Doug and Michael’s Excellent Adventures of Californian Cuisine and Birds

The following is a trip report for Michael Retter and Doug Chapman’s trip though Southern and Central California in 2006. Michael wrote it with sections amended and emended by Doug. Yes, Michael was tardy–but we got it done.

This is a very tardy trip report for my trip with Michael Retter through central and southern California in early October of this year. *D = lifer for Doug. *M = lifer for Michael. # = ABA bird for Michael.

Tuesday 3 October

We arrived midday at John Wayne airport in Santa Anna (Orange County). After we picked up the rental car it was straight off to the first birding location!

Doug got a tip from Jennifer that we could find California Gnatcatcher*D without too much difficulty at Crystal Cove State Park. We weren’t there for 10 minutes before we had a very inquisitive female come within a few meters to check us out. She was later joined by a male, which in the fall and winter doesn’t look much different from a female. Good looks at the nearly solid black undertail and heard many mewing calls to distinguish the vocal differences w/BTGN. We got great looks at a California Thrasher close by, singing away from the top of a tree. California Towhees were quite literally everywhere, constantly feeding on the road. Having seen only one CATO before, Doug was astonished (as was I!) to see so many not just here. They seemed plentiful all over the place

We also noted Song Sparrow, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, and (heard only) Wrentit here. We watched a pair of White-tailed Kites forage over the hillside a bit inland, providing us with our first views of what would prove to be an almost constant companion on this trip.

Next, we stopped at Upper Newport Bay. Belding’s Sparrow*D was quite common: at one point we had 15 birds in view. Light-footed Clapper Rail*D was heard. We went to a location that is supposedly frequented by terns, hoping to get Doug his life Elegant Tern, but the mudflats seems to be nonexistent. We did however find a large concentration of shorebirds coming in to roost on an island just off the side of the road. It was mostly made up of Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Western Willets, and Long-billed Dowitchers, but there were some yellowlegs and a Dunlin mixed in. A fellow birder told us that a Ruff had been seen there earlier in the day, but we didn’t find it. Unfortunately we found only a few distant Common/Forster’s Terns, so it was on to the next spot.

A bit over six years prior, I’d seen Nutmeg Munias (Mannakins) at Huntington Beach Central Park, so we stopped there to try to find them, and to check out any migrants that might be around. It’s a famous migrant trap, so always worth a look. It was getting late, and we didn’t’ find any munias, but we did find a pair of Cinnamon Teal. Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers were the only (to us) interesting warblers about.

At dusk we stopped at Bolsa Chica. It was getting quite brisk by now, something I didn’t anticipate as it was 85ºF when I left Chicago earlier in the day! Doug did get a pretty bad look at his lifer Elegant Tern*D, but we didn’t see much else of note. A flock of Western and California Gulls. Lots of Willets. Some Black-bellied Plovers.

That night we drove to West Hollywood, where we spent the first of a couple nights in a really neat hotel called The Beverly Hills Terrace Hotel. That night we ate at a famous Moroccan place called Tagine(owned by Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling)). It was my first experience with Moroccan food, and not at all what I expected. We didn’t even have couscous. :-) Doug was impressed too, as his experience had been with less authentic style Moroccan.

Wednesday 4 October

After a fairly late rise (and hearing parakeets of an unknown flavor from the courtyard), we headed west, to Compartes Chocolatier. Doug had been reading about the place and it’s charming confectioneur, so we stopped by for a visit. Jonathan was very pleasant to speak with, and he offered us much in the way of free tastes of his truffles, “love nuts”, and chocolate-covered orange peel. The truffles were amazing. Flavored included lavender and violet crème, ice wine, caramel and seasalt, and lemongrass. We stopped at a local restaurant famous since the 1930s for hot dog's–patrons include everyone in the day from John Wayne to Marilyn Monroe to James Dean, Orson Welles to Marlon Brando to Michael Jackson, and now from Jay Leno, Steve Martin, Betty White, Martha Stewart, Aretha Franklin to Guy Fieri and other well-known celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentis and Emeril Lagasse. NO hotdog is better than Pink's. I wish we had one here right now. After our chocolate fix, we drove around Marina del Rey for awhile looking for Spotted Dove. Michael had seen it there years ago, so I figured we had a shot. We later found out they’ve not been there for years, so it’s no wonder we dipped.

We spent most of the day today driving around the Hollywood area visiting James Dean sights. Doug has a special place in his heart for Jim, and this trip was as much one for Dean as it was for the birds. We stopped at a spot overlooking LA and the Hollywood Hills and were rewarded with our only Vaux’s Swift of the entire trip.

This evening we dined at a really great restaurant called Blue on Black. In particular, I remember the Muscovy breast with German chestnut noodles, and the “tropical soup”: panna cotta swimming in a delicious broth of what I think was pineapple, mango and passionfruit juice, with a couple sprigs of fresh thyme. I can still taste it—very delicious!

Thursday 5 October

We drove north towards Mount Pinos today, hoping to find Doug one of his most wanted birds, White-headed Woodpecker. Before we left the neighborhood of our hotel, we found the source of the parakeet sounds: Yellow-chevroned Parakeets. They proved to not be too uncommon.

After almost running out of gas(!), we made it to the base of the Mt. Pinos road, only to find out that fire had recently closed all traffic off of the main highway. Talk about a bummer. We messed around for a bit, trying to find other roads to higher elevations, but they were all closed. We ended up birding the grounds of a forest service station, and got great looks at Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, and Oregon Junco. We were walking up the drive to inquire about other roads when a young man in a forest service truck stopped to see if we needed help.  Doug asked him if he knew where to find White-headed Woodpeckers, and he shot back a rather confused look. At just that moment I said, “There’s one!” A male White-headed Woodpecker*D flew across the road behind the truck and landed in a small dead tree only 10 meters away. We had amazing looks at the bird for about 10 minutes before it continued off. We couldn’t believe our luck, and it was the only decent look we got at one the entire trip.

Since these particular mountains were closed, we decided to drive east, toward the Piute Mountains. On the way we stopped in the Mojave at Galileo Hill near California City. We didn’t’ find anything of note there really, just some Audubon’s and Townsend’s Warblers, and what appeared to be some well-fed Coopers’ Hawks.

We then headed up into the Piute Mountains. We’d not planned to stop, but driving through the upper reaches of Jawbone Canyon, a LeConte’s Thrasher ran across the road in front of us. How can you not stop for that?! I’d only ever seen that bird once before, anyway. Though diversity there was poor, we had AMAZING looks at both LeConte’s Thrasher and caniceps Sage Sparrow. I got some pretty gripping photos of both. We also saw Cactus Wren there and heard some Chukars on the hillside.

A stop an a famous oasis proved a total bust, but a bit further up we entered a high-elevation grassland that was TEEMING with Ferruginous Hawks. I think we saw 6-7 over a 1.5 mile stretch, including prolonged looks at a nice dark morph.

From here we started getting into coniferous woods. One of the birds I really wanted to see was Thick-billed Fox-Sparrow, and I figured this was our best shot. It was getting late though, and we had to turn around. As we rounded a corner I saw two very large chicken-like birds jump out of the road up onto the bank. “****,” I thought, “those looked like grouse!” Doug had been wanting to see the newly-split Sooty Grouse, so I had grouse on the mind. We pulled up to the spot, and as Doug will tell you, I went crazy. I was looking at a group of 6 GORGEOUS Mountain Quail, my first-ever looks. (Up until now, I’d only heard them.) I’m told that my voiced went eerily low and that I sounded like “the cello section in the Act IV opening of Verdi‘s Otello.” [A low growl, but of pleasure, not pain.] We watched the birds for a few minutes and ended up splitting up; I tried to go up and around them and push them back towards Doug, but it didn’t work too well! And of course, while I was messing around, Doug saw a Thick-billed Fox-Sparrow*D, the only one of the trip. *grumble*.

By this time it was getting fairly dark, and we had a long drive ahead of us, south and west. We spent the night in Santa Barbara – on the harbor.

Friday 6 October

This day started with what was the first of three pelagic trips we took, and by far the most successful, and the most pleasant. Temperatures were relatively warm, the sky was overcast the entire day (good for exceedingly white boys like me), and the birds were great. I was looking forward to the pelagics quite a bit, because they were by only real chance at a lifer. 

Jaegers stole the show today. Totals were something like 300 Pomarines, 35 Long-taileds, 5 Parasitics, and 12 South Polar Skuas. It seemed like there was always a Pom in view, and usually a few. Black-vented Shearwater#M was the first tubenose of the day. I’d hoped to see it, and Black and Least Storm-Petrels as I’d only ever seen them in Mexico before. Gotta work on the ol’ ABA list! We watched a couple Black Storm-Petrels#M, and then sometime in the afternoon, we got great looks at an Ashy Storm-Petrel*D,M. The captain chased it for a few minutes. It was hard to see through the bumps, but the looks were still great. I’m pretty sure we nearly scared the thing to death. We also had great looks at Arctic Tern, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, and Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. On the way back into the harbor, Doug finally got a good look at an Elegant Tern, as one was perched atop a buoy. After the pelagic we drove north across the (beautifully moonlit) mountains to Maricopa, where we spent the night.

Saturday 7 October

A quick trip outside of town in the morning proved what I wondered: LeConte’s Thrashers still live in the oilfields. We then drove east into the San Joaquin Valley, and thus, saw our first Yellow-billed Magpie of the trip. We birded the Santa Maria area for awhile, hoping to find a Pacific Golden-Plover, but no dice. A quick stop at a small state park did however yield nice looks at a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, at the far S edge of its range. We then drove north through San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles before turning east. We stopped at a couple spots for Bell’s Sparrow and Lawrence’s Goldfinch, but dipped. We did however get very nice, yet distant looks at a Wrentit, enough to see the white eye. We also noted Hutton’s Vireo and Oak Titmouse there. A large (~125) flock of California Quail alongside the road kept us entertained for a few minutes. Our next stop was at a park in Shannon, just west of Cholame. We’d been told about Larry’s Goldfinches there, but we only found a couple Lessers. There was a big flock of migrant passerines present—mostly Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Audubon’s and Orange-crowned Warblers. But there was also a gorgeous male Black-throated Gray Warbler, and we easterners loved every moment of it.

For there it was onto Cholame, where James Dean met his tragic death at such a young age. We visited the small store that houses some memorabilia and spent some time at the memorial. A House Finch sang away while we paid our respects, and I think that bird will always be a little more special to Doug now.

From Cholame, we went north to Monterrey to spend the night, and to visit with some friends the following day. That night we ate at the internationally known Sardine Factory. We both had Halibut Encrusted with Macadamia Nuts and served over Grilled Pineapple with Garlic Wasabi Smashed Potatoes. It worked really well. Michael really wanted to try abalone, as I had previously stated that it is one of those foods that in my opinion is another chic-chic foodstuff that is more classed as paper maché than anything with flavor, or interesting texture. After a $3500 appetizer of Abalone (very little of it) he agrees now. The restaurant is apparently known for its extensive wine list (definitely the biggest I’ve ever seen), and we indulged in some vintage vino tonight. I can definitely say that I’ll never forget the first time I had Sauternes. I thought we deserved a real treat: a 1955 Chateau D’Yquem. (The year James Dean died.) It was stunning. It was a very special night, and I thank Doug for being such a great friend and sharing that with me.

Sunday 8 October

This would prove to be one of the most miserable days of my life—the first time I got seasick. We joined up with a few fellow birders from the Bay Area to go on a pelagic with Debi Shearwater. Before we got out of the harbor, we watched a lingering female Harlequin Duck, and Doug was lucky enough to be one of the few people to get a look at a Manx Shearwater before it flew directly away from the boat into the sun. I was fine for the first hour or so, and got great looks at Black-footed Albatross and Buller’s Shearwater, but then the mal de mer kicked in. The seas were 13-15 feet, and we were headed into the wind, so I suppose if I had to get sick sometime, this was it. Somehow, between rounds two and three of being draped-over-the-stern heaving, I managed to spot the bird of the day (for me at least), a gorgeous Flesh-footed Shearwater*D*M. 

It’s true what they say . . . “At first you’re afraid you’re going to die; then you’re afraid you won’t”. I was out for, oh, about four or five hours I’d say, though it seemed like an eternity. It was more than I could do to simply watch the horizon, partly because the horizon disappeared behind the next swell half of the time. I didn’t’ know that body temperature is affected by seasickness, but I found out as I alternated hot flashes and frigid chills for a couple hours. Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t get any MORE miserable, so I closed my eyes and fell to sleep. I’m pretty sure that I woke up every time a bird was called. I remember in particular hearing Debi call “SKUA, SKUA!” I looked up (without binoculars) to see it fly by at fairly close range. I thought to myself. “Yeah, that’s a fricking big jaeger,” and went back to sleep. That was one of eight SP Skuas for the day – not bad. I’m told that I woke up not long after we turned around, and the seas calmed as we headed in with the wind at our backs. It was only then that I was able to do any kind of socializing, and I apologize to all (especially Doug, who concurs) since I was not able to gab a bit more.

Immediately after we got back to shore, we made a big decision. We drove southeast, to spend the night in Bakersfield. We ate at a Basque restaurant, where the food was much better than the menu and ambience would have let on. I had tongue and sweetbreads for the first time, and they were both very tasty! Why did we dive to Bakersfield you ask? Well, just see where we ended up the next day . . .

Monday 9 October

Gary Meyer tipped us off on some Spotted Doves in Bakersfield, and after some work we finally found one. The noisy Rose-ringed Parakeets were much easier to find.

Then we headed south—to the Salton Sea. Crazy? Perhaps, but it ended up being worth it in my opinion. We stopped in Indio and bought some delicious local dates — at a gas station! The Indio area is North America’s main date-producing region, so we just had to try a few. We agreed these are so much better than any other date we’ve ever eaten.

The reason we drove all this way was for a shot at Blue-footed Booby. The hurricanes of a month or two prior had pushed up ca. five of them onto the Sea, and there was at least one still hanging around, we were told. We spent a couple hours trying to find a point to access the Sea and view the rock the booby supposedly roosted on (and in the process stumbled across a small flock of Lesser Flamingos). Eventually, we called Jennifer, and she steered us in the right direction. But it was much too hot to see anything 1.5 miles away; the heat waves were just too strong. We did however get great looks at a few Yellow-footed Gulls, including one that flew right over the car. As an aside, less than three weeks later, Guy McCaskie found the Salton Sea Ross’s Gull. It was probably there when we were. But, alas, we did not see it.

We decided to go look for Ruddy Ground-Doves M# at an old hog farm. It took quite a while, but we eventually got a look at an exceptionally-boring female, but it was ABA bird 672 for me, so I can’t really complain. 

Back at the booby spot, we eventually prevailed. A crappy look, but definitely a Blue-footed Booby – an ABA tick for both of us, and a lifer for Doug.

We then spent an hour or more fruitlessly searching for my other most-wanted bird of the trip, Large-billed Sparrow. Water levels seemed to be down, as there was no vegetation close to the waters edge, so we had no idea where to look. We went to the spot Doug had seen them two years earlier. No birds there at all. We left feeling somewhat defeated but also pretty pleased with what we’d accomplished for the day. 

Thus began our 3.5 hour drive to Ventura (not nearly the six hours we’d been told it would be).

Tuesday 10 October

This morning we woke up at the hotel that ABA was using as the site for its 2006 Regional Conference. We joined them for one morning and headed out to Santa Cruz Island to see the jays. On the way, we had amazing looks at a juvie Sabine’s Gull. We also came across a flock of a few thousand Black-vented Shearwaters, which made for good studies of variation in plumage in this variable species that seems to be especially prone to leucism.

The jays were a bit skittish, undoubtedly due to the group of 50 people roaming about the island, but we eventually got good looks at Island Scrub-Jay*D. On the rocks around the island we had really nice looks at Black Oystercatcher and Black Turnstone. The endemic Santa Cruz subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird was seen well, too.

On another pelagic, we birded the same waters as the trip four days prior. The difference in birdlife was amazing. We saw perhaps 50x as many Black-vented Shearwaters, but no storm-petrels at all and only about 5 jaegers total!

Back ashore, an incredibly nice local (Wes Fritz from Solvang), took us to go look for a Pacific Golden-Plover*M he found earlier in the day at a sod farm. After a bit of work, we had some prolonged views, but through a shroud of water. The bird was feeding in a flock of Black-bellieds on the “other” side of an array of sprinklers. We spent a good 30-40 minutes with the bird, and eventually formed a good image of what the whole bird looked like from the bits and pieces that were visible at any one time. It was ABA bird 674 for me—almost to my (I’d thought unattainable) goal for the trip. As an aside, I reached 675 in Texas last month with a Northern Jaçana (zhah-sah-nah!?), only to come home to the latest issue of Birding and see that Yellow-chevroned Parakeet was removed from the ABA list—back to 674!

Our last bit of birding was at Sycamore Canyon, part of Part of Pt. Mugu State Park. Though we only birded here perhaps an hour, it proved to be one of my favorite stops of the entire trip. We got incredible views of Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Wrentit, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Golden-crowned Sparrow mere feet away. A special moment for me was watching a Wrentit fly up and grab a little white berry that perfectly matched its eye! We ended the evening with a surprise: a pair of Black-hooded Parakeets that came screeching down the canyon. I’d heard that they nested there but had completely forgotten. After enjoying some delicious German food, we spent the night in Oxnard.

Wednesday 11 October

We flew out of Oxnard this morning to LAX, and then home. California Dreamin’ all the way. Both the food and the birds will remain long with both of us.

On a personal note, I had an amazing time on this trip with Doug. I think we became much closer friends, and I want to thank him profusely for all the kindness he showed me over the week—and the patience he’s shown with me finishing this trip list. If you haven’t met Doug, you’re missing out on knowing an incredibly kind, light-hearted, fun individual. I can’t wait ‘til the next trip; I just hope others of you will be able to join us!

Thanks, Michael. It was indeed a very good time: food companion and birds!

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