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.

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