Southern California and SE Arizona
24th March – 6th April 2015
After a smooth flight we arrived in LA just in time to fight through the afternoon traffic, once out of town we followed the coastal road west seeing western gulls and brown pelican flying overhead along with distant blows of several gray whales out to sea. Stopping at a roadside lay-by the small beach below held a willet, marbled godwit, Hudsonian whimbrel and a California sea lion. Offshore were rafts of surf scoter, western grebe, red-throated and common loons.
Mugu Rock offered a vantage point for a resting peregrine falcon whilst white-throated swifts whizzed overhead.
Willet Marbled godwit
With the setting sun over Mugu Lagoon there was a hive of activity from feeding American avocet, black-bellied plover, greater yellowlegs, long-billed curlew, alongside more willet and marbled godwits.
An early start from our hotel in Ventura saw us driving north in the dark arriving in the area around Maricopa for dawn where the saltbush was scattered with nodding donkeys. Bewick’s wren, bell’s sparrow and loggerhead shrike were in full song before we managed to dig out a pair of distant le Conte’s thrasher.
Moving into the hills vast grasslands at Bitter Creek held huge flocks of tricolored blackbirds alongside horned larks and western meadowlarks. As low cloud rolled in we continued to climb and carried on to Mil Potrero Park just as the mist started to clear leaving blue skies again, the woodland here was filled with Steller’s jay, western scrub jay, western bluebird, mountain chickadee, pygmy nuthatch, violet-green swallow and Anna’s hummingbird. Wandering around the derelict site there was one main target for our visit and we soon achieved a brief glimpse of what could have been only for it to vanish up the hill in the scrub. An hour later and we saw a movement above us and after edging closer we were overwhelmed to see two stunning mountain quail scuttling through the undergrowth, WOW.
A brief look around McGill Campground produced Cassin’s finch, ‘thick-billed’ fox sparrow, California quail, Clark’s nutcracker and white-headed woodpecker whilst the ground was alive with California ground squirrel and lodgepole chipmunk.
For the afternoon we retraced out steps back to Bitter Creek where we found a good vantage point overlooking the hill slopes falling away to the plains below. With the sun high in the sky the turkey vultures dominated the sky along with several red-tailed hawks and two golden eagles floating past before four massive California condors appeared circling up before following the ridgeline along. All birds appeared to be adults with three birds bearing wing tags.
During the evening a drive part way along the Carrizo Plain added American pipit, sage thrasher, northern harrier and two Pacific gopher snakes. A roadside stop on the way home produced a singing California Thrasher.
A leisurely started today down on the beach at Ventura spotting ring-billed, Herrmann’s, American herring, California and western gulls. A black oystercatcher flew past with a hybrid oystercatcher whilst a stone groyne held surfbird and black turnstone.
Heading to Ventura Harbor we were soon sailing out and heading for Santa Cruz Island, it wasn’t long before we were parting rafts of western grebes that held at least one Clark’s grebe. Heading out into deeper water a gray whale crossed the bow before we started coming across black-vented shearwaters, common murres scattered with Cassin’s auklets and Scripp’s murrelets. As we approached the island a pod of common dolphin came for a look with pigeon guillemot, Brant’s and pelagic cormorants flying around.
Scripp’s murrelets Black-vented shearwater
Once at Prisoners Harbor within a five minutes walk from the jetty we bumped into the endemic island scrub-jay, as we loosely followed the guided walk we tallied up a further ten individuals with a side cast of orange-crowned warbler, spotted towhee, Bewick’s wren, song sparrow and after some searching a island fox.
Island fox Island scrub-jay
The return boat journey produced more Scripp’s murrelet and Cassin’s auklet along with three rhinocerous auklets and two pomarine jaegers.
Driving down the coast Channel Islands Harbor held a small flock of surf scoter and red-breasted mergansers whilst two eared grebes fished in the mouth with some splendid adult Heermann’s gulls frequenting the area.
At the end of Perkins Road an evening walk found singing red-winged blackbird, northern mockingbird and common yellowthroat. The pond held killdeer, great egret, great blue heron, ruddy duck, gadwall and five blue-winged teal with two gull-billed terns and a northern harrier overhead.
