Birds of San Diego coastal scrub

2007 November 16
by David J. Ringer

CHANNELVIEW, TEXAS — I was in San Diego last week and the week before, and (in addition to birding the beach) I took several early-morning walks through residential San Diego and Florida Canyon on the northern edge of Balboa Park. I know very little about the avifauna of Southern California, unfortunately, so I was very interested to explore the common neighborhood birds, and the birds of remnant habitat in Florida Canyon.

I don’t normally organize posts in a list format, but I’m going to this time because I was curious about each species. I’ve made notes and observations about some species; life birds are in bold.

Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Western Gull — Seen in small numbers flying high overhead.
Rock Pigeon
Anna’s Hummingbird — These fiesty hummers were everywhere. Their sharp calls and buzzes were one of the common sounds. Males perched atop low shrubs, “singing” scratchy, insect-like songs while their gorgets and foreheads flashed deep iridescent pink. Spectacular!
Nuttall’s Woodpecker — For a bird I’d barely even heard of before this trip, I was impressed by the species’ classy looks. Nuttall’s Woodpeckers look similar to their desert kin, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, but they show a black (i.e., unbanded) upper back, and the male has less red on his crown.
Northern Flicker — Of the red-shafted variety.
Black Phoebe — Black Phoebes were fairly common, even in residential areas.
Say’s Phoebe
Cassin’s Kingbird — I observed and listened to a small foraging flock one day but didn’t see them again.
Western Scrub-Jay — Beautiful, intense colors but not exactly easy on the ears.
American Crow — Common, which seemed odd to me for some reason.
Common Raven — Had only one.
Bushtit — Common in large, loose foraging flocks with a sort of collective, tinkling call. Individual birds very active and acrobatic.
Bewick’s Wren
House Wren
California Gnatcatcher — Saw two birds, one at a range of about six feet. It seemed impossibly minuscule as it foraged in the scrub, just out of arm’s reach. White in the tail was extremely limited, seeming to occur only on the outer portion of the outermost rectrices. Call less harsh than the familiar (to me) Blue-gray call. I was very interested in the fact that the coastal scrub and chaparral hosts endemic species like California Gnatcatcher and Nuttall’s Woodpecker, which have similar counterparts in the desert (Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Ladder-backed Woodpecker). Towhees, thrashers, and quail are other examples of this phenomenon. Species like the California Gnatcatcher are threatened by extensive habitat destruction.
Hermit Thrush — Another species that I didn’t expect to see here, for some reason.
American Robin — Flight call sounded higher and shriller than eastern birds, but I don’t know if the variation is real or imaginary.
Wrentit — Yes! I didn’t know if I’d be able to get the enigmatic Wrentit, and after watching dozens of Bushtits, I didn’t know if I’d be able to identify one! But it wasn’t so difficult in the end. The first bird I saw was alone, moving slowly low in the brush. Its long tail was cocked, and subtle bill shape and body coloration contributed to the overall impression. I later saw two birds foraging in the same location. One of them pecked open a stem to extract a grub. They were silent.
Northern Mockingbird — Yes, they really do live everywhere.
California Thrasher — Nice-looking birds, and not as secretive as the book suggests. Scroll on down for a picture.
Orange-crowned Warbler
“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler — These yellow-chinned warblers were very abundant, noisy, and active. Their calls sounded on average less hard and dry than those of their eastern relatives.
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee — Common, slightly comical.
Fox Sparrow — One of the western races with a plain grayish head but rufous elsewhere.
White-crowned Sparrow — Present in small flocks.
Golden-crowned Sparrow — I kept scanning the white-crowns, hoping to find one of their western cousins. I finally did — it was feeding alone in a bush.
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch — Males with black caps and olive backs, unlike the black-backed birds I see in Texas.
House Sparrow


California Thrashers have impressive curved bills, blackish faces, and (not visible in this shot) orangey undertail coverts.


The scrub was alive with birds every morning — lots of sound and activity. Yellow-rumped Warblers, bushtits, flycatchers, woodpeckers, jays, and spectacular Anna’s Hummingbirds. I could get used to this! There also homeless men who sleep under the bushes, which was startling at first.


House Finches were common, and Lesser Goldfinches were present in smaller numbers. I was hoping for Lawrence’s Goldfinches, but I wasn’t in the right place to find them.


Most of the vegetation was dry and brown, but the cacti were plump and green.

Related posts:

  1. La Jolla: Birds of sea and shore
  2. Big river birds make for great CBC
  3. Xantus’s Murrelet and more on SoCal-Northern Baja pelagic trip
  4. Birds of Addis Ababa
  5. Solomon Islands birds

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