California birds – again….

It has been a couple years since I did a page on California birds and I just bumped into these images and thought what the heck … so here is a very mixed bag of desert, water, and mountain birds of our most western state. The images come from a trip that featured a visit up into the San Jacinto Mountains. Perhaps you have just heard of the town that recently elected a Labrador Retriever as its mayor?

It is a small town in these very same mountains, about two hours out of Los Angeles (well a couple hours if you drive it at 2 or 3 in the morning); and about an hour uphill from the golf course haven called Palm Springs. The town is Idyllwild and it is a lovely mountain village deep in a forest of many pines and cedars. The pines are often the very large Ponderosa, but could be Jeffrey’s, Sugar, Lodgepole, Knobcone, or Single-leaf Pinyon. The Coulter Pine is not the tallest but has a cone the size and weight of a canteloupe! There are also Incense Cedars and Western Junipers.

I have a long time friend who lives in this small community, or communities actually as three or four very small villages are censused together as a single unit, having somewhere around 3000-4000 people in total. The area has long been a getaway spot for Los Angelinos but has somehow kept its quaint small-town look and feel. Like many places people visit, relax, and leave – that must be what it is like in Pine Cove, Idyllwild, and Fern Valley. The nearby San Jacinto Mountain reaches a height of 10,483 feet. There is a funicular, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, that lifts you about 6000 from Palm Springs up into the mountains with great views of Chino Canyon and the Palm Springs lowlands – and back down again. The temperature will drop between 20 and 30 degrees from the bottom to the top. Arriving up in the mountains at more than 8500 feet provides a nice break from the desert heat.

We get to visit and to see White-headed Woodpeckers at Humber Park when up in the San Jacintos. The woodpeckers can be found anywhere in the area but there are several parks and nature centers with trails and postings to help newly arrived birders locate the highlights of the area. There are also lots of the comical Acorn Woodpeckers as well as Nuttall’s and Hairy Woodpeckers. There are also a couple sapsuckers (Williamson’s and reds-breasted) and the Red-shafted Flicker rounds out this group.

I start with that anecdote but really want to show a series of images from a lower elevation.

Sparrows are often dismissed as all brown, small, and impossible to identify. I won’t defend all sparrows but certainly the Black-throated Sparrow (BTSP) is easy to figure out. It is often on the ground eating whatever it can find, both seeds and insects. It is a bird of the dry scrub of southern California. They are not found throughout California but are found deep into Mexico, all of Nevada and Utah, and lots of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The Burrowing Owl (BUOW) is not a very large owl and one that is easily seen in the day time. The do reside in burrows often dug by the owls but sometimes taken over from Prairie Dogs. The male and female are the same size; in most owls and birds of prey the female is larger. They will store food for later use at the nest; smelly perhaps but efficient. They will also bring dung to the entrance to the burrow to attract dung beetle and then use the beetle larvae as food for their youngsters.
The California Quail (CAQU) is a plump bird with very intricate feather markings. It is primarily a California bird but is found north into Washington (and even a bit of Canada) and east into Idaho and Nevada. There are a few scattered incursions into Utah as well. It is well known as a cage bird and often kept for its beauty. They are found west to the coast and east up into the high desert land. Like most quail, grouse, and turkeys, they lay a rather large clutch of eggs, often as many as 16.
Western thrashers are pretty cool. In the east we have only the Brown Thrasher (BRTH) while the west has an array of these alert and secretive birds. The California Thrasher (CATH) shown here represents the more common of the western thrashers. It has a deeply curved bill and is a common resident within chapparal habitat. It is the largest member of the thrasher group.
Again, in the east we have only one…one hummingbird species that is. In the west there can be five or six types at a feeder. This is a Calliope Hummingbird (CAHU). It is a long-distance migrant that nests in the Pacific Northwest between 4000 and 11000 foot elevation. Like most hummingbirds they catch flying insects (small ones), collect nectar from flowers, and take sap and insects from sapsucker holes in live trees. Males will agressively defend their breeding area; even to the point of chasing Red-tailed Hawks and other birds many many times their size. This bird weighs about 2.5 grams – that means you could mail 11 of them for a single US postage stamp. There are 28+ grams to the ounce; or eleven Calliope Hummingbirds to the ounce.
Another instance of westward superiority is the avian fact that in the east we have the Mourning Dove and the feral pigeon where in the west there are several common and a few uncommon doves. This bird is a Common Ground Dove (CGDO) a rather uncommon dove often found on the ground. Though mostly a bird of Central and South America the CGDO can be found along the very southern edge of the US from California to Florida.
This long-billed beauty is appropriately called the Long-billed Curlew (LBCU). Most of them winter in Mexico after migrating through and over our southwest, and after nesting in the northern west but east of the mountains. In the US the best spot to see them is along the California coast in the winter. Though they nest widely on open ground LBCUs are not colonial and are often difficult to locate.
Grebes are small water birds that are more chicken-like than duck-like; but are closely related to neither group. The bird pictured is a Pied-billed Grebe (PBGR). They dive and swim under water catching anything they can, eels, fish, insect larvae, or aquatic worms. In areas where crayfish are common they seem to favor these crustaceans. Though many migrate south of our border they are found in all the continental states throughout the year, leaving some areas only after the ponds freeze. This is a bird found in shallow wetlands from north to south and east to west in the US.
This last bird is a Willet (WILL) a Western Willet to be clear. There are two populations of Willets; east and west. They may be determined to be two species at some point in the future. In the northeast we have had a resurgence of Eastern Willets in the past couple decades. They were shot and eaten (or their feathers were sold) into the 1920s and it has been a long slow recovery. The Western Willet is paler and more lightly barred than its eastern cousin. A few western birds migrate east with some reaching the coast of Massachusetts each fall. Western Willet nest in fresh water pond edges in the north central part of the US and the southern Canadian prairie provinces. The more eastern coastal form nests from Venezuela up into the Canadian Maritimes and is the morph found in N ew England.

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