Sunday, August 3, 2008

An Unstinting Quest

This is not a Red-necked Stint.

My penultimate weekend in California was a long-planned visit to San Diego, where we planned to spend some time with my sister, brother-in-law, and cute little baby nephew—as well as with some southerly bird specialties that never quite make it up to Orange County.

We visit my San Diego sister often, and our weekend ritual generally goes like this: (1) Get up at 5:30 on Saturday morning, throw our stuff in the car, and head out for some morning birding, (2) Bird frenetically from about 8 a.m. to about 2 or 3, (3) Stop for fish tacos before heading to my sister's place, (4) Enjoy an afternoon and long night of gossip, food, wine, movies on DVD, and playtime with a two-year-old with a foot fetish and the world's longest eyelashes.

This week's trip was no different, except for three things: First, it would be my last visit in a long time; and second, there was the possibility of finding the Red-necked Stint that had been lingering off Coronado Island for most of last week. And third, the stress of my imminent move had turned me into a panicked, sleep-deprived wreck in desperate need of respite. I wanted to see that Stint, doggone it, and I was determined to have fun—FUN!-even if it killed me.

We had a few target birds in mind besides the Staint—the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons in Imperial Valley, and the Little Blue Herons in the San Diego River. So we decided to start with the Night-Herons—at the most southerly of our target spots—and work our way north back to my sister's place. Following Neil Gilbert's recent communique, we set out for Imperial Valley Sports Park, where the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been nesting as of late. We were pleased to find that it was directly adjacent to one of our favorite San Diego birding spots, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. We had seen the Night-Herons nesting in trees in a nearby apartment complex a couple of years ago, so it wasn't too surprising to see them here.

In the park, we saw a Cooper's Hawk trying to chase off a group of crows, and the gregarious groundskeeper pointed out the tree where the Night-Herons had been nesting. Only seconds later, one flew into the tree and posed for us for a couple of minutes before flying off towards the reserve.

At the reserve, we found yet another Yellow-crowned Night-Heron—this one, a younger bird with less developed plumage than the first—feeding in the estuary waters:

We've always found the reserve to be a reliable place to find Clapper Rails, and this time was no exception: we heard dozens clicking away in the reeds, and saw several others poking around by the waterline:

Apart from these birds and a few of the other usual suspects, the reserve was uncharacteristically quiet. So we were off to find the Stint, armed with this map, courtesy of CalBirds.

We found the spot easily, but also found it depressingly devoid of people with spotting scopes and binoculars. The tide was up, and only a few water birds—such as about a half dozen Surf Scoters, which surprised me—were in evidence.

This was a bummer, but there were still other places to check out for fun stuff. So we headed to La Jolla Cove, where Glenn got his first-ever view of an American Oystercatcher last year.

Going to a scenic beach for birds at noon on a summer weekend is a bad idea. It was wall-to-wall people, and any bird that might have chosen to be there had sensibly fled for quieter digs. All we saw were a few Rock Pigeons and European Starlings.

Things were beginning to suck. My last birding weekend in San Diego, and I could count the number of species I've seen on my fingers.

"Do you want to head back to your sister's place?" Glenn asked.

"NO!" I practically screamed. Much as I love hanging with my sister, the idea of spending my second-to-last-ever Saturday afternoon in California sitting indoors watching the Food Network (the usual afternoon activity at her place) just seemed too depressing. I needed to be outside, and I needed more birds.

So we headed on to our other favorite spot—the mouth of the San Diego River, just across from Sea World—where we have always had good luck finding Little Blue Herons. We found them, as usual, but they sadistically decided to stay on the opposite side of the river from us, alternately dozing and standing around lethargically:

Almost no other birds were in evidence. A Northern Mockingbird. A stray Mallard. A single Pied-billed Grebe. We had gotten most of our specialties, but apart from that, it was a conspicuously birdless day.

By then, it was almost 2:30 and we decided to call it quits. We had our customary fish tacos (yum!) and spent the afternoon playing with our little nephew and watching (and making fun of) the Food Network. Then, we feasted on huge hamburgers grilled up by my brother-in-law, then ate s'mores made from homemade marshmallows and graham crackers (which I made and brought along) while watching "Into the Wild" on DVD. The film reminded me that nature is beautiful, but does not always give up her secrets easily, or benevolently.

And I was finally happy. I didn't get all of the birds I wanted, nor as many as I wanted. But it beat the heck out of my weekday activities of playing phone-tag with the company shipping my car and the leasing office at that apartment in Gainesville that I will be moving into sight unseen. And I got to spend quality time with my sister, very cool BIL, and the cutest toddler in the world. And see a few unusual birds.

It would be greedy to want anything more than that.


Corey said...

I love your herons. Remember, you're on a quest for a Glossy Ibis when the move finally happens!

Felicia said...

Ha! I'll do my best. (But if you're really in a hurry, I could get you a shot of a White-faced Ibis in non-breeding plumage BEFORE I move--since almost no one can tell them apart from the Glossies except for range...)