Business has brought me once again to a shiny section of the Golden State. It is the height, indeed the very definition, of privilege to rise up after breakfast over a variegated expanse of autumn hues to arrive for lunch in a portion of the Pacific coast where one is far more likely to spot a tree laden with oranges than an orange tree, even in mid-October. I love a trip where the destination looks different from the departure point.
Of course, the only way I can really enjoy an excursion to the West Coast is to get out and really see it, which is to say, go birding. Orange County is world renowned for malls, mansions, and meticulously manicured landscapes overflowing with exotic, invasive vegetation. The true prize, however, is that wild Pacific coast clad in chaparral and cordgrass. This trip dropped me conveniently close to a number of truly legendary habitats but my first priority upon landing was visiting the one right on my temporary doorstep. After more than a year away from Orange County, Upper Newport Bay beckoned!
While I was gunning, in a gentle, unarmed fashion of course, for the full suite of Pacific shorebirds, seabirds, and migrants, one species in particular was on my hitlist. The California Gnatcatcher is a fetching sprite of a songbird, long tailed and lively like its Blue-gray kin. This bird is one of many that have tragically eluded me despite my many trips out here and while I was also looking forward to adding crackers like Cactus Wren, California Thrasher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and perhaps a Western warbler or two to my life list, the gnatcatcher was my primary target. Upper Newport Bay, known also as Back Bay, is a great rend in the astronomically priced real estate of Orange County. This colossal estuary allows San Diego Creek to attain Pacific waters via the very well-heeled Newport Bay. Somewhere among its rocky cliffs, lissome willows, and dry brush would be my gnatcatcher, or at least I hoped.
The success of my safari was assured as I was accompanied by the Wild Bird on the Fly herself, Amy Hooper. Orange County is a lot more enjoyable when Amy is around; not only do we have a lot to talk about but I tend to spot new birds with her. Last year’s excursions to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, and Huntington Beach Central Park were among my best for 2007. With only a few hours to spare, would the Back Bay meet such a lofty standard?
Perhaps it would have, were it not for those accursed Santa Ana winds.
The Santa Anas, if you’re unfamiliar with them, are powerful autumnal gusts that blow out of the Mojave Desert towards the ocean. Not only do they carry some wicked allergens in their wake, but they can at times pack enough punch to ground most songbirds.
Amy and I arrived at one of the various Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve nature centers with the intent of eating lunch while enjoying birds from an observation platform. It was all we could do to hold onto our sandwiches! Raptors seemed to appreciate the atmospheric excitement – we spotted Peregrine Falcon, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, and both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk at play – but smaller birds seemed suppressed. It’s funny how common species like Song Sparrow and Mourning Dove can tolerate a big breeze yet dainty migrants can’t be troubled to brave the elements. I guess that’s why they’re common.
This breathtaking portion of the bay supported expected birds like Great Blue Heron, Great and Snowy Egret, American Coot, and Pied-billed Grebe. What it did not or could not deliver during our brief visit was anything on my California hitlist. Good thing, then, that Amy and I decided to regroup the next morning. Stay tuned for my next installment of Upper Newport Bay birding…