ARTICLES: CALIFORNIA BIRDING
by Brian E. Small
Yosemite National Park and Mono Lake
Yosemite National Park, with its' towering peaks, spectacular water falls, vast meadows, unspoiled lakes and streams and thousands of acres of forest, form a pristine wilderness that holds nearly 250 species of birds. While you are visiting the park, bird the conifer-rimmed Tuolumne Meadows and the meadows at Crane Flat for Green-tailed Towhees, Calliope Hummingbirds, Lincoln's Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Cassin's Finches and Hermit Warblers. A good place to look for Great Gray Owls at dawn or dusk is the meadow directly behind the Chevron service station at Crane Flat. Be sure to walk the trails around White Wolf and Bridalveil Creek campgrounds for elusive Black-backed Woodpeckers and other nesting birds. The famous groves of Giant Sequoias in the park have the usual forest birds like Brown Creepers and Mountain Chickadees, but may also shelter White-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers. The areas surrounding Mirror Lake or along nearby Tenaya Creek are excellent for Black Swifts, Winter Wrens, American Dippers and MacGillivray's Warblers. At the lower elevation riparian areas in Lee Vining Canyon along Highway 120, you can search for nesting Western Wood-Pewees, Lazuli Buntings, Warbling Vireos, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, House Wrens, Mountain Bluebirds and American Robins during summer.
Situated in the Mono Basin, due east of Yosemite National Park, is world-famous Mono Lake. This area has several worthwhile birding locations. The Tufa grove on the south shore of the lake is an excellent place to search for nesting Violet-green Swallows, Mountain Bluebirds, Say's Phoebes and even Great Horned Owls. While you are birding the south side of the lake, be sure to check the adjacent Mono Craters forest for nesting Pinyon Jays and Williamson's Sapsuckers. In spring, drive the dirt roads and walk the trails around Mono Lake County Park to check for Common Snipe, Common Nighthawks, Snowy Plovers and some of the lakes' 50,000 nesting California Gulls. You may also find a few Wilson's Phalaropes which nest here in small numbers as well. By mid-summer however, the lake becomes an important migration staging area for Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes and can hold up to 150,000 birds. Even more impressive are the nearly one million Eared Grebes that use the lake as a staging area for their migration by early fall!
Yosemite National Park offers many hotels, tent cabins and a number of campgrounds that are all very popular, so make your reservations as early as possible. The grand old world-famous Ahwahnee Hotel in the Yosemite Valley is highly recommended (209) 252-4848. The number for park information is (209) 372-0200 and for accommodations call (209) 252-4848. To reach Yosemite, take Highway 140 out of Merced and continue about 70 miles east. Your other alternative is to first visit Mono Lake along Highway 395 at the town of Lee Vining, and then follow Highway 120 over Tioga Pass to reach the east entrance of Yosemite. For information on visiting Mono Lake, call the California Department of Parks and Recreation at (619) 647-6331. You should also consider picking up an excellent resource of birding information for this area; David Gaines' book entitled Birds of Yosemite and the East Slope.
The San Bernadino Mountains
As you begin your trip up the mountains, take highway 18 ("Rim of the World Drive") off Interstate 215, and be sure to check the brushy chaparral foothills for California Quails, California Thrashers, Wrentits and California Towhees. Look in the Canyon Live Oaks for Bushtits, Plain Titmice, Band-tailed Pigeons and Nuttall's Woodpeckers. As you gain elevation, search the groves of Alders, Sycamores and Cottonwoods for Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes, Downey Woodpeckers and Lesser Goldfinches. Around Big Bear Lake, you may find nesting Redheads, Ruddy Ducks, Pied-billed and Eared Grebes and Common Nighthawks. In winter, as many as 25 Bald Eagles have been found, often perched close to the lakeshore.
Bluff Lake, Baldwin Lake, and the road to Round Valley provide birders a wide variety of species to search for within the San Bernadino's. The dirt road to Bluff Lake (closed by snow in winter) is a little rough, but once you are there, you will discover it was well worth the trip. In spring and summer, the meadows and forests around Bluff Lake have an abundance of nesting birds. Look for Williamson's and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, White-headed Woodpeckers, Dusky Flycatchers, Steller's Jays, Mountain Chickadees, Western Tanagers, Pine Siskins, Cassin's Finches and even Townsend's Solitaires among the Lodgepole Pines. Check the edges of the mountain meadows for nesting Lincoln's and Fox Sparrows, Calliope Hummingbirds, Hermit Thrushes, Dark-eyed Juncos, Western Wood-Pewees and Western Bluebirds. At night you should listen for owls such as Northern Saw-whet, Spotted, Northern Pygmy and Flammulated Owls. During fall migration, you may find Hermit and Townsend's Warblers along with Golden-crowned Kinglets.
