The Southern California Coast 3/31 to 4/2

Leaving La Quinta on March 31st, we began the short second leg of our trip with a 3 hour drive to the town of La Jolla (just north of San Diego). Our hotel was on the coast, so I couldn’t wait to get a few new species for my year list. Walking only five minutes, I soon saw lots of Western Gulls, Brandt’s Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and a few Heerman’s Gulls. But the main spectacle were the California Sea Lions hauled out on the rocks. They allowed people to get very close to them, and I took some time watching them fight for the best rocks.

April 1st soon came, and I had organized to go birding with Paul Lehman who lives nearby La Jolla. Two targets I would like to see while in the area were California Gnatcatcher and Allen’s Hummingbird. Paul met me at the hotel in La Jolla and we set out at around 8:30 AM to our first spot, San Elijo Lagoon (off of Rios Ave.). Here we hiked for about an hour. In this time, we had many common western species including Wrentit, Lesser Goldfinch, Western Scrub-Jay, Bewick’s Wren, California Thrasher, and Bushtits.

The main highlight here was an adult male Allen’s Hummingbird that sat up and allowed great views. This was ABA bird #525 for me.

Allen's Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Male Allen’s Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Female Allen's Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Female Allen’s Hummingbird (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

There were also a pair of American Wigeon showing nicely in the lagoon, as well as a Merlin that briefly perched on a dead tree.

Having gotten Allen’s Hummingbird, our other target was California Gnatcatcher. Paul told me that many of the places we would visit for the Gnatcatcher have only one or two pairs present, and it really is just a matter of finding them in the brush. The next location we stopped at was the San Dieguito Lagoon mouth to check for a Pacific Golden-Plover that had been seen there on and off throughout the winter. We couldn’t find the plover, but did have two Willet, a Long-billed Curlew, and a Black Phoebe.

The next stop for the Gnatcatchers was at San Dieguito Lagoon west, and we walked a straight trail in the appropriate habitat. One bird that always is great to see in California is the ubiquitous California Towhee. Though they may be bland, the cinnamon face and undertail always brighten them up.

California Towhee (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

California Towhee (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

After thinking we had missed the Gnatcatcher again, we stopped and I mentioned to Paul that I may have heard something call. Turned out when we walked back, a male California Gnatcatcher popped out and scolded us! This pattern repeated for a few minutes, and then we walked back to the car, quite satisfied. This was ABA bird #526 for me.

Male California Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Male California Gnatcatcher (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

With the day winding down, we checked one more time for the plover, and though it still wasn’t there, we did find a Spotted Sandpiper and two Whimbrel as consolation.

Paul made sure I knew where to go for a seawatch the next morning, and encouraged me to do so on April 2nd (to look for Black-vented Shearwaters). While checking out the spot, a Pelagic Cormorant gave us a quick flyby.

Pelagic Cormorant (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Pelagic Cormorant (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

I thanked Paul for the fantastic morning, and we parted ways. It was amazing to hear all his stories of his birding in Alaska and finding first North American records. I also learned he was the person who found one of the records of Little Curlew in California! I soon met up with my parents, and it became apparent my mom wanted to go for a hike for the afternoon. We decided to drive up to Torrey Pines State Reserve for the remainder of the day, but first stopped on the coastline near the hotel in La Jolla.

Brown Pelicans, Brandt’s Cormorants, Double-crested Cormorants nest right on the rocks, and can be viewed at extremely close range right in La Jolla. Here we also had a flyby Snowy Egret as well.

Driving north for about 30 minutes, we arrived at Torrey Pines. It is gorgeous there and there are great hiking trails in diverse habitat. Some of the birds we had here consisted of more Wrentits, California Thrashers, and a super tame Orange-crowned Warbler.

Nearing the end of the hike, I could have sworn I heard a California Gnatcatcher call. I thought I was hearing things, but decided to check anyways. Turned out my hunch was correct, and my mom and I stumbled into a very defensive and vocal pair of California Gnatcatchers! Having just had the species as a lifer that morning, I was very pleased to be getting a second look at them.

I was actually able to shoot some video of the male, embedded below (be sure to watch the HD version!).

Along the walk, we also found a very pretty Cactus that was in bloom, which I believe to be a Prickly Pear Cactus (though really have no idea).

Prickly Pear Cactus (?) (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Prickly Pear Cactus (?) (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

April 2nd was the day we set aside for traveling back to Chicago, and we were leaving La Jolla at 9:30 AM for the airport. I convinced my parents to let me go out and seawatch early in the morning, as Paul had assured me I had very good chances of getting at least one Black-vented Shearwater. I woke up at 7:00 and made my way to the coast, and met local birder Gary Nunn (who had an insane encounter with a Great-winged Petrel here back in 2012).

We had multiple Royal Terns, more Western Gulls, and the star of the show, two Black-vented Shearwaters!

Western Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Western Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Royal Tern (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Royal Tern (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

The Shearwaters were faaaar out in the water. They had very long, flat wings, were dark above and light below, and flew very quickly over the waves. I am very glad Paul pushed me to get out, as this was ABA lifer #527 for me. Thanks also to Gary for his help, the details on Shearwater ID were extremely helpful.

The seawatch closed out a fantastic trip to California, and I cannot wait to be back. The habitats here are so different from anything I have birded recently, and it was an interesting transition back to the cold weather in Chicago. I also would like to thank my parents for all their help and support on this trip. They allowed me to spend a lot of time birding, which made the trip very enjoyable for me.


For those interested in the numbers of the trip, they are below.

Riverside County is now at 64 with an increase in 24

San Diego County is now at 71 (I didn’t keep good records on our last trip here)

My California list is now at 197 with an increase in 21

My California year list is now at 91 with an increase in 91

My ABA year list is now at 212 with an increase in 48

My ABA life list is now at 527 with an increase of 4