SoCal: Joshua Tree

We spent three nights at Joshua Tree National Park. One night near the southern entrance at Cottonwood Campground and two nights at Jumbo Rocks Campground. The park and campgrounds were pretty busy but people quieted down for the most part at night.

Jumbo Rocks

We explored the park on our way in, stopping at the cactus garden where I thought for sure I’d find a Cactus Wren. But no such luck.

At both campgrounds at night we tried out the blacklight gear our friends lent us to look for scorpions. Lo and behold! They glow!

This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Basically like gaining a super power: Scorpion Vision. They light up thanks to a hyaline layer in their exoskeleton that reacts to UV light. Theories suggest they glow as a way to determine when to come to the surface to look for prey depending on the amount of moonlight. Cool stuff.

Tomas’s macro shots were even cooler.

Leaving Cottonwood we stopped at the RV dump station to drain the graywater when I spotted a dark bird not far away. We hurried over to see my first Phainopepla!

Pronounced “fay-no-PEHP-lah.” This was pretty exciting and a great way to start the day. I found five more life birds at Joshua Tree. On the small trail at the Oasis Visitor Center, I found Cactus Wren.

They’re like Bewick’s Wren on steroids. It was pretty fun watching them climb up palm trunks.

Another was Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Smaller than Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with mostly black undertail and a drabber look.

Drab chic

And I finally saw Gambel’s Quail!

What a great spot. Back at our campsite we sat relaxing when Tomas said, there’s a bird under the picnic table. He’d found my lifer California Towhee!

It’s been a while since I’ve had so many new birds to look at. It was quite a treat. I walked around Jumbo Rocks Campground and at site #92 I heard the loveliest twittering song. Finally I saw it.

A thrasher! But which one?! It hopped to the ground and used its long bill to dig out ants while I scratched my head trying to ID.

Eventually I figured out with that dark iris, strong eye-line, and orange undertail, this was a California Thrasher! What an amazing bird to stumble on right at the campground.

Why hello there

One day we took a day trip to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve located about an hour outside Joshua Tree. It is an amazing place with boardwalks and trails (and feeders!) throughout 33,000 acres of desert oasis.

It was here I’d hoped to find my 500th life bird. There were so many potentials: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, and there’d even been a (cooperative) Ovenbird sighted recently. I had my hopes up! In total I spent more than four hours here searching, and walked almost four miles. And I found my 500th bird!

Oak Titmouse! Not exactly what I’d hoped for but a darn cute bird. I talked to some local birders and they mentioned the park was kind of slow this day. It’s too bad it’s not closer! Definitely a special place worth the visit.

Back at Joshua Tree I picked up a pamplet on the Birds of Joshua Tree National Park and wondered why the hell there’s a Cooper’s Hawk on the front cover. But then leaving the park we figured it out. Right on the entering Joshua Tree National Park sign we saw a young hawk.

Accurate

Then it flew onto and blended in with a Joshua Tree.

It makes sense, but still I think a better bird to represent the park would be something more localized to SW deserts like a Phainopepla.

Or a Loggerhead Shrike, to fit in with the desert theme.

Or even a Ladder-backed Woodpecker like the one we saw by Barker Dam hanging out on Chollus Cactus like it’s NBD.

So many good birds and good times in the desert at Joshua Tree!

We had a blast.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

SoCal: The Salton Sea

This year for my 38th birthday Tomas and I treated ourselves to a road trip to southern California. The plan was to fly to L.A., pick up a rental van, drive to the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley and then fly home from Las Vegas. I was inspired by a coworker’s experiences with Escape Campervans so we decided to try out #vanlife. It’s everything you think it is, quirky, convenient, and unconventional.

Vultures – a good omen?

“Simba” would be our lodging and transportation for the week. For some reason (mostly traffic) it took us 8 hours to cover the 165 miles between LA and Salton Sea on the first day. One of our stops included the Trader Joe’s in Palm Springs to load up on groceries for the week. We arrived at New Camp near the Salton Sea Headquarters in the dark. Not ideal but the sun sets at 4:30pm in the desert.