Baldwin Lake, home to the second largest breeding population of Eared Grebes in southern California, is best for water birds in the years following a wet winter. During drought years the lake can be almost completely dry. There are a number of dirt roads around the lake leading to the shoreline. Be sure to bird the arid sagebrush that lines the area around the lake. This is a great place to test your sparrow identification skills during spring and summer. You may find Savannah, Vesper, Lark, Sage, Song, Brewer's, Chipping, Black-chinned and Lincoln's Sparrows. In spring and fall, scope the lake for Wilson's Phalaropes, Gadwalls, Cinnamon Teals, Mallards, Northern Pintails and American Wigeons. Also, watch for Mountain Bluebirds and keep an eye out for Bald Eagles over the lake in winter.
To reach the Round Valley area, pick-up a detailed map of the area and look for road 2N02 at the south end of Baldwin Lake. This dirt road winds through some of the best Pinyon-Juniper habitat in the state. Stop occasionally and listen for Gray Flycatchers, Green-tailed Towhees and with luck, Gray Vireos. When you reach Arrastre Creek, check around the willows for nesting Calliope Hummingbirds, MacGillivray's and Wilson's Warblers and watch for the occasional Hepatic Tanager. Continue on through the Joshua Tree forest to Round Valley. Here you should find Scott's Orioles, Gray Flycatchers, Pinyon Jays, Black-chinned, Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows, Rock Wrens and Gray Vireos.
The San Bernadino Mountains can be accessed by taking highway 18 off Interstate 215 and following the road towards Big Bear Lake. There are plenty of motels and restaurants in the towns of Running Springs and Big Bear Lake and for information on birding this area call the U.S. Forest Service at (714) 866-3437.
Southern California Desert
When you reach Joshua Tree National Park, be sure to stop at the headquarters at Twentynine Palms Oasis and pick up a map of the park. The nature trail to this oasis can be good for Roadrunners, Gambel's Quails, Verdins and Phainopeplas. On spring mornings, this is also an excellent place to look for migrating landbirds. Follow the main road through the park and remember that almost anyplace you find water you are likely to find birds. Check the stands of Joshua Trees for desert specialties like Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Cactus Wrens, Black-throated Sparrows and Scott's Orioles. There are a number of campgrounds, picnic areas and palm oasis' in the park where birders should search for resident and migrant species. When you reach Cottonwood Spring, stop and bird the Fremont Cottonwoods for vireos, warblers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and tanagers during spring and fall migration. From here, you can hike up to the beautiful Lost Palms Oasis and look for Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Red-tailed Hawks, Cactus and Rock Wrens, LeConte's and Bendire's Thrashers, Costa's Hummingbirds and Ash-throated Flycatchers along the trail. When you reach the oasis, you should find nesting Hooded and Scott's Orioles, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and numerous migrants. Also, the elusive Desert Bighorn Sheep can be found in Joshua Tree National Park as well.
From the north entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, it is just a 30-minute drive to one of the finest spring "migrant traps" in California. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is a lush oasis of Fremont Cottonwoods with a permanent stream that has attracted over 200 species of birds. This is the most reliable place in the state to find nesting Vermilion Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Summer Tanagers. Walk the trail through the big stand of Cottonwoods and listen for, endangered "Least" Bell's Vireos, Warbling and Solitary Vireos, Virginia Rails, Bullock's and Hooded Orioles, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Hammond's and Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Wilson's and Yellow Warblers, the occasional Yellow-billed Cuckoo and many other western migrants. Check the brushy patches and fields around the parking lot for Yellow-breasted Chats, Lazuli Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Lawrence's Goldfinches, Gambel's Quail, Black-throated Sparrows, California Thrashers and Costa's Hummingbirds.
You can reach Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park by following highway 62 north off of Interstate 10. The town of Twentynine Palms is conveniently located between both areas along highway 62 and has plenty of motels and restaurants. If you are a little more adventurous, there are also some marvelous campgrounds in the national park. For information on Joshua Tree National Park you can call (619) 367-7511 and for Big Morongo Canyon call (619) 363-7190.
The Salton Sea
The best way to bird the Salton Sea is to start early (sunrise) and make many quick stops on an all-day loop trip around the sea. If you want a more relaxed pace, then spend most of your time birding the south end, starting at the National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. In winter, the ponds and fields behind the offices hold large numbers of White-faced Ibis along with Snow, Ross' and Canada geese. In summer, take the Seaside Trail just west of the headquarters to look for Clark's and Western Grebes, Laughing Gulls, Gull-billed Terns and Black Skimmers. Also be sure to check around the headquarters picnic area for Abert's Towhees, Verdins and Cactus Wrens.
Work your way around the edge of the sea on any of the numerous farm roads, and search the agricultural fields for birds. You are likely to find big flocks of Cattle Egrets, White-faced Ibis, Red-winged, Brewers and Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles as you work your way down to the sea. Make sure you drive down to the end of Vendel Road to look for Burrowing Owls beside the road, and to check the ponds at the end for ducks and shorebirds. In summer, endangered "Yuma" Clapper Rails nest here along with Least Bitterns, Cinnamon Teals, Redheads and Ruddy Ducks.
You also want to stop at Red Hill Marina and Obsidian Butte and check the large ponds in this area. These are good places to scope the sea and to look for shorebirds, Yellow-footed Gulls and even Wood Storks in late summer. As strange as it may sound, when you look out over the sea, keep an eye out for pelagic birds. Magnificent Frigatebirds, Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, Laysan Albatross, and a number of different Shearwaters and Petrels have all been seen at the Salton Sea! If you have decided to work your way completely around the sea, some of the places worth checking are: the end of Johnson Street at the north end, Bombay Beach, Niland Marina, the Wister Unit, Finney and Ramer Lakes and Salton City.
The Salton Sea can be reached by following highway 86 south off Interstate 10 or highway 86 north off Interstate 8. Indio, Niland, Calipatria, Brawley and Salton City are just some of the small towns around the Salton Sea that can provide restaurants and accommodations. For more information contact the Salton Sea State Recreation Headquarters at (619) 393-3052.
The Orange County Coast
The Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve, located along the Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, is one of the best remaining coastal lagoons in California. It has an outstanding one and one half mile loop trail around the lagoon, from which most of the birds here can be found. Be sure to check the trees on the bluff at the north end for White-tailed Kites, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons. In spring and summer there is a nesting colony of terns that provides birders with a marvelous chance to study some of these look-alike species. Elegant, Royal, Forster's, Caspian and Least Terns along with Black Skimmers can all be found nesting at Bolsa Chica. The occasional Sooty, Gull-billed, Sandwich or Black Tern can add excitement to the mix as well. In spring and fall, you should find both Brown and White Pelicans, Great and Snowy Egrets, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, Willets, Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits and resident "Belding's" Savannah Sparrows. By late fall and winter, you can find Eared, Horned, Pied-Billed, Western and Clark's Grebes, Common Loons, Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, Lesser Scaup, Buffleheads, Blue-winged Teals and more. For photographers, there is a wealth of photo opportunities by just standing on the boardwalk that overlooks the lagoon from the main parking area. Most of the waterbirds will eventually make their way past the boardwalk and many of the terns and shorebirds will fly right overhead.
The other place you don't want to miss is just 5 miles down the road from Bolsa Chica. The Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, the largest remaining estuary in southern California, hosts an impressive variety and number of birds and is a must for any visiting birder. From Pacific Coast Highway, take Jamboree Road to Back Bay Drive and follow this one-way road as it skirts the edge of the reserve. There are a number of pullouts and parking areas where birders can scan the marshes or just walk the edge of the road. Upper Newport is famous for its concentration of endangered "Light-footed" Clapper Rails, Virginia Rails and Soras. The rails are most often seen at extreme high or low tides that push them out in the open to feed. When you reach the intersection of Back Bay Drive and San Joaquin Hills Road, park and check the freshwater outfall for wintering ducks. Cinnamon, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Mallards, American Wigeon and the occasional Eurasian Wigeon are all seen drinking and bathing within 15 feet of the edge of the road! As you drive through the reserve, be sure to scan the skies for raptors. Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Ospreys, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, White-tailed Kites, Peregrine Falcons and Golden Eagles are all possible.
