldfinch. But without the Dove, success was not Spotless.  But it almost was or maybe could have been.  About thirty minutes after I left the target zone, another birder who would be on the pelagic trip arrived there and two Spotted Doves flew in just as he got there.  I haven’t seen a photo, but will take him at his word.

I do not see a return trip just for that in the future unless somehow I am already in L.A.  Then again, it would be nice to see a Lakers game with LeBron…hmmm?

My next blog will cover the pelagic trip – lots of stories and lots of birds.

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