Black brant and western gull
A dawn visit to the freshwater pool at Ventura River Mouth was busy with bathing gulls including four glaucous-winged alongside 18 brant geese. The reeds held four black-crowned night herons and a couple snowy egrets whilst a secretive sora rail popped out onto the mud edge. A single Clark’s grebe swam around with least sandpiper and willet on the shore.
Next stop was the beach in Santa Barbara where a lagoon next to the car park was home to bufflehead, cinnamon teal, killdeer, great egret and a snowy egret that enjoyed harassing the fishing red-breasted merganser and double-crested cormorant. Out on the beach a very noisy flock of elegant and royal terns were accompanied by six black skimmers.
Black skimmer with royal and elegant terns
Elegant terns and a royal tern
Carrying on west we arrived at Devereux Slough that was heaving with hundreds of American wigeon, shoveler, green-winged teal, ruddy duck, three redheads and a belted kingfisher. Zipping around the roadside bushes were stunning male Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds.
Allen’s hummingbird Anna’s hummingbird
Moving inland or next target was the endemic magpie, we found the park in Los Alamos but could we find a magpie! Birds seen were western scrub-jay, acorn woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, oak titmouse and warbling vireo.
Carrying on north we joined the locals wandering around in Waller Park and we weren’t disappointed with three varied thrush, two hermit thrush, American robin, chestnut-backed chickadee, pine siskin, golden-crowned sparrow and yellow-rumped warbler. The pond held an array of bread fed wildfowl including a single cackling and white-fronted goose.
Trying our luck at Preisker Park but all seemed quiet at a first glance in the mid afternoon sun but after a little wait we found a male Townsend’s warbler and then finally tracked down a flighty male Lawrence’s Goldfinch alongside a male American goldfinch.
Heading back south we tried a second visit to Los Alamos but drew a blank again, however a red-shouldered hawk gave great flight views carrying a lizard.
We changed tactic and went for an evening drive along Happy Canyon Road where every fly over acorn woodpecker raised our hopes, as the farms passed we started seeing several mule deer before at the last farm we finally glanced a yellow-billed magpie on an outbuilding before disappearing inside presumably to roost. Heading back down the road in the half-light a northern goshawk jumped out of a tree followed by two scolding yellow-billed magpies, great way to end the day.
Leaving Ventura behind we headed into LA and out to Palos Verdes Peninsula were a cliff top walk found us a pair of elusive California gnatcatcher in the low scrub, additional bird life was quiet with just a singling rock wren on the cliffs and a fly catching black phoebe. The golf course just inland had a couple ponds with a spotted sandpiper and marsh wren seen.
Battling on through the LA traffic we made our way to the coastal saline lagoons of Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve which was alive with birds and weekend visitors. Walking out over the boardwalk from the car park we were greeted by Forster’s terns and three Ridgeway’s rails creeping around in the saltmarsh. Following the trail we stumbled upon several singing Belding’s savannah sparrows. The tide was falling away on the next lagoon revealing mud banks that were covered with western and least sandpiper, semipalmated and black-bellied plover, dunlin, bar-tailed godwit, ruddy turnstone, short and long-billed dowitchers amongst the regulars.
A reddish egret danced around catching tiny fish and amongst the many diving ducks and grebes on site with another new addition for the trip list being a female black scoter.
Ridgeway’s rail Reddish egret
Now after midday and during the heat of the day we were back on the road heading inland but the notorious LA traffic made progress slow but we eventually arrived at a sweltering hot and smelly Salton Sea, pulling over at a roadside stop near Mecca Beach a scan out over the sea saw many American white and brown pelican, American avocet, black-necked stilt, herons, grebes and gulls but the heat haze made viewing tricky however a Pacific golden plover was located.
American white & brown pelican
Driving past Wister Unit HQ we came across our first flock of many Gambel’s quail. Arriving at Obsidian Butte we could see flocks of brown pelican and double-crested cormorant passing offshore to roost as the sunset across a glassy sea. Scanning the small gatherings of California gulls around the shore a glaucous-winged and then an adult yellow-footed gull came into roost.
The light quickly faded away as seven lesser nighthawks hawked for insects over the nearby scrub and the drive to our hotel was rewarded with views of a burrowing owl.
At first light we explored the area around Ramer Lake and Finney Lake, the lakes held good numbers of cormorants, American white pelican and herons including two green and 16 black-crowned night herons. The surrounding scrub was bouncing with yellow-rumped warblers scattered with black-throated grey, palm and Nashville. Also present were elusive black-tailed gnatcatcher, verdin, Abert’s towhee, common ground-dove, Inca dove and brown-headed cowbirds. Moving to Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge viewing any suitable habitat was very difficult and distant but we did manage to add c.100 white-faced ibis and clay-colored sparrow.
