San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[San Diego County Bird Atlas Project]

Reports from the Field
Spring 2000

Collecting Atlas Squares
The Helicopter Trip to the Santa Rosa Mountains—Take 2

Collecting Atlas Squares

Probably, like most people, when we signed up for our first Bird Atlas squares we had some doubts. Yes, we had over 45 years of birding experience between us, but, on the other hand, we had never gone out of our way to try to find nesting activity. We were also lackadaisical about rare birds, sometimes going a year or more without even trying to find any bird reported on the rare bird tape. Could we be of use on the Bird Atlas project?

We started small by volunteering for only two squares, Lake Morena (T21) and Arroyo Seco del Diablo (N28) in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The first trip to N28 strengthened our doubts. Rich and our Dalmatian, Domino, hiked up and down desert washes for five and a half hours and found only four birds, two Common Ravens and two White-throated Swifts. Confirming breeding birds was going to be difficult!

Over the next several months, our listening and searching skills improved. We were spending almost every weekend in the field exploring areas we had never seen before. Since we were making definite progress on our two squares, maybe it was time to take on new challenges. We volunteered for a third square. Boulder Oaks (S22) includes a portion of Lake Morena so it was easy to check out both squares at Lake Morena on the same day. In the fall of 1997, Phil told us that the Bird Atlas volunteers could gain access to Camp Pendleton. This seemed like a good way to see areas off limits to the general public, so we volunteered for Agra (E3) on the coast.

The more we birded, the more unexpected birds we found. The marsh in E3 turned out to be very productive; we found American Bittern and Virginia Rail breeding. A Lark Bunting and a Common Goldeneye visited this square in the winter. Our best bird in N28 was the Prairie Falcon. Although we observed a pair copulating, we never found a nest. S22 had a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that sang happily for at least a couple of days before moving on. In T21, Rock Wrens and Violent-green Swallows nested in holes in the concrete of the Lake Morena dam. The list goes on and on. To date we have seen 137 species of birds in winter in our original four squares. We have observed 163 species in the breeding season and confirmed 72 of these.

I'm afraid we got carried away with trying to complete our squares. Susan would not let us quit for the day unless we found 50 species (fewer in Anza-Borrego). If we found 50, then she demanded 60. If Phil expected us to have American Goldfinch in our square, then we should be able to find at least one. Maybe if we check that side canyon next weekend, we will find the goldfinch. As a result we kept returning time and again to our squares. So far we have averaged 30 hours per square in the winter and 105 hours per square in the breeding season.

We have numerous memories of our trips in addition to just finding notable birds. One Memorial Day weekend we camped in Arroyo Tapiado in N28 about 8 miles from the nearest paved road. In the morning our car refused to start. We hiked an hour before finding a couple who took us to a telephone. Then we learned that the towing companies would not leave the paved roads. The man who had transported us to civilization took us back into the wilderness. By wiggling wires we got the car started. We drove back to San Diego without shutting off the engine since we were not certain what caused the malfunction. A year and a half later a buried rock žjumpedÓ out of the sand and wiped out the front end of our van. Luckily we were able to limp home. Our insurance company treated this as a moving-vehicle accident but paid for the repair.

In the back country within 10 miles of the Mexican border, we noted many new trails through the brush. We referred to these as žimmigrant trails." It was not unusual to find immigrants; on one occasion Rich saw 31 non-English speakers hiking north on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1997 we often came upon armed, camouflaged Forest Service employees sneaking through the brush to look for illegal campfires.

With so many good memories of birds and events, it was natural that we would want this to continue. Within the past year we volunteered for an additional six squares, most near the squares we were already visiting.

Our adopted children, i.e., squares, are not the only ones we visit. For us, it is also important that we explore and bird in a variety of areas of the county. The easiest way to do this (and still not be committed to a square) is to volunteer for a blockbuster weekend. Blockbuster volunteers often see new terrain and new birds. They also meet old and new birding friends. In summary, adopt another square if you can; if you cannot, then participate in a blockbuster!

