Anza-Borrego Desert.

A couple years ago my good friend Sunni and I visited Anza-Borrego briefly (blog post here) and we had both been wanting to go back ever since.  Since she had to fly to San Diego this past week for work and I was planning to meet her to get in some birding, it was a good time to make the drive.  We headed east in my second rental car of the year, stopped in Julian for an ugly baseball hat and pie, and continued through the mountains.

We drove through Borrego Springs en route to the state park headquarters passing some of the famous metal sculptures by Ricardo Breceda.

Bird claw gripping my shoulder. 

We made it to the visitor center and stopped for some cold water and to ask about wildflowers and hawks.  I had heard about the migration of Swainson's Hawks here and wanted to get the latest info.  Conveniently the person we asked was Terry Hunefeld, a name I recognized when I read it on his name tag, but did not figure out till later.  He was super friendly and helpful and gave us the scoop on wildflowers as well as the hawks.  I realized he is also the local eBird reviewer, and he had emailed me about a Vermilion Flycatcher I reported on my last visit. 

There are plenty of birds around the visitor center and we spent some time wandering around the area.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher catching a non-gnat. 

 This is not a photo I like, but this is the photo I took when I knelt onto a cholla, so I feel like I should at least post the reason I have a blood stain on my pants.

This is the same Costa's, perched directly above Sunni's head.


 On our last trip out here I only saw one Cactus Wren, a brief sighting by a motel on the main drag, so I was very pleased to find a pair hanging out right by the visitor center this time.

From the visitor center we headed out to the spots Terry had shown us for wildflowers.  Somehow we did not notice them on our way east, but on our return the flowers were blatantly obvious.  Apparently I did not take photos of them because I was so distracted by all the white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars.

These juicy nuggets are everywhere out there, and are the main reason all the Swainson's Hawks stop over.  We were excited to arrive at the Hawkwatch sight with hopes of seeing a view like this.  Unfortunately the birds dropped down low as they arrived and we could barely see them as they flew in.


Finding a motel proved a huge challenge as it is apparently desert season as well as spring break.  We finally found a place with ridiculously expensive rooms and took it.  Oh well.  The next morning I was eager to get up before sunrise and check out the Borrego Springs WTP settling ponds, as there were reports of Phainopeplas and Crissal Thrashers.  Sunni opted to sleep in, and hopefully got some of our money's worth out of that hotel room.

I had some leftover pie and bad hotel room coffee, then drove out to the spot.  Just as the sun was rising I heard a thrasher song and made my way towards it.  Unfortunately the bird was strongly backlit and I still don't know if it was a Crissal or a California.  Like they say, birding is hard.

Thrasher-Phainopepla Combo

I tried to make it around the shrub to see the bird not silhouetted, but it disappeared without singing again.  At least there were piles of Phainopeplas making me wonder how the hell I had managed to miss this bird on previous desert trips.  Also, it was beautiful.

Desert lily


 Phainopepla - Loggerhead Shrike Northern Mockingbird Combo

When I got back to the car I found these tracks.


I went back to the hotel to cash in my free coffee card and pick up Sunni to head out for some hiking.  We drove down to the Yaqui Well Trail near the Tamarisk Campground. 

It was a nice short hike with Brewer's Sparrows being the most abundant bird.  Lizards made a strong showing as well.

We stopped for lunch at the same place we had lunch on our last visit, Pablito's, and headed back out in the heat to hike by Pena Spring in the Culp Valley area.  The higher elevation made for more bearable temperatures (upper 80's) combined with a pleasant breeze.

The spring should have been a third of a mile from the trailhead and we were a mile up this hill when we decided to turn around.  It was an amazing view at least.

A couple of Black-throated Sparrows on the hike down were the only ones of my trip.

When we returned to the trail head we found another sign for the spring pointing in a different direction, so we tried that one too.

This California Thrasher was stuffing its bill with snacks along the trail.  I hate heavy crops like this next one, but I love that it has two different critters in its bill:

In the end, we never found the spring.  We tipped our sweaty hats to this Phainopepla and bid the desert farewell.

Good times!!!!  More to come from southern CA!


  1. Striking Cactus Wren, I can't wait to see one myself. That's a handsome sparrow too.

  2. I think your photos are awesome. How come you don't indicate what camera and lens you're using on Flickr or on your about page here? I was poised on buyer's remorse about my new 80-300mm equivalent zoom lens (the most expensive long lens that I can rationalize plunking down money for, but not nearly as long a lens as I thought I needed), and it took me forever to figure out that, actually, you seem to capture your awesome closeups with just a 300mm too. Think of the nerdy anguish you save people, if you put it on your about page or your Flickr profile or in the default info that Flickr posts from each photo's EXIF data. I suppose you might have your reasons, but I thought I'd mention it.

    1. Hmm, I think that info used to be in my About Me section but perhaps it's not anymore. I'll update it to save people nerdy anguish as suggested.

  3. I forgot to click "Notify me" when I commented, so now I'm commenting again just so I can click.

  4. Sweet, I miss it out there. I think CATH is actually sort of a rarity at that spot (the WTP) but it seems like there has been one at that site for many months. Pain. How did you not see PHAIs there before? Stop being weird.

    You sure that bird is a shrike?

    1. Can't stop won't stop. I am sure of nothing.

  5. And I quote, "Seriously? Cactus in the leg? Dumbass. Now karma will come stick me with a cactus itself I am sure." Strong work, FJ.

  6. One of my favorite places now that I have moved to San Diego County. Marlene and I visit several times per year in the winter and spring. I'm still trying to find Lucy's Warbler there--a very rare breeder.

    1. Ah, I am jealous that you get to visit so often!

  7. Deserts are always interesting, but glad you caught AB on a decent year. Your tracks look like a ground squirrel to me, but spotted skunk can also look like that. Your lizardos are a zebra-tailed and tiger whiptail if you're unfamiliar with our CA herps.

    1. Thanks for the ID's! I planned on looking them up eventually but who knows if I ever would have...

  8. YES. Deserts. Beauty of Life and Beauty of Death are so intwined there.
    It's the frustrating shot but I think that backlit sunrise photo is me fave.

    P.S. I take Oliver's point but I'd just recommend a comment or message asking for the info; for my two cents I'm glad you don't post that stuff recurrently in a blog or near the photos. It ruins the aesthetics on sites that do and is superfluous 99% of the time.

  9. That Black-throated Sparrow shot is the winner. Also: eastern me thought that Cactus Wren was one of your weird western thrashers. I need a desert education badly.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts