California, 18th March - 1st April 2002

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


By Paul Baxter & Alastair Henderson


Taking advantage of the American Airlines "two-for-the-price-of-one offer", we decided on an early spring trip to California, were we hoped to pick up some of the last winter visitors and some early migrants. We flew into San Francisco via Los Angeles and spent the first week in the north of California and the second week in the south. We travelled c2700 miles during the fortnight, which we didn't feel was too excessive, with only two 'long-distance' drives necessary. Accommodation was usually road-side Motels which were very acceptable and not too expensive (ranging from $40 to $60 per room per night, although we did have to pay $90 in Pacifica). Three nights were spent at the hostel at Monterey (superb) and two nights at Point Reyes Hostel (also superb). Everyone was very friendly and laid back at the hostels and both come very highly recommended. Advanced booking essential.

We recorded 256 species during the fortnight, and we missed very little of the species we had planned for. We also found a few California rarities and went on a good old British twitch in San Francisco! All in all, a superb trip, with heaps of brilliant birds and some quite breathtaking scenery.


March 18th - arrive San Francisco, drive up to spend night at Point Reyes Hostel
March 19th - Point Reyes area
March 20th - Point Reyes area, south to Los Banos
March 21st - San Luis & Merced Wildfowl Reserves to Monterey, via Panoche Valley
March 22nd - Monterey area
March 23rd - Monterey & Big Sur coast
March 24th - Monterey (Pelagic Day)
March 25th - Salton Sea area
March 26th - Brawley, Anza Borrego & Palomar Mountains
March 27th - Borrego Springs to San Diego
March 28th - San Diego area
March 29th - Santa Cruz Island
March 30th - Maricopa to Mount Pinos
March 31st - San Francisco area
April 1st - depart San Francisco

March 18th - arrive San Francisco

Arrived at San Francisco at 19.00hrs, collected hire car and drove north to Point Reyes Hostel (last admittance at the hostel is 21.30hrs).

March 19th - Point Reyes area

Our first days birding, and we awoke to a light frost. Spent the first couple of hours birding around the hostel and along the nearby steam. Little did we know that many of the species we came across would become daily entries in the notebook. Birds around the hostel buildings included California Quail, Black Phoebe, California Towhee, Western Bluebirds, American Robins, Hermit Thrush, Western Scrub-Jay and Steller's Jay. Sparrows included White-crowned, Golden-crowned and Song whilst Violet-green Swallows zapped around overhead. The alders and willows along the stream were excellent for woodpeckers, which included Downy and Nuttall's, two Red-breasted Sapsuckers and 5+ Northern Flickers. Flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Pine Siskins moved overhead whilst raptors seen included Sharp-shinned, Coopers and Red-tailed Hawk, as well as our first Turkey Vultures and Osprey. Other birds seen in the nearby willows included Allen's Hummingbird, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

After breakfast, headed south to Point Reyes Visitor Centre. Enjoyed an hour walking around the visitor centre grounds and picnic site were we found a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds amongst the many Brewer's Blackbirds. Acorn Woodpeckers included seven together on a fence line. The nearby fields held Western Meadowlark, California Quail and American Kestrel, and we saw our first Band-tailed Pigeons nearby.

A roadside stop for some soaring raptors was superb, with three Red-shouldered Hawks together, many Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures and our only Bald Eagle of the trip, which was closely followed by a Golden Eagle.

Olema Marsh is a small wetland on the Point Reyes road, not far from the visitor centre. We recorded our first wildfowl here with Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon alongside Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot. Passerines in the marsh included Common Yellowthroat and Red-winged Blackbird and many Marsh Wrens. Tree Swallows flew overhead.

Headed towards the coast at lunchtime and had numerous stops along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard overlooking Tomales Bay. The river and mudflats held large numbers of wildfowl and waders. Bufflehead and Western Grebes were in the majority on the river, with smaller numbers of Clark's Grebes, Lesser Scaup and American Wigeon. Waders included many Willet and Marbled Godwits with the occasional Greater Yellowlegs. Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants were sat on the mudflats and a Belted Kingfisher sat on the end of a wooden pier at Inverness Park.