It was time to hit the road again as there was a long drive ahead as we entered Arizona and made our way to the southeast and Madera Canyon.
Arriving at Santa Rita Lodge our base for the next three nights we were greeted by feeders buzzing with broad-billed, rufous, black-chinned, Anna’s and magnificent hummingbirds. We positioned ourselves with the other admiring onlookers as we enjoyed the spectacle. Lifers continued to appear with bridled titmouse, Mexican jay and painted redstart whilst a rafter of wild turkeys including a large male strutting his stuff.
Wild turkey Broad-billed hummingbird
A walk up the road at dusk was on the whole very quiet with just a distant screech-owl heard until we got back to the lodge where a vocal elf owl was located high in a tree.
Heading down the valley at dawn we soon bumped into a perched gray hawk before we started with a walk through the scrub at Florida Wash where we found flocks of rufous-winged sparrow, black-throated sparrow, canyon towhee, Lucy’s warbler, Bell’s vireo and the odd Phainopepla. Fleeting glimpses of hummingbirds were mainly broad-billed but at least one Costa’s gave distant views whilst calling cactus wrens finally showed themselves.
Florida Canyon was a hive of activity from the colourful northern cardinal, hooded and Scott’s orioles to the relatively plain rufous-crowned sparrows, rock wren and green-tailed towhees whilst the Pacific-slope flycatchers proved an identification challenge. Jack found himself wandering through a small section of grass when two quail flushed from close range, frustratingly they vanished over the trees but were undoubtedly a pair of Montezuma.
Hooded oriole Scott’s oriole
Back at the lodge in Madera Canyon we entertained ourselves trying to photograph the ever so active hummingbirds whilst the feeders also attracted pine siskin and red-naped sapsuckers.
Heading up the valley we parked at Hopkins Fork and ended up going on a much longer afternoon hike into the hills than planned which on the whole had a dearth of life, on the climb up a couple tame mule deer provided some interest whilst a few yellow-eyed juncos and an Arizona woodpecker were added to our list.
Yellow-eyed junco Arizona woodpecker
Leaving the valley we planned a morning trip to the land of the cactus near Tucson, beginning at Shannon-Broadway “desert” we soon located curve-billed thrasher, white-winged dove and pyrrhuloxia.
Gila woodpecker Gilded flicker
Carrying on we arrived at the beautiful Saguaro National Park where the saguaro cacti were home to Gila woodpecker and gilded flicker with an osprey taking a rest on a telegraph pole. Driving a dirt road we were greeted with a stunning black-tailed rattlesnake crossing.
Sweetwater Wetlands on the outskirts of Tucson held small numbers of ducks and waders including five American avocet and three black-necked stilt. Common yellowthroat and yellow warblers were in full song as two Cooper’s hawks had a disagreement.
A brief stop at Continental Park resulted in Cassin’s and western kingbird feeding from the scattered trees alongside a pair of vermilion flycatchers.
Travelling back in to Madera Canyon news of a greater pewee meant a stop at Madera Kubo was called for and we soon located the bird fly catching from a tree top whilst a magnificent hummingbird graced the feeders.
Cassin’s kingbird Vermilion flycatcher
An evening drive towards Florida Canyon saw an attempt to relocate the Montezuma quail at first was unsuccessful but after a while we started to hear their distinctive calls from the hillside above the track and as darkness drew in, five birds were seen flying overhead as the birds made their way into the woodland. After dark an elf owl appeared calling in the telegraph pole behind our location with common poorwill calling in the distance.
Leaving Madera Canyon we headed south to Tubac where we explored the Anza Trail, migrant flocks were mainly built up of yellow-rumped warblers again but we did pick out Lincoln’s sparrow and northern beardless-tyrannulet but we couldn’t pick out any unusual wrens amongst the numerous Bewick’s.
