Monday, September 30, 2019

The Day Winter Arrived at Lake Cuyamaca

Western Bluebird

Date: November 22, 2018
Place: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Cuyamaca, California
Coordinates:  32.985120, -116.581852
Length: 3.6 miles
Lavel: easy

Thanksgiving Day of 2018 dawned on us in Descanso, CA, a tiny farming community nestled in the hills between San Diego and the Anza Borrego Desert. We arrived there the night before after a very nice birding day at the Tijuana River Estuary and the Border Field State Park. Throughout that day I have checked n the weather and was glad t see that the rains have finally arrived the California shores and were making their way south, one by one snuffing out the deadly fires that raged throughout our drought weary State. On Thanksgiving morning we found that the long awaited for winter had caught up with us - certainly a big one to give thanks for. It was heavily overcast, the wind was whipping the trees, and light rain drizzled off and on. We saw deer through the window, and the small community had their Christmas lights on already. Every establishment within a reasonable driving distance was closed for Thanksgiving and the only choices we had were to stay all day in the warm yet very small cabin we had rented without much to do, or to stick with our original plan, brave the weather, and go hiking.
Given these choices, we had a good, hearty breakfast, and left for Cuyamaca Rancho State Park where we had planned to hike that day.
Lake Cuyamaca
The park is fairly big but doesn't have a very extensive trail system. The visitor center was too closed for the holiday, so we drove right up to the lake where we found a privately run recreation area that was open for business. We went inside to pay for parking and look for additional rain gear, and to ask about the best hiking trails in the area.
"You came at the wrong time of year," said the attendant. It was the first rain they've had in 11 months and they were very grateful for it, she told me. But it really wasn't the best weather to hike in, the vegetation was mostly dry and nothing was booming, and the lake has been the lowest it's ever been. She advised us to just walk the trail along the lake shore and to the island. "There might be some birds there," she said.
Having no plan B and not fearing the weather we decided to follow the attendant's advice and walk along the lake.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
Already from the parking lot we could see that the shallow lake water was nicely populated with waterfowl. The usuals - Canada geese, mallards and coots were swimming to and fro in the water, not displaying any enthusiastic activity of any kind. They too seemed a bit under the weather. 
Canada Geese
Pappa Quail and the elder chika lingered at the trailhead for some time, trying to document every bird they've seen. Meanwhile I prepared a backpack with snacks and water, and distributed the plastic ponchos we got at the lake's store to protector cameras.
Double-crested Cormorants 
The drizzle eased off a little and we started walking south along the lakeshore. The trail followed the contour of what was the original shoreline but now had tall, try grasses on either side.

The actual waterline was far away, telling of the long drought years that have drained much of the lake.

The dark, exposed mud appeared to be moving - there were many waterfowl and shorebirds moving n the mud in a slow and listless search for something to eat. A great but heron, all huddled in its feathers, gazed silently upon the mud flats.
Great Blue Heron
Dark clouds were rolling in. As we turned the curve around the lake I could see to the south a big gray wall of cloud hovering over a flat field of red vegetation which I had not identified.
Low Clouds
We were walking north now and the trail moved further from the lakeshore and the flats. I found that the attendant at the store wasn't completely correct when she said that nothing was blooming because I did spot there some blooming plants.
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp. 
At lease two species of buckwheat were blooming at Lake Cuyamaka on the 2018 Thanksgiving Day. Not big and impressive carpets, but bloom nonetheless.
Buckwheat, Eriogonum sp. 
One can always count on the composite family to be represented in bloom year-round. That was true enough
Groundsel, Senecio sp. 
The trees seemed to be bearing a different kind of bloom ...
On the east shore the trail was running along a wooded area, some of which had been burned. Although recovered since, there were still many charred logs lying around. Much of the undergrowth was low or clear altogether, thus visibility between the trees was good, and so were the opportunities for bird-watching.
Hermit Thrush
It was nice to see fall colors along our hike. With the whipping wind I knew the yellow and rusty leaves would not cling much longer to the deciduous branches. I was glad that we were there at the right time to see the leaf-turn.
As I admired the fall colors I thought about what the store attendant had said. Perhaps we weren't there at the best time of year but this time of year was really beautiful there.

