Tag: Cactus Wren (Page 1 of 2)

Birding Baja California: Todos Santos

Gilded Flicker on ground

Gilded Flicker at La Poza de Todos Santos

Birding Baja California: Todos Santos

My family just spent a week near the southern tip of Baja California for a winter vacation. Instead of the resort hotels and drunken crowds in Cabo San Lucas, we headed over an hour away to a village called Todos Santos. It is (for now) free of any big resorts, and notable for its ex-pat community and art galleries. But an increasing number of references to “the next Tulum” suggest it’ll be quite different if we ever go back. We stayed on a mango and lychee farm called Rancho Danza del Sol. There was surfing, fishing, breaching Humpback Whales, beautiful (and beautifully empty) beaches, palm oases, and delicious fish tacos (eat at Pacifica Fish Market). And, of course, there was birding. In fact, the birding was surprisingly good. While I didn’t rack up that many lifers (just 4), there were a lot more birds around than I expected.

After staying in the middle of notably un-birdy vineyards in Italy, I was wary of staying amongst more agriculture. But the farm wasn’t all that big. And the birding around our home base was wonderful. During my first walk around the property and neighborhood, I saw two of Baja’s endemic bird species: Xantus’s Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. The Xantus’s Hummingbird is restricted to the southern half of Baja California. (It’s famous in the U.S. for one bird that showed up in Ventura, California, built a nest, and laid eggs. Another flew to British Columbia, and made an appearance in the movie The Big Year.) It wasn’t common, but I saw several of these pink-beaked, electric-green-throated, cinnamon-tailed, and white-eye-striped birds. Gray Thrasher’s are found throughout the length of Baja California. Despite their general skulkiness and preference for the ground, more than one popped on top of a cactus or bush to provide good views. 

In neighborhood walks throughout the week, I also saw lots of desert specialties. Gilded Flickers and Gila Woodpeckers were noisy residents on the little farm. White-winged Doves and Cactus Wren moved around all day long. A Scott’s Oriole sang every morning, and a Zone-tailed Hawk circled above every afternoon. Verdin and California Quail made noises from inside bushes. At one productive stretch of brush, I had point-blank views of Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Pyrrholuxia. The Pyrrholuxia, aka the Desert Cardinal, is a birder’s bird. It’s got a crazy name, a restricted habitat, and subtly striking plumage. It’s like an artist took an all-gray bird and delicately added some red highlights with a few elegant brush strokes. 

Lark and Brewer’s Sparrows were more frequent than White-crowned Sparrows. Costa’sHummingbirds outnumbered the Xantus’s. Hooded Orioles were more plentiful than Scott’s Orioles. And the House Finches here are the reddest House Finches I’ve seen in my life. 

Besides the Rancho itself, the two most productive neighborhood spots were vacant lots with a variety of desert scrub and cacti. The first one was located at the following GPS coordinates: 23.456776, -110.243445. The other was here: 23.451673, -110.242957. As with most desert birding, it’s much better in the morning.

The eBird hotspot near Todos Santos with the highest species list is that for La Poza de Todos Santos. It’s a marshy area around a pool of fresh water separated from the ocean by a strip of beach. The primary attraction here is another Baja endemic, the Belding’s Yellowthroat. It looks much like a Common Yellowthroat, who are present in the same habitat and more numerous. The key difference: the Belding’s black mask is surrounded by yellow, unlike the white above the mask in Common. The Belding’s Yellowthroat is listed as vulnerable, with a global population somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 individuals. They’re permanent residents in reeds around freshwater, which is decidedly rare habitat in Baja. It’s skulky and hard to see. I can confirm that. It took me 3 visits to finally get eyes on one to be certain I wasn’t hearing and seeing a Common Yellowthroat. I don’t think I ever got a picture of one, though.

I haven’t told the best birding story of the trip yet. That involved a close encounter with an Elf Owl, the world’s smallest raptor. Even without that, Todos Santos was a pleasant surprise and wonderful destination.



Joshua Tree in November

Greater Roadrunner Joshua Tree National Park

This desert icon at the Joshua Tree visitor’s center delighted the family

Beauty, peacefulness, and a few birds

Over the Thanksgiving break, we took a weekend trip to Yucca Valley, near Joshua Tree National Park. My parents were in town, and they hadn’t been to Joshua Tree in 50 years. November is a great time to enjoy the desert, and the boys love to scramble on the granite rock formations, so we snagged an airbnb and took the drive. We stopped at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which was shockingly disappointing on the birding front. With all its trees and bushes, it’s usually a pretty productive place. But we struggled to stir up much of anything. Dad got an Oak Titmouse lifer, but there was little else moving around. Maybe the recently spotted bear in the area had the birds in hiding (no kidding).

Cactus Wren Joshua Tree National Park

Campground Cactus Wrens are not shy

Joshua Tree National Park proved better, bird-wise, which is an unusual thing to say. The desert is beautiful and peaceful and wonderful in 70 degree weather, but it’s never hopping with bird activity. A visit to Black Rock campground produced a couple dozen scrub jays, some Black-throated Sparrow, a couple Bell’s Sparrows, and some sharp Cactus Wrens around a water-drip. Inside the park proper, we had a nice encounter with a male Phainopepla (another lifer for Dad). It was calling, and moving about, while we sat on the rocks and ate snacks. The visitor center provided a close-up view of a female Costa’s Hummingbird, and a fun encounter with a Greater Roadrunner in the parking lot. My mom, my wife, and my sons had never seen one before, and it posed for a minute or so, slowly bobbing its tail and occasionally raising its crest. Such cool birds. 

Our airbnb was just outside the park in Yucca Valley, a couple of miles from the highway. Cool, quiet evenings provided stunning sunsets and a star-filled sky. During a couple strolls around the neighborhood, I saw Gambel’s Quail, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the best bird of the trip: an out-of-season Scott’s Oriole.

Enjoying My Dad’s Enthusiasm

Of the many reasons I enjoy birding with my Dad, seeing his enthusiasm and optimism is near the top. He wants to see all the birds, and take photos of all the birds, and learn their names and something about their behaviors, and figure out how to identify them. Whereas I’ll stand in a spot and quickly get the sense that there’s nothing but White-crowned Sparrows and Scrub Jays around (and the odds say I’m right), he’ll eagerly pursue every flash of movement he sees, wondering what possible lifer just flashed into a bush in his peripheral vision. In the end, maybe he just finds another White-crowned Sparrow or Scrub Jay. But that approach–to bird every bird–is one that can be easy to leave behind the more time you get in the field. And that’s a shame when it happens. The wonder of birding we all felt early on, when every possible movement and sound was some field guide drawing come to life, is something we shouldn’t put behind us.


I reminded myself of the point of it all the other day, when my Dad and I were standing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh at dusk crossing our fingers that a Short-eared Owl that had been spotted the day before was still around. Another birder joined us, and lamented that his camera wasn’t good at low light pictures. “It’s not about the photo,” I said. “We’re here because we want to see an owl. ” As human nature and obsessive compulsiveness and eBird lure us into counting everything, documenting it with tack-sharp close-up photographs, and valuing a sighting most of all because it is a new one for our (fill-in-the-blank) list, it’s important to remember that we’re out in the field with our binoculars because, more than anything, we want to get eyes on that bird that just flew into the bush, and if we’re lucky, see an owl fly around.  

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