Fall '99 California/Nevada Birding/RV Trip

MAJOR OBJECTIVES:

Himalayan Snowcock (northeast Nevada's Ruby Mountains)
Great Gray Owl (Yosemite National Park)
Yellow-footed Gull (Salton Sea)
Island Scrub-Jay (Santa Cruz Island)
Shearwater Pelagic Trip (out of Monterey, California)

My wife Sharon had bought the new Stephen King book "Hearts in Atlantis," but it is the on-tape version. Sixteen tapes. We will listen to them while we drive from camp to camp, pulling our 1986 23' Komfort Fifth Wheel Trailer with a 1999 Chevrolet Crew Cab pickup. This is the way to bird.

For us to add a bird to our list, we both have to see or hear it. New life birds are indicated with an asterisk.

NOTE: All photos and pictures are ripoffs from birding ID books I have: Stokes, NGS, Audubon, etc.

THE SEARCH FOR THE...

...MOUNTAIN QUAIL.

Day 1. Sunday, September 19, 1999. San Jose to Yuba Pass.

On our way to northeast Nevada's Ruby Mountains, I want to see a Mountain Quail. We drive 5 1/2 hours from our San Jose home to the Yuba Pass Campground, about 35 miles northwest of Truckee, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We had been here in the springtime with a Santa Clara County Audubon Society birding group led by Clay Kempf, to see new mountain birds. At that time, we both heard, and Sharon saw a Mountain Quail. And although we counted this bird by our "rules," I have a strong desire to SEE one anyway.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, it turns out that we are to be the only campers there. In the crisp, late autumn afternoon, we drive up to the spots higher on the mountain where we had heard quail in the spring. But there are no calls, no responses to our taped calls, and no sign of any quail at all. We decide that maybe they call only in the spring.

We try one more place -- where a bear had skirted around us in the spring. A large flock of immature MOUNTAIN QUAIL flush and fly away, spraying out like fireworks. We try to follow a couple, but they run away, farther into the brush.

[Mountain Quail] Mountain Quail

We leave the area, hoping they will come back. We will try to sneak up and get an even better look. We do this, and see two of them, feeding in some dry grass, just a little shorter than they are. Sharon gets a look at their plumes, and I see them just before they take off. Mission (barely) accomplished.

Life Birds:

  • No life birds yet for the trip.

    Day 2. Monday, September 20, 1999. Yuba Pass Campground to Elko, Nevada.

    ...HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK.

    It is 390 miles from Yuba Pass to Elko, Nevada and it is a fun trip, listening to Stephen King, driving, napping during Sharon's "relief" shift.

    We check into Valley View RV Park, on the east side of town, but zip downtown to pick up some information on these wary birds from Steve, at the Nevada Division of Wildlife before they close at 5 pm. While we are in the office, we notice a stuffed snowcock. It looks old and dusty. After talking with Ranger Steve and getting a marked-up map, we head back to the RV park to set up in our space

    Sharon and I decide to drive the 25-30 miles out to the end of Lamoille (luh-MOYLE) Canyon, and get a feel for the terrain. The drive through the canyon is beautiful, featuring yellow, green and rusty leaves. We increase in elevation from about 5300 feet in Elko to about 8900 feet at the last trailhead parking lot. Comfortable with the appearance of the beginning of the trail, we turn around to go back to camp. As we approach the lower end of the canyon, it begins to grow dark. We stop several times to look for Chukars (CHUCK-ers) at locations recommended by Steve, at the Nevada Wildlife Division. No luck.

    Suddenly, as we are headed downhill, I am aware of a dark brown blob on the left side of the road. A rock? Roadkill? Rather than pointing it out to Sharon, so she could be on it too, I just fix my eyes on it, curious as to whether it is a rock or not. I figure it HAS to be a rock.

    Suddenly, too late, I realize by its facial markings that it is a Chukar. It flies, and Sharon sees it, but doesn't get a good enough look. We don't count it.

    After dinner, we load our backpacks with supplies for the hike up the mountain the next morning. We set the alarm for 5:00am.

    Life Birds:

  • None today.

    Day 3. Tuesday, September 21, 1999. End of Lamoille Canyon.

    We are heading up the canyon in the early brightening morning when we both see a covey of CHUKARS* flush up from beside the road. Now we claim this lifer. Hope our luck is this good on the mountain.

    [Chukar] Chukar

    6:46 am finds us in the Lamoille Canyon parking lot, double-checking that we have all the right gear. We leave right at 7:00 am. This is our Mount Everest. I'm not at all sure that we can climb it with our backpacks, but we'll give it all we've got.

    At 8:10 am, we are well up the mountain and see a MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, with its bandit eye mask. The sun has been up about a half-hour, and our feeling has changed from "ah, that feels good" to "I gotta take this parka off." Now I'm almost certain that we will make it.

    Sharon takes off her parka and wraps it around her waist. We see a hawk, mostly white underneath. Black leading edge on underwings say RED-TAILED HAWK. After ten minutes or so, I remove my parka too.

    I am carrying about 35 pounds, and my feet and toes are burning with every step. But you know how it is when the pain is your choice. I am determined to stand it. My back's hurting a little, but my feet drown that out. Himalayan Snowcock would be the Holy Grail of medicines.

