SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

Texas: Estero to Bentsen

The next morning Jen and I left the cabins at 3am because that’s normal. Actually it’s the opposite of normal, but it’s an excellent way to make good time driving when you aren’t distracted by birds along the way. We had to drive 6 hours south to pick up the rest of the spring-break birding crew from the Brownsville airport.

So efficient. Until daylight broke and we immediately pulled over by the first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! This one’s named Rudolph.

We arrived in Brownsville with enough time to make a quick stop near the airport at Dean Porter Park. Here we saw Neotropic Cormorants (that look similar to Double-crested Cormorants), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, lifer after lifer after lifer.

We also saw some familiar faces.

Black-necked Stilt

White Ibis

“You can’t see me” -Muscovy Duck

And I had way to much fun entertained by Great-tailed Grackles.

And Laughing Gulls. I’m especially fond of gulls that are easy to ID.

No question you are hilarious.

We made it to the airport in time to pick up Sarah, Max and Eric. They’d flown in on a red-eye and we’d been up since 3am. We were all ready to bird. A quick stop at the Airbnb to drop off luggage and we arrived at Estero Llano Grande State Park to meet up with Jen’s Texas buddy, Nate and his friend from Austin, AJ.

Compared to PacNW parks, the “World Birding Centers” of Texas are a bit different. They are more maintained, usually have feeders, operation hours, and moderate entry fees. It’s all worth it. Upon entry we were immediately overwhelmed at the feeders when Eric got his lifer Northern Cardinal.

Then I got my lifer Curve-billed Thrasher.

Then we all (minus the Texans) got lifer Chachalacas!

These dinosaur-like birds are Plain Chachalacas (Cha-cha-la-cas). Fun to say and fun to watch. They are “the only member of the family of guans, currasows, and chachalacas to reach the United States.” They are big and loud.

Then before you know it, they melt into the forest and disappear.

Bye-bye Cha-chas. Hello Buff-bellied Hummingbird!

We then scanned the pond area and found Little Blue Heron, White-faced Ibis, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Blue-winged, Cinnamon, and Green Teal (teal trifecta).

Watch where you’re pointing that thing

At another pond we met the Least Grebe.

That eye.

Then Nate led us to another part of the park to see a Common Pauraque.

Or not see it. Where bird?

Best camo ever.

This place was ridiculous.

AYFKM?

Just as we left Estero, my lifer Long-billed Thrasher bid us farewell. Lifers around every corner.

We filled up on tacos at Nana’s Taqueria before heading to our final destination of the day, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Rumor was there was a possible Elf Owl nesting site there. We arrived just before sundown.

Just in time to squeeze in a Ringed Kingfisher sighting.

Before gathering with 18 other hopeful birders to stare at a hole in a telephone pole.

Cheap seats

Just after dark to everyone’s glee a tiny owl popped out from the forest and perched on a nearby wire. Not long after a second owl appeared and then they both disappeared in darkness. Some imagination needed to see this one:

Maybe not the most glamorous sighting, but nevertheless it was a suberb way to end the day. Walking back to the car we watched bats and fireflies and listened to Common Paraque zip around in the sky catching bugs calling “purr-WEEE-eer.”

Only in Texas.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey