One of the nice things about taking a long vacation somewhere that involved lots of birding is that even after being back for a week one still has plenty to blog about from the vacation. Not only that, but by blogging about the birding experiences one gets the chance to relive the experiences one had on the vacation, almost making it feel like one is still on vacation. So it is with my recent trip to southern California. Here it is, over a week since I’ve returned to frosty New York and I’m blogging about the San Jacinto Mountains!

The San Jacinto Mountains are the mountains that thousands have ascended to on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Daisy, her family, and I didn’t feel like taking the long drive to Palm Springs and shelling out the cash it would take to go up that way so we took the more direct route from Temecula and explored a couple of parks in the mountains from Highways 74 and 243.

Along Highway 74 I kept my eyes peeled for Pinyon Jays, a bird I once saw up there two summers ago, but they were not to be seen. The scenery, however, was as gorgeous as I remembered. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and even at over 4,500 feet above sea level the temperature was comfortably over 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

view from Hurkey Creek Park

view from Hurkey Creek Park

Our first stop was Hurkey Creek Park, a Riverside County Park with picnic tables, campsites, and a couple of active bird feeders. Admission was $2.00 a person, a bargain considering the park’s beauty. The ranger that took our fee noticed my binoculars and took an interest in what I was looking for…and was I ever disappointed to learn that Pinyon Jays apparently head to lower elevations during the winter months. I had to get my jay-fix from the Steller’s Jays and Western Scrub-Jays that were unwilling to let me get a good picture.

The feeders were attracting a bunch of Dark-eyed Juncos of the “Oregon” form and a single familiar “Slate-colored,” to say nothing of the Mountain Chickadees and Acorn Woodpeckers. And speaking of woodpeckers I had high hopes of getting good looks at White-headed Woodpeckers or any of the trio of western sapsuckers: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, or Red-naped Sapsucker. Much to my dismay none of them showed and I had to content myself with the aforementioned Acorn Woodpeckers, a Nuttall’s Woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker, and a Northern Flicker. Pygmy Nuthatches, however, were ubiquitous.

Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco

Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco

Common Ravens and both Spotted and California Towhees rounded out the list of sightings at Hurkey Creek Park and we headed up the road to Idyllwild in search of lunch. We found it in the form of delicious burgers from Cafe Rendezvous which we ate at a picnic table at our next stop, the delightful Idyllwild Park, which we got to enter for free because we had already paid admission to a county park (Riverside County is nice like that I guess). I ate quickly, left Daisy and her folks still noshing, and went for a walk through the snow (at just over 5,000 feet I guess we crossed the snow line though the temperatures were still in the 50’s).

It was a very productive walk, with White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds, Mountain Chickadees, and, wonder of wonders, a White-headed Woodpecker. Unfortunately, I saw the woodpecker at a distance with the sun behind it so of course I walked a circuitous route that would put the sun behind me and the woodpecker in front of me. I got myself into position, screened behind a bush, and could hear the woodpecker pecking away on the opposite side of the tree that was not ten feet in front of me. Then the darn thing took off on a straight line away from me and flew out of sight! So no good look and no pictures. Oh well, at least I saw one, right? And I did get the consolation prize of an almost-cooperative Western Scrub-Jay.

Western Scrub-Jay

Once Daisy’s folks were done eating and her niece woke up from her nap we went into the nature center and explored the exhibits. The staff is helpful and friendly and the center has some marvelous feeders that attracted Mountain Chickadees, more Dark-eyed Juncos, a whole flock of Mourning Doves, and, best of all, Band-tailed Pigeons!

Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeons at the Idyllwild Nature Center

After the nature center we took Audrey, Daisy’s aforementioned napping niece, out into the snow, her first encounter with the white stuff. She had the only appropriate response to such a cruel substance: she cried. She got used to it after a bit, especially after she discovered the joy of pelting me with a snowball.

Other than our up-close encounter with a Mountain Lion, that was it for the day, and we headed home tired out after a day exploring the San Jacintos.

Mountain Lion

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.