Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Horses Without Names. - Calibirdication days 3 & 4

The ocean is a desert with it's life underground
And a perfect disguise above

What is a birding trip to California without a pelagic or two? I had actually looked into trying to make it three but it just wouldn’t gel. In the morning the four of us walked leisurely to the boat which was a block or two away from our lodgings. Lisa wanted to get a good spot, but the rest of us were just looking forward to being out on the Pacific and seeing some good birds.

Lisa finds a good spot
There is something that is very compelling about the ocean. I have always been drawn to the water and cannot conceive of living away from the coast. And though I enjoy being on the water I do not spend as much time out there as I would like, and so I am in a constant state of wanting more.

One thing I have come to terms with long ago is that occasionally enough, I can fall victim to mal de mer. I have a large bottle of generic Dramamine, it cost me $5 for 100 tablets, and I use it. Problem solved. I am always perplexed by the amount of discussion that ensues on these trips and this one was no exception. Just take a ^%$^t Dramamine and be done with it already. Sure it makes you drowsy a bit, but that sure beats begging someone to kill you to put you out of your misery. Much to my delight, I have discovered that at least for me, having a beer negates the drowsiness by some unknown mechanism. Yay! { That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!}

This trip was out of Point Loma in San Diego, where the fishing is apparently very very good! Huge crowds were assembled for the fishing trips daily, and they returned with very large fish, note to self for alternatives to birding encompassing all the allotted time on a vacation.

The trip was “San Diego County Waters to the 9-Mile and 30-Mile Banks”, with likely species listed as Pink-footed, Sooty, & Black-vented Shearwaters, Black Storm-Petrel, Brown Booby, Red-necked & Red Phalaropes, Pomarine & Parasitic Jaegers, Cassin's Auklet, Sabine’s Gull, Common Tern. The possible species were Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Flesh-footed & Buller’s Shearwaters, Leach’s, Least, & Ashy Storm-Petrels, Red-billed Tropicbird, South Polar Skua, Long-tailed Jaeger, Craveri’s & Guadalupe Murrelets, and Arctic Tern.

My personal targets were Flesh-footed Shearwater, Least Storm-Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, Craveri’s & Guadalupe Murrelets. I was especially hoping for one or more of the recently split Storm-Petrels such as Ainley’s or Townsend’s. Most if not all of the species were targets for the others.

We began with a slow cruise out the harbor with a stop to admire an impossibly beautiful albino Brant’s Cormorant. It posed majestically for us in the morning light.

albino Brant's Cormorant
We followed a programmed course that took us over various underwater features. Though invisible to us, the underwater features were well known and the bird life above said features were remarkably predictable. Some folks aboard even had a map / GPS app that showed the underwater topography corresponding to our location.

The first good birds we had were Brown Boobies. They are now nesting on the islands in Mexican waters, but frequent the San Diego area. They buzzed our boat as we were exiting the bay. 

Brown Booby
As we got to the ocean proper, we saw our first Black-vented Shearwaters. These are quite abundant birds, and one can often see them in numbers even from shore.

Black-vented Shearwaters
We also saw a lot of Phalarapoops. Mostly Red-necked, but a Red here and there, but the latter was not so easy to pick out. I suppose they are not as small as the smaller pelagic birds, but it still gets me that these small ‘shorebirds’ hang out so far from the shore and in such deep waters.

Red-necked Phalarope
Other shearwaters we were looking for were further off shore and soon we were joined by Pink-footed Shearwaters. Some shearwaters were cavorting with the dolphins.

Pacific White-sided Dolphins
This is what the shearwaters probably thought of us

Take that!
Of course it was the storm petrels I was after, as they had just been split. But the Leach’s were very wary and stayed way out and ahead of the boat. Not the type of views I wanted, but I did get a glimpse at what the experts aboard called a “Chapman’s” race of Leach’s Storm-Petrel. At a later time someone called out that they had a Townsend’s, but I could not get on that distant bird, and even if I could it would not be identifiable in a life bird sort of way.

A difference from previous west coast pelagic experience was almost missing small storm petrels. We did have a few Black Storm-Petrels, but not the numbers I had in the past, and a few very distant Ashys that I never saw, nor heard about at the time.

Black Storm-Petrel

There were some ‘barren’ patches where we were cruising for quite some time without seeing anything, but then we came upon some feeding activity and the Black-vented Shearwaters posed for us on the surface, and then we were joined by Sooty Shearwaters tussling with the Western Gulls. 

Sooty Shearwater (L)     Western Gull (R)
By far the best bird of the day for me was Craveri’s Murelettes. They are small black and white birds that you see in the distance as they take off from the water and fade to an imperceptible speck before you loose them in the wave crests.

