California: January 2-4
A large sign welcomed me to California, illuminated by the high beams of my Subaru Outback. I purposefully crossed the Oregon/California border late at night- to avoid sitting in traffic crossing L.A during rush hour tomorrow night. At this point in my trip, getting in and out of San Diego in 2 days was my focus, in order to move on and film the rarer birds in Arizona I needed to film for my job. (Streak-backed Oriole, Rufous-backed Robin, Sinaloa Wren, and Rufous-capped Warbler were all recently seen in AZ according to eBird) Every day I spent birding in California lessened the chance these birds would remain in Arizona, so I was motivated to get there before they disappeared, as rare birds often do!
I spent the night in the middle of nowhere at a rest stop, sleeping in the back of my Subaru with the back seats folded down. I had two foam mattress pads, a down sleeping bag, and pillows and blankets, which made quite the cozy nest. It seemed strange to me to just fall asleep amidst other people’s cars, and activity, and half of me wanted to find someplace quieter. It was free, and I wanted to be on the road early the following morning, so staying in a hotel for a few hours was not even an option in my mind. My goal was to go all month without paying for a hotel.
The following morning I was on the road before daylight, and I counted myself fortunate to watch a beautiful sun rise as I drove through the Central Valley of California. I was one of the few cars on the road, and I kept an eye out for a few specialty birds, endemic to California and the western U.S. A Yellow-billed magpie flew over the highway after first light, and I pulled over to the shoulder to scope out hundreds of blackbirds, hoping to find a Tricolored blackbird mixed in. I wasn't disappointed! As I sorted through the blackbird flock, new year birds came out from under the trees one at a time like a late Christmas gift, wrapped in a plumage for me to identify and figure out. That blackbird had a yellow eye: Brewer's Blackbird. Year bird #69 Along the way I spotted thousands of Snow Geese literally flying out of the clouds, and landing in a field just off the highway. Seeing this as an opportunity to explore, I took the next exit and drove onto potholed farm roads to take a closer look.
In order to maximize all of the great habitat I was driving through, I had to stop at a few select locations: Ceres Water Treatment Plant for a Black-headed Gull (Code 3) was a life bird that was too good to drive past. (I detail the story of finding this bird in my book) I stopped at Merced NWR in search of the Ruff (A Eurasian shorebird species, and another Code 3 bird) reported there, but after looking through hundreds of shorebirds the Ruff did not appear for me. I birded until dark, adding over 56 new species for the year. After nightfall, I continued through L.A. with no traffic, having a smooth drive to San Diego that night. I missed being involved in a multi-vehicle car accident that shut the highway down, blocking all lanes of traffic. I arrived at the scene minutes later, and was able to take the off ramp right before the wall of vehicles, cross the overpass, and get right back on the highway after the accident. Surely people have me in their thoughts and prayers and I can see the benefits every day in my protection.
Reaching San Diego late at night, I pulled into a Target parking lot near the airport. The store was closed, and the only other people around were some drunk homeless men sleeping outside the store entrance. I could hear their yelling at different points in the night, after waking up to a sweeping truck doing circles around my car, vacuuming up trash from the parking lot. Sleeping in my car was exactly as comfortable as I had built it up to be, and it was still to early in my trip to figure out some "car hacks" to make living out of it easier. I'll publish a blog post later in the year after I've compiled more... (I have a pretty good list going already)
The following morning I rolled into the driver's seat and drove down the road to the San Diego River, across from Sea World. This estuary combines fresh water from the river with salt water from the Pacific Ocean, blending into a nutrient-rich cocktail of biodiversity. Invertebrates, fish, and lower-level organisms provide food for higher-level consumers, mostly birds. This planned stop catapulted my year list closer to 150, and I picked up some great birds including Red Knot, Black-vented Shearwater, and a Jaeger species that I couldn't make a solid identification. Can't identify them all...
My next stop in the late morning was Cabrillo National Monument, located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego. It commemorates the landing of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. From the overlook, I set up my scope and quickly spotted a Brown Booby, floating on a channel marker. Before I could set up my film equipment, the bird had flown out to sea to feed. I walked around the compound and added Western Scrub Jay, California Towhee, before heading inland to find California gnatcatcher.
Following eBird reports, I checked some of the local spots for California gnatcatcher, finding only Blue-gray gnatcatcher- a more widespread and overall-similar species. I used the opportunities to study each one, as this species is new to me. It was possible people using the parks recreationally had misidentifed the bird, so I checked a couple spots I knew birders had found them there in the past. No luck. As night began to fall, I chose to keep going east, and hope I'd have a chance in the future to see this species, perhaps in the spring when they are singing.
As I drove into the darkness along a winding mountain road, I wondered what exactly I was doing. The birding was great... but could I continue doing this for the whole month? Also, if things worked out just right, might I be able to stay on the road longer? Would a Big Year even be possible? I thought it might be.