--Rich & Susan Breisch

The Helicopter Trip to the Santa Rosa Mountains—Take 2

Squares C27, C28, and D28 in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are so remote from any road that one simply cannot hope to hike to the square, have time enough to bird, and carry enough water to make it out alive. Yet they are of great interest biologically, in their undisturbed isolation and supporting the largest stands of pinyon pines in San Diego County. Exploration of this area is only just beginning, and we're fortunate that park biologist Paul Jorgensen, such a key supporter of the San Diego County Bird Atlas, is making coverage of the Santa Rosa Mountains a priority (see the fall 1999 issue of Wrenderings for Paul's report on an earlier trip). On 19 and 21 January 2000 Paul hired helicopter pilot Mel Cain, with many years of experience in the area, to carry Bob Thériault, Lori Hargrove, and me to these three squares. To make the trip feasible, Paul piggybacked some other tasks requiring the helicopter onto the contract, including an improved survey of the Elephant Tree, which grows in California only in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (see the article in this issue "Gray Vireos Discovered Wintering in Elephant Trees"). Despite some wind, we enjoyed vastly better weather than Paul and botanist Larry Hendrickson suffered on their trip last June.

Here are Bob's, Lori's, and my perspective on our experiences in this wilderness...

[Phil's perspective]
The helicopter whisked us away on Wednesday morning and picked us up on Friday afternoon. In those three days, we each covered our square as thoroughly as possible given the constraints of the terrain—some of the steepest in San Diego County. I covered C27, with the largest stands of pinyon, being dropped off near the summit of Villager Peak (5756 feet) with my camping gear. The first morning I descended the steep north-facing slope of Villager, then trekked the 2.5 miles along the ridge to the mountains facing Rabbit Peak, looming just across the line in Riverside County. Seeing that the north slopes of these peaks (5859 feet) had the largest stands of pinyons, I realized that on the second day I should make the 2.5-mile hike first thing in the morning, as quickly as possible, to be able to maximize my time in the largest pinyon groves. There is barely a trail, and the ridge is far from level—it drops 670 feet before rising another 770, with more ups and downs in between. Arriving beat back at my campsite late Wednesday afternoon, I wondered if I could summon the stamina for another such hike tomorrow. Determination got me to the peaks near the county line at 8:15 AM on Thursday. Friday I took it comparatively easy, doing just the 1600-foot drop and climb back up on Villager Peak.

Birds of any kind were remarkably scarce. In three days I came up with only 21 species. Yet these were an interesting mix: Scrub Jays, Bewick's Wrens, Spotted Towhees, and Bushtits with Black-throated Sparrows and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. The more interesting species included the Plain or Oak Titmouse (just three), Mountain Quail (one pair), and Mountain Chickadee (two pairs—another visit needed in the breeding season to see if the birds are resident here). Finding no Pinyon Jays, I feel confident we can now put to rest the fantasy that a population of this bird is resident anywhere in San Diego County.

The habitat is like nothing else in the county, the north-facing slopes dominated by the pinyon trees, few of which exceed a height of 15 feet. I encountered rather few junipers, and these were low and shrubby—perhaps suppressed by the ferocious wind that so often sweeps the ridge. Scrub oaks were numerous and seemed to attract birds more than the pinyons (which seemed already to have been stripped of their nuts). Many Mojave Yuccas and patches of Desert Agave implied a habitat good for Scott's Orioles in the breeding season. Most spectacular was the yucca look-alike Nolina parryi, some of them enormous with trunks two feet in a diameter—possible nest sites for Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Cacti were abundant: the Beavertail, the yellow-spined prickly pear Opuntia chlorotica, and a silver-spined cholla. Balancing these desert plants were chaparral shrubs: mountain mahogany, manzanita, and, strangely, the Yellow Bush Penstemon, Keckiella antirrhinoides, more expected in San Pasqual than in the Santa Rosa Mountains. In more open areas the Blackbrush, Coleogyne ramosissima, proliferated, evoking the high, cold desert of the Great Basin.

