Wednesday 21 September 2022

Southern California - Day 2

The partying at Pacific Beach continued into the small hours. I think I managed some sleep, but essentially as the kids were coming to bed I was just about getting up. Different Worlds. At 5am I hit a 24 hour Denny's for a very early breakfast, and I was at La Jolla before dawn. The seawatching spot is at the north end of the small park, next to some low buildings, and I was not the first there. It later transpired that a pelagic had been organised for today, but had then been cancelled by the storm. As the next best thing the scheduled participants were going to seawatch from La Jolla Cove, and they were actually quite excited by the prospect. The dawn was clear, the rain remained out at sea. The only question was whether the storm had displaced any interesting seabirds....

The answer was an empahatic yes. To be frank, almost anything would have been exciting for me, but this was beyond my wildest expectations. Over the next three and a half hours I recorded the following, helped significantly by the local (and not so local) birders, although I did find two of the Poms as well as one of the Frigatebirds.

6 Least Storm Petrel

1 Black Storm Petrel

2 Pink-footed Shearwater

139 Black-vented Shearwater

1 Sooty Shearwater

3 Magnificent Frigatebird

24 Arctic Skua

3 Pomarine Skua

130 Red-necked Phalarope

3 Surf Scoter

Of the above, seven were ABA ticks. I had counted on three based on the normal seawatching tallies, so this was was in excess of what I had been hoping for. Sometimes timing is everything. I may have lost an afternoon to rain and had a bit of wild drive, but this was the payback. Four birds were world lifers, it was simply sensational, and other than the Pink-footed Shearwater which were quite distant, everything else was within a decent range.

I was forced to move by the threat of free parking running out, but as with all seawatches the good period had seemed to have come to an end. Beyond delighted I drove back down south to the Tijuana River Valley, starting with a circuit of Dairy Mart Pond. This netted all sorts of new birds for the trip list, including Black-crowned Night Heron, Pied-billed Grebe, Cinnamon Teal and many others. 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Solitary Sandpiper

My next stop was the Tijuana River Valley Bird & Butterfly Garden again. This had been heaving at last knockings the previous day and I was keen to spend more time here. It did not disappoint. It seemed all the birds from yesterday were still here and then some, and I racked up quite a lot in a short space of time, including more world and ABA lifers such as Ash-throated Flycatcher and Bell's Vireo (this latter only identified by photo when I got home - the value of having a camera). Also present were two Western Wood-Pewee, three Pacific-slope flycatcher, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and two Black Phoebe.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Bell's Vireo

Western wood-pewee

Black Phoebe

Western Tanager

Common Ground Dove

After lunch my plans unravelled a bit when I arrived at a site on the coast only to find that it was within a Naval Base. I've blagged my way into military sites before, but this seemed rather different and I went to the nearby beach instead, Silver Strand, to finish my burrito (Chipotle Shrimp - outstanding!) and look at Gulls and Waders for a bit. I should have got my camera out and crawled along the sand for a bit but for whatever reason I was not feeling the love and just papped a couple of things out of the window.

Heermann's Gull

Western Gull

My next site was also a terrible choice, Santee Lakes, a series of man-made lakes in a pay-to-enter campsite. I did get a Nuttall's Woodpecker here but it was crawling with people and deeply uninspiring. Dozens of clearly tame Wood Ducks gave the place the feeling of a zoo, and I departed quickly ruing my wasted $6 or whatever it was. At least I got to use a toilet.

With the day running out I made for El Cajon, a famous Parrot roost site in the San Diego area. It is a well known phenomenon that escaped Parrots have managed to sustain themselves in Californian conurbations, forming in some instances quite large flocks. Every night, like clockwork, the birds flock in from the surrounding area to gather in trees before all roosting communally. At the El Cajon courthouse three species are present - Red-crowned Parrot in substantail numbers, and then smaller groups of Lilac-crowned Parrot and Red-masked Parakeet. All three showed up just as expected - I doubt these genuinely count as ABA ticks, but eBird seemed to add them on, so whatever. Standards have always been low round here! 

As the sun set on another great day of birding in California, I drove to Balboa Park for another stay in a hostel. This one was a lot cleaner (including the air!) and a lot quieter (not hard), the only shortcomings being the promise of a towel never materialising and a really crap bed. It was also outstandingly cheap by California standards, and seeing as I was only there for a matter of hours I coped just fine. It does seem silly staying in posh expensive places if all you need is a bed for six hours, or that is what I keep telling myself anyway...

