Update from California

Wow, talk about a continuing wild ride of sensational birding, now that there’s been a window in the ‘mega’ action.

Well, I’m writing this from Arizona, so… more about that shortly. Well, actually, I’ve just resumed from that false start sentence above. I’m now on a flight out of Tucson, heading towards Houston to meet up with Murray and do some early migration birding on the coast.

So California! Seems like weeks ago now. Hence I’ll keep it brief and let some pretty pictures hopefully make an impression of what it was like.  In one sense I can summarise the birding with two words: Michael and Johnny! I met Michael Woodruff and Johnny Bovee (rhymes with bull-fighting cheer “Olay!”in Texas a month or two ago on the stakeout for Hook-billed Kite. Michael’s dad Roger, and Matt Grube. Those four Southern California birders were all super-friendly, and obviously very sharp birders. We spent a bit of time gabbing atop the Bentsen State Park hawk-watch tower while the guys ensured we saw nine species of raptors (but not the targeted Hook-bill – the name reflecting specialised bill-shape that allows extraction of equally specialised principal food source– tree snails from their shells, and all four made generous offers of help, should the situation arise. Well arise it did, and sooner than later. Michael, well into his medical school program took a full day from studies to race me through a whole bunch of sites in San Diego area – some just over the Mexican border, to score a ridiculous number (35) of birds new to my year-list, including a large portion of the local specialty birds that can be very tough to find (like California Gnat-catcher). Also a couple of known rarities for the region such as Thick-billed Kingbird and Pacific Golden Plover. We had a hoot of a time, and I must say, Michael is one of the most talented birders I’ve seen in action. Like some of these guys (yeah, you know who I’m talking about in Australia) he’s also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, capable of skating effortlessly and buoyantly through life’s adventures. I hate those guys!

Michael and I had such a huge day, full of encounters with targeted birds. Highlights included lots of needed Red-crowned Parrots – and equal number of equally established Lilac-crowned Parrots, which for some reason are not on the ABA list of countable bird species. We went to a nearby coastal habitat in a scenic holiday setting to pick up a Wandering Tattler, several seabirds and beautiful Heerman’s Gulls. Nearby at rare undeveloped swathe of native vegetation (chaparral?) above a Pacific Ocean cliff-top overlook, a triad of namesake birds were found: California Thrasher, California Towhee, California Gnat-catcher. The other golden state birds - California Quail, California Gull, and California Condor would come later in my brief but intense trip. BTW ever wonder why don’t we have any New South Wales species? At the least our one endemic: New South Wales Rockwarbler? Never mind.

After a good night’s sleep, Johnny, another corner of the super-talented Southern California birding quartet, took the baton from Michael, and ran equally hard and effectively, generously giving me three long and intensive days of help. We covered an enormous geographic area in the vicinity of Los Angeles. Johnny took dedication to the extreme when he copped a bite on the boot from a Red Diamondback Rattlesnake. True story! We were excited about a bunch of birds along the slopes just downhill of dramatic rocky hillside – including a half dozen or more straggling Sage Thrashers. I was walking next to Johnny when I saw movement at his feet from the corner of my eye. The snake rattled only briefly, immediately after Johnny sensed that he’d kicked something strange. Within a few seconds I shot a few frames of the snake. But in true ‘ruber’ fashion, it soon became placid and relaxed, with no inclination for threat pose or rattling. This was always one of my favourite rattlesnake species.  Johnny overcame his nerves to lead me onto the scent of important California specialty: Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Power-tick! We’d hoped to find a known roosting Long-eared Owl in a thicket of olive trees, but all we found from the ideal cover was a Barn Owl. So on to a remote township in the desert that surprisingly has a modern small college, and a nice dense planting of mature pines where at least one Long-eared Owl had been seen regularly – at least up until a month or so ago. Johnny spotted an owl atop a stick-nest, something I’d not even realised owls could build. Whoo-whoo indeed.

We explored many incredibly scenic mountain habitats over the three days, with spectacular gorges from which we heard Mountain Quail and Chukars, and saw a huge number of rocky slope and montane specialties. We finished our travels up in the conifer forests (the last thing I thought about re Southern California) birding in the afternoon until too-dark with respected ‘king of the mountain’ birder Brad, who was another super-nice and generous birder. The continent seems to be full of them. We didn’t find any Cassin’s Finches or Williamson’s Sapsucker, but we did see a motley gang of 70+ Juniper Jays, a species that can be very tricky to find when you need them.

Oh, I meant to recount a side trip we made to Compton in Los Angeles. “Shtraight outta Compton…”. Not as rough and tough as the rap music paints, but we kept our time searching a small park for feral Spotted Dove – same species we have in Australia, to a minimum. This species used to be abundant throughout the LA area, but is rapidly fading away, maybe due to corresponding incurrence of equally feral Eurasian Collared Dove (looks like our African Collared Doves in Adelaide, but hugely successful over most human-stressed habitats in North America). It was a fun chase, and from there we hit the coast to find a range of shorebirds, grebes and loons.

After saying goodbye to Johnny, I did the long drive northwards to try for a Sooty Grouse, a really problem bird, that was reported on the previous day calling from deep in the northern California alpine forests above Ukiah. On Johnny’s advice, I made a late night traverse of the western Los Angeles fringes to get past the insane traffic regions to Bakersfield, which put me in good position to get onto ‘the’ place for re-introduced California Condors (hey, they’re ‘tickable’ and spectacular).

Guys, there are a whole bunch of things I could write about, from incredible encounters with Condors to a flat tyre way up in the boonies after finding the Sooty Grouse, but now that I’ve resumed the telling of the tale, I’m four or so days into my Texas coastal trip, which followed my Arizona trip – neither of which I’ve written up. So gonna cut it short there, finishing with my Bakersfield story, and hit the hay, with hopes of getting ‘round to the more recent trip reports in the next few days. I’ll attach some relevant California pix below. Sorry about the brevity.

What’s my Bakersfield story? Well, I can’t help but think of Buck Owen and Dwight Yoakum every time I hear the name of the town. Particularly Dwight’s lyrics:

Well you don’t know me, but you don’t like me…
You say you care less where I’ve been.

But I wonder how many of you who sit and judge me,
Have walked the streets of Bakersfield.

So I get to Bakersfield to a treat at a good hotel (Entertainment Centre Marriott) after my northern California adventures that I’ve run out of time to tell you about, pre my flight from LA to Tucscon to see about a Rose-throated Becard, Tufted Flycatcher, and most importantly, a little wren out of Sonora. I see upon approaching the hotel carpark that there are tonnes of young guys – a few girls as well, with black Slayer T-shirts milling around. The Hotel lobby is full of similarly garbed people. I do the usual sign in with the concierge (but in the fanciest hotel I’ve stayed in this year – by a long shot). I asked the concierge, a young fellow in a nice suit, what the go is. He say’s there’s a Slayer concert next door. I said – wow! I’m good friends with Kerry King (the lead guitarist/soloist of the group). I know Kerry through his passion for snakes – he and his wife have visited my house twice while Slayer toured Australia. The look from the concierge was obvious disbelief and apparent disrespect. That really burned for some reason.

I later considered my appearance: deshoveled hair, dirty face and clothes (relating to tyre story I didn’t tell you about). Feeling embarrassed and small – and had the Dwight ‘Streets of Bakersfield’ through my head staring at the ceiling from my wasted expensive bed.

Quick set of images, from top: Pelagic Cormorant with Brown Pelican, California Gnatcatcher, Super-birder super med-student Michael Woodruff sniffing out rarities, one of the many habitats Johnny Bovee took me - this was Big Bear, Spotted Dove ‘Straight outta Compton’, Surfbird, the Red Diamondback that Bit Johnny B’s boot, Johnny looking at the snake that nearly spoiled his day, California Condor, where I saw the Condor, iconic Golden Gate Bridge at rush hour