Mid-summer birding in Northern California

(with contributions by Lesley Starke)

It’s always exciting when friends tie the knot. It’s even more exciting when the reception is at an exciting (read birding) destination. This about sums the situation when my friends Scott Loarie and Jessica Yarnall recently got married in the heart of California’s Sonoma County. As this was my fourth visit to California, one would imagine this trip would turn into a rather relaxed cleanup session. However, as it turns out, I had company this time, with my girlfriend Lesley bravely embarking on her first ever power birding trip. True – couples twitching together for the first time can be a dangerous proposition. But Lesley was mentally well prepared – she’s read this blog, and had prior experience of day-long twitching sessions (in fact, the birding hobby bit her during some twitching in Boston!). So she was excited about the prospects without any illusions.


Despite being its most populous state, California remains one of the most attractive bird destinations in the United States. The state’s diverse range of habitat plays an important role. The state’s climate and biodiversity is influenced by the Pacific Ocean in the west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the east, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in the south and extensive forests in the north. In fact, forests cover an estimated 45% of California’s surface, and host some of the world’s oldest, tallest, and largest trees. Moreover, the combination of a diverse geography, hot dry summers and cool, wet winters also combine to make the California Floristic Province one of the most diverse ecoregions in the world.

The combination of a diverse geography, rich flora, and quite a bit of natural area scoured by many birders’ eyes results in a well-known birding landscape, and an impressive birding list (657 species according to ebird) – no rock unturned. California is probably also the state with the most email lists per capita/unit surface area etc. etc., so finding information on birding in the region isn’t difficult. The keen and eager birding community also readily responds to requests for information. It’s not surprising that California is also home to one of the most damaged ecosystems on earth, given its high population.

Interestingly, California’s Central Valley contains both the lowest (Death Valley) and highest (Mount Whitney) points in the contiguous United States. Also, if California was a country, it would constitute the eight-largest economy in the world.



Key birding resources

  • Dunn, J.L. & Alderfer, J. 2006. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society. Washington, DC.
  • Ebird, together with the iphone App BirdsEye
  • The California County Geographic Birding Guide provides a good per-county birding resource listing.
  • There’s an abundance of email lists on CA. There’s a good summary of email lists for California available on the ABA’s Mailing Lists list.
  • Seasonal abundances of Californian birds can be found here.


Visas, transport, and accommodation

I (South African citizen) was on a F-1 student visa in the USA, and my girlfriend a US citizen. Most visitors probably need visas to enter the USA; case-specific information is easy to obtain.

Note that it’s critical to carry your travel documentation with you at all times in the USA. While Arizona are more well-known for their stringent immigration laws, I almost learnt the importance of travel documents the hard way in this very California. Granted, border patrol introduced themselves to me outside Joshua Tree, which is much closer to Mexico that the Bay area. Still, after that I’m playing it safe rather than sorry.

Like elsewhere in the USA, transport and accommodation options are abundant and easy to obtain in California. Sadly, for a student, these do not come cheap, and my girlfriend graciously accepted the challenge of experiencing my twitching full on, so we birded by day and commuted by night, sleeping in the car as needed. We rented a car at the airport, which we did not book beforehand.



Day 1, Jul 14, 2011

Day of commute and (supposed) arrival, so not much happened today. We had a bit of a flight delay though, so we arrived in SFO only at 2AM rather than 10PM as planned. From there we headed straight out to Half Moon Bay, skipping the planned owling session in montane forests of the northern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains (and in the vicinity of the San Andreas Fault) to get to our first birding locations before dawn, with an hour or so to catch up on sleep after a rather long day of flight delays and time zone changes.


Day 2, Jul 15 2011

Day 2 was mostly devoted to building Lesley’s western waterbird list, so spent the day tracing the shoreline from San Francisco south – a VERY long day. We opened our CA account at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay with a California Towhee along the path, after which we also picked up Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Surf Scoter, and on the Pacific Ocean’s side of the breakwater, and Marbled Godwit, American Black Oystercatcher, Western Grebe, a few gulls (Heerman’s, Western), and a one-eyed Harbor Seal in the harbor. Lesley was also completely enamored by the algae scattered all over the beach at Pillar Point.  Interestingly, Pillar Point was a somewhat regional focus at the time of our visit because of a vagrant Blackpoll Warbler. As this is a common east coast migrant, we didn’t hang around looking for that.

Our next destination was Pescadero State Beach, where a brief visit yielded a few Surfbirds and Glaucous-winged Gull. Next was Pigeon Point Lighthouse, where we found our main target  (Tri-colored Blackbird) easily among some Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-winged Blackbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds, as well as the trip’s first Band-tailed Pigeons. A quick scan over the Pacific yielded Pigeon Guillemot and a lone male Californian Sea Lion, before we headed over to Natural Bridges State Beach where we saw Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Turnstone, another Glaucous-winged Gull, and Black Phoebe.

Zmudowski State Beach looked rather promising, so we decided to spend a little more time at this location. The marsh was especially productive, and, among the more notable species, we found a few American White Pelicans, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Marbled Godwit, Marsh Wren, Wrentit, Lesser Goldfinch, and a surprise Common Goldeneye. In between our two marsh visits, a brief walk on the beach got us a lone immature Bonaparte’s Gull flying parallel to the shore, and a remarkably white Glaucous-winged Gull (which I originally called Glaucous). Then it was time for Moss Landing,  which yielded some excitement in the form of a Snowy Plover on the beach, while we also found some Long-billed Curlews foraging in the marshland.

At this point it was getting late, and as the next road leading east was quite far from us, we had to pick up the pace a bit, so birding was limited after Monterey. Despite the rush we still managed to see a Peregrine close to Marina (after having a delicious roadhouse lunch of artichokes prepared in every imaginable way), while the drive through the Big Sur area produced Stellar’s Jay, Anna’s Hummingbird, many Sea Otters, and a possible Californian Condor: a massive dark raptor flew over the car, but we could just not stop, and when we could it was gone. We ended our wildlife portion of the day looking for Northern Elephant Seals at their Piedras Blancas rookery near San Simean. It was already well into the night when we arrived at the rookery, but with the full moon on the night we wandered out on the boardwalk listening to them snorting and puffing in the water, hoping for a better view. But, as we were about to step off the boardwalk, we suddenly realized that several boulders on the beach were in fact Elephant Seals. Once we recovered from our fright we thoroughly enjoyed the moonlit serenade. Then it was time for the long commute to Yosemite National Park, reaching the BLM Merced River Recreational Area just north of Briceburg just before dawn.


Day 3, Jul 16 2011

Our main target at Merced River was an irregularly reported Greater Roadrunner. Not having much information, we decided to drive the road up the mountain, in the process picking up dry-country goodies such as Dusky Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren and Bewick’s Wren, Bullock’s Oriole, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. I was also pretty sure I heard the Roadrunner at the foot of the hill, but we just could not succeed in visually confirming the call. So we moved on to Yosemite National Park, which was a first visit for both Lesley and me.

While most tourists do some hiking in Yosemite, we were going to be car-bound during this trip because of my knee-injury. This however did not affect the fun we had. Our first dedicated stop at Yosemite was Glacier Point. The road to Glacier Point was very productive, with Williamson’s Sapsucker and Red-breasted Sapsucker, Stellar’s Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper showing themselves well, while a hike around the point also got us White-headed Woodpecker and Mountain Chickadee. While we were warned by a few friends that Yosemite can be crazy, especially during mid-summer, we opted to still visit during peak tourist season even if we had to share the experience with a few thousand people. This strategy worked out rather well early in the morning, but we started to understand our friends’ warnings when we tried to see Mariposa Grove. Neither Lesley nor I have ever seen Giant Sequoias , so we really tried to get in. But after more than half an hour of failing to even secure a parking spot to enable us to take a shuttle to the grove, we were both driven rather crazy and had to get out of the zoo. So, we changed our plans and headed out east,  taking the CA State Route 120 (Tioga Pass) towards Mono Lake (on recommendation from Lesley’s boss) for some more dryland birding and more sightseeing. En route to Mono Lake but still in Yosemite National Park, we enjoyed some magnificent landscapes at Olmsted PointHalfdomeTenaya Lake and Tuolomne Meadows.

Our unplanned visit to Mono Lake ended up being a good addition to the trip. The lake is interesting in that there’s no outlet to an ocean, resulting in an accumulation of minerals in the lake. The lake’s water is consequently so salty that no fish and few invertebrates are able to survive in the water. An endemic species of brine shrimp however flourish in the lake, which attracts 35 bird species, up to two million individuals, to the lake to feast on this reliable food source. Another prominent feature of the lake is a series of tufa columns, which is essentially limestone which forms when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with carbonate-rich lake water to form calcium carbonate-limestone.

Birding at Mono Lake also did not disappoint. Brewer’s Sparrow was prominent in the surrounding sedges, while California Gulls, American Kestrels, and Cliff Swallows were also common. A stop at the South Tufa area yielded many Wilson’s Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes. We also spent some time at the burned-over area in the Inuo National Forest where we picked up Black-backed Woodpecker (a highlight for Lesley!), Gray Flycatcher, Clark’s Nutcracker, Green-tailed Towhee, and Mountain Bluebird. As dusk fell upon us, we headed over to the Lower Rush Creek riparian area on the south-western end of Mono Lake. There, we spotted Yellow Warbler, Common Nighthawk, Common Poorwill, and a few Desert Cottontails, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes. After dinner in Lee Vining, we decided to head back through Yosemite to try (or fail) some owls. After our fourth driver switch in 24 hours, Lesley was completely out, and I was sad to forego a well-known Great Gray Owl stake-out at Crane Flat as it headed towards Mariposa Grove, where we spent the few hours before sleeping under the very Giant Sequoias we so much wanted to see.


Day 4, Jul 17 2011

Mariposa Grove is a Giant Sequoia grove situated near the southern entrance of Yosemite National Park. While it certainly does not boast trees the calibre of those at Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park (the largest tree at Mariposa is ranked 16th among Sequoias), this area provides easy access to about 500 mature Giant Sequoias throughout the year. Many of these giants are quite spectacular and famous, such as the Grizzly Giant, Clothespin Tree, or the California Tunnel Tree.

Because of its popularity, access to the grove is restricted to a shuttle service during the day. But, as we found out, the boom gate is left open at night, which allowed us to enter the grove by ourselves. At this time Lesley was still asleep, blissfully unaware of the situation. So of course she had quite the surprise when she woke up with a giant Sequoia trunk obstructing her view out the car window. I think sunrise was just after 5AM, so we had quite a few hours of Mariposa Grove all by ourselves. It was absolutely awesome – not a single other person in sight. Even the birding was great with Hermit Warbler, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Pileated Woodpecker and more White-headed Woodpeckers showing themselves. All this serenity however changed at 8AM when the first buss of wide-open school children arrived with all their excited screaming. 8AM thus marked the moment we just wanted to get out and move on.

We made a few stops while driving through the Central Valley en route to the wedding later this day. Our only lenghty stop was Merced National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw Cinnamon Teal, American White Pelican, White-faced Ibis, Swainson’s Hawk, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Kingbird, and – the bird of the day – an American Bittern flushed from the reeds (though both Lesley and I have seen AMBI before, I have spent many hours, albeit unsuccessfully, hunting Eurasian Bittern in Africa so I have developed a bit of an obsession with this genus). Thereafter we spent a bit of time making some detours looking for more Greater Roadrunner (which was on top of Lesley’s wishlist), but to no avail before heading towards Healdsburg (seeing a surprising, out-of-season, Ferruginous Hawk en route).


Day 5, Jul 18 2011

Naturally, we slept a little late the morning after the wedding. Well, I did, while Lesley went about picking blackberries for breakfast, picking up Anna’s Hummingbird and California Thrasher in the process, while some other friends saw a Golden Eagle soaring over Scott’s parents’ house. Either way, I still enjoyed catching up on some sleep, lucky that none of those birds would’ve been lifers for me. Eventually I did wake up, in time to see a Spotted Sandpiper and Belted Kingfisher flying past my tent along the Russian River, after which Scott showed us a Pacific-slope Flycatcher nest with chicks.

After breakfast, Lesley and I headed over to Pine Flats Road just north-east of Healdsburg, where we saw Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, Wrentit, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, and the Pacific, dark-backed form of the Hairy Woodpecker. Then, after a lovely Sunday brunch in Healdsburg we headed to the region’s famous wine estates. We chose Valley of the Moon Winery, thinking that the ‘oldest winefarm in the Glen Ellen area’ will offer something unique. But this turned into a rather awful experience, with the most judgmental staff I have ever experienced at a wine estate (apparently others share out views of the winery’s staff). So, happy to leave VotM we started tracing the Pacific coast north of San Francisco, starting at Muir Woods National Monument to appreciate some gigantic Coastal Redwoods. Thereafter we visited Bolinas Lagoon (seeing Clark’s Grebe and Band-tailed Pigeon), and Point Reyes‘ Bear Valley Picnic Area (seeing Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo and Warbling Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-headed Grosbeak) before we ended the day looking at the sunset off the cliffs outside Bodega Bay.


Day 6, Jul 19 2011

We left our hotel in time to be at Aetna Springs Road just north of Pope Valley at dawn, hoping to see Mountain Quail – which is slowly becoming my western USA nemesis bird. We were not disappointed, with two Mountain Quails posing well in the road on the drive. We also saw our trip’s first Olive-sided Flycatchers here.

As we had to keep an eye on the time, and wanted to spend at least some time in San Francisco, birding was going to be limited during the last day of our California visit. So, after a brief look at a Common Merganser at the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge to spend the day being tourists in San Fran, enjoying a delicious sourdough at Pier 39 and driving the crazy crooked Lombard Street before heading over to Golden Gate Park. Of course, where there are trees and water there are birds, so the binoculars didn’t get completely packed away in San Francisco. Notable species we saw at the Golden Gate Beach Front included Pelagic Cormorant, Elegant Tern, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and multiple species of gulls, including another all-white Glaucous-winged Gull. Golden Gate Park itself offered both Anna’s Hummingbird and Allen’s Hummingbirds in the same bush, Purple Finch, and a Hooded Oriole in the palm trees opposite the de Young Memorial Museum.

As our California trip came to an end, we left for the airport. To our surprise, we ended up over-compensating for bad traffic, which allowed us a little more time to visit the Palo Alto Baylands where se saw Lesser Scaup, Nothern Harrier, Semi-palmated Plover, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and two Black-tailed Jackrabbits fighting – but sadly, no Burrowing Owl.


Yosemite in 24 hours

Prior to our trip, friends warned us that Yosemite can be a madhouse mid-summer. And they were certainly right. But the place was awesome, and we had a tremendously good time during the 24 hours we spent here. Given that the road running to Mono Lake was really quiet, I would recommend that someone who want to spend a day away from craziness in Yosemite to start at sunrise at Mariposa, then head over to Glacier Point maybe before 8 (perhaps earlier), and then head over to the Tioga Pass Road (CA State Route 120) to Mono Lake (which was really quiet even in the middle of the day) to see amazing Olmsted Point, Halfdome, Tenaya Lake and Tuolomne Meadows. While it was sad that we didn’t hike in Yosemite (because of my knee injury), we still had an awesome 24 hours, and would do it anytime again even in mid-summer.


Bay area in general

My previous visit to San Francisco was in June 2008. Since then I held that the Bay area is my favorite destination in the US. The exact reason why I said so kind of became lost on me over the last five years. But a day near San Francisco reminded me just how awesome the weather is (feels like Fall all year round), how friendly the people are, how much to see and do there are…. Yes, the Bay area remains my favorite destination in the USA (Yes, I do not like New York. These two self-selected crowds seem to be rather disparate)

One massive disadvantage of California of course is the presence of the San Andreas Fault, while the state is situated in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, resulting in about 37,000 earthquakes annually! I hope one day we’ll have a way to predict earthquakes.


The trees

So, having grown up close to Baobabs, I kind of thought I knew what it feels like to stand next to a behemoth of a tree. But yes, there’s something quite different standing to a tree reaching for the heavens, compared to a peculiar short, fat, upside-down tree. The Sequoias and Coastal Redwoods were simply amazing, and even the giant Ponderosa Pines in Yosemite should not be neglected. Standing next to one of these giants is something indescribable. Hopefully you’ll have or will make the experience yourself one day. But definitely do Mariposa Grove VERY early in the morning.




***To be pasted here soon***



Sooty Grouse: Occurs in the higher-lying areas of Yosemite (Henness Ridge Rd, and Glacier Pt), but I suspect a bit thin on the ground

Californian Condor: If we were only able to stop for that massive raptor that flew over the car at Big Sur…

White-tailed Kite: Unlucky dip – should be regular in the coastal drive south of San Francisco.

Golden Eagle: Thin on ground.

Auklets and Murrelets: Regular with sea-watching between San Francisco to Monterey.

Roadrunner: We really tried, and even heard one at Merced River BLM lands.

Owls: I really struggle with owls in the US. The Great Gray Owl sacrifice at Yosemite was worth it, but I’ll need to go back to see this endemic and distinct subspecies one day!

Black Swift: We looked for them at Yosemite, and a few were also reported from Rocky Pt. But we were out of luck with this wandered that is a bit unpredictable in California.

Lewis’ Woodpecker: Out of luck – we tried at the burn near Mono Lake.

Pinion Jay: Regular around Mono Lake, we just dipped.

Black-billed Magpie: Regular around Mono Lake, we just dipped.

American Dipper: We tried a few spots in Yosemite without luck

Sage thrasher: Regular around Mono Lake, we just dipped.

Townsend’s Solitaire: Regular in Yosemite, we just dipped.

Black-chinned Sparrow: Scattered, but we expected to see them at the Merced River BLM Lands.

Black-throated Gray-warbler: How did we miss this bird?

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