I went to California for a few days and ended up seeing some good stuff. I based myself at the in Rancho Mirage (near Palm Springs) and headed first to the Coachella Valley Preserve in Desert Hot Springs. I went there because I heard that quite a few Bell's Sparrows had been seen there this year. Within 30 mins I had one but only one. I also found a Northern Saw-Whet Owl huddled under the huge palm leaves in the thousand palms grove oasis there. It was so nice to walk under there because it gave respite from the 30 degree heat. In the dry sage scrub I also saw Cactus Wrens, Gambel's Quails, Sage Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds and many Yellow-rumped Warblers, just to name a few. I only saw that one Bell's Sparrow and could not bring him up for a photo even after pishing and playing the tape briefly. I let him be and enjoyed watching the Common Ravens and American Kestrels hunting lizards in the desert.

Female Phainopepla in Desert Hot Springs - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Northern Mockingbird in Desert Hot Springs - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The next birding location I went to during my trip was Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, as it was recommended by Liron Gertsman for Oak Titmouse and other goodies. As I drove into the entrance the driveway was littered with Phainopeplas! I love those silky flycatchers with their cute calls. The next bird I encountered while walking "The Marsh Trail" was an Oak Titmouse. He was singing beautifully and it was so cool to see one. I was hoping for a photo but only got this record shot. I ended up seeing 6 of them in the park and none were accommodating just like typical titmice!!

Oak Titmouse in Morongo Valley - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I also saw a Cooper's hawk, Nuttal's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinches, California Scrub -Jays, California Thrashers and Costa's and Anna's Hummingbirds just to name a few. What was really cool was to see 20 Lawrence's Goldfinches fly in under the bird feeders at the nature house! It's only the second time I've ever seen this species. The last time I saw a large flock up close was in San Diego in 2016 on a baseball diamond with 2 Vermillion Flycatchers near the butterfly garden at Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, so it was cool to see these pretty finches again.
Next I went to nearby Joshua Tree National Park, not because I was really looking for birds but because I wanted to see the trees and rock formations. The 25$ entrance fee did not disappoint! The landscape looked like huge trolls built it up stone by stone but it's actually caused by volcanic forces. To learn more about how these rock formations came to be click HERE. The Joshua Trees are really cool and Liron recommended Barker Dam for good birding I didn't see too much but the spot was gorgeous especially the Dam area. I did see California Scrub -Jays and Costa's Hummingbirds though. I saw so many lizards too (none I could name) and huge Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Antelope Ground-Squirrels. At the Black Rock Campground I saw 1 Scott's Oriole and a few Cactus Wrens.

Rock formations and Joshua Trees at Joshua Tree National Park - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Sign explaining how vital Joshua Trees are to birds and wildlife  - Photo: Melissa Haftting

First Nations Petroglyphs in Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Sign explaining about the vandalism at the Petroglyphs - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The next day I was off to the Salton Sea I saw a huge list of birds as you can see below. The constantly receding sea (due to climate change) has a unique beauty to it, especially at evening. At Sunset I enjoyed photographing the lake and the colours of the setting sun with an American White Pelican floating by. This was taken at dusk on the north side of the lake at the state park entrance. This side is much less birdy but nice for photography. 

American White Pelican on the Salton Sea at dusk - Photo: Melissa Hafting

The sunset over the north side of the Salton Sea take at the Salton Sea State Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

On the south side I saw thousands of Ross's and Snow Geese. As they stand side by side you can really see the difference in size and plumage. The Ross's Geese's beaks have no grin patch and most of them have the lavender patch at the base of the bill. Also, they have shorter necks and distinct facial features. Ross's Geese have their eyes set in the middle of their head and they have a whiter face (juveniles are much whiter all over too) with no staining. These features make them easy to distinguish from a Snow Goose.... hybrids are another story!

They are both brilliant birds but it was a treat seeing so many of the Ross's Geese together, as we don't see them like that in BC. These flight shot photos were taken at the sound end of Sono Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Unit 1 off Vendel Rd near Brawley.

Ross's Geese in flight at the Salton Sea near Brawley - Photos: Melissa Hafting

White-faced Ibis at the Salton Sea off Vendel Rd - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I was next off to Borrego Springs and was hoping to see a Le Conte's Thrasher by the waste treatment plant along with some reported Bell's Sparrows but I dipped on both. I checked out Old Springs Rd and dipped on both there as well. I went to Borrego Anza State Park and saw Sage thrashers, Western Bluebirds, Black-throated Sparrows, Verdin, a gorgeous Rufous morph Red-tailed Hawk, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and a Rock Wren as consolation prizes.

Backlit Black-throated Sparrows - Photos: Melissa Hafting

The next day I was off to San Diego. I had planned to go to Chino to photograph an accommodating White Wagtail at Prado Regional Park but it disappeared the day I got there. He wasn't a lifer but it's rare to get the opportunity to photograph one so close. I also didn't go up the Palm Springs aerial tram since I've done it before and the price is more money every year even if it's a good spot for White-headed Woodpecker.

In San Diego I went straight to La Jolla (yes before going for the booby or pewee). It's my fave place in San Diego and I was eager to photograph the breeding birds there. I ended up seeing breeding plumage Heermann's Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants with their emerald eyes and gorgeous white head plumes and the nesting Brandt's Cormorants. The Brandt's were all on their nests and some had eggs that they were brooding. As they stood up I could see the eggs underneath. I love their turquoise eyes and their blue fluorescent throat patch. It's not often that we can see them in breeding plumage or up close for photos in Vancouver. I was a bit disappointed I went on a weekend because the crowds were scaring the Cormorants and especially the breeding plumaged Brown Pelicans off the cliffs. No way did I end up getting close to the gorgeous photos I got of that species in the same spot in 2016.

Brandt's Cormorants on nests in La Jolla. I love that blue throat! - Photos: Melissa Haftig

While I was photographing the cormorants and basking California Sea Lions an Osprey flew right over. Down below at the cove a swimmer had grabbed on to a sea lion's fin and was promptly asked to leave and issued a fine. It's amazing they let people swim in the bay at all with these powerful animals but for people to not respect them and their space like that was disgusting. I was happy to see some enforcement.

Osprey in La Jolla - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Immature Brown Pelican in La Jolla - Photo: Melissa Hfating

Basking Californian Sea Lions in La Jolla - Photos: Melissa Hafting

Adult Heermann's Gull in breeding plumage with bill deformity at La Jolla - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Stunning Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage at La Jolla - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I went straight from La Jolla to Balboa Park. I noticed how many homeless were there today seemed more than in 2016 (not that Vancouver is any better) it's just sad to see. It took me about 35 mins to find the Greater Pewee. He was silent and then flew in right to where I first started out my walk above the valley near the washrooms at Balboa Dr and Juniper St.  During my walk about there I saw 2 Red-shouldered Hawks, Allen's Hummingbirds, Black Phoebes, Nuttal's Woodpeckers and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

After taking poor record shots of the Greater Pewee who never came too close but who did his "pip" call every so often and who got flushed by a Red-shouldered Hawk, I went to Coronado in search of the ultimate bird I came to San Diego for "The Nazca Booby."

The Greater Pewee was found in early Dec 2017 but misidentified. Paul Lehman relocated and correctly identified the bird on Dec 7, 2017.

Record shot of Greater Pewee in Balboa Park, San Diego, CA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

I parked my car at the end of Attu Dr and walked down to the water to scope for a view across the bay. Within 5 mins I saw one Nazca Booby well I saw a black and white distant blob. I guessed it was the booby. The view was so distant and so unsatisfactory I decided to pay 140$ US and rent a boat and drive myself out to the booby.
So I did just that as did people from Ketchickan, Seattle and San Francisco that same day. The Nazca  was a long way out by a navy ship across the bay. When I got to buoy #34 (the one I had scoped out) I saw one Nazca Booby on the red buoy and one flying in. He then landed on the buoy and both started nuzzling each other. They seemed very affectionate, perhaps a male and female. I spent 1hr with the birds, they let me get right up close and didn't seem disturbed at all. They were so bloody gorgeous. Strange but so cool looking. It was a magical experience being out with these birds from the Galapagos. This is now the second bird from the Galapagos I have seen in North America! The first being the Swallow-tailed Gull im Seattle. I've seen Red footed, Brown, Blue-footed and now Nazca Boobies..not bad at all. They are definitely a favourite bird species of mine.

These photos were taken with one hand on the steering wheel LOL.

Paul Lehman found 4 Nazca Boobies on Dec 11, 2017. These two seemed to have paired up. I wonder if this male and female will attempt to nest and breed. They sure were affectionate.

The birds seemed very affectionate and nuzzled each other and followed one another constantly
2 Nazca Boobies in Coronado taken from a boat - Photos: Melissa Hafting

I was surprised to see that anyone can rent a speed boat there, even without a boater's license. I have a boater's license and am comfortable driving boats and being on the open water but it must be scary for someone alone in there who isn't used to it to cross such a big bay and handle a boat and a camera by yourself. It's pretty simple navigation and driving but there is a shallow shoal etc. The guy let me take out the boat for 2 hours for the price of one which was really sweet of him. Since it took about 20 mins to get out to the boobies I appreciated it! So 70$ an hour ain't bad, truly I got 2 for the price of one.

Fun Facts on Nazca Boobies:

Nazca boobiers were first thought to be a subspecies of the Masked Booby but in 2002 it was recognized as its own species.

Nazca boobies lay 2 eggs but only ever raise one chick. The first egg is laid up to nine days before the other. This delay is a death sentence for the second chick that hatches, as the first can easily push it out of the nest, and it does so in every case, without fail. Once outside of the nest, the parents do not acknowledge the unwanted chick and it quickly dies from either starvation, temperature change or predation.
This trip I did not have time to go to San Elijo Lagoon and see California Gnatcatchers or Wrentits or to the Tijuana Slough for Ridgway's Rails and Snowy Plovers and the wintering Tricolored and Yellow-crowned Night Herons. The days are pretty short and it takes 2 hrs from Palm Springs to San Diego.

Anyways I next was off to Berry Park to look for the Red-throated Pipit that was last seen Jan 25th. I didn't have my hopes up to see it but wanted to look myself. No luck but at least I gave it a shot. I wonder if I'll ever get a photo of this species that I've seen a few times but never photographed.

The next birding day I went to Orcutt which is north of Santa Barbara to find the Garganey.  I wasn't sure if I was going to make it to see the Garganey because it's a 4 hour drive and their is a debate going on about its provenance. If the bird sticks around until June the consensus seems to be it will not be countable but if it departs before then it is wild. The debate came about not because it's banded or its hind toes are clipped because it has none of those captive traits but the bird is very tame and is coming for bread. I am not sure that means anything, as it's probably just mimicking the other ducks... and who would say no to free food? So we shall see what happens in a few months with it but it wasn't the Garganey that pushed me to go.... it was the Yellow-billed Magpie. These magpies are a bird I wanted to see and were very near to the Garganey location and since both were lifers and since I really wanted to photograph the magpie I went. I sure was glad I did.

After pulling up at Waller Park and after opening my car door and peering over the hedge I saw the bird. He was rather cute even if not an adult male with a striking facial pattern. Some people have described him as dingy and drab but he had a certain charm. The young male was snoozing on the island in the middle of a pond. He was sooo tiny in comparison to the others. I ran into two birders looking for the bird who had been searching for an hour and didn't find him, they seemed a little embarrassed when I showed it to them sitting there. They shouldn't be because he was tiny and easily crowded over by the larger ducks. I'm glad I did  show them because they were just about to give up and go home. So I took a few photos, he raised his head very little. I read a disturbing eBird report from two days before I went there which said " I had to wake him up for a photo". If that means the person through a rock or clapped that's not good. He's had enough visitors.... imagine if every one of us threw a rock in the pond to wake him up?

