Bird #472 — California Gnatcatcher

polioptila californica

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Crystal Cove State Park — Orange County, California

This was one of my target birds for the trip. It’s an endangered species and can only be found in certain types of scrubby, dry, coastal habitats in Southern California — right where the ridiculous sprawl of Los Angeles consumes the landscape. It was my primary reason for going to the North Etiwanda Preserve on Wednesday morning, and when I struck out there, I figured I’d missed it.

It was approaching eleven o’clock. The beach down below was getting crowded with people. I had a long drive back to Ontario and a plane to catch. The path I was on paralleled the highway and curved downhill toward the parking lot. My birding adventure was almost over.


Then I spotted a couple sparrows in a bush on the edge of the bluff. I identified them as White-crowned Sparrows, but as I was looking at them through my binoculars, I saw a smaller bird fly into the bush. It was a gnatcatcher, and it had a definite black crown. It could only be a California Gnatcatcher, but it wasn’t acting at all like a rare, endangered species.


It’s the only black-capped gnatcatcher found along the coast, but the defining characteristic is the underside of the tail — black with white tips to the feathers. I saw this clearly without question through my binoculars, but never got a better photo of it than what can be seen in this next shot. You can get a hint of the pattern if you enlarge it.


It flew off into the brush out of sight, but I could hear its cat-like calls from time to time. I continued down the path. About three minutes later, I spotted it and a female chasing each other through the bushes. They flew across the path into the narrow strip between the path and the road. For a minute, I thought they were building a nest there, but I think they were just collecting stuff for a nest elsewhere. The male popped up on a branch just a few feet away and stayed just long enough for me to get one photo.


They were off again, chasing through the bushes on the ocean side, and I soon lost sight of them, although I heard the call a couple more times.

Kinda funny how birding works sometimes. Spend a morning out in the wild looking for a bird where it is supposed to be, only to find it the next morning along a busy highway where it isn’t expected.

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Bird #471 — Allen’s Hummingbird

selasphorus sasin

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Crystal Cove State Park — Orange County, California

I had a mid-afternoon flight home. I wasn’t about to sit around my hotel for eight hours, so I decided to head for the coast to get in a few more hours of birding. Crystal Cove State Park, in Orange County, seemed like the best bet. I could avoid going through the worst of the congestion and, while it would take me two hours to get there in morning traffic, it would only take an hour to get back at midday. And there were two lifers that were listed as common on the park bird list — California Quail and Wandering Tattler.

I parked near the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages and walked south along the beach for about a mile. It was high tide, and in a few places there was very little room between the surf and the bluff. I was able to walk right up to several species of shorebirds, but saw no Tattlers. When I got to the end of the park, I could walk back the way I’d just come and, probably, see all the same birds, or I could climb the trail to the top of the bluff and walk back along the edge. I opted for the latter.

The morning had been foggy and gray, but by this time the sun was out and the view was spectacular.


I’d been seeing Anna’s Hummingbirds everywhere I’d been birding, and I was seeing a lot of them here too. When I spotted a tiny bird in a bush right at the edge of the bluff, I assumed it was another one. It wasn’t. It was a male Allen’s Hummingbird. It perched cooperatively facing away from me while I got a good look, then turned around and gave me a good view from the front. It was about 20 yards away from the path and my camera kept focusing on the bush in front of it, so my photos aren’t very sharp.



It sat there for about five minutes. You can see it in the lower left corner of this photo I took of Brown Pelicans flying by.


It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, after I identified it, I wasn’t sure if I’d seen one before. But a check of my list convinced me I had another, unexpected, lifer.

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Crystal Cove State Park

I had a late afternoon flight home on Thursday. (It turned out to be much later than I’d expected — I arrived home at 6:00 a.m. on Friday.) I had to find something to do in the morning, and I was pretty excited about my five lifers so far. I decided to do more birding. I contemplated driving back down to Santa Rosa Plateau, but that didn’t seem very exciting. I even considered driving two hours up into the mountains for a shot at a White-headed Woodpecker, but that seemed extreme. I decided on the coast, an hour and a half away (thanks to morning traffic) but only an hour back. I picked Crystal Cove State Park for two reasons — Wandering Tattler and California Quail. I didn’t see the first (it was peak high tide) and never even got to a part of the park where I could expect to see the second.

I parked across the highway from Crystal Cove and walked through the small community of seaside cabins.



I wandered south along the beach for about a mile. In places, there was barely room to walk between the surf and the bluff.





There were birds about, and some good ones too. Here’s a Black Phoebe that was hawking insects on the side of the bluff.


A Western Gull. It’s hard to find a place on the coast where you can’t see these.


Heermann’s Gull, a Southern California specialty.


Left to right: Black Turnstone, Sanderling, Willet and Black-bellied Plover


A closer look at the Sanderling and Black Turnstone.


Black-bellied Plover in winter plumage.


A Whimbrel.


And a Willet. I’m always amazed at how much tamer birds are on the coast than inland.


Royal Terns.




I walked a trail to the top of the bluff and briefly considered heading off to the inland part of the park. But distance and time convinced me that the wise course would be to head back. I saw there was a trail above the beach and, luckily as it turned out, decided not to go back along the beach. The tide had gone out some, but not enough to expose the tide pools.



Anna’s Hummingbird. Sometimes you just get lucky and click the shutter at the right moment.


A mile and two unexpected lifers later, I was back at Crystal Cove.


There’s a diner there called Rudy’s Shake Shack. It has an outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. I got a cheeseburger and a dark chocolate shake which were awesome. But I probably wouldn’t have noticed even if they were awful. This was my view.




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Bird #470 — Bell’s Sparrow

artemisiospiza belli

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

North Etiwanda Preserve in Rancho Cucamonga, California

When I decided to spend my free time on this trip birding, I looked for places close enough to Ontario to get there and back in the morning before I had to be at the conference. I found out about this place on the Internet and saw that two would-be lifers are regularly seen there. That settled it.

The Preserve consists of a large, rocky sage and brush-covered area at the base of the mountains north of Rancho Cucamonga.


I was the first one there and had the place to myself for the first twenty minutes. Other people, all hiking and not birding, began showing up soon afterwards, but it never got crowded except on the side hike to a small waterfalls.

I wasn’t there long before I spotted a Bell’s Sparrow singing in a small bush off the trail. I soon saw others, probably about 10 in total, some of which were very close and many of which were singing.



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North Etiwanda Preserve

Like Santa Rosa Plateau, North Etiwanda Preserve had the advantage of being close enough to get to easily while offering the possibility of lifers. I saw one, and for much of the time I was there, had a good time. The last mile or so was a bit bleak and hot.


I was the first visitor of the morning and had the place to myself for a while. The preserve is a wedge of rising field sandwiched between the city of Rancho Cucamonga and the mountains.


The trail was rocky and shade was non-existent, but it was only about 60 when I arrived. Looking west across the sprawl of Los Angeles suburbs.



In attempt to make items of historical interest out of junk, there were several signboards about past efforts to get water from the mountains. Remains of pipes and pumps and whatnot were scattered about here and there.



This chimney is all that remains from a house that was here at some point.


Another view of the house from a point further up the slope, with Rancho Cucamonga peaking through the smog.


A side trail that turned out to be quite a bit longer than I’d expected promised a view of a waterfall.



And indeed, there was a waterfall, which I expect is quite nice by California desert standards. Ninety percent of the people I saw on the preserve were on the trail to the falls. I only stayed long enough to take this photo because I was still hoping to see another lifer.


When I got back to the main trail, it was warming up. I soon entered and area where a fire had consumed all the sage and other scrub not long before and the landscape was unattractive and the birds scarce.



On a knoll, there were signboards labeling the various geographical features that would be visible if not for the ever-present smog. When it was clear enough to take the photos on the sign, I have no idea.


The white ridge of rocks cutting across the center of this photo marks an earthquake fault.


One thing I took away from here — I would not want to be out on those shadeless flats when it was any hotter than it was on this day.

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The Oldest McDonald’s

Once I’d made the decision to drive to Randy’s Donuts, stopping at the McDonald’s in Downey was easy — it was pretty much right on the way from Ingleside to Ontario.

This was the third McDonald’s restaurant, opening August 18, 1953. It was franchised by the McDonald brothers before Ray Kroc got involved. It still has its original arches on the side of the building and a Speedee sign from 1959.




There’s a small museum on site in a separate dining area. I was wandering about looking at the displays when a young Hispanic woman came out of the restaurant. She said “Are you totally being a tourist?” I replied that I totally was. She said, “I’ll use their bathrooms, but I won’t eat here. This place is the evil empire.” (She didn’t say it quite that nicely.)


