In 4-1/2 days of birding from Palm Springs to Brawley, the Norseman and I came across 100 (or so) species in terrain ranging from below sea level to 8,400 feet above, from arid desert to snow-covered mountaintop. But rather than the numbers, it was certain sightings that will linger in my memory, notable either for the unusual bird or the place we saw it. Herewith, in order of observation, are nine of my favorites:
Burrowing Owl. Any owl is a treat to behold, and the Burrowing Owl has to be one of the cutest. We were told to just turn down Kalin Road southwest of Niland and watch the side of the road. Nothing for awhile, then there one was, standing calmly on the roadside berm, looking straight ahead (watching us?). A little further on – now that we knew what to look for – we came across a pair. Finally, as predicted, a fourth owl sat atop an abandoned tire. Little sentinels, the color of the surrounding dirt, totally unperturbed.
Snow Goose. I had seen a handful of snow geese before, an even a small flock flying overhead at our Minnesota house, but nothing prepared me for the hundreds, thousands?, that flocked in the fields, in the ponds and that wheeled en masse against a dark sky. The stark contrast between white and black was stunning – and matched by the also numerous White Pelicans – but it was the impression of the multitude against the landscape that, no matter how many places we saw it, took my breath away.
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. After a day looking at big birds on and around the Salton Sea, it was refreshing to stop at a brush-lined canal and watch little land birds flitting. It became exciting when a male and female pair of gnatcatchers appeared and we saw the black cap, distinguishing it from the more familiar Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.
Black-throated Sparrow. On a late-afternoon stroll through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park we were getting more exercise than birdlife when a chipping sound approached through the chaparral and a pair of sparrows came darting through the cactus-y scrub. Nothing is more exciting when encountering a sparrow than seeing a bold field mark, and this sparrow’s black throat was not only handsome but an undeniable mark of identification.
Sage Thrasher. Joshua Tree National Park was another site where natural beauty, not birds, was the object, but we pulled off the road at one “wash” to see what the desert might hold. As we chased a pair of Phainopeplas, wonderful in their own right, a small bird scurried along the desert floor, moving from one protective clump to another. It was its relative anonymity that marked it a Sage Thrasher, and we felt fortunate to have stumbled upon it in its predicted habitat.
Pinyon Jay. Go outside the park then back in to Black Rock to see a Pinyon Jay, the ranger at Cottonwood told us; so we headed there as the sun was setting on our day. We wandered the campsite, listening to House Finches and Cactus Wrens, then heard a jay-like call across a field, coming closer. Flashes of blue moved from distant tree to tree until we called one in to fly right over us. A lifer, for my last bird of the day.
Scott’s Oriole. From Palm Desert we climbed Highway 74 up into Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. With my poor Volt tiring from the grade and altitude, we pulled over onto the first side road we came to, Carrizo Road. A half-dozen Scrub Jays and a few White-Crowned Sparrows caught our attention amid a small grouping of weekend houses before a liquid song caught my attention. Soon, popping out of a bush, I spied an oriole with a beautiful lemon hue and deep black bib. We watched it move around our area for maybe ten minutes before it took off. “Uncommon on open arid hillsides where agaves and yuccas mix with oak or pine woodlands,” says Sibley – just where we found it.
Rock Wren. Another bird that knew its place (Sibley: “Uncommon on talus slopes and other expanses of jumbled rocks”), we watched this otherwise unremarkable bird climbing up a rock face on Henderson Trail off the Visitor Center in the above park. He was about the only bird we saw on the trail and he seemed to own it, moving around, singing loudly.
Mountain Chickadee. This was my favorite sighting of the trip, first because it came in the snowy emptiness of Mount San Jacinto State Park atop the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where we felt lucky to find any bird at all. Then because it was a chickadee, a friendly familiar of bird feeders all my life, but with a difference: a white “eyebrow” that made it resemble a European tit. (I also thought I saw a thin white line on its crown, although the guidebooks don’t show that.) It quickly flew off, way off, not to be seen or heard again; and I thought how fortunate we were to be in that spot at that moment, which is always one of the thrills of birding.