Anyways I have to say getting to the Garganey was a gorgeous drive. I love going on that coast 101 Hwy. The water and sand cliffs and the rolling hills are spectacular. There was so many Turkey Vultures along the road up as well. I did that drive several times as a child when my dad would drive us from Vancouver to San Diego, right after high school graduation with friends and several times as an adult and I never get tired of the beauty. 

The Garganey was found on November 25, 2017 by Mark Holmgren.

Garganey in Orcutt, CA - Photo: Melissa Hafting

On my way home I stopped at Los Alamos Park for a Yellow-billed Magpie but didn't see any. I then went to Zaca Station Rd in Solvang and found 8. I also found many Acorn Woodpeckers here, a few Western Bluebirds, California Scrub-Jays and tons of ground squirrels. My favourite thing of the day was seeing this Yellow-billed Magpie individual just sitting on a wire as calm as ever looking at me. He also started to vocalize, as if he was talking to me. The yellow around the eye and yellow beak are truly stunning. It's definitely one of my favourite birds on this planet.  I have been wanting to see one for so long. These birds are endemic to California and live in an area that is 500 miles long and less than 150 miles wide.

Yellow-billed Magpie in Solvang, CA - Photos: Melissa Hafting

If I had more time I would have repeated the Santa Cruz Island trip to see the Island Scrub Jay. I never saw so many Black-vented Shearwaters as that trip and also saw the Grey Fox and many Pomarine Jaegers but no time on this short trip and I really couldn't complain. In a short time I did pretty well and hopefully in Arizona in a few months I can finally get a Le Conte's and Bendire's photograph but for now I'll be content with the photos I got from California, especially the ones of the boobies and the yellow-billed magpies.  I sadly came home to find out my aunt had suddenly passed away in New York around the same time that I was looking at the Yellow-billed Magpie. Magpies usually don't let you walk right up to them for photos and vocalize to you in this manner, so I feel this may have been a sign from her... at least I'd like to think so.

Highlights of species seen:

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve
Oak Titmouse
California Scrub-Jay
Lawrence's Goldfinch
Lesser Goldfinch 
Nuttal's Woodpecker
Ladder - backed Woodpecker 
Costa's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird 
House Finch
Cooper's Hawk
Vermillion Flycatcher 
Great Horned Owl
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
California Thrasher 
Mourning Dove 

Coachella Valley Preserve
Bell's Sparrow 
Sage Thrasher 
Northern Mockingbird
Gambel's Quail
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Common Raven
American Kestrel
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Lesser Goldfinch
Yellow-rumbled Warbler
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Mourning Dove

Joshua Tree National Park
California Scrub-Jay
Lesser Goldfinch
Common Raven 
Costa's Hummingbird 
Lesser Goldfinch
Mourning Dove 
Scott's Oriole 
Cactus Wren

Salton Sea
Ross's Goose
Snow Goose
Burrowing Owl
American White Pelican
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Loggerhead Shrike 
Spotted Sandpiper 
American Avocet
Black-necked Stilt
Greater Roadrunner
Western Grebe
Eared Grebe 
Lesser Goldfinch
Blue-winged Teal 
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler 
American Wigeon 
Northern Pintail 
Green-winged Teal 
Ring-necked Duck 
Lesser Scaup 
Hooded Merganser 
Ruddy Duck
Pied-billed Grebe 
Rock Pigeon 
Eurasian Collared-Dove 
Inca Dove 
Common Ground-Dove 
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove 
Ridgway's Rail 
Common Gallinule 
American Coot 
Sandhill Crane 
Black-bellied Plover
Long-billed Curlew 
Marbled Godwit 
Stilt Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper 
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher 
Wilson's Snipe 
Lesser Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs 
Ring-billed Gull 
California Gull 
Herring Gull 
Neotropic Cormorant 
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican 
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron 
Great Egret
Snowy Egret 
Cattle Egret 
Green Heron 
White-faced Ibis 
Turkey Vulture 
Northern Harrier 
Cooper's Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Belted Kingfisher 
Gila Woodpecker 
Red-naped Sapsucker 
Black Phoebe
Say's Phoebe 
Vermilion Flycatcher 
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Barn Swallow 
Rock Wren 
House Wren 
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Western Bluebird 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
House Sparrow 
Abert's Towhee
Chipping Sparrow 
Vesper Sparrow 
Sagebrush Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Yellow-headed Blackbird 
Western Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird 
Brown-headed Cowbird 
Great-tailed Grackle 
Orange-crowned Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 

Borrego Springs
California Towhee
Cactus Wren
California Quail
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Black-throated Sparrow
Cactus Wren
Rock Wren
Red-tailed Hawk
Cassin's Kingbird

Balboa Park
Greater Pewee
Allen's Hummingbird
Nuttal's Woodpecker
Yellow-rumpled Warbler
Red-shouldered Hawk
Black Phoebe

La Jolla Cove
Heermann's Gull
Brown Pelican
Brandt's Cormorant 
Double-created Cormorant 
Western Gull
Osprey (flyby)
Royal Tern (flyby)
Black Skimmer (flyby)

Coronado - Buoy 34 
2 Nazca Boobies 
Attu Ave and via Boat
Surf Scoters
Western Gulls
Brown Pelicans

Solvang (Zaca Station Rd)
8 Yellow-billed Magpies
Acorn Woodpeckers
California Scrub-Jay
Western Bluebird
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk

Waller Park - Orcutt
Garganey (Imm. male)
Black Phoebe 

Thanks to Ryan Andrews, Paul Lehman, Liron Gertsman, Thor Manson and Bob Toleno for providing me with helpful tips for my trip.


  1. Wonderful wide ranging and super productive trip. Wish I could have joined you. Lots of fave spots and birds. And sooooo envious of the NAZCA photos I have seen. I had same experience with my Bell's Sparrows. Not even a record photo. :-(

    1. Thanks Blair. I wish you could have come! being with the nazcas was the highlight but sounds like arizona is treating you very well. i am sure we will get ample opportunities to get a bell's sparrow shot... i know i will be back at it....

  2. Awesome trip! Congrats on the Nazca Boobies and the Garganey!!!

    1. Thanks stefan, your epic blog twitch posts were an inspiration.

  3. Wow what a trip! I cannot believe how many birds you were able to find....especially that Booby out in the middle of the bay. Great call to get the boat to confirm your sighting and to get those great photos. Thanks for your report on your expedition and adventure. I am California dreaming right now!

    1. thanks so much Jock! It was a real special thing to be out there alone with those two love birds. i'm hoping they mate and attempt to nest there.... glad you enjoyed the report... with the rain i wish i was still in california... they have the best sunsets!

  4. Gorgeous photos!!


  6. Looks like you had a very successful trip. Congrats!

    1. Thanks liron especially for your helpful suggestions of places to bird near palm springs.

  7. thanks for your report, Mel. You always make birding sound like fun.

    1. Thanks dennis that means a lot :) hope you are well.

  8. Sounds like a great trip that you had. I really enjoy reading your trip reports! Glad you got some lifers and great pictures!

  9. Amazing trip down South Mel, with more energy than I can muster!
    Wonderful how you managed to tie together a circle tour and hit so many target birds... great list and great photos! We are still in Arizona and we have been been having a great time in the rain near Sierra vista!

    1. Thanks Ian my friend thor said it was raining like vancouver in arizona lately haha i love arizona will be there in a few months can't wait. thanks for your kind comment. in california it was so many birds and so little time had to run around like a little energizer bunny but you know me... it was fun. all the best and so good hearing from you. glad all is well.


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