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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,