I hauled myself out of bed and set off 40 minutes earlier this morning, which was just about the right time – 4:20 out of bed, 5am out of the door, arriving at the centre at 6am. Even at this time of the morning, getting through the highways of the fast growing town of Riverside was at times slow – some of the junctions were at crawling pace. As mentioned in the Lane guide, the centre opens at 10am, but the gate, which is merely a cross bar across a track, can be parked next to and easily circumnavigated. This was another site where setting foot outside of the car immediately found copious birdlife, and this was around the roadside and housing, as well as the edges of the Centre. First and most obvious was the din from the nearby American Crow colony, but above that, Black Phoebes could be seen and heard feeding from the fences bordering the nearby allotment properties. House & Purple Finches were abundant, and 4 small woodpeckers flew into a tree nearby. On the Centre side of the road, 2 Northern Flickers were at the top of tall trees, and were subsequently replaced by young Ash-throated Flycatchers.
I finally managed to tear myself away from the entrance area after about half an hour, but this was only after adding Western Bluebird, another Black Phoebe, and the final Towhee of the North American family, California, which obligingly landed and rooted around on a small drive just off the main road. Even before the visitor centre was reached (it is only about 100m from where the car was parked), the mystery of the earlier Woodpeckers was resolved. At least 6 Nuttall’s were feeding along the main branches of trees. A couple of Black Phoebes also slowed up progress.
The first trail I took was the Willow Creek Trail, and this eventually turned into a full loop around the preserve. As soon as I rounded the first corner into a fairly open patch, a small collection of tall bare trees hosted Northern Flicker, Western Bluebird, and Ash-throated Flycatcher in a line. Common Yellowthroat flew from one dense thicket to another. This trail rounded to run parallel for a short way with a concreted watercourse, which actually contained some water and was quite well reeded, containing more Common Yellowthroats and Black Phoebes, with House Wren on the fenced boundary. A small collection of scruffy sparrows which kept fairly well hidden turned out to be juvenile Song Sparrows, with the odd Black-chinned Hummingbird passing by.
Shortly after this, an open expanse of grassland and bushes was reached, and this was surrounded by a perimeter of trees over a width of about 300m. A calling Blackbird could not be located, and could have been either Red-winged or Tricoloured. A Spotted Towhee did put in a brief appearance, but the first and most obvious poser was a California Thrasher, sat at the apex of a lone bush along the trail. They are reputedly a skulking species, but it stayed put for about 5 minutes. It is a very impressive bird, quite large for the family, with a very long down-curved sickle bill. Time now was 7:20, and the sky was overcast with a sort of mist, which kept the temperatures reasonable. At the end of the track, I split off to the right, and there was a good splash of colour from sunflowers. If they were wild they were impressive. There were another couple of California Towhees at this part of the trail, but they were much more secretive than the initial bird near the car. A third bird was more confiding, feeding with the characteristic backward and forward hopping action of the family.
The trail continued on its circumnavigation of the more open centre, and turned under a thick canopy of trees, with a flowing stream along its length. This was initially very quiet, until the trail widened again, and more Black Phoebes were found, along with Black-headed Grosbeak and Nuttall’s Woodpecker. The Grosbeak turned out to be the first of a fairly large party of mainly juveniles. They were flighty and kept to the bare branches of the outer trees. The trail started to liven up after these were seen, with Western Scrub-jay, yet another Nuttall’s Woodpecker, a House Wren, and a Spotted Towhee calling directly above me. On the return to the visitor centre, a very loud screech call stopped me in my tracks. The culprit remained unseen, but was most likely a large squirrel, and did put me on to 3 more Spotted Towhees. One or two squirrels were subsequently seen further down the trail.
The walk around the preserve was very enjoyable, and although there is a good possibility that I missed some of the other trails or interest points, the mile or so circular route that I took passed various habitats and mixes of birds. When I arrived back at the car, the gate was open, and people were already milling around the centre, despite the time being just after 8am. However, arriving at the centre before opening does not seem to be a problem, due to ease of access and lack of people traffic.
Someone had conspired to stop me getting here, since Davis Road – the rough track which leads to the wildlife area – wasn’t signposted from the Highway, and when I doubled back and eventually found it, I was greeted with road closed signs, which led to a lengthy detour. However, even the detour was good. American Kestrels seemed to like the open expanses, with 5 flying from telegraph wires, and once I refound Davis Road, this time from the south, at least 5 Western Meadowlarks were very approachable. Loggerhead Shrikes were also on the fences, but not quite as confiding.
Once I pulled into the reserve, it was nice to find that the best way to see the birds was by a self guided auto tour, using provided laminated maps – a welcome finding with the temperatures beginning to soar. The first pull in was a little disappointing. It was a dry reed bed oasis, but a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes had decided to take up residence in the nest box here, and Common Yellowthroats could be heard calling in the reeds.
The birds became more plentiful at the first of the four artificial lagoons. All were of a similar size and shape, being more or less rectangular, with some open water and various amounts of reeds in the centre, leaving some muddy edges to the outside. A group of 6 American Avocets fed together, with one in full breeding plumage, and Killdeers calling noisily on the separating embankments. A single Black Phoebe was feeding on the perimeter, and a juvenile Blackbird was either Red-winged or Tricoloured. A single Yellow-headed Blackbird was seen briefly flying over the reeds. The second lagoon was more open than the first, and had a much wider perimeter of open water than the first. More American Avocets were on here, small numbers of Black-necked Stilts, and 5 Wilson’s Phalaropes swimming as a group. Half a dozen Cinnamon Teal flew off, along with a single Mallard. Lagoon 3 was dry, which left the larger lagoon 4. A lot of eclipse plumage Cinnamon Teal here, as well as more American Avocets, and a Prairie Falcon circling overhead.
A drive of about half a mile from the lagoons found the very impressive and more expansive wetland area. After parking next to a portaloo, and walking up to a staged viewing area, the two lagoons could be seen. The one to the right of a bisecting path looked to be deeper, and more of a large pond, bordered by trees, and held mainly White-faced Ibis, Pied-billed Grebe, and American Coot. The one to the left was a larger and more open flooded marsh, with a depth presumably much less than the first. It also held a much more varied avifauna. After the first American Coots and Ruddy Ducks, it was obvious that White-faced Ibis, Cinnamon Teal, American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt were plentiful. A pair of Red-winged Blackbirds which flew over were the Californian red-winged form. Amongst the throng was a pair of Greater Yellowlegs. A walk along the bisecting path, which was bounded by trees, found a healthy population of Ash-throated Flycatchers and Black Phoebes. On the return along this track, a Northern Harrier flew overhead. These lagoons formed the final part of a loop of the preserve, and doubled back to return to the artificial ponds and entrance. It is very hot and relatively dry at this time of the year, so must be even more spectacular in the winter months.
The return detour was made again back to the Interstate. The northern approach road might have been closed, but the wildlife area was eventually found, and very enjoyable. On leaving the reserve, there were 4 Western Meadowlarks in a line, and near to the main highway, 4 Red-tailed Hawks were perched on telegraph poles.