Monday, November 14, 2016

How the West was birded

It's dark and miserable in Switzerland (snow on Nov. 7?!) and old world flycatchers and warblers are super boring, so let's flash back to happier times and a grand adventure out West.

The route, starting in San Fran and ending in LA, hitting up 7 national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree), one national disgrace (Las Vegas) and with a bonus add-on in South Texas.

Natalia's parents flew up for our graduations and this was kind of a celebration trip. Non-birders involved, so it was not a 'birding trip' per se, but with the focus on national parks, it was pretty easy to be opportunistic. Heck, I scored 24 lifers. And that was before scooting off to Texas.

Since Natalia and I had already done a good bit of birding around LA the opportunities for lifers were slim for the first several days, so we'll just gloss over those except for some obligatory landmark pics:

Golden Gate Bridge (sponsored by Hyundai)

Yosemite Valley

General Sherman Tree

During this stretch I was so desperate to see something new that I coerced the group into taking a small detour to a random city park outside Fresno to chase a Yellow-billed Magpie.

Yellow-billed Magpie, some park outside Fresno. This is one of the few birds endemic to the United States


After Sequoia we finally crossed the rain shadow to reach Death Valley, desert territory and the chance for some different bird life. The desolation surprised me with its beauty.

Death Valley. Last landscape shot from here on it will be all birds

At the Death Valley Visitor’s Center we picked up Lucy’s Warbler, Verdin and the much-desired Greater Roadrunner. Awesome!

I didn't manage any lifer photos in the 100+ degree heat, so have a Warbling Vireo instead. Death Valley

I was dreading the obligatory stopover in Las Vegas, but it proved to offer some great birding opportunities at local parks not far from The Strip.

Unlike game birds in a lot of parts of the world, these silly-looking Gambel's Quail are parking lot birds around Las Vegas.

I guess we were there during breeding season because this goof ball sat up for us to sing.

a skukling Verdin, one of my most-wanted desert birds in a park in Las Vegas
We also scored Abert's Towhee, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Costa's Hummingbird and Crissal Thrasher.

After surviving Vegas we took a "quick" detour by Zion National Park, which in retrospect, was a mistake. It added just a few hours of extra driving, but 4 hours is not nearly enough time to see this place. Heck, with the crowds it was barely enough time to park, have lunch and cram onto a bus for a spin around the valley.

It almost paid off big time.

California Condors are nesting in this hole in Zion Canyon. This is great news for condor conservation. Unfortunately for us the birds did not make an appearance.

Had the California Condor showed up at this hole where the ranger told us it nests, the Zion jaunt would have been well worth the effort.  But do yourself a favor and give this place at least a couple days.

After Zion, it was on to the main event, the Grand Canyon.

OK, I lied. This is also a landscape

The view really crushes the birds here though. I was surprised to find that Grand Canyon ended up being my favorite park of the seven. This was almost certainly because we took the time to slow down and stay a few days instead of stopping to tick a box and rush off to the next long drive. Also key was staying right in the park so we could get up at dawn to see the rim before the rush of tour buses packed things out. This is what we did wrong at Yosemite and Zion.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, Grand Canyon National Park
Violet-green Swallow at Grand Canyon National Park. Great shot for photo-stringing
White-breasted Nuthatch at Grand Canyon National Park. There are rumors that this bird may soon be split and have a new name. I have no idea what this one would be called.

Originally our plan had us cutting back through Vegas on the way to LA, but, fortunately, we instead cut south through Arizona in order to swing by Joshua Tree.  In Arizona we made tactical stops at Kaibab and Prescott State Forests.  These produced a nice haul: Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Scott’s Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Gray Vireo and Bridled Titmouse.

Finally at Joshua Tree, our 7th and final park of the tour, we found Rock Wren and Bendire’s Thrasher.

Bendire's Thrasher at Joshua Tree National Park, this bird is known to occur here, but apparently hasn't been photographed very often (or so the local eBird reviewer told me)

I caught a glimpse of what had to be a LeConte’s Thrasher scurry between a couple bushes, but like some jerk magician, it vanished into thin air.  Do these things burrow under the ground or something?  Not yet a nemesis bird, but I’ve got my eye on that one to show up later.

Black-throated Sparrow at Joshua Tree National Park

After the long drive back to Los Angeles, Natalia continued the tour with her parents down to San Diego, while I flew east to Corpus Christi Texas for a wetlands conference.

I don’t care too much for my U.S. list or the ABA area, so instead of driving south to Brownsville, I headed west for more lifer opportunities in the arid ecosystems around Falcon Dam State Park.

Pyrruloxia at Falcon Dam State Park

I finally got the Pyrruloxia I had always wanted to see after growing up surrounded by Northern Cardinals.  What surprised me about this bird is that it overlaps with the cardinal.  I saw both sing from the same bush by falcon lake.

Curve-billed Thrasher, Falcon Dam State Park

Inca Dove, Falcon Dam State Park
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Gray Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk and Olive Sparrow rounded out my Texas lifers, but I dipped out on the orioles.  Altamira and Audubon’s both eluded me.

Technically I got my first Mexican birds at Chapeno looking across the Rio Grande (which is so narrow!), but I haven’t properly logged them yet. 

From close range a border wall here seems even sillier than it does in the abstract sense.

My life knows no walls. This trip was really just a warm-up for the real post-graduation trip: six weeks in South America starting in Southern Peru and ended at Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina. Stay tuned for that!

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