I had been to Lake Hodges before - in April, 2008. I went with my Maryland birding friends, Steve and Mark, looking for California Thrasher and California Gnatcatcher. The area had had a severe wildfire in 2007 and most of the habitat was severely damaged for our visit. While we didn't see the thrasher or the gnatcatcher, I remember that we saw a lot of other good birds here, including Western and Clark's grebes - at the time, both life birds for me. It was an excellent opportunity to see the grebes side-by-side to evaluate their head field marks. (Unfortunately, I didn't start this blog until the October after that trip.)
This is a terrible photo of the White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) but it was a great experience. I heard some squabbling in the sky and looked up to see the kite acting as an aggressor toward a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The size difference was remarkable and the kite was the better flier.
I have another favorite bird. Here is my second life bird of the day and just a thrill be see. This California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) just sang and sang. That's how I found him. I was able to get quite close and he never did stop singing. I couldn't leave. I just stood there and watched and listened and took pictures. A completely charming bird.
Taking a rest from singing for just a moment. Look at that bill!
Even when the wind tossed him around he continued to sing.
Another view of Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). They're everywhere. Again, a poor photo, but the short, straight bill is clearly evident.
A distant California Towhee (Pipilo fuscus). These guys have a very loud, sharp call note that is unmistakable.
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) was calling and responded to my pishing by perching on this limb just long enough for me to take this photo. Its call is very similar to the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), but buzzier. Once I heard it, and saw who it belonged to, it was easy for me to hear the towhee.
While I did not get a photo, I did also see the California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) - my third life bird of the day.
Lake Hodges habitat seems to be recovering nicely from the 2007 wildfire. There were signs everywhere reminding visitors that important habitat rejuvenation was ongoing for sensitive breeding birds - meaning, I'm sure, the thrasher and the gnatcatcher. The area seems to attract many visitors, walkers primarily.
As I was returning to my car, I met a fellow on the trail who asked, "how does it look?" I said that I thought it looked great, thinking he meant the habitat re-growth following the fire. I explained that I was a visitor and didn't really know what the area looked like immediately following the fire. "Oh, I don't mean that," he replied. He was speaking of the 17 year old girl who was found buried in a shallow grave only a couple of days earlier. Apparently, she was abducted while jogging around the trails of Lake Hodges and the site of her shallow grave was at the lake's edge where I walked out to see if I could find the Virginia Rail that was calling. Earlier I had seen two women walking very slowly on the trail. They weren't birding and their deliberative pace made it clear they were not walking for exercise. At one point the women perched on the split rail fence and stared at the lake. Now it made sense to me. Walking on further, a television reporter and cameraman stopped two teenage girls to interview them. I thought back to the kid at the gas station who knew the directions to Lake Hodges. Again, it became clear to me. He probably thought I was interested in Lake Hodges to visit the scene of the crime. I was just there to see birds.