--Philip Unitt

[Lori's perspective]
It only took a few minutes from the Borrego Springs airport before we were looking down at the ridges we would be exploring. After dropping Phil off at Villager Peak, the helicopter pilot wanted to know where to take me, so I motioned toward the range I was to cover just east of Rattlesnake Canyon and told him žanywhere you can find an open spot.Ó We soon alighted gently in a small clearing next to a rocky peak. I got myself and gear out, waved goodbye, and while I squinted from the blowing sand watching him fly off, I wondered if he would be able to find this same spot three days from now. That was my first ride in a helicopter. It took a moment for the air to clear and my dizziness to settle, and then I looked around.

The views were spectacular. The Salton Sea and Coachella Valley lay below me, rows of mountains were to my side, and behind me was the entire Borrego Valley and beyond. These 360-degree views would be my continuous surroundings for the next three days. The range I stood on was a series of several small but well-vegetated peaks connected by narrow rocky ridges, in places only a few feet across. Both sides dropped off precipitously and then joined a maze of tortuous and convoluted dry hills and canyons, looking mostly inaccessible. I doubted that I ever would have been able to hike to this spot and wondered how long it might actually take. After figuring out my location on a topo map, I looked for a site to set up my tent. The stunted and twisted shapes of the pinyon pines and junipers reminded me to expect very windy conditions, and dark clouds threatened over the mountains to the west. Finding a fairly flat and sheltered little spot, I noticed a few fragments of Indian pottery embedded in the rocky soil. Later I would find at least fifty scattered fragments, proving that this was indeed very far off the beaten track. I wondered how long it had been since the last Indians collected pinyon nuts here, and how many explorers had been here since then, if any.

[Golden Eagle Illustration]

Golden Eagle

To make the most I could of the opportunity, I pushed myself those three days to cover as much territory as possible without taking on too many risks with the steep terrain. I wanted to do a thorough survey for the bird atlas, and also a general exploration for the state park, taking notes and photographs. Mine was the first biological reconnaissance of any kind in square D28. The wind was calm the first day, but severe for most of the next two days. Even though birds were quite scarce, only about 50 individuals to be found per day, there was surprising diversity with 19 total species, including Mountain Quail and Sage Sparrow. My favorite moment was when a Golden Eagle soared by fifteen yards in front of me, at eye level. I also found more Indian pottery, a few "sleeping circles," a pile of 30 old cans labeled "US Govt. Property—Emergency Drinking Water," and two Bighorn ram skeletons. In my solitude, I felt strangely drawn to each of these discoveries, wishing to know their stories. On Rosa Peak I found a hikers' register with several entries a year since 1971, mostly remarking on how difficult the hike had been, so I added my own entry (admitting that I had cheated a little in getting there). When the time to leave came and the helicopter found me, I felt relieved, of course, but I also regretted having to leave my new, and now very familiar, home.

After we returned safely to the welcoming airport, someone asked me which peaks I had been on. I turned to point out the range and was amazed at how unrecognizable and distant it seemed. It had returned to its own kind of solitude, remote and mysterious. I guess in many ways it will forever remain mostly undiscovered. I am grateful to be able to help with the Bird Atlas project, not only for all the great birding experiences, but for the opportunity to explore. I feel enriched by the tremendous diversity that lies within San Diego County. Though the county and its diversity seem to be shrinking every day, when we gain knowledge, especially from such a large study like the Bird Atlas, not only do we gain practical and useful information, but our horizons seem to grow and we discover how much we have yet to learn.

--Lori Hargrove

[Bob's perspective]
My assignment was to explore the canyons and washes of square C28. I set up camp in a small grove of palo verde trees at 1500 feet elevation, and the first two days traveled upstream toward the high ridge of the Santa Rosas, climbing to 3500 feet and the lowest of the pinyon-juniper stands. On day three, I reached the Riverside county line at the lowest portion of the square, at 720 feet.

Species recorded included the Red-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Costa's Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Bewick's Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, House Finch, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-throated Sparrow, California Towhee, and, most interesting, seven Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Perhaps an acceptable total, in view of this season's stifling drought in the desert.

Before the trip, I was briefed by state park staff about a spring dripping from a limestone cliff and a native American petroglyph site. I found both these previously mapped sites—and discovered previously unrecorded ancient rock art!

I very much enjoyed my time alone, but still I thought about Lori and Phil, and even occasionally scanned the ridges above me, looking for them.

--Bob Thériault

Spring 2000 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction