Grand California Aug 10—25, 2013
Posted by Jeri Langham
Whenever someone asks if I get tired of leading our Grand California tour, I laugh and say, “Picture San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore, Bodega Bay, the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, Mono Lake, the White Mountains, Yosemite National Park, Monterey, and the Big Sur coastline. Now tell me you could ever get tired of the scenery, not to mention the array of possible birds, plants, and other animals.” Our endemic Yellow-billed Magpie is much more difficult to see due to decimation by the West Nile Virus, but we still always find some in the Sacramento area, and this year our pelagic trip on Monterey Bay produced 8 Blue Whales, many Humpback Whales, and one time I counted 8 Black-footed Albatrosses behind our boat.
It is always difficult to select the top experiences from a tour because every day brings at least one special encounter. Here are some excerpts from the daily journal I write and then mail to all participants after I get home:
After breakfast we saw our first egrets, gulls, Black-necked Stilts, Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, and a Black-bellied Plover. The entrance gate to Muir Woods National Monument was still locked when we arrived so we birded down the road toward the ocean. We had exceptional luck with Wrentit, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Spotted Towhee, and a wonderful group of California Quail. Back in Muir Woods, we had wonderful views of the majestic, tallest tree species in the world, Sequoia sempervirens, or Coast Redwood. Several Pacific Wrens inhabit the area and we had excellent views while we enjoyed a short walk among the tall trees. It was probably my best visit for birds with Townsend’s and Wilson’s warblers, Hutton’s Vireo, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and more. Our next destination was the very scenic, winding road along the coast. Soon we arrived at Bolinas Lagoon and found a Peregrine Falcon eating a duck, some close Black-crowned Night-Herons, and many loafing Harbor Seals.
We headed to Bodega Bay’s Doran Beach State Park. Although the tide was way out, we added Semipalmated Plover, Sanderling, Western and Least sandpipers, Elegant and Caspian terns, and many Willets and thousands of Marbled Godwits. We got close views of an unexpected, breeding plumaged Eared Grebe, along with Pigeon Guillemot and dozens of Surf Scoters. We then drove out to Bodega Head, picking up Black Turnstones along the way. Scoping from the Bodega Head, we were able to compare side by side Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants, and added several Black Oystercatchers.
Best for me this afternoon was going out into the American River Parkway behind my home in Sacramento and finding the Western Screech-Owl still using one of my Wood Duck nest boxes as a day roost. All of you climbed up the ladder to view it from 18 inches away. We also added Anna’s and Black-chinned hummingbirds, Western Bluebirds, and both Lesser and American goldfinches.
Our next stop was the Davis Sewage Ponds, where we had hundreds of Wilson’s and dozens of Red-necked phalaropes. We enjoyed two interacting White-tailed Kites and identified four species of swallows on the lines. Our loop in the Davis Wetlands brought Ring-necked Pheasant, Blue Grosbeak, Marsh Wren, White-faced Ibis, hundreds of Long-billed Dowitchers, and six species of ducks. On the backside, we added Loggerhead Shrike, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. At the Woodland Sewage Plant, we added Great-tailed Grackles, Peregrine Falcon, three Redheads, and a Lesser Scaup.
At the home of Jack and Phyllis Wilburn we tried to get hummingbirds to stand on our fingers as they fed. Several of you were successful, especially Julia who is still smiling.
Leaving Bishop, we headed to Tollhouse Springs where we saw 60 Pinyon Jays, Black-throated Sparrow, Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds, Western Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting. We were very lucky to add Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Juniper Titmouse after reaching the entrance station to the White Mountains. At Schulman Grove we were treated to the ancient Pinus longaeva forest—some trees nearing 5,000 years old. The short (about a half-mile each way) 10,000-foot elevation walk among the gnarled Bristlecone Pine trees produced several flocks with Pygmy and White-breasted nuthatches; dozens of Mountain Chickadees; the Oregon race of Dark-eyed Junco; Gray Flycatcher; Townsend’s, Hermit, and Black-throated Gray warblers; Hermit Thrush; and a glimpsed White-headed Woodpecker. I always enjoy walking in this incredible ecosystem and marvel at these ancient trees that have survived for thousands of years.
On the way to the old gold mining town of Bodie, we easily found Sage Thrashers, Western Bluebirds, Green-tailed Towhees, and Brewer’s Sparrows. My big surprise was spotting 20 Greater Sage-Grouse in a grassy field near Bodie. You enjoyed the hour I gave you to explore this restored mining town. On the way back we saw an adult Golden Eagle perched on a rock.
Our most incredible adventure today began when we all walked into a wonderful climax forest with huge Red Firs and Lodgepole Pines around a very large meadow. Steve found some pellets and a large Great Gray Owl feather, but it was very quiet as we walked the edge of the meadow. As we were about two-thirds of the way around the meadow, we flushed a Great Gray Owl and it flew out toward Bill and then right over Julia’s head and into the forest on the other side of the road. So off we went across the road. It was a lucky choice because I spotted a male Williamson’s Sapsucker, which everyone got to see.
An early departure for Chew’s Ridge paid off in the form of hearing Northern Pygmy-Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Western Screech-Owl before dawn. Our target at Chew’s Ridge was Mountain Quail. But today was difficult since we only got quick glimpses of the ones that flew across the road. You may have noted my relief in getting great looks at California Thrasher; seeing it, along with Band-tailed Pigeon and Purple Finch, made it easy for me to drive into the upper campground to set up our picnic breakfast.
Today’s pelagic trip left from Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. We saw our first Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants, Sea Otters, and California Sea Lions while still cruising near shore. Rhinoceros Auklets appeared from time to time. Black-footed Albatrosses were easy with up to eight visible from the boat at one time. We also saw two Parasitic and many Pomarine jaegers. There were several beautiful Sabine’s Gulls, as well as a Common Tern. We had lots of Red-necked Phalaropes and also some Red Phalaropes. Sooty, Pink-footed and, especially, Buller’s shearwaters gave us wonderful views all day. What I really enjoyed most today was seeing giant Blue Whales (the largest animal species ever recorded on our planet), Humpback Whales (one breached for us), and Risso’s and Bottlenose dolphins.
Walking back toward Highway 1, we added Lawrence’s Goldfinch and our one-and-only Orange-crowned Warbler. We then continued down Highway 1, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and scanning hillsides and skies for our target bird, the California Condor. We stopped at several turnouts to troll for Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Finally, a pair responded and cooperated. We slowly worked our way back to the usually reliable spot for California Condor and had fantastic views of California Condor #470, which we later learned was a male hatched in the wild near Big Sur on April 12, 2008 and named Fuego. http://www.mycondor.org/condorprofiles/condor470.html. With smiles from ear-to-ear, we slowly headed back up the coast to San Francisco.