Sunday, July 27, 2008
Birding the Border
I had a big surprise on Wednesday as I sifted through my cluttered email inbox. The email was from the San Diego County Birds list serve, and the title read simply "Red-necked Stint". That was plenty to catch my attention; I learned it had been spotted at Delta Beach in Coronado in southern San Diego County. One problem of not having a driver's license: not being able to spontaneously take off after rare birds in the area. I tried to convince my parents that this was a really rare bird that I needed to see, but my dad didn't really see the point of driving an hour and a half to see a little brown shorebird that looks a lot like a Western Sandpiper. I followed the list serves, and read posts every day that it had been seen. My chances of seeing it were slipping away...
That is, until I got an email from John Garrett informing me that he and his dad were driving down to see it on Sunday. Would I like to come along? I think you can guess the answer.
That's how I found myself walking briskly along the path to the overlook of the Delta Beach mudflats in San Diego County this morning. As we rounded a bend, we could see a little knot of half a dozen birders standing on the platform, chatting and occasionally glancing through their scopes and binoculars. We sauntered up and asked the birders, "Is it there?"
"Yup, the closest bird, in front of the yellowlegs," was their answer. I spotted the bird in my scope - a fat little sandpiper with a small head, short legs, short bill, and, of course, a faint reddish wash on its neck. We hung around for about an hour and a half, watching it as it trundled about on the mudflat. Eventually, it took a quick nap. It was quite distant and the sky was overcast, so I couldn't acquire any good photos. Still, I tried.
Naturally, this was a life bird for me. It is always amazing to see a bird on the wrong side of the world. Red-necked Stints nest in Siberia and spend the winter in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. They are annual visitors to Alaska, but they rarely reach California; I believe it is only about the tenth state record. It is also the first record of Red-necked Stint for San Diego County. We focused mainly on the stint, but I also noticed Surfbirds (out of habitat), Red Knots, Ospreys, Royal Terns, and others in the area.
After we had our fill of the stint, we moved on. A short drive away is Imperial Beach Sports Park. A sleepy little urban park with a few trees and grassy areas, it may not seem a likely birding spot at first glance. However, it is the only spot in California where Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are reliably found. In fact, the night-herons have even nested there in recent years. We pulled up and began searching the trees. After a few minutes, I noticed a couple big lumps on a branch above the side walk. Binoculars showed them to be the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons! A life bird for John, and a state bird for me. They ignored us as we gawked up at them from below.
We decided to take a spin around Borderfield State Park, the extreme southwest corner of the United States. As we drove in, we noticed the rickety border fence on a nearby hill as well as several Border Patrol vehicles. The park truly does lie on the border between the United States and Mexico; we could reach through holes in the fence and touch Mexico!
We took a quick stroll down on the beach. The Mexican side was crowded; the American side was deserted. As a result, the birds were concentrated on the American side. Big flocks of Western and Heerman's Gulls were sprinkled over the beach. Shorebirds, including Whimbrel (really?!), Marbled Godwit, Willet, and Sanderling, were also present. We were surprised to see a few Gull-billed Terns (including a couple hatch-year birds) sitting among the shorebirds. Even more surprising was a lone bedraggled Surf Scoter hanging out with the gulls.
After locating a Subway (unfortunately, we couldn't find an IHOP, the traditional "celebrate-finding-rare-birds-restaurant") where we gorged ourselves on foot longs, we hit the road for home. It was a very fun day! The Red-necked Stint was definitely the highlight of the day, but the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were also a good bonus. A big thanks to the Garretts for taking me down there and putting up with me most of the day!