Cereal, it’s what’s for dinner

We settled in to hopefully get some sleep, but there were Loud. Trains. All. Night. Long. At least it was just the first day. In the morning we were tired, but surrounded by good distractions.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Where in the world was I?

Welcome to the Salton Sea

Fish bones and barnacles

Ever since I saw the documentary Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (watch it!) I’ve been fascinated with this strange part of the world and it’s quirky and complicated history (and uncertain future). And that was before I knew how important it is for migration, it’s one of the only reliable places in the United States to see a Yellow-footed Gull. Sold.

A friend lent me a copy of A Birder’s Guide to Southern California which was extremely helpful. It guided me to my first stop, the old swimming hole by headquarters.

Here I was immediately drawn to shorebirds, Black-necked Stilts, and a Spotted Sandpiper.

In the water were four American White Pelicans busy feeding, and a pair of White-winged Scoters, a rarity for the area.

Under the shrubs by the watering hole I met my first life bird of the trip, an Abert’s Towhee!

Not Albert or Ebert

Doing what towhee’s do, scritch-scratching in the dirt.

Because I was hoping for a Yellow-footed Gulls, I paid extra attention to the gulls. A YFGU looks like a Western Gull but with bright yellow legs instead of pink. This Herring Gull stood out to me, but it has pink legs, a pale eye, and light gray back.

In the water I saw a small group of Bonaparte’s Gulls swimming with Ring-billed and California Gulls.

And farther away was a gull slightly larger Bonaparte’s with a black bill and gray wash on the back of its head that I figured out was a late-season Laughing Gull.

The day was warming up already and we needed to get moving if we were to make it to the Sonny Bono NWR before too late. We drove along the north side of the sea and next to one road by the refuge I noticed a flock of 120+ Long-billed Curlews.

We pulled over to scan closer when Tomas spotted another surprise behind a barricade.

Burrowing Owl!

Adorable! And chill. We spent a lot of time watching this owl. It did not care. Meanwhile, noisy curlews called from the field and flew back and forth.

We made it to the refuge but the temperatures were already roasting. And a huge group of tourists were coming back from a guided walk. It was still pretty birdy, I saw Snow Geese,  Common Ground-Dove, Cattle Egret, but I had a hard time leaving the parking lot area because I spotted a Barn Owl hiding in one of the palm trees on the property.

I’d set up the scope to get better looks while Tomas walked around. He returned to tell me he’d seen Gambel’s Quail under the feeders. This would be a lifer for me (!) so I hurried over, but there were too many people around and no sign of the quail. So instead I talked to the rangers for gull advice.

They said our best bet for YFGU would be at Obsidian Butte not too far away. Tomas drove the van on some questionable sandy roads but we made it. There were huge obsidian boulders strewn about along with the typical fish bone beaches.

Have a seat and enjoy the view.

I’d read about the stink of the Salton Sea but it wasn’t too bad until the heat of the day at this spot. But the stink brings the birds. There were American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, Forster’s Terns, Caspian Terns, and more gulls. I scoped the most promising gull in the distance.

I hurried over, minding the quick sand, but this gull was wearing pink legs.

Classic Western Gull

Tomas humored me driving around more farm roads looking for gulls, but eventually I had to throw in the towel. I knew finding one in winter might be difficult, but it was worth a try. They are best seen late May to early June, peaking late July to early August. It’s much hotter and stinkier then, but it seems I’ll have to take another trip (Or go to Baja!).

On the way out we found another Burrowing Owl that did not want to be seen.

Not so chill

We gave this little one space and went on our way. Next up was Salvation Mountain a religious art sculpture in the desert created by Leonard Knight (1931-2014). But there were few birds and I was more impressed by the sign next to the mountain.

Back at North Shore we stopped at the International Banana Museum for a banana split!

Because of course there’s a banana museum in the desert?!

Is this place great or what?

