A two week family holiday in California was based around three centres: Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Los Angeles. All components of the holiday were arranged independently, which meant an Air France flight from Newcastle to Los Angeles, connecting at Paris, hire car through Holiday Autos on the Internet (complete with full SLI insurance, which is a must in the US), large and comfortable hotels in LV and LA, and a villa with 2 bedrooms in the heat of Palm Springs. The design of the holiday was intended to sandwich the activities that were present in Las Vegas and Los Angeles around a “chill out” week in Palm Springs – a little bit of a misnomer in 105° plus temperatures. The timing was due to school commitments.
Las Vegas consisted of 2 full days in the money machine capital of the states, and no birding was done here. Birds such as Great-tailed Grackles and Mourning Doves can be seen around the city, and although there are undoubtedly some birding opportunities around (I had been told of Crissal Thrasher at Las Vegas Desert Park), the time was spent watching mugs greater than us losing money in the casinos. We had thought of making a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon, but the journey to the interesting bit takes a total of 10 hours or so, hence a much shorter journey to the Hoover Dam was made. Less impressive here, and less birdy, but a single Western Grebe wallowing in the sunshine near the dam was my first, and a species that I had wanted to see for many years.
The time in Los Angeles (3 full days) was full to the brim of theme parks, Hollywood stars, and loonies on the beaches, so again no specific time was spent birding. 3 new species were seen there, however (Western, Heerman’s, & Californian Gulls), which were plentiful on the beaches. A flock of Long-billed Curlews and sporadic Brown Pelicans also passed by. We did the touristy bit to see the Hollywood sign from Griffith Park, and this spot also seemed as if it could turn up a decent list of common parkland birds, such as Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Steller’s Jay, both of which were seen while passing through.
Palm Springs was the site for some quality birding. Despite the restrictions of time and temperature, I spent 3 mornings at sites no further than 1 hour from the villa, and all three were excellent. For information, I relied on the tried and trusted Lane guide (to Southern California), which pointed to some great birding. The sites visited were:
San Jacinto mountains. To the immediate West of Palm Springs, more than a day could easily be spent covering the whole of the loop around the mountains. A big plus of this area is that the height lowers the temperature considerably (although it does become hot through the day, and mosquitoes are more of a problem here than anywhere else). I covered 2 sites on the loop – the track up to the campground on Black Mountain, and Pine Cove area, with a stop first thing at Lake Fulmor, and lastly 10 minutes in the lower slopes (covering the Upper Sonoran Life Zone). The drive up the Black Mountain track is over 6 miles and has to be taken slowly, but is well worth the effort, with birds a plenty in the campground itself. The whole morning was good for experiencing the south-western birds of the upper elevations.
Riverside area. Riverside is reputedly a large city that is still growing, and the amount of traffic passing through even at 5:30am seemed to confirm this. It also offers some good birding, and quite a contrast to the mountain mix of San Jacinto. Robidoux Nature Centre offers many habitat types in a smallish area – riparian, woodland, overgrown grassland, and marsh/river. It is well signposted from the Highway (60), and can be accessed even before the official opening time of 10am. San Jacinto Wildlife area looks very purpose built, and is a very good site for waterbirds. In addition to 2 large marshland/lagoons, 4 artificial lagoons have been created, with surrounding reedbeds and wet fields. The main problem I had was that the northern approach along Davis Road was closed, so I had to make a detour to the east then through Lakeview.
Big Morongo National Park. I had been recommended this site by a couple of Californian birders I met in Arizona. I had toyed with the idea of making a trek to the Salton Sea, since there were potentially more new and varied species there. The Morongo decision was probable the best of the trip, since I chanced upon a once fortnightly hummingbird banding session, critters in the form of Bobcat and Banded King Snake, and some real quality birding during the whole morning. The preserve is not particularly large, but forms a bit of a vegetated (and wet in some places) oasis in the more barren mountain area. It is supposed to be a real gem during migration, but the breeding flycatchers, passing hummingbirds, and plentiful other species were good even during the height of Summer.
Although these were the specific birding areas visited during the holiday, mention should be made of two other, and surprising in one case, places of interest:
Plaza Villas, Palm Springs. Our squat for the week was almost in the centre of Palm Springs, but did have lawned areas throughout, with a lining of trees. Greatest shock was the lone Greater Roadrunner of the trip, trotting around one of the aforementioned lawns. Hummingbirds were also regularly seen (mainly Black-chinned, but also some Costa’s), both on feeders, and often on exposed perches. Other common residents were Mockingbird and Mourning Dove (the latter included a nesting pair above our parked car), and Brewer’s Blackbird over the villas.
Palm Canyon. I made a short trip to this one third of the 3 Indian Canyons area, the main aim being to see the scenery. Binoculars were a bonus – Scott’s Oriole was in the Canyon itself, with Sage Sparrows along the rock faces above. Although the Canyon is 15 miles long, birds can be seen in the area immediately down from the visitor centre – eg California Towhee, Verdin, Bewick’s Wren.
I found that driving in California was manic, but it didn’t take long to step into their ways – understanding that undertaking is as acceptable as overtaking, as is turning right on most red lights, is advantageous. However, a major tip for any journey seemed to be planning. Knowing the roads, and in particular, the Interstate highways, that need to be taken are a must, since the turnings can easily be missed (knowing the name of a road as well as its number is useful), and sometimes getting back on the correct route can take some time – there are no roundabouts to do a U-turn on. Some of the birding sites left the metalled roads, and the Lane guide does warn about their standard after rain, but the saloon car I had managed all reasonably comfortably, even if some of the mountain tracks had to be taken a little slowly.