One of the birds I wanted to spend more time with was Bell's Sparrow - and San Diego is a great place to find them. Bell's Sparrow is a product of the recent (2013) split of Sage Sparrow into two (new) species - Bell's Sparrow (breeding in coastal and inland California) and Sagebrush Sparrow (breeding in the Great Basin - Nevada, Utah etc.)
Splits are great for birders - it's an opportunity to get an extra life bird on your list. And, even better, if you've already seen the subspecies that are now elevated to the species level, you can get an "armchair tick" - a new life bird without even having to leave home (or your proverbial, or actual, armchair.) [The opposite is the dreaded "lump", when birds you've already seen are combined into a single species, resulting in a diminution of your life list, and spending time in your actual armchair with a stiff drink.]
But for many birders the split of Sage Sparrow has been a head scratcher. The old Sage Sparrow had 3 main subspecies in the US:
(i) belli - a very dark-headed bird with no streaks on the back
(ii) canescens - a pale bird with little or no streaks on the back
(ii) nevadensis - a pale bird with some streaks on the back
The belli subspecies is extremely obvious because of the dark head, while the latter two are either (at best) very difficult to tell apart visually, or impossible to tell apart! So, it was rather surprising to most birders that Sage Sparrow was split into 2 species as follows:
(a) Bell's Sparrow - belli and canescens
(b) Sagebrush Sparrow - nevadensis
And while the summer breeding ranges are quite distinct, canescens and nevadensis do overlap in the winter, with the former ranging as far east as Phoenix. So - my pre-split winter "Sage Sparrows" at Buckeye Road, Phoenix, could have been either of the new species. So - I've taken that off my list, and added the canescens I saw in Kern County, CA this summer as the new Bell's. I'll have to track down Sagebrush this winter, but I'd also like to get a solid Bell's Sparrow - the distinctive dark-headed belli form - while I'm in San Diego.
Dan King, whom I met on one of the San Diego boats, suggested I try the Otay Lakes, just east of the city (this is the same Dan King who told me of Whitney Portal the fantastic Sooty Grouse location - thanks again Dan!) The Bell's Sparrow spot is a fairly easy place to find - just look for the giant graffiti-covered dam:
Giant graffiti-covered dam -
Otay Lakes, San Diego
And after climbing up the dry sage- and laurel sumac-covered slopes I was rewarded with some great views of the tiny Bell's Sparrow:
Bell's Sparrow - the subspecies belli.
Dark head, strong malar stripe and unstreaked back.
Anyway - back to California and the "fun birding." Another bird I really wanted to see while I was out here was Red-throated Pipit. In southern California they can be found on sod farms strutting around in full view - i.e. not like the shy, skulking birds I saw in Alaska this fall, where I'd only see them flying away after flushing them.
So, on my way back north I stopped at Arnold Road, Oxnard - the same place where I saw Tricolored Blackbird this summer.
Arnold Road, Oxnard - a magnet for migrating and hungry pipits
It wasn't long before I located the pipit flock - with some great views of American Pipits
American Pipit (subspecies rubescens)
Unstreaked back and dark legs
While I'm sorting through the pipits, birds of prey would continually parade through the fields, hoping for an easy meal.
American Kestrel (female)
White-tailed Kite (adult)
And with each passing raptor, the flock would lift off, circle round calling, and then eventually resettle, reshuffled into new positions. And among the American Pipits I found two odd-looking birds with striped backs and bright pale legs - Red-throated Pipits:
Red-throated Pipit (in summer they really do have red throats!)
A breeder of the Russian Far East and western Alaska
It would be slightly ridiculous leaving California without trying to see at least one of the (many) Blue-footed Boobies that have invaded the state this year in unprecedented numbers. So - on the way to Los Angeles airport I stopped off at Playa del Rey to check out the breakwater, which has been hosting 3 Boobies this fall.
The Playa del Rey breakwater is popular with people fishing, walking and biking. And even the birds seem to like it.
Blue-footed Boobies (juveniles) - less than 5 miles from LAX!
Two of 3 birds currently roosting here.
OK - that's it for the fun birds. Back to the hard core grind that is the Big Year. Friday I'm on a pelagic out of Bodega Bay, and then either I'm going home or off to Texas for the recently-found, and very rare, Golden-crowned Warbler.
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BIG YEAR LIST: 724 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)
NEW YEAR BIRDS (0):