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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.

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