Grand California Aug 13—28, 2016
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. This year our pelagic trip on Monterey Bay produced Blue and Humpback whales, and one time I counted 18 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting on the water around our boat.
It is always difficult to select the top experiences from any of the tours I lead because every day brings at least one special encounter. Here are some excerpts from this year’s tour taken from the daily journal I write and then mail to all participants after I get home.
We arrived at Muir Woods National Monument and had great luck calling in a female Pileated Woodpecker. We were able to have great views of the majestic, tallest tree species in the world, Coast Redwood or Sequoia sempervirens. Several Pacific Wrens inhabit the area and we had excellent views while we enjoyed a short walk among the tall trees, and I gave several mini lectures about this incredible ecosystem. We also picked up two flocks of Chestnut- backed Chickadees and Wilson’s Warblers. Our departure toward the coast and the famous Highway 1 gave us great views of Wrentit.
At the eastern edge of Bolinas Lagoon we found many Harbor Seals loafing in the shallow water, and we saw dozens of distant Elegant Terns. The close mudflat at Bolinas Lagoon provided Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels, Willets, lots of Western and Least sandpipers, and a Black- bellied Plover. The Peregrine Falcon chasing the sandpipers was a treat. However, the top surprise here was seeing and photographing a vagrant Bar-tailed Godwit that had been seen here just before we arrived. I rate this as the most unlikely and best species we saw on the entire tour.
Next, we headed for Doran Beach State Park. There were a number of Semipalmated Plovers and a Dunlin on the mudflat pond before the entrance station. We did manage to see a Common Murre, four Common Loons, and a Surf Scoter along with Heermann’s, Western, and Ring-billed gulls. Further along the road we saw over a hundred Marbled Godwits and a few Short-billed Dowitchers on our way out to Bodega Head where we added Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants, a distant Marbled Murrelet, many Pigeon Guillemots, and one cooperative Wandering Tattler. We visited the State Park and Bodega Head again the next morning and Snowy Plovers, Surfbird, Bushtits, and Orange-crowned Warblers were new for our list. We heard Virginia Rail, Common Yellowthroat, and Bewick’s Wren.
Meager traffic into Sacramento allowed us time to visit my home where male Black-chinned Hummingbirds put on a show. We also saw Anna’s Hummingbirds, Lesser Goldfinches, and Oak Titmice, a young female Spotted Towhee, and several California Towhees.
Stopping at the recently flooded alfalfa field, we viewed 40+ Swainson’s Hawks standing in the field. Continuing on to the side road we saw 13 Burrowing Owls and were able to photograph several that were right next to the van. At the Davis Sewage Ponds and Davis Wetlands, we added many species to our trip list, including Blue Grosbeak, about six species of ducks, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes, 5 Egyptian Geese, hundreds of Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, male Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and a perched Loggerhead Shrike.
We returned to Sacramento and headed to Larchmont Park where Western Bluebirds were common, and we saw a single Bullock’s Oriole, Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Warbling Vireo, Wood Duck, and House and Bewick’s wrens. We drove many local streets searching for the elusive Yellow-billed Magpies, and finally we found 24 of them in a large park at the end of Arden Way. This endemic species has been very difficult to find since the decimation of its population by the West Nile virus.
The following morning, a brief stop downriver from the Fish Hatchery added Phainopepla, White-throated and Vaux’s swifts, and Nuttall’s Woodpecker to our ever-growing list of species, and we eventually located two California Thrashers on our way out of town.
On the 2-mile road to Wright’s Lake, we did some bushwhacking. We added Cassin’s Finch; Hermit, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped warblers; Olive-sided Flycatcher; and Western Wood-Pewee. It was difficult to leave this area, but Lake Tahoe beckoned.
The unpaved road above Hope Valley gave us great scenery and great looks at several White-headed Woodpeckers, Clark’s Nutcracker, a female Williamson’s Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, the thick-billed race of Fox Sparrow, and Townsend’s Solitaire. Returning to Highway 89, we hit paydirt by finding an American Dipper at the very first bridge past Sorenson’s Resort. Continuing on our way, we saw our first Black-billed Magpies, located several Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, and had great views of a first year Golden Eagle.
Everywhere we were seeing the effects of fire, whether from this year or previous years. We enjoyed scoping the huge Bridgeport Reservoir mudflats where we had great looks at both Western and Clark’s grebes on their nests and also an Eared Grebe on its nest. We watched a Peregrine Falcon do many swoops over the area that was loaded with hundreds of White-faced Ibises and many kinds of ducks. The panoramic view from the Mono Lake overlook was very nice.
Tollhouse Springs has been the only place I know where one can find Chukar on this tour, and we heard and saw several dozen. Highlights as we sat on this hillside were Pinyon Jays, Black-throated Sparrows, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. Further up the hill, we saw a Canyon Wren. After reaching the entrance station to the Bristlecone Pine viewing area we were lucky to find a Plumbeous Vireo; Barbara saw a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and there were several Juniper Titmice. Schulman Grove was our next big stop and here we were treated to the ancient Pinus longaeva forest—some trees nearing 5,000 years old. The short (about a mile round-trip) 10,000-foot elevation walk among the gnarled Bristlecone Pine trees produced many Mountain Chickadees, some White-breasted Nuthatches, one Gray and one Pacific- slope flycatcher, both the Oregon and Gray-headed races of Dark-eyed Junco, and Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s warblers.
On the way to the old gold mining town of Bodie, we had one superb stop with more responding Brewer’s Sparrows than I have ever seen. Two Common Nighthawks flew over the nearby ridge calling away. A stop along the road to see our first Mountain Bluebirds also produced a Sage Thrasher. After paying the entrance fee, we rounded the corner near the cemetery and three Greater Sage-Grouse were by the side of the road. What this wonderful surprise meant was that we could now spend the rest of our allotted time there exploring, and I believe most of you enjoyed perusing this old gold mining ghost town.
Walking down to the edge of Mono Lake allowed us to experience the incredible number of Brine Flies along the shore, as well as those floating in groups on the water. We got to see several Ospreys and two juveniles on their nest. A Say’s Phoebe was new for us, and the rest of you caught up with Sagebrush Sparrow.
We left Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal and were soon staring at the incredible El Capitan. After breakfast, I heard a MacGillivray’s Warbler chip as we returned to our van. It took some work, but finally the bird perched in the open for all to enjoy. Driving out of the valley floor, we stopped at one of my favorite locations for seeing three swift species. As I was parking, a few Vaux’s Swifts shot past us, and later we would see a few others mixed in with dozens of White-throated Swifts. We continued driving up the road to the turnoff for Tamarack Flat campground. This was going to be our second to last visit to the Red Fir / Lodgepole Pine Ecosystem, another chance to find a Williamson’s Sapsucker, but we had to settle for several White-headed Woodpeckers and a family of six Red-breasted Sapsuckers.
Five Pine Grosbeaks greeted us as we climbed out of the van at the meadow where I have seen Great Gray Owl twice. Four of us walked just inside the forest edge while three walked the grassy edge of the meadow. During our march through the edge of the meadow and into the forest, we encountered two Black-backed Woodpeckers. As we neared the main road, Beth and Rae heard the calls of a young Great Gray Owl, but we could not locate it.
A beautiful moist meadow gave us our largest Red Firs and a continuous stream of small birds. Everybody finally saw Lincoln’s Sparrow and Hermit Warbler, and we had Slate-colored race of Dark-eyed Junco for only the third time in 20 tours. We drove into Bridalveil Campground and headed up the trail to Westfall Meadow. We soon had a wonderful flock with Red-breasted Nuthatches, Oregon race of Dark-eyed Junco, Golden- crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Mountain Chickadees, and various warblers responding to my owl calls and your pishing. A Northern Goshawk appeared in the sky and, uncharacteristically, made a few circles, allowing us to see all the important details. Dozens of Violet-green Swallows allowed views as they cruised over the meadow. There were dozens of small frogs too.
Less than a mile after leaving the overlook that allows views of Vernal and Nevada Falls and Half Dome, two Sooty Grouse were next to the road. We parked and you not only had great views, but some excellent photos were taken as well.
Due to the closure of the Mariposa Grove I had decided we would walk to the Tuolumne Grove. At the last stop on the way to Tuolumne Grove, a Northern Pygmy-Owl responded to my calls and eventually showed itself on a dead branch. Several decades ago, one could drive down to see the Sierra Redwoods or Big Trees [Sequoiadendron giganteum], the largest (not tallest) organism to have lived on our planet! Now the road is closed so one has to walk 1-mile downhill and then return back to the parking lot if one wants to see these wonderful trees. We heard a Pileated Woodpecker while taking photos of each other in the huge old tree with a cut out hole that one could drive through, and had an incredibly responsive Pacific Wren along the way.
My usual morning on Tasajara Road for Mountain Quail had to be cancelled this year due to a fire, so I decided to drive to Pinnacles National Park. My first big surprise was seeing 5–6 Yellow-billed Magpies before we arrived and then a flock of 20–30 Lark Sparrows closer to the entrance road. As we approached the Visitor Center and campground, Wild Turkeys, California Quail, and many Mule Deer were visible in the open area under the oaks. I was blown away by seeing around 100 Lawrence’s Goldfinches, with many males in full color. WOW! Driving in further, we came to a viewing spot where the actual pinnacles could be seen. Further in, to the Old Pinnacles trailhead parking lot, I heard a distant Hutton’s Vireo and was surprised to call it over for photos.
Beth spotted big birds in the sky…yes, we had TWO California Condors soaring over a hillside! Elation was a mild word to use as all piled out of the van to watch these magnificent specimens effortlessly soaring. Suddenly, Barbara spotted a bloated dead cow down in the field, and TWO more California Condors were feeding on the carcass. We had great scope views and spent at least 40 minutes watching the interactions on the ground between this species and the accompanying Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens…spectacular!
I dropped you off out on Fisherman’s Wharf for our Monterey Bay Pelagic Trip with Debi Shearwater. When we were well offshore, Rhinoceros Auklets appeared from time to time and a few Cassin’s Auklets did, too. Black-footed Albatrosses were easy with up to 18 visible at one time around our boat. I am still amazed by the two huge flocks of Sabine’s Gulls and the other individuals that appeared today. This is the highest number for me in four decades of pelagic trips on Monterey Bay. This was a great pelagic trip, as we also saw all three species of jaegers. We had hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes and also a few Red Phalaropes. Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters gave us wonderful views all day with a few first-of-season Black-vented appearing late in the day. Of the mammals, I never tire of seeing a Blue Whale, the largest mammal ever, but the show by the dozen or so Humpback Whales was more impressive. We also had superb looks at Risso’s Dolphins and quick views of Dall’s Porpoises. All in all, it was a superb tour with excellent overcast sky to give us great views in all directions.
At Moss Landing, we enjoyed scope views of a White-tailed Kite, took photos of floating Sea Otters, and saw some Bottlenose Dolphins from the base of the rock jetty. We returned to Moonglow Dairy after lunch to see if we could get better looks at Tricolored Blackbird. We did get much better views and also found our only Western Kingbird of the tour. From here we slowly headed back up the coast to San Francisco for our Farewell Dinner.