West Coast Expedition Day 3: Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park = Dozens of lifers, Part 1

On May 21, after the long day birding the previous day, I was up and ready to go.  This morning, we planned to go to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, in Foothill Ranch, CA.  I didn’t know what was in stock yet for today, but nevertheless, I was incredibly excited.

We came to the park at about 9:30 a.m, and immediately upon stepping out of the car, the birding began.

My father said that his employer’s building has bird feeders to which the birds flock.  He said that when we drove up to them, we would be sure to get an Acorn Woodpecker, a species that he has seen there many times before, and a potential lifer for me.

After wandering aimlessly among a group of House Finches and California Towhees for 10 minutes, there were no signs of any lifers.  I decided to do a final scan of the scraggly bush in front of me.  The weather at that point was overcast, making it difficult to see any beneficial fieldmarks, other than their silhouette.  So, as I was scanning, when I picked up a silhouette of a large Woodpecker, I wasn’t ecstatic.

It wasn’t until the Woodpecker flew to the feeders that I could identify it, and then, with that, my target bird appeared out of thin air!  The Acorn Woodpecker.  Then there came another, and another.  Three of the same target bird at the same time. ** Details of the Acorn Woodpecker will be described in the next post.

Then, I continued my scanning, and, also continuing were my lifers!

In some scrub next to the Acorn Woodpecker snag, there was a mixed flock of birds.  The one that stood out was a black Cardinal with a bloodshot eye (maybe its nictitating membrane was dysfunctional).  This was an incredible bird, in my opinion.  I had never seen anything like it!  My first Silky-Flycatcher, the Phainopepla.  More on the Phainopepla will be mentioned in a later post as well.

The others were some House Finches (in their native range), and then one more, different-looking bird.

This mystery bird was a light brown color all over, it had a crest, and was relatively small, about House Finch size.  A Titmouse.  I was thinking in the past, so initially called this bird a Plain Titmouse (stupid of me), but then I remembered the only Titmouse that could be seen in that area was an Oak Titmouse.

The Plain Titmouse was split into two species, the Oak and Juniper Titmouse by the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) in 1996, due to many distinct differences in the two species.  The OATI that I saw has a range that is restricted to the coast and center of California, and northernmost Baja California.

The Juniper Titmouse, on the other hand, has a range that reaches, according to Cornell’s All About Birds, mainly the Great Basin area. The two species look almost identical, and, other than differences in range, are very difficult to tell apart.

After scanning for a mere 10 more minutes, we decided that there was no more bird life to be seen here, and so we drove to the main entrance of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

The first bird that was to be seen at this side of the park was a Black Phoebe, what by then I dubbed “The Robins of Southern Cal” for the extreme ratio difference of Robins to Phoebes here compared to home (I probably saw about 75 individual Black Phoebes on the trip, while I only saw 1 possible Robin).  It was hawking prey from a snag branch of a Sycamore, the exact behavior that I witnessed the day before.  Along with hawking from the tree, it was using some lights as a lookout.  The droppings reflected how often the park is used for the feeding of Black Phoebes…

We walked towards the main trail by a grouping of billboards.  In a small tree to the right of the entrance, there was a large amount of activity.  Upon closer inspection, the birds were Bushtits, and then there was one puzzler.

The puzzler was of a drab tan/cream white color.  It had an off-white supercilium, and had the body of a vireo or warbler.  It was a Warbling Vireo.  A VERY familiar face from back home.  I thought that, although common in the area, it was a good find in a flock of Bushtits.

We made our way to the beginning of a sand trail.  With chaparral encroaching on the path, we had to walk single file into unknown habitats harboring unknown avian life.  The clouds were even clearing up.  Exciting.

The familiar face from home, a Warbling Vireo

Oh, scary. The funny thing is that we didn’t encounter a Mountain Lion the whole trip.

THIS is how you tell if the area is popular with the Black Phoebes

"The Robins of Southern Cal"

The silhouette of the Oak Titmouse

Not a great shot, but it gives you a good idea about how the California Towhee is colored.

Note the rust undertail coverts and vent of the California Towhee, similar to that of the Gray Catbird.

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