California Gnatcatcher in the river wash north of Mentone, CA on March 13, 2011. Photo by Sandy Remley on Flickr.
There was once a time, and I'm old enough to remember it, when our little corner of Southern California had just one small subdivision nestled in a sea of orange groves. And there were no freeways! The mind reels. At least the flood plain of the Santa Ana River north of town hasn't changed too dramatically. Access to the wash is more restricted, it's true, but that just means walking a bit farther through the boulders and the chaparral, or finding someone with the right kind of vehicle who knows the dirt roads and the lay of the land. And what a payoff: I was out in the middle of the wash one bright morning last week just eight or ten feet away from a California Gnatcatcher.
These beautiful little birds live only in Southern California and in Baja California, Mexico. Our north-of-the-border subspecies "has been listed as a Species of Special Concern in California and was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993." Here's the science.
From 1960 to 1990 there were just four recorded sightings of this species in San Bernardino County. There were seven more sightings in the 1990s, and to the left you can see what the eBird map looks like for the years 1998 - 2011 [click for big].
Sandy Remley is this Friday's featured photographer. Sandy also happens to be one of the region's best birders, and this year she's doing some chasing. Her goal for 2011: 300 species in San Bernardino County. [It's been done before — once.] Sandy has 174 species so far and is #1 on the 2011 list of San Bernardino's Top 100 eBirders, so I'd say she's well on her way. You can check out Sandy's Flickr site here.
Last weekend Sandy asked if I'd like to go after a few local species with her, and we were bird magnets — it was a good day birding. It was also a reminder for me of the diversity of habitat in our valley and its importance for birds [and birders].
We heard the handsome male California Gnatcatcher pictured above calling from the moment we arrived in the wash, and we heard another calling close by. Cactus wrens were chasing each other, a California Thrasher made an appearance, towhees [California and Spotted] were there, and several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers dodged around the salvia and the yerba santa on the opposite side of the road. Rabbits and California Quail slipped through the sage scrub, and a Cooper's Hawk flew overhead. Always makes me think of a remark by master birder Gene Cardiff: "The best thing about birding is that it gets you out into some beautiful country." Amen.
Not too far away: A runner approaches the end of Opal Avenue. Photo by JudyRutRider.
Atwood, Jonathan L. and David R. Bontrager. 2001. California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/574
Mock, P. 2004. California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica). In The Coastal Scrub and Chaparral Bird Conservation Plan: a strategy for protecting and managing coastal scrub and chaparral habitats and associated birds in California. California Partners in Flight. http://www.prbo.org/calpif/htmldocs/scrub.html
US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile
10,000 Birds: Finding and Identifying a California Gnatcatcher