Monday, March 13, 2017

High Season at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Date: November 22, 2016
Place: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, California
Address: 3842 Warner Ave. Huntington Beach, California
Length: 3.3 miles
Level: easy

Three years ago our friends introduced us to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. I was so impressed by the richness of this beautiful place that I quickly wrote up my hiking experience there and posted it while still on our road trip then. Ever since I've been looking for an opportunity to revisit this place, and last November I finally had it.
Botanical Nature Trail, near the visitor center.

The night of our hike at the San Joaquin Fresh Water Marsh Reserve was our last camping at O'Neil Campground. Our original plans were to hike somewhere in Cleveland National Forest in the morning, then start on our northeast journey towards Death Valley where we planned to stay during Thanksgiving. Upon hearing our plans, our friends bade us to stay with them for one more night at their home, and we gladly accepted their offer. But we did have to split for the day time, however, so while our friends went ahead with their own plans, we decided to go hiking before joining them in the afternoon.
Pappa Quail didn't need much convincing to go to Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. In fact, he was quite excited about it. The chikas, who were eager to get together with their friends as soon as possible, were willing to go an what we promised them to be a short and easy hike where we were expecting to see lots of wildlife, especially of the feathered type.  

We had breakfast together with our friends, then broke our camp, packed everything in the car, entered the reserve's address (which I quickly pulled out of my old blog entry) into the navigator, and were on our way.
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
The trail extends from the small visitor center across the bridge and along the eastern bank of a wide slough. I stopped momentarily on the bridge to take in the view south of the bridge.

Late fall is high season for birding at Bolsa Chica, so I was very pleased indeed to see some wildflowers there too. Some where the same as I've seen at San Joaquin Fresh Water Marsh Reserve on the day before, but I was glad to see them again nonetheless.
California Brittlebush, Encelia californica
There are active efforts to restore native vegetation on the reserve, done by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. Along that entire part of the trail I saw areas with native shrubs planted in soil bowls, designed to keep moisture at the base of the plants. I hope to see them all established in future years. (Yes, I do plan to go back there again).
Native Plants Restoration Area
The slough water was fairly shallow, as evident from the wading shorebirds. At least it was shallow in the center area where the birds were wading.

A bit further down the slough Pappa Quail spotted the reddish egret. This egret species is seen in the southeast of the U.S.A., but in California its range is limited to that area. In fact, all of the California reddish egret photos I've seen posted were taken at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.
This egret does the fishing dance. It runs in the shallows, spreading its wings to shadow the water. In this way the egret herds the fish and controls their movements until it manages to catch one.
Reddish Egret

The snowy egret, of which species we have seen plenty in Bolsa Chica that day, also does this fishing dance as part of its foraging strategy, but non of theses egrets we've seen that day did it, so the show was left to the reddish egret alone.
Snowy Egret

We arrived at the second, middle bridge across the slough, and stood there for some time, watching the water. A number of terns were patrolling the area north of the bridge, circling above and occasionally stopping to hover in mid-air, poising for a possible plunge, then continuing their patrol.
But some times they did plunge. And even pulled out with a fish held in the beak.
Forster's Tern

This spot must be a good fishing place - for a grebe was circling the water there, occasionally diving under and returning to the surface with its catch.
Horned Grebe with fish 
At a distance a gull was crossing the sky, flying quickly eastward. At home, when looking at the photos we saw that it was holding something roundish in its bill. A clam, most likely.
Ring-billed Gull, taking a  clam for an air ride.
At the second bridge and needed to make a choice. On our previous visit there we went inland on the Pocket Loop Trail. This time we crossed the bridge and continued on the west bank of the slough, hiking along the Outer Bay Trail.

There, at the side of the packed gravel trail, I saw another wildflower in bloom. Over two thirds of the wildflowers I see blooming in fall time are of the aster family, and this was one of them.
Telegraph Weed, Heterotheca grandiflora 
As we started along the southern part of the slough I noticed a pickleweed plant. Near the salty water within the tidal zone is its range. It was, however, a single plant, unlike the widespread mats of this species that I usually see in wetlands.
Biglow's Pickleweed, Salicornia biglovii
We passed next to a low tree. There, hidden between the bare branches was a night heron, waiting quietly for the sunset.
Black-capped Night Heron
There wasn't much activity in the water, A few sleepy ducks floating lazily, and some ergets prowling the banks.
Ruddy Ducks
In the sky, however, a peregrine falcon swooped by. Now, that's exciting!
Peregrine Falcon
The falcon flew away all too quickly, and I returned my attention to the water. In the shallows near the bank grew copious amounts of colorful seaweed, and little schools of little fish were swimming in and out of the algae clumps.