As we continued to travel through the Nogales area we came across flocks of black vultures. Arriving at Patagonia Lake State Park the trail started with some feeders that held many house finch but the hummingbird feeder was the main attraction with a new species in attention in the form of a single violet-crowned hummingbird. Looking out over the lake 26 neotropic cormorants moved around in a tight fishing flock and hiding in the shallows were two massive bullfrogs. The trees around the lake and river were full of the stunning vermilion flycatchers and we spotted a female broad-billed hummingbird sitting on her nest. Leaving the lake behind a distinctive greater roadrunner darted across the access road stopping briefly for a photo.
Violet-crowned hummingbird Broad-billed hummingbird
Next stop was in Patagonia at the famous Paton Home where an array of feeders are provided for the enjoyment of visitors. On our visit the garden was sadly very quiet with just the odd visits by broad-billed hummingbirds but after over an hour wait a violet-crowned did appeared, this being the main attraction for the garden. Overhead a zone-tailed hawk flew by whilst a lazuli bunting popped up in the bushes at the bottom of the garden.
Leaving Patagonia we passed through some grassy plains where eastern meadowlarks and horned larks were seen along the fence posts.
Arriving at Miller Canyon we settled in at Beatty’s Guest Ranch where their feeders were buzzing with broad-billed, rufous, black-chinned and magnificent hummingbirds. After dark we found a cracking whiskered screech-owl just outside the cabin.
A quick look around the hillside above Beatty’s Guest Ranch which is still recovering from a recent forest fire was very quiet for birds so we headed up to Ramsey Canyon and were greeted by two white-tailed deer in the car park. Up the valley we tracked down a few warblers including a black-throated grey and three Townsend’s whilst other highlights were Hammond’s flycatcher, greater pewee and a female hepatic tanager.
For the afternoon we had a relaxing time sat watching the many feeders at Ash Canyon B&B. The area was busy with activity as Scott’s oriole, Mexican jay, lesser goldfinch, pine siskin, canyon towhee, house finch, curve-billed thrasher and Gila woodpeckers all enjoyed a snack. Hummingbird feeders were spread around the garden making viewing them all tricky but the most regular visitors were broad-billed, rufous and black-chinned but a magnificent dropped in from time to time before a female broad-tailed made a fleeting visit to some flowers but the star of the show kept us waiting and after what seemed an age a stunning male Lucifer hummingbird came in to feed. Throughout the afternoon he made a total of three visits to the feeders.
Mexican Jay Lucifer hummingbird
Back at Miller Canyon and since we were informed that the spotted owl nest hadn’t been located this year we were informed our best chance was at dusk so we had a stroll up the valley seeing a gray flycatcher on route. As darkness fell above split rock we soon heard a deep hoot just below us, slowly moving down the trail we spotted a large silhouetted owl which to our amazement flew straight towards us and sat in the tree just above and we could see it was a spotted owl which was watching our every move.
Travelling out into the open valley to the east we had a hunt around San Pedro House and the river. The low scrub held common ground-dove, many vermilion flycatchers, pyrrhuloxia and sparrows including vesper and lark. The river held a pair of Mexican mallards whilst thirty American wigeon rested on a pond.
Exploring the nearby Moson Road we started seeing soaring Swainson’s hawks among the numerous red-tailed before discovering a pair of Chihuahuan raven perched on a telegraph pole.
Chihuahuan raven Olive warbler
Heading back to the hills a narrow dirt track meandered up Carr Canyon with shear drops to the valley floor as peregrine and turkey vultures soared down below. Once at the summit of the road we explored the sections of pine woodland that had escaped the recent forest fires, the change in habitat yielded new birds with olive warbler, buff-breasted flycatcher, Grace’s warbler, Hutton’s vireo and Virginia’s warbler.
Hutton’s vireo Buff-breasted flycatcher
Relaxing at the hummingbird feeders in Miller Canyon for the afternoon we enjoyed the arrival of two male broad-tailed hummingbirds that advertised their presence with their very noisy wing beats.
An evening drive around the yards at the base of Ramsey Canyon Road looking for quail turned up a couple greater roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbit and a coyote but the only quail were the numerous Gambel’s.
Today we were transferring to our final base of the holiday, heading east we passed through miles of scrubland seeing the odd greater roadrunner and curve-billed thrasher. Arriving at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge the outbuilding was home to a nesting great horned owl. Scanning out over the vast water flocks of white-faced ibis, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, shoveler, American wigeon, blue-winged teal, ‘Mexican’ mallard, gadwall and ruddy ducks. Shorebirds consisted of two black-necked stilt, 12 killdeer, 50 American avocet and 60 long-billed dowitchers. A reed edged pool held four black-crowned night-herons, sora and some skulky swamp sparrows.
Great horned owl
Back on the road the scrub gave way to more open grasslands near Elfrida, a change in species started off with flocks of c.400 lark buntings feeding on the road verges, Brewer’s sparrow, vesper sparrow, two Bendire’s thrashers and our only scaled quail of the trip finishing of all the quails up for grabs. A little further up the road and a large cattle farm was swarming with yellow-headed, red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds with a few great-tailed grackles.
Scaled quail Bendire’s Thrasher
Weaving up into the Chiricahua Mountains birds were thin on the ground through the black tree skeletons left behind from the last forest fire, arriving at Barfoot Park we actually got the chance to explore some undamaged pockets of forest where we observed a pair of Mexican chickadee alongside several yellow-eyed junco, American robin, ruby-crowned kinglet, Steller’s jay, white-breasted and pygmy nuthatch.
Descending through the amazing scenery the next stop was at AMNH Southwestern Research Station where the feeders attracted our eleventh hummingbird species with four large tailed immense blue-throated hummingbirds with a side cast of magnificent and black-chinned.
An evening stroll up the South Fork found one particularly busy tree with painted redstart, Arizona woodpecker, ruby-crowned kinglet, black-throated grey warbler, yellow-rumped warbler and unusual for western states a male black-throated blue warbler.
Painted redstart and black-throated blue warbler
Checking into our accommodation in Portal we soon found ourselves walking through the village following a tip off and soon located a day roosting western screech-owl in a tree just before dark.
Back at South Fork for dawn resulted in much the same as last night and another fail to find any trogons. Bird song is still few and far between along the river valley with just Scott’s oriole, painted redstart, house and canyon wrens taking part. Flycatchers identified were Hammond’s, grey and ash-throated whilst a female hepatic tanager made a brief appearance along the access track.
For lunch we made a very brief trip to Rodeo just so we could say that we’d been to New Mexico, very quiet at this time of day except for loggerhead shrike, after losing an hour we thought we better get it back by heading back over the state border.
Early afternoon we enjoyed a couple hours sat watching Dave Jasper’s feeders where seed eaters dominated with northern cardinal, pyrrhuloxia, Cassin’s finch, house finch, pine siskin, Gambel’s quail, curve-billed thrasher along with black-throated, white-crowned, rufous-winged, chipping and one white-throated sparrow.
Pyrrhuloxia Curve-billed thrasher
Driving through Silver Creek heading for Paradise two objects moved on the edge of the road, we slowed to see a pair of the most amazing looking birds ever, well the male anyway, an experience we had only dreamed of, two Montezuma quail made their way slowly up the grass verge before vanishing into the scrub, a truly incredible experience of what was voted the bird of the holiday.
Settling down in paradise at yet another welcoming local and their feeders, hummingbirds include magnificent, broad-tailed and a couple leucistic black-chinned, other birds present were Mexican jay, red-naped sapsucker, bridled titmouse and house finch but sadly the juniper titmouse evaded detection.
Pottering back to Portal we came across a flock of twenty cedar waxwings before finding five collared peccary.
Final day of the holiday and we decided to head back west over Pinery Canyon before dropping down to the vast scrubland near Sunizona where a roadside stop soon picked out singing curve-billed thrasher and greater roadrunner before we picked out two crissal thrasher which turned out to be our last new bird of the holiday.
Hoping that the trogon seen a couple weeks ago may still be present at Patagonia Lake State Park we decided to make a return visit but some locals soon gave us negative news. A violet-crowned hummingbird was still frequenting the feeders whilst the neotropic cormorants dried the feathers.
Halfway to Phoenix we fancied a break at Sweetwater Wetlands were the shallow pools on the south side had totally dried out since or previous visit so the only shorebirds seen were a few killdeer. The reed fringed pools held the same array of waterfowl with a flighty green heron, round-tailed ground squirrel darted from cover to cover whilst zebra-tailed lizards scampered along the trails.
Travelling north we thought of making on last stop but the reservoir seemed to no longer exist so we plodded on and made our way easily to the airport for our flight home. We had a fantastic holiday tallying up 281 birds, 21 mammals, 15 reptiles and amphibians as well as identifying at least 25 butterflies and 4 dragonflies.
All Images taken by Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography