Saturday, 16 January 2016

CALIFORNIA 2016: coast and valleys (15-16 January)

Continuing Matt and my enjoyable California trip, we headed back down the coast then inland to the southern part of the Central Valley.

15 January.  We had reached the northern-most part of our trip and were heading back south.  Varied Thrush was one of my main target species, having only seen one before, a grey individual as long ago at 1982.  It ring on the front and back cover of my Sibley Western Field Guide only added to my desire.  It was species that was commoner further north and I felt today would offer our best change.  Checking ebird showed one had been heard recently at Carmel Mission Trails, worth a look as it wasn't far off route but more encouraging were two sightings (of one and two) in the past week at Cerro Alto camp site. It sounded familiar and on checking I realised it was where we had stopped two evenings before, we just had not walked far enough down the track.  We left the Inn in the Bay motel as it was getting light at 07:00 and drove the short distance to Point Pinos where we spent 45 minutes. There were lots of birds on the rocks and passing offshore, often disappearing behind big waves. We quickly found a hoped for Surfbird (but only one) along with Black Turnstone, Black Oystercatcher and Glaucous-winged and Heerman's Gulls.  Matt saw some Black-vented Shearwaters passing offshore and I put down my camera long enough to glimpse one.

Black Oystercatcher at Point Pinos, Monterey. Colour rings with no characters to read don't do a lot for me ... 
Black Turnstone
early morning light wasn't great
Surfbird, looking to have a duck's bill from this angle

Western, Glaucous-winged and Heerman's Gulls at Point Pinos

first-winter Glaucous-winged
Heerman's were just irresistible


along the coast from Point Pinos
We continued to Carmel, finding the Mission Trail Nature Preserve after a false start.  The habitat looked encouraging but the only thrushes we noted on our quick look around were American Robins. A feeder added Pygmy Nuthatch and we had nice views of Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Oak Titmouse with two Cedar Waxwings as we were leaving.  We headed down the coast to Big Sur.  The Pacific was calmer than yesterday, it looked great in the sun, but were concerned by the low cloud covering the mountains - it did not seem ideal condor weather.  Conditions briefly improved as we arrived at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with the sun trying to break through.  Nick Gardner had told me the flagpole by the entrance was a good view point and we stopped there and immediately saw at least nine California Condors circling up into the clouds.  The sun immediately went in and not finding this to their liking the condors soon came down and landed in tree tops on the ridge.  Encouragingly the condor reintroduction programme seems to be doing very well - I had seen similar numbers in Arizona the previous year, at Vermilion Cliffs and along the Grand Canyon's rim. A park warden had allowed us to park free of charge to look at the condors but we felt a longer look around the area might be pushing things so we continued south down the coast.
view from he flagpole at Julia Pfeiffer Burns state Park, the condors were in the right hand tree on the skyline
California Condors in low cloud.  The lower bird was number 17 and the second from the right 67, the other two's tags were not readable from where we were
Big Sur coast
The coast road was known to be one of the most scenic drives and it was very spectacular. We continued south to flatter country and an Elephant Seal colony right by the road at Piedras Blancas. This was a major attraction, and rightly so with several thousand packed onto the beaches providing endless entertainment with their squabbles or chill-out postures. A selection of gulls, Sanderling and a Black Turnstone shared the beach but ad to be alert to avoid being squashed.  We dragged ourselves away, continued driving south of highway 1 before cutting inland on the 41 to Cerro Alto. 

me at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal colony

I had been expecting an overwhelming smell so was pleasantly surprised 
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disagreements between neighbours seemed inevitable
strangely endearing
mother and baby
three in a bed
clearly too much effort to drag oneself further up the beach
another confusing gull
American Herring Gull and giant friend