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Southern California - Day 1

I was awake well before dawn, the first day in a crushing schedule that my ability to sustain I think is nearly over. I am not 35 years old any more. I stopped for supplies quickly - a coffee and enough water and fruit to last the day, before heading south into the Joshua Tree National Park from the Northern Side. My intended destination was Hidden Vally, an area dense with trees and the characteristic large boulders, but I started seeing trees almost immediately. For those of you not familiar with them, the eponymous Joshua Tree is a type of Yucca, specifically Yucca brevifolia. They grow only in this narrow area - and whilst I had seen them in Nevada, and the odd tree in Utah, the real concentration is here in California. As I think I have mentioned before they are inordinantly slow growing, barely more than 1cm per year - a large tree will therefore be hundreds of years old. I once tried growing a seedling, but these bear no relation to the adult plants, and in any event it weakened and died. Far better to immerse yourself in the real thing, and so this morning that is what I did. 

Hidden Valley is not too far in, and I arrived as the sun was coming up. A cloudy day - the weather on my route south did not look at all promising, but for now it was at least dry. My dreams of stunning sunrise photos didn't therefore materialise, but it is the kind of place where I think photos simply cannot convey the majesty of - or not my photos at any rate. I mucked about with Snuffi for a while, but kept on getting distracted by birds. Dammit. Most obvious was a Canyon Wren's mournful down-slurred song pre-dawn, which was then taken up by Rock Wrens as the sun came up. Ravens were everywhere, and once it had warmed up the sky filled with White-throated Swifts. The most photogenic species was Black-throated Sparrow, and I found a bird that I could get extremely close to. 

I stopped at quite a few places as I made my way south through the Park, but with the light flat and boring I put the landscape lens to one side and just took it all in. In some places trees stretch as far as the eye can see, and at this time of the morning there is nobody about and you have the place to yourself. Perfect. It is also a lovely place to simply go for a drive - a wide road snakes down out of the Park towards the interstate, and with nobody on it you can put on some music and live the American dream. I am sure I have said it before but the landscapes of the American interior are simply majestic, a reason to be alive. I have been fortunate enough to have visited quite a few of these places, and there are many more I want to see before I am done.

Mid morning arrived all too soon and I needed to get south and get birding. I had a last walk around the famous Cholla groves before leaving Joshua Tree behind and heading to the Salton Sea. I had no particular plan, but a recent eBird list from 84th Avenuem Desert Shores, had looked extremely promising, and once I found the right place, so it proved. To get there you have to drive off the highway and on an unpaved track alongside Date Palm plantations. I was a little worried given my track record of getting hire cars stuck in mud, sand, snow, and so on, especially with the a storm clearly visible on the horizon, but as ever I pressed on - birds!

In the event it was fine, and I sensible parked up when I sensed that it was deteriorating - a good move as fifty feet on even walking became a little precarious. I picked my way out to the western shore of the Salton Sea with my scope and was into huge numbers of birds immediately. Masses of Ducks, Waders, Egrets and Terns. My target speceies here was Yellow-footed Gull, a species endemic to the Gulf of California that looks superficially like Western Gull. They used to be quite sedentary, but increasing numbers have been crossing up to the Salton Sea outside of the breeding season and I was very much hoping to find them here. Sure enough, amongst the California and Ring-billed Gulls were two of the dark-mantled individuals that I was looking for. A good look at their legs confirmed it - Western Gull is pink, these are bright yellow, and WG whilst common on the coast is rare at the Salton Sea So, a good start. Western and Least Sandpipers carpeted the muddy shoreline, with at least one Snowy Plover and a Killdeer, and slightly further out in the shallows were hundreds of Black-necked Stilt and a couple of American Avocet. The most numerous Terns were Forsters, followed by Black and then Caspian; everywhere you looked there were birds and I was having a great time. 

However to the south and west was a vast shelf of cloud, the exact direction I needed to go in, and every now and again a squall would detach itself from the main event and deposit some water on me. It was time to move. The bushes back to the car held a variety of passerines, most notably Orange-crowned Warbler and Song Sparrow, but also a smart Wilson's Warbler, a Bewick's Wren, and a couple of Yellowthroat

I managed to extract the car without getting it stuck and got back onto the main road that heads along the western side of the Salton Sea. I had only travelled a few miles before the rain that I had been seeing started and it looked distinctly dark on the horizon. My destination was San Diego, about 125 miles to the west through the mountains. I had been hoping to bird a few spots around Anzo Borrego and Cuyamaca, but it soon became apparent that even getting through might be tricky. Indeed, as I headed west through the desert I had to ford a few overflowing culverts that had transformed the road into a river. CalTrans had obviously seen this coming though, and at each of these was a large truck with a snowplough that was very obviously waiting to clear the road should it become impassable, and this gave me the confidence to continue. Maybe I should not have, and I later noticed that my phone had received an emergency warning telling me to shelter in place due to the risk of flash floods and under no circumstances to travel anywhere other than to escape, and certainly not to go where I was going. Oh dear. 

