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Birding in desert proves successful

The Mohave Desert must constitute an overwhelming challenge to a migrating bird. When a bird sees an oasis the attraction must appear irresistible – like a rest stop to a long-haul trucker, especially if the bird in question is a disoriented eastern species looking for a roost in, say, the Carolinas.

That is the usual explanation for the frequent appearance early in June of vagrant species in these oases. Ed Pandolfino offered to lead a two-day trip to find “Desert Vagrants” and I’d gladly follow Ed anywhere in search of birds, even the desert.

Two of the most often visited desert oases by birds and birders are Galileo Hill and Butterbredt Springs near the Mohave town of California City. Though they are both natural oases they are quite different from each other. Butterbredt Springs is more the classic desert oasis, tucked up in a canyon just west of Red Rock State Park in the El Paso Mountains. Ed wanted to arrive around sunup so that the early rising migrants would still be foraging and viewable. Driving up the unpaved dusty canyon road we got a good view of a Red-tailed Hawk sitting in a Joshua tree.



The actual Oasis, maintained by Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, is quite small, covering about an acre where cottonwoods and a few cattails have taken advantage of the water supply. Arriving we found four sleepy-eyed young birders from Northern California who camped out on the desert.

Together we found lots of warblers in the trees, yellow, hermit and Wilson’s. But the only vagrant was the American Redstart, an eastern warbler that is occasionally observed in Southern California. The team of young birders left before we did and reported via cell phone the presence along the road of an eastern gray catbird. This uniformly slate gray bird with a black cap is also rare in California.




The springs itself is fenced off. But just the other side of the fence is a watering hole for an adjacent pasture. We sat as quietly as possible close by, along with another photographer who was covered in camouflage with just a lens protruding, to await the birds. Soon, a pair of Chukars announced their presence by their nasal clucks and paraded a few feet away to the water. The strikingly patterned red-billed Chukar is a Eurasian species that has been widely introduced as a game bird similar to a quail. We also saw a Yellow-rumped warbler of the myrtle race. This race, with a white throat instead of the locally more common yellow one, is the more predominant race in the east.

Galileo Hill is another matter. This oasis has been converted into a middle class weekend resort and ranch called the Silver Saddle. The owners and developers were sympathetic to birds retaining the local cottonwoods and alders – as well as desert cacti – in their landscaping around the many pools and streams created by the springs. They are also supportive of birders providing a weekday discount for lodging. During the weekdays the sole occupants were birders and birds. While we didn’t find any vagrants we were pleased to sight vermillion, willow and western flycatchers, western tanagers, Scott’s Oriole and Say’s phoebe.

The verdin, a yellow-headed cousin of the bushtit who frequents desert locations was a joy to behold as they foraged for insects in the bushes, along with black-throated sparrows – also a desert resident. In the early morning and evening the sky overhead was filled with lesser nighthawks feeding on nocturnal insects. After two days we were glad to head home. But Ed returned to Butterbredt Springs for some more solitary birding.


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