As far as birds were considered, we were there at a very good time of the year. They were everywhere. Unlike the lethargic waterfowl on the lake, the forest and bush birds were very active and were chirping all around us.
Song Sparrow
We reached a picnic area that had seen better days and a trail intersections with a split leading to the island. The island might have been such had the lake been full but with the current low levels the island was surrounded by a sea f grasses, not water.
We crossed the bridge over dry land and started walking around the island clockwise.
Island Trail
Fall colors made up for anything lacking in bloom. It was nice that while on the island the rain stopped for a while and we could fold our ponchos and avoid the whooshing of the plastic.
Fall Colors
The wind kept on whipping though. We picked up the pace to keep warm.
The island is a hill rising above the lake. The trail didn't go all around at the lake level but climbed up nearly to the summit of that hill. From there we had a very nice view t the north west where we could see much darker clouds moving in.

It was a matter of time until those ominous-looking rain clouds arrive. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a surprising spell of sunshine. We had a short snack break and the chikas went about exploring a little, and returned with a wasp's paper comb. 
Turning round about the island got a nice view of the area where the northeastern part of the lake would have been if not for the prolonged drought. The lake's dry bottom was covered with a mat of bright red vegetation.

Far away in the distance a couple of harriers patrolled the field, to far to get a decent photo, even with Pappa Quail's powerful zoom.
The kestrel however, was closer and circled near us several times, giving Pappa Quail ample opportunity to take good photos.
American Kestrel

We completed our circle around the island and crossed the bridge back to the other side. The weather had improved and we decided to explore a little the area east of the lakeshore. There were many 'social' trails there and not sure which was the official one, we simply chose one of them that was going roughly in the direction we wanted and followed it.
Our choice brought us to a very nice view point to the southeast where we looked at a pretty valley and a double-peaked butted. The map had these within the park's boundaries but not one of us suggested going there. Perhaps on a different visit.

Woodpeckers became very active now that the sun was out. They use the brief respite in the rain to get about maintaining their larders.
Acorn Woodpecker
Other birds came out of their hiding places and moved about their business in the forest, enjoying the  calm before the next storm.
Northern Flicker

Always on their guard and not just on Thanksgiving Day, were the wild turkeys. Deer too roamed the dry savannah of the valley below.

It was a little higher on that eastern hill where we came upon a burnt tree stump that had collected some rain water in a shallow depression . There, in that fleeting puddle, a group of western bluebirds were having the time of their lives. They were drinking and bathing and frolicking with each other. It was a beautiful sight to see and we stayed there for quite some time to look at those pretty little birds enjoying what the first rain had left behind.
Western Bluebirds 
Eventually we continued our hiking. It was in good time too because the sun soon disappeared being the new clouds that rolled in from the west. The wind picked up and large drops of rain started falling down from the sky.

We hurried down the trail, once again wrapped in our ponchos, the plastic whipping at our bodies.
the newly arrived clouds were higher in the sky so on our way back we got to see that butte to the south that was completely obscured by the earlier clouds.

The sun struggled for a little bit, illuminating he dry grass and tule with soft golden color, but the heavy cloud was already siting over the small community by the lake and the wind was driving the rain drops to our faces even as we were walking in the sunlit field.

The right wasn't yet strong but the cameras were tucked under the plastic ponchos and taken out for only a few, worthy shots.
Golden-crowned Sparrow 
By the time we arrived back at the parking area the rain ad begun in earnest. We had a quick goodbye look at the lake and rolled out of the parking lot and straight into the recreation store. There Pappa Quail and the chikas sat down for lunch while I engaged the attendant in another chat. She was very pleased to know that we enjoyed our hike despite (or maybe because of) the weather, and that there was much to see even if we weren't visiting at the best season.
Greater White-fronted Goose
After lunch the light rain had turned into a full-blown storm. It was clear that we won't get another hike that day but it was still fairly early to we drove a bit north and enjoyed the rest of that afternoon in the quaint little town of Julian and its pretty historical downtown before heading back for another evening by the iron stove at the cabin in Descanso. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Birds Without Borders: A Birding Hike at Border Field State Park

The Beach at Border Field State Park

Date: November 21, 2018
Place: Border Field State Park, Imperial Beach, California
Coordinates: 32.543509, -117.106526
Length: 3.1 miles
Level: easy

