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Saturday, February 24, 2018

To San Diego in Pursuit of More Birds

After four nights in Mexico it was time to head back to the US, and we decided to make a day of driving out of it and head east to San Diego. Even on our "travel" days, however, we always looked out for a stop or two to break up the day and hopefully provide some new birds. Jason did some research and found a gem in Yuma West Wetlands, a park right on the California-Arizona border. While we didn't see any burrowing owls in their designated habitat similar to the one we saw at Zanjero Park in Gilbert, AZ, we did see more than 20 species including several we hadn't see anywhere else.

The small common ground-dove, a species I had only ever seen once before on a different trip to Mexico
Our first confirmed Costa's hummingbird - we had likely seen some before but had had trouble confirming due to difficult lighting. I love how they can look so cute and so angry at the same time!
It's so much fun visiting these local parks that are oases for both people and birds alike. Many of the species there are probably very common to local birders, but so exciting for us out-of-towners to see. 

Northern mockingbirds are as common as robins in much of the southern US, but they're a rare treat for us to see from the Pacific Northwest

This park featured a fishing hole for both its human and avian visitors. This great egret was hoping for an easy bite, but after the fisherman wasn't getting any bites the egret moved along and had better success on his own.

When we got to San Diego that evening, Jason returned to eBird to research what we might have a chance of seeing the next day. Two of our most hoped-for species on the trip to Mexico had been the blue-footed and brown boobies that are regularly seen there. We searched hard for them, but didn't have any luck. With the relatively low numbers of terns and pelicans also around, my guess is there wasn't enough fish for them in the northern most reaches of the Sea of Cortez. (I remember seeing similar things in San Ignacio Lagoon - some years the fish-eating birds were abundant, and others scarce, depending on the fish.) That's the way it is with wildlife of course; there are never any guarantees. But when Jason found the rare bird alert for the pair of Nazca boobies that have been in San Diego Bay since mid-December, well, we simply had to give it a shot!

I had never heard of a Nazca booby before, and that's because they are a recent split from the masked booby. Their primary breeding colonies are in the Galapagos Islands but they are also seen in other parts of the eastern tropical Pacific in southern Mexico and northern South America. They are considered a "mega-rarity" to the United States.

From reports from other birders, we knew the views from land were usually distant. The boobies tend to sit on the Number 34 buoy in the bay, near a Naval base, where the only viewing is from the far side of the bay. When they're flying around foraging, some have been lucky enough to get closer looks from land, but these sounded rare. The best views and photos were coming from those who got on a boat to go see them closer. We decided to start on land and make sure the birds were even present before deciding what to do next. From the shore-based lookout, we could barely make out a white speck on the buoy across the water - if it hadn't been for so many reports from others, I wouldn't have even been confident there was a bird on the buoy, let alone that it was a booby.

Do you see the Nazca booby? Do you even see the buoy it's on?
We did, however, see the white speck, and another birder with a scope said it was the booby. With having missed the boobies in Mexico, having this one so close, and being on vacation, we decided, "What the heck. Let's splurge and rent a boat and go see it." So we did just that! Loew's Action Sport Rentals was just down the road (and the booby has apparently been good for business!)

If the booby won't come to us, let's go to the booby!
We headed out for the Number 34 buoy and found....nothing.

Just our luck! The bird that had been sitting there had apparently taken off to forage, meaning it could be anywhere in the bay. We had less than an hour and counting to try and find it.

Finding a booby in a bay aka finding a needle in a haystack
We started cruising around at higher speed, stopping for any black and white bird soaring around.

Nope, not a Nazca booby - but a royal tern, that's cool too!
Then something caught my eye that was most definitely a different shape. We found one!!!

Plunge-diving Nazca booby
At first it was flying around at high speed and we only got distant looks. It would dive, and briefly sit on the water, but every time we got closer it would take off and resume foraging. 

But then it turned and flew right over us!

Wow! Success!
On our way back to the harbor we swung by the Number 34 buoy again, and this time we got lucky - the second bird had returned and let us get a great look.

We had definitely been concerned we were going to be skunked once we got out there, but it turned out to be well worth it! As we slowly motored back to port, I felt like we were being watched - and it turns out that we were, by this osprey:

On a roll, we decided to check out  the near by San Diego River estuary for some other great bird sightings that had been reported there in recent days. We found one of them - a little blue heron, a bird far more likely to be seen in the southeastern US than in the southwest.