Headed towards the lighthouse at Point Reyes (which is a lot farther than it appears on the map) and made numerous stops along the way. The road passes many "Historic Ranches", many of these are active dairy farms. All the farms held large numbers of blackbirds and we eventually found five Tricoloured Blackbirds at "Historic Ranch A". We also had many Savannah Sparrows at the farms, mixed in with White-crowned and Song. Other birds noted along the road included Northern Harrier, American Kestrel and six Canvasback on a small pool. Eventually reached the lighthouse and enjoyed fantastic views over the Pacific from the viewpoint. The viewpoint gave us views of the shore and we saw our first Pelagic and Brandt's Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers and Glaucous-winged Gulls from here. It was from here that we found our first rare bird of the trip, an immature White-billed Diver sat amongst Pacific, Great Northern and Red-throated Divers. Alastair ran back to tell an American birder (If you're reading this - Hi Dan!) we had been chatting too that had just left before we found the diver. He came back pretty quickly as it was an American tick for him! We also found a drake White-winged Scoter amongst the many thousands of Surf Scoters on the sea. Passerines around the lighthouse included Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows and Bewick's Wren. After the lighthouse, we headed towards Chimney Rock, only a short distance away and added Peregrine and House Finch to the trip list but little else. Drakes Beach had a few gulls, including Mew (2) and Glaucous-winged, as well as a pair of Ravens that took crisps from around our feet.

Our last stop of the day was at the Oyster Farm signposted off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Here we enjoyed good views of shorebirds and wildfowl.

Stayed overnight at Point Reyes Hostel. Went out "owling" and had fantastic views of two Great Horned Owls sat illuminated in the car headlights near the hostel.

March 20th - Point Reyes area, south to Los Banos

Another early start and one of the first birds we saw was a cracking Varied Thrush in the half-light on the road near the hostel. We also saw a second bird feeding at the side of the road near the visitor centre an hour later. A quick stop at Olema Marsh produced a Night Heron for the trip but nothing else new. We then headed to Five Brooks Pond, five miles south of Olema. The area produced lots of new birds for us. On the pond itself we had a pair of Wood Duck and a Goldeneye amongst the Bufflehead. The surrounding woodland probably deserved a little more time than we gave it. In the undergrowth near the lake, we found Varied and Swainson's Thrush and Spotted Towhee with Bushtit and Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the alders around the lake. A Dark-eyed Junco around the horse stables was new amongst the many commoner birds. A pair of Purple Finches was along the access road when we left.

We stopped at Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which was a huge disappointment. Although early in the spring, only one bird was caught in the three hours we spent there (a chickadee). However, we did have excellent views of Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds on the feeders at the observatory. We saw our only Hutton's Vireos here (3) and heard our first Orange-crowned Warblers singing. Western Scrub-jay, Northern Flicker and Dark-eyed Junco were noted around the obs.

Heading south, we made numerous stops along the edge of the huge Bolinas Lagoon, which was teeming with birds. New waders for us here were American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew and Long-billed Dowitcher amongst the Godwits and Willets. Wildfowl included hundreds of Green-winged Teal, Pintail, Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup and herons and egrets were plentiful. A second stop towards the southern end produced much of the same, but also included 60+ Black Turnstones.

A brief stop at Muir Beach on the coastal edge of Muir Woods produced many woodland species, including Pygmy Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Northern Flicker. A Bank Swallow here was one of the few seen on the trip.

Headed south through San Francisco and stayed overnight at Los Banos.

March 21st - San Luis & Merced Wildfowl Reserves to Monterey, via Panoche Valley

First light saw us arrive at San Luis Wildfowl Reserve, not far from Los Banos. As well as wildfowl and waders, we had hoped to see some of the remaining wintering Sandhill Cranes in the area. The majority of the reserve was birded from the car, the habitat being mainly marsh and grassland with area of open water. Birds of prey were plentiful and we soon saw our first White-tailed Kites (4) and Northern Harriers (30+) as well as the common Red-tailed Hawks. Waders on the various pools included many Black-necked Stilts, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Killdeers and dabbling ducks abounded. Chester Marsh trail enabled us to get out of the car and have a walk around the mile or so trail. We soon had our one and only American Bittern of the trip in addition to the many White-faced Ibis's, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons. Along the trail, we came across a small of area bushes (near marker post 7) and it was clear there were a lot of passerines here so we gave this area an hour or so. Two Hermit Thrushes chased each other about and we had Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers here as well as Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbird, American Goldfinch, House Wren and Common Yellowthroat plus other commoner species. A loud distant noise sounded like a clap of thunder until we realised that it was a huge flock of Snow Geese taking to the wing in the distance. Unfortunately, we were unable to get views of the birds on the ground. We continued around the reserve in the car and reached the observation platform near the exit. The walk down the trail to the platform produced Fox and Lincoln's Sparrows on the track. A large colony of Tree Swallows were in the trees here. The platform gave a raised view over a reedbed and pool, but didn't yield any surprises, just loads of American Coot and dabbling duck! On leaving the reserve, a large colony of Cliff Swallows gave fantastic views as they were nesting under a concrete pipe adjacent to the reserve track. New species for the trip on the reserve included Wilson's Snipe, Moorhen and White Pelican.

After leaving San Luis we headed to Merced Wildfowl Reserve, only a short distance away. On route, we saw Western Kingbird, Tricoloured Blackbird and more Loggerhead Shrikes. A party of 40 White-fronted Geese were in a roadside field near Merced.

Merced Wildfowl Refuge held similar species to San Luis but in much bigger numbers. Much more of the reserve was visible by car (we got the impression that San Luis was such a massive place, we could only see a tiny percentage of what was there). A Great Horned Owl gave fantastic views sat in the trees along the reserve access track. The pools were jam packed with waders, wildfowl and herons and we added Dunlin to our growing wader list! American Pipit was new here. Eventually, we heard the sound of cranes and picked up two small groups of Sandhill Cranes (c30) flying low over the reserve. Although we didn't view them on the ground, we were relieved to have seen any at all. (There had been over 12,000 on the reserve during the winter). A Coyote was a sorry sight, limping across a distant field.

Late morning we headed west towards Monterey via the Panoche Valley. We made numerous stops along the road, and added a few new species as we were heading through new habitat - rocky foothills and wide-open plains. Along the roadside, Savannah Sparrows were seen at every stop and Lark Sparrow, Horned Lark and Rock Wren were new. Other species seen included Western Kingbird, Loggerhead, Anna's Hummingbird and California Quail.

Along the desolate Panoche road, we came across a place called Mercy Hot Springs - a small area of trees and bushes with a few houses. We had a stop here and found the place alive with birds. We found it strange that this place didn't feature in any of the guides we had. It certainly warranted a stop. Lawrence's Goldfinch was easy here - there was at least 20 birds coming down to drink at a dripping tap. We added California Thrasher, Say's Phoebe, Bullock's Oriole, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Rufous Hummingbird to our trip list here. Dark-eyed Junco, Hermit Thrush and various sparrows were also seen. A very worthwhile stop.

After passing through the Panoche Valley, we headed towards Hollister and then to Monterey. Along the Hollister road we added more White-tailed Kites to the day's total and also saw more Lawrence's Goldfinch along the roadside. A Golden Eagle gave excellent views near Hollister. We also added the California Highway Patrol to our trip list after Paul failed to stop at a stop sign (but I did slow down!). Thankfully, we had an understanding officer. Have a nice day!

We stopped at a reservoir on the southern outskirts of Hollister (our last birding chance of the day as dusk was approaching) and had Bonaparte's Gull, Canada Goose and 40+ Bufflehead whilst Northern Rough-winged Swallows flew overhead.

Stayed overnight at Monterey Youth Hostel on Irving Street

March 22nd - Monterey area

First light saw us take the coast road to Point Pinos. We made numerous stops along the road, overlooking the rocky shoreline. On the rocks, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone and Whimbrel were seen and gulls included Mew, Glaucous-winged and California. At least 20 first-summer Heermann's were seen offshore. A seawatch from one of the lay-by's produced Black-vented Shearwater (4) heading south and Arctic and Pomarine Skua. We also saw our only Black Scoter here, amongst a large raft of Surf Scoter. Divers and grebes were plentiful at all our stops. We paid a visit to Crespi Pool on the adjacent golfcourse. American Coot and Cinnamon Teal were the only birds on the pool but we had a brief view of a Virginia Rail as it crossed a channel in the reedbed at the back of the pool.

After breakfast, we birded from Commercial Wharf, the middle of the three wharf's in Monterey. From the pier, we could see hundreds of divers, mostly Pacific, as well as large numbers of Black-necked Grebes (150+). They seemed to be everywhere. Other seabirds in the bay and around the pier included Pigeon Guillemot, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants and the gulls were particularly photographable and they sat alongside Brown Pelicans. The California Sealions were particularly vocal!

We then headed towards Carmel and stopped at the gates to Pebble Beach on 17 mile drive. We had a good hour in the woodland here and added many new species. We found at least four stunning Townsend's Warbler here with Brown Creeper and Hairy Woodpecker also being new. Another Varied Thrush was most welcome! Dark-eyed Junco, Acorn Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch and Red-shouldered Hawk were also seen.

Carmel Beach and Carmel River Lagoon held little so we headed back to Monterey and decided to look at Robert's Lake, just north of Monterey off Highway 1. The lake is popular with the public for feeding ducks, so it was a great place to take photos of gulls. Heermans (including 13 adults) and Glaucous-winged were coming to bread amongst the Western's and California Gulls. There were many hirundines over the lake (mainly Tree and Northern Rough-winged) and we saw our only White-throated Swifts here, high over the lake, as well as Peregrine.

Continuing north, we decided to pay a visit to Elkhorn Slough during the late afternoon for shorebirds but the reserve closed at 17.00hrs. Following advice from the reserve staff, we headed to nearby Moss Landing, an area of mudflats and marsh. Upon arrival, many shorebirds were present close to the road and we had our first views here of Semi-palmated Plover (12) and both Western and Least Sandpipers. A large flock of 400+ Willett was an impressive site as they came onto the pools and jostled for feeding areas with dowitchers (both species), Marbled Godwits and Long-billed Curlew. Ducks on the river included Greater Scaup (20). We also saw 'Beldings' Savannah Sparrow here and a White-tailed Kite over the nearby hillside.

Returned to Crespi Pond at Monterey at dusk and had great views of two Sora's and two Night Herons.

Stayed overnight at Monterey Youth Hostel.

March 23rd - Monterey & Big Sur coast

Another visit to Crespi Pool at first light produced fantastic views of two Virginia Rails out in the open. We also saw Fox Sparrow here. We were aware that we hadn't seen Surfbird yet, so we decided to drive along Ocean Bay Boulevard and stop every couple of hundred yards. After a bit of searching, we eventually found two birds, which gave great views. After enjoying the Surfbirds, we headed south to the Big Sur coast, as this was to be our only chance of California Condor.

The scenery along Highway 1 was simply outstanding. Our first stop was at Andrew Molera State Park. Unfortunately, the ringing laboratory was closed but we still had a wander around and had some good birds. Purple Finches were common here and other birds seen in the park included Wrentit, Anna's and Rufous Hummingbird, Western Bluebird, White-tailed Kite, American Kestrel and Spotted Towhee.

Heading past Big Sur Station, we noticed a jeep pulled up on the grass verge with a huge arial and electronic equipment on the bonnet. This could mean only one thing so we turned the car round and headed back. We were pleased to find it was a young french lady who was working for the condor reintroduction scheme. She informed us that she had three California Condors in range but we couldn't see them because of the cloud around the top of the mountains. One eventually came into view, closely followed by another two. They eventually soared away into the distance, so after having a chat with her and thanking her for her help, we headed south. That was easier than we imagined!

We had a brief stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for American Dipper on the river but there were too many people around. After enjoying the sunshine and scenery, we headed back north to Monterey and spent a couple of hours photographing gulls in some of the town's parks. An hour at Cannery Wharf in Monterey produced the now expected divers and grebes (we estimated 400 Pacific Divers were visible from the pier). We then had a brief seawatch from the coast road near the golfcourse and added Pink-footed Shearwater to our trip list, and three more Pomarine Skuas. The two Sora's showed well again at the pond at dusk.

Stayed overnight at Monterey Youth Hostel

March 24th - Monterey (Pelagic Day)

We both agreed that this was probably the best day of the trip. We booked ourselves on the pelagic trip out of Monterey with Debi Shearwater. Two boats would be heading out into the bay today, as there had been some conference in Monterey, as the demand for a trip was high. The boats left Monterey harbour at 08.00. Leaving the harbour, we had good views of the common seabirds around the harbour, which included Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants and a variety of common shorebirds, divers and grebes. As the boats entered deeper water, each went their separate way but kept in regular contact with each other over the radio. Soon, the first Rhinoceros Auklets were seen and we were joined by a large group of Long-beaked Dolphins riding the bow of the boat, probably 50+ in total. The boat headed towards a large feeding group of shearwaters, mainly Sooty but with a few Pink-footed Shearwaters amongst. A shout went up for albatross and we were soon enjoying excellent views of Black-footed Albatross, occasionally landing on the water only few from the boat. We had 10-15 albatross's during the day. American birders were getting excited over Northern Fulmar and a first-summer Kittiwake that joined the feeding throng. We also had our only Cassin's Auklets, when a group of four flew past the boat. Then the news was broadcast that the other boat had a Laysan Albatross with them! Without hesitation, our slipper put the boat in full-speed and we raced to were they were. Even before we arrived with them, the albatross was spotted on the horizon and we soon had excellent views of the bird as it flew between the boats and sat on the water. It stayed with us for over an hour. We then headed towards the other boat that had located a group of Orca's and very soon we had wonderful views of a family party of eight Orca's, sometimes no more than 30 feet from the boat. Absolutely awesome. At one point it appeared they were heading towards a Grey Whale and it's calf, but they weren't interested. More shearwaters appeared, giving us better views and we had good but brief views of three Ancient Murrelets as the boat headed back towards Monterey. We had a look for a White-billed Diver that had wintered in the channel out of Monterey harbour and the bird was soon found and gave excellent views. Just when it seemed the day could get no better, as we arrived into the harbour at 15.30hrs, two drake Harlequins were spotted sat on a concrete buoy. The skipper negotiated his way through the moored up boats and we viewed the Harlequins at close quarters. A truly fitting end to a truly memorable day.

Drove south overnight, through Los Angeles, and slept in car at Indio, were we arrived at c04.00am.

March 25th - Salton Sea area

After an hours sleep in the car, drove to Buchanan Street near Mecca for our first taste of southern Californian birding. The desert scrub here produced a whole new set of birds. We soon added Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Abert's Towhee and Great-tailed Grackle to our trip list and got lucky with a Ladder-backed Woodpecker on a telegraph pole. This was one of the sites mentioned for Crissal Thrasher and we eventually had good views of a single bird. The drainage ditch alongside the road produced a Green Heron. Large flocks of American Herring Gulls passed north overhead, presumably having roosted overnight at Salton Sea.

After a couple of hours here, we headed towards the Salton Sea. Before we reached the sea, we visited Hayes Street as this is a large cultivated area and a good spot for sparrows. Along the fence line of Hayes Street we found 10+ Lark Sparrows and a couple of Brewer's Sparrows amongst the White-crowned Sparrows. Brown-headed Cowbirds were common here and the fields also produced a couple of Horned Larks. The gardens at the junction with Hayes Street produced a few migrants, including Bullock's Oriole, Orange-crowned Warbler and many Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Wister State Waterfowl Area was our first proper stop at the Salton Sea. This huge reserve consisted of huge lagoons full of shorebirds and wildfowl, and is birded by driving around the pools, allowing superb views. Many thousands of shorebirds were feeding on the pools, with uncountable numbers of Western and Least Sandpipers, both dowitchers and numerous other species. We also added Snowy Plover here. A search of the bushes along the access road produced quite a few migrants, including a male Wilson's Warbler, 10+ Orange-crowned Warblers and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. A few more Brewer's Sparrows were noted also.

On route to Salton Sea State Recreational HQ, we passed some flooded fields that were jam-packed with birds. We estimated 400+ Cattle Egrets, 100+ Great Egrets and 1000+ Ring-billed Gulls in the fields, whilst a flock of many hundreds of American Pipits fed in an adjacent field.

At Salton Sea State Recreational HQ we saw the Salton Sea proper and couldn't believe how many Black-necked Grebes were visible! The water was covered in them - there must have been many thousands present. Most of the common shorebirds were here and a group of roosting gulls contained 80+ Bonaparte's Gulls and a few Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, but we failed to see the reported Lesser Black-backed Gull! A Caspian Tern flew overhead - our first tern of the trip. A Gambel's Quail sat in a tree in the carpark and Great-tailed Grackles became annoyingly common. The temperature became very hot!

Other stops were made around the Salton Sea, including Bombay Beach and Redhill Marina but we failed to add any other new species. The numbers of wildfowl and shorebirds was mind-blowing with huge numbers at all the stops. Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildfowl Refuge produced three Common Ground Doves feeding below some feeders at the visitor centre, as well as approachable Abert's Towhees.

Burrowing Owl was one of the Salton Sea specialities we wanted to see and we found at least seven birds without really looking hard for them. One bird was sat outside it's burrow on Schrimpf Road whilst five others were sat on the roadside along Bannister Road. Very confiding birds indeed.

A stop at Finney Lake for a reported Black-throated Gray Warbler failed to find the bird, but we did have good numbers of migrants here including three Wilson's Warblers, seven Orange-crowned Warblers, and many Yellowthroats and Yellow-rumped Warblers. On the lake were Western Grebe, White Pelican and various wildfowl. A Spotted Sandpiper on the boat ramp was our only one of the trip. The site also produced Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gambel's Quail, Abert's Towhee and Brewer's Sparrow. A large group of c400 White-faced Ibis were feeding in an adjacent field.

The last stop of the day was at Unit 1 Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This large reed bed reserve is a good site for 'Yuma' Clapper Rail and we heard a few birds calling as soon as we arrived. Seeing them was a different matter! A raised observation platform gives good views over the reeds and pools and from the platform we could see more shorebirds and wildfowl! Passerines on the tracks included Brewer's and Lincoln's Sparrows and Marsh Wrens were simply everywhere. Towards dusk, thousands of hirundines congregated here (c70% Tree Swallow) and 20 Night Herons flew over. We kept scanning the edges of the closest pools and were eventually rewarded with two Clapper Rails standing at the edge of the reeds. They then proceeded in calling and chasing a third bird away. A great end to a fantastic day.

Stayed overnight at Brawley Inn Motel (voted as best motel of the trip!)

March 26th - Brawley, Anza Borrego & Palomar Mountains

A Cactus Wren singing in the motel grounds, and watched from our balcony got the day off well! Had to get Alastair out of the shower for that one! A good start. We were pleasantly surprised with Brawley. It was a lovely town and totally different to what we thought it would be like, being located next to the Salton Sea. Gila Woodpecker proved very easy and we found them in many of the streets as we walked around. Northern Mockingbird, Great-tailed Grackle and Western Kingbird were very common around the suburban gardens and we also found Common Ground Dove and a few Bullock's Orioles. Our next stop in Brawley was at Cattle Call Park, a large open park and the location of the town's rodeo ground. A stroll around the park produced Rufous-crowned Sparrows with a large flock of White-crowned Sparrows (with a few Brewer's thrown in for good measure) near a small playground, with Gambel's Quail here also. A Sage Thrasher was a good find in the sagebrush on the far side of the park and we eventually found Inca Dove here (4 in total). Mourning Dove was very common here. Other species in the park included Say's Phoebe, Cactus Wren and Common Ground Dove.

After Brawley, headed east to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park for a few target species. We stopped at the campgrounds along Highway S2, those being Bow Willow, Mountain Palm Springs and Agua Caliente. Bow Willow Campground produced our first Black-throated Gray Warbler, an absolute cracker of a bird. Whilst we watched it, a Black-throated Sparrow appeared and we eventually had five sparrows here. A pair of Hooded Orioles made this a very worthwhile stop! Mountain Palm Springs Campground was relatively quiet, although we had good views of Rock Wren and Bewick's Wren here as well as a male Bullock's Oriole. It was also starting to get very hot (78 degrees). Having read the literature, we knew Agua Caliente Campground was very popular with birders. It offers the only area of substantial cover for miles around and is well known as an excellent migrant trap. The campground was quite busy with campers, but that didn't seem to bother the Roadrunner that dodged the children playing on their bicycles! Other new birds for us at the campground were Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (4+), White-winged Dove (many), Costa's Hummingbird and Hooded Oriole (5). An empidonax flycatcher was probably a Willow Flycatcher. Phainopepla was very common here and migrant warblers included three Wilson's and many Orange-crowned.

As the weather was getting hot, we headed to the Palomar Mountains and to Palomar Mountain State Park. The scenery was fantastic and when we reached the top we found snow on the ground. We made various stops along the road to the summit. Mountain Chickadee was seen at most of the stops and we eventually caught up with Oak Titmouse, which was rapidly turning into our bogey bird before here. White-breasted Nuthatch was found near Birch Hill, with a Downy Woodpecker nearby. Other birds noted in particularly good numbers here included Steller's Jay, Acorn Woodpecker and Western Bluebird. At dusk, listened for owls and had three calling Western Screech Owls but they were unfortunately distant. Headed towards Borrego Springs for the night and had a Barn Owl sat on a roadsign just outside the town.

Stayed overnight at Borrego Springs

March 27th - Borrego Springs to San Diego

Two Common Ground Doves watched in the trees behind the chalet whilst having a cup of coffee.

The plan for today was to bird in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and try and catch up with some of our missing 'desert' species, then head towards San Diego mid-day. Our first stop was at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Centre, were we found Lesser Goldfinch (one of our missing species), Costa's Hummingbird and Gambel's Quail. At the visitor centre, we then took the Palm Canyon Nature Trail. The walk was fairly easy going and the palm trees took about thirty minutes to reach. This was a superb oasis and held many birds that were attracted to the trees and water (the stream was very inviting for us too after walking for thirty minutes in temperatures that were in the high eighties). This was also one of our last chances to see Canyon Wren so we spent quite a bit of time here. We did eventually see two Canyon Wren's, near the palms, as well as Rock Wren. Two male Scott's Orioles added colour on the walk up the canyon and we came across more Black-throated Sparrows and Lesser Goldfinches. Migrants in the oasis included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Lincoln's Sparrow and Orange-crowned Warbler. Violet-green Swallows flew overhead and we enjoyed good views of Costa's Hummingbird here.

Headed towards San Diego and arrived mid-afternoon. Decided to visit San Dieguito River Park, as this was reportedly a good spot for California Gnatcatcher. We stayed for a good few hours but failed to see gnatcatcher here but many other species were seen. Common birds around the park were California Towhee, California Thrasher, Say's Phoebe, Wrentit and Savannah Sparrow. A Roadrunner here was only our second of the trip. Raptors included White-tailed Kite and Peregrine. An amazing sight was that of thousands of hirundines, the vast majority being Cliff Swallows, that were in the area and gave fantastic views. Lake Hodges was very good for dabbling duck and waders. Most of the lake was mud as it was being drained so that the land could be used for building houses. The draining of the lake had provided superb feeding areas for many duck, including Blue-winged, Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal. Waders included Greater Yellowlegs, American Avocet and Killdeer.

Stayed overnight at Ocean Villa Motel, San Diego

March 28th - San Diego area

California Gnatcatcher was our target bird at Otay Lakes this morning. We eventually found 3-4 birds and eventually had good views in this difficult chaparral habitat. Many Wrentits were here and we had many other species, including Fox Sparrow. The lake itself produced our first Forster's Terns (c12) and many Western Grebes were here. As nothing else new for us was here, we headed towards the Mexican border and to the Border Field State Park. The Border Police were very noticeable here, although we had no problems at all. The road to the park was closed due to flooding so we made numerous stops along the road. Black-chinned Hummingbird was our target here – we managed four other species of 'hummer' but not that one. A White-tailed Kite flew over a nearby field and we watched a Cooper's Hawk fly across the border.

Next stop was at South Bay Marine Biological Study Area were we hoped for views of terns. We were not disappointed and enjoyed good views of 150+ Elegant Terns and ten Royal Terns amongst Caspian and Forster's Terns. Another nearby pool had 40 Black Skimmers roosting alongside more terns and many shorebirds. A very worthwhile stop.

Sunset Cliffs Boulevard was our next destination, as we hoped to find Wandering Tattler here. We found one at our first stop! Things were going well. Two Surfbirds were here also and a flock of 54 Brant's were sat on the sea, amongst many Surf Scoters. Many birds were passing offshore so we decided to have a bit of a seawatch here. We noted about 30 Black-vented Shearwaters in ten minutes passing south and two Common Terns sat on a piece of driftwood were new for the trip. Many gulls were attracted to the carpark viewing area, including three first-summer Heermann's, with a first-summer Bonaparte's Gull sat just offshore.

Lunchtime saw us visit the Point Loma area and we made numerous stops along the peninsula. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery held many migrants, although we were restricted to were we could bird (there were many funerals taking place). We spent an hour on the west side of the cemetery and had Hermit Thrush, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler and many Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers. Sparrows included Chipping on the short grass. Two Cooper's Hawks gave brilliant perched views. Point Loma National Monument (Cabrillo) gave fantastic views over the Pacific but there were many people here, although we did see Fox Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler and Pacific-slope Flycatcher in the bushes around the carparks. The California Towhees here were particularly approachable. Without doubt our most productive stop was at Point Loma Nazarene University. Birders are welcome to enter the rather plush university grounds. A small valley, which backs onto the houses and gardens bordering the east side of the university, was full of migrants. A two storey open carpark gave bandstand views and enabled us to look down on many of the birds in the bushes below, giving excellent views. We spent three hours here and added many new species to our trip list. Warblers predominated and included Nashville and Townsend's amongst the many Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned. Our best find of the trip was a male Pine Warbler here, a rare visitor to California. (We understand the bird was trapped and ringed a couple of days later). Other birds in the grounds included three species of hummingbird (which Rufous was the commonest), Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a flyover group of 45 Cedar Waxwings, which were closely followed by a circling Goshawk. A superb couple of hours.

The last stop of the day was at the San Diego River, along Sea World Drive. Many wildfowl and waders were on the river, and we saw our first Redhead here (37) and counted c20 Blue-winged Teal. Target bird here was the Reddish Egret that had been in the area for a few months and we found it with little problem. Amongst the common shorebirds were two Whimbrel. A nice stop to end a great day.

Stayed overnight at Ventura

March 29th - Santa Cruz Island

Today we took the trip across to Santa Cruz Island were we hoped to find Island Scrub-jay, a Californian endemic found only on Santa Cruz Island. The trip across would also provide an opportunity for seabirds. The catamaran left Ventura Harbour at 08.00 hrs with the crossing taking an hour. In the harbour we saw Western and Clark's Grebes, Forster's and Caspian Tern and Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage. The boat moves fast but the captain will slow down if there is any wildlife to be seen, i.e. whales or dolphins. We were lucky in that we came across a large feeding group of Common Dolphins so we slowed down. Many shearwaters were associating with the dolphins and we enjoyed brilliant views of Pink-footed Shearwater (150+) and Black-vented Shearwater (40+) along with smaller numbers of Sooty Shearwaters. We also saw Xantus's Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet but views of both these birds were better on the return journey.

On the island, we found Island Scrub-jay almost straight away at the first picnic site reached when walking inland from the landing point (Scorpion Cove). There were at least five birds here, coming down to scraps left behind on the picnic tables. In the trees and bushes around the picnic tables we had Hermit Thrush and found a White-throated Sparrow feeding in a small area of crops with many White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows. Song and Fox Sparrow were also seen here. We also saw the island sub-species of Orange-crowned Warbler and Allen's Hummingbird in this area. Seabirds breeding around the harbour included Pigeon Guillemot and both Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants.

The return journey saw us have superb views of Grey Whales and we stayed with them for ten minutes or so and even had a few tail splashes! A Pomarine Skua and a couple of Kittiwakes were added to the days tally.

Stayed overnight at Maricopa

March 30th - Maricopa to Mount Pinos

An early start needed this morning, as we would be trying for Le Conte's Thrasher, at a site just outside Maricopa, along Petroleum Club Road. Maricopa certainly got our vote for the strangest place visited, the whole area being dominated by oil drilling wells coupled with the smell of petroleum. After half an hour of searching, we found a Le Conte's Thrasher, singing from the top of a bush and had great 'scope views of the bird. There was also a California Thrasher in the area. We also caught up with Sage Sparrow here and had somewhere in the region of 25 birds. Loggerhead Shrikes were common along the roadside and California Quail were numerous.

We had plenty of time on our hands so we headed towards the Soda Lake (along Soda Lake Road) to try for Prairie Falcon. We travelled about five miles along the road (the lake is a further thirty-odd miles from here). A superb immature Ferruginous Hawk flew alongside the car, giving excellent views. The whole area was dominated by Horned Larks and we must have seen a couple of hundred birds over the five miles. Savannah Sparrow and Lark Sparrow were also numerous along here.

After breakfast, headed towards Mount Pinos, with many common birds noted along the roadside. Arrived at McGill campsite, at 7500 feet, with snow on the ground. The scenery was fantastic, the sun was shining and the birding simply brilliant. Immediately upon arriving, a Clark's Nutcracker flew across the road and it soon became apparent that they were a common bird in the area. A group of a dozen Crossbills flew over calling and flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons exploded from the pines as we approached them. Other birds noted around the campsite included Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Pygmy Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Western Bluebird, Dark-eyed Junco and Pine Siskin. After a bit of searching, we eventually found White-headed Woodpecker and had excellent views, when it was then joined by a second bird. Fox Sparrows scratched around the undergrowth.

We travelled a little further long the road to the summit, as far as you can go, and explored the woodland behind the mountain rescue HQ. It is difficult to underestimate the numbers of birds here. The trees were literally full with Crossbills, Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees. We had a further three White-headed Woodpeckers here and added Cassin's Finch to the trip list with a pair giving good views. Groups of Pine Siskins came down to the snow to drink and a few Chipping Sparrows hopped around the rockier areas. Many other common birds noted.

Mount Pinos campsite, heading back down the road, held much of the same species, although Al managed to see Mountain Quail before Paul got there, the bird flying down hill, away through the trees. A Varied Thrush was welcome here, as we hadn't seen one for a few days and a Red-breasted Sapsucker called from the top of a dead tree. Two more White-headed Woodpeckers were seen here.

One more stop was made on our way back down the mountain, along Cuddy Valley Road. Here we found a large flock of c70 Pinyon Jay feeding in pines near a small group of houses (not signposted). A little further along the road, a small pool held two Ring-necked Ducks.

Started the long drive back towards San Francisco and stayed overnight at Pacifica.

March 31st - San Francisco area

Most of the morning was spent in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This huge park would be an ideal visit with birders on limited time in the city, as it held many of the resident species in good numbers, with many birds being very approachable. Migrant warblers here included Townsend's, Wilson's, and Nashville. Cedar Waxwings were common in the treetops and we found a couple of Hermit Thrushes here. The various park lakes held an assortment of gulls and wildfowl. The almost resident Tropical Kingbird was successfully twitched, in the vicinity of the buffalo enclosure! Weirdest sight of the morning was the lady taking her cat for a walk on a lead.

The rest of the day was spent in the San Francisco area and included visits to Lake Merced (little seen here), Foster City (were White-winged Scoter was added to the trip list on the river below the San Mateo Bridge amongst many seaduck) and Sea Cloud Park (wader scrapes with lots of peeps).

Stayed overnight at Motel near San Francisco Airport

April 1st - depart San Francisco

Early morning flight back to Heathrow

Paul Baxter, Aberdeen, UK.
Alastair Henderson, Oxford,UK.