Updated: Oct 10, 2022
California, worlds away from my native Arkansas. I’ve always been consumed by wanderlust for it—something that seems to be ingrained in our culture. Grandiose visions and strong desires for adventure awaiting in California go deep.
Somewhere along the way, birds must have been similarly enthralled, drawn by what California had to offer. An anthropomorphic thought. Not quite. Instead, it seems birds here ended up trapped and isolated by mountains to the east and ocean to the west. Eventually, many became genetically distinct from counterparts beyond the mountains. From as far north as Washington in some species, to southern Baja in others, a suite of birds exist as endemics along the west coast; found nowhere else. Many are old, with status as species; some are young and are merely subspecies yet. Study of California endemics continues to result in new species described as scientists tease apart genetics. A noble, if tedious, cause.
Amidst this region of avian intrigue, the mountains north of Los Angeles—the Northern Transverse Ranges—are where I found myself based with endemics in mind. I felt like one of the great naturalists, encamped for five nights among towering pines on the slopes of Mount Pinos, launching my daily expeditions out into scrub foothills, oak woodland, desert saltbush, coastal marsh, and every variation in between.
On morning of the first day, I woke to the sun shining low and brilliant onto my east-facing slope. Fox Sparrows were already singing from patches of brush among the pines. To many, the word “sparrow” evokes an immediate negative response…blah. What a basic bird. But the Fox Sparrow—especially the Thick-billed Fox Sparrow of this region—is anything but basic. Currently just a subspecies of Fox Sparrow (of which there are 18), the Thick-billed looks altogether different from subspecies in other regions. The bill is striking, as is the extensive slate gray and dark speckling of the breast. It could be an illusion caused by the distractingly large bill, but they appear quite large themselves. A completely different beast from the Red Fox Sparrows that winter back home (1).
Unfamiliar western sights and sounds filled my senses as I worked down the slopes of Mount Pinos, into oak-juniper foothills. With a goal of beating the heat to the desert saltbush far below, I tried not to linger long, but found myself drawn deeper into the strange California ecosystems. Passing an overlook with an expansive view of the San Joaquin Valley, I had to stop.
While trying to manifest one of the California Condors that sometimes soar along the ridges below, I was pulled from my flight dream by a loud tinking, like someone banging a high-pitched bell. Large and grayish brown with a rusty rump, a California Towhee perched atop a nearby juniper, welcoming the sunrise. Reddish-brown eyes surrounded by rusty feathers gave it the appearance of someone who had a little too much fun the night before. Drab, but with a good story—that’s my kind of bird.
California Towhees, are actually more closely-related to ground sparrows than to our more familiar towhees, like the cosmopolitan Eastern Towhee. Four, drab North American cousins are specialists of arid ecosystems. The other four members of their genus are fancy-looking "ground sparrows" of the American tropics. California Towhees were equally at home on remote slopes as an invasive bamboo thicket near Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles (2).
Turning to leave, I was pulled back towards a juniper by two larger birds. Hearing a ka-brick from one, I knew in an instant who it was. There are certain groups of birds in the world that all have similar vocalizations. While not the same species, once you know one, it’s not hard to recognize their relatives. In this case, I immediately recognized the vocalization as having come from a Myiarchis flycatcher. This genus is tied for second largest within the largest family of birds in the world—the Tyrant Flycatchers (Tyrannidae) 3).
Where multiple species overlap, particularly in the tropics, Myiarchis flycatchers can be notoriously difficult to distinguish. In this part of SoCal, there was only one real option: Ash-throated Flycatcher. One of my oldest nemesis birds. Somehow, on every past trip out west—and there have been many—I had failed to see or even hear one. Though in Cali, I began to think it was a personal error rather than the bird’s absence…because I saw them everywhere.
Like most of its 21 cousins, the Ash-throated Flycatcher is varying shades of gray, brown, pastel yellow, and burnt orange—admittedly on the drab end of the Myiarchis spectrum. The species is widespread, not one of the West Coast endemics that formed the backbone of my trip. Ash-throated Flycatchers breed throughout arid lands of western North America. Name a habitat and they’re probably there (3). So yeah, I just wasn't paying attention on past trips.
While I gawked at the flycatcher, another bird sat quietly by in careful observation of the excitement. Bright blue, gray, and clearly intelligent—a California Scrub-Jay. California Scrub-Jay is “new” within the last decade, resulting in a split of the former Western Scrub-Jay into two species. One is found in the American west to the eastern Sierra Nevada, across which the California Scrub-Jay takes over to the coast. They even have another cousin that lives on islands off California! This jay and it’s relatives, lack the familiar crest found in some other jays (4).
Scrub-jays are of great interest to animal behavior folks because a few species exhibit complicated cooperative breeding systems, something that isn’t common in North America. Limited populations of Florida Scrub-Jays have become famous for such studies. In what’s left of the oak scrub ecosystem of Florida, they are a captive audience to scientists who study breeding pairs and the array of relatives that help raise young (5).
Continuing my journey down in elevation, I passed through the steep grassland of Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a self-proclaimed “hub of condor activity”, but that would come later in the day. Stopping a couple times for crossing California Quail was all I could manage as I felt the lowland heating up around me.
Finally, foothills gave way to the saltbush flats of the San Joaquin Valley. Though just 8:00 am, the temperature was already in the mid-80s F; quite the contrast to the low 50s I woke up to.
When I came to a remote intersection, I stopped. Despite unsightly pipes and bustle of big trucks in the oil industry, a hefty chunk of desert saltbush habitat remained. This habitat is some of the driest of dry and would seemingly not host life, but think again. It took a bit of walking…and sweating…before a rich tu-weep reached me from just off the road.
Searching the tops of browned bushes divulged nothing. Frantic in the intense sun, I finally spotted a large bird, similar in color to the ground, gliding low into a nearby bush. It was a LeConte’s Thrasher. The single bird paused atop a few bushes to sing and survey its territory before fading into heat shimmers in the distance; off on patrol to the far side of its domain.
This thrasher—a close relative of mockingbirds and, well, thrashers—was a coveted target. Not a California endemic per se, but an endemic to deserts of this region. It’s a xerophile, adapted to extremely low water availability. This secretive thrasher goes about its day seeking invertebrates beneath the brush. And as I observed, they are few and far between. Even at their most dense, there may only be 10 individuals per square kilometer; and have an overall population of less than 65,000 (6). No water, no friends. What a life!
After an hour, I had only seen 8 species—granted, a couple were high-value—but traipsing through the desert had me dried out, so I headed for Bakersfield, where aqueducts flowed bountifully…probably at the detriment of California’s precious water.
After a brief stop for some waterbirds, I made my way back to the mountains. Along a lonely stretch of highway, I was stopped by a family of California Quail. The male kept watch from the top of a bush, while the female and a handful of cottonball young crept around below.
California Quail are common throughout much of California and the Pacific Northwest, particularly in arid grassland with scrubby sagebrush and chaparral. This robust little quail has beautiful feather detail—scaled, striped, smoothed. Its pièce de resistance is a curly black topknot, larger in males, still present in females.
Along much of the west coast, California Quail overlaps in range with the super secretive Mountain Quail. Years working at this has resulted in adaptations that humbly exclude each other from detrimental niche overlap. As their name would suggest, Mountain Quail occur at higher elevations, at least in summer. In winter, there’s more habitat overlap, but the two species focus on different food sources (7,8). California Quail were common during my daily adventures, while their high-elevation cousin would prove more difficult to pin down.
When I left the San Joaquin Valley, it was hot; high time for soaring raptors and a stop in the hilly Bitter Creek grasslands. On a prairie ridge, I waited no more than a few seconds before a massive California Condor came soaring up the steep side below me, passing 20 feet overhead with wings spread to their full 9 foot span. I respectfully picked my jaw up off the ground as two others followed the first.
Playfully, the trio soared on the breeze that tickled the grasses around me. Their huge black and white wings remained motionless, bulbous pink heads occasionally turned curiously. All were marked by science—wing tags, transmitters, the whole lot.
Condors are a remnant of another time, part of why they are critically endangered today, and thus heavily monitored. Condor remains exist in the fossil record across the west, even east to Florida and New York. Truly impressive if you contrast that with today’s range: southern California, northern Arizona, Baja. These few populations, amounting to several hundred, are heavily managed and supported largely by captive bred individuals (9).
Studies of remains show condors were once dependent on carcasses of large megafauna—mammals—that existed across the continent before disappearing about 12,000 years ago. With the end to megafauna came the shrinking of the condor’s range. From there, ceremonial hunting by many indigenous groups is believed to have had some impact due to the condor’s low reproductive rates—one egg every few years (10). One of the later nails in the coffin, though, was aggressive hunting and poisoning by European settlers. Still today, lead poisoning at mammal carcasses left or lost by hunters continues to be a major limiting factor to long-term survival (9).
I took lunch at a beautiful patch of oak woodland near a spring fed creek—the perfect shady refuge at a nexus of habitats for two endemics I most wanted to find. One was Nuttall’s Woodpecker, a specialist of California oak woodlands and one of the only woodpeckers I had not seen in North America. The other was Wrentit, a west coast endemic of brushy habitats like what was along my lunch creek.
Oddly enough, the woodpecker proved an elusive target and one briefly seen during lunch was the only one of the whole trip. Wrentits were more abundant on my adventures. It’s neither a wren nor a tit, but a member of family Sylviidae, which includes some extravagant relatives found in Asia and Europe. Every member of this family is from the Old World except the Wrentit of the West Coast (11)!
This unusual species sports a robust body and long tail. Though vocal, they are skulky, peering out from shrubs with intense, pale yellow eyes. I heard more than I saw, giving themselves away with a loud peep-peep-pee-pee-peepeepeepepeprrrr. Trying to spot them, I ascended into madness along with their song.
Lazy afternoon naturalizing took me straight into evening, when my mountain shelter came to life. White-headed Woodpeckers and Pygmy Nuthatches woke me from a nap as they worked huge pines around me, while Oregon Juncos and Green-tailed Towhees haunted the underbrush well after the sun had receded from our side of the mountain.
Usually a lover of thick brush, I was excited to have several obliging Green-tailed Towhees hanging around camp. Their gray feathers are tinged greenish-yellow, with a white throat and rusty cap…MEEEOW!...that’s also what they say.
A sparrow like the towhee, Oregon Juncos are the picture of handsome. They’re also not their own species, but one of 15 mind-boggling subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco. To further complicate matters, the "Oregon Junco" designation contains at least 7 subspecies. Chew on that. The present junco is one that breeds exclusively in mountains of the southwest (Junco hyemalis thurberi, for those who care; 12). It was my encounter with the junco that marked the end of the first day.
The Deep Canyon
I woke once more with strong ambitions, embarking on a journey up Quatal Canyon. Following a narrow dirt road, I gained 2800 feet in elevation from its beginnings in the Cuyama Valley back into the mountains. The road traveled through a diversity of habitats, starting in low sagebrush, working steeply up through chaparral, ending in oak-juniper woodland.
When I started in the desert bottom, the sun was barely up, but birds were alive and well. A musical, yet erratic song marked one of the first birds of the day and a particular target of the trip—Bell’s Sparrow. This attractive little sparrow has a beautiful smoked-gray head, split in places by bold white streaks with a black moustache, and a back with functional shades of reddish brown. The Bell’s Sparrow is endemic to coastal and southern California and Baja.
Not long ago, it was collectively known as Sage Sparrow with another species found a bit further east. The two were split after study showed they were distinct. I enjoyed a lot of them, passing through several territories with singing males (13).
The desert here was serene. At a dry wash, the music of another Bell’s Sparrow was complimented by the questioning jay? of scrub-jays, odd Chi-ca-go of California Quail, monotone chips of California Towhee, and more. Standing among them all was a thrill.
While taking it all in, my heart skipped a beat at the sound of a bird I had long wanted to see. It’s voice was distant and fleeting. Haunting acoustics of rock and desert carried the sound down from scrubby hillsides a ways away. It was a Black-chinned Sparrow. I would have to wait a little longer and hope one would appear.
In the meantime, I wouldn’t be left bored for a moment. Near the wash, I was startled by a whoosh of wings and a loud cackle right overhead. I saw the Lesser Nighthawk just before it dipped between bushes. It soon resurfaced with another.
I watched the pair as they foraged for insects in the basin around me, working up rocky slopes and careening back down into the sagebrush. Usually nocturnal, this pair likely had hungry young that kept them up hunting past daylight. They produced a beautiful scene against rugged terrain.
Lesser Nighthawks—not hawks at all, but in the same family as Whip-poor-will and other nightjars—are most closely related to hummingbirds and swifts. Hard to picture with their large size and cryptic camouflage, but picture isn’t everything when it comes to genetics! Lesser Nighthawk is adapted to endure incredible heat, often roosting in full sun on the desert floor, where temperatures can reach 140 °F; nearly hot enough to slow roast, but somehow they come out smiling (14)
Eventually, a few sparse pines and cedars were added to the sagebrush. It was then that I began to hear a new sound…mockingbird, but more aggressive. Having heard just one a couple days earlier, it was high time I encountered more California Thrashers. Around and around I went before finally spotting one singing from the tops of various trees.
As thrashers do, this species spends a lot of time foraging in dense undergrowth, using its feet and bill to “thrash” leaf litter, revealing invertebrates (15). California Thrashers became eco-famous in 1917, when naturalist Joseph Grinnell published a paper on how they and other species overlap in range in SoCal without totally outcompeting each other—now part of the foundation our idea of a niche is built upon (16).
Onward the morning took me, road transitioning from gradual rise to steep climb. Along the rocky hillsides, lush with sagebrush—as lush as sagebrush can be—I was finally in the could-be territory of Black-chinned Sparrows. And that I truly was.
I was immediately faced with a pair at scenic overlook. A self-proclaimed sparrow lover, this was not a time I’ll forget. The Black-chinned Sparrow is of a singular palette—rufous and brown on the wings, slate-gray elsewhere, and a pink bill. For males, add in a black face and bib. The artist didn’t slack on this one.
Overall, little is known about this species and it isn’t universally common within its range, which is small and disjointed to begin with (17). I followed one as it sang from various stages, briefly being led astray by a phantom Mountain Quail. The usual mountain tale.
Reluctantly leaving the Black-chinned Sparrows to their business, I popped out into oak woodland at the head of Quatal Canyon. Here, the suite of birds changed drastically. Western Wood-Pewee and Oak Titmouse were notably abundant. The latter, is almost exclusively found in California (including Baja).
Like many of their relatives, Oak Titmouse is in near constant chatter, often feeding in flocks with an array of other species and other titmice. They’re in the same, diverse family as our familiar chickadees and titmice, and tits of the Old World. Curious when together, I enjoyed several small groups bouncing through the oaks.
Back at camp, a nap in the sun, followed by a brisk walk to the alpine summit of Mount Pinos was the prescription for the heat of the day.
Mountain Quail were still at large. I racked my brain and eBird’s psychic resources for an answer. They were all around me. I’d heard them at many places and even seen a couple gliding low across roads, but a good view remained elusive. The answer, as it turned out, was Frazier Mountain. On a lonely road to the top, springs have been harnessed and bounded by cisterns, attracting a plethora of wildlife on an otherwise dry mountainside.
At sunrise, I found myself on a hillside of low scrub, sandwiched between pine forest below and above me. The car made a perfect blind as I sat waiting for the spring to come alive. Water is a precious and limiting resource here, so it didn’t take long. First to the stage were Lawrence’s Goldfinch, arriving by twos and threes. What a perfect metaphor for sunrise—muted tones of a gray dawn cracked by bright, hopeful rays.
Unlike our ubiquitous American Goldfinch, Lawrence’s can be notoriously tough to track down. Typically an endemic to dry forested foothills of California, it sometimes “irrupts” and moves elsewhere. Its movements are dependent upon seed production of several preferred native species. At times of plenty you can find them at home, at times of scarcity their range may extend across the desert southwest (18).
Little is known about the Lawrence’s Goldfinch and whether or not some populations are truly migratory, resident, or irruptive…an ornithological conundrum that haunts me endlessly. I pondered their occasional rarity as I watched them come to water.
As the birds became comfortable with a stranger nearby, Band-tailed Pigeons started massing in nearby trees. Large and skittish, these mountain lovers range widely from the northern Rockies to the central Andes (19). They’re also social and form flocks like some of their other relatives, including the invasive Rock Pigeon. But unlike their urban cousins, you won’t see your granny throwing bread at Band-tailed Pigeons in the town square.
The flock above me came to the edge of the cistern several at a time, dipping low for water. In the right light, contour feathers of a pigeon’s body blushed lavender and scalloped neck feathers iridesced green.
Once the pigeons were comfortable, everyone else was sold. Well, almost everyone. If the pigeons were skittish, the Mountain Quail were downright reclusive. Below the car, they had been calling for nearly thirty minutes: kyork, kyork, kyork. The sound echoed up, taunting me.
Eventually, I started hearing softer contact calls just outside the window. Hardly daring to even breathe, I waited. Finally, a pair cautiously crossed the road and disappeared into the sagebrush on the other side. They didn’t taunt me much longer and came out to visit the water, stopping briefly for me to snap a series of photos.
I could see why these chunky little desert nuggets are so edgy; at high risk of being another critter’s lunch. It wouldn’t take too much thought for my mouth to start watering at the prospect of a pan-fried quail. Shades of brown and gray seem to be the colors of this region, but with so many possible combinations you never get bored, especially with Mountain Quail. A gray crest with long, black plumes accent them to perfection.
The quail took their water and ran…literally. Over the course of the morning, other birds visited the spring. A golden Townsend’s Warbler, ferocious (for insects) Western Wood-Pewee and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, a surprise Bell’s Sparrow outside its usual habitat…ultimately 20 species came by.
From the springs, I headed to the coast to stick my toes in the cold Pacific and enjoy some of the seafood harvested there—a perfect recipe for getting attacked by pelicans and reflecting on my days in the mountains of southern California.
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10. Snyder N and H Snyder. 2000. The California Condor, a saga of natural history and conservation. London, U.K: Academic Press.
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13. Martin JW and BA Carlson. 2020. Bell's Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.belspa2.01
14. Latta SC and ME Baltz. 2020. Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.lesnig.01
15. Cody, ML. 2020. California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.calthr.01
16. Grinnell J. 1917. The niche-relationships of the California Thrasher. Auk 34:427-433.
17. Tenney CR. 2020. Black-chinned Sparrow (Spizella atrogularis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bkcspa.01
18. Watt DJ, P Pyle, MA Patten, and JN Davis. 2020. Lawrence's Goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.lawgol.01
19. Keppie DM and CE Braun. 2020. Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.batpig1.01