Birds of Coachella Valley

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.

Super Bowl 2017

Woody Hayes famously disparaged the forward pass because “three things can happen, and two of them are bad” – i.e., incompletion or interception. After the Atlanta Falcons’ stunning collapse before the New England Patriots, their coach Dan Quinn might want to add three more reasons not to pass: 1) a sack and 2) a holding penalty back-to-back knocked the Falcons out of field goal range with five minutes to play, holding an 8-point lead that would have been insurmountable had they run two plays for no yardage and then converted a 36-yard field goal. On their prior possession, 3) a strip sack on a second-and-1 play gave the Pats the ball and good field position to reduce their 16-point deficit to 8.
The strip sack not only led to a Patriots touchdown, it inexorably signaled a total shift in game momentum. New England had indeed started a comeback of sorts by holding Atlanta to three-and-out on their initial second-half possession; and after Atlanta scored its fourth, and last, touchdown the Patriots answered. But when their PAT attempt bounced the wrong way off the goal post, you still had the feeling that this was not New England’s day. Their next drive produced only a field goal, leaving the deficit at 16, with the fourth quarter melting away. The strip sack changed all that; and for anyone who thinks “momentum” is little more than a sportswriter’s fiction, this Super Bowl’s second half should convince otherwise.
It is easy to second-guess the Falcons’ play-calling: dialing up a long pass when a routine run would have netted a first down exposed quarterback Matt Ryan to the Patriot rush that produced the strip sack; and once the Falcons advanced to the New England 22 surely a conservative approach that ensured a field goal was called for, especially as Atlanta’s passing attack was sputtering and it took a sensational catch by Julio Jones to get there. The irony is that play-calling was the responsibility of Kyle Shanahan, the lauded offensive coordinator who was on the verge of moving to San Francisco as head coach. Not a good exit.
Most, if not all, of the credit for New England’s remarkable comeback is going to Tom Brady, hailed as the greatest quarterback, and maybe football player, of all time (the “GOAT”). There is no way to measure the psychological impact of his leadership, but I would point out that his physical performance was well short of impeccable. In the first half he threw an interception that was returned 82 yards for a seemingly crushing touchdown. Several long passes missed open receivers, and most of his completions were short- or mid-range. At least two of his passes on crucial fourth-quarter drives could have been intercepted, including a fade route in the end zone and the pass over the middle that Julian Edelman made the miracle catch on, after it bounced off defenders’ hands and legs.
At the same time, he received remarkable contributions from numerous teammates. Unheralded running back James White not only scored 20 points (a record) but was almost never brought down by the first defender he encountered. Brady’s offensive line firmed up in the second half – in contrast to Ryan’s – giving him time when one sack would’ve ended the comeback. His receivers, shaky in the first half, caught everything in the second. And the biggest plays, as mentioned above, came from the defense, stripping and sacking Ryan. Without Dont’a Hightower, et al., Brady wouldn’t have had the ball.
Last, but not least, is Lady Luck. The Falcons never saw the ball in overtime because the coin toss came up ‘heads,’ and the Patriots, for two years, have never called anything but.