With the sun up and juices flowing, we found ourselves ready to bird a key spot. Just a few miles from Escondido, a peculiar piece of desert scrub sits on either side of Interstate 15. This property, complete with its dammed lake, is known to locals as Lake Hodges. To birders, this property is considered the go-to spot for a California specialty.
Federally listed as Threatened since 1993, the California Gnatcatcher is visually a lot like our Blue-gray Gnatcatchers here in the east. As gillions of people moved into southern California, the habitat it so desperately needed was gobbled up. When the habitat goes, so does the wildlife. This particular park is perfect for them and remains critical for the future success of this bird.
With miles of trails criss-crossing the landscape, all we could do was assess what we thought would be the best habitat and start walking. California Thrasher, feisty hummingbirds, and California Quail all put in appearances. Millions, maybe even billions, of White-crowned Sparrows seemed to be plotting for a world takeover. Sadly for us, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were also on scene by the dozens. That is a BIG problem given their similar appearance to their coastal scrub cousin.
Natalie noted that the California Gnatcatcher call has a Gray Catbird “meow”quality (yes, folks the Gray Catbird really does “meow”. They did not call it that for nothing!). Near the shore of the lake, she had detected a “meow”coming from the brush. Within moments, we were indeed looking at a CALIFORNIA GNATCATCHER (life bird #665). While not photographable, the view was great.
Elated, we knew it was time for some driving. This day was planned as such. There was simply no way around it. Everyone knows the traffic of Los Angeles is hardly angelic. You essentially sit it traffic and rot. So, it was decided to head out of San Diego so we could be north of Los Angeles by afternoon rush. All in all, it worked pretty well even with our detour.
Recently, the American Birding Association had decided that the Nutmeg Mannkin was a countable species. For those of you who live a sad existence and don’t bird, birders can’t just count every bird they see and add it to their list if the bird has not been sanctioned by the ABA. The Mannikin, also known as the Scaly-breasted Munia, is native to tropical Asia and has recently been added to the list of countable birds. Huntington Central Park near LA is the place to see them.
Let me stop for a moment and clarify. Huntington Central Park is the place to see them if you happen to actually see one. We did not. That said, the birding was quite good and we managed a few species. Natalie scored Townsend’s Warbler (a bird shockingly similar to the eastern Black-throated Green Warbler). In addition, we secured the Red-breasted Sapsucker (Life bird #666). This was a key species for the trip. They are nowhere reliable…you just find them. It was nice to get that bird out of the way! Without stroking my ego, I IDed the bird in flight as it shot past. When it landed in the nearby tree, I knew that was our bird. Natalie and I enjoyed great looks. (PS – this sighting was huge as it was the only Red-breasted Sapsucker I saw on the trip.)
After securing some groceries at a local market (where they cleverly print the receipt information on both sides of the paper), we continued on to Ventura at a snail’s pace. I’m serious! I saw a snail in the commuter lane and he was going faster than we were! Okay, not really, but traffic was grossly slow. It's staggering to think that 12 lanes of traffic can move so slow. Sidetracking to the ocean via the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, we found ourselves backtracking through the mountains in the dark as the coastal highway was closed due to a rockslide. Winding curves? Darkness? I managed those hills better than the locals. They should come to Michigan. I’ll teach them how to drive.
With lodging secured in Ventura, it was on to dinner. Sadly, the local breweries were closed as it was Monday. That left only one place for chow and beer. BJ’s Brewhouse. With 158 locations across the country, you can’t say they are unique. It’s like Applebee’s – they are all the same. I know this because I visited one in Texas some years a back. Are they bad? No. Certainly not. Worldly and awesome? Well, no, certainly not awesome. The Oasis Amber and Lightswitch Lager were decidedly average. Threes for both.