    At 8:40am, we are over the ridge and looking at the lake, just a couple of dozen feet away. There is an island in the middle, giving it its name -- Island Lake.

    At 10:55am, we have set our backpacks down and climbed up and over rocks and boulders, towards the so-called western cirque, maybe 1/4 of the way up. We look off to the right, and Sharon spots a mountain goat with a baby, in a steep gully. It's fun to try to estimate the expected size of our target bird [They are a little smaller than an adult female turkey]. We climb back down to the upper tree area, with lots of careful effort, and set up our tent.

    There is already a circle of rocks around a fire pit, left by some previous campers. From this level (I guess about 9800'), it is about 1500' to the highest visible peak above, and probably about 1200' to the top of the main cirque.

    I nap about a half-hour, then walk down some 200 yards to a where a spring spills over some rocks, and fill up a liter bottle which I got in a kit with anti-giardia iodine pills and anti-iodine taste and color pills. On the way, I see CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS (Nevada's State Bird), PINE SISKINS and some CROWS.

    I bring the water back up and put two of the iodine pills in it. Twenty minutes later, I add two iodine taste/color removal pills. Ten minutes later, it's ready to drink. Over this day and the next, I do this three times, and we use every drop, as it turns out. This has saved us carrying up three liters of water, and I am grateful. I don't know if I could have carried one more pound.

    I measure my heartrate a couple of times. After retrieving water, it's at 140. After resting, and getting up and walking across the camp -- just moving around a little, it's 120. The air is pretty thin.

    Later in the afternoon, I find that I have put my brand new "3rd Edition National Geographic Society Field Guide to North American Birds" under a pine tree, which has dripped a big glob of clear pine gum right on the back cover. OK. It's broken-in now. Sharon is up, and we see a NORTHERN HARRIER, soaring along the ridge, and two different races of DARK-EYED JUNCO down by us. Then a pair of GOLDEN EAGLES patrol the ridge. They are the worst enemies of the snowcocks, as I understand it. We see a yellow-throated (and therefore Audubon's) YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER. It's getting dark and I start a fire, using firewood around the area and my new teepee technique. It feels absolutely cozy after the fire gets to crackling.

    We eat our granola bars and trail mix that we brought up for dinner. They are fine for one day. At 8:45pm, Sharon is sleepy and turns in. I watch the fire go down, and sprinkle a little water on the hottest coals. As I get into the tent, Sharon has a wool cap on her head, and with her blue eyes, and my flashlight casting a sidelight in her face, she looks exactly like the girl in "The Blair Witch Project" who is SO sorry. I tell her and she is freaked out a little ("Bo-ob!").

    No snowcocks today. We've heard some unusual calls, and think that maybe one of them was the right call, but we're not at all sure. The call is supposed to be like an elk bugling, with its three-note, rising whistle. We'll try tomorrow till about 10 or 11 am, then head back down. We were sort of hoping that we would see a snowcock right away, and would just walk back down without sleeping up here. But you can forget that.

    I get up once in the night to go to the bathroom, and the weather is comfortable -- not too cold. There is a nice moon, and I see Orion's Belt. To me, it has always looked like a kite with a short tail, but I have never talked with anyone else who sees it that way.

    I wake up several more times during the night to turn over and get re-comfortable. Sharon is sleeping on a thin blow-up air mattress, and I'm on thinsolite. Her mattress wins.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Chukar)
  • Trip: 1

    Day 4. Wednesday, September 22, 1999. Above Island Lake, Ruby Mountains, northeast Nevada.

    Next morning, I wake up for the umpteenth time, and Sharon asks what time it is. "6:20" I say. We were intending to get up at 5:30. Sharon assumed I set my wrist alarm, and I assumed the sun would wake us up that early. Both were wrong. Sharon climbs out of the tent, and walks about ten yards in the direction of the western cirque to look and listen. I am huffing and puffing at 9800 feet or so, trying to get my shoes on, when Sharon says, "Did you hear that?" I didn't. "That's it! That's it!" she yells. I hurry over to help her listen. Nothing for about five minutes. I head back to the tent to get my binoculars and other gear. As I'm walking, Sharon says, "There it is again. Did you hear THAT one?" No, I was walking here. Then again. This time, I hear it too. Clear as a bell, and sounding about like what we had heard described. Like an elk!

    We scan and search, but can't see the bird. I suggest that we climb up again, to get even closer than yesterday. Sharon agrees, though we're both a little wiped out from doing this yesterday. But our adrenaline carries us. We climb to an estimated 10,800' or more, and it's 8:30. We look around, hear nothing, see nothing in the snowcock world anyway.

    As we're looking, we suddenly see a 30-35 year old hunter climbing straight up to where we are. Shotgun, backpack, cap and loaded for... snowcock. This guy is in great shape. He has parked all the way down at the parking lot, and climbed up to here in one shot. His name is Carl, and he lives about twenty miles out of Elko. Oh, did I mention? September is snowcock hunting season. How depressing.

    We trade stories while we scan for birds. He is a hunter, and has feathers from a shot at a snowcock once, but he hasn't got a bird yet. He DID get a [mountain] lion once. He said he ate it because it was his first one. "What did it taste like?" I ask. He said the steaks were kind of chewy, the roasts were good, and it was a little like pork. I ask, "If you get a Himalayan [as he called them], would you have it mounted?" "Oh yes," he says, and names his taxidermist in Elko. "He does all my work." I tell him about growing up in Missouri when Dad supplied Mom with rabbit, quail and squirrel, to supplement the great fried chicken Mom made. He said he grew up in Michigan and had a similar experience. In fact, he said their annual deer feast was a huge family event.

    I ask if the snowcocks come down to a viewable level early in the morning (their normal habit), then work their way back over the ridge (also their normal habit), do they sometimes come back AGAIN? "No, I don't think so," he says. I was afraid he would say that. Shouldn't have asked.

    He tells another story about being up over the saddle and down the other side, in the winter, when snow was everywhere. He was hunting mountain lion, and resting. Suddenly a Himalayan came screaming around a corner and zoomed right past him. About two seconds later, a Golden Eagle did the same thing, right on his tail. He didn't know the outcome.

    We stop talking as everybody continues scanning. Sharon is on the scope, I'm on my binoculars, lying on a huge, slanted flat rock. Carl is sitting, with elbows on knees, using his binoculars. Suddenly, in spite of what Carl has just told me, we hear the three-note elk whistle again. We all say, "That's it! That's it!"

    It's about 10:00 am.

    We all start looking toward the call, in roughly the same direction we had heard three more about 6:30am. Carl is the first to say, "I got him. He's on the skyline." I turn around to see where his binoculars are pointed, as he gives a verbal description of the skyline where the bird is. "To the right of the saddle." Sharon, on the scope, says, "I got him too." And then I have him also -- a single HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK*.

    [Himalayan Snowcock] Himalayan Snowcock

    Carl says, "That's the sentry. He watches for danger for the rest of the feeding flock. When there's danger, they give their whistle." Sharon later says, "I saw the red lining around his white face." I yell that I see a dark bird from the neck down, and light from the neck up. "Yes," they both agree. We watch the bird for about 15 seconds. I run over to the scope, but he's gone before I get there. That's ok. I saw him.

    This is what Carl has been waiting for -- confirmation that they are up there now. He didn't want to climb to 11,200 or so, not knowing if they were around. "If I get one, I'll bring it down for you to see," he says. And we watch him climb up toward the saddle area. Well, that IS why they imported them (between 1963 and 1979). He yells back, "Other birds may walk down over the saddle soon. Keep your eyes open."

    We follow his progress up and over to the saddle, as we start working our way back down to break camp and climb down the mountain. No more snowcocks come over the saddle.

    By 11:14 am, I'm down to the lake and Sharon is about twenty yards behind. We have broken camp and loaded the tent, scope and tripod, plus other gear, into our packs, and headed down.

    11:55 am. We are more than halfway down. Sharon spots a hummingbird with a green back. It zooms off before we can ID it. I ask Sharon if she'd like to add something to my notations into the cassette tape recorder. She gives two huffs and two puffs.

    At noon, we see a huge bug, two inches long. It has black on either side of the abdomen, alternate black and lavender on top of the abdomen, complete lavender just behind the head. As it moves, we see it's a grasshopper. Pretty weird looking grasshopper.

    At 12:16 pm, we are near the end of the trail, looking over at the parking lot. At 12:33 pm, we are unloading stuff into the truck. We drive back to Elko, and rest in the trailer the rest of the day, feeling so lucky.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Himalayan Snowcock)
  • Trip: 2

    Day 5. Thursday, September 23, 1999. Travel Day. Elko to Gardnerville, Nevada.

    We drive from Elko to Gardnerville, to visit Sharon's mom and dad and spend one night with them. Gretchen fixes us dinner, including a banana creme pie. Plus I beat Gretchen 2 out of 3 gin rummy games. Ah, my birding luck is spilling over to my gin game.

    Life Birds:

  • None on this travel day.

    Day 6. Friday, September 24, 1999. Gardnerville to Yosemite.

    ...GREAT GRAY OWL.

    We're up and out of Gardnerville by about 7:00 am, having eaten breakfast with Sharon's folks. We drive south on 395, past Lake Topaz and go through the California inspection station. The guard waves us through. We stop in at the Mono Lake Visitor's Center, but they aren't open yet. We stretch our legs, then go refuel.

    At 9:21am, we turn right onto Tioga Pass Road, and begin the climb up the long, steep grade. We pass the Saddlebag Lake turnoff, then go through the Yosemite entrance station a little before ten. Tenaya Lake is busy and there is lots of traffic. When we get to the turnoff that bypasses Yosemite Valley, and as we come up to the stop sign, there are about ten cars in front of us, waiting their turn

    We finally get to Chinquapin Junction, and turn left onto Glacier Point Road. We expect to go by Badger Pass ski area on the right, then come to Bridalveil Creek Campground, where we will spend the next two nights. Ahh, love the two-night stay.

    We pass a road to the right that says "Road Closed," and continue on. It wasn't till later that we realized that this WAS the Badger Pass entrance. A little way further, and we come to a closed and locked gate that says "Bridalveil Creek Campground." Closed for the season. My AAA book said they stay open till September 30, but what this deviation between reality and expectation means is that we have to find a place to camp tonight.

    We try several telephone numbers for Yosemite, but the only advice we get is to drive to each of the main campgrounds (that you have to make reservations for, ahead of time) and ask if they have cancellations.

