Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Carrizo Plain

Dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk, or as one "ZAWA" calls it, the Buffalo Eagle. Behold its greatness and shrink from its majesty. We saw 15 or so Ferruginous Hawks on our last Carrizo visit. 

My last birding trip of 2011 that took me out of my normal routine was a trip to the Carrizo Plain, a massive grassland, dotted with sage flats, punctuated by a large alkali lake, located in east San Luis Obispo County. While Carrizo is probably not the best place to go hunting for vagrants, it does offer some of the best inland birding in California. Winter is probably best...the raptors include Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, Short-eared, Long-eared and Burrowing Owls, Prairie Falcons and Merlins. The humongous flocks of Horned Larks may reveal some longspurs to the dedicated birder. Mountain Plovers lurk in the background, and Sage and LeConte's Thrashers and Sage Sparrows hide in the brush. Mountain Bluebirds add welcome color to the landscape, since pretty much every bird I've mentioned so far is brown.

This Vesper Sparrow chose the best rock on the plain to sit on for a photo op. My, what lichen you have...thank you Vesper Sparrow. Vespers are uncommon to fairly common (as opposed to "fairly uncommon") on the Carrizo. 

When the winter rain comes, a large Sandhill Crane flock roosts on Soda Lake each night...this is one of the relatively few flocks in southern California, and (in my opinion) are more fun to hang out with than the Salton Sea and Colorado River flocks. How the fuck they know to show up after the proper amount of local rainfall? I really don't know.

Some cool nonbirds that live on the plain include Tule Elk, Pronghorn, badgers, San Joaquin Kit Foxes, San Joaquin Antelope Ground Squirrel, Giant Kangaroo Rats, Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard...the list goes on. I once found a Giant Kangaroo Rat there in broad daylight, only have it to keel over and die right in front of me minutes later. What does it mean?

And so much for that. If you haven't been, you must go. Winter is best for birding, but spring has raging wildflowers and doesn't have the desolate feel of the colder months. You can find out more about the place over at Los Padres Forestwatch.

By the way, check out Handsome Dan's murderous Short-tailed Albatross over here. Truly chilling stuff.

Red-tailed Hawks are (predictably) everywhere in the area, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look at them.

Numbers of Mountain Bluebirds vary from year to year, but you can typically expect to find a lot of them. Looking at them makes life more bearable.

Prairie Falcons can be dependably found in the area. On my last trip, we saw at least 8 individuals. The scientific word for that level of local abundance is "hella".

What are you laughing about Coyote? Shut up!

Loggerhead Shrikes are abundant on the plain. For that reason, you may probably get the opportunity to obtain a less boring picture of one there. This photograph is lacking something...maybe a small rodent carcass impaled on a spike?

Mountain Plover is one of the specialities of the plain. While they are completely missable, you are also just as likely to blunder into a flock. If you have yet to do this, blundering into a flock of Mountain Plovers is like a massive hit of morphine blundering into your arteries.

Long-billed Curlews are the other common grasspiper in winter. Real shorebirds will use Soda Lake when it's holding water, but it was bone dry on this visit.

Here are some more stripes of the brownish rainbow that make up Ferruginous Hawk color morphs.

This was my last and 550th bird species in 2011, a LeConte's Thrasher. Since I have only been lucky enough to see them three (3) times, I have no shame for publicly displaying this atrocious photograph. LeConte's Thrashers are not rare on the Carrizo Plain, and this is one of the better places to look for them in California.


  1. The loggerhead shrike is the leopard lizard of the bird world. Totally badass. Well they are not cannibalistic so I guess my analogy falls apart a little, but from a shear "strike fear into the lizards of the plain" they cannot be feared. Seeing one probably makes me happier than seeing any other species. That and the Roadrunner. Maybe I am just in to lizard killing birds that think they are still dinosaurs.

    Le Conte's Thrashers are also pretty dope. I have had great success seeing them in the Eastern Mojave in spring along Kellbaker Rd. Dozens.

    1. Yes, shrikes are indeed fascinating...I wish we had more species on the continent. I've seen 3 kinds though, so can't complain too much.

      Kellbaker Road...where is that?

    2. Kelbaker Rd. is in the Eastern Mojave going South of Baker towards the Kelso Dunes hence the creative name. Don't confuse it with Kelcima Rd. which connects Kelso Dunes and Cima. Baker is the halfish way stoping point for LA folks heading out to Las Vegas on I-15. Also, Baker is home to the world's largest (and lamest) thermometer. It is just past Zzyzx.


    3. Thanks JK! Good to know...I haven't poked around that corner of the Mojave much.

    4. Got a couple of posts from that area and some pictures from last Spring that I still have not gotten around to posting.

  2. Sounds like an amazing place! That Prairie Falcon is a handsome fellow. Those are some enormous ears on that coyote...

  3. Prairie Falcons are extremely good looking birds. Too bad they are so bloody hard to get close to!

  4. Coyotes are funny. They can laugh all they want. I saw two take on a nutria this afternoon. Point nutria, surprisingly.

    Sweet Vesper Sparrow shot on the purty rock.

    1. Yeah dude. I saw your ridic pic on facebook. Cray!