The first Craveri’s were found by the Brit, and I got a glimpse before they disappeared. But in the same region we located others and I actually got a good look. They were not so accommodating that I was able to risk taking my eyes off of them to try getting a shot, but I opted for a good look and cannot complain. It was an actual factual full fledged honest to goodness all American {complete with apple pie consumption and pick-up truck driving } lifer! YAY! {notice all caps}

So I am now up to 3 life birds. Can I keep up the pace? The next day calls for an all out assault on a long time nemesis bird, the Le Conte’s Thrasher. Once we got back to shore we had dinner and headed out to the desert for much needed rest and preparation for an early start.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain
La, la, well maybe Lisa...

We got up and out before dawn, and made it to the desired location as the sun was rising.

Sunrise in the Anza Borrego

This is a place of stark beauty. When you are accustomed to the density of vegetation here in the east, this place looks dead. It isn't; its just at a different pace out of necessity. Then again, if there was life here we sure couldn't find it. The best we could do was find tracks in the sand from assorted insects or reptiles. There was no sound. No sounds at all. 

Activity prohibited. ~That~ explains it...
 Well this was supposed to be one of the best places for Le Conte's Thrasher. We spent a good amount of time and found no signs of life. Lisa grew impatient, and Jeff reached for a shovel and a jar of honey. I decided that it was best we moved on. And the lyrics to the song by America are obviously incorrect...

We headed back to town where we had a very nice breakfast at Los Jilberto's Taco Shop and finally scored our first birds of the day. Americrow, Great-tailed Grackle, and a drive by Roadrunner. The Great Tailed Grackles did not have a great tail, here nor elsewhere on the trip. Must be the time of year.

Dejected, but my mood elevated by the tasty repast, I pressed on with my co-conspiritors. Our next location was the Salton Sea; near the middle of the day...

When I say (it) was cool (it) was red hot
I mean, (it) was steamin'

I believe this place is described as the tenth level in Dante's Inferno. Here birders are punished for lusting after rarities. They are punished by having to wait an eternity for their eburd sightings to be confirmed. 

We drove down the road to the Sony Bono Unit, and I spied a bird I was hoping to find for Arlene. I instructed her to prepare to say 'awe'; a long protracted awe.

Burrowing Owl
This bird never fails to deliver. How can you help but like this bird? 

We continued on to the observation tower. The first good birds were Sora and Virginia Rails. From here we spotted a lot of birds in the impoundments. There was a good representation of quackage, with Ruddy, way too many Mallards, Pintails, and Shovelers. There was both Americoot and Gallant Commonule, and the expected Egrets. But the heat shimmer and distance made some birds' ID difficult so we walked out to get close looks. We added Least and Spotted Sandpooper, Pied-billed Grebe, and Killdeer. Avocet and Black Necked Stilt were nice to see especially since they were in numbers we don't see around here.

The heat was oppressive though, so we moved on to a location that local expert Guy McCaskie had clued me into. He told me that he had seen a Reddish Egret and 3 Yellow Footed Gulls at the end of Young Road.

Traveling down past the farm fields we passed impressive numbers of Black Terns and another drive by Roadrunner was here as well. Then in some wetter fields we spotted a different assortment: Great Egret, White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlew, Marwit, Black Tern, California Gull.

Continuing on to the end of the road, we reached the "sea", or whats left of it. A modicum of scanning and the Yellow Footed Gull was found. One. But one is better than none, and it was a lifer for them all. For me it was a BVD (better view desired) satisfied.  The Reddish Egret was a no show.

With the gull were Willets, both Pelicans, Caspian Tern, Laughing Gull, and Neotropical Cormorants. A pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers watched us from the shade  of a tree mouths agape, wondering why we were so foolish to be standing out in the 112 degree heat. Yes, 112 degrees.

Getting back in the air conditioning did not come too soon. We drove north to Obsideon Butte, where we hoped for closer looks at the Gull if we could find some, but with the water further out and the soil less than friendly to non four wheel drive vehicles, we cut our losses and decided it was best to move on to our next destination without loosing too much light. We had after all, gotten our target species.

We hit the road for Big Morongo. Last time I visited it was springtime and there was much more water. The stream was dry. We did have some good birds anyway, starting with Western Bluebird, Warbling Vireo, Black Phoebe and Willow Flycatcher. Bells Sparrow were present, but the Black-throated Sparrows really put on a show. I was hoping for Vermillion Flycatcher, but it was not to be. A lovely place, but light faded before we could get many more birds.

Willow Flycatcher
The four of us drove on to Palmdale to turn in for the night. We arrived at the Motel 6 where Lisa had made reservations for us. The rooms did not have the requested beds, and the clerk said she only had smoking rooms even though we requested non smoking rooms! Needless to say we did not stay.

I found that the Ramada across the road was only $10 more per room, so I made reservations on my app and we drove there. The place was 10 times nicer, and it had a very extensive breakfast; all in all far exceeding the $10 additional cost. Sometimes not every bump in the road turns out for the worst!

The sun sets on another great day of birding
We turned in for the night. The plan for the next day was to begin early at Piute Ponds. This was reputed to be an excellent place to bird, and also supposed to be a good place for my continuing Nemesis bird, the Le Conte's Thrasher. I would have another chance!

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