The weather was pure filth. Black skies, lashing wind and rain. I drove extremely gingerly, as far away from rock faces as I could, and forded flooded roads very slowly - none were particularly deep and I was following a F150 that was being similarly cautious and I felt might stop if I got into trouble. Needless to say I made it without any problem, but I later found out that the area I had driven through had had wind speeds of 109mph and four inches of rain. By the time I had made it to the top and over the other side, I felt the weather had peaked, and a place called Sweetwater Pullout I was actually able to get out of the car and do a spot of birding. This netted an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and two families of Western Bluebird.

San Diego Bay

It was a slow journey but I made it to San Diego Bay by late afternoon and was able to bird around the southern end uninpeded by weather. It was very dark and forbidding, but my scope, though old, is large and really pulls in the light. The scene before me was astonishing. Hundreds and hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes spun on bobbed on a series of large shallow pools. On some muddy spits, hundreds of Western and Least Sandpipers rested, and on another, 300 or so Elegant Terns squabbled. Every now and again they would all take to the skies, wheeling and shrieking. The atmosphere was oppressive, enhanced by the oil released by a grove of eucalyptus into the warm evening air.

I finished up at the Tijuana River Valley Butterfly Garden, a site I had visited and enjoyed in January 2020, just before travel ceased. It was alive with birds, Tyrant Flycatchers particularly, but best of all three Black-throated Magpie-Jays were going to roost. I am not sure how kosher these are, but they seem sustaining and are found only here, having establised a small colony over the border. The site was so good I decided to come back again tomorrow, and so pleased with my day I packed up and drove to the International Travellers Hostel at Pacific Beach.

It looks better than it was!

Here the air was thick was other scents, also plant-based. I had attempted to book a proper hotel, but the only reasonably-priced option had inexplicably fallen through a few days before I travelled. With all the options now costing in excess of £150, I had caved into frugality and booked the cheapest option on the street, a bunk in a mixed dorm of 12. In short a mistake, these were not my people. The bathroom was about as filthy a room as I had ever entered, the dorm worse. The other 11 occupants of the room had spread out somewhat, living their best lives no doubt. Dutch, German, English, American. Young things on gaps years, eeking out an existence in Southern California. Less than half my age, conversation redolent of experience yet having none, real life a million miles away. It was not my place. Friday night, a jungle juice party just starting on the outside deck, and the sound of the Pacific crashing into the beach. I waded through the detritus of late-teen living and went to bed.

Sunday 18 September 2022

Southern California, September 2022 - Logistics and Itinerary

Southern California, 9th-12th September 2022

This trip had been booked many months ago but with no specific agenda in mind other than that I had very much enjoyed a similar trip two years ago before Covid. On that trip I had run out of time (again) to visit Joshua Tree NP having left it until last, and so this time I made sure to visit there first. I also had a vague plan to go seawatching, it being the season, but I really hit it off with some superb weather coming just at the right time. For the most part I based myself in San Diego and birded the border areas, and then on the final day I slowly wiggled my way up to Los Angeles using eBird as my guide before catching an evening flight to New York. I then spent a morning birding Jamaica Bay before carrying on to London.

  • A four day trip in mid September May, departing London on Thursday lunchtime, and returning overnight on Monday. This meant I got 3.5 days of birding.
  • Flights: from Heathrow to Los Angeles on American Airlines, with a lengthy stopover at JFK on the way back
  • Covid logistics: a big fat nothing, though bear in mind that I am an American citizen and I don't have to show proof of vaccination.  
  • Car Hire: An Infiniti Q50 from Avis. Expensive, as all hire cars seem to be at the moment, but quite comfortable.
  • Accommodation: Cheap motels and hostels, times are tough and the exchange rate is terrible. The hostels, particularly the 'party' hostel on Pacific Beach, were on reflection a very bad idea.
  • Food: Mexican all the way
  • Literature: The Audubon App, which is free, you just have to register. And also eBird, which really shines in the USA. The biggest issue was mostly terrible to non-existent phone signal almost everywhere I went.


