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Birding San Diego

This February I went on my first ever trip to the San Diego Bird Festival and my first trip birding the southern west coast.

The first birds I saw came early, on the morning of our flight, when I saw over 30 California Quail outside of our hotel. When we arrived in San Diego that afternoon, after we settled in at our accommodation, we went on our first bird tour: a tour of the estuary right on the festival grounds. On this short tour I saw a number of excellent lifers including: Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Black Phoebe, Cassin's Kingbird, Royal Tern, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Reddish Egret.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

The next morning we went on a tour with the goal of seeing my lifer California Towhee, California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, Nuttall's Woodpecker and Allen's Hummingbird. We saw all of these, as well as other great lifers like White-faced Ibis, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Great-tailed Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Rufous Crowned Sparrow, and Scaly-breasted Munia. We also saw a Common Goldeneye which was a rare bird for that area, but is quite common for me back home.

White-faced Ibis

Wrentit (not a great photo)

That afternoon I found my lifer Brant and Red-shouldered Hawk around the festival grounds.

Red-shouldered Hawk carrying a lizard

The next morning we went on a pelagic trip, which was one of the highlights of the festival for me. As we left the harbor, we enjoyed distinguishing the loons (Common and Pacific, we didn't seen Red-throated) and scanning the jetties where we were rewarded with my lifer Surfbird. As we got further from shore, I spotted a Parasitic Jaeger flying over the water and when we lost hope of seeing it any better, it landed in front of our boat, allowing for great views and some photos. ​

Parasitic Jaeger

​Further out we saw the first few (and my lifer) Black-vented Shearwaters of the day.

Black-vented Shearwater

Black-vented Shearwater(2)

While I was looking at the Shearwaters, I heard over the radio that a Heermann's Gull was seen in the large flock of Westerns at the back of the boat. When I went back, I saw two of them, one adult and one immature.

Heermann's Gull

By this time, we were near the Mexican border and could see large flocks of feeding birds ahead. As we pulled up closer, we started to see many Northern Fulmars feeding around the boat. Sadly, many of these birds will die because there is not strong enough winds for them to fly back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

Northern Fulmar

Even Closer to the border, a Brown Booby (another lifer) was seen at the back of the boat and offered me good views and photos. When I came back to the bow, another Brown Booby flew by and once again offered great photos and views.

Brown Booby

As I was scanning over the water, I felt a rush of excitement when I spotted a Masked Booby (ABA Code 3) on the starboard side of the boat. After I called out "Black and white booby," it flew toward the boat and we confirmed that it was indeed a Masked Booby. It put on quite a show for us by circling the boat multiple times and plunge diving right next to us.

Masked Booby

Masked Booby(2)

After seeing the Boobies, we left the border and continued north. Fairly quickly, we saw a pair of Scripps's Murrelets, which was another target bird, and lifer. The views of these birds were not good and only a few people saw them, so we hoped to see more. For a while the bird action slowed down, but we were vigilant and got rewarded with much better looks at another pair of Scripps's Murrelets, a few Bonaparte's Gulls, and another Brown Booby.

Brown Booby

Bonaparte's Gull

Scripps's Murrelets

As we continued north, the bird action was minimal but picked up when we found a HUGE flock of Black-vented Shearwaters, Brown Pelicans, Gulls, and Cormorants feeding on a school of Anchovies. We passed through the flock of at least 3500 Black-vents multiple times, but we could not turn any of them into a Manx Shearwater. On our final pass a Mew Gull, which is an uncommon bird in that area, circled the boat and allowed for good views. By this time, we had to start heading back to harbor, but along the way we saw my lifer Pomarine Jaeger. As we were going by the first jetty, we spotted 5 Surfbirds and a Black Turnstone sitting on the rocks.