The elder chika, who was walking a few yards ahead of me, was searching the water too. Suddenly she let out an excited exclamation she saw a sea slug!
She recognized it right away from the nature programs she'd watched (Thank you, Sir David Attenborough!) and was dancing up and down with unconfined excitement that had attracted not only the rest of us Quails, but also a few other hikes that were near by.
Of all the beautiful sightings we've had that day, this one certainly made the top.
California Aglaja sea slug, Navanax inermis
The slug glided gracefully along the bottom of the slough until it vanished under the seaweed. While I like to see beauty in all of the living creatures, I think this one makes the beauty consensus for everyone, even those who don't generally get excited over mollusks.
We moved on.
The southern bridge
Nearing the southern bridge and reserve access point there were more ducks in the water, and these were not asleep, but actively swimming about. In that area they were mostly surf scotters, which are ocean fowl.
Surf Scotter, female

While the surf scotter female is drab like other duck females, the male wears shiny black plumage and a white forehead, but his most noticeable feature is his strangely shaped bill in bright red and white, and what appears to be high nostrils. Can't mistake that one.
Suf Scotter, male
There were other waterfowl in the slough nearer to the bridge. One individual in particular was stretching and flapping her wings as if getting ready to fly, but then relaxed back into the water. Pappa Quail got the hint and took her photo.
Red-breasted Merganser, female
We arrived at the bridge. Pappa Quail and the elder chika went ahead while I lingered some time with the younger chika in the little parking lot of the south access to the reserve. It was sunny day and just after noon, and it was getting pretty hot. I tried to find some shade under the tall bushes that grew by the parking area, but there wasn't much of that. At least they added some nice color to the place.
Brazilian Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifolius. Non-native, invasive.

When we reconnected with Pappa Quail on the bridge I found that he had already seen some more birds that, while not uncommon, would have been missed if not seen. Such was the Pacific brown pelican.
Pacific Brown Pelican
And a little pied-billed grebe that was diving in the slough and popping back to the surface in unexpected places, some quite distant from where it had plunged under.
Pied-billed Grebe

It was slow crossing the southern bridge. Not because it was long, although it was the longest bridge in the reserve, but because there was so much to see. Also, because the elder chika enjoyed conversing with the other birders that were there and it took some effort to pull her along.
Of course, there were more birds on the other side. Just waiting, posing nicely for the camera. I wonder if they are aware that they are the centerpiece of the Bolsa Chica Reserve :-)
Savannah Sparrow
A tall chicken wire fence was erected on the other side of the bridge, directing foot travelers back north on the Inner Bay Trail. We followed the trail that circumvented the fence until we left it behind. At the meeting of the levees there was an observation area with benches a small group of very still and quiet birders (I don't think that the birders were a permanent exhibit ... or maybe they are ... ). There we had a clear view of the flooded area beyond it.
A view south from the observation area
There was a low island far to the southeast. On and near it were many white pelicans and brant geese who were too distant to get a good images of. But a foraging osprey dived to the water a bit closer to us.

To the north was another, shallower flood flat, with large area of exposed mud and multitudes of shorebirds dotting it.

The mostly brown shorebirds blended very well in the muddy background. Much more conspicuous were the egrets that stood there in spacious intervals, ambushing the mud wildlife.
Great Egret
We slowly walked north along the Inner Bay Trail atop the levee. At that time the sun was already westering so we kept our gaze to the pond on the east, trying to identify the numerous shorebirds.
Greater yellowlegs
Pappa Quail took his time walking a long the levee with the elder chika. The young chika was beginning to get impatient, She wanted to see her friends. I quickened my pace a bit, but soon we came to an area with many shorebirds and my chika agreed to sit down on the gravel with me and wait for her father there.

One of the most common shorebirds in that pond were the black bellied plover which I first saw up at Point Pinole and later in other places along the coast.
Black-bellied Plover, non-breeding

And a species I first saw at the Hayward Shoreline - the beautiful marbled godwits.
Marbled Godwit

As we progressed north the pond filled up. There were ducks in the water.  A pair of scaup.
Scaup, female

The female scaup is very pretty, more than other female ducks I've seen. The male, however, is quite fancy. Male ducks are very beautiful birds. 
Scaup, male

We made it back to the middle bridge. It has been a couple of hours since we first crossed it. What could be different now?

The birds, of course. Now there were bufflehead ducks in the water. The males look very festive in their black and white tuxedos, but when the light shines on them in a suitable angle, they show their full, iridescent colors, which are a candy to the eyes.
Bufflehead, male
On the other side of the bridge where previously stood a single snowy egret now were a bunch of them, accompanied by a tired great blue heron which kept yawning, and a group of double-crested cormorants, preening after must have been a busy morning of fishing.
Double-crested Cormorants

We crossed the bridge again and soon were walking back on the trail we had started with. And at a much quicker pace.
Not too quick for me to ignore the blooming bladderpod, though.
Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea
We were walking briskly now, heading back toward the first bridge and the visitor center. The elder chika needed to hurry back so she run ahead of us. I followed here at a quick pace, but not in running, and Pappa Quail lingered behind with the younger chika.   As we approached the end of our hike I noticed a bird sitting on the fence to my right. The bird didn't move even when I was level with her. It was an American kestrel. A female kestrel, as I later learned.
A view north at the first bridge and the visitor center area. 
I took several photos and moved on. But I was using a wide lens, so I hoped that the kestrel would stay put until Pappa Quail would get there. And she did! Pappa Quail And she was still there when he eventually moved on after some good long minutes of kestrel photographing.
American Kestrel, female

We didn't have time to go to the beach after our hike. For it was 'The Season' at Bolsa Chica reserve. There were multitudes of birds, and each one deserved due attention. There were many more species than those I've posted here - it was very challenging to select from our photos. And there was more to see there than the birds. I totally see this place as another pilgrimage site for us, whenever we head south to Orange County. 

That night we stayed with our friends, and on the following day we headed northeast, aiming to reach Death Valley National Park by Thanksgiving Day. On our way we stopped for a fateful hike at the Mormon Rocks of Cajon Pass. 


  1. A very rewarding hike, full of interesting birds. The sea slug is indeed beautiful.

    1. A rewarding place it is! That's why I'd love to go back there again (and again).