Birding South Bay Beaches, Santa Barbara County, CA (April 2004)

With snow showers still in the forecast in Pittsburgh, the Susoeff family smugly headed west to California over Spring Break. We left Friday, April 2, with Los Angeles as our first destination. Husband Eric is a native Californian and a surfer, so the trip was as much about seeing his family and catching some waves as it was about birding! California is one of the few places where those disparate passions, surfing and birding, can both be fulfilled. Costa Rica also comes to mind, but that's another story!

Our first day was spent in the South Bay Beach towns with Eric's family, and we quickly chalked up the urban birds you'd expect- Crows, Starlings, House Sparrows (although blessedly less than in my neighborhood), Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves and House Finches. But the fun began when we went down to King Harbor in Hermosa Beach to spend time on my brother-in-law's 33-foot sailboat. Seals, Brown Pelicans, various gulls (see list), D.c. cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Willets, Spotted Sandpipers and a pair of Mallards were all in evidence. Our last bird for the day was a Barn Swallow that repeatedly perched on the boat in the next slip and watched us with as much interest as we watched it.

Spotted Sandpipers Saturday was another beach and sailing day for us. During an early morning walk we spotted an Anna’s Hummingbird and a Yellow Warbler, as well as Swifts and a Northern Mockingbird. I assume the swifts were Vaux's. The most exciting find of the day was a little Red-necked Phalarope, spinning around in the water in the harbor. It was a mere three yards from the boat all morning and ended up hanging out at the harbor for a few days.

On Sunday we added Western Grebes to the list — a whole bunch of them swimming in the harbor. Many had their heads tucked under their wings while floating in the water.


As much as I enjoyed the sailing and beaches, the part of the trip I was looking forward to most began on Monday, when we piled in the rental car and headed north for Santa Barbara County. We had a cabin reserved for one week at El Capitan Canyon, a "luxury campsite" that was recently featured, much to our surprise, in Travel & Leisure Magazine. On our way to the cabin, we planned to stop at several nature preserves and surf spots.

Our first stop was Point Dume and the nature preserve at Zuma Beach. This is a lovely spot with a hiking trail that climbs from the uncrowded beach up to the top of a cliff Marbled Godwit overlooking the ocean. While Eric watched the numerous surfers at this famous point-break, Patrick and I (with daughter Liadan’s help) added Hooded Oriole, Bushtit, Wrentit, Brewers Blackbird, White-Throated Swift, White-Crowned Sparrow, a Buteo species and a Merlin to our trip list. We were already at 29 species and we hadn’t even reached our ultimate destination!

After a few more stops (mostly surf-related), we pulled into El Capitan Canyon. We got out of the car and wow! Birds were everywhere, and most were life-birds for us. Patrick and I couldn’t call them out fast enough: California Towhees in the leaf-rubble, Marbled Godwit Western Scrub-Jays at the picnic tables, a pair of nesting House Wrens, numerous Spotted Towhees, flocks of Golden-Crowned and White-Crowned sparrows feeding in the grass almost at our feet. Acorn Woodpeckers were abundant and the surrounding trees were scarred with their holes. Western Bluebirds flitted from cabin to cabin. Black Phoebes bobbed their tails from fence posts.

Our cabin was one of many ideally situated for birding. Outside the front door was a large sycamore tree and behind that, El Capitan Creek ran by, its banks overgrown with willow. We saw Common Yellowthroats, Yellow and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, and added the Bullocks Oriole, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and Robin to our list. Acorn Woodpecker I went into the cabin to start unpacking when Patrick yelled: "Mom, did you say you wanted to see the state bird?" There they were — a flock of California Quail bobbing through the grass just a few yards away. This became a regular site each evening.

The next day, an early morning walk to nearby El Capitan Beach netted us a California Thrasher, Song Sparrow and Turkey Vulture. Hiking was definitely the creme-de-la-crème at El Capitan. As its name implies, the cabins are nestled on about 300 acres in a canyon, with walls rising on either side. The owners deeded another 3,000 acres surrounding the site to the Trust for Public Lands, so the area is remote and pristine. The camp offers several trails of varying difficulty. Along with a map, the camp's kiosk had tips on what to do if one encounters a rattlesnake or a mountain lion. We saw neither, but other hikers saw a bobcat just ahead of us on the trail. California Quail We saw its scat in several places, probably marking its territory. On our hikes about the canyon (when we weren’t looking over our shoulders nervously for a stalking cat) we added Lesser Goldfinch, White-tailed Kite, Canyon Wren, Oregon Junco, Northern Harrier, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Nuttal's Woodpecker and the "Red Shafted" Northern Flicker, as well as rabbits, lizards and, I'm sorry to say, some feral cats.

By mid-week, we were completely used to the Scrub-Jays and Western Bluebirds on our porch-rails and took the flocks of sparrows foraging in the grass for granted. We did, that is, until Patrick noticed one was a Lark Sparrow. Shame on us for always assuming they were 'just' White-Crowned or Golden-Crowned! We had also added Bewick's Wren and Caspian Tern to the list.

El Capital Canyon is a wonderful "base camp" from which to explore gorgeous Santa Barbara County. Scrub Jay One of our destinations was Los Padres National Forest, which we accessed from a few different points. The first sojourn was to Figueroa Mountain, because California Condors were "possible” according to the local birding club's website. We drove up hair-raising, one-lane dirt roads without guardrails, looking down sheer drops of unknown but very dramatic depths. This driving was not for the faint of heart. Unfortunately, we did not see a Condor, but several Yellow-billed Magpies obligingly jumped out into the road in front of our car and stayed for so long we got a decent picture of them! We also saw a fawn, and added Red-wing Blackbirds to our list. Incidentally, the wildflowers were in full bloom and breathtaking. The California poppies were especially striking amid the sagebrush.

Although we hated to leave the quiet of campfire dinners in the canyon, the pleasures of Santa Barbara beckoned so we dined in town one night. Scrub Jay At the harbor we saw Western Gulls, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and Whimbrels, bringing us to 71 species.

Santa Barbara County is known as horse and farm country, and our ride along Refugio Canyon Road the next day proved it. We drove past avocado and lemon groves and saw an American Kestrel hunting in a field near a horse farm. We wanted a Roadrunner in the worst way, but did not add any new birds to our list.

On our last day, we hiked a portion of the El Capitan Canyon's longest trail. Right outside the cabin we saw a Swainson's Thrush. As we Western Bluebird walked up the trail we saw a White-tailed Kite hunting, and enjoyed for the last time the many species that make the canyon their home.

On the way back to Redondo Beach before flying home, we stopped at several famous surf spots including Rincon and Mailbu, where we added Black Scoter, Bonaparte’s Gull and Common Tern to our list. The morning we left for our flight, a flock of parakeets flew over – our last species for the trip. In all we counted 77 species and added several life birds. But we missed that Greater Roadrunner, so I guess we'll just have to go back!

Species List
Canada GooseRuddy DuckRed-bellied WoodpeckerAmerican Tree Sparrow
Western GrebeWhimbrel Black Phoebe Yellow-rumped Warbler
Pied-Billed GrebeRed-necked PhalaropeWestern Scrub-JayCommon Yellowthroat
Brown PelicanBonapartes Gull*Common RavenSpotted Towhee
Double-Crested CormorantCalifornia GullAmerican CrowCalifornia Towhee
Great Blue HeronHerring GullNorthern Rough-Winged SwallowLark Sparrow
Black-crowned Night-HeronWestern GullBarn SwallowGolden-crowned Sparrow
MallardCaspian TernBushtitWhite-crowned Sparrow
Black ScoterCommon TernBewick's WrenSong Sparrow
Turkey VultureMourning DoveHouse WrenDark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
Northern HarrierRock PigeonCanyon WrenBrown-headed Cowbird
White-tailed KiteBand-tailed PigeonWrentitRed-Winged Blackbird
Red-Tailed HawkPsittacidea speciesBlue-Gray GnatcatcherBrewer's Blackbird
MerlinWhite-throated SwiftWestern BluebirdBullock's Oriole
American KestrelAnna's HummingbirdAmerican RobinHooded Oriole
California QuailAcorn WoodpeckerSwainson's ThrushHouse Finch (including yellow variant)
American CootDowney WoodpeckerNorthern MockingbirdLesser Goldfinch
KilldeerNutall's WoodpeckerCalifornia ThrasherAmerican Goldfinch
WilletNorthern Flicker (Red-Shafted)European StarlingHouse Sparrow
Spotted SandpiperEmpid Flycatcher spp.Yellow Warbler 

*Note on the gulls. I stink at gull identification, and basically don't even try to id juveniles. These were all adult birds and I made the call after careful and prolonged observation. I'm sure there were many more different types that you experts would have gotten!

— by Joanne Scheier Susoeff & Patrick Susoeff

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!

© Photo Credits:
Sherron Lynch, Brian Shema, Chuck Tague