Continue to the next main parking area and stop to check the coastal sage scrub habitat on the south side of the road adjacent to a freshwater pond. This is an excellent spot to find Allen's Hummingbirds and California Gnatcatchers. Listen for the Gnatcatchers' "mewing" call that is reminiscent of a cat. Other birds possible in this area are Loggerhead Shrikes, Say's and Black Phoebes, Anna's Hummingbirds, Bushtits, Bewick's Wrens, California Towhees and Mourning and Spotted Doves. During spring and fall migration you could find Nashville, Yellow, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers, Olive-sided, Willow, Pacific-slope, Hammond's and Ash-throated Flycatchers along with Lazuli Buntings, Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers. In summer, you may find Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Cassin's and Western Kingbirds and Hooded and Bullock's Orioles. In winter look for Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Hermit Thrushes and Lincoln's, Golden-Crowned, Song, Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows.
To reach coastal Orange County, take the 405 Freeway and exit at Jamboree Road and continue west to the Pacific Coast Highway. There are plenty of hotels, motels and restaurants around Orange County that are close to both Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport. For information on Bolsa Chica call "Los Amigos de Bolsa Chica" at (714) 897-7003 and for Upper Newport call the Department of Fish and Game at (714) 640-6746.
No other state can match California's unique mix and diversity of habitats. Because of California's deserts, mountains, wetlands, seacoasts, forests, riparian woodlands, grasslands, alpine tundra, offshore islands, open ocean, lakes and rivers, chaparral, coastal sage scrub and more, the state has attracted over 600 different species. From Allen's Hummingbird to Xantus¹s' Murrelet, and every bird in between, California offers it's visitors an outstanding variety of birds to find. With a fine system of parks and preserves, beautiful scenery, excellent weather and knowledgeable birders, California truly is the "golden state" for birding.
There are numerous opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, jeep tours, camping and backpacking in the San Bernadino Mountains. Check with the San Gorgonio District Ranger Station (909-794-1123) to obtain a wilderness permit for entry into the backcountry for these activities. One excellent self-guided nature walk for birders is at the Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve. There are lots of waterfowl and up to 25 Bald Eagles here in winter. The trail starts at the visitor center that is open 10am to 4pm (909-585-0717). Two other good nature trails are the Ponderosa Vista and Whispering Pines trails near Barton Flats. Both trails are self-guided and are over easy terrain. Also of interest is the Big Bear Solar Observatory on the north shore of the lake (909-866-5791).
There are about 20 forest service campgrounds in the San Bernadino Mountains that accommodate both tent and trailer camping. Most of the campgrounds are open from May through November and reservations can be made for some by calling MISTIX at (800) 283-2267. Barton Flats, San Gorgonio, South Fork and Hanna Flat campgrounds are some of the best. For more information on recreation in the San Bernadino Mountains contact the Forest Supervisor at (909) 383-5588.
Rock climbing is a very popular activity in Joshua Tree National Park as well. The park offers more than 300 climbs. Some of the most popular spots are the Wonderland of Rocks, Jumbo Rocks, Indian Cove and Hidden Valley. For campers, there are 8 campgrounds within the park that offer a variety of amenities. They all offer RV as well as tent camping spaces and are very popular in spring and fall. Call MISTIX at (800) 365-2267 for reservations. Black Rock Canyon, Jumbo Rocks and Indian Cove campgrounds are the best. You can get additional information at the Oasis Visitor Center by calling (619) 367-7511.
Orange County Coast:
The best way to see Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve is to follow Back Bay Drive along the south side of the reserve. This 3-mile road is open to bike, rollerblade, automobile and foot traffic. It can get very busy on weekends so you may want to try visiting mid-week. Canoes and kayaks are also available for rent near the marina at the west end of the reserve. Call 714-640-6746 for more information.
The Salton Sea:
The staff at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area Visitor Center, located 1 1/2 miles south of North Shore off Highway 111 at State Park Road, can answer questions and provide information on the sea and the surrounding area. The center is closed in summer and you can call them at (619) 393-3052. The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is located 6 miles west of highway 111 at Sinclair and Gentry roads (619) 348-5278. There are a number of trails and roads leading from the refuge headquarters that will head to wetlands and croplands that are managed for birds. Designated trails are open all year and most roads within the refuge are closed to vehicles and are used only as hiking trails. The Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area, located 4 1/2 miles northwest of Niland off highway 111 on Davis Road is well worth exploring. As many as 40,000 ducks and 20,000 geese use this area in winter and there are over 4200 acres of man-made ponds and marshlands to search. Phone (619) 359-0577 for more information.