Birding the Southern California Desert

Nathan GoldbergBirding2 Comments

Over the past few days, I have been staying in La Quinta, in Southern California. My family is here for a wedding, but we have had some time to explore the more natural parts of the area. Last Friday (the 28th), my family visited the Indian Canyons south of Palm Springs. This was a place my dad used to visit when he was a little kid, and wanted to see it again. I did a bit of research, and learned I could see a Costa’s Hummingbird while there, which would be a lifer for me. The drive from La Quinta to the Canyons was about 45 minutes, and we arrived at around 9:45 AM. Our first stop was at Andreas Canyon, in which we hiked the 2 mile loop. Before even leaving the parking lot, I began looking for birds. Walking right up to a bush to look out over the landscape, I turned and looked straight up at a male hummingbird. After checking all the field marks, I concluded I had found my lifer Costa’s Hummingbird! I snapped a few photos, and fist-pumped triumphantly.

Adult male Costa's Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male Costa’s Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

The loop wasn’t super birdy, but the species we did have were quite special for me. We had lots of Verdin, a few Phainopeplas, and a very distant Black-throated Sparrow.

Verdin (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Verdin (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Phainopepla (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Phainopepla (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

White-throated Swifts were circling above, and would make close passes on a rock face. After a little bit, they actually landed within the rock, revealing a nest site.

White-throated Swift (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

White-throated Swift (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

White-throated Swifts at nests (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

White-throated Swifts at nests (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

The landscape here was very different from Illinois, and the habitats both were wet (the oasis) and dry (the desert).

Along the walk, we also had Orange-crowned Warblers (of the bright leutesnes subspecies), two Hooded Orioles, and two migrant Black-throated Gray Warblers.

Along the hike, there were also lots of lizards. My friend Sam Fason (from Austin, TX) is really into herps, so I thought I would photograph them and see if he could ID them. Turned out one of them, the Mearns’ Rock Lizard, is a very range restricted species, and is only found in Southern California/Northern Baja region.

Before leaving the Canyons, we drove up to the Trading Post for more water, as it was nearing 80º by now. This was one of the many highlights of the visit for me because they had numerous Costa’s Hummingbirds visiting their feeders. And not only were there 10-15 of them, but they also allowed people to approach to within a foot of them.

Adult male Costa's Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male Costa’s Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Below the Trading Post is one of the largest groupings of California Fan Palms in the world, and to see naturally growing Palm trees was really a treat for us. The hike here was much less birdy (it was getting into the heat of the day), but I still managed to find two species of odenates. One was a California/Aztec Dancer (a type of damselfly), and the other a Flame Skimmer (a type of dragonfly).

California Fan Palm -- Washingtonia filifera (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

California Fan Palm — Washingtonia filifera (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

California/Aztec Dancer -- Argia agrioides/nahuana (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

California/Aztec Dancer — Argia agrioides/nahuana (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Flame Skimmer -- Libellula saturata (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Flame Skimmer — Libellula saturata (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

March 29th came fast, and was the day of the wedding we came for. But we had no obligations until at least 2:00 PM, so we decided to go explore the area around La Quinta. I found a lake on the map known as Lake Cahuilla, and wanted to see what waterbirds may be there. Taking a route Google Maps took us on, we got confused, as it directed us on a road that went straight into a mountain. Abandoning the lake idea for the time being, we found a system of trails just south of town. Right after beginning the hike, my mom called out that she had found a Roadrunner!

Greater Roadrunner (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Greater Roadrunner (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Along the hike, I was able to find more Verdin, another Black-throated Sparrow, and my personal highlight, a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher that posed nicely.

Black-throated Sparrow (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Black-throated Sparrow (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

We eventually found the lake later on, and didn’t see much. I had a Snowy Egret, a handful of both Double-crested Cormorants and American White Pelicans, and two Pied-billed Grebes.

The last notable bird in the La Quinta area I had was seen yesterday (the 30th) while at a polo match (part of the wedding celebrations). I had three Swainson’s Hawks migrate over, and not only were they Swainson’s, but two of the three were dark/intermediate morph birds!

Just for fun, here are two photos I took at the Polo game. It was truly amazing to witness how fast paced and skilled the riders were.

Polo match (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Polo match (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Polo match (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Polo match (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Today we leave La Quinta, and move to the coast for a few days, basing ourselves in La Jolla. Targets for La Jolla and the surrounding area will be California Gnatcatcher, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Allen’s Hummingbird.