Category: Trip Reports (Page 1 of 18)

Another Arctic vagrant in California

Yellow-billed Loon: The Canyonero of divers

Yellow-billed Loon in San Diego

It’s not rare for birds that breed in the high Arctic to show up in Southern California. It happens by the thousands every year. Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers, Red-throated Loons and Peregrine Falcons and many more species are all Arctic breeders that are common in Los Angeles in the winter. That said, it has been a notable winter in Southern California for Arctic vagrants. The most famous has been the Snowy Owl, which is still roosting on residential rooftops in Orange County. But there has also been a Snow Bunting in Oceanside, and a pair of King Eiders at the Ventura County pier. I didn’t see either of those two, but I did take a trip to San Diego to catch an additional Arctic rarity.

A couple of days before Christmas, a Yellow-billed Loon showed up in Mission Bay in San Diego. I didn’t learn about it until we were away in New Mexico. For whatever reason, I’m still reluctant to drive more than an hour, especially if it requires leaving L.A. County, just to see a bird. But there are only scattered reports of this species south of Monterey. eBird shows 3 different sightings in L.A. (1977, 2010, 2013), one in Orange County, and this first-ever San Diego bird. The Audubon Field Guide says that “its great size, remote range, and general rarity give the Yellow-billed Loon an aura of mystery for many birders.” Since it appeared that this bird had settled in to a spot, I decided to make the drive down.

The size difference compared to Common Loon was apparent

I pulled up to the parking lot at Quivira Basin at 8:25am, and had the giant loon in my binoculars within 5 minutes. The bird was farther away than I’d wish, and never came close. Another birder graciously let me peer through his scope at it. It’s bigger size was apparent with the naked eye, especially when it was near a Common Loon.  I came back early in the afternoon to see if it was swimming closer to shore, and it wasn’t. 

After the loon, I toured a couple of spots to see what other good birds I could see. My first stop was a residential neighborhood where a population of Burrowing Parakeets has taken up residence sometime during the pandemic. They are large parakeets that are native to Argentina, with some spillover in Chile and Uruguay. As the name suggests, they nest in burrows in cliffs. The highest count I noticed in eBird was 50 birds. There’s been talk that some birds seem to be trying to make nesting cavities in palm trees. For now, this seems like a non-breeding population. They were easy to find. I drove up to a spot in eBird where they’re regularly reported, got out of my car, and there were 18 of them in the trees directly above me. A couple of them flew down to check me out. And then they moved across the street to a yard where someone has set up feeders. Fun sighting, even if they don’t “count.”

From there, I headed to the south end of San Diego bay. There’s been a Little Stint wintering there for a few years. I struck out. You really need a scope at this spot, and I don’t own one. The odd highlight here was a Golden-crowned Sparrow. That’s not because it’s rare. Instead, it’s because it turned into a lifer for someone else. The dude with the scope at the loon spot at the beginning of the day mentioned he needed Golden-crowned for his already-substantial life list. As I was entering a note in my eBird checklist, on the hopes he might get an alert, he walked up. We promptly re-found it.

That basically did it for my quick day-trip. There weren’t any other potential lifers or California lifers in town. There was the possibility of bumbling into a pair of escapee American Flamingos that are seen around the bay occasionally. I checked a couple of spots, but didn’t see them. The rain was coming, so I headed back to Quivira Basin to check on the loon. From there, I drove back to Los Angeles.  





Road trip rosy-finches in New Mexico

A frantic flock of rosy-finches appears out of dense cloud cover

Rosy-finches and more in New Mexico

Travel in all its forms delights me. To my great fortune, I get to visit all sorts of wonderful places. At Christmas, while much of America was dealing with bomb cyclones and flight delays, we headed out for an end-of-year road trip. Our destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I’d never been. For the first time on an extended trip, we were bringing our pandemic puppy with us. I was especially excited about this trip because my parents were meeting us in Santa Fe. I don’t get to see them as much as I wish. The chance to explore a new place with my wife, my boys, and my parents around was invigorating.

On the way to Santa Fe, we stopped first at the Grand Canyon. Our boys had never been there. They were underwhelmed. Our youngest said “it’s just a canyon, but bigger.” Regular trips to southern Utah, spiced with adolescence, can diminish the grandeur of nature’s amazing wonders. I enjoyed the relatively uncrowded scene. We stayed right at the southern rim in the Yavapai Lodge. We arrived at night. Noticing a clear sky, I headed out into the darkness to see the Milky Way. As usual, it was humbling. It was a new moon, so I couldn’t see anything else – just a black void over the rim. We all arose early the next morning to catch sunrise at snow-sprinkled Mather Point. After breakfast, we walked out to the Yavapai Geology Museum, which is super cool. As a bonus, a Juniper Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, and Hairy Woodpecker all made an appearance while I tended the dog. I think she appreciated the view as much as anyone else.

Having pondered the impossibility of that colossal canyon, we loaded up for the ride to Santa Fe. Along the way, we stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (get a delicious hot dog and crepe at Sipp Shoppe if you stop). We stretched our legs at the Painted Desert rim of Petrified Forest National Park. And we debated provenance and counted the fingers at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.

Our home base in Santa Fe was a 2-bedroom casita at the Pecos Trail Inn. Not fancy, but just what we needed. This wasn’t a birding-focused trip. Rather, we were checking out the sights in and around Santa Fe. We took a historical architectural walking tour of downtown, we drove up to Los Alamos for nuclear bomb history and a science museum, spent an afternoon amongst the cliff dwelling ruins of Bandelier National Monument, had our minds blown at an art installation called Meow Wolf, ate some enchiladas, and enjoyed a good snowfall.

Of course, there was birding. While there wasn’t a ton of bird diversity in Santa Fe, my Dad and I managed some nice sightings as we wandered the neighborhood around the Pecos Trail Inn. We also visited the Randall Davey Audubon Center just outside town, which (if it weren’t for the falling snow and wind) seems like a great place to see birds.

While birding wasn’t the focus of this trip, I wasn’t going to visit northern New Mexico without making the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest. It’s a stunning mountain ridge a mile above above the already mile-high city of Albuquerque. The reason to go is the Rosy-finches. These are high elevation birds – they breed above the treeline in the mountains of the American West and Canada and Alaska. In the winter, they descend to lower elevations, giving us a chance to see them. Sandia Crest is (I believe) the single best spot in the world to see all three species of rosy-finches in one visit. That it’s easy to access via a paved road makes it all the better.  Good thing on the maintenance, because a snow storm a couple days before we arrived and dense cloud cover which reduced visibility at times to 20-30 feet on the drive up made the drive up a little more adventurous. As we neared the top, every branch of every tree and bush was covered in snow and ice. When we finally made it to the top, there were high winds and snow, and not much else going on. It took my son and I a few minutes of wandering before we found the all-important feeder that brought in the rosy-finches.

The Rosy-finch feeder at Sandia Crest

While the others wandered the crest, I stood and watched. An Abert’s Squirrel with its tufted ears was sitting on the feeder when I found it, which didn’t bode well for the rosy-finches to come visit. A few ladies with binoculars got excited about some birds perched near the feeder, but they turned out to be Cassin’s Finches. After about 30 minutes of waiting, a flock of birds appeared out of the mist. One second the feeder was empty, the next there were 30 rosy-finches taking their turns at the feeder or working the ground for seed. I spent a minute or two scanning through my binoculars. Most were Black Rosy-finches, but at least two birds were something else. They weren’t chestnut brown, but they were a faded shade of brown. While there was a hint of gray at the back of their head, they lacked a clear gray-crown.

The dense clouds softened my views, and I decided I wasn’t going to be able to confidently separate Brown-capped from Gray-crowned Rosy-finch with these views. Worried the flock would flush at any moment, I decided it was best to just snap a bunch of photos and see what I could pick out later (triggering the Manx Shearwater Conundrum). A report the day before of an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the trees along the nearby trail had me thinking about walking around to see if I could stumble into it. But I stayed near the feeder, hoping for a return of the Rosy-finches. A group of 5 Black Rosy-finches flew in 15 minutes later, and left just as quickly. Better weather would have allowed us to stay longer. All were cold, though, so we packed it in and headed back down the mountain.

The most range-limited Rosy-finch, the Brown-capped (banded)

I wasn’t able to pick out a Gray-crowned (the most widespread of the rosy-finches) in any of my pictures, which meant I only added 2 lifers to my list instead of getting the trifecta. But that’s no lament. The whole thing was a great, memorable experience. I’d go back to New Mexico in a hot minute, especially for some spring or fall adventures. There looked to be a ton of good hiking around, and much more to explore.



Along the road to Sandia Crest

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