Little blue heron - another great find!
By this point, however, us island dwellers had had enough of downtown, so we headed north out of the city and made a stop at one of my all-time favorite birding spots: Batiquitos Lagoon. I used to go here regularly when my grandpa lived in Oceanside and is one of the places that gets credit for getting young me excited about birding. I can't go through the San Diego area without making at least one short stop here. It's still basically in the city but regardless of time of year is home to an astounding amount of bird life.

Yay! Batiquitos Lagoon!
It didn't take long to start adding more year birds.

California towhee
While looking up for a possible great horned owl near a nest in the middle of the park, I spotted a merlin feeding on a vole or other small rodent. Their color is so much lighter here than the darker morphs back home that it took me a moment to recognize what it was!

I stopped at a pipe outlet where the water creates a dark puddle in the bushes. On a visit here with my dad probably about 20 years ago we had stopped here and seen a sora emerge from the reeds, still the only time I have ever seen that species. As I was telling Jason this story I couldn't believe my eyes when another elusive bird emerged from the grasses: a Virginia rail! I was trying so hard all of last year to get a chance to photograph this species and now I got a golden opportunity, right where I had seen a sora. Birding is so fascinating this way - how often you can go to the same little place and see the same type of thing even decades apart.

My first time photographing a Virginia rail!
Our trip was already winding down, but we still had a couple days in California, and we had plans to both soak up as much sunshine as possible and see as many birds as we could before heading back north! I'll wrap up our road trip story in the next blog post.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Guide to Birding Puerto Peñasco

One of the big draws to continue heading south to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico was to continue looking for more unusual bird life. Unlike Madera Canyon, or many other popular birding spots in the US, there wasn't a lot of information out there on where to go or what to look for. I was mostly guided by eBird hot spots, but even that didn't provide information on how to access these locations, which proved to be more difficult (and in some cases requiring more of a sense of adventure) than expected. So, I decided to share in this blog post not only some of the highlights of what we saw, but to also make this a bit of a guide for anyone else looking to bird the area. Click any of the maps below to see a larger version.

eBird hot spots that I'll reference

Increasingly, in areas where there are resorts or communities of higher end homes, access requires going through a gate house. The only way to have guaranteed access to these areas is to be staying in them, though we found in many cases that simply saying we wanted to see the area/beaches/hotels/restaurants was enough to get us through. I didn't like pulling the "I'm an American" card, but that seemed to work, though I suspect this may continue to change and become more difficult unless you're staying there

Location: Puerto and Malecon
Place to stay to guarantee access: Any
Sense of adventure required: Low
Pros: Easily accessible, lots of shore and water birds
Cons: Lots of aggressive street vendors
Additional notes: The port had a lot of bird activity but was pretty industrial so it was hard to get near the water. Eating at a restaurant on the Malecon is probably one of the best bets to have an extended waterfront viewing time without being bothered by any street vendors. We also discovered another great beach that I recommended as an eBird hot spot: Mirador Beach near the bottom middle of the map. We parked near the corner of Calle Matamoros and Aven Campeche where there's an abandoned lot you can walk across to the beach which is a nice mix of sand and rocks. You can also access this beach from Playa de Oro RV Park.

Yellow-footed gull, an endemic to the Sea of Cortez and a lifer for me, near the Puerto

A brown pelican on the rocks in the Puerto
Semipalmated plover at Mirador Beach

Brown pelicans at Mirador Beach

Location: Bahia la Choya
Place to stay to guarantee access: Any
Sense of adventure required: Low
Pros: Easy to access, potentially more open and rocky shoreline birds
Cons: Limited access - we parked at the boat launch (near JJ's Cantina) which didn't seem to be a problem
Additional notes: Looked for but didn't see an access to the supposedly public Tucson Beach. Tide was high when we were there but from the boat launch moving along the shoreline required some scrambling over rocks - may be better at lower tide

A Heermann's gull on the rocks near the Punta Roca del Toro boat launch

Location: CEDO and Las Conchas
Place to stay to guarantee access: Rent a house in Las Conchas, or tell guard gate you want to visit CEDO
Sense of adventure required: Medium
Pros: Long sandy beach nearly empty of people with lots of birds
Cons: Hard to find beach access if you're not staying at a house, probably best to park near CEDO and find one of the walkways down
Additional notes: This was our favorite birding area, but probably in part because we were staying in Las Conchas so we were here the most and it was easy to get to.  CEDO is an intercultural center for research on the regional desert and ocean and has a visitor center that's worth the visit regardless, but will probably also be the easiest way for non-residents to get access to the beach.