The next day we went on a tour along the Mexican Border, which started out at an estuary on the coast. At this estuary, we saw my lifer Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitcher, as well as other good birds like American Pipit, American Avocet, and Long-billed Curlew. Our next stop was right along the border, (you could see the wall) where we saw excellent birds such as White-tailed Kite(lifer), Hermit Thrush, many California Gnatcatchers, and a Lincoln's Sparrow.

We continued to our next spot with the goal of seeing California Thrasher. I was behind the main group talking with a guide when I spotted a Hooded Oriole, another lifer, feeding in a tree behind us. This time of year is quite early for one to be seen. Most people didn't see it, but a few got decent views. Only ID photos were taken as the bird was hiding in a tree.

When we arrived at our next stop, there was minimal bird action, but we persevered and while I was at the back of the group, I heard the guide in the front call out "Common Ground Dove" which was another lifer. By the time I got to the front of the group, it had flown off. Only about a fifth of the group saw it, so myself and one other person who had not seen the dove, decided to follow where it had flown, even though they are known to keep flying for longer distances when flushed. In about one minute, we found two ground doves sitting in a tree at eye level and got good views and some photos. When we met back up with the rest of the group, we saw a male Allen's Hummingbird sitting close and got good photos.

Allen's Hummingbird

Our next goal was to see Vermilion Flycatcher at a baseball field where they are often seen. We saw one female quite quickly and also had a male land right in front of us allowing for photos. At this same spot, we had 28 Western Meadowlarks, a Golden-crowned Sparrow, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

At our next destination, we hoped to see Belding's Savanna Sparrow and Ridgway's Rail. We dipped on the Sparrow, but got great views of the Rail. At this same spot, we saw a large flock of Willet numbering over 400 birds.

Ridgway's Rail

For our final stop of the day, we went to the salt works ponds with the hope of seeing a Black Skimmer. When we arrived at the pond, we immediately saw another sizable flock of Willets, as well as a flock of about 70 American Avocets. Further out at an observation deck, we saw a flock of Royal Terns, which are quite common, as well as one Foresters Tern. While I was scanning the tern flock, I saw two terns that looked like Elegants, which are rare at that time of year. After I called them out, our guides confirmed that they were indeed Elegant Terns and they were the first ones to be seen in 2020.

On Sunday, the last tour of the festival for me, we went out with the goal of seeing 100 species in a day. Our first stop was at Lindo Lake, where we were hoping to see Common Gallinule, Grey Flycatcher, and Tricolored Blackbird. We saw all of these, as well as many Black-crowned Night Herons and two Lilac-crowned Parrots, which are uncommon in that area.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Lilac-crowned Parrots

The next stop was in an Oak Chaparral habitat, where we hoped to see the last of my target birds for the trip; Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, and Lawrence's Goldfinch. We saw these, as well as two Great-horned Owls, a Lark Sparrow, and great photos of a Western Bluebird.

Western Bluebird(2)

Great-horned Owl

At the following stop our goals were California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. We heard all of these except the Gnatcatcher, but saw none. At this spot we also found a Cactus Wren, which was a lifer for me and a rarity for that area.

After that, we went to Lake Murray, where we hoped to see grebes and re-find the Common Goldeneye that was seen previously. We saw many Western Grebes, a few Clark's, and one Eared, but did not see the Goldeneye. We also got great looks and photos of a Common Gallinule.

Common Gallinule

By this point, we had already tallied up a fair number of species, so we decided to chase two rare birds that were hanging out in the same area: a Thick-billed Kingbird, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Within a couple of minutes of arriving at the area where they had been seen, we got good views and mediocre photos of both birds. The Thick-billed Kingbird has been coming back to the same location for the past 11 years and the Scissor-tail for the past 3.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Thick-billed Kingbird

Our final stop was at the estuary right on the festival grounds, where we saw Little-blue Heron, Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, and my lifer Red Knot.

In total, I got 43 lifers and saw about 167 species! It was an excellent trip and I highly recommend this festival to anyone looking to bird the southern west coast.

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