Anza-Borrego–Hawk Heaven

Swainson’s Hawk

On the last weekend of March, we drove over to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It’s about an hour and a half inland and another world. Part of the attraction is the April migration of scads of Swainson’s Hawks coming from as far south as Argentina and flying north to Canada and even the Arctic. They drop in here and feast on sphinx moth caterpillars to sustain their trip. The early Saturday report from Hal Cohen, the resident hawk expert, said 511 Swainson’s Hawks had landed on Friday night, so we were excited to see what was happening.

We drove to the viewing site on Borrego Valley Road, arrived by 9am and were rewarded by a sky filled with departing hawks. Some of them were right above the road, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high. We had never seen the Swainson’s so close, and there were kettles of them on all sides, some high, some low. Probably close to 200 taking off. They were all gone by 9:30, and Hal told us that approximately 2/3 of the hawks from Friday night had left.

Juvenile Prairie Falcon

We said we’d be back for the evening show and drove south to Hawk Valley, where we had seen a Prairie Falcon the year before. We got lucky and saw an adult, plus a juvenile falcon. And at least two Rock Wren for good measure.

The flowers were very good, but not as amazing as two years ago. Some of them are running late this year because of the evenly spaced rain. Some have probably already bloomed. They’ve had rain in the desert every month of the winter season. And some of the migrant birds are running late as well, but we still saw plenty of good stuff. Speaking of plenty, Laurel managed to take plenty of terrific pictures of the flowers that were there. Here’s a sample:

Desert Dandelion, Indigo Bush, Parish Poppy

Beavertail Cactus, State Park Visitor Center

Fishhook Cactus, Ocotillio and Teddybear Cholla, Desert Chicory

Saturday evening we drove to the viewing spot about 5:30 to wait for the evening hawks. About ten of us waited and watched, but nothing happened. Finally, at about 6:00, we spotted a couple of hawks on the horizon, passing the farthest peak to the southeast, which birders call “the pyramid.” Over the course of the next hour, a few more hawks arrived from the south and landed in a row of eucalyptus trees half a mile away.

Then at 7:00, in the cloudless blue-dusk sky above us, a hawk appeared, just about half a block away, and dropped down into the trees of the nearby date farm. We continued looking up, and, seemingly from nowhere, another bird materialized. Although we only ended with about 20 birds total for the evening, seeing these birds simply arrive from out of nowhere was a magical experience.  In reality, they were dropping down from about 8,000 feet, the elevation they achieve while migrating those thousands of miles north. On the following Thursday, Hal reported between 1,000 and 1,400 hawks. Timing is everything.

Sunset at Carlee’s

Joe and Julia Ensley, good friends from Seattle, visit Palm Springs every winter, and they drove up to join us and see what all the flowers and feathers are about. We had a great time Saturday night with them at Carlee’s, one of the best restaurants in Borrego.

A Word of Warning:
Sunday morning we hiked some of the trails down by Tamarisk Grove. Because of the rain, some of the trails have been crowded by shrubs and ground cover, as well as by flowers. We were hiking the Yaqui Well trail, and parts of it were narrowed by the growth. Fortunately, I was looking down at the ground and spotted a rattlesnake in the bushes next to the trail a few feet ahead of me. It had its head raised, looking at me, since I’m not the quietest hiker. I shouted “Snake,” to warn Laurel behind me, as well as another couple coming from the other direction. It dropped down and started to crawl away from the trail, and Laurel pounded her tripod on the ground, which sped it up. It had four segments on its tail. Once we got home, we looked it up, and it was a Red Diamond Rattlesnake less than two feet long.

We saw another animal we’d never seen which was far less alarming, a type of squirrel that looks a little like a chipmunk called a white-tailed antelope squirrel. We also saw some other good birds—here’s the list:

Ram’s Hill

We discovered a new place for lunch on Sunday, as well, to toast my first sighting ever of a rattlesnake on the trail. It’s called Ram’s Hill, and it’s a very fine complex of residences and a golf course with water features. The restaurant sits atop a slope, and its large covered patio has a gorgeous view of the golf course and the valley beyond.

On the way back to San Diego, we stopped in Ramona at an excellent local winery called Chuparosa, which is Spanish for hummingbird. They make several fine reds there, including a superb Cabernet Franc and a Zinfandel that’s worth taking home. They told us about another winery in the area called Woof ‘n Rose, an extremely dog-friendly place that also makes a very good Cabernet Franc.

 

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