When we decided on the San Diego area as the destination for our Thanksgiving break Pappa Quail knew immediately that he wanted to visit Border Field State Park. It is one of the prime birding spots in the Southern California coast.
At the time of our trip approached we were getting concerned: the news reported of a large caravan of refugees was approaching Tijuana from the Mexican side of the border. According to the media they untended to storm the border fence. As the tensions increased, we wondered if the park, which is right at the Mexican border, was even going to be open for hikes.
Since no notice of closure appeared on the park's website that morning we decided to go ahead with our plan and visit there.
The Gate
The road to the park was suspiciously empty. There was hardly any traffic there, civilian or otherwise. A few small farms lined north and the entire area appeared to be slumbering.
We arrived at the park and found that we couldn't drive inside. We parked at a gravel parking lot next to a few other cars and walked down the road, past the unmanned gate booth.
Pappa Quail spotted a bird almost immediately - an American Kestrel parched on a  pole. It was pretty far, though. 
American Kestrel
The soil near the road was wet and a pretty yellow butterfly was busy sucking moisture from it. I took a few photos, then waited for Pappa Quail to take better images with his birding, powerful zoom lens.

Border Field State Park is flat. There's a large, slough-fed salt marsh and a long, beautiful beach. There's also a hill at the southeast side of the park but we were heading directly west - to the beach.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
We walked down the road along with a few other people who bothered to get out of their home that day. Soon we came to the trailhead of the trail leading directly to the beach. The road curved to the south and we started down the trail. 

The emptiness, vastness, and lack of human activity in the park stood in contrast with the high rises of the city of Tijuana that loomed to the south of us, just across the border.  As we walked down to the beach I kept turning my head to look at the city, fascinated by the close proximity to another country. The elder chika was doing the same, but she was much more vocal about her desire to cross the border and visit Mexico and was bummed when we told her that it won't happen on this particular trip.
We came upon two border patrol vehicles that were parked in a wide dirt clearing. the drivers were sitting in the cars, their windows rolled down. They were eating their lunch and chatting, appearing all casual. They directed us to the beach and informed us that there was no problem whatsoever in hiking any trail in the park, even the one that's right at the borderline.
View north to San Diego 
We crossed a salt marsh area that was barred from the ocean by a low ridge of cream-colored sand dunes. A narrow slough of slow-moving water meandered through the marsh.

There were no birds wading the slough mud despite the bounty of snails that crawled about.

Pappa Quail and the chikas were eager to get to the beach and hurried along down the trail. Bit I saw something that made me stop in my tracks: flowers! The sand verbena was blooming. Not at it's peak, but blooming nonetheless. I was thrilled.
Sticky Sand Verbena, Abronia maritima 
I finally crossed the dunes and looked around. The beach was flat and long, stretching from horizon to horizon with almost no obstructions, save for the border fence on the south. No rocks were sticking out of the sand, no curvy little bays or pony headlands protruding inland or out in the water. The ocean lapped gently at the sandy shore and as expected, many shorebirds of many different species and sizes patrolled the strand line, searching for morsels between the waves.

A large wooden old wire roll was stranded on the beach, its cracked filled with sand. Pappa Quail and the chikas were sitting on it, the chikas munching on their snacks and Pappa Quail training his camera on something in the water. When I approached he directed my attention to what it was - the dorsal fins of dolphins that were popping through the surface whenever the dolphins came up to breathe.
After finishing their snack the chikas went to play in the shallows and Pappa Quail started stalking the shorebirds.
I continued sitting on the wire roll for a while, enjoying the sight of my family enjoying themselves, and observing the birds through the binoculars. There were many of them, all running around in the wet strand line, poking for morsels, escaping the larger waves, passing each other on their way to and fro, but rarely interacting with each other. Each species had its on leg length and beak length, allowing them to occupy different niches in the same habitat. Very cool.
A black-bellied plover and a group of sanderlings 
I also gazed at the border fence with my binoculars, trying to see if there was any activity there. The media had described a scene of mass desperation and chaos, and multitude of people climbing the fence. When we were there however, there wasn't any action going on. None at all. There was one person sitting on the fence but he looked more curios than desperate, and he didn't attempt to jump to the U.S. side. We saw a few people swimming out in the ocean way past the edge of the fence. Had they wished, they had no problems simply swimming north. There was no border patrol, nor anyone else official-looking on the U.S. side of the border. The only people on the north side of the fence were a few park goers - families with children. And us, Quails.
The border fence
Nearly all the birds we've seen on that beach were shorebirds of one species or another. There were a few others, however. An occasional gull, she pelicans, and terns. Here, in its non-breeding plumage, a riyal tern looking more like balding man, observing motionlessly the bustling shorebirds around it.
Royal Tern

Eventually we decided it was time to continue our hike so we started walking south along the beach. The elder chika picked up her camera and started photographing birds as well. She also too one of the nicer wide shots of the pretty beach.

