Thursday, October 16, 2014

Field Trips on the Western Field Ornithologists Meeting in San Diego

For four days this past week I attended the Western Field Ornithologists’ annual meeting in San Diego, where I helped lead field trips. I also attended the science paper sessions, the sound and visual ID panels, and also the big last evening banquet and talk by Ed Pandolfino on the 44 years of WFO history. Meeting so many new people and seeing old friends was thoroughly enjoyable.

The main area I birded on the field trips was the Tijuana River Valley on the Mexican border south of the city and bay, co-led by local birder Christine Harvey. We visited the Dairy Mart Road sod farms five times in search of one of the top rarities of the region, Red-throated Pipit. Unfortunately I saw two of them only on the scouting day before the conference, which I did with Christine, Guy McCaskie, an Elizabeth Copper. They were quite far out on the sod, but even a really distant, blurry photo shows the distinctive back stripes.

On all the scouting trip as well as one of the field trips we caught up with a Lapland Longspur.

Long-billed Curlews were present on every visit, usually walking around, not reclining so casually as this one.

Distracting were the many streaky Savannah Sparrows, migrants and winter birds of the subspecies from the north and northeast of here.

A birding location at the west end of our area was the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Here we did some seawatching from the dike above the beach, seeing a few Brown Boobies (which was ABA-bird #748 for me). Some lucky birders also saw Blue-footed Booby.

This is also where we saw the former Clapper Rail but newly dubbed Ridgway’s Rail in the recent shakedown of all the Clapper and King rail subspecies. The four subspecies of Clapper Rail in California, Arizona, and NW Mexico are all now Ridgway’s.

This marsh is also famous for hosting a tiny population of California’s only Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Formerly only a very rare vagrant to the state, some pairs now breed in the ornamental pine trees at a nearby park and apartment complex. On our scouting trip we had to look hard to find this one juvenile. Only one angle let me see the top of the wing as an added ID confirmation. Compared to Black-crowned, immature Yellow-crowned has a bigger, more orange eye, a darker bill, and a darker gray wing with smaller spots at the tips of the feathers.

We then walked down to the marsh only to find an adult perched out in the open. Look in the lower right.

On the first field trip, we checked the same tree and the marsh with no luck, then found this adult in a tree by the apartment complex.

Then on my second field trip we were about to strike out when a subadult (2 or 3 years old, with a fully dark crown still) flew into the marsh and landed on a channel to hunt in the late morning. It landed in a nearly invisible spot, so we were lucky to see it arrive.

While we were at the bridge over the channel this Eared Grebe swam right below the group.

Rare migrants were on our minds everywhere we birded. Elsewhere in the county birders were reporting Dickcissel, Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Painted Redstart, Green-tailed Towhee, Yellow-green Vireo, and others. On the day of scouting I spotted two Tennessee Warblers just about the same time at the butterflies & birds garden of the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park.

Northern Waterthrushes were almost at any little bit of water; we had four one day just at the Dairy Mart Road pond, and on Sunday this was one of two there.

Even though it’s a common breeding bird in the west, migrant Bullock's Oriole as this time year is not a daily occurrence. This one alerted us to its presence at the Tijuana Slough visitor center with it loud chattering.

By far the rarest and most exciting bird in our area was this Blackburnian Warbler that I spotted while we were having lunch at Nestor Park on the last day of field trips.

It was news to me that Black-throated Magpie-Jays have been breeding in the valley for 20 years, but the population remains small and very localized in just a few miles of riparian woodland and therefore is not countable as an established bird. We caught up with them on both of my field trips.

Birding was a bit slow at times, giving me a chance to get close to this Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) at the butterflies & birds garden.

On Friday, the second day of field trips, I led a group to Sweetwater Reservoir, about 10 miles east of San Diego. As the reservoir provides drinking water, access is strictly controlled, and our field trip was given special permission, with the biologist and watershed manager Peter Famolaro opening the locked gates and guiding us through the large area. We birded some dry chaparral where California Gnatcatcher and California Thrasher were found.

We also birded the lake itself, full of water birds such as Western and Clark’s Grebe and many ducks, as well as a nearby riparian strip where activity was limited to a few Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I had Saturday morning free to bird with my friend Lauren Harter as she scouted the area she was leading to the north of San Diego. Our first stop was San Elijo Lagoon.

Marbled Godwit was among several species of shorebirds on the exposed mud during low tide.

The chaparral was extremely dry, but this California Thrasher was singing full force.

Lauren is into bugs enough to stop for this stunning Neon Skimmer.

And several of these tiny skippers had me puzzled. I didn’t think there were many species over here, at least compared to SE Arizona. And indeed, there are only three species of small brown and orange skippers, but one is this local endemic to the southern California coastal marshes, the Wandering Skipper.

Finally, after the conference, I had a full day to visit my friends Michael and Claire in Escondido north of San Diego. They live next to a great birding hotspot, Kit Carson Park. Though its Sand Lake has been dredged and cleaned of vegetation, it now has some shorebird habitat until it fills again.

This Greater Yellowlegs was the first one Michael had ever seen here.

We had a very birdy morning as we walked around the big grove of willow, cottonwood, and eucalyptus, seeing 47 species, including this Costa's Hummingbird, not a common bird here. It was one of two, among many more Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, feeding on tiny gnats over a hedge of mulefat bushes.

Another skipper I didn’t recognize surprised me; this turns out to be Umber Skipper, which I hadn’t seen since Big Bend exactly 10 years ago.


  1. Nice piece, Rich. It was so good to see you down there. It was a very fun conference.

  2. I always learn something when afield with Rich.