    We drive on out to Glacier Point, have lunch, take some photos, then decide to go back to Chinquapin Junction, turn left, and head to the southern end of the park. Wawona Campground is there, and we figure they are the most likely to have cancellations. Ten miles south of the junction, we come to Wawona Campground, and we're in luck. We pay for two nights, and set up. I have already paid for and reserved the two nights after that down at Crane Flats, where most people see the Great Gray.

    To maximize our chances to see the owl, I have scheduled us for eight meadow-watches, half in the early morning, half at dusk. This is the most likely time to see one.

    As we're headed back north, I talk Sharon into going for the 3/4 mile walk to McGurk Meadows, rather than the easier Peregoy Meadows, which is right by the road. My logic is that the owl won't be at Peregoy in the afternoon, because of all the nearby, high-speed traffic all day long. We should go into the woods to McGurk tonight, and try Peregoy tomorrow morning. OK, she says. Dangit, she hates it when I'm right.

    We take flashlights, birding gear, boots, parkas, gloves, warm hats, and our sharp eyes into the woods, headed for McGurk. We set up on one edge of the meadow, with each of us covering about half the meadow, sitting sort of back to back. We watch the daylight turn to dark, but the only bird that shows up is a duck screaming across the meadow on afterburners. I hear Dad yell "Pull," as he did for his trapshooting when I was a boy.

    We head back to the truck in the dark. A nearly full moon is rising, as we trudge back up the trail. As we walk, we are both again thinking a little of the movie "The Blair Witch Project," but neither of us says anything about it till later.

    We make it out and by 8:23 pm, we are back in camp. After dinner, we set the alarm for 4:45 am, and doze off.

    Life Birds:

  • No new life birds today.

    Day 7. Saturday, September 25, 1999. Peregoy Meadows, on Glacier Point Road.

    We wake up and are afraid we've missed the sunrise, it's so bright outside. But it's the full moon, not the sun.

    By about 6:50 am, we are sitting at the edge of the meadow, parkas on, wool caps covering our ears, in the dark. But it's beginning to get lighter.

    I decide to rustle up some grub (open a pack of trail mix), and as I do, Sharon says "Did you hear that?" Dangit, I didn't. I freeze and in a half-minute or so, the owl calls again. We recognize it because we have been listening to the owl's taped call the past day or so, so we would recognize it.

    There's no mistake. That was a Great Gray calling, but it's a long way off.

    About half a dozen times, it calls. Then suddenly, the call is VERY loud. There is a new edge to it. I am so excited. Is he coming this way to patrol Peregoy Meadows?

    But then, he's far off again. We just keep waiting. Hoping. Come on, turn around and come back.

    It's 7:10 am.

    Suddenly, at treetop level and in my coverage area, a huge dark shape breaks through across the meadow. The wings of the GREAT GRAY OWL* beat slowly but steadily as he makes a straight line across the meadow. I yell or whisper (not sure which) to Sharon.

    [Great Gray Owl] Great Gray Owl

    He lands near the top of a tall pine tree, and through the scope, we can see his throat inflate and deflate as he gives his call again. His color is exactly the same mottled brown as the bark of the tree he's in. We can also see his "bow tie." He looks right at us with huge eyes, as we both get perfect looks through the scope. He flies to another tree at the edge of the meadow, but again, is pretty far up. Now he is mostly hidden. He flies across the road

    Outstanding.

    But he's not done yet, as he flies back, to the top of a tree whose base is about fifteen feet from where we're standing. We look up at him in warbler-neck fashion, as he bends his head down to look RIGHT AT US.

    This has got to be one of the cooler things you can see on the planet.

    After watching him off and on for about ten minutes, the largest owl in North America leaves the treetop, and glides down to about fifteen feet off the ground, heads back across the road. Maybe he's aiming for McGurk.

    At 8:25 am, we are back in camp, taking our time to pack up and leave Yosemite, three days early! Sharon spots a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, a WILSON'S WARBLER and I see a KINGFISHER, from our site, as we're preparing to roll.

    At 9:42 am, we are headed out of Wawona, aimed towards Fresno. I replay the Great Gray breaking through the edge of the meadow over and over.

    ...YELLOW-FOOTED GULL

    We have a huge drive scheduled, to get to the Salton Sea in one day, but we decide to go for it, even though we've started at about 10:00 am. We take 41 to Fresno, then turn south on 99, put in several freeway hours, then take a series of freeways and highways to the Salton Sea.

    After checking out the most attractive-sounding RV Park in a small town called Oasis, and finding absolutely no living person there, we continue on to Salton Sea Spa and RV Park. It is where South Marina Drive and North Marina Drive meet, at the halfway point of a loop off of Highway 86, on the western end of the lake. It's in Salton City and it's also completely dark, except for the nearly full moon. And it's about 90 degrees F.

    The odometer tells us we have come 466 miles, since we left Yosemite.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Great Gray Owl)
  • Trip: 3

    Day 8. Sunday, September 26, 1999. The Salton Sea.

    We decide to look for the Yellow-footed Gull in nearby areas, then relax in our trailer's air-conditioning in the middle of the day (translation: I want to watch football). This is a Mexican gull, and the Salton Sea is the only place in the US where you can regularly see them, I think. And only in some seasons.