Day 0: Landed at LAX at 8pm and then had to drive for about 2.5 hours to Joshua Tree whilst completely exhausted.
Day 1: Pre-dawn in Joshua Tree NP, exiting out of the southern end mid morning, and then birding a good spot on the west side of the Salton Sea near Desert Shores. A treacherous drive south-west across the mountains to San Diego in the heart of a tropical storm, with warnings of flash floods and so on made for a rather scary afternoon. No birding was possible until the late afternoon. Overnight at Pacific Beach.
Day 2: Morning seawatch from La Jolla cove, completely epic after the storm, and then birding various sites along the Mexican border in the afternoon. Overnight at Balboa Park.
Day 3: Birded more sites in San Diego during the morning before making some ground up towards LA and finding some good sites to spend the afternoon before an evening flight to JFK.
Day 4: Jamaica Bay from about 7am to 2pm, then cleaned up, repacked, and flew to London in the early evening.

Tuesday 6 September 2022

A site revisited

The other day I had to go out birding four times! This is a very good sign. For some reason I am now taking more of an interest in my year list, whereas in the spring I do not recall being as enthused. I suppose spring is exciting as everything is new and it heralds the end of the gloom, but autumn is just better - there is greater diversity and birds linger. We have had as many as 11 Whinchat on the patch recently, for multiple days. I've maxed out at seven, a little short of my record of 10 some years back, but this is nonethless very pleasing. Especially when they are accompanied by other goodies. Last week I nipped out to the VizMig spot and had six Whinchat, four Wheatear and a Tree Pipit within a hundred yards and ten minutes. Five minutes from my door! Five!! 

The Tree Sparrow seems to have gone - two days I think, possibly three. That will almost certainly be the best bird of the year. More suprisingly the Wryneck was never seen again, which is the first time that this has happened. Usually they stick but this one turned out be a one day wonder. Possibly proximity to the very loud funfair convinced it to move on, so I was fortunate to get it at the first attempt.

On Sunday a juvenile Cuckoo appeared. Remarkably this was on exactly the same day as I saw Cuckoo here last year, and it clearly can't be a returning bird! Nick found it somewhere near Long Wood, and when I toddled out a little while later I almost trod on it in the Brick Pits. It had been feeding on the ground, and on seeing me flew up and away. It did not go far, and I put it up again as soon as turned the corner. The bird last year stayed for ages, so perhaps this one will be seen again. It is only the third I've ever seen here.

Good as Wanstead Flats has been, my best birding was elsewhere. Rob suggested he might be going to check out East Tilbury, and I cheekily asked if I could join him. Before he could say no Bob, James and Tim piled in too, so much for the quiet life! And so early on Sunday morning we abandoned Wanstead and headed East. I'd not been to East Tilbury since 2011 when I was a much more active local birder in the roving sense. Rainham, Walthamstow, West Thurrock and Amwell, as well as sites like Staines over to the west. Nowadays I am almost solely to be found in Wanstead - probably to my detriment as East Tilbury was amazing.

Wanstead on Tour (photo: James H)

Paul W and Paul H, site regulars, were already there and perhaps a little dismayed to see so many birders descend. Cue many jokes about installing turnstiles, charging for entry and so on. And stringing! We had missed the flock of Little Terns, but the river still delivered over 100 Common Terns and a small number of Black Terns in with them. The receding tide exposed acres of mud upon which hundreds and hundreds of Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits fed, with smaller numbers of Grey Plover, Dunlin, Redshank and Ringed Plover. It was an extraordinary scene - the number of Avocets in particular has grown and grown, with site peak counts of 3000. All I can say was that there were too many to even attempt to count.

Yellow Wagtails zipped overhead, I was lucky enough to get a Tree Pipit doing the same. There were even some Whinchat, not as many as in Wanstead, obviously, but still a new one for my fledgling East Tilbury list. The site has changed a lot in the ten years since I last visited, and there is now a fine new series of scrapes at the far end which commanded most of our interest, not least due to the presence of some lingering Stone Curlew, a species I've not seen for ages. Egrets, ducks, a few Green Sandpiper and a Marsh Harrier completed a fine line up that saw us collectively record 70 species in our short visit. It was a great couple of hours and we all agreed we would be back once we work out how to negotiate the new barbed wire that Hawky said is about to be fitted. By him. 

