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Wingin' It: California Dreaming Part 1 ... a pre-COVID visit to Borrego Springs

An invitation from our friends, Betsy and Terry, to visit Borrego Springs intrigued us, as neither of us had been to this part of California. A little research showed that Borrego Springs is in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which at over 600,000 acres is one of the largest contiguous state parks. When we learned that Borrego Springs was a stopover point for the Swainson’s hawk migration and that the park is known for its spring wildflower bloom, we quickly made our decision to visit.

A Swainson's hawk. (Courtesy photos)

Traveling just before the COVID-19 virus lockdown, we arrived in early March. The first birds we saw around the house where we were staying were an American kestrel perched on a wire and ever-present gangs of ravens. White-winged doves, Eurasian collared doves, and mourning doves were a constant presence in the surrounding trees where a mockingbird sang his multiple tunes from a palm. Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds flitted around the flowering shrubs by the terrace. During breakfast we saw a Say’s phoebe perched on a stake, continually hawking for insects—typical phoebe behavior. This phoebe species is distinguished by its pale rufous belly and long black tail. Upon exploring farther out from the house we spotted sparrows flitting about in the desert scrub and quickly identified them as white-crowned sparrows. Together with ravens, white-crowned sparrows were the most abundant species we saw during our trip.

Later that morning we went into the park to explore some of the many trails. The desert was in bloom with brittlebush, ocotillo, chuparoso, Fremont’s pincushion, several species of cactus, and many other small wildflowers in a range of colors. A yellow and black bird appeared that looked similar to our American goldfinch; checking our Sibley Guide to Birds of Western America, we determined that it was a Lawrence’s goldfinch, whose range is limited to the southwestern part of the country. Another first for us was a black-throated sparrow. We spotted a completely black bird with a bright red eye resembling a cardinal in size and shape. We immediately identified it as a phainopepla, which we had previously seen in southern Arizona. The phainopeplas were feasting on the red fruit of the desert mistletoe that draped mesquite and desert ironwood trees. Later we walked the Palm Canyon trail where Pam found the nest of a verdin safely tucked in a cholla cactus. We had seen several of these small grey birds with yellow heads that call the desert home. It was special to have found a nest.

Our second day in the desert was marked by the arrival of over 3 inches of rain in a few hours—unheard of at that time of year in the desert. We headed for a visitors center to get more information on the park, and in the 15 minutes we were in the center the main street turned into a river. David had to wade through more than 8 inches of water to get back to the car. He chivalrously drove closer to the building so Pam could easily get into the car.

A Lawrence's goldfinch. 

On one of our drives (there are over 500 miles of dirt roads) we passed the location of the hawk watch and determined to go back there the next morning to try our luck at spotting some Swainson’s hawks, which we had never seen. The Swainson’s hawk is about the size of our familiar red-tail and summers in western states from California to Alaska. During migration from their wintering grounds in Argentina, these birds are known to roost in a small patch of palm trees in Borrego Springs, where they forage in adjacent fields for grasshoppers, caterpillars, and so forth.

Swainson hawks 

Early the next morning we drove to the hawk watch site, which is a mound of dirt in a field about a mile from the roost site. On the way, two roadrunners (the quintessential desert bird) ran across the road in front of us. From the local birders we learned that Borrego Springs has one of the largest concentrations of migrating Swainson’s hawks in North America. Over 3,000 hawks have been known to pass through, although today, they expected far fewer as only 40 to 50 had been seen flying into the roost. Turkey vultures are the first to take advantage of the thermals the birds need to rise up and continue their journey north. The hawks follow soon after. The leader of the hawk watch guessed that migration would begin around 9:15 a.m. as the air warmed and winds rose. The hawks need winds of at least 15 mph. Lo and behold, 15 minutes after we saw about 30 turkey vultures kettling in a thermal, a lone Swainson’s hawk made a beeline for the north through Coyote Canyon. Soon thereafter the hawks started circling up into a thermal and after reaching a height almost out of sight to the naked eye, streamed north through the canyon to find another thermal, where they started all over again. Because we had only binoculars and not a spotting scope, it was hard to get good looks at the birds. So the main spotter suggested we drive a mile closer to the roost trees and try our luck. We pulled over to the side of the road and saw about 15 hawks heading straight for us about 50 to 80 feet over our heads. We got a full view of these magnificent birds as they found an updraft and continued north. A “local” pulled over while we were watching and said in 30 years that is the closest he had seen the hawks, so we lucked out.

Sheep and bluebirds

Anza-Borrego is one of the last refuges of the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. Apparently only about 280 of this subspecies remain and 200 find refuge in the park. Although there is not much chance of seeing these secretive sheep, we kept our eyes on the high mountain ridges on our hikes. On a hike up Hellhole Canyon we heard and then saw about six mountain bluebirds flying through. Mountain bluebirds are an even more brilliant shade of blue than our eastern bluebirds. Another treat was spotting a cactus wren perched on a cholla cactus. White-crowned sparrows were everywhere, as well as the occasional black-throated sparrow. While taking a break, we scanned the mountains with our binoculars for birds and sheep. While we wer sitting on a rock and enjoying the awesome views, a young woman came down the trail and said she had seen some sheep. She pointed to the ridge where she had seen them and, scanning with our binoculars, we saw five of these magnificent creatures. We were lucky to have seen them and thanked the hiker for the “heads up.”

As we were leaving the house to continue on to Salton Sea and Joshua Tree, Betsy noticed a small yellow bird in a shrub right outside the house. It was a Wilson’s warbler, easily identified by its all-yellow body and crisp black cap. We had seen this bird at Oxbow last year—maybe this one was on its way back to Harvard. Wilson’s warblers winter in Central America and breed in the northern mountains and forests of North America.

Next week the journey continues to Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge and Joshua Tree National Park.

David and Pamela Durrant live on East Bare Hill Road at Micheldever Farm, where they have observed and recorded over 80 species of birds on the farm and adjacent conservation lands.

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