Marbled godwit at Las Conchas

Black-bellied plover and Forster's terns at Las Conchas

Willet at Las Conchas

Fin whale skeleton at CEDO

Location: Playa Pelicano
Place to stay to guarantee access: Laguna del Mar or Laguna Shores resorts
Sense of Adventure Required: Medium
Pros: Huge sandy beach, also several man-made ponds with lots of activity, not much human activity of any type going on out there
Cons: Guard gate (we asked to go see beaches), two up and coming resorts may make this more difficult
Additional Notes: The ponds near the Laguna del Mar resort were hopping with birds - ducks, grebes, gulls, shorebirds, swallows, a great blue heron rookery, and more. The sandy beaches were pretty busy, too, with the highlight for me being the Wilson's plovers, but we just had to park in front of the private homes and walk down to the beach from there (again, no issues with doing this.) We didn't go around further to the north closer to Laguna Shores where there were roads to access even more beach, so I'm not sure what access is like here but it looks like there's a lot more to explore. There is another guard gate if you go this way. Watch the tides when you go because when they go out here, they go waaaaay out.

Wilson's plover (lifer!) at Playa Pelicano

Great blue heron on a nest near Laguna del Mar

Location: Estero de Morua
Place to stay to guarantee access: Playa Encanto
Sense of adventure required: Medium
Pros: Amazing huge estuary habitat - good for herons, boobies, shorebirds
Cons: Takes some creativity to find places to view from
Additional notes: The easiest access points are off Freemont Blvd/ City Hwy 3. One of them is marked on the map below as Camino a la Morua. If you look for either the Oyster Farm or the oyster restuarant El Barco on Google maps you will see the two roads. These are sandy roads; our VW Jetta did okay but be careful on the offshoots as there is some deeper sand and some vehicles could get stuck. There didn't seem to be any problem with walking past the oyster farm or restaurant to the beach to bird. The estuary can also be viewed from the end of the road at Las Conchas, though it looked like you would have to walk a long ways across the sand to get near the water. We found a final good viewing area from Playa Encanto near Coopertiva Punta Roja (see Google Maps). This required getting through another guard gate (we said we wanted to see the town), but then we parked near this restaurant and walked down onto the beach with no problem.

Black skimmers and gulls at Estero de Morua

American oystercatcher at Estero de Morua

Loggerhead shrike on the road to Estero de Morua

Location: Estanque de Aguas Residuales (Sewage ponds)
Place to stay to guarantee access: Any
Sense of adventure required: High
Pros: Unknown
Cons: A very poor part of town - lots of trash in the roads, looked pretty sketchy, we didn't feel comfortable getting out of the car
Additional notes: You can apparently park at the end of Sonora Blvd and walk up onto the dikes

Location: Estero de la Pinta
Place to stay to guaranttee access: Mayan Palace or Grand Mayan Resorts
Sense of adventure required: High 
Pros: Previously some impressive bird reports from here
Cons: Apparently no way to access without a pass to the resort, also a local said the birds have moved away from this estuary more due to all the construction
Additional notes: You used to be able to get past this guard gate like the others by asking to visit the restaurant or see the resort, but now it apparently requires reservations or a guest pass. Getting a guest pass means signed up for a breakfast and 1.5 hour (or longer, if what we heard is true) presentation to try and sell you a time share. This gets you a day pass to the grounds and all the facilities. If you want to do this, don't worry, the EcoFun representatives in the Malecon area will find you.

Location: Sandy Beach
Place to stay to guarantee access: Any of the Sandy Beach resorts
Sense of adventure required: Low?
Pros: Unknown
Cons: Unknown
Additional notes: We didn't see an easy way to get to this beach without going through one of the resorts, but we heard you may be able to access it via one of the RV Parks on the bottom left of the map below.

In total, we saw a respectable 60 species in the few days we were there. The "big misses" were the brown and blue-footed boobies that were no where to be found, though were some great finds including the yellow-footed gull and magnificent frigatebirds.

