San Diego is one of our favorite birding locations and this visit was another good one for us.
We arrived in the San Diego area around noon on Tuesday and checked in to a campsite at Lake Jennings Rec. Area. Lake Jennings is a favorite campsite because it is far enough out to be away from much of the bustle of the city, yet near enough to be within easy driving distance to all of the local hotspots. Plus, it is a reasonable cost for a California campsite; only $33, compared to $45 or 50 at a state park.
A couple of hours after checking in, and after waiting for the heat of the day to start to abate, we headed over to Lake Murray to look for Spotted Munias. (This is an exotic species of finch which was recently added to the ABA list. It is also called the Scaly-breasted Munia or Nutmeg Manikin.) Populations of these birds have become established in several southern cities, notably Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston. We were following a tip from a local birding buddy, Dan King, whom we met on a pelagic trip from Point Loma Harbor in San Diego during our Big Year.
Dan’s tip turned out to be a good one. We saw a total of six of the birds; two striking, adult males, three females, and an immature male.
On Wednesday, we went looking for a Yellow-green Vireo that had been reported on eBird. Actually, there had been two recently reported vireos in the San Diego area and two more reports from farther up the coast as far north as San Francisco. We were hoping to finally get this bird that we should have seen in our own back yard of the RGV. Unfortunately, this bird continued to be a nemesis bird for us and we missed it again.
After leaving the futile vireo scene, we headed down to Dairy Mart Road and the Tijuana River Valley. This is the farthest south that you can go in California and it has a strange mix of birds from Mexican strays, rarities, and exotics to Siberian vagrants. We had not seen any recent reports of species I still needed for my list so we were just seeing what we could see. It turned out that we did not see much at first and we spent a couple of hours just sitting in the shade and waiting for the afternoon to cool off. (You can see that waiting for the heat to abate was a common theme on this trip!)
I couldn’t sit and wait any longer and we started to explore some likely habitats with the idea that we would mark some locations to which to return the next day when the weather was cooler. One of the areas we wanted to see was the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park Bird and Butterfly Garden on Hollister Road.
We decided to find some shade and watch for birds in the garden. I was just starting to park the van when a flock of Black-throated Magpie-Jays flew by. This is a Mexican species and the population here is established from escaped cage birds. We had seen them on a list of notable exotics of the area and had hoped to see them. The birds seem to be fairly reliable and well established. It is only a matter of time before they qualify for the ABA list.
As you can see from the photo, this is a large and impressive jay! The long tail streamers are especially notable. They wave and shimmy as the birds move about. The flock we saw had 7 or 8 individuals and was quite noisy. Even so, it was hard to get close enough for a good picture.
After spending quite some time trying to re-find the jays and get better photos we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. Unbeknownst to us, some other birders had found some Red-throated Pipits at the Dairy Mart Road sod farms shortly after we had left. The next day, as we were preparing to leave San Diego, I read their reports on eBird and we rushed back to the area to try to find them.
So often, we have been in an area and found nothing rare to chase, only to have a rarity show up as soon as we had left. This time, we got the report soon enough to avoid a repeat of that scenario. Instead, we arrived back at the sod farms at 9 am on Thursday and Renee found the pipits by 9:15! These are Siberian birds that are notable for their long-distance migration and the fact that they frequently stray east during the fall and wind up along the coast of California instead of ending up in southern Asia or Africa, where they belong.
This was a true lifer for both of us and was a great bird to add to my list on our last day in San Diego.
The first image shows the warm brown tones, pale streaking on the back, boldly streaked flanks, and pale legs (peeking through the grass) that confirm the identification.
The second image, though highly magnified from a distant shot and blurry, even shows the hint of a red throat on one of the three birds we saw.
Our California trip was very successful. I added nine species to my list (seven ABA and two non-ABA) and it only cost about $1300 to see them all – just a little over $100 per day – and that includes the costs of the pelagic trip from Half Moon Bay. (Traveling in the camper van is not as cheap as “the Prius and a tent” but it is fairly cost-effective.) If all my trips could be this productive I’d be able to reach 800 on a budget after all!
We are back in New Mexico now and are hoping for another rarity to chase somewhere near enough in the next five or six weeks. Let us know if you see anything.