California – Day 7 (August 1): Kern County

After our long journey from the Great Basin-type habitats of the Yosemite foothills the day before, we found ourselves in a totally different habitat type: the Mojave Desert, an impressively sparse landscape, occasionally broken by large groves of Joshua Trees.

Joining us for our day of birding Kern County was Bob Barnes, a well-known local expert and author of the Kern chapters of the ABA Birdfinding Guide to Southern California. I had the privilege of meeting Bob a year ago at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park in Texas where he kindly offered to take myself and any birding companions around Kern County whenever I was in the area.

Although a little tired from the previous day, we were nevertheless excited for what Bob had in store when we met him early that morning in Ridgecrest.

Our first stop was the Silver Saddle Resort at Galileo Hill, a development that when built, had been planned to end up much like nearby Palm Springs. The rampant success the developers hoped for never materialized, but its numerous trees and water features have been a magnet for birds in this otherwise hostile and desolate landscape.

This location has reined in a bucketload of eastern vagrants as well California’s first and only record of Eyebrowed Thrush, a vagrant from the other side of the Pacific.

While our hopes for success were centered more on residents than vagrants, it was still pretty cool to check out areas where some of this location’s rarer visitors have been seen, including the haunt of the Eyebrowed Thrush near the soccer field.

Besides being a magnet for vagrants, this location is also a terrific migrant trap, presenting an ‘island’ of green for migrants heading over the desert. We were able to enjoy a number of obvious migrants on our loop around the place that morning, including Nuttall’s Woodpecker (heard only), Warbling Vireo, Bank Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullocks Oriole.

And, although it took a while, our main target here, Chukar, did not fail to materialize, affording terrific looks of this introduced Old World species, one that is now established across much of the west.

Find the Chukars! How many can you see in this photo?

Other highlights at this location included Verin, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Black-throated Sparrow.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

On the way to our next location, we made a brief detour to California City Central Park, where a few geese were over summering. Here we enjoyed great views of two Ross’s, one Snow, and one Cackling Goose, amongst of troop of domestic congeners.

Ross’s Goose; this bird’s ‘shaggy’ appearance is likely due to molt.

Snow Goose

“Aleutian” Cackling Goose. Molt is likely responsible for the absence of the white collar typical of this subspecies group. Bob assures me it was present earlier in the season.

Following the geese, we made our way to one of the most anticipated stops of the day: a residential home in the southwest corner of the town of Inyokern. Here, the homeowner has trained a few families of Le Conte’s Thrashers to take food from her when she calls them (I believe she’s even hand-fed them!), as well as visiting her feeders for mealworms.

Upon stepping out of the car, it didn’t take long to produce a Le Conte’s scurrying away through the yard. During the next hour, we enjoyed fantastic looks at this normally shy and elusive denizen of the Mojave as numerous birds came within a few feet, enticed by the homeowner’s offerings of live mealworms.

We also enjoyed seeing a few Le Conte’s nests built on the property, listening to the homeowner’s stories about the resident thrashers and Loggerhead Shrikes, as well as having the opportunity to tour the homeowner’s mealworm farm, providing constant food for the thrashers.

Le Conte’s Thrasher chowing down on a mealworm.

Le Conte’s Thrasher (also previous three images)

Loggerhead Shrike

Other highlights on the property included Costa’s, Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

This stop was one of the highlights of the trip, but out of respect for the homeowner’s privacy, I will not go into any further detail here.

Moving on, we hit the corrals of the Kern River Preserve in the oppressive, 100+ degree heat. Here we nailed one of biggest targets of the day, in the form of three Tricolored Blackbirds (nearly endemic to California) amongst forty Red-wingeds.

Tricolored Blackbird (upper right). Note the striking white median coverts in comparison with the all-red epaulets of these “Biolcored” Red-wingeds.

The headquarters of the preserve also provided our first sight views of Nuttall’s Woodpecker on the trip, another California specialty.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker; the best I could do with this pesky individual, as it kept its face hidden behind branches for the most part.

With the car thermometer reading 102 degrees Fahrenheit, we tried unsuccessfully for Lazuli Bunting along Sierra Way before making our way into the Greenhorn Mountains, where merely stepping outside of the vehicle wasn’t such a harsh experience!

Arriving at Alta Sierra, the temperature reading was twenty degrees cooler than it was 3,000 feet below, and we found the location to be rather birdy, in contrast with our last few stops.

Our two hours here was rewarded with numerous highlights including a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl as well as my life Red-breasted Sapsuckers (an adult and a juvie) and MacGillivray’s Warbler.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (adult male)

Red-breasted Sapsucker (juvenile)

MacGillivgray’s Warbler

Other highlights included Purple Finch, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Western Tanager, “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco and Dusky Flycatcher.

Western Tanager

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow

“Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco

We begrudgingly departed Alta Sierra (knowing we’d be back in the oppressive heat once more), en route to the Tillie Creek Campground on Lake Isabella.

Despite a temperature reading of 94 degrees, we found this place to be decently birdy, and we were able to net our two big targets here, Oak Titmouse and California Thrasher (both sought-after California specialties) without much difficulty.

Oak Titmouse

California Thrasher. Sorry for the image quality, but, besides range, not the dark iris and darker buffy coloration that distinguishes this species from Crissal Thrasher.

Not to be outdone, an American Dipper showed wonderfully at the nearby Slippery Rock Launch Site, capping off an amazing run of birds.

With daylight fading we decided to make a beeline for Beale Park in Bakersfield, one of the best locations in California for Spotted Dove, a countable exotic originally from Southeast Asia.

Although we were able to hear multiple calling individuals of this species, we were never able to connect with one for sight views, although three flyover Rose-ringed Parakeets, another established (but not yet countable) exotic in the area, provided some consolation.

Despite the fact that owling was originally on the agenda for the evening, my dad and I decided to cut our losses and head for the LA area, effectively beginning the next phase of our trip.

Saying our goodbyes to Bob we headed south. Perhaps it was the extreme exhaustion we both felt, or maybe it was just the terrific birding we’d experienced that day, but I remembered nothing of the ride from Bakersfield to the LA area, save for keeping my father awake and driving by blasting music in his ear.

Much thanks to Bob Barnes for taking his time to provide us with a memorable day of birding, one we won’t soon forget.

-Alex

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