first-winter Western Gull
adult Glaucous-winged Gull


first-winter Glaucous-winged Gull
this one looked rather faded

a darker individual
and another
Sanderling.  It looked very small amongst the Elephant Seals
first-winter Pacific White-crowned Sparrow
an adult, again with yellow rather than orange bill
It was where we had stopped previously.  this time we bought a day permit and parked at the camp-site in a forested valley.  The habitat looked good with short tracks leading off the entrance road to isolated pitches.  We soon saw Brown Creeper, Downy Woodpecker, Wrentit and overhead Golden and Bald Eagles. We followed the valley back down towards the entrance and disturbed a couple of thrushes flying up into trees. Matt saw where one went, it was Varied and it was ORANGE and BLACK. Almost automatically bird of the trip. Brilliant, thanks ebird (and Matt).  It was on view for ten minutes or so and shortly after we saw another and later as the light was beginning to go another two feeding on the ground around the edge of an isolated and unoccupied camp site.  Matt also found a Nuttall's Woodpecker which gave me the run around despite staying in one smallish tree, it was very unobtrusive. We had not booked a motel as we hadn't been sure how much progress we would make.  We had quickly found that with only 10 hours of daylight and lots of birds at most sites we were not covering as much round as we had originally thought would be possible, at least not without rushing which we did not want to do. Our next target was Yellow-billed Magpie in the Central Valley and Santa Margarita, at the start of suitable habitat and about half an hours drive away, seemed a good place to stay.  We left Cerro Alto at 16:30 and arrived in Santa Margarita as the light was starting to go.  It soon became apparent that Santa Margarita was rather small and had no motel so we returned to Atascadero. I got a slight reduction, given in somewhat bad grace, on a room in the not particularly appropriately named Best Value Motel as we wouldn't be having a complimentary breakfast (served to late). We booked a motel for the following night in Lebec. If things went well we would be going there after visiting Mount Pinos the following afternoon.  If we were longer than expected in the valley, most likely on current form, it would be a good starting point.


Cerro Alto notice board.  I'm not sure 'solicitors' has the same meaning as here, a good reason not to have taken Megan though
Wrentit, a blurry image was the best I could manage 
Brown Creeper
male Nuttall's Woodpecker
Varied Thrush at Cerro Alto, absolutely superb
I've wanted to see an orange and black one since 1982
I was not disappointed
it looked even better side on
probably bird of the trip
16 January.  We left Atascadero at dawn, took a wrong turning in Santa Margarita and before we knew it were back in Atascadero. I hadn't thought much of it the first time! Back to Santa Margarita we spotted the correct turning and set off down highway 33 in anticipation of seeing Yellow-billed Magpie but in hindsight the habitat at the start of the road was too forested.  A short detour to look for Bell's Sparrow added just Lesser Goldfinch.  After half an hour or so the country opened out and a random stop for some roadside sparrows, which turned out to be Oregon Juncos, produced White-breasted Nuthatch and Western Bluebird. Matt saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker disappear into a dense tree at the next stop. It was in a fenced off field and with trespassers discouraged a direct approach seemed unwise so I resorted to scoping the tree from different angles along the road.  I eventually had reasonable but somewhat obscured views.  We continued, regularly stopping and scanning. How hard could magpies be to see?  The Site guide described them as conspicuous along the road.  We were starting to become a little concerned when around a bend two flew across the road in front of us.  We eventually saw 12 and at least 25 Mountain Bluebirds.


Yellow-billed Magpie, worth the wait ...


nice blue gloss on the primaries

We continued to California Valley where we slowly drove down Soda Lake Road.  ebird had listed a small flock of Mountain Plovers seen from the road the previous day. A few miles short of the site we came across a car of birdwatchers.  They were watching a pair of Prairie Falcons and a Ferruginous Hawk, which were nice, but knew nothing about any Mountain Plovers.  Disappointed we continued, stopping and scanning regularly, seeing hundreds of Horned Larks and a distant Burrowing Owl but nothing we could turn into a plover.  While unsuccessfully scanning at the ebird site a couple of ex-pat birders stopped for a chat.  They had seen no Mountain Plovers but told us of another area nearby said by the wardens to be good for them.  They had also seen Bell's Sparrows by a boardwalk which we had driven past thinking it not worth stopping at! We drove back for the sparrows, successfully twitching them, and slowly made our way, stopping and scanning, to the warden's plover area.  No luck there either or in suitable looking habitat further down Soda Lake Road.  It was almost a relief when the habitat changed and we could make normal progress of the rest of the day. At least we would be in other areas for Mountain Plover later in the trip.  It was clear we were not going to have time to visit Mount Pinos before dark and we switched to plan B.

the start of Soda Lake Road - too much vegetation here
Prairie Falcon



Bell's Sparrow habitat off Soda Lake Road, we were too fixated on Mountain Plovers to consider stopping.
Bell's Sparrow, thanks to the ex-pat couple
rather nicer than I was expecting!


it was almost a relief to leave potential Mountain Plover habitat
We took a more northerly route to Lebec and stopped for the last hour of light at a site for Le Conte's Thrasher in small scattered scrubby bushes on the edge of an oilfield north of Maricopa.  They were notoriously difficult to see anywhere, particularly when not vocalising and our lack of success was no surprise, we had finally found an almost birdless place in California!  At dusk we drove on to Lebec where we checked into Motel 6 and ate at Jack's which was slightly better than its reviews.  Every trip has a 'low' day and despite seeing y long-wanted Yellow-billed Magpie we hoped this was ours.
Le Conte's Thrasher habitat
working oilfield

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