This trip was undertaken by Michael, Anne and Stephen Howarth. None of us had visited California before, although we have been to Arizona and Texas. We were self-guided throughout and hence probably missed a few things. Information about birding sites and accommodation was mostly found either through the books mentioned at the end of the report or from the internet (details also at the end of the report). Detailed directions are only given for sites not covered in either of the books.
Itinerary & Sites Visited
Friday 15 March: Arrived at Los Angeles International Airport mid afternoon. Picked up car and transferred to Inn at Playa Del Rey nearby. This hotel is located adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands. It can be reached by taking Culver Boulevard south west from Interstate 405. The Inn is on the right as you enter Playa del Rey and the entrance to the Ballona Wetlands is adjacent. Arrived at hotel shortly before dusk so no time for birding. Only five species seen including a Brown Pelican flying past distantly.
Saturday 16 March: Up early for a pre-breakfast walk from the hotel to the fringes of the Ballona Wetlands. The wetlands were largely dried up but there was plenty of activity in the scrubby fringes. In the open areas there were very large numbers of Western Meadowlarks with many Savannah Sparrows and a couple of Say's Phoebes also present. Amongst the more notable species in or around the bushes were Anna's Hummingbird, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Spotted Towhee, Lincoln's Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow. Most of the species seen were found regularly throughout the trip but this was a good introduction to them.
Much of the afternoon was taken up by a trip into downtown Los Angeles where the only birds of note were a pair of unidentified parakeets which flew past. On returning to Playa del Rey we drove further along Culver Boulevard and then turned tight onto Pacific Avenue to the mouth of the Ballona Creek and Marina del Rey (south side). By now it was very windy but the rocks along the Ballona Creek close to the bridge were very productive (possibly because birds were sheltering from the wind). The best stretches seemed to be on the landward side of the bridge, although there were also many birds on the seaward side. Species on the rocks included Brown Pelican, Black Oystercatcher, Willet, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy and Black Turnstones, Surfbird, Sanderling, Heerman's, Western, California and Glaucous-winged Gulls and Caspian and Forster's Terns. On the water of the creek and marina were Western and Clark's Grebes, Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Surf Scoter and Bufflehead. We also stopped briefly at the adjacent lagoon where the only notable new species were Lesser Scaup and Belted Kingfisher.
In total we saw 53 species during the day.
Sunday 17 March: Another pre-breakfast walk produced mostly the same species as the previous day. On leaving Playa del Rey we headed towards Orange County. First stop was at Huntington Central Park. The trees within the park were full of birds, although a frustratingly large proportion of them were Yellow-rumped Warblers. Nevertheless we eventually managed to find a good range of other species including Allen's Hummingbird, Downy Woodpecker, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Cedar Waxwing and Townsend's Warbler.
Our next stop was at Upper Newport Bay. This is an excellent wetland site and we saw a wide variety of shorebirds and waterbirds. Amongst the best were large numbers of Grebes, including a displaying pair of Clark's, Brown Pelican, Blue-winged, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, Elegant Tern and about 50 Black Skimmers.5 This is an excellent wetland site and we saw a wide variety of shorebirds and waterbirds. Amongst the best were large numbers of Grebes, including a displaying pair of Clark's, Brown Pelican, Blue-winged, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, Elegant Tern and about 50 Black Skimmers. Hawks included Osprey. We searched through the area for California Gnatcatcher without success, perhaps because the wind was getting up again with most birds disappearing into cover. We did find our first California Towhees, however.
Final birding stop of the day was at San Joaquin Wildlife Reserve. The pools here contained plenty of birds but few new ones. There were very large numbers of Swallows, predominantly Tree and Cliff but including some Barn and Rough-winged. In amongst them were a few White-throated Swifts. The only other notable bird was a Northern Harrier.
In total we saw 78 species for the day, bringing the trip list to 92.
Monday 18 March: Most of the day was spent in the San Gabriel Mountains, the northern edge of the Los Angeles Basin. The previous evening we had been caught in a heavy downpour and we soon discovered that in the mountains it had fallen as snow. In some places there was still snow on the windy and slightly treacherous road. For this reason we didn't get quite as high as we would have liked.
Our first stop was at a random roadside pullout opposite a small canyon. In the canyon were a number of Towhees and Sparrows, including our first Golden-crowned. We next moved on to the Switzer Picnic Area where the sheltered canyon was quite cold and a little windy. Few birds were in evidence but they did include a noisy Oak Titmouse close to the parking lot, Lesser Goldfinch and White-breasted Nuthatch.
Next we decided to move straight up to the Chilao visitor's centre, from where we could decide whether we should go any higher. When we got there we found that the entrance road was closed so we parked up nearby and walked in. Close to the entrance gate we found a pair of Nuttall's Woodpeckers. The lack of footprints told us we were the first (and possibly only) visitors of the day. Perhaps for this reason or perhaps because of the feeding station there were plenty of birds around. Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos were everywhere. In the trees around were several Steller's Jays and Acorn Woodpeckers, competing to see which could make the most noise. A small group of Band-tailed Pigeons flew off as we approached the visitor's centre but luckily they returned later and gave reasonable views high up in the trees. We took a short walk up the hill behind the visitor's centre and were rewarded with excellent views of a White-headed Woodpecker. Unfortunately, there was little food remaining at the feeding station so there was no sign of the hoped for Mountain Quails.
We decided that the snow was too much to risk driving any higher up the mountain so we headed back down to Charlton Flats. This proved to be rather quiet, perhaps because of the snow. Just about the only new bird was Pygmy Nuthatch. Having made a couple more stops on the way down the mountains we headed towards Palmdale, where we were to spend the night. Before heading for the hotel, we stopped off at Palmdale Lake. This is a private lake on the edge of town, apparently owned by a shooting club. However, it can be viewed, somewhat distantly, from the adjacent park and ride lot. From there we could see, amongst other things, Clark's Grebe (which was to prove to be the last of the trip), American White Pelican, Violet-green Swallow and the only Great-tailed Grackles of the trip.
In total we saw 44 species for the day and the trip list rose to 108.
Tuesday 19 March: First stop today was at an area behind the Palmdale County Club (adjacent to Avenue O) which was supposed to hold Le Conte's Thrashers. We didn't see any of them and there were few other birds apart from numerous White-crowned Sparrows. However, we did find our fist California Quails and, in the trees on the edge of the country club, a Verdin. Frustratingly, we caught sight of a falcon, almost certainly Prairie Falcon, as it flew away but it was too distant to be sure.
Next we headed North West through the Antelope Valley. This is renowned as a good area for raptors but we saw few and none of any real note. We stopped at a few places hoping to see Burrowing Owls and eventually we stuck lucky finding one some distance away close to the junction of Avenue I and 120th Street West. We tried to approach closer but it soon ducked down into its burrow.
Next stop was at a lake known as Holiday Lake towards the Western end of the valley. The description of this site in Schram was not particularly encouraging but it proved to be an excellent spot. The main reason for visiting was as a possible Tricoloured Blackbird site and, sure enough, there were good numbers present, although the males were vastly outnumbered by the females. However, the trees surrounding the pond were alive with birds. These were predominantly common species such as Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch and Song Sparrow. However, they did include Fox Sparrow and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. At one point we flushed a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron from the reeds.
From here we headed west towards Mount Pinos. We stopped at a gas station adjacent to Highway 5 which proved to be a good decision as we saw our first (of many) Brewer's Blackbirds. Mount Pinos had also seen a new fall of snow but the road was completely clear so we made it right to the top of the road. Before heading to the top we stopped at McGill Campground. Once again we were the only visitors beyond the shut entrance gates. This time, however, there were few birds around, except for numerous Red Crossbills. Occasionally we glimpsed birds flying over which must have been Clark's Nutcrackers and when we returned to the car we finally saw one perched, albeit distantly.
We then proceeded to the top of the road where there is a large parking lot. There were more people here but, unfortunately, few more birds. We saw more Nutcrackers, this time a little closer, and several Band-tailed Pigeons flew over. The snow here was at least six inches deep in places which made walking rather difficult. Therefore, we decided to head downwards and towards our overnight stay in Taft.
On the way down we stopped at a small roadside campsite called Valle Vista. Once again this didn't look very promising but proved to be full of birds. Again the majority were common species but we did see a couple of new ones, Western Bluebird and Purple Finch. When we reached Taft we decided to pay a brief visit to the Le Conte's Thrasher site on Petroleum Club Road between there and Maricopa. This is not the most pleasant site in the world and we had no luck on this occasion. We had a probable Thrasher singing a long way off but it flew before we could get close enough to see it clearly.
We saw 52 species in the day and the trip list now stood at 124.
Wednesday 20 March: Up at 6am for the short journey back to the Le Conte's Thrasher site. After about 45 minutes and a couple of false alarms we finally got very good views of a singing male on a ridge close to the road. Earlier we had seen what was almost certainly another bird but it was in silhouette. However, whilst searching we also found a single Sage Sparrow.
We returned to Taft for breakfast and to collect supplies for lunch since we were heading into fairly remote territory for much of the day. The first area was the Carrizo Plain. Like the Antelope Valley this area is known to be good for raptors. On this occasion we did a little better with distant views of Ferruginous Hawk and Golden Eagle amongst the numerous Red-tails. However, the best birds we found were terrestrial. The first of these were Burrowing Owls. We spotted a pair of them sat by their burrow quite close to the road about a mile north of the junction of Soda Lake Road and Seven Mile Road. Having watched these for a while we began to move off and then spotted another Owl even closer to the road. This one was within a fenced off area. Having showed really well it then proceded to fly short distances a couple of times but remained in clear view. These birds were also still in view when we passed by on the way back up the valley.
We continued along Soda Lake Road as far as the Soda Lake, which was dried up. Whilst we stretched our legs a very large flock of Long-billed Curlews passed overhead and landed near the edge of the lake. The flock consisted of perhaps 500 birds. As we returned towards the main road we spotted a bird perched on roadside wires. This turned out to be a female Mountain Bluebird and was one of about ten in a small flock, only one of which was an adult male. This was rather a surprise since these winter visitors are supposed to have left the area by this time.
We left the Carrizo Plain and headed towards the coast. We made a couple of stops along the way. The first, and longest, was at the junction with the Pozo Road. This is supposed to be a site for Lewis's Woodpecker but we didn't see any. There were lots of commoner birds around but the best bird seen was a Barn Owl which flew into some trees by the ranch house, causing much commotion amongst the other birds.
The remainder of the drive was through rolling countryside with little bird activity apparent until we got close to Santa Margarita Shortly before we reached the town we spotted our first Yellow-billed Magpies. Shortly afterwards we found a place to stop and saw several more Magpies. About half a mile further down the road we saw a Woodpecker fly across the road in front of us and land on a telegraph pole. Unfortunately, we couldn't stop so we continued to the bottom of the road and turned back. Luckily the bird was still on the same pole and it turned out to be a Lewis's. It flew off a short distance onto another pole and was joined by another. Unfortunately, the nature of the road meant that we only got brief views.
From here we continued on to Morro Bay and checked into our hotel. We then headed off to Morro Rock. We parked in the parking lot on the left just before the rock and as we got out of the car noticed three California Sea Otters just offshore. These animals were close enough to be photographed easily (and plenty of people were taking advantage). The whole area was also littered with Squirrels. On the rock we saw a couple of Canyon Wrens, one of them a singing male and good numbers of nesting Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants. There were few birds of note in the Bay itself, although we did see the first Common Murres of the trip. On the sea we saw the only Red-throated Loon of the trip.
As the light faded we headed round to Morro Bay State Park on the other side of the bay. There were reasonable numbers of waders and many wildfowl in the bay, including good numbers of Brant. However, the two best birds were both raptors, a Red-shouldered Hawk which posed nicely, despite the light and a Peregrine which flew into trees by the parking lot as we returned to the car. This was presumably one of the birds which nest on the rock.
Overall we saw 76 species during the day and the trip list rose to 144.
Thursday 21 March: We started the day with another trip to Morro Bay State Park. Many of the same birds were present on the bay but there was little of note. We moved on to Montana de Oro State Park a few miles further south. We parked by the park headquarters and almost immediately there were a number of small birds around, one of which turned out to be a male Lawrence's Goldfinch which gave us a brief song. Crossing the road to view the sea we found a number of Pigeon Guillemots in the cove below, along with a few loons and grebes. As we watched them a Red-tailed Hawk came and perched in a tree close by and watched us carefully, even flying past us quite aggressively once. Perhaps it was after the Towhees and Sparrows which were feeding close by. As we walked away it did the same to a party of schoolchildren. We took a walk down to and around the campground. There were good numbers of finches around and we also found Nuttall's Woodpecker and a mixed flock which included some Chestnut-backed Chickadees.
Leaving Montana de Oro we headed inland and up Highway 101 towards Monterey. We made one stop en-route at the Pinnacles National Monument. The scenery here is stunning and the birds turned out to be pretty good too. We walked from the parking lot along the Balcony Trail towards the caves at the base of the cliffs. Along the way we got brief views of a Wrentit and rather better ones of a singing California Thrasher. Perhaps surprisingly this was to be the only one we saw (except for a couple of probables seen from the car). However, our main target here was Prairie Falcon and in the end we got good views of a pair as they circled above the cliffs. There were also good numbers of White-throated Swifts in the area.
From here we headed back to Highway 101 and then on to Monterey, which was to be our base for the next four nights. We got stuck in heavy traffic on the way into Monterey which meant it was virtually dark when we got there.
The day's total was 68 species and the trip list now stood at 152.
Friday 22 March: Today was spent mostly doing the touristy things in Monterey. The first of these was to go out on a whale-watching boat trip. This set off at 9am and lasted for about two and a half hours. Before even getting on the boat we had seen numerous California Sea Lions in the harbour. Since the trip was aiming to see whales it was slightly frustrating as we steamed past the birds. However, we did see numerous loons, both Pacific and Common, cormorants, mostly Brandt's but a few Pelagic and gulls. There were also plenty of Pigeon Guillemots close to shore and further out there were many Common Murres. At one point we saw a group of about 10 Rhinoceros Auklets and on another occasion had a pair of probable Ancient Murrelets but they disappeared from view before we could be sure. No tubenoses were seen. We did also successfully see a few Grey Whales, one of which showed quite nicely close to the boat.
The afternoon was spent at Monterey Bay Aquarium which is well worth a visit and has a small exhibit containing a selection of waders. However, no notable wild birds were seen.
We only saw 27 species today, the lowest total of the trip and only two were new.
Saturday 23 March: For once the weather was duller with a bit of rain around as we left Monterey, heading south towards the Big Sur coast. We stopped at the Andrew Molera State Park about 25 miles south of Monterey. Here we walked from the parking lot to the mouth of the Big Sur River. Because of the weather there were fewer birds about than might have been expected. The best area seemed to be around the campground where we found Hairy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Rufous, Allen's and Anna's Hummingbirds and Wilson's Warbler. At the mouth of the river were small numbers of gulls, cormorants and wildfowl.
From here we headed north past Monterey towards the Elkhorn Slough area. First stop was at Zmudowski State Beach. This can be reached along Struve Road on the left hand side of Highway 1 about two miles north of Moss Landing. The ponds behind the beach held good numbers of ducks, including a small group of Canvasbacks. There were also a few waders, including good views of both Western and Least Sandpipers. There were also large numbers of Swallows, mostly Tree and a Peregrine flew through.
From here we made several stops in the vicinity of Elkhorn Slough, including Moss Landing Wildlife Area and the approach to Moss Landing State Beach. There were large numbers of waders, wildfowl, grebes, cormorants and loons but little of any note. By the time we reached the main visitors centre the weather was deteriorating further and it was only shortly before it was due to close so we decided to cut the day short and return to Monterey.
The total number of species seen in the day was 82, the highest total of the trip, but only five were new.
Sunday 24 March: An early start today for one of the main events of the trip, a pelagic trip organised by Shearwater Journeys. This started at 7am and lasted until 3pm. We were slightly fortunate to be able to take part in this trip because it was only organised because of a birding convention which was meeting in Monterey at the time. We were on one of two boats.
The trip turned out to be much better than we could have imagined. It started slowly as we left the harbour and headed out through Monterey Bay. Most of the birds seen at this stage were the same as those from the whale-watching trip two days before. However, as we approached the deeper water we began seeing occasional alcids, mostly Common Murres but including a few Rhinoceros Auklets and one or two Cassin's Auklets. At this stage we received a call from the other boat who had picked up a school of dolphins. When we arrived a proportion of them, perhaps between 50 and 100 crossed to our boat, a truly breathtaking sight.
The two boats then separated again and after a while we eventually found a feeding flock of birds, predominantly gulls but including a number of tubenoses, most notably Black-footed Albatross but also including Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters. Short-tailed Shearwater was also seen from the boat but none of us saw it. All the time there were large numbers of gulls at the rear of the boat. These were predominantly Western and California but included occasional Glaucous-winged, Heerman's and Black-legged Kittiwake. There were also a couple of possible Thayer's Gulls but we never got a convincing view.
Having taken our fill of the flock we headed onwards. Shortly after we received another call from the other boat and sped off in their direction. Shortly before we arrived the reason was revealed, they had got a Laysan Albatross. Sure enough as we approached the bird appeared and eventually moved closer and closer before eventually alighting almost alongside the boat. Stunning views of a most impressive bird. For much of the rest of the trip there were Albatrosses in view, mostly Black-footed but usually including a Laysan. There were reckoned to be at least two different Laysans involved and there were often up to five Black-footed around at any one time.
As far as pelagic birds go that was about the end of the trip but there was still one more treat in store. We received a call from a whale-watching boat which was following a pod of Orcas which were tracking some Grey Whales. They were still there when we arrived and we got prolonged and close views of the Orcas which lost the Grey Whales soon after our arrival.
On the return trip we got brief views of pair of Ancient Murrelets as they flew away. However, as we got close to the harbour there were still two more new birds to come. The first was a juvenile Yellow-billed Loon which had been around for much of the winter. We had looked for this bird on the way out without success but found it on the way back and got reasonable views, although it never allowed a close approach. As we pulled into the harbour one of the leaders spotted two Harlequin Ducks. Again these had been around for much of the winter. Unfortunately, these disappeared between the boats. Luckily the excellent skills of the captain meant he was able to manoeuvre our boat through the others to a point where we could see the ducks resting on a buoy. Stunning views of two superb birds and a fantastic end to a great trip.
The rest of the day was relatively relaxed with just a short trip around the Point Pinos area. By this time the wind was getting up and it was quite cold so there wasn't much about.
The total for the day was 44 species, but we added 11 to the trip list bringing it to 170.
Monday 25 March: Today we left Monterey behind and headed inland again. A couple of birders we had met in Monterey told us about a good spot they had found in the Panoche Valley so we headed that way. The spot was not actually in the Panoche Valley but was on Little Panoche Road, just the other side of the Shotgun Pass. It was called Mercey Hot Springs. There was a small campsite surrounded by trees and a few guest cabins. It was the only area of vegetation for some distance around. As described the spot was full of birds, although most of them were fairly common species. However, the most notable thing was around ten pairs of Lawrence's Goldfinches.
From here we headed on towards Merced NWR. As we approached the reserve entrance road we spotted a Great Horned Owl in trees on the right hand side of the road. We stopped to watch and as we did so it flew a short distance onto its nest where there was a nestling. Turning into the reserve we saw another two Owls in trees on the right hand side of the entrance drive (all three Owls were still around when we left).
The most obvious thing about Merced NWR was the Blackbirds. The air was thick with them. They were mostly Red-winged but we did see a few Tricoloured amongst them. All of the pools at the reserve were full of wildfowl and waders, including a large proportion of those we had seen before. There were only a few new species including White-faced Ibis and Greater White-fronted Goose. However, perhaps the best bird was an American Bittern which we spotted in a low reedbed right by the auto-track. The bird remained stationary as we watched, giving excellent views. As we neared the end of the auto circuit we spotted a White-tailed Kite hunting over some fields. It eventually perched up giving reasonable, although slightly distant views.
From Merced NWR we moved on to the nearby San Luis NWR. This was rather disappointing in comparison with smaller numbers of the same species, although we did add Ring-necked Duck. On leaving here we travelled up to the San Francisco Bay area where we were to stay for the next four days close to two friends who were to accompany us over the next few days.
Total for the day was 69 species, with nine more added to the trip list.
Tuesday 26 March: Main event of the day was a trip a short way up Mines Road (south of Livermore) to Del Valle Reservoir. Before that we stopped at a pull off by a left turn just after the start of Mines Road. The streamside trees here were full of birds, including several Yellow-billed Magpies and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
At Del Valle Reservoir we parked in the main parking lot by the boat launch ramp and walked along the fire road alongside the lake. There were a few White-throated Swifts in the area. On the lake were a number of Common Mergansers amongst commoner ducks. As we approached the campground there was a small rocky shoreline which held a few waders including our first Spotted Sandpiper. However, shortly after we had the excitement of spotting our target bird, a magnificent adult Bald Eagle, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was flying away from us and was quickly lost to view. We continued along the lake shore, savouring good views of some commoner birds. As we walked back towards the care we spotted a Bald Eagle again, this time it seemed to appear from nowhere. Moments later another bird, this time an immature, appeared and both circled around for a while, accompanied by the ever-present Turkey Vultures and Red-tails.
Well satisfied we returned the car and drove a short distance along the shore to one of the picnic sites for lunch. As we ate we spotted a Woodpecker on a nearby tree and on closer inspection in turned out to be a Red-breasted Sapsucker.
After lunch we headed back towards the bay area and Shell Marsh. This can be reached by taking the Arthur Road exit from I-680 in Martinez. Turn right onto Arthur Road and follow it round as it bears left. Go to the end and turn left through the gate. The shoreline here contained the usual range of commoner wetland birds. We then visited the nearby Mount View Sanitary District pools. These are further along the same road. Again these were alive with Red-winged Blackbirds. As we walked round we flushed first Green Heron and then an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron. We also spotted a Golden Eagle which floated past overhead.
In total we saw 70 species during the day, with the trip list rising to 185.
Wednesday 27 March: Today we spent the whole day in the Point Reyes area. On the way to Point Reyes we crossed the mountains along Lucas Valley Road. At one point along this road we came across a group of Wild Turkeys alongside the road, including a splendid male who was strutting his stuff.
First major stop at Point Reyes was the Visitor's Centre area where we walked a couple of the trails, including the Earthquake Trail. Close to the start of the trail some of us caught a brief glimpse of a female Varied Thrush which promptly disappeared and was never seen again. Otherwise the area was disappointingly birdless except for large numbers of American Robins, Brewer's Blackbirds & Acorn Woodpeckers and a flock of Pine Siskins.
Next stop was Limantour Beach. Again this was rather disappointing with the only birds of any real note being a pair of Northern Harriers who put on a good show. A couple of other stops around the area were also disappointing. We made one further stop on the road south towards Bolinas and San Francisco. This was at a spot called Five Brooks. Here there was a small pond surrounded by trees. Again there were few birds around.
We decided to give up on Point Reyes and head towards Bolinas Lagoon. This proved to have far more birds on it, with very good numbers of a wide variety of waders and wildfowl. Perhaps the best birds present were two separate Eurasian Wigeons (although not of great note to us) with the other newcomers being a couple of Horned Grebes.
Overall a disappointing day, given the build up that Point Reyes had been given. Perhaps the unusually fine weather was a factor. In the end we saw 77 species during the day, six of which were new for the trip.
Thursday 28 March: Our last full day of birding was mostly spent in the vicinity of Mount Diablo. We visited two of the canyons in the foothills of the mountain, firstly Donner Canyon and then Mitchell Canyon. Donner Canyon can be reached by taking Regency Drive which is right off Clayton Road, beyond Mitchell Canyon Road. Both were very attractive areas with open woodland and meadows and, at least on the lower slopes, relatively gentle walking. Again most of the birds were familiar by now but there was one new one, Hutton's Vireo, seen at Donner Canyon. We first found a single individual which was rather unco-operative. However, a little pishing soon brought it and several others much closer giving excellent views. Other birds seen here included another Golden Eagle, Orange-crowned Warbler and many Lesser Goldfinches. In Mitchell Canyon the birdlife was similar although we did add House Wren to the trip list and saw our first Spotted Towhee for several days.
Towards the end of the day we paid a brief visit to Lafayette Reservoir which was very close to our motel. This site looked promising but was too busy to be productive, this being early evening the day before Good Friday. No birds of any note were seen, although a Common Raven ripping apart a litter bin caused some amusement.
Today we saw 52 species, adding a couple to the trip list which now stood at 193.
Friday 29 March: This morning we had time for some more birding before heading into San Francisco. We visited Tilden Regional Park, just to the east of Berkeley. This is located in the Berkeley Hills and can be accessed from San Pablo Dam Road or from Berkeley itself. We parked at the parking lot near Jewel Lake and walked along the trails. This cool, shady area contained a number of good birds. Wilson's Warblers were numerous and conspicuous. At the start of a short boardwalk on the left-hand side of the main path we found a pair of Warbling Vireos, closely followed by a very co-operative male Rufous Hummingbird. There were also a number of Allen's Hummingbirds in the area.
Further along the path we came to an open area where we could hear a number of Wrentits singing. Eventually we tracked one down and followed it as it skulked through the bushes. It was a little frustrating but eventually we got good views. Of course, five minutes later we found another which was much more showy, sitting out in the open for several seconds.
From here we left our friends and headed into San Francisco where birds were in short supply for the rest of the day. We saw 35 species during the day but even at this stage we still added one new species to the trip last.
Saturday 30 March: Much of today was spent doing touristy things in San Francisco. First was a cable car across to Fisherman's Wharf. We walked west towards the Aquatic Park. This large lagoon contained a Common Loon, Lesser Scaups and lots of Western Grebes. The breakwater at the entrance was home to large numbers of roosting Double-crested Cormorants. As we walked round the lagoon, on the western side close to the entrance to Fort Mason we spotted some droppings on the sidewalk. Looking up we saw why. There was a roosting Black-crowned Night-Heron in the tree above. Having spotted this one we then found several others in surrounding trees. In all there were perhaps 7 or 8 birds. No other birds of note were seen, except for a pair of parrots which flew other. As with the ones in Los Angeles these remained unidentified.
We took a tram back into downtown SF and then a bus up to the Golden Gate Park. The area we visited was the Chain of Lakes, towards the western end of the park. Despite this being Easter weekend the area was reasonably quiet, particularly on the back side of the lakes, perhaps because San Francisco's trademark fog was descending. The shoreline of the North Lake in particular proved to be full of birds. The vast majority were Yellow-rumped Warblers but other notable birds included Nuttall's Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwings and two new species for the trip, Brown Creeper and Palm Warbler.
Despite this being mainly a touristy day in urban San Francisco we saw a total of 39 species, including two new ones bringing the trip list to its final total of 196.
Sunday 31 March: We were due to fly out of San Francisco mid afternoon so we had a few hours to do some birding on the way to the airport. First stop was Candlestick Point, adjacent to the American Football stadium. This was pretty much fog-bound when we arrived but the fog gradually lifted. There was a range of wildfowl and waders here, including several Spotted Sandpipers and good views of a sizeable flock of Surf Scoters.
Next we continued past the airport to Foster City. The first place we stopped was Leo J Ryan Park alongside Central Lake. Unfortunately, this was very busy and it appears as though the area has been developed since our guide was written. In any case there were very few birds around so we moved on to Sea Cloud Park. This was rather better with a good selection of waders and wildfowl roosting on the adjacent pools. Nothing of any real note was seen but there was a good variety. On the adjacent slough we did see a small group of Canvasbacks and there were some Savannah Sparrows in the bushes, the first we had seen for over a week.
Considering the circumstances the total of 57 species for the day was impressive, although none were new. The final trip list remained at 196. This included 59 or more life birds for each of us. Overall, a very enjoyable and successful trip.
Systematic List (196 species)
1. Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) - Only seen once, off Morro Rock
2. Pacific Loon (G. pacifica) - Only seen in Monterey Bay but it was common there
3. Common Loon (G. immer) - Seen frequently in coastal locations throughout
4. Yellow-billed Loon (G. adamsii) - One seen from the pelagic trip in Monterey Bay, roughly level with the Monterey Bay Aquarium
5. Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) - Common on lakes and ponds throughout
6. Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) - Seen at Bolinas Lagoon and at Candlestick Point
7. Eared Grebe (P. nigricollis) - Common at wetland sites, both coastal and inland
8. Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) - Common at wetland sites throughout, particularly close to the coast
9. Clark's Grebe (A. clarkii) - Only seen in the south at Marina del Rey, Upper Newport Bay and Palmdale Lake
10. Black-footed Albatross (Diomedea nigripes) - Numerous during pelagic trip
11. Laysan Albatross (D. immutabilis) - Two birds seen during pelagic trip
12. Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) - Small numbers seen during pelagic trip, including both dark and pale phase birds
13. Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) - Several seen during pelagic trip
14. Sooty Shearwater (P. griseus) - Numerous during pelagic trip
15. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) - Seen at Palmdale Lake and Morro Bay
16. Brown Pelican (P. occidentalis) - Seen regularly at coastal locations
17. Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) - Common at Morro Rock and in the Monterey area
18. Double-crested Cormorant (P. auritus) - Common in most wetland areas
19. Pelagic Cormorant (P. pelagicus) - Common in similar areas to Brandt’s
20. American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) - One seen by the auto tour route at Merced NWR
21. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) - Common in wetland areas throughout
22. Great Egret (A. alba) - Common in wetland areas throughout
23. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) - Fairly common in wetland areas throughout
24. Green Heron (Butorides virescens) - Only seen at Mount View Sanitary District
25. Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) - Seen at Holiday Lake (Antelope Valley), Mount View Sanitary District and roosting in trees in the Aquatic Park, San Francisco
26. White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) - Only seen at Merced NWR and San Luis NWR but common there
27. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) - Common throughout
28. Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) - Small flock seen at Merced NWR
29. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) - Feral birds regularly seen throughout, mostly in parks
30. Brant (B. bernicla) - Numerous at Morro Bay and also seen from pelagic trip
31. Gadwall (Anas strepera) - Fairly common in wetland areas throughout
32. Eurasian Wigeon (A. penelope) - Two drakes seen at Bolinas Lagoon
33. American Wigeon (A. americana) - Common in wetland areas throughout
34. Mallard (A. platyrhynchos) - Common in wetland areas throughout
35. Blue-winged Teal (A. discors) - Only seen at Upper Newport Bay
36. Cinnamon Teal (A. cyanoptera) - Common in wetland areas throughout
37. Northern Shoveler (A. clypeata) - Common in wetland areas throughout
38. Northern Pintail (A. acuta) - Fairly common in wetland areas throughout
39. Green-winged Teal (A. carolinensis) - Common in wetland areas throughout
40. Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) - Seen at Zmudowski State Beach and Sea Cloud Park, Foster City
41. Ring-necked Duck (A. collaris) - Seen at San Luis NWR, Point Reyes and Bolinas Lagoon
42. Lesser Scaup (A. affinis) - Common on deep lakes and ponds and at coastal locations throughout
43. Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) - Two males (one immature) seen in Monterey Harbour
44. Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) - Common at coastal locations throughout
45. Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) - Common on deep lakes and ponds throughout
46. Common Goldeneye (B. clangula) - Seen at Big Sur River mouth, Bolinas Lagoon and Candlestick Point
47. Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) - Only seen at Del Valle Reservoir
48. Red-breasted Merganser (M. serrator) - Fairly common at coastal locations throughout
49. Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) - Common in wetland areas throughout
50. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) - Seen at Upper Newport Bay and Point Reyes
51. White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) - Seen at Merced NWR and Point Reyes
52. Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) - One or two adults and an immature seen at Del Valle Reservoir
53. Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) - Seen several times, usually in wet areas
54. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) - Seen along Mines Road and Mount Diablo
55. Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) - Seen several times in the Morro Bay and Monterey areas
56. Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis) - Common throughout
57. Ferruginous Hawk (B. regalis) - One bird seen, fairly distantly, at Carrizo Plain
58. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) - Seen at Carrizo Plain, Mount View and Mount Diablo
59. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) - Common throughout
60. Prairie Falcon (F. mexicanus) - Pair seen at Pinnacles National Monument
61. Peregrine Falcon (F. peregrinus) - Seen at Morro Bay and Zmudowski State Beach
62. Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) - Female seen at Merced NWR
63. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) - A group seen in Marin County on the way to Point Reyes
64. California Quail (Callipepla californica) - Fairly common in open areas throughout
65. American Coot (Fulica americana) - Very common in wetland areas throughout
66. Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) - Fairly common at shorebird sites throughout
67. Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) - Common in wetland and open areas throughout
68. Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) - Seen at Playa del Rey and on rocky shores in the Morro Bay and Monterey areas
69. Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) - Common at shorebird sites throughout
70. American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) - Common at shorebird sites throughout
71. Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) - Fairly common at shorebird sites throughout
72. Spotted Sandpiper (T. macularia) - Seen at Del Valle Reservoir and Candlestick Point
73. Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) - Very common at shorebird sites and rocky shores throughout
74. Hudsonian Whimbrel (Numenius hudsonicus) - Fairly common at shorebird sites throughout
75. Long-billed Curlew (N. americanus) - Fairly common at shorebird sites throughout. Very large flock seen at Soda Lake.
76. Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) - Very common at shorebird sites throughout
77. Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Seen at Playa del Rey and Monterey Harbour
78. Black Turnstone (A. melanocephala) - Seen at Playa del Rey and Monterey Harbour
79. Surfbird (Aphriza virgata) - Only seen at Playa del Rey
80. Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) - Fairly common at shorebird sites throughout
81. Least Sandpiper (C. minutilla) - Common at shorebird sites throughout
82. Dunlin (C. alpina) - Only seen at Merced NWR and Bolinas Lagoon
83. Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) - Most, if not all, of the Dowitchers seen were assumed to be of this species. They were common at shorebird sites throughout
84. Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) - Only seen at Merced NWR
85. Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) - One seen from pelagic trip
86. Heerman's Gull (Larus heermanni) - Seen at Playa del Rey and from pelagic trip
87. Ring-billed Gull (L. delawarensis) - Commonest gull at inland sites but also seen on coast
88. California Gull (L. californicus) - Common throughout, mostly at coastal sites
89. Herring Gull (L. argentatus) - Seen occasionally in gull flocks
90. Western Gull (L. occidentalis) - Very common throughout, mostly at coastal sites
91. Glaucous-winged Gull (L. glaucescens) - Usually present in small numbers in most coastal gull flocks
92. Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) - Small numbers seen from pelagic trip
93. Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia) - Seen at Playa del Rey, Upper Newport Bay and Foster City
94. Elegant Tern (S. elegans) - Several seen at Upper Newport Bay with Black Skimmers
95. Forster's Tern (S. forsteri) - Seen at Playa del Rey and Upper Newport Bay
96. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) - Flock of about 50 seen at Upper Newport Bay
97. Common Murre (Uria aalge) - Common from pelagic trip and occasionally seen from shore
98. Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) - Common at Montana de Oro State Park and in Monterey area. Only seen close to shore on pelagic trip
99. Ancient Murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) - Pair seen from pelagic trip with possibly another pair from whale-watching trip
100. Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) - At least one seen from pelagic trip
101. Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) - Several seen from pelagic trip
102. Rock Dove (Columba livia) - Common in urban areas
103. Band-tailed Pigeon (C. fasciata) - Seen at Chilao Visitor Centre (San Gabriel Mountains) and Mount Diablo
104. Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) - Common throughout
105. Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - One seen at Pozo Road
106. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) - Three birds seen around entrance to Merced NWR
107. Burrowing Owl (Speotyto cunicularia) - Seen in Antelope Valley and Carrizo Plain
108. White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis) - Seen at San Joaquin Wildlife Reserve, Pinnacles National Monument and Del Valle Reservoir
109. Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) - The commonest hummingbird throughout
110. Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) - Migrants seen at Andrew Molera State Park and Tilden Regional Park
111. Allen's Hummingbird (S. sasin) - Seen at Huntington Central Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Tilden Regional Park and Golden Gate Park
112. Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) - Seen at Playa del Rey and Morro Bay State Park
113. Lewis's Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) - Pair seen on roadside poles close to Santa Margarita
114. Acorn Woodpecker (M. formicivorus) - Common in wooded habitats throughout
115. Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) - One seen at Del Valle Reservoir
116. Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) - Seen several times in wooded areas
117. Ladder-backed Woodpecker (P. scalaris) - One seen at Holiday Lake in the Antelope Valley
118. Downy Woodpecker (P. pubescens) - Seen several times in wooded areas
119. Hairy Woodpecker (P. villosus) - Only seen at Andrew Molera State Park
120. White-headed Woodpecker (P. albolarvatus) - Two seen very well at Chilao Visitor Centre in the San Gabriel Mountains
121. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) - Common throughout
122. Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) - Common throughout
123. Say's Phoebe (S. saya) - Seen at Ballona Wetlands, Carrizo Plain and Merced NWR
124. Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) - Seen at Carrizo Plain, Pozo Road and Merced NWR
125. Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) - Seen several times on roadside wires
126. Hutton's Vireo (Vireo huttoni) - Seen at Mount Diablo and Tilden Regional Park
127. Warbling Vireo (V. gilvus) - Pair seen at Tilden Regional Park
128. Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) - Common in coniferous woodland throughout
129. Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) - Common throughout
130. Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) - Several seen at Mount Diablo
131. Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) - Seen fairly regularly in open, inland areas in the northern half
132. American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) - Common throughout
133. Common Raven (C. corax) - Common throughout, especially in the mountains and Antelope Valley
134. Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) - Seen at Carrizo Plain and Merced NWR
135. Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) - Common throughout, mainly around water
136. Violet-green Swallow (T. thalassina) - Several in swallow flock at Palmdale Lake
137. Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) - Seen occasionally in southern half
138. Cliff Swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota) - Regularly found in swallow flocks.
139. Barn Swallow (H. rustica) - Seen regularly in small numbers
140. Mountain Chickadee (Parus gambeli) - Common in the mountains
141. Chestnut-backed Chickadee (P. rufescens) - Fairly common from Morro Bay northwards
142. Oak Titmouse (P. inornatus) - Fairly common in wooded areas, particularly in the foothills
143. Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) - Common throughout
144. Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) - One seen at Palmdale Country Club
145. White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) - Seen regularly in wooded areas
146. Pygmy Nuthatch (S. pygmaea) - Fairly common in the mountains
147. Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) - One seen in Golden Gate Park
148. Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) - Seen at Morro Rock
149. Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) - Fairly common in wooded areas
150. House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) - Only seen in Mitchell Canyon, Mount Diablo
151. Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) - Common in wetland areas
152. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) - Common throughout
153. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) - Seen at Huntington Central Park
154. Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) - Common in open areas throughout
155. Mountain Bluebird (S. currucoides) - Flock of about ten seen on Carrizo Plain
156. Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) - Fairly common in wooded areas throughout
157. American Robin (Turdus migratorius) - Common throughout
158. Varied Thrush (Zoothera naevia) - Female seen briefly near Point Reyes Visitor Centre
159. Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) - Seen at Pinnacles National Monument and Tilden Regional Park. Singing birds heard elsewhere
160. Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) - Common in the south but much less so in the north
161. California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) - Only confirmed sighting at Pinnacles National Monument
162. Le Conte's Thrasher (T. lecontei) - Singing male seen alongside Petroleum Club Road between Maricopa and Taft
163. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) - Common throughout
164. American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) - One seen on Carrizo Plain
165. Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum) - Flocks seen in Huntington Central Park and Golden Gate Park
166. Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) - Seen at Montana de Oro State Park, Mount Diablo and Golden Gate Park
167. Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) - Common throughout
168. Townsend's Warbler (D. townsendi) - Seen at Huntington Central Park and Golden Gate Park
169. Palm Warbler (D. palmarum) - One seen in a warbler flock in Golden Gate Park
170. Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) - Fairly common throughout
171. Wilson's Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla) - Seen at Montana de Oro State Park, Andrew Molera State Park and Tilden Regional Park where they were common
172. Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) - Fairly common in scrubby and woodland areas throughout
173. California Towhee (P. crissalis) - Common throughout
174. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) - A small flock seen at Pozo Road
175. Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) - One seen by Petroleum Club Road between Maricopa and Taft
176. Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) - Common in open areas, particularly in the south
177. Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) - Only seen at Holiday Lake, Antelope Valley
178. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) - Common throughout
179. Lincoln's Sparrow (M. lincolnii) - One seen at Ballona Wetlands
180. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) - Common throughout
181. Golden-crowned Sparrow (Z. atricapilla) - Fairly common throughout
182. Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) - Oregon race common throughout
183. Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) - Common throughout
184. Tricoloured Blackbird (A. tricolor) - Seen at Holiday Lake, Antelope Valley and Merced NWR
185. Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) - Common in grassland areas throughout
186. Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) - Common throughout
187. Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) - Only seen at Palmdale Lake
188. Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) - Only seen in Los Angeles area
189. Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) - Fairly common in the northern half
190. House Finch (C. mexicanus) - Common throughout
191. Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) - Only seen at Mount Diablo, where they were common
192. Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) - Only seen at Point Reyes
193. Lesser Goldfinch (C. psaltria) - Fairly common in foothill areas
194. Lawrence's Goldfinch (C. lawrencei) - Single male seen at Montana de Oro State Park and about ten pairs seen at Mercey Hot Springs in Panoche Valley
195. American Goldfinch (C. tristis) - Fairly common throughout
196. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) - Common throughout
Books and Websites
The two main site guides used during the trip were as follows:
A Birder's Guide to Southern California (Brad Schram) - part of the ABA/Lane Birdfinding Guide series
Birding Northern California (John Kemper) - A Falcon guide
In addition we referred to another guide, also called Birding Northern California (Jean Richmond) belonging to our friends from the Bay Area. Most of the sites in this book are in the Bay Area or close by.
The best website for finding information about birding in California is undoubtedly Joe Morlan's site (http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~jmorlan/). This site contains links to most of the other main sites about birding in California and about birding sites. These links are organised on a county by county basis.
Other relevant websites include:
Shearwater Journeys - http://www.shearwaterjourneys.com/
Whale Watching - http://www.montereybaywhalewatch.com/
Inn at Playa del Rey - http://www.innatplayadelrey.com/