Having made it to the strand line myself, I got to look for beach treasures. And there were plenty of them there, just lying around on the wet sand.
Sand Dollar 
Of course, what might seem a treasure to me might not be so for others. Of my family, only I hold fascination with algae.
As always, Pappa Quail was looking for the birds, and he was getting lots of nice shots of them.
Marbled Godwit 
Border Field State Park really is a birding heaven, especially for shore birds. Birds naturally, do not acknowledge human-made borders. They fly as they wish and spend their time foraging on either side, pleasing U.S. and Mexican birders alike.
There is something very relaxing about bird watching. Even I, who am primarily into plants and wildflowers, got some of the bird-watching bug rubbing off onto me from Pappa Quail and the elder chika.
Black-bellied Plover 
In fact, after years of not being able to distinguish one shore bird from another, I am finally able to tell a few of them from the rest. The dowitcher is one of those I can identify.
Long-billed Dowitcher 
What I didn't have that day was a strong zoom for my lens. As we neared the fence I did get a better view of the city on the other side. The contrast between the populated city and the vast emptiness the park was striking.
Curlew and Tijuana 
The elder chika got a nice shot of that curlew, although she was right next to me and no nearer to the bird.
Long-billed Curlew 
A group of young men came running past us from north to south. They neared the fence, then turned east and jogged on the road parallel to the border. I took the time looking at some colorful shells when I heard Pappa Quail call me with excitement - he had spotted snowy plovers.
Beach Treasures 
I took one last sweeting look at the pretty beach then heaved a sigh and walked over to the dune where Pappa Quail and the elder chika stood, clicking their cameras like crazy.

Snowy plovers are an endangered species that after suffered a serious decline due to habitat loss is now making a comeback, thanks to preservation efforts. They are tiny, almost completely camouflaged birds, that can be detected by the untrained eye pretty much only when on the move. We've seen snowy plovers at a few other beaches along the California coast, first time being at the Oso Flaco State Beach. Nearly always these plovers wear leg bands. Of the two individuals we've seen at Border Field State Park, only one was sporting the leg bands (which Pappa Quail reported to the authorities that keep count of these birds). I chose to post here the image of the landless one.
Snowy Plover 
We cut through the dunes to the paved road and started walking back. Before long we came upon a flooded section of the road where the Tijuana River overflowed, being the reason for the road closure.
Unlike the slow stroll we had on the beach, now we were walking quickly. We didn't see many birds there, save for a few little bush birds.
Red-wing Blackbird, female (left), and House Finch, female (right)
We did pause to look at a large dragonfly perched on a branch, hanging on to what appeared to be its old nymph skin.
For some distance we walked fairly close to the border. It appeared that the new border wall was being built, not waiting for any public debate to be resolved. The new wall was being built some distance away from the border fence. The buildings of the Mexican city were right at the border fence, every bit of land being used. While most of the buildings appeared to be new tenement complexes I did see some single home houses with large yards and nice gardens. It really looked like many cities in California, only less sprawled.
The Fence 
It might seem from this post that we spent a lot of time gawking at Tijuana but really our main objective was a nature hike, and there were more birds to see on our way back to the parking area.
At the parking lot I paid closer attention to the decoration of a fenced area (what it fenced I cannot recall - some utility stuff). The decoration was of mosaic stepping stones with desert and native elements. I thought it was really pretty and colorful. It certainly made the fence nicer to look at.

We didn't have much else planned for the day. there was one more birding hot spot in Chula Vista we wanted to visit, but otherwise, we were ready to move on.
I drove slowly in the quiet road leading from Border Field State Park to the Tijuana River Valley Preserve when something large and blue crossed my field of vision. I slammed the breaks and pulled over, shouting with excitement - what flew across the road was a magpie jay, one of the biggest on our wish list for this trip.
We all got out of the car. Me with the binoculars and Pappa Quail and the elder chika with their cameras. The younger chika was less enthusiastic about seeing this magnificent bird but she did eventually, if somewhat reluctantly, come along to take a look.
Black-throated Magpie Jay 
The magpie jay is the largest jay in California. This species has a stable population in the southwestern part of San Diego County. The black-throated magpie jay is pretty much endemic to northwestern Mexico, and the southmost tip of California. It was a real treat to see them.