    We load up our gear, drive out the RV Park exit, and turn right, where the beach awaits, about 30 feet away. We can see lots of gulls and shorebirds, and we set up the scope. What appears to be fine white gravel, around the lake, is actually tiny white seashells. After scanning, we find that most or all of the gulls are RING-BILLED GULLS. We decide to drive south on a paved road between the RV Park and the shore, because we can make out shorebirds over there too. We follow this road, and it tee's into another road which goes out to a boat launch (if you turn left at the tee), and a small residential area next to the water, if you turn left again.

    We see more gulls and shorebirds, and check them, but no YFs. A man drives by in a van, and asks what we're doing. We tell him, and he says that we should drive out to the end of the development, where his house is. He will let us access his beach through his yard. Very friendly.

    We drive out there, and can see a large number of gulls standing next to a sickly-looking maroon-red water pool. These are gulls and they look larger than the Ring-bills we saw earlier. I set up the scope, and it looks very hopeful. We pick up the scope, and take up the passerby's offer on accessing the beach area.

    He waves us to go on, and we do. We follow his beach around, where we can get a good look at about 150 YELLOW-FOOTED GULLS*, standing by the red water pool. They are a little larger than the Caspian Tern standing beside them. It is quite hot, and they are just standing there. Most have their heads tucked away, but there are enough heads up so that we can verify all the identifying characteristics.

    [Yellow-footed Gull] Yellow-footed Gull

    We are batting a thousand in the life bird hunt.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Yellow-footed Gull)
  • Trip: 4

    Day 9. Monday, September 27, 1999. The Salton Sea and Big Morongo.

    Next morning, I take off the left front landing-gear leg (after using the truck's jack to hold up that side of the trailer), stick it into the back of the pickup, and we're off for an RV repair shop the passerby told us about, in Indio, about 30 miles away.

    On the way, we check out a suggested spot north of the Sea for Crissal Thrasher. We bird up on an embankment which makes up one side of a canal. We see SAGE SPARROW, A RED-TAILED HAWK, several ABERT'S TOWHEES, a couple of VERDINS, and a few other common desert birds.

    Then we go to a place where Blue-footed Booby has been seen in the past. It is desolate, and there are no signs of any birds anywhere. So we take off for Indio.

    Sharon navigates us to the RV repair shop, and the service manager says, yes, they can fix that. Take a couple of hours. At another RV couple's suggestion for breakfast, we head down to Spotlight 29 casino, where they have bacon and eggs for $1.29 or steak and eggs for $1.99. We both opt for the bacon/sausage and eggs.

    We read the newspaper, enjoy our breakfast, and watch Sharon blow a buck at a nickel slot machine. I put another buck into my imaginary I-didn't-gamble-or-buy-a-raffle-ticket bank. I think I'm up to about $3200, not counting the imaginary interest.

    We drive back to the RV repair shop, but Supervisor Jim says it will be another hour or more. We tell him we'll be back at about 3 pm, and he says ok.

    ... BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHER.

    We head out to I-10, then west, then exit on Highway 62, toward Morongo Valley where there is a great birding spot called Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. It is special because it is a water source, in the middle of mountainous desert habitat. Migrating birds stop in there and Brown-crested Flycatchers nest there. We hope they haven't left already.

    We meet a British couple who just walked the Marsh Loop in the heat, and they report no birds seen, no birds heard. We can hear an ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD from the parking lot, and we point it out to them. At least they got one bird.

    They drive over to the park host's trailer, and watch the hummingbirds buzz around his two feeders. There is also a LADDERBACK WOODPECKER, which we saw in the parking lot, now in a tree next to the feeder.

    I knock on the trailer door, and ask Dee (the host) about the Brown-cresteds. He says the last ones left about three weeks ago. Oh well. You can't get ALL the birds you go after, every time.

    We decide to do the loop anyway. We've got a couple of hours to kill.

    We walk a short path to access the loop and Sharon immediately spots a small yellow bird in a tree, inside the loop path. I see the flash too, and see the bird. We see it several times over a couple of minutes, and I bail out of my binoculars to try and find what it is. It was gray above and yellow below. The last thing I saw was an eyebrow, like a Red-eyed Vireo, so I try it first. But this bird's throat, belly and undertail coverts are all bright yellow. I check the other vireos, and find the bird under fall plumage PHILADELPHIA VIREO*. That's an unexpected lifer, and more than makes up for missing the Brown-crested Flycatchers.

    We continue our walk and see a COOPER'S HAWK, a tree full of BUSHTITS, a WILSON'S WARBLER, a pair of SONG SPARROWS. We surprise a rail -- probably a VIRGINIA'S, but we're not sure. We find an eye-ringed warbler, and it might be a MOURNING WARBLER, but again, we didn't see it long enough to get, and it's getting really hot.

    We stop by the host's trailer again on the way out to check the hummingbirds. He earlier told me than the Costa's and Black-chinned hummers had already moved through, but there were ANNA'S and RUFOUS still there. We see them both, and Sharon thinks some may be Allen's, although Dee said that the chances were pretty low.

    We go back to the RV repair shop, and they have us all fixed up. $9.95 for the part (a stripped nut) and $25 for the labor. What a bargain. I bought a spare nut, since they are a little hard to find. Sharon picks up some new brown RV step covers to replace the worn green ones that have been on it since we bought it about eight or nine years ago.

    We go back and relax for the rest of the day and evening. I watch the 49ers put the hurt on Arizona and Jake Plummer.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Philadelphia Vireo)
  • Trip: 5

    Day 10. Tuesday, September 28, 1999. The Salton Sea to San Diego, to Newport Beach.

    ...CRISSAL THRASHER

    We're up at 6:35 am and head over to Anza Borrego to look for the Crissal Thrasher and maybe Le Conte's. We drive around Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, and exit the circle onto road S3. We listen for a while, then a play Crissal Thrasher tape, but get only one bird who sneaks up to check us out. He apparently gets a good enough look at us to send him back onto the private desert property.

    Then we head to Yaqui Wells, another wet spot in the desert. There we see a PHAINOPEPLA, a WHITE-WINGED DOVE and a CALIFORNIA THRASHER. We flush a covey of quail, who reveal their type by their chi-CA-go calls (CALIFORNIA QUAIL).

    We hear, then see a HOUSE WREN, a female PHAINOPEPLA, a WILSON'S WARBLER and a CACTUS WREN. On the way back to the truck, we see several ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, a couple of BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS, a BEWICK'S WREN and a couple of unidentified sparrows.

    We wind it up, return to the RV park, prepare for travel, hitch up, and by 10:15 am, we are on our way. Except for one stop to take photos of a sand golf course. Since 1977, it says.

    ...GRAY SILKY FLYCATCHER.

    Finding the Great Gray Owl in Yosemite so fast has given us a couple of extra days, even with losing one of them repairing the trailer. So we're going to try for some southern California birds.

    We head south on 86, through Brawley. We pass a Holly sugar factory. On one of the silos is a horizontal line and the words "SEA LEVEL." It is about 40-50 feet over our heads. There is a gigantic long pile of dirty white powder on the factory property.

    "Can that be sugar?" we ask ourselves. What if it rains? Or if somebody spills a WHOLE LOT OF TEA on it?

    We hit the I-8 on-ramp at about 11:30, just after refueling. We drive by a couple of combines cutting down a green crop of some kind. There are 100-200 Cattle Egrets standing around near the cuts, waiting to pounce on the disturbed insects.

    We hit sea level at 11:42 am. We stop for lunch, then continue on, getting waved through a border patrol stop. We refuel again in Pine Valley, then make our way into San Diego, and to the Cabrillo National Monument, where a Mexican bird -- a Gray Silky Flycatcher, was report "summering" here about three weeks ago. I'm a little ashamed of my lack of preparation for chasing this bird.

    No luck, though Sharon sees a PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, and I see a dark bird gliding along the edge of the cliff. It is black and brown, and has white markings on the rump. First I think it is a Harrier, except it is the wrong color, and is WAY too small. I look up birds that it might be, and come up with some kind of Storm-petrel. I'm not sure if this can be, and don't know which, if it is.

    ...CALIFORNIA GNATCATCHER.

    We head north again, and stop at the San Elijo Lagoon, in Solano Beach. I have carefully checked out all the information about this site, relatively to gnatcatchers, and it seems that if we see one, it will be a California Gnatcatcher.

    We walk down the dirt path, stopping several times along the way. Not here. We walk to the end of the path, then return. When we are almost back up to the bluff where we started, we hear a gnatcatcher-like call. We have listened to this call to prepare for this moment. Well, we hope this is the moment.

    A pair of birds make their way out of deep brush, and into a bush having dark red berries. One of the birds has a berry in its beak. And so here are our CALIFORNIA GNATCATCHERS*.

    On our way in, to our parking place, we made a wrong turn and Sharon spotted something that looked like a miniature Sulfur-crested Cockatoo, but I didn't see it. We agreed to return here when we finish down at the Lagoon.

    And so we do. Now there are about 30 COCKATIELS sitting there. We think maybe we have discovered a wild colony, when a couple strolls by with their baby riding in a stroller. They ask what we're looking for, and we "show" them these birds. He says, "They're up there every night. They belong to the owner of that house right there. He feeds and waters them, and provides cages for them to sleep in.

    OK. We move on.

    We head into Newport Beach, and pull into an RV Park that has 405 sites. The more expensive ones ($90 per night) are right on the beach. We ask for one at the back, and it's only $33. We back into our spot, and set up.

    Sharon calls her oldest son, Matt, who is night manager of a Bristol Farms market -- an upscale grocery store. And I do mean GROCERY. They have everything there, and all top quality, with matching prices. Sharon gives Matt a list of groceries we need, and Matt says he will bring them to us. Sharon does a laundry, and later Matt brings the groceries over.

    We make plans for tomorrow.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (California Gnatcatcher)
  • Trip: 6

    Day 11. Wednesday, September 29, 1999. Newport Beach and Family Day.

    ***BIRDERS SKIP TO DAY 12***

    Next morning, Sharon, Matt and I visit with Sharon's great Aunt Ruth (Sharon and her sister called her Aunt Truth when they were little) in Laguna Beach. She is over 90, and living alone in a two-flights-up apartment. And still going strong. We take her and a friend of hers (Jean) out to lunch.

