On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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In Search of The Gray Vireo

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I have made short trips and long distance trips just to catch a glimpse of a bird that I had never seen. I have studied and researched the habits and whereabouts of a bird in another county, state and country. I have flown hours to a distant place, gotten up early, drove for miles, wandered in the woods, and stayed late to hear and see a single Bachman's Sparrow in east Texas. So, after all that birding and searching, how is it that I can still pursue a live bird right in my own backyard?

It's funny how the uncommon can become common in your own neck of the woods. It's the law of 'just knowing it is there.' Maybe even 'just 'being told that it there'. That's what makes the uncommon seem so common, even though you have never seen the particular local rarity.

b2ap3 thumbnail Mt-Palomar-Observatory 3611 ekFor example, a person can live in the same region for long time and not visit a certain well-known place that every out-of-town visitor will make a special effort to see. That's the way it was for me regarding the world famous Mt. Palomar Observatory, with its 200 inch mirror. It is only about an hour away from my home but it was years before I ever went to the top of Mt. Palomar to see what many visitors just wouldn't miss. I guess hearing about it and knowing that it was there, made the uncommon become commonplace.

And, so it became with a couple of local birds in my lifetime. Though I have birded a good number of hot-spots across the country, I had never seriously pursued a couple of "life-lister's" in my own back yard, such as the Gray and Yellow-green Vireos. No. They had become part of the common brushy mountains, just because I knew they were there.

So today, I set out to change that mentality. First, because they are uncommon. I gathered some research information regarding specific sightings and the particular habitat, the same as I would do if I were traveling out of state. For starters, I was in pursuit of the gray vireo. Though, early July is getting a bit late in the season, I thought I would give it a shot anyway.

I had recently purchased the latest authoritative work of Phillip Unitt; The San Diego County Bird Atlas, and his highly acclaimed, "The Birds Of San Diego County". The atlas gives specific locations that one might search out. The known sightings of the gray vireo in San Diego County are confined to the eastern border, in localized areas of dense chaparral and chemise, commonly called "grease wood". The small populations of these rare spring birds are found at elevations of approximately 3,000 to 5,000 feet.

I had to travel about forty-five miles from home to get there, so I started before daybreak. Around 6:00 AM, I arrived at the old Pine Valley Café, off of Highway 8. I was hungry for the breakfast special. Over the past fifty years, I've eaten there many times. I remember eating there many years ago, before they had an indoor toilet. "Yup, just go out back to the end of the trail—beyond the big oak tree—and you'll see the distinctive shed in the shade. There is no "Him" and "Hers," just a wooden twist latch on the inside." The Pine Valley Café is spit-shine clean and has the country feel of the nineteen forties, and the pace is about the same. If you order the sausage patties and flapjacks well done, the rest of the food turns out fine. I finished off the buttered flapjacks with some local wild honey and hot coffee, yumm . . it was a larapin' good meal to start the day.

Traveling east on Highway 8, I found Kitchen Creek Road a couple of miles north of Campo Road. Swinging left, the road goes for about five or six miles north and ends in a box canyon. Both the road and Kitchen Creek run parallel with the southeast slopes, along the base of the Laguna Mountains. The nesting habitat of the gray vireo is here on these mountain slopes, in the arid brush of chaparral and chemise.

I crossed the cattle guard on Kitchen Creek Road just past 7:00 AM. At the first dirt road to the left toward the mountains, I whipped in and drove up to a rocky turn around and parked. Walking low and slow through the chaparral and chemise, I crisscrossed the area for about 200 yards, first north and then south. Except for a few scrub jays, a pair of mourning doves and a California towhee, I came up empty. Not even a sound.

Not being at the peak of the season, I half expected that this might happen. But, the day wasn't over, and it was an opportunity to continue to enjoy any other birds. I decided to spend the rest of the day birding up the creek and along the chaparral slopes. Maybe I would catch sight of the Gray Vireo. After about an hour of scouting up the road on both sides, I checked out some animal trails that weaved in to the brush in a few areas. The habitat looked promising, but, except for the canyon call of wrentits, the gray vireo birding cupboard was bare. Wrentits—I love their distant plaintive call. If I turned the clock back a century I would be on the lookout for native Indians . . .it was one of their favorite bird calls to mock, and they were good at it..

Reaching the Pacific Coast Trail, where it crosses Kitchen Creek road, I parked and walked the well-known trail toward the west about a half a mile to an old cattle gate. From this high vantage point, I observed Kitchen Creek down below. I was encouraged to see good running water this late in the summer. On the flat smooth granite rocks along the creek, I spotted six Mountain Quail preening themselves. Through my binoculars, they appeared to have just taken a bath—and how about that prominent head plume? Is that not the stately headdress of Roman royalty?

Hiking back out to the paved road I got a nice view of a few Lawrence Goldfinches. I often observe many of the drab and common, Lesser Goldfinches, but these bright beauties always serve up a special goldfinch treat. The area is much too dry for American goldfinches. Moving on up to the oaks and willows, where the Kitchen Creek crosses the road of its name, I doubled back to my left and walked down the creek, and birded for about a quarter of a mile. I spotted the Mountain Quail again, but this time they spotted me, and they did their Houdini disappearing act. Also, busy along the placid creek, there were California quail, California thrasher, Black-headed Grosbeaks, a rusty colored non-descript sparrow (I had to pass on that ID), an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a Black and White Phoebe, Roadrunner, a Northern Flicker, Costa's Hummingbird and a distant view of a Nuttall's Woodpecker. But, since I was on the edge of the east-west transition of habitats—between two similar species— maybe it was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Think of it, I enjoyed all that and more, because of a little running water in an arid location on a hot day—a true southwestern birding hot spot.

Continuing upstream to the oaks and sycamores, I stopped to cool off. I pulled my tired Jeep Cherokee under the sprawling oaks and opened all the doors and windows. For both man and Jeep, there is nothing as refreshing as a gentle afternoon breeze wafting through the oak tree shade on a summer day. The Oak Titmouse' (mice? mouses?) were active with their fledglings. A House Wren scolded me near a dead oak, apparently nesting in a cavity.

Across the creek on the east side, I located a pair of Western Wood Peewee's defending a nest against a Phainopepla intrusion. Amazingly, for their size, they build a rather large cottony looking nest. It was situated on a hefty crotch of a sycamore, about 25 feet high. Directly on the other side of the road I located this large family of Bushtit fledglings being fed by the adults. About eight of them were all huddled tightly together on a limb like they were in ice-cold weather. I never saw that before.

Up little higher, at Cibbetts Flat I took on more water and drove on up to the locked gate. From there on it becomes a forestry truck trail. I came back down a ways and drove the rough dirt road up the box canyon of Kitchen Creek as far as I dared. I wasn't ready to articulate the boulders in the washed out dirt road with my tired Cherokee, so I got out and walked up the creek into the box canyon. Though it was very parched and dry, in a short distance I could plainly hear the creek running fresh and clean, babbling musically over the rocks. What a natural poetic song.

As I entered the rustic old oak trees and willows, I flushed up a Spotted Towhee and then to my surprise, before I was mentally ready, up flew a bright lemon yellow bird right in front of me. It landed in the willows across the creek. I got a quick peek with my binocs, but I could not ID it. The bird was about western tanager size, or slightly larger and had a bright yellow back. That's all that I saw as it disappeared. As it lifted off the limb and flew across the creek into dense foliage, I did not see any black or other markings. It was distinctly different than any local bird I have ever seen.

Based on my years of experience, I am left to assume it was probably a Western Tanager or Hooded Oriole, only because of the yellow back. Frustrating! —Why? Because I think my eyes know better! Even though there is no known record, not even in the authoritative works of Phillip Unitt and his San Diego County Bird Atlas; nevertheless, I have the distinct impression that it could have been a rare vagrant up from Mexico! Maybe a Yellow Grosbeak because of its size and shape and because of the bright lemon yellow back! The whole bird seemed bright yellow. Sometimes the joy of not knowing is the joy birding. I must go back during another July and see if I can repeat history.

Carefully picking my steps, I walked up about a half a mile or more along the creek up into the box canyon. The trail becomes very narrow and overgrown with limbs of fallen oaks and willows and brush. I noted an Orange-crowned Kinglet and California Towhee.
About then, up ahead in the narrow trail opening, a couple of Scrub Jays in a scrubby oak tree sounded their typical yakky, scratchy jay alarm— sweeyat, sweeyat, sweeyat!
I didn't pay attention at first, which can be a serious mistake. It wasn't until I noted that there were six of them. They attracted a couple of Spotted Towhees that came dashing in doing their cat meow. Evidently, it was some hated bird predator in the underbrush. I never saw it, but it was likely a bobcat that moved off the trail in to the brush. Jays hate bobcats like a mocking bird hates house cats. Hidden in the brush, the cat made a wide circle around me as the jays followed its wide berth for 4 or 5 minutes.

Since I was deep in this box canyon alone, my aloness suddenly alerted me to a mountain lion possibility that gave me a kind of premonition, and so I became much more observant of my surroundings. Then, I noticed that a couple of SoCal Mule Deer had entered the trail behind me, about fifteen yards back. They stood in an opening, and through the oaks trees, I observed their behavior and they let me know there were no mountain lions following me.

The sun sets early in the deep mountain canyons, so I headed back about 3:30 PM. All in all, even though it was rather hot, it was a good day of birding. On the way back down I watched a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher erratically working the tops of some scrub oaks. I just need to invest the time and go back to find those vireos that border on a rare sighting in Southern California, and maybe see the yellow bird that got away. Actually, May or June is a better time to find those vireos. So, just maybe, I'll try again this year.

But, as I was saying, I am reminded again, how funny it is that an uncommon bird you have never seen can become ho-hum common in your own neck of the woods. It's the law of, 'just knowing it is there' that makes the uncommon seem so common even though you have never seen— what is right there in your own backyard.

© Ed Keenan

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