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CALIFORNIA 2008

The annual Birdfinders tour of California continues to be one our most exciting North American itineraries producing a diverse range species bettered only by our Texas tour in spring. This year was our fifth consecutive departure and produced some 272 bird species and almost 30 species of mammals and reptiles. It's a tour of remarkable contrasts, combining the cool (even chilly) Pacific coastline with the high mountains and majestic scenery of the Sierra Nevada, the vast dry plains of the Mojave Desert and the sticky heat of the Salton Sea basin – all of this being encapsulated in one giant 2400 mile loop beginning and ending in Los Angeles.

Our full group (sixteen participants and two leaders) experienced many fabulous days in the field beginning with a boat cruise across to Santa Cruz Island from Ventura Beach not only to see the endemic Island Scrub-Jay and the endemic race of Allen's Hummingbird, but also Pomarine Skuas, Black-vented Shearwaters and close Blue Whales on the crossing – not too shabby for the first full day!

As we journeyed north along the Pacific Coast Highway we found many of the classic 'hoped for' species of California including Brandt's Cormorant, California Quail, California Gull, Heerman's Gull, Elegant Tern, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Wrentit, Oak Titmouse, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, California Towhee, and Tricoloured Blackbird. Typical 'Pacific' shorebirds included Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattler whilst amongst our more unusual finds were single Baird's and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Particularly memorable sightings included close-up views of Clark's and Western Grebes together, a Pacific Diver in near full summer plumage, and a perched California Condor close to Big Sur. Only minutes before seeing the latter, we'd watched Elephant Seals hauled out on the beach along Scenic Route 1.

Traditionally, the pelagic adventure out of Monterey Harbour has always been one of the highlights of the tour and this year was no exception. The trip began shrouded in fog but opened up into a perfect day for seabirding with a relatively calm ocean. Although the variety of species didn't quite match that seen on previous trips at this time of year, we did have outstanding views of most species including an incredible showing of at least forty Black-footed Albatross. Good views were also had of Pink-footed Shearwaters, Buller's Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters, Ashy Storm-Petrels, Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes, South Polar Skuas, Pomarine Skua, Sabine's Gulls, and Rhinocerous Auklet. Cetaceans on the same voyage included Humpback Whales, Risso's Dolphins and Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

We departed from the Pacific Coast just south of Santa Cruz and headed inland to the comfortable surroundings of Mariposa which would be our base for two days as we explored Yosemite National Park. Here we marveled at the stunning scenery whilst working hard on the bird finding. Exceptionally dry conditions meant that birds were patchy at best, but by the end of the second day we'd found Great Gray Owl, Northern Pygmy-owl, White-headed Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, American Dipper, Townsend's Solitaire, Mountain Chickadee, Clark's Nutcracker, Black-throated Gray, Hermit and Townsend's Warblers, Purple and Cassin's Finches and Red Crossbill. Descending down-slope through truly impressive scenery, the eastern side of the Sierras also gave us Prairie Falcon and Mountain Bluebird – the only sightings of the tour. Jane and Brenda, who'd been taking it easy on one of trails at Yosemite, also had one of the best mammals of the tour when a Black Bear crossed the trail just yards in front of them! How lucky can you get?

This tour isn't renowned for a lot of early morning starts, but we do like to start early at Mammoth Lakes and get out into the Sage Brush desert just after first light. Although bitterly cold at dawn, the visit is full of rewards and this year we had lovely views of about 20 Greater Sage Grouse, along with plenty of Sage Thrashers and an especially good showing of Green-tailed Towhees. On the same morning, high in the Pine Woods, we found an amazing concentration of about a dozen Lewis's Woodpeckers, with at least three Williamson's Sapsuckers and half-a-dozen Pygmy Nuthatches during a very busy purple patch. A mysterious dark raptor at the same spot would prove to be a fascinating dark-morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, finally identified after consulting images and references. The long drive from Mammoth Lakes south to Mojave was punctuated a short side trip to Cedar Flat where we would find a huge covey of Chukars (non-native but ABA countable), and a major surprise in the form of a Plumbeous Vireo – the first time we'd ever recorded that species on a California itinerary.

Mojave may not be the most attractive place to spend a couple of nights but the surrounding desert certainly harbours some gems, amongst them Le Conte's Thrasher which we managed to see for the fifth year in succession. Moreover, we had prolonged views of Le Conte's alongside a Sage Thrasher and a Rock Wren to boot! The rest of our full day in the Mojave was spent birding desert oases, which, given the drought conditions in California, worked in a favour with some exciting results. On arrival at Butterbredt Spring we found the place heaving with Sage Sparrows, more than we'd ever seen at this site. To add a touch of the bizarre, a Lewis's Woodpecker flew around looking for a spot to land, but it was inside the canopy that the excitement gained momentum – we quickly notched up a Chestnut-sided Warbler and three American Redstarts, migrants much more typically associated with the East Coast rather than the West. A Northern Waterthrush found later in the day continued the same theme, and we watched amazed as numerous Wilson's Warblers hopped all over the lawns at Silver Saddle Resort. MacGillivarey's Warblers seen at two sites were much more difficult to see well, and near impossible to photograph.

As we pushed on Southwards, Big Morrongo Canyon Preserve and its hummingbird feeders proved, once again, to be a major attraction and turned up some very good birds. Highlights included a Calliope Hummingbird, another first for this itinerary, plus at least three Costa's Hummingbirds including a couple of males still showing some nice colour on the throat. Rufous, Anna's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds were also present, whilst a wander through nearby Covington Park gave us two Vermilion Flycatchers, a female Bullock's Oriole and the only Willow Flycatcher of the tour. By late afternoon we'd reached the shores of the mighty Salton Sea and spent the rest of the day watching the marvelous spectacle of vast quantities of waterbirds gathering to roost – 4000 Double-crested Cormorants, 3000 American White Pelicans, 2500 Avocets, and 1400 Red-necked Phalaropes were just a few of our estimates, whilst scarcer species included 'American' Black Terns, Wilson's Phalaropes and our first views of Yellow-footed Gulls, a rare late summer/early autumn visitor from Mexico to the Salton Sea. The following day produced more Yellow-footed Gulls than we'd previously seen on any Birdfinders tour, most of them immaculate adults. But there was stiff competition for bird of the day once the first Greater Roadrunners had been found, in fact a party of three birds vied for attention with Black-crowned Night-herons, Northern Harrier and Burrowing Owls. Though distant, the roadrunners did show for an extended period eventually giving great views. Charming Burrowing Owls lined many of the roadside ditches and haystacks, but the daytime roost of a Barn Owl took a little more finding. In the same area, Abert's Towhees, Gambel's Quail and Lesser Nighthawks gave terrific views whilst the flood meadows held at least five Pectoral Sandpipers and a Ruff, with another Ruff seen at Finney Lakes later in the same day – quite remarkable to find two Ruffs in one day in the middle of interior USA. At the beginning and end of each day, great flights of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis passed over the fields and our place of accommodation in Brawley. Indeed, it was with some regret that we left our fine lodgings in Brawley, but not before adding Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, White-winged and Inca Doves to the list.

On the way to Julian, a long staying Aleutian Cackling Goose and a White-fronted Goose provided a worthwhile diversion, since all of the world population of the former spends the winter in California, this being a bird that didn't bother migrating back north for unknown reasons. Its origin, however, was that of a wild bird.

Julian lived up to expectation providing good birds (Band-tailed Pigeon, Phainopepla and Cassin's Vireo), a birdwatchers' store (selling remarkably good value binoculars), and its famous and undeniably excellent apple pie! By the end of the same day, we were back on the cool misty coast and a complete change of scenery in San Ysidro, almost within 'spitting' distance from Mexico. The following morning proved a long one as our main target, California Gnatcatcher, really led us a dance all over the dry coastal sage scrub at Otay Lakes. However, we were ultimately rewarded with reasonable views, and along with a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, plus a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher at Finney Lakes two days earlier meant that we'd seen all the possible gnatcatchers in California! With our main target in the bag before breakfast, much of the rest of the day was spent in relaxed manner birding along Imperial Beach and the Tijuana River mouth. We found numerous Belding's Savannah Sparrows along the tide wrack, with just one Large-billed Savannah on the return journey. We enjoyed very close views of shorebirds such as Snowy Plovers, and Short-billed Dowitchers and had our first and only Least Terns of the tour. On the downside, perhaps due to the very low tide, we didn't see Pacific Golden-plovers here for the first time in about four years. However, we did have some very good looks at a Clapper Rail scurrying along a muddy channel opposite the parking area.

With more or less an open agenda for the penultimate day, we headed back inland to the hills in hopes of finding a few more key California specialties before spending a final night in Los Angeles. We found one them, Lawrence's Goldfinch, but with some considerable effort most of our party got reasonable views – but alas Mountain Quail would elude on yet another tour.

The last morning of this very enjoyable tour was spent at Bolsa Chica Ecological where found many water and shorebirds close-up and personal, providing excellent photographic opportunities. We also had a couple of new birds for the trip including five American Wigeons and two fine adult Reddish Egrets. And that pretty ended our birding for California in 2008. We had a casual drive and a long lunch on the way to the airport and called in at the very scenic Palos Verdes Peninsula, where a distant Long-tailed Skua became the final addition to the trip list. This excellent tour, which had been well humoured throughout, concluded at Los Angeles airport when we caught our respective flights home.

California Thrasher

California Thrasher