Bananas for birds,

Audrey

The 300 Club

It’s been my goal to see 300 species this year in Oregon since I realized in September I’d already seen 292. If you’re thinking, “how the hell did she do that?” I wondered the same thing. My total Oregon life list is 337 and I had ankle surgery in February. But then I remembered birding like a maniac in January. I saw a Virginia’s Warbler, Northern Mockingbird, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker all on January 1.

And my awesome friends took me to see a Sabine’s Gull in Salem while I was on crutches, and on a trip east for Wasco County birding. Post surgery there was that trip south to Summer Lake. Then local rarities showed up; Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ruff, and Sharptailed Sandpiper. And now two pelagic trips. It all starts to add up. Maybe some day I’ll do a real Oregon Big Year, but for now unintentional is good. Birds have been my therapy this year while recovering. Apparently I’ve needed a lot of therapy!

Now on the mend I was also on a post-pelagic high Sunday sitting at 299 birds with an entire day to bird on the coast. What would be #300?! What was even left? Well, there’s a lot of grouse (of course); Ruffed Grouse, Mountain Quail, but I’d have a better shot at Pygmy Owl, Rock Sandpiper, or Tropical Kingbird. All excellent candidates.

It was too dark to hang around Newport when I got up, so instead I drove to Nestucca Bay NWR. Luckily the gate was open pre-dawn when I arrived. Still no geese yet in the lower farm fields, so I took the gravel road to the top. No grouse on the way (of course). I walked along Two Rivers Nature Trail for a short ways remembering not to overdo it.

It didn’t take long to find birds. There were Pacific Wren, kinglets, and a Northern Harrier but the best birds were a small group of Canada Jays!

Friends without borders.

Not a year bird, but a fun Tillamook County bird and a great species to find on the coast.

I decided to look for rockpipers next at Barview Jetty Park. But blowing wind and rain didn’t keep me there long. It was time to head inland to the Nehalem Wastewater Treatment Plant. The facilities are closed to birders on weekends, but pro-tip you can scope the ponds from the top of the driveway!

I picked up a couple more county birds here, including Ruddy Duck.

And an Eared Grebe.

In a far pond I saw a tiny gull with a black “ear” spot, a Bonaparte’s Gull!

Another solid county bird. From here I drove along random farm roads in the area hoping to see a kingbird reported several days prior. It started pouring rain when I spotted it. No way. Oregon year bird #300! Tropical Kingbird!

Not so tropical kingbird

It is a large flycatcher, with a big bill and yellow up to the throat. It lacks white outer tail feathers that Western Kingbirds have. Eventually I got a photo of this bird’s lemon belly.

So lemony

I parked off the road to watch it flycatch for a while letting the experience sink in. So much love. A pair of Black Phoebes were much less appreciative of the kingbird than I.

Occasionally the bird flew into the trees and disappeared which probably explains why I’ve missed them before.

They’re much easier to see when perched on wires.

The sun came out blinding any more good looks and backlighting the bird so I took a break back to the water treatment ponds. I didn’t make it far before a flock of geese stopped me.

Most were Cackling Geese, but I did see a few Greater White-fronted Geese mixed in.

And I noticed some of a the cacklers had a white neck-ring suggesting they might be of the (once endangered now recoveringAleutian variety.

But I’ve learned not all cacklers with white collars are Aleutian subspecies. The bird with the dark glossy breast is likely Ridgway’s and the right bird could be Aleutian but the head shape isn’t quite right (thanks to Dave Irons for his geesepertise). So kind of like gulls, there’s some geese that don’t fit neatly into categories. Cackling sp. it is.

Back at the ponds there were even fewer birds than before probably due to the pair of Bald Eagles in the trees above. So I took a victory lap back to the kingbird to see if it was in better light but I wasn’t able to refind it. So long #300 be well.

I started home and met up with Sarah and Max along the way for victory beers and pizza and Sarah gave me the best gift!

Cheers to 300 amazing Oregon birds!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey