"I wish they all could be California Gulls"
by Ian Merrill
Sat 2 September
After 10 hours of screaming infants, second rate in-flight movies, and third rate airline food Dave Sewell, Pete Saunders, Paul Ganney and myself arrive in LA. It's 12.30pm. We are met at a ridiculously crowded Alamo hire car office by Chuck Almdale, our new friend (met by pure chance over the Internet), expert guide and superb host for the next few days. Immediately upsize our woefully inadequate hire car (five tons of camping/tea mashing equipment to accommodate) for a nice big Isuzu 4WD. I would add at this point how greatly indebted we all were to Chuck and his wife Lillian. They took in four smelly, jetlagged, birders who they'd never set eyes on before and provided the best introduction to California birding and hospitality that anyone could possibly have wished for.
Let the ticking commence! The Palos Verdes Peninsular is the first destination, for the first "common" seabirds: Heerman's and Western Gulls and Elegant Terns. Today's target, California Gnatcatcher, is soon sorted in a scrubby gully off Hawthorn Boulevard, along with Hooded Oriole, Allen's Hummingbird and California Towhee. Evening with Chuck and Lil, taking in their favourite Mexican Restaurant.
Sun 3 September
The day dawns again, this time in the Santa Monica Mountains, close to Chuck and Lil's home. California Thrasher, Wrentit, Pacific Slope Flycatcher and Nutall's Woodpecker are amongst the highlights of an excellent morning in the steep sided, Chaparral covered, hills of Temescal Canyon.
Afternoon at the Marina Del Ray. Strange area to go birding, but again very productive. Surfbird, Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler and Black Turnstone all on the breakwaters, with fantastic close views of the latter two. Elegant Terns, gulls and various waders at minimum camera focus.
Evening visit to Balboa Lake in the San Fernando Valley fails to produce Tricoloured Blackbird. The resident Ross's Goose, which the locals insist is genuine, looks decidedly plastic amongst the multicoloured ducks! Fine cuisine courtesy of Lil. Beers and much reminiscing.
Mon 4 September
East to the San Gabriel Mountains for our first real taste of Californian mountain birding. Crisp, pine scented, air and a clear, deep blue, sky. Chilao Visitors centre for Purple Finch, White-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller's Jay, California Quail etc., all chomping away happily, at the feeding station. Cameras blaze. Next on to Buckhorn Campsite where migrant warblers include Hermit, Townsend's, Black-throated Grey and Black-and-White. Also the only Cassin's Vireo of the trip and our first Brown Creeper.
A return trip to Chilao produces the target Mountain Quail, also ridiculously close, at the feeding station. Fond farewells and many thanks to Chuck and Lil, at the foot of the mountains, and a long drive west to camp at McGrath State Beach near Ventura Town. Pizzas in Ventura.
Tue 5 September
Early morning on wetlands south of Ventura. Western and Clarke's Grebes on the sea. Snowy and Semi-P Plovers, Spotted, Pectoral, Western and Least Sands, American Avocet, Least Tern, etc., etc.
Boat trip out to Santa Cruz Island very entertaining with Common Dolphin, Pink-footed Shearwater and Pomarine Skua all seen.
The endemic Island Scrub Jay actually ticked before we even get off the boat! Photographed at point-blank range after landing. Real smart big, bright blue, babies! Also Rufous Hummingbird and Willow Flycatcher on island.
Back on the mainland we drive east, as far inland as Gorman, and spent the night in a motel. Too dark and windy for camping!
Wed 6 September
Kick off at McGill Campsite, Mount Pinos. Clark's Nutcracker, "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow (a potential split), Cassin's Finch and generally loads of birds against a backdrop of dark mountain ranges punctuated by mist-shrouded valleys.
Over to Pine Mountain Club, our "Condor Spot". No massive raptors to be seen, but well worth a stop, as this is when we we're lucky enough to be invited in for a cuppa with Graham and Bev Heneghan. This chance encounter proves to be one of the best moves of the trip. Not only do they feed and water (and beer and whisky!) us for the rest of the morning, from their fantastic veranda overlooking the mountains (Golden Eagle added to their garden list!), they also ring a contact in the Fish and Wildlife Service who provides invaluable Condor information. Yet again we had been greeted with overwhelming kindness by a couple of brilliant folks who we'd only just met!
Armed with our revised Condor hotspot we speed off to the Sierra Madre Ridge. Coyote seen en route. The four-wheel drive proves to be a trump card here, as we pick our way up the steep dirt road into the majestic mountains. This was more like real Condor country!
Then comes our second stroke of good luck for the day. A distant truck spotted on the top of the ridge proves to be occupied by the Condor Man. Mike Stockton has been working on the Californian Condor reintroduction project for the last five years. An amazing larger-than-life character, Mike would have fitted the role of a Wild West Sheriff perfectly, and is an absolute mine of information on this fascinating subject. The quote of the trip is Mike's response to Dave's distant Osprey spotting, "Gewd eye boy"! He is currently radio tracking the birds but imagine the frustration at hearing the bleep of a radio tagged bird just a few miles away, but not being able to see it!
Mike tells us that if we return the next morning we have a good chance of seeing a Condor so, after ticking Sage Sparrow, we retire to a motel in New Cuyama.
Thur 7 September
A good start with a flock of 17 Yellow-billed Magpies on the drive to the base of the Ridge. Mike is already in position at the summit and we continue our fascinating Condor discussions. We are, however, abruptly interrupted at about 11.00 am, when a dark shape comes into view over a distant hillside. Within a matter of minutes no less than five adult Californian Condors are soaring as low as 40' above our heads!
If you don't know, Californian Condors had been reduced to a population of just 22 when a decision was taken to take the remaining birds into captivity in 1986. The ensuing captive breeding programme was highly successful and today there are approximately 160 birds either in captivity or spread across the three reintroduction sites in California and Arizona.
The birds which we saw had been in the wild for up to six years, and Mike informed us that they had been prospecting nest sites in 2000 and would hopefully make a full scale breeding attempt in 2001. Americans don't currently count them on their "ABA List", but for us they were certainly "bird of the trip" and well tickable!
Back down the mountain and over to Mil Potrero Campsite, where the caretakers have about 20 hummingbird feeders around their cabin. Fantastic views of dozens of Allen's, Anna's and Black-chinned Hummers.
We call back at Graham and Bev's to inform them of our "Condor Moment". They force us, entirely against our wills, to spend the evening with them sipping Sam Adams on the veranda as the sun sinks below Apache Saddle.
Fri 8 September
Wonderful home cooked breakfast courtesy of Bev. More fond farewells and another hour at Mil Potrero with the Hummers, but still no sign of Lawrence's Goldfinch.
Long drive down to the south east corner of the Salton Sea, not far north of the Mexican border. The huge windfarms in the valley south of LA made are an impressive, if somewhat eerie, sight. The "Sea" is a huge body of increasingly saline water created accidentally in 1905 when an irrigation project went wrong. Horrible messy, smelly place but absolutely teeming with birds.
Twenty odd Burrowing Owls perch on the roadside canal banks. Masses of gulls and waders on the lagoons near the Red Hill Marina. Yellow-footed Gulls picked out of the ranks of Ring-billed, California and Laughing. Black Skimmers, Black, Caspian and Forster's Terns. Wilson's Phalarope, both Yellowlegs, Black-winged Stilts, Long-billed Dowitchers. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, numerous Cinnamon Teal and American White Pelicans. Thousands of White-faced Ibises and "Bicoloured" Blackbirds flying in to roost. Single Wood Stork. Monster birdfest!! Night in motel in Calipatria. Moonlit swim in pool to end the day.
Sat 9 September
Dawn at Wister Unit HQ on shore of Sea. Abert's Towhee, Common Ground-Dove, Western Kingbird and numerous Verdins in the dry scrub. The lagoons and shallow margins of the Sea provide another huge congregation of birds. 30+ Yellow-footed Gulls, 1000 American Avocets, 500 Black-winged Stilts and every other wader you could think of. A flypast Pomarine Skua is a good record and a couple of the soon-to-be-split "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrows feeding at the waters edge are much appreciated.
A short drive down to the Ramer and Finney Lakes area is productive, with Gambel's Quail (voted "best looker" of the very impressive quail trio), Greater Roadrunner and Lesser Nighthawk added to the trip list.
By the time we arrive at Brawley it was starting to get hot! We do, however, manage to drag ourselves away from the air-con for long enough to see Gila Woodpecker, Inca and White-winged Doves and Eastern Kingbird.
It was now far too hot for productive birding, so we set off north. A brief stop at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve is fairly uneventful with Marsh Wren and Red-shouldered Hawk the highlights.
I have to admit that I had been getting quite psyched up about the next site. I had wanted to see a Joshua Tree for many years. This strange quest had been inspired in the main by the picture on the cover of the album of the same name. Well they didn't let me down. I personally found the scenery within the Joshua Tree National Park amongst the most inspiring of the whole trip.
We set up our tents in the fantastically situated Indian Cove Campground. A few miles down the road, along the main park entrance road, the bizarre forms of these unique trees are even more spectacular. Birding is also productive, with Black-throated Sparrow, Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Cactus Wren all being seen amongst the sparse cover. As the sun set behind the high desert mountains to the west the silhouetted forms of Joshua Trees accounted for rather too many rolls of film! Very pleasant evening in a bar in Joshua Tree Town.
Sun 10 September
Met at first light by Bill Truesdell, our "LeConte's Man" reached via e-mail contacts. Bill has previously worked for the Park, and his knowledge of the area's aviforna is second to none. With Bill's familiarity of specific territories, it only takes just over an hour to locate a pair of these superb birds. Once pinned down our LeConte's Thrashers perform magnificently, often perching in the open on top of Yuccas. Well worth the effort.
Brief check around the Visitor Centre and Mara Oasis at 29 Palms. A few migrant warblers, more Gambel's Quail, Black-throated Sparrow and Western Whiptail Lizard.
Long drive north uses up most of the rest of the day. Hot, but quite scenic, and taking in Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park. Brief photo stop at the lowest point in the USA (c280' below sea level). Air-con doing overtime!
Not long before dark we start to get amongst the splendid scenery of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. A skein of 23 White-fronted Geese flying south and a roadside, prey-plucking, Prairie Falcon are both surprises.
Night in motel at Big Pine where we find, to our horror, that all the restaurants close at 8.00 PM. Peanut butter sandwiches for dinner again!
Mon 11 September
Dawn at Crowley Lake. Cracking site, nestling in beautiful surroundings. Sage Thrasher and Sage Sparrow seen instantly. A grouse on the track 200 yards away causes panic. We drive down to the spot, walk into the Sagebrush and no less than 34 Sage Grouse fly out! They really are stunning birds, like a cross between a sandgrouse and a bustard, huge things with spiky tails and black bellies. As if that isn't enough we flush a Common Poorwill.
Drive over to Sherwin Road near Mammoth Lakes. The magpies here have black bills. That'll be the newly split Black-billed Magpie then. Tick! Sherwin Road is another magnificently scenic area of mixed woodland and meadows with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
Williamson's and Red-breasted Sapsucker are soon found, and American Robins seem to be everywhere. Small flocks are visibly migrating south. Great birding, and to make things even better the petrol stove has now been sorted out and we can have a brew! Isn't life great!
Back down the valley and east into the White Mountains. The Bristlecone Pine Forest here is the home of the world's oldest trees, some 3000 years. It also plays host to Juniper Titmouse, Mountain Bluebird,Grey Flycatcher and a flock of 80+ Pinyon Jays. We really are having quite a day!
A call in at Aspendell is slightly less exciting, with just Pine Siskin and Clay-coloured Sparrow to show for our troubles. Motel in Mammoth Lakes and a nice Mexican meal.
A few weeks before the trip there was a programme on television about bears in the Sierra Nevada. It described how Mammoth Lakes in the fall supported numbers of Black Bears which foraged in domestic refuse bins, just like a Red Fox may do in the UK! With this in mind I'd actually altered the itinerary to include a night in Mammoth.
After our tacos, Paul and myself spend a good hour touring hotel back yards and RV parks in search of the said beasts. We see nothing and decide to give it up as a bad job. I drop Paul off at the motel and nip down to a telephone kiosk to ring home.
So there I am happily chatting away to Louise, on the towns main thoroughfare, and a Black Bear walks past me! I can't imagine ever having a more animated telephone conversation.
The call is abruptly cut short and I follow the bear, which is a huge adult, up a side street. I relocate it walking across a hotel car park. It's as big as a Mini! It walks down an alleyway and continues to rummage in various bins, at times only 30' away. At one point it nudges an old sofa out of the way like a matchbox, before it performs its party piece. It walks up to a hotel's front entrance and nudges the swing doors open with its nose! It doesn't actually go in, but would have caused a terrible fright to an unsuspecting guest.
Absolutely amazing. It takes me ages to get to sleep.
Tue 12 September
Dawn at Mono Lake. All quiet at our Lewis's Woodpecker stakeout. Down to the South Tufa Towers, an area of fascinating beauty. Where freshwater springs bubble up through the salty water of the lake, limestone spires are precipitated. When the water level drops, the strange formations are left standing proud of the lake. Well worth a visit on scenic grounds alone, but also an excellent birding spot in its own right.
Sage Thrasher and Sparrow around the boardwalk, along with Rock Wren and Bullock's Oriole.Bald Eagle overhead and probably 1000 Red-necked Phalaropes spinning amongst the myriad's of flies attracted to the saline water. Numerous California Gulls at this, their main breeding site.
Stock up on camping provisions at Lee Vining, then west and into Yosemite National Park. Yosemite had quite a reputation to live up to. Scenically, it has to be said that it does contain some of the finest vistas imaginable. But if you long for peace and solitude, this is definitely not the place for you. The secret is already out and most of California descends on the roads, viewpoints and campgrounds at every opportunity.
Birding along Tioga Road, between the park entrance and Crane Flat. Numerous Red-breasted Nuthatches, Townsend's Solitaire, Golden-crowned Kinglet and a very brief Black-backed Woodpecker. Set up basecamp at Crane Flat Campground. Pair of American Dippers on the Merced River in the Valley. Up to McGurk meadow for the first futile attempt at Great Grey Owl. Scary walk through the woods, back to the car, in the dark. At the campsite we have the now traditional supper of peanut butter sandwiches. Food stashed in the bear-proof metal box, thoughtfully provided at each pitch, and into the tent. No matter how full your bladder got, you weren't going out amongst the bears!
Wed 13 September
First light at Glacier Point. Breathtaking views eclipsed by three Blue Grouse wandering around the Visitors Centre. The 500mm lens proves too big and I have to move back to fit the whole bird in. Amazing! They are supposed to be real skulkers that no one ever sees!
We visit a few other sites, but nothing else amazing seen. Call at Yosemite Village which I would not recommend to anyone. Tourist City!
Back up to Tioga Road. Good selection of woodpeckers including three Lewis's, a pair of Pileated, party of four Williamson's Sapsuckers and an even briefer Black-backed Woodpecker. Small flocks of Mountain Quail, Vaux's Swifts and Band-tailed Pigeons.
Tonight's owl dip is performed at Chevron Meadow. Back to the campground again, but this time with a nice raging campfire! (To keep the wild animals away?!)
Thur 14 September
A fine start, with two female Pine Grosbeaks on top of a pine at White Wolf. Things get even better at Siesta Lake. A flock of seven Pine Grosbeaks including three cracking pink males.
