Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

California Rainin' (Dreaming?)

Several months ago, birding buddy, Tommy DeBardeleben and I talked about doing a pelagic birding trip out of San Diego.  Tommy had never been on one before, but it was not due to the lack of trying.  He and another birding friend of his, Dominic Sherony planned a pelagic trip out of San Diego in 2014 and unfortunately, bad weather canceled that pelagic for them.  I have actually taken a pelagic trip once before and that was in the fall of 2013 out of Half Moon Bay, California.  While I participated in that trip, I did succumb to seasickness and although I did get some life birds out of it, I was not able to enjoy it as I would have liked.  So we made plans to take a pelagic out of San Diego, which would a first for Tommy and for me hopefully a reprieve with a much better ending. 

We had our spots reserved well in advance and decided to add a couple of days of land birding while were there.  At the beginning of the week the weather looked like it might have an effect on our trip, but since Saturday was the main event, the forecast was indicating that the storm will be moving out on Friday night.  We had plans to bird all day on Friday so we departed on Thursday so we could be get in as much as we could.  With the approaching storm on Thursday night, we made one stop along Kitchen Creek Road on the way into the mountains approaching San Diego.  We quickly found out how the temps had dropped and the rain had started along with the wind.  About the only thing of interest was seeing a 'coastal' Western Scrub-Jay. They look very different than the Western Scrub-Jays we have in Arizona.

Western Scrub-Jay
We spent the night in El Cajon and early the next morning with a steady rain coming down, we opted to purchase some umbrellas for the day.  We were not so worried about getting wet ourselves, after all it is just water, but we wanted to protect our binoculars, cameras and scopes as much as possible.
Our first stop on Friday was Mission Trails Regional Park a spot where Tommy had found California Gnatcatcher a year ago.  This would be a new life bird for me and complete my list of all 4 gnatcatchers in the United States.  It did not take long and we found a family of 5 of them and the male would pop up from time to time and Tommy was kind enough to hold the umbrella for me while I got some photos.  We then switched rolls and I held the umbrellas while Tommy took photos.  Teamwork and ingenuity at work for us die-hard birders! 
 California Gnatcatcher

After taking our time adding this, my first life bird of this trip, we then headed to Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge.  We quickly discovered how unique this place was and took off exploring this place with our gear and umbrellas in hand.  Good thing we had them as you might notice that severl of the photos in this area have rain drops in them.  One of our target birds at this location was the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, which would be a lifer for Tommy. I had seen this species a year ago in Texas, but always desire more looks at a bird that I have not seen enough of.  It did not take long in locating one and it was quite content and not at all concerned with our presence.  It allowed us some really great looks and now we were tied with 1 life bird apiece for this trip.
 Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Tommy and his new lifer!
We ventured further south along the trail and eventually arrived at the end of the trail with a bench and our view out over the slow moving Tijuana River making its way west where it flowed into the Pacific Ocean about 200 yards west.  This place was swarming with birds with at least 6 species of terns and one of those species was the Gull-billed Tern which would be a lifer for both of us and it did not take long for Tommy to spy one, then two, then three and more!  All of these terns were taking the rain in stride.  But by now, Tommy and I had figured out how to hold our umbrellas and take photos at the same time.  But our legs were not protected and our jeans were soaked. 
 Gull-billed Tern

And a couple of the other terns:
 Caspian Tern

 Forster's Tern

Least Tern
Another bird of interest to me was the Little Blue Heron.  I had briefly seen on in Texas a year ago, but it was brief and no photos.  This time we saw 3 of them, 2 adults and a molting immature bird, and I was able to get photos this time. 
Little Blue Heron

 Little Blue Heron, Immature

After exploring the salt water marshes, we then moved over to the beach area of the Tijuana Sough where the waves of the ocean were washing ashore.  This area has many signs and a roped off area where Least Terns and Snowy Plovers are nesting.  One can still walk the beach area, but it is very wise to not spend too much time near the fenced off area so as not to disturb any of the nesting birds.  Least Terns were by far the most numerous with various birds hovering, landing, and some even nesting on eggs.  Some males were delivering their small fish catches to females. I got lucky and spied one of the birds leaving the sandy area and discovered a nest of 2 eggs.  Thankful for a zoom lens to be able to get a photo of the eggs.  This is our smallest tern in the United States.
 Least Tern

Least Tern nest with 2 eggs
Good numbers of Snowy Plovers were also there, but not nearly as numerous as the Least Terns.  Since they were basically a ground bird, the best way to find them was when they would scamper a few feet and detect their movement.  This has to be one of the cutest little birds around.  I also discovered one of their nests as well with 3 eggs.  Once again took a photo from the distance and left it alone.  Once a person sees how well these eggs blend in with the sand, it is easy to see why the nesting areas are fenced off.  It would be easy to step on a nest of eggs.  Sometimes, some of the birds nest outside the roped off area so it is worthwhile to watch your step at all times.
 Snowy Plover

Snowy lover nest with 3 eggs
By this time the sun had come out and dried out our clothing that got soaked.  We enjoyed what turned out to be an awesome day with 2 new life birds for each of us.  With that, I will leave you with one more photo; this one is a flock of Sanderling on the beach.  We needed to get checked into our motel and get a good nights rest for the pelagic trip the next day.
Sanderling - I think I counted about 78 of them in this photo


  1. These are some great birds. I admire you willing to give a pelagic another shot after you first experience. Good health does effect our enjoyment in the field.

    These are some great birds you got here. I like your ingenuity in how you didn't let the rain win, and I like how you kept the lifering even!

  2. What an awesome trip! Very little beats coastal birding, except of course for boating out from the coast!