Sunday, July 13, 2008
Tour de Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County has always been there for me, yet prior to this weekend I had seldom ventured there. Sure, I sneaked across the border a couple times to chase select birds (Arctic Warbler, missed; Dusky-capped Flycatcher, found), but my county list barely topped fifty. This is a pitifully low number for any county, but especially for a coastal Californian county that boasts a county list of four hundred ninety-eight.
After a couple hours of unsuccessfully battling traffic, construction, and other delays, my mom and I finally arrived at John Garrett's house in Pasadena on Friday afternoon. John (a serious young birder about my age) and I had been plotting this trip for quite some time. After enjoying fine looks of an exotic Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Garretts' front yard, we (John, John's dad, and I) set off, headed for the east side of the San Gabriel Mountains. Our ambition was to find every possible bird in the San Gabriel Mountains and the Antelope Valley. Immediately upon arrival at the Garretts' cabin in Wrightwood, John and I began roaming about the montane forest surrounding the cabin. Birds weren't terribly active, since it was the middle of the afternoon, but we found typical high-elevation birds such as Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and Western Wood-Pewee. Merriam's Chipmunks and Western Gray Squirrels were common.
Birds may have not been active, but the butterflies were enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I identified two life butterflies: Golden Hairstreak (Habrodais grunus) and Juba Skipper (Hesperia juba).
Later in the afternoon, we drove up high in the mountains. Our first stop was Blue Ridge Campground (elevation: 7,900 feet). Up here we found a new mix of higher-elevation birds, including Brown Creeper, Fox Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. I was watching a couple Chipping Sparrows when John began wildly gesticulating at a large pine tree. I raced over, and there climbing up the trunk was a young male Williamson's Sapsucker! We got excellent looks, and I managed to capture some not-so-excellent photos. A life bird for me, and I got a laugh out of the fact it was a county bird for John. Practically every time I raised my binoculars, I got a new county bird!
We happily left, bumping down dirt roads and coming perilously close to tumbling off sheer cliffs. Our next stop was Grassy Hollow. We parked and took a quick hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. John and I decided it would be fun to walk to Canada, but Mr. (Excuse me, I mean Doctor Garrett) didn't seem too thrilled about this.
Birding along the trail was decent. A noisy family of White-headed Woodpeckers were hanging around near the trail, along with Green-tailed Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, Dusky Flycatchers, Lazuli Buntings, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher. A Mountain Quail even popped up on a snag, but it was too distant for any photos.
In the evening, we looked for owls and nightjars, but quickly got distracted by insects and the night sky. I've never been much of an astronomer (I'll leave that to my brother), but it was impossible to ignore the almost blindingly-bright glow of the moon.
I arose early on Saturday morning after a fitful night of alternately listening to John snore and dogs barking. First thing is first, for us; we stepped out on the back deck of the cabin and heard a Common Poorwill and a couple Great Horned Owl. We quickly packed up and left, munching on what could not be called breakfast as we sped toward our first birding stop of the day. A Bobcat running the road ahead of us was a good omen; it was the first I had ever seen.
We first searched for birds found very locally in Los Angeles County at a place called Bob's Gap, an unimpressive shrubby area. It is, however, the only spot in the county to find Black-throated Sparrow and Scott's Oriole. We found both of these, plus Rock Wren, Bewick's Wren, and others.
We descended into the Antelope Valley proper shortly thereafter. The Antelope Valley is perfectly flat, and virtually free of vegetation excluding desert scrub and Joshua Trees. We ticked off Inca Dove in a residential area without even exiting the car. It was difficult to believe that this rather nondescript, dusty neighborhood is the only spot to find Inca Doves in the county.
One would not expect to find lush wetlands in the heart of the dry, desolate Antelope Valley, but that is exactly what the Piute Ponds are. The ponds are located on the Edwards Air Force Base, and are not open to the public. Fortunately, the Garretts had a pass and we were able to bird the ponds. The ponds are legendary for having attracted a wide variety of rare birds, particularly shorebirds. We were there a tad early to hit the main shorebird migration, but we still found lots of Western Sandpipers, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts, a handful of Wilson's Phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Greater Yellowlegs, and also a single Whimbrel. Ducks were abundant, and we even found singles of Northern Pintail and American Wigeon, unusual in the summer.
The Piute Ponds are surrounded by inhospitable desert. We walked through some of the desert, hoping to kick up a Leconte's Thrasher, a pale little desert rat of a bird. Not surprisingly, we didn't have any luck. However, Sage Sparrows were plentiful. Another life bird! We also flushed a Great Horned Owl from a small strip of trees and made fun of it for going back to the same perch twice and getting flushed a total of three times (the trees were right next to the road, and the owl flew off every time we drove by).
Once we finished up at Piute Ponds, we were just about done birding the Antelope Valley. It wasn't even noon, and we still had plenty of birding time left.
"Who's desperate to see Spotted Owls?" asked Dr. Garret.
That's a no-brainer. Everyone! We swung by Placerita Canyon, located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Clarita. A family of Spotted Owls has been here since May, but we had no idea if they'd still be around. We hiked up the canyon, finding Lawrence's Goldfinch, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Purple Finch. We carefully scanned the branches overhead for owls, but we hadn't spotted a Spotted Owl by the time we reached the waterfall, the supposed limit of the owls' range. Well, that's what we expected. They hadn't been reported for at least a month. Oh well. Good thing I was still watching the branches on the hike out - there was a big dark lump in a tree right next to the trail. Yup - Spotted Owl! A juvenile. I called John, and he came over and looked even though he didn't believe me. Very cool bird. Unfortunately, it had carefully chosen its perch so that it was blocked by branches from every possible angle.
Doctor Garrett suggested that we hit the coast, to which John and I readily agreed. We walked out on the jetty at Playa Del Ray and found lots of new species for my county list. A plethora of terns and gulls swooped through the air overhead, and loafing on the jetty were Brown Pelicans and Brandt's Comorants, along with singles of Pelagic Cormorant, Ruddy Turnstone, and Black Oystercatcher.
It was then that I recalled reading postings on the internet about a Little Blue Heron that had been seen at the nearby Ballona Freshwater Marsh. We stopped there and walked around the perimeter of the marsh, peering through the thick vegetation in hopes of spotting the heron. No sign of it. Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a patchy grayish and white bird flew up from the water's edge and landed farther out in the marsh. The Little Blue Heron! It was very motley-looking, since it was in the process of molting from its white juvenile plumage to its bluish-gray adult plumage. This species is rare in Los Angeles County.
The heron was a great way to cap the trip. In two days, we made a large loop around Los Angeles County, birding the mountains, the desert, and the coast. Accordingly, our species count was high - almost one hundred and forty. I got two life birds - Williamson's Sapsucker and Sage Sparrow. My Los Angeles County list jumped from about fifty to over one hundred and fifty. And, best of all, it was great to get to know John and his dad. I hope to go birding with them more in the future!