Sunday, 20 September 2009

California - safe and warm in L.A...

Our Avian Adventures tour in California followed closely the itinerary we have used in previous years: after flying into Los Angeles we worked our way up the coast via Ventura and Morro Bay to Monterey and then headed inland to spectacular Yosemite National Park before catching a return flight from San Francisco. It has been successful in the past and it worked well again this time.

California Quail

Two of our days around Ventura were spent with local bird photographer/film maker, Don Desjardin as our guide. We visited several of the well-known sites in the area and Don generously shared with us some others that were new to me. We saw plenty of birds, 80 or more species, but for our group probably the highlights were the California Condors, seven of them at least and some soaring almost overhead. In recent years Condors have been easy to see at the Grand Canyon on our tours in Arizona but this was the most I have seen in California - hopefully a good sign. There was also plenty of interest in the butterflies which included numerous Lorquin's Admirals and some impressive Western Tiger Swallowtails.

California Condor

Western Tiger Swallowtails

Our third day at Ventura was devoted to a trip across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Cruz Island, home of the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. The taxonomy of these birds was changed in 1996 and they are noticeably bigger and brighter-coloured than the Western Scrub-Jays on the nearby mainland; also their bills are proportionately larger. They are easy enough to find - once you're on the island.

As we headed north from Ventura we saw what is the only other species, apart from Island Scrub-Jay, that has never been recorded outside California - the Yellow-billed Magpie. Again they are easy enough to find although there have been reports recently of a decline in numbers. We also called in at Nojoqui Falls County Park where within just a few minutes of each other we found two vagrants from the eastern USA - Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Canada Warbler. As always when we find 'rarities' on tours we put word out about these birds as soon as possible.

Yellow-billed Magpie

We spent time at Morro Bay in the vicinity of Morro Rock where various gulls, Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons and Sea Otters were the main attractions.

Heerman's Gull

Brown Pelican

Pelagic Cormorant

Our one full day in the area was divided between Morro Bay State Park and Montaňa de Oro State Park and in terms of the number of species recorded this was the best day of the entire tour. Many of these were shorebirds, with Marbled Godwits, Willets, Western and Least Sandpipers and Greater Yellowlegs particularly numerous.

Marbled Godwit

Greater Yellowlegs

From Morro Bay we continued north along the picturesque Big Sur coast to Monterey stopping regularly to admire the scenery and to look for birds mainly on the sea - scoters, loons, grebes and cormorants. We also stopped at Piedras Blancas to see Northern Elephant Seals. Hunted nearly to extinction years ago for their oil-rich blubber, these remarkable mammals are now protected and have made a remarkable comeback.

Northern Elephant Seals

From our new base in Monterey we visited Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough and Moonglow Dairy. These provided what for me was some of the most enjoyable birding of the tour with hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes and Marbled Godwits and lots of other shorebirds including a Solitary Sandpiper and a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers. Also seen were Clark's Grebes, Surf Scoter, Red-throated Diver, MacGillivray's Warbler, Bufflehead and 30 or more Sea Otters.

Marbled Godwits and Willets

Red-necked Phalarope

Sea Otter

One of the high spots of any birding tour in California is a pelagic trip with Debra Shearwater and on our second day at Monterey we arrived at Fisherman's Wharf at 7.00am to board the Check Mate. It's amazing who you meet in such places! By chance, also there for the boat were old friends from the West Midland Club, Bob Normand, Jim Winsper and Mike West with their wives (a group that I also bumped into on a similar boat trip in Texas some years ago!), Mike Hodgson who I have met several times when leading tours in Lesvos, David Patick from Huntington, WV who June and I met in Texas earlier this year plus another tour group from the UK.

It proved to be one of the smoothest boat trips I've ever been on - the sun shone, there was very little wind and the sea was calm - and we saw an excellent variety of seabirds and marine mammals. Notable amongst the birds were Tufted and Horned Puffins, Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets, Pink-footed, Sooty and Buller's Shearwaters, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Black-footed Albatross, Sabine's Gull, Long-tailed, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers and South Polar Skua. And, of course, there were whales and dolphins...

Buller's Shearwater

Sabine's Gull

Pink-footed Shearwater

Black-footed Albatross

After 10 days along the coast we headed inland to spend some time in and around Yosemite National Park. One of these days was taken up by a visit to Mono Lake, famous for its abundant brine shrimps which along with the countless alkali flies that inhabit the shoreline provide food for huge numbers of birds, especially Eared Grebes, California Gulls and Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes. It is estimated for instance that more than one million Eared Grebes congregate on the lake each year to moult and to feed up in preparation for their migration and there is enough food for them to double their weight during this time!

Mono Lake

California Gull and Alkali Flies

We also paid an early morning visit (before the tourists arrived!) to Glacier Point, the spectacular view from which is one of the major attractions of Yosemite. Our target here was Sooty Grouse and three of these birds were found almost immediately on our arrival and proved to be the most confiding creatures one could imagine. Nearby we found an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a Fox Sparrow, a White-headed Woodpecker and numerous Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees.

Sooty Grouse

All in all it was an excellent tour, rounded off by a brief visit to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and a glimpse of the famous landmark bridge.

Next stop: Tavira...

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