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The San Diego Birding Festival

In Mid-February I was lucky enough to be able to get down to the San Diego Bird Festival for the second time in the last three years. This was my first major birding trip since the Pandemic so I was happy to get out of the cold winter here in Canada, even if only for a week.

To begin the trip, my Dad and I drove to Spokane on Wednesday, where we caught a 5:15 flight to San Diego, allowing us to spend the afternoon scoping the estuary near the festival grounds while meeting some other birders at the festival. This estuary is located at the mouth of the San Diego river and is an excellent place to find a variety of both shorebirds and wading birds. In the three hours that we spent here we found over fifty species including a variety of shorebirds, Little-blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-heron wintering Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Brown Pelican.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Brown Pelican

The next day, Thursday, we didn't do much birding, but we were able to rest from our early flight and take a course to refresh our pelagic bird ID skills.

Friday was our first full day of birding on a festival tour. Leaving at 6:30, we drove south to several birding destinations along the border with Mexico. Our first stop was right along the border wall, and here, we were hoping to see a variety of chaparral species. Immediately, we found two California Gnatcatchers feeding along the trail. Though taking photos of these birds tends to be challenging, I was able to get a shot that is good enough to tell the species.

Next, we found a Greater Roadrunner, the first lifer of the trip for me, perched atop a hill in the distance, unfortunately out of range for photos. Finally, we found both California Towhee and California Thrasher, though looks at the thrasher were poor at best.

California Gnatcatcher

California Towhee

For our next stop, we went to the a small state park where we had found Common Ground Dove two years before. While we missed the dove, we did find Summer Tanager, another lifer for me. Besides that, we also had both Townsend's and Wilson's Warblers, Hutton's Vireo, and Hermit Thrush.

Summer Tanager (Immature Male)

Finally, we ended the day by scoping another river-mouth estuary where we found another selection of shorebirds, many Brant, and a rare Common Teal, the Eurasian subspecies of Green-winged Teal. These two species can be differentiated by the orientation of the white stripe on their flanks; horizontal on the Common Teal and Vertical on the Green-winged.

Common Teal

Later that evening, I found a cooperative flock of six Golden-crowned Sparrows right in the city and got some good photos.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

On Friday, the third day of the trip, we went on a big day trip with the hopes of seeing some new chaparral and oak species for the trip. For our first stop, we went to urban pond where we found Greater White-fronted Goose, many Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowy Egrets, and Common Gallinule.

Snowy Egret

Next, we explored chaparral habitat where we found another Greater Roadrunner, more California Gnatcatchers, Wrentit, and Lincoln's and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Unfortunately, most of these birds were distant, so photos were poor.

Next, we went to Oak habitat in hopes of finding Acorn Woodpecker and Oak Titmouse. We found both of these easily as well as a Golden Eagle, a Great Horned Owl on a nest, my lifer Phainopepla, a beautiful shiny male, though photos were poor.

Great Horned Owl


To finish the day, we went to the estuary near the conference center, bringing us to a total of 116 species in one day!

The following day was one that I had been looking forward to since the beginning of the festival, the pelagic trip. We left port at 7:00, beginning the birding by spotting Surfbird, Black Turnstone and a previously spotted, extremely rare American Oystercatcher or Black x American Oystercatcher Hybrid. As of now it has not been decided as to if this bird is an American Oystercatcher or a Black x American Oystercatcher Hybrid because the two look extremely similar.

American Oystercatcher or Black x American Oystercatcher Hybrid

After traveling further out to sea for about 45 minutes, we began to see our first Black-vented Shearwaters of the day though species diversity was minimal until about 30 minutes later when we were nearer to the Mexican border. Here we saw several Scripps's Murrelets, Brown Boobies, Northern Fulmars, and one Sooty Shearwater.

Brown Booby (Adult)

Brown Booby (Juvenile)

Scripps's Murrelet

Northern Fulmar

After getting satisfactory views and pictures of these birds, we traveled north for about 45 minutes until we found a large flock of Black-vented Shearwaters. During several minutes of picking through this flock, we were able to locate a Pink-footed Shearwater and a Pomarine Jaeger.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pomarine Jaeger

Shortly after finding the Black-vented Shearwater Flock, we found what is known as "super pod" of dolphins numbering over 1000 individuals making quite a scene "bow riding" along the boat. An hour further north, we spotted both Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets and an unusual light headed type of Brown Booby.

Brown Booby (Light-headed)

Rhinoceros Auklet

To end this excellent day, we were lucky enough to find two Pelagic Cormorants with the usual Brandt's and Double Crested Cormorants at the entrance to the port. The Pelagic Cormorant can be differentiated from the other species by its smaller size and thinner, needle-like bill.

On the final day of our trip, Monday, I decided to chase two rarities, lifers for me, Little Stint, an extremally rare vagrant from Europe, and Pacific Golden Plover, a much less rare regional rarity. I found both of these easily along with Snowy Plover and an estimated 1000 Sanderlings. Unfortunately, both of the rarities were not cooperative for photos though the other two species were.

Snowy Plover


We finished the festival with 160 species, exceeding my expectations for a second time. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to find more birds of the southern west coast.


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