Lewis's Woodpeckers again on the Tioga Road, along with a large flock of Pine Siskins and a number of Fox Sparrows. Interestingly the Foxes have noticeably smaller bills than the Mt Pinos birds.
Tent demolition produces a bonus Hammond's Flycatcher in the Crane Flat Campground. Decide to stay till dark so that we can complete the owl dipping hat-trick. Tonight's venue: Crane Flat meadow. Only Lincoln's Sparrow for our troubles. Very predictable. Night in motel in Manteca.
Fri 15 September
Dawn at Mines Road, south of Livermore. Wonderfully confiding Yellow-billed Magpies at the start on the road, and two flocks of Wild Turkeys.
Breakfast time at Del Valle Lake State Park. Superb adult Bald Eagle and our first Chestnut-backed Chickadees are the highlights of this very good site.
Mines Road is also very productive. Dozen's of Acorn Woodpeckers. A huge brown tarantula crossing the road stops the traffic. Just as it's starting to get hot and hopes are fading, bingo! Four Lawrence's Goldfinches beside the road, including a stonking adult male.
Del Puerto Canyon provides Canyon Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. San Antonio Valley Road has more Yellow-billed Magpies, a Prairie Falcon and some magnificent scenery as the road snakes east over the Diablo Range.
Terrible Friday night traffic jams on the freeway south towards Monterey are enlivened by a dog in a pickup wearing mirrored sunglasses. This is California! Night at a somewhat overpriced private campground near Watsonville as both State Beach options are full up.
Sat 16 September
Dawn at Moonglow Dairy. Thick fog makes a brew and a protracted breakfast the favourite option, but not before we've ticked Tricoloured Blackbird, the last of our real Californian target species.
The fog lifts and we can actually see where we are. Moonglow is a working dairy farm, and a favourite spot for Tricoloured Blackbird (just like it says in the field guide). The owners are good enough to allow access to the site, and the excellent wetlands adjoining the Elkhorn Slough. Amongst the many waders found here are seven Pectoral and two Baird's Sandpipers.
Monterey is the next destination, essentially to catch up with Sea Otter, another of our mammalian targets. Monterey Harbour and Fisherman's Wharf are great places. They are in part a working fishing harbour, part a high class yacht mooring venue, as well as being a major tourist attraction.
A Sea Otter is found immediately. It rolls and grooms just feet from the quay and attracts a large audience. This unusual activity is apparently done to help trap air in the animals fur, for insulation purposes. Needless to say, more rolls of film disposed of.
Also brilliant close views of Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Californian Sealion and more Sea Otters. Night at the Carbonero Creek Campground, just north of Santa Cruz.
Sun 17 September
The Big Day! None of us had ever been on a pelagic trip before (I certainly don't think that standing with 200 brits on the Scillonian, stringing albatrosses, qualifies), and we didn't really know what to expect. Pete had taken/applied every anti-seasickness product known to man and we'd all been out and purchased extra film.
Sunny day, blue sky, not much wind. Good start. Only just out of the harbour and we are off. Four Marbled Murrelets close to the boat. Excellent.
Next came the first of 200 or so Rhinocerous Auklets, some close enough to see their horns! By now Sooty Shearwaters were passing by in an almost constant stream.
Someone spots a blow and we are soon watching our first Humpback Whale. Superb creatures. We see a total of eleven on the trip, blowing, diving, raising flukes - the works!
"Albatross!". Black-footed right past the boat! (followed by another five during the course of the trip). I love albatrosses, and these are as good as any. Immense long, slender wings, seemingly never flapped as they shear over the waves. These birds actually breed on the Hawaiian Islands, and are such masters of flight that they make their way across to the Californian Coast to fish, then return to Hawaii to feed their offspring.
Suddenly dolphins are everywhere. The official trip count was 679 Pacific White-sided Dolphins. They are jumping and diving in every direction, often right next to the boat. Some even leap clear of the water and perform somersaults! Brilliantly patterned black and grey flank markings distinguish this species from the smaller numbers of Northern Rightwhale Dolphin, whose flanks were all dark, and who also lack a dorsal fin.
A bizarre Ocean Sunfish swims by, like a huge, finned, dustbin lid. Pink-footed Shearwaters became more numerous, and a number of Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers harass the gulls behind the boat. Further out petrels became evident. Large numbers of Ashy Storm-Petrels, a few Black Storm-Petrels and a single Wilson's.
Cassin's Auklet completes the alcid set, and the first Buller's Shearwater, with it's superbly patterned grey and black upperwing, causes a stir on deck.
"That blow looks interesting". The boat speeds off in pursuit, then we wait for the whale in question to emerge. "Blue Whale, 11 o'clock. There's two of them!" Amazing. We are watching the largest living creature on the planet! The huge vertical blow of spray (it can reach 12m high!), light blue-grey colour, immense length and tiny dorsal fin are all diagnostic.
Though dull in comparison, the seabirdfest continues. Nineteen Sabine's Gulls, a couple of Northern Fulmars and the final tick of the trip, a single Short-tailed Shearwater.
Absolutely excellent trip! Brilliant views of everything, very professional organisation, great guides and no-one sick!
Back on dry land, we head north towards San Francisco. Ano Nuevo State Reserve covers some superb coastline just south of SF. It also hosts an Elephant Seal colony and is therefore well worth a late evening visit. Although the adult bulls are absent until early winter, the sight of about 200 of these huge mammals hauled up on the beach is very inspiring. Some of the young bulls present have already started to develop "trunks", and rear up in mock battle. Also Black Oystercatcher and Pigeon Guillemot.
Brilliant sunset over the Pacific as we drive north on the famously scenic Highway 1. Great Horned Owl on a roadside telephone wire at dusk is a bonus.
Through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, ending up in a motel in San Rafael.
Mon 18 September
Early morning at Bolonas Lagoon on the coast. After some searching, two very confiding Virginia Rails are found on the inlet stream. Also Wrentit, Downy Woodpecker and "Belding's" Savannah Sparrow.
North to Point Reyes headland to check out the migrants. Western Meadowlarks and Tricoloured Blackbirds en route, Pacific Divers and Surf Scoters at the Fish Docks.
Most of the day birding around the various migrant hotspots, Nunes Ranch, The Fish Docks and The Lighthouse. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Townsend's and Black-throated Grey Warblers, a stunning male Northern Parula, and the biggest rarity (less than annual) a superb adult female Canada Warbler.
Also Swainson's Thrushes, Pacific Slope and Willow Flycatchers, dozens of White-crowned Sparrows and what is amazingly the trip's only American Goldfinch. Much controversy aroused when we decide that the Pine Warbler (mega CA rarity) is actually a Blackpoll!
Abbot's lagoon last thing in desperate attempt for reported Glaucous-winged Gull, the only major hole in the trip list. Predictably we fail, but do see Wrentit, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks and Striped Skunk.
Stop at a posh restaurant in Olema to treat ourselves to a slap-up meal. Barbecued Oysters and Swordfish. Wonderful! Back to motel to pack.
Tue 19 September
Felt obliged to have a quick look at Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Lots of big nets, not many birds and some less than competent ringers. Close views of a few distressed birds in the hand. Wrentit, Lincoln's Sparrow etc.
Back to Drake's Beach for a last shot at the gull. Success! Two adult Glaucous-winged Gulls standing on the beach with the other regulars. Loads of photos (no point in taking film back to the UK!). How nice of them to let us have a tick on the last morning!
Quick look at Nunes Ranch, say goodbye to the Canada Warbler, and pull in a "Wilson's" Snipe.
South to the airport, obligatory photostop at Golden Gate Bridge, some traffic jams and a couple of wrong turns and that's it. Rainy Heathrow here we come.