California 2011

DescriptionSpecies SeenTour Testimonials
Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

We began our tour early on the morning of March 4th, driving south along the coast looking in particular for Thayer’s Gull, Surfbird and Allen’s Hummingbird. After several stops we pulled into Pomponio State Beach in San Mateo County where Santa Cruz birder, Oscar Johnson had just found a Slaty-backed Gull, a new bird for me.

Better still there were several Thayer’s Gulls in the flock, the first bird we had found on our list of “very desirable birds to see”. Further south we stopped at a rocky headland where we found a flock of Surfbirds sharing a roost with a group of Whimbrel, bird # 2, and the day was going well. We continued on to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, 75 miles south of San Francisco where the “Australian Garden” is known to be a good site for Allen’s Hummingbird.

In addition to great displays from the Allen’s we were treated to the many Anna’s Hummingbirds and California Thrashers that make their home in the gardens. With some light remaining in the day we decided to drive up to Chews Ridge in Monterey County where we hoped to find Mountain Quail. Tassajara Road was suffering from the recent rains and we hit snow at about 3,600 feet so it wasn’t looking good. As the available light diminished we turned back planning to try again the next day with some sleep and a fresh start. At the base of the hill we saw a single quail run across the road and hesitate at the edge of some bushes. We hurriedly came to a stop, whipped up our binoculars and had great looks at a very nice looking male Mountain Quail, number four “lifer” for my client and a wonderful start to the trip.

Day 2 started out with the first of many sightings of Yellow-billed Magpie, (it was good to see that it is recovering from the hit it took from the West Nile Virus), a single Golden Eagle and a colony of White-throated Swifts along Arroyo Seco Road as we drove towards Pinnacles National Monument, San Benito County, in search of Sage Sparrow and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Having driven south of Pinnacles we headed north on Highway 25 (Airline Highway) where we had a nice view of an adult Bald Eagle sitting atop an oak tree beside the highway, and further along, a field with approximately 135 Long-billed Curlew feeding. Although we had no luck with our goal birds here, we did get to watch a California Condor soaring above the pinnacles. A quick trip further north to Del Puerto Canyon Road, Stanislaus County, at the end of the day revealed an interaction on a rocky face between a Rock Wren and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The sparrow, which appeared to be carrying nest material, chased off the wren.

Early the following morning we returned to Del Puerto Canyon Road and drove to the junction with Mines Road and San Antonio Valley Road, Santa Clara County, where we searched for Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Light rain hampered our search a little, however patience paid off after a half hour or so when a small flock of about 10 birds flew in and perched in a nearby tree. As quickly as they had arrived, they left, and though we waited for their return, they never did. We then left the junction and drove down San Antonio Valley Road where, after a short distance we found our second goal bird, Lewis’s Woodpecker. There were two birds here, appearing to be “on territory” as they repeatedly returned to chosen trees in the area. Our search for Sage Sparrow along Mines Road was unproductive so we turned and drove toward Panoche Valley arriving shortly after lunch at the Panoche Inn, located on Panoche Road in San Benito County. Our first sighting after lunch was a Cassin’s Kingbird hunting outside the inn.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

We returned to Little Panoche Road and drove towards Mercy Hot Springs in anticipation of seeing the Long-eared Owls that had been reported there. We were not disappointed; our first owl was a Barn Owl after which we found seven Long-eared Owls roosting on the property, well worth the $5 per person they were charging to see them. Birding toward Highway 5 in Fresno County we saw Tri-colored Blackbird and Northern Harrier and once on 5 heading south toward Ridgecrest, Kern County, we saw an early season Swainson’s Hawk perched on a low fence.

We began our fourth day by meeting with Bob Barnes who had arranged to take us to a property owned by his friend Louise to look for Le Conte’s Thrasher. Conditions were not the best, it was cold with gusting winds, but we were able to find the thrasher plus a Verdin building a nest, a Greater Roadrunner on a nest and a Burrowing Owl, all on the same property. On the drive back out from the site we were able to find several singing Sage Sparrows, all of which performed their songs from the top of shrubs between wind gusts.

Our destination for the end of the day was Ventura from where we were to depart the next day for Santa Cruz Island. With the time we had remaining in the day we drove south and east into the Los Padres National Forest where we hoped to find Clark’s Nutcracker and perhaps get another look at Mountain Quail. Once in the National Forest we entered Chumash Wilderness in Ventura County and ascended Mount Pinos to over 8,000 feet where deep snow and very cold winds (25 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit) made birding difficult. Although we did not find the birds we were searching there were some birds braving the conditions, Common Raven, Mountain Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Steller’s Jay were all seen and at 2:30 PM at approximately 7,000 feet elevation a Great Horned Owl was calling.

The next morning our boat left Ventura with warnings that the crossing to Santa Cruz Island would be rough due to the strong winds we had experienced the day before. Conditions made birding on the crossing difficult though we did see several Pigeon Guillemots in addition to a sighting of a California Gray Whale.

Island Scrub Jay

Island Scrub Jay

Once ashore on the island we began to search for the Island Scrub-Jay, our reason for the trip. We were told we were to be back on the dock in 3 hours, plenty of time we thought, and within a short time a jay flew across the path in the distance, not the “look” we had come this far for. While we searched we saw some of the island’s subspecies, Song Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, Allen’s Hummingbird, Spotted Towhee, Bewicks Wren and House Finch, all of which had clearly different songs than I am used to on the mainland.

Well, two and a half hours passed without any further indication of the jays’ existence and we were getting just a little bit anxious. As we attempted to regroup we heard a distant call from the top of a shrub across a valley, scope views would have to do it seemed but to our surprise and pleasure the bird flew toward us and perched atop a small tree not twenty feet away. Emotions ran from gratitude and relief to joy as we shared great looks at what was clearly a much larger and brighter colored bird than the Western Scrub-Jay I am used to. Making it back to the dock with plenty of time to spare we returned to Ventura in much calmer seas enjoying numerous sightings of Zantus’s Murrelet, a life bird for me, my second of the day.

Not far from the island we encountered the first of many pods of Common Dolphins, by some estimates about seven hundred animals. By the end of the trip back we had seen approximately fifteen hundred Common Dolphins in a period of an hour, a wonderful ending to the day.

Common Dolphins

Common Dolphins

On March 9th, our sixth day of the trip we drove into the San Gabriel Mountains within the Angeles National Forest, ascending the Angeles Crest Highway to an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet. Damage from the fires that had swept the forest in the recent past was much in evidence with vast areas blackened and not yet showing signs of regrowth in much of the burn zone. Birding along the road seemed a little slow but we did have very nice looks at an adult Coopers Hawk soaring at eye-level as we ate lunch. Band-tailed Pigeons also seemed abundant.

We focused our attention at the entry to Charlton Flat Campground (all the campgrounds were closed until April 1st) where there was burn on one side of the road and not the other. On the live side of the road we watched Mountain Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches while on the burnt side we had very good views of Hairy, White-headed and Acorn Woodpecker’s and Western Bluebirds. We topped the day off with good views of a flock of Lawrence’s Goldfinches as they momentarily appeared in the open area of the forest. Wrapping up the trip we turned and headed home from the solitude of the mountains into the bustle of downtown Los Angeles having found all the birds on our list plus some.

Screen shot of list of species seen on California 2011 tour

Click to download PDF file of species list

Impressed in California

Stellar's Jay

I spoke with Pete Ferrara today and it sounds like you two enjoyed a successful trip--well done. I was especially impressed with the Lawrence's Goldfinch and Mountain Quail sightings.

David Shackelford

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About Ken Wilson

Ken Wilson is the owner of Talon Tours. A native New Zealander, Ken has been leading nature and birdwatching tours worldwide since 1995. Ken has also led focused tours to many national and state parks in the western United States as well as key birding sites during migration. His passion for photography began in the early 1970’s and continues to grow. Ken is known for his easygoing manner and attention to organizational and logistical details.