I ordered a quarter pounder with cheese, fries and a drink and put them in the car. I then grabbed the red chair and took a couple pictures. It must have been 10 minutes after our first encounter when the same young lady pulled up next to me in her car and said, “Seriously, you need to do some research and see how bad this food is for you. You’re wasting your life, man.”


She could have made a pretty good case about my wasting that evening, but my entire life? I thought that was a bit harsh. But perhaps she knew of what she spoke. The food was awful, even by McDonald’s standards.


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Randy’s Donuts

I left Santa Rosa Plateau around 5:00. My hotel was just under an hour away, but I didn’t care to spend the evening sitting in my room. I decided to do something silly. I battled the traffic — and yes, there is traffic on L.A. freeways even on Sunday night — to Ingleside, near LAX, to see the famous Randy’s Donuts.

I soon discovered two things about driving in Southern California. First, everybody tailgates and rides their brakes, and, two, motorcycles are allowed to ride between lanes and cut between cars. This seems ridiculous and dangerous and I’m not sure I understand the logic. Apart from the fact that they squeeze through some narrow spaces, they also are traveling at 60 mph when everyone else is doing 20 mph, so they’re flying past you before you even know they’re there.

Anyway, Randy’s Donuts was fine, probably not worth the drive. I forget what kinds of donuts I bought, but they were good, as most donuts in Southern California are. I parked and walked about and took some photos before making my purchase.



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Bird #469 — Nuttall’s Woodpecker

picoides nuttallii

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Murrieta, California

This one was supposed to be easy. Nuttall’s Woodpeckers are common on the Reserve and they’re only going to be found where there are trees. So I went where there were trees and looked and listened. I saw dozens of Acorn Woodpeckers, and heard a Flicker, but that was it.

The sun was setting and my time to look was disappearing. I walked back and forth through the strip of trees along the Vista Grande Trail. If there was a Nuttall’s Woodpecker there, I would have seen it.

I finally gave up on the trail and walked to the picnic grove near the visitor center. I’d been there early and noticed a lot of large trees. It was my last shot. I wandered about a bit and then decided to cheat. I pulled up the birding app on my cell phone and played the calls of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  Immediately, I heard a return call and saw a male fly to the top of a nearby tree. It had a black and white striped back with no white patch down the center. The top bar, on the nape of the neck, was thicker. The black markings on the face were thicker than the white markings. And it had a bright red patch on the back of the head.

I got a brief, but good look, then had to look away and step off the trail to let a father and his young daughter pass by. He was teaching her the words to the “Hokey Pokey” (really!), and when I looked back, the woodpecker had disappeared. I couldn’t find it again.


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Bird #468 — Lawrence’s Goldfinch

carduelis lawrencei

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Murrieta, California

Lawrence’s Goldfinch is listed as rare on the Reserve bird checklist, so it wasn’t on my radar, but Charity, the resident naturalist, told me that she was seeing them regularly this winter. This was good news, because this bird can only be seen in California.

On my first pass by the spring on the the Vista Grande Trail, where I had seen the Oak Titmouse, I’d heard and gotten brief glimpses of several small birds that sounded and acted like goldfinches. I made my way back to the area as the sun was going down and waited. After ten minutes or so, I saw two small birds land in the top of a leafless tree about forty yards away. One of them was clearly a male Lawrence’s Goldfinch, with a bright yellow breast and black face and cap. The other, which landed further down in the tree, was more drab, with a gray head, but with distinct black, white and yellow wing bars.



As I stood there watching and taking photos, a very loud, very rude family of parents and three boys, came barging down the path making as much noise as they could, even after they saw me standing there. They stopped right behind me and watched as one of the boys casually knocked over a portion of a post and rail fence, then clomped away down the trail. The birds left about the same time as the jerks.

Here’s a shot of the trees from where I stood. The birds were in the bare branches in the center of the photo. You can see I didn’t have a close-up view.


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Reptile-Amphibian #25 — Western Fence Lizard

sceloporus occidentalis

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in Murrieta, California

I spotted the first Western Fence Lizard sunning on a large rock in a field.


A while later, I saw another one on a log in the trees along the dry creek bed. It made no attempt to get away — perhaps it knew it was surrounded by poison oak. I only found out when a couple walked by and paused to see what I was looking at. I’m not sure they saw the lizard, or at least they didn’t think it worth mentioning, but they did mention the poison oak.


After they walked on, the lizard strolled confidently to the end of the log, within a foot of where I was standing and didn’t move even when I bent over and took a close-up. It was about seven-inches long, with scales all over its body.


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