Saturday 3 September 2022

Tree Sparrow

The Tree Sparrow was still present this morning, despite me bringing my camera out. It seems more wary than yesterday, indicating a recent arrival perhaps. It rarely perched up, and spent most of its time either hiding from people or feeding on the ground. When anyone approached it flew back into the brambles and didn't come out until they had retreated. Nonetheless I managed a grab shot when it made a mistake and perched on a twig for a nanosecond. Bad luck! The last record was in 1987, not 1985 as I had originally thought. Their decline in London has been phenomenal - breeding pairs at Beddington declined from 61 in 2012 to nine in 2013. In 2020, zero. At Tyttenhager 23 nests in 2019 dropped to eight in 2020. There are now fewer there than at Beddington in 2013 so I think we can see where this is headed. Such a shame as they are such smart little birds. This is likely to be the last one I see.

Elsewhere the Wryneck was a no-show, although it would not surprise me if it was still around, also hiding from me, but all of yesterdays Wheatears and Whinchats had stuck around. One of the Wheatears was particularly friendly and allowed a close, if muddy approach. The Whinchats stayed within the confines of the Skylark enclosure for the most part, and were thus perpetually out of range. The Skylark fence is fantastic and was a long time coming, but the Corporation of London isn't really playing ball with the agreed dates, or at least the fencing season does not seem to tally with the breeding season previously displayed on the signage. I'd quite like to be able to get in there now that breeding is over, maybe that is where the Wryneck is hanging out?

A distant Whinchat

Friday 2 September 2022

On fire

Rather predictably Fife got rather good as soon as I had left. Letham, which I checked almost every day, immediately hosted a Curlew Sandpiper. The Firth filled up with Skuas, including multiple Long-tailed, and counts of Sooty Shearwater sky-rocketed at Fife Ness. Such is life. I don't need any of those for Fife, but I still feel like I have missed out rather. I think I forgot to mention it in the last post, but I managed to get a Pomarine Skua off Burntisland on the Bank Holiday Monday, with at least four Arctic Skuas. It was rather a brute, going after bigger Gulls as well as Terns, whereas as far as I could tell the Arctic Skuas only bullied the Terns. They are astonishly agile, matching the twists and turns of the highly maneuverable Terns at every point, almost synchronised.

This was my last Skua for Fife, and was the only Fife tick I managed in my week up there. As I said I had hoped for more, but there is plenty of time and I don't want to rush it. As far as that list goes, eBird tells me it is 188. I've seen more at Rainham! Pom was also a tick for Scotland, which stands at 272, though I did just discover that Chough is missing. I've seen them on Islay many years ago, 2003 to be precise, so I'll get that sorted

I love a good list, and none more so than my Wanstead list. And that is what the 'Fire' in the title of this post relates to. I left the house early and was birding as the sun came up, the air heavy with promise after overnight and early morning rain. And guess what? Nada. Nothing, Rubbish. I saw very little during those first two hours - a Wheatear and flyover Yellow Wagtail my only reward. I moaned about this to Team Wanstead and trudged home again - tomorrow is another day. 

I had not been home long when WhatsApp beeped into life. A photo from Mary looking rather like a Tree Sparrow, obscured by foliage but nonetheless looking very promising. Jesus H Christ - there has not been a documented Tree Sparrow here since about 1985! As many reading this will know, this is a species that has almost terminally declined in the south of the country, and if anyone were to ask me where they could reliably see one I would be advising Yorkshire! I can count the number of times I've seen birds in London on one hand - Tyttenhanger and Beddington back in the day, and then a random bird at Rainham in 2010, which was the last time. I left the house immediately.

Marco said he'd seen a bird fly into the main Skylark enclosure, but I felt it would come back to the brambles it had been found in. It wasn't long before I located it by ear - I've just come back from Fife where Tree Sparrow outnumbers House Sparrow in my parents' garden - and sure enough there it was back in the same place. A young bird by the looks of it, but undeniably a Tree Sparrow and thus totally and utterly mega. Marco came back for a better look with Mary, and Simon just happened to be passing wouldn't you know. The bird then flew over our heads towards Bob. How appropriate! Bob is (was!) the only local birder to have this species on his list, and had apparently not been keen on another one ever turning up! But one now has and so another age old blocker has fallen. This is species number 164 for my patch list, no great number in the grand scheme of things, but an intensely pleasing one for so many reasons. So many mornings, so many days of seeing not much, but gradually, little by little, the list builds. 18 years and counting. I am sure I have written about this before, but when I moved here and started birding the patch I had not the faintest inkling that so many species could occur here, and certainly not that I would see so many of them.

A short while later Nick turned up and found a Wryneck in the same bush as the Tree Sparrow. Whatever. Regular passage migrant and useful year tick.