And I've got to finish out this post with a few non-bird related photos from our time in Mexico....

Bottlenose dolphins off Las Conchas
 There was amazing street art everywhere:

And every sunset was pretty amazing, too:

Madera Canyon: A Birder's Paradise

My parents have always spoken fondly of Madera Canyon, a region in southeast Arizona known as one of the best bird-watching locations in the country and where they made several trips back in the 1970s. Ever since I became a bird watcher, I've been dreaming of making a visit there; more than 250 species have been documented there, and thanks to its proximity to Mexico, for many of them it's one of the only places they can be seen in the United States. When we were talking about where to go when we decided to road trip south this winter, Madera Canyon became a focal point of the trip. Specifically, the Santa Rita Lodge, which for decades has been home to rustic cabins and a host of bird feeders drawing in a whole host of birds for great photo opportunities.

When we arrived, I couldn't even make it from the car to the door of the office to check in before seeing my first life bird: a Mexican jay.

I made it another two steps before noticing the coati roaming the property; I had been tracking recent sightings at the lodge and had read coati were making a daily appearance, and was really hoping to see these bizarre mammals that primarily live in South American but also just cross the border into the United States here.

Also known as coatimundi, or specifically white-nosed coatimundi, it turns out they would be a constant presence during our visit. The owner of the property, who suspects they're coming in during daylight hours because of a lack of food elsewhere, is in the middle of a constant battle trying to outwit these tenacious animals from their attempts to reach the feeders. Like raccoons, to whom they are related, they are wily and don't give up easily!

But they are so darn cute and fun to watch!

After finally succeeding with check in, and already realizing that two nights would not be long enough, we spent the last hour of daylight at the feeders, and I amassed an incredible seven life birds in that time. I haven't experienced birding like this since my early days when I was still seeing common species for the first time: it felt like every other bird I looked at it was completely new to me! Later that night we would go out owling and I would hear my eighth: the whiskered screech-owl. If these species names sound unusual, again, it's because many of them don't occur elsewhere in the United States!

Yellow-eyed junco
Bridled titmouse

We had one full day in the canyon, and it was hard to leave the lodge. We did explore a few other short trails, and while the few birds we did see were also "good" ones, it was hard to beat the constant activity at the lodge feeders.

The hanging bird feeders were suspended from free-standing poles and numbered from 1 to 12 so observers can more easily describe to each other where to look, as in, "An Arizona woodpecker just flew in to #3!"
Arizona woodpecker, one of my most hoped-for species to see in Madera Canyon
Female hepatic tanager

The coati weren't the only innovative feeder visitors - I never thought I would see a wild turkey at a tray feeder, let alone one about 8 feet off the ground!

I was determined on this trip to play closer attention to sparrows. One of the notoriously difficult bird groups to identify, we actually have a pretty low and comparatively easy diversity of sparrows back home. Here, without the extra attention to detail, I easily could have missed another lifer, the rufous-winged sparrow, which is incredibly similar to the chipping sparrow.

Chipping sparrow
Rufous-winged sparrow
Madera Canyon can record up to an astounding 15 different hummingbird species a year; by comparison, we are only likely to see two species on San Juan Island. We were a bit early for hummingbird migration so there weren't many around yet, but they had a couple birds over-winter. Luckily for us, these included two more life birds for me: the Rivoli's (formerly magnificent) and broad-billed hummingbird.

Rivoli's hummingbird: small bird, large hummingbird!
I could have easily spent a few more days at Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Canyon, but all too soon it was time to pack up and head onwards. Before leaving, we made one more hike along another short trail where a rare elegant trogon had been regularly seen. We came across two other birders looking for it, and while they also hadn't found it, they tipped us off to where they had just seen what to me was an equally exciting species: the montezuma quail. If they hadn't told us where to look we never would have spotted these slow-moving, well-camouflaged ground birds among the grass. My dad, who can be credited with getting me into birding, has MANY more specices on his North American life list than I do, but not this one - it's always pretty special to get one he hasn't seen! (Sorry dad!)

Montezuma quail!
All in all I added 11 lifers in our ~36 hours in Madera Canyon which blew my expectations out of the water. I will definitely have to go back, hopefully at a slightly different time of year, and hopefully for a longer visit! While this was the first place I was truly sad to leave, our trip was far from over. Instead, we were heading further south into Mexico to see what other birds we could find!