Istvan Katona and I did a big day in search of life birds for him, and year birds for me.
Istvan drove from Irvine to my house, and for our first bird we counted the Mockingbird that has been taunting me all night long—singing outside my bedroom window—since it got hot. We left Claremont in his Toyota Corrolla at 04:30 a.m., arriving in Indio at the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center at 06:10 a.m. [there was already useable sunlight for birding at 05:30, so we counted M Doves, Rock Pigeons, Ravens, and an obvious (slightly out-of-range?) American Crow in Cabazon]. The Bird Center driveway was open, and we could see 2 cars parked in front of the office, so we parked there, too, waved at the lady feeding some animals in a cage, and followed the directions given by Kurt Leuschner’ (wow, what a cool name: if that was my name I would be a film director making movies about cave paintings in France), staring in the direction of the 10 freeway at the big field of saltbush. Western Kingbirds, Bushtits, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Verdin, Gambel’s Quail, Mallards, Black-necked Stilts. Around 06:40 the first Crissal Thrasher showed itself just barely long enough for Istvan to see all of its field marks, before dropping. At 07:00 one sat out on top of a salt bush, and sang for several minutes.
“You sure it isn’t a Common Poorwill?”
“No! It’s a LESSER NIGHTHAWK!”
Perhaps she meant “Least Nighthawk”.
The seed feeders outside had a scrawny, sickly looking female Western Tanager that kept hiding behind the House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches.
A mile down Highway 111 we stopped at Starbucks (Istvan: tall mocha frapuccino & a apple fritter; me: grande mocha with extra whip & a plain bagel with cream cheese), and drove west on 111 to Palm Desert, where we hooked a left onto Highway 74, and drove up to Pinyon Flats Campground. No Pinyon Jays. This was Istvan’s 6th try in 12 years for Pinyon Jay. We continued along Hwy 74 to Morris Ranch Road (no luck) but Fobes (not “Forbes”) Ranch Road had Pygmy Nuthatches, Red-shafted Flickers, California Quail, Bullock’s Orioles, House Finches, Starlings, Black-chinned Sparrows (one sang out in the open), Red-tailed Hawks, Scrub Jays, Turkey Vultures, and then FINALLY three Pinyon Jays. Thank you, Fake Neil Gilbert (the kid in Orange County isn’t the Real Neil Gilbert. The Real Neil Gilbert is a retired banker in Claremont who was birding before Fake Neil Gilbert’s parents were born.)
Cell phone rings.
“Ho Tom, it’s L.C. There’s a Lesser Sandplover at Bolsa Chica.”
“You’re kidding! I hope it’s there tomorrow!”
“I’m doing a Big Day in the desert with my friend, Istvan.”
“Well, maybe you’ll get lucky.”
Istvan, of course, is unimpressed. He has seen tons of Lesser Sandplovers in Japan. He wants to see a Willow Flycatcher.
All right, let’s get off this mountain, and go down to the Salton Sea. Wow, the views on Highway 74 are GORGEOUS. In Palm Desert we stopped for two more Starbucks (Istvan worked until 10:00 p.m. on Friday night, while I worked until 8:00 p.m., and then took my kids to the drive-in for the 8:45 p.m. premiere of “Cars 2”, so we both got 3 hours of sleep). You know you’re in the nice part of town when the Starbucks has valet parking. Since we only had $100s, we parked the Corolla, ourselves. Istvan got a grande cappuccino, while I got a tall mocha frapucinno. Driving north on Bob Hope Drive, we stopped at a gas station, bought a bottle of Coke and a canned Starbucks vanilla mocha, then took the 10 east to the 86S, down the 111 to the Salton Sea
SALTON SEA east shore 12:00 NOON, 108 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT:
Brown Pelicans, Cattle Egrets, Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, Mockingbirds. We took Sinclair Road (Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, White-faced Ibis) west to Garst Road, and drove north slooowly. Lots of California Gulls, one LAUGHING GULL, Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Avocets, Stilts, one Willet, Killdeer. At Obsidian Butte Istvan pointed out a REDDISH EGRET and a BRANT among the Greater Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Blue Herons. Western Grebe. Two adult YELLOW-FOOTED GULLS, lots of Brown and American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, etc.
