Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Anza-Borrego Desert Birds

This is the second part of a series on our recent trip to San Diego - you can find part 1here.

Although numerous amusement parks and zoos make the San Diego area a great destination for families with small children, we are really more backcountry and wilderness people at heart.  As a result, by day 4 of our trip we needed a break from the crowds and drove east, across the Laguna Mountains, for a little taste of desert hiking.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the second largest state park in the US at 2400km² and it is certainly of interest to birders.  The local hawkwatch program counted 9000 Swainson's Hawks making their way north last spring, forming large kettles during the day and roosting in the town of Borrego Springs at night.  The small oases of palm trees, irrigated land, and the nearby Salton Sea also provide waypoints and wintering habitat for migratory birds and it was to one such location that we headed for our hike.

Our first stop was the park visitor centre where I was pleased to find Verdin in the parking lot, as well as a Costa's Hummingbird feeding on cactus blooms in front of the main entrance.
Verdin, an active little songbird native that seems to fill a similar role in desert scrub that the Chickadee does in coniferous forests here - looks better enlarged!
The visitor centre itself is staffed by friendly volunteers and provides a good overview of indigenous people's history in the area, early Spanish exploration, and the flora and fauna of the area.  There were several stuffed specimens of birds, reptiles and mammals, providing an opportunity to photograph the Greater Roadrunner, a live specimen having appropriately run across the road in front of us on our drive in.
This roadrunner isn't doing much running anymore
After checking out the visitor centre and grabbing lunch in town, we headed over to the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead.  This short (3 mile) walk takes hikers up a dry desert canyon and around a corner to reveal a cool creek complete with waterfall and small palm tree forest.  Unsurprisingly, this little patch of green is a magnet for migratory and resident birds.  Two California Quail were wandering about in the lower section of the trail and we saw them more than once, sometimes quite close.  Black-throated Sparrows, a desert specialist with striking white facial stripes contrasting with a dark black bib, also made an appearance giving great binocular views but sadly no photograph of these little stunners.
California Quail on the trail
Hiking at preschooler pace, it took us a while to reach the creek but when we did we were suddenly surrounded by green bushes and young palm trees growing between the boulders.  There were lots of songbirds here too, including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and House Finch.  Anna's Hummingbird were also feeding in the bushes and, according to the signage, Hooded Orioles nest in the palm trees, although we didn't see any.
Exploring the habitat in the upper canyon 
I've gone back and forth on the identification of this bird and I'm definitely still open to suggestions but... I believe this is a Pacific-slope Flycatcher based on 1) appropriate range for late March migration for this species but not for Cordillerian, 2) probability based on e-bird distribution, 3) species is mentioned as migrant in regional guidebook.  In any event it seems all wrong for the one "expected" flycatcher in this area which is the Ash-throated (primary projection is too short, no rufous in tail, it has an eye ring etc.).  Now that I've finished talking myself into that, feel free to let me have it in the comments!
If you are in Southwestern California, for birds or any other reason, I would recommend making a detour to this scenic desert location and checking out some of the great birding for yourself.

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