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Open Mic: Wader Quest – Shorebirds in SoCal

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAE, Florida, and Washington.

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Arriving in San Diego we just had enough daylight to briefly bird the islands at Robb Field, Ocean Beach, here we saw our first Hudsonian Whimbrels which brought the quest total to 75. We then went to meet our host for our southern California stay, Gary Nunn of the San Diego Field Ornithologists, who we had met when he came to Brazil when Elis and I were living and guiding there. The first evening Gary asked me what my wish list was. We had been very successful so far and so the list was short. As I read out the names, Gary shook his head slowly sucking through his teeth, much like a dodgy plumber would listening to the symptoms of your ailing boiler. The birds concerned were American Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs and Snowy Plover. It seems I had miscalculated, I assumed these birds were common and easy to see.

Snowy Plover - Charadrius nivosus

Snowy Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

 

Gary worked hard into the night, calling in favours and searching eBird for sightings of the elusive birds we sought. We had learned that Lesser Yellowlegs was uncommon at that time of year, they being for the most part in South America by then (mid December), the Snowy Plovers were possible of course, but scarce and at certain beaches only, one of which we had planned to visit for sure. The Stilt Sandpipers were only likely in very small numbers at the Salton Sea, and to find those we were going to have to call on the expertise of Guy McCaskie, who had very kindly agreed to help us. However, the two most important birds, the west coast specials, were not going to give themselves up easily we were warned.

The following day we headed for a place called La Jolla north of San Diego. This was the last place the tattlers had been seen some weeks ago, and our best, if apparently thin, hope of seeing them. We wandered out along a small jetty, hearing stories about conflicts of interest between the beach goers and the seals, when suddenly Gary stopped. He lifted his bins and announced that there was a Wandering Tattler on the rocks opposite the jetty. I hastily called Elis, dragging her away from photographing the ‘cute’ seals to record our good fortune with her trusty camera. I began to wonder how difficult these birds were and how much of Gary’s foreboding was just theatre!

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler, photo by Elis Simpson

From there we went to a spot around the corner to watch for seabirds for a while. I have to say that I was rather smitten by the Heerman’s Gulls; there were one or two in their attractive adult breeding plumage. We came across two local gentlemen who were having a good morning it seemed. We saw some good birds over the sea and more importantly, the gentlemen gave Gary directions for a possible American Black Oystercatcher site.

It seemed to take us forever to get to Point Loma and the Cabrillo National Monument as we stopped so often to look at birds, Gary was certainly enjoying showing us the local birding hotspots while seemingly enjoying keeping the suspense high. Eventually we were scanning rocks near the lower car park in the park but saw nothing that resembled an oystercatcher of any kind. Farther up the hill, along a path overlooking some rocks far below, we searched again. Elis and I were both watching another Wandering Tattler fly out and around the cliff and out of sight, but as it did so a black and red blur passed across our field of view. Simultaneously we squealed “oystercatcher” (with a few other expressions and expletives that are not appropriate for the venerable readership of the ABA blog).

We couldn’t believe our luck, two American Black Oystercatchers landed on the rocks and stayed in full view while we scoped them and Elis got distant record shots.  So despite all the warnings, the really difficult birds were under the belt. And before lunchtime too! The rest of the day was just fun birding.

The following morning we were up and out at 03:45.  A long drive to the Salton Sea was called for and we picked up our guide for the day, Guy McCaskie from a Denny’s car park, arriving at the Salton Sea at dawn. For us, the cranes, geese, and waders were one of those birding spectacles that you won’t soon forget, and Guy easily picked out the Ross Geese among the Snows.  As we moved away from the first port of call we stopped beside a pool, where Guy again quickly picked out three Stilt Sandpipers from among the Long-billed Dowitchers just by the speed of their ‘stitching’ feeding motion. So once again the pressure was off and we had a marvelous day being shown all manner of local birds that left our ticking hand exhausted. Among the many shorebirds we saw was one very distant Snowy Plover and a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs that had a prolonged scrap in front of us.

Guy McCaskie, Rick Simpson, Gary Nunn at Salton Sea CA.

Guy McCaskie, Rick Simpson, Gary Nunn at Salton Sea CA, photo by Elis Simpson

The following days included a twitch to see Evening Grosbeak, an early morning trip to a very high tide to see Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and an evening talk to the SDFO group where Paul Lehman was instrumental in giving us the idea of a future wader Quest trip to Louisiana in April.

Soon after we got back to the UK it became apparent that my oldest brother was not well and he was given only a few months to live, we decided to have a time out from Wader Quest to enjoy the time we had left with him, cancelling a planned trip to Australia. We would now confine ourselves to what we could see in the UK and plan that trip Paul had suggested to Texas and Louisiana in late April.

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