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December 31, 2020

My birding and photography highlights for 2020

This narrative account accompanies a selection of forty photos compiled in a Flickr album. I suggest opening this nice Flickr album viewer in a separate window and advancing the photos along with the narrative.

2020 Favorites


While 2020 was disruptive and disappointing in so many ways, birding and bird photography was both an anchor to normalcy and an escape from daily news that helped make the year pass. Without any travel, I saw few new species, but found a renewed appreciation for the wildlife close to home—in San Diego, in my local patch, and especially in my own yard. By the numbers, I gained only two new “life bird” species, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Cape May Warbler, both very rare in San Diego and both conveniently represented by long-staying individuals. I added just four species to my county list (Red-footed Booby and Buller’s Shearwater), but I added fifteen new species to my yard list owing to daily attention during the first coronavirus lockdown which conveniently coincided with spring migration. This selection of photos represents some highlights of the year—photographs I am especially pleased with as well as special birding moments.

(1) An exciting bird for the new year was a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one of two individuals I managed to see this year representing a species thattypically winters only in the eastern half of the U.S. (2) Later in the year, another sapsucker was this brilliantly-plumaged Red-breasted Sapsucker, a member of the nominate ruber subspecies that doesn’t migrate as far south as members of the other subspecies. In fact, this intrepid individual is the southernmost ruber individual documented in eBird, and an illustration that birding can sometime be about getting to know birds as unique individuals, not just as interchangeable representatives of their species category.

In the pre-lockdown early spring, local destinations provided a (3) Tricolored Blackbird, an endangered bird near-endemic to California and suffering from massive habitat loss, (4) an always-photogenic Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a flower I hadn’t seen before (5) Shooting Star, because it blooms only very early in the season.

Then lockdown began and so I focused my birding and photography on the yard, and a bit up and down our residential street. I submitted eBird lists almost daily from late-March through mid-May, spanning a great spring migration and yielding twelve new species for the yard—indicative primarily of having not paid closer attention during migration which also aligns with the busy academic semester. Some of the new yards birds to appear were (6) Common Yellowthroat, (7) Western Tanager, and my favorite (8) Lawrence’s Goldfinch, which dropped in only for a few minutes to pick at the feeble tufts of grass in the cracks of the asphalt, bypassing the native garden I’ve cultivated over many years to attract birds!

(9) Because what would spring be without photographing a Hooded Oriole? And there’s always some breeding in and around the yard. This year, some (10) Black Phoebes put on a show. Insects were also in abundance, and I observed many species of butterfly that I hadn’t seen previously in the yard, including this (11) Common Buckeye. A (12) Marine Blue butterfly in flight was a lucky shot, and Supeena and I spent some time watching this curious (13) California Mantis. (14) This Orange-crowned Warbler enjoys taking a bath on the wet leaves of our citrus trees just after I hose them off, and seeing a (15) California Towhee napping in a carefully-chosen corner of our garden lets us know that some birds do take naps in the middle of the day! And indeed, choosing a safe spot to nap is essential, because predators are always about, like this (16) Cooper’s Hawk that came in to the bird bath—just for a drink, this time.

As parks began to re-open, I returned to birding around, cautiously at first. And up to now, although I have taken a few longer drives in the county, I have decided to focus most of my birding efforts inside my “5-mile radius”, a bird-locally concept meant at least in part to reduce fossil fuel consumption, and I passed on chasing some especially good rarities that showed up in the mountains and desert. Nice moments were (17) a hungry migrating Townsend’s Warbler, (18) a young Black-chinned Hummingbird in the nest, (19) a juvenile Ash-throated Flycatcher, (20) White-tailed Kite, and (21) a Velvet Ant, which is actually a wasp. For a change and some fresh ocean air, Supeena and I went to Imperial Beach where we had this (22) handsome Whimbrel, and it is always fun to see (23) young Least Terns which nest on the open dunes.

In September, my one pelagic trip of the year was a doosey, giving me new birds for my San Diego list, (24) Buller’s Shearwater, and (25) Red-footed Booby. Not one but two especially rare (26) Buff-breasted Sandpipers were a sweet harbinger of a good fall migration—one of which was cooperative for photos. Other special migrant highlights were a (27) Blackburnian Warbler, (28) Prairie Warbler, (29) Myrtle Wabrlers which appeared to be in every park near me, and my other life bird (30) Cape May Warbler, a drab individual especially hard to see and to photograph. But fortunately, this long-staying bird was more cooperative and I got this photo just two days before the new year.

While most of these rare birds were found by others, I was pleased to be the finder of this (31) Dickcissel in a local neighborhood school yard. A side-effect of schools being closed means being able to access some open spaces that would ordinarily be closed to the public. This (32) Black-and-white Warbler was nice to see during the San Diego Christmas Bird Count, after many years of not seeing one.

When we moved into our house in 2012, Western Bluebirds were one of the first species I noticed. But after that they disappeared—until this fall when they returned in force! Now there is a group of about eight that come to the yard every day to forage for bugs. Here’s one (33) on the garage roof, where it can scope out the yard.

Finally, out-and-about in the fall I enjoyed nice photographic moments with an unusually bold (34) Common Ground Dove that strolled towards me rather than flying away which is what they usually do when they sense a person, (35) Rufous-crowned Sparrow, (36) California Gnatcatcher, (37) Gray Flycatcher, and (38) Northern Rough-winged Swallow in flight. Returning to the theme of celebrating birds as individuals, I spent more time getting to know the messy subspecific groups of (39) Dark-eyed Junco thanks in part to this well-camouflaged ssp. cismontanus individual in Balboa Park, which I scouted for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Onward to 2021,with the eager optimism of these (40) Dunlin and Western Sandpiper!


Christopher Adler, University of San Diego Music Program, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, 92110-2492

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