1:00 p.m. RAMER LAKE 112 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT:
Cattle Egrets, Clark’s Grebe, Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds, Abert’s Towhees, Black-crowned Night Herons, Black Phoebes, Double-crested Cormorants, and NO Neotropical Cormorant. My 3rd failure at Ramer Lake, on top of 3 failures at Sunbeam Lake to get Neotropical Cormorant on my California list. À la Stephen Colbert, I shook an angry fist at the sky, squinted, and swore vengeance.
2:00 p.m. CALIPATRIA 117 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT:
Common Ground Doves, Eurasian Collared Doves, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbird (at a feeder), but no Bronzed Cowbird. Oh, well. We hit the MacDonald’s in Brawley, where I ordered a “large” Oreo McFlurry. Have you noticed that prices are not going up, the food packages are getting smaller and smaller? I needed a magnifying glass to find my large McFlurry. No time for Gila Woodpeckers et al at Cattle Call Park: we have bigger fish to fry. We head east on Highway 78, towards Algodones Dunes.
3:00 p.m. OMG Algodones Dunes is BEAUTIFUL. I am taking my wife and kids there in the winter on my next Neotropical Cormorant debacle.
4:00 p.m. STILL ON HIGHWAY 78
We are on an endless stretch of highway in the Colorado River Valley. White-winged Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird. White-winged Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird. White-winged Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird. To break the monotony, we insert an acoustic, studio Eric Clapton CD. First song is a mellow version of “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” Second song is a mellow version of “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” Third song is a mellow version of “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.”
Istvan’s eyes bulge, and he issues an ultimatum: either the CD or I am going to fly out of the car very soon, if Clapton doesn’t change his tune. We are cursing each others’ village, mother, and dog, but then fisticuffs are narrowly avoided when the Blythe Texaco suddenly disrupts our mutterings in Hungarian [For the record, Hungarian is the best language in the world for swearing at people. Hungarian cussing invokes parents, their body parts, donkeys, dogs, and storks (and their body parts), rabbits, venereal disease, and ladies of ill repute. The average 8 year-old Hungarian boy could make a New York doctor blush.]
The gas tank full, we drive over the Colorado River into La Paz County, Arizona (home of Felicia McGee, Miss Arizona 2011).
“Ott van!” (There it is)
The Yellow-billed Loon is casually floating in the Colorado River, one yard from the east bank. We park illegally, stare at the bird—making it Istvan’s third life bird of the day—then move the car to a safer spot. While I am photographing it, some blond guys pull over and ask,
“Dude, like what are you looking at?”
Istvan croaks, “I am looking at Yellow-billed Loon.”
“No way! Can we borrow your binoculars? It’s our day off, and we left them at home.”
Turned out that David and Leif are biologists doing a Yellow-billed Cuckoo survey at the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge. While we stood on the edge of the highway, ogling the loon, we talked about Sabine’s Gulls, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and other things that make you get out of bed at 3 in the morning. They gave us directions to the “The Bill”, but warned us not to expect Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, or the Common Blackhawk that are there, this late in the day.
A NOTE ABOUT THE YELLOW-BILLED LOON: It looks like it has a fish hook in its mouth. The whole time we watched it, its mouth was open, and it could/would not close the bill. Istvan and I took photos of what we assume is a foreign body. An alternate explanation would be that it was panting from the extreme heat, and that backwards “C” in its mouth was its tongue. If it is a fish hook, this would explain the bird’s poor health, plumage, etc., and it would be desirable to capture & rehab it.
6:00 to 7:00 p.m. BILL WILLIAMS RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE 100 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT.
Imagine if someone picked up the Kern River Preserve, and plopped it down into a steep canyon at a 90 degree angle to a desert river. Wow. This place needs to get birded every spring and fall for eastern vagrants. Gila Woodpecker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeaks, Song Sparrows, Yellow-breasted Chats, Crissal Thrasher, Canyon Wren, but Istvan didn’t get Yellow-billed Cuckoo or Willow Flycatcher for a life bird.
11:58 p.m. CLAREMONT
The wife and kids are asleep. Gina, the World’s Most Dangerous Basset Hound howls at me, rolls over onto her back, and demands that I rub her belly.
Stupid rooftop Mockingbird is at it, again, but after 705 miles on the road, that shower sure feels good. I don’t remember falling asleep.