    At noon, we meet Matt's girlfriend Kimberly, who has designed and supervised the construction of a playhouse. This is for a contest for charity, and these "playhouses" have everything you can imagine in them -- TV, stereo, intercom, etc. Most of them have two stories. They auction all but one of them off (winning bids have been in the range of $25,000 to $40,000!!!). The other they are going to give away to a lucky ticket-buyer. Raffle tickets are $1 each.

    I take some videos and photos. Then we return to Bristol Farms, and Sharon and I go back to the RV park to have a nap. Later, we go over to Matt and Kimberly's apartment and they fix us a great dinner of barbecued chicken and cut up fruit. The sun is behind us, as we look out over the sunlit marina and the houses and buildings on the other side of the water. They show the sun's window reflections moving from house to house as the sun is going down.

    Life Birds:

  • No new birds today.

    Day 12. Thursday, September 30, 1999. Newport Beach to Ventura, CA

    ...ISLAND SCRUB-JAY.

    We don't have too far to go today to get to Ventura, so we decide to bird Huntington Central Park, in Huntington Beach. It's only about ten miles away, and is famous for being a stopoff for EASTERN warblers, as well as western.

    We try the eastern portion, and get BLACK PHOEBE, a pair OF ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, a pair of BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLERS. We also see a WARBLING VIREO, a TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, a flock of NUTMEG MANAKINS and a CALIFORNIA TOWHEE.

    We move over to the western side of the park, and check out a couple of places where they spotted a Virginia's Warbler a couple of weeks ago. No luck[Later rare bird alert information says it was still there and we just didn't try hard enough].

    We return to camp, pack up, hitch up and take off for Ventura at 11:40 am.

    By 5:04 pm, we are set up in Ventura RV Beach Resort. A flood wiped this place out several years ago, but they have it back in shape.

    Our friend Nancy Burlingame takes a day off work, and drives up from Thousand Oaks to sleep on our trailer couch, and will be going with us tomorrow to Santa Cruz Island.

    I am supposed to put my anti-seasick patch behind an ear, but I have forgotten. I wake up at 4:30 am to go to the bathroom when I think about it. So I put it on then.

    Life Birds:

  • No new life birds today.

    Day 13. Friday, October 1, 1999. Santa Cruz Island.

    We take Harbor Drive from downtown Ventura to the Ventura harbor, where we check in.

    We are scheduled to land on the west end, at Scorpion Landing. I have a series of emails that said you have to walk about a mile to get a look at one or two (or zero, if you are unlucky) Scrub-Jays.

    But Lady Luck is smiling on us today.

    We watch two groups of young campers get on our boat, in addition to several day-trippers like us. We take off at 7:30 am.

    Sharon has talked with the captain, and told him to ask if there are any birders on board. He says that he's been doing this route for about 18 years, and he will help us by announcing any unusual birds on the way, but there aren't any.

    Through an interesting series of events, after a first stop at Scorpion Landing, we get to accompany the captain on a jog over to Prisoner's Cove, where there are many more Scrub-Jays, and they are much closer to the landing spot. He has to drop off the other group and their supplies.

    We get 30 minutes to bird, and during that time, we see an estimated 30-40 ISLAND SCRUB-JAYS* picking acorns out of an oak tree, flying them across the road, and burying them into a dirt embankment, and other locations.

    [Island Scrub-Jay] Island Scrub-Jay

    The birds seem to have a tinge of purple in their deep blue color. I can't decide if their bills seem significantly bigger than regular Scrub-Jays or not. They are supposed to be.

    We also see ALLEN'S HUMMINGBIRDS and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS -- both are island-bound subspecies.

    The captain then loads us back up and takes us to Scorpion Landing, our original destination.

    After lunch, we start on our originally-planned route, where we see BLACK PHOEBES, SONG SPARROWS, CALIFORNIA QUAIL (Catalina subspecies which were received by Santa Cruz Island in exchange for some pigs), RAVENS everywhere, a pair of KESTRELS, a few SAY'S PHOEBES and A RED-TAILED HAWK. We are hot and tired, and go as far as the campground, but no farther (the island subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike are supposed to be a little farther, but it's pretty hot).

    As we turn around in the campground, I see a large, tawny shape fly out of the eucalyptus tree behind Sharon. I walk around, and see nothing. Then I walk a little farther around, and a BARN OWL flies out of the tree and into another. I walk around again, signaling to Sharon and Nancy. As I find the owl, he is looking down at me. My best look. Sharon and Nancy get him also. But no Island Scrub-Jay (at Scorpion) for us. Another birder whom we met on the boat (Nick, from Arizona) walked quite a bit farther than the end of the campground, and he DID see a couple of the Scrub-Jays, plus an island subspecies Loggerhead Shrike. By coincidence, Nick is going on a Shearwater pelagic boat trip in two days -- the same one we'll be on. We go back to the landing and wait. Nick arrives also, and is disappointed that he didn't see the Barn Owl. It would have been a lifer for him.

    Finally it is 3:00 pm, and time to go. We all load back onto the boat and cross the water to the mainland.

    We drive back to the RV park, and Nancy packs up her gear, and takes off. We enjoy the day's events, especially the unexpected jog over to Prisoner's Cove. And watching the Scrub-Jays hide their acorns.

    My anti-seasick patch has worked its wonders today.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 1 (Island Scrub-jay)
  • Trip: 7

    Day 14. Saturday, October 2, 1999. Ventura to Monterey, CA.

    ...PELAGIC BIRDS.

    We pull out about 9:20 am, and don't do any birding on our way to Monterey. We set up at the RV portion of the Cypress Tree Inn motel. Tight fit, but I finally get us in there.

    I have removed the earlier seasick patch, and put on a new one, behind the other ear, as the instructions suggest.

    Life Birds:

  • No birding today.

    Day 15. Sunday, October 3, 1999. Monterey Bay Pelagic Trip

    We are up early, and at Sam's Bait Shop (Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey) at 7:10 am. There are about 20 birders already there. We get in line, and others arrive and get behind us.

    Debra Shearwater (the arranger of this trip) climbs up on a bench after we have all gotten onto the boat. She tells us all the do's and don't's for the trip. Then we head out of the harbor. This lady is dynamic, enthusiastic, a good leader and organizer, and a very good birder. I don't know her former name, but she changed it to Debra Love Shearwater several years ago.

    We have no specific bird we're after, but instead have chosen this date so that we'll be in a transition period. That is, some birds will have returned here after going north for breeding season. And others, who have migrated through here in the spring, will now be passing through on their way south.

    Anyway, I have read the types and numbers of pelagic birds that such trips have been seeing lately, and we have a chance at ten life birds on this one trip, if the weather is good and we are lucky.

    The boat leaves the harbor, and "hugs" the coastline, headed south. We are a mile or two offshore. But before we leave the inner bay, Debra spots a PEREGRINE FALCON on top of a tall stack on land. It looks like a black dot to me.

    CALIFORNIA and HEERMAN'S GULLS follow our boat the entire way, and we turn and head away from land. Somebody always has chum duty. That is, to toss out cheesy popcorn. This keeps the gulls near, and apparently the bird flock signals to birds flying "through" that there is food down there.

    Our first new birds are PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER* and BULLER'S SHEARWATER*. And honestly, we can tell the difference. After a bit, a FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER* flies in and lands on the water. Debra says that this is the closest that one has ever landed to the boat. She and others snap off several photos.

    "COWBIRD at 10 o'clock," someone yells. Everybody laughs, until we see a cowbird land on top of a vent on the boat. The captain has tied an artificial Christmas tree to the base of an antenna, and the cowbird finally hops over to it. Wow, a cowbird this far out from land.

    Then later, a huge bird, with enormously-long and narrow wings flies in and around the boat. It's a BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS*. The day is going great.

    [Black-footed Albatross] Black-footed Albatross

    "SOUTH POLAR SKUA*," someone yells [SKOO-uh, where SKOO is pronounced like the word SCOOT]. Then they give the clock directions (e.g. 3 o'clock, about a hundred yards away, in the air, below the horizon). As the bird flies around, Debra jumps up on a bench and starts yelling position. "Flying in at 3 o'clock, now 4 o'clock, now directly behind at 6 o'clock, crossing the stern." Like that. This is a great help because there are probably 50 birds around the boat, and these instructions help get you onto the right bird.

    [South Polar Skua] South Polar Skua

    When we get out still farther, somebody yells "Murrelet," and gives the clock position. As we get closer, the captain slows down, down, down. The boat's spotters (about 5 or 6 birders who are VERY good at this) discuss whether it's a Xantus' or a Craveri Murrelet. They keep checking the bird's characteristics, and finally agree that it is a XANTUS' MURRELET*. I hear their arguments for Xantus' and why it's not a Craveri, and I can sort of follow it. I don't know if I could have done that ID alone. But we'll take it.

    [Xantus' Murrelet] Xantus' Murrelet

    We continue on, and get a spectacular SABINE'S GULL*. This bird has a black head and white body. The upper wings are a gorgeous, fascinating pattern of black, white and gray. It's the only Sabine's we see all day.

    [Sabine's Gull] Sabine's Gull

    The water has been so calm, that Debra and the captain decide to go a little further than normal for this trip, and they get us to a flock of several thousand ASHY STORM-PETRELS*. The experts scour the birds one at a time, and somebody yells, "There's a Wilson's and a Fork-tailed in there too." And proceeds to give instructions that I can't follow for anything. I finally pick out the FORK-TAILED, because it's the only light-colored bird in the sea of all-dark birds. Sharon and I got them off of the Homer, Alaska spit.

    There is a sprinkling of BLACK STORM-PETRELS* out there too, and they are bigger and blacker than the Ashys. We are able to pick them out. But neither of us sees the Wilson's.

    The day is finally over, as far as the outbound direction is concerned, and the captain turns us around and heads back towards Monterey.

    We also saw the following mammals during the trip:

    Northern Fur Seal, Humpback Whales (several, diving and showing their under-tail patterns), Northern Right-whale Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Dall's Porpoises and Blue Sharks.

    Life Birds:

  • Today: 9 (Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Black-footed Albatross, South Polar Skua, Xantus' Murrelet, Sabine's Gull, Ashy Storm-Petrel and Black Storm-Petrel).
  • Trip: 16

    This brings to an end our Fall '99 trip, and sets us up for our next big one, in Spring 2000, when we go to Florida, Trinidad & Tobago, St. Lucia and Belize. It should be GOOD.


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