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

Notable Observations
Summer 2000

Thanks again to Mike Evans for maintaining the spreadsheet of reports to the San Diego Field Ornithologists' rare bird phone line (619-688-2473 or 619-NUT-BIRD), which helps so much in preparing this column.

On 8 March Charlie Herzfeld heard of a decomposing Laysan Albatross half buried in the sand on the beach just north of La Jolla (O7). He nobly went to the spot and dug up the remains of the carcass, providing us with only the second well-documented record of this species for San Diego County.

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron that has hung out with the nesting Black-crowneds at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (O7) since 1983 did so again this year, and also made an appearance at Famosa Slough (R8), where Ed Wallace encountered it on 3 May.

The male Harlequin Duck wintering at the Imperial Beach pier (V10) remained at least until 10 May. It seems that most of the Harlequin Ducks that make it so far south of their normal range as San Diego County fail to return north in the spring.

Both nesting pairs of the Osprey in San Diego County, at North Island Naval Air Station (S9) and at Scripps Ranch High School (N10), look to be successful this year, with young almost ready to fledge at this writing. Besides the nesting pair near Boulevard, at least one Harris' Hawk persists around Borrego Springs (G24), the last report being on 22 March by Joan Rosen.

Tony Mercieca informs us that Peregrine Falcons are nesting again at their usual spots on the tip of Point Loma (S7) and the San Diego-Coronado bridge (S9). In addition, a report of a copulating pair on a window ledge of the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego (S9) was called in to the rare bird phone line.

The Pacific Golden Plover wintering at the Tijuana River mouth (V10) stayed at least until 11 May. Robert Patton discovered San Diego County's fifth known Wilson's Plover, a wanderer north from Baja California, on North Island Naval Air Station (S8) on 5 May. The Black Oystercatcher remains a rare visitor to San Diego County's few rocky shorelines; Ginger Johnson found one at Sunset Cliffs (R8) on 24 April.

Leading a San Diego Audubon Society field trip, Oz Osborn found a Pectoral Sandpiper at the NW corner of Lindo Lake (O14) on 10 May. Though the species is regular in fall, this is the first ever in San Diego County in spring.

The Inca Dove discovered by Brennan Mulrooney at Butterfield Ranch (M23) on 5 and 24 April was singing ("no hope") consistently, suggesting this slowly expanding species may soon colonize developed areas in the Anza-Borrego Desert, though this is only the third record of an apparently wild Inca Dove in San Diego County.

Unexpectedly, Long-eared Owls have cropped up in some of the bleakest areas of the Anza-Borrego Desert this spring: near Palm Spring (N27) on 1 April (Susan & Rich Breisch), southwest of Ocotillo Wells (J28) on 4 April (Joe Barth), in upper Pinyon Canyon in the Vallecito Mountains (K26) on 12 April and in Fish Creek Wash (L27) on 13 April (Brennan Mulrooney). The Short-eared Owl seen by Shauna Wolf in south San Diego Bay (U10) on 19 April was late enough to suggest it may remain into summer. Charlie Herzfeld's sighting on 23 April of a Spotted Owl in broad daylight atop a phone pole along Highway 79 south of Highway 76 (H18) was certainly out of the ordinary.

Leslie van Epps brought me an immature male Calliope Hummingbird that died after colliding with a window in downtown San Diego (S9) on 18 February, over two weeks earlier than the previous earliest spring record for California. The bird was fairly fat, suggesting it was fueled up for migration and was therefore an early spring migrant, not the first Calliope Hummingbird wintering in the state.

Lewis' Woodpecker

Lewis' Woodpeckers have stayed unusually late this spring. For example, Jim Wilson and Frank Unmack had still eight in McCain Valley (S26) on 25 April, and Mary Beth Stowe had one at the Volcan Mt. Preserve (J20) on 11 May.

Even so sedentary a species as the California Gnatcatcher is capable of some dispersal. Banding studies have demonstrated this, but in the last year reports outside the known range in extreme southern San Diego County dramatize it. First Susan & Richard Breisch made a sighting near Boulder Oaks (S22), then Phil Nelson made another unfortunately brief one near Shockey Truck Trail (U24) during our winter Campo blockbuster. Then on 23 April Cindy Jones, a biologist experienced with this species, encountered a male, paired with a female Blue-gray, on Jacumba Peak (U28), identifying it by the characteristic mewing call as well as by tail pattern. Might these observations suggest that just south of the international border the California Gnatcatcher extends farther inland than it does on the north side, accounting for these rare dispersers?

The Bank Swallow is only a rare migrant through San Diego County, especially rare in spring, so the one Steve Cameron and I saw at the pond at Siempre Viva and La Media roads on Otay Mesa (V13) on 15 April was a surprise.

Northern Parula

Joe Barth encountered the first vagrant Eastern Warbler of the spring, a Northern Parula at Blanche's Ranch along Split Mt. Road south of Ocotillo Wells (J28) on 5 May. The Swamp Sparrow Brennan Mulrooney found at San Elijo Lagoon on 1 April most likely had wintered.

The female Scott's Oriole I found at the Border Patrol house along Monument Road in the Tijuana River valley (W11) on 12 March was followed by a male in nearby Smugglers' Gulch that remained from 9 April at least until 6 May. As illustrated in the last issue of Wrenderings, the atlas effort has revealed the Scott's Oriole to be far more widespread than previously known, but records along the coast are still very few, especially in spring.


For better or worse, escaped exotics appeared frequently this spring. Mute Swans, Black-throated Magpie Jays, Purplish-backed Jays, Nutmeg Mannikins, Cardinals, and Painted Buntings were all reported, often at spots suggesting new birds are escaping. Among the most notable were a Rufous Treepie, a southeast Asian species, photographed on Otay Mesa (V13) by John Hammond, and a Black-backed Oriole, a central Mexican species seen in Smugglers' Gulch in the Tijuana River valley (W10) by many observers. The last inspired yet another round in the never-ending debate over what species are more likely escaped captives and which are more likely vagrants arriving under their own power.

We enter reports of all escapees, even Cockatiels and Budgerigars, in our atlas database. Who can foresee which of this year's escapees will become the 21st century's version of the European Starling?

--Philip Unitt

Summer 2000 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction