Grand California Aug 11—26, 2007

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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When Victor first asked my son Gary and me to start leading VENT's Grand California tour, we were faced with a great dilemma. Many of our state's 580 (Western Birds, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1994) accepted species (634 now) are seasonal visitors and the specialty resident birds are scattered everywhere. The two endemics at that time were California Condor and Yellow-billed Magpie, so the trip had to include both of their ranges. However, when the few remaining California Condors were trapped for captive breeding, we decided to shorten the trip. Our 16-day trip now minimizes driving time while maximizing avian specialties and scenic grandeur. California Condors have now been released into the wild again and by driving a little south of Monterey, we have seen them on our last five tours.

Whenever someone asks if I get tired of leading Grand California, I laugh and say, "Picture San Francisco, Point Reyes, Bodega Bay, the Sierra Nevada with Lake Tahoe, the White Mountains, Yosemite National Park, and Monterey. Now tell me you could ever get tired of the scenery, not to mention the array of possible birds." Then I elaborate a bit more.

We start in San Francisco and cross over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to walk in the world-famous Muir Woods (home of the tallest tree species in the world), and drive up the spectacularly scenic Pacific Coast Highway to Bolinas Lagoon and Point Reyes National Seashore before spending our first night in a hotel overlooking Bodega Bay. After a morning of searching the rocky headlands and bird-filled mudflats, we head inland for two nights in Sacramento to search for Central Valley specialties. I always bring you to my home to see my Genesa style garden and look for Black-chinned and Anna's hummingbirds and Hooded Orioles that visit my nectar feeders next to the American River—a location that has produced 190 species for my yard list since we moved here in July 1994.

The Sierra Nevada is very impressive as we bird our way up through various forest ecosystems to spend one night at South Lake Tahoe. When it is not too wet, we bounce on a bog and then check Indian Creek Reservoir, where one tour had Black, White-throated, and Vaux's swifts swirling together over the water. After crossing Monitor Pass, we drop down to Highway 395 and cruise down the eastern edge of the state past Mono Lake to our night in Bishop. This location permits us to drive up to the White Mountains the following morning to look for avian specialties among bristlecone pines, the world's oldest trees. Some of these gnarled beauties are nearly 5,000 years old. Cameras are a must for the spectacular views.

The next two nights are spent in a Lee Vining hotel that overlooks Mono Lake—recently declared a national monument. The lake is now recovering from the drastic lowering that was caused by water diversions for Los Angeles. We will walk down to its shore to look closely at the tufa towers and view the spectacle of birds and brine flies along the shore. We also visit the old mining town of Bodie. The north end of Crowley Lake always provides a great afternoon of birding.

One of the many crown jewels of this trip is provided by the breathtaking scenery and interesting birds of Yosemite National Park—home of the largest tree species now inhabiting the earth. These redwood giants reside in two secluded areas of the park. However, a chance to see Great Gray Owl in Chevron Meadow is what really gets our adrenaline pumping. Since we spend three nights in Yosemite Village, we get to watch the progress of several rock climbers trying to scale the sheer walls of El Capitan. The tiny dots we look for with binoculars materialize into climbers through our spotting scopes. Here is an excerpt from the daily journal I write and then mail to all participants at the end of the tour:


We left Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal at 5:30 a.m. and were soon staring at the incredible sheer rock wall face of El Capitan. It has been such a dry year that there was little water tumbling down from Bridalveil Fall on the opposite side of the valley. However, we had a treat in store as a mother black bear and her cub ran across the road in front of us as we headed for breakfast at the buffet cafeteria next to Yosemite Lodge. I loved your reactions after breakfast when we located the climbers sleeping halfway up the rock wall.

After we drove out of the valley floor, we stopped at my favorite location for seeing swifts, but today had to settle for hundreds of White-throated Swifts. Our next stop, at the edge of the old burn, brought two new trip birds: Cassin's Vireo and the thick-billed race of Fox Sparrow. We then spent about a half-hour around a beautiful moist meadow that gave us two frog species and some incredibly large red firs. Near Bridalveil Creek campground, we hiked down to McGurk Meadow to search for Great Gray Owl. On the way, we had a wonderful experience with one tree that was filled with birds responding to our owl calls and pishing; Hermit Warbler and Golden-crowned Kinglets were the new trip birds here. At the meadow, Bob Sundstrom took a group around the west meadow and I took four of you around the east meadow. Bob Budich was first to spot the Great Gray Owl. My group made a beeline for the group at the bridge, but this owl was not cooperative. Eventually most of you got a look and, fortunately, the few that did not had seen this species before. Success made the long walk back up the hill more pleasurable.

Because of the late hour, we drove straight to Glacier Point for lunch, but were delayed when Jeanne spotted a very tame Sooty Grouse next to the trail. This area had the best scenery of the trip, with Half Dome, part of El Capitan, tiny people around the two sets of waterfalls, and valley floor activity—AWESOME VIEWING. On the drive back to the hotel we stopped again at the swift overlook. It was a delightful day of birding in one of North America's most scenic National Parks.

After crossing the agriculturally rich central valley once more, we conclude the tour with three days and nights in Monterey and Carmel. For most participants, the highlight of this section is the spectacular pelagic trip during which hundreds of birds will be seen. There is rarely a slow moment as we constantly scan approaching birds, especially those flying up the wake to feed on the chum we drop off the stern. Time is also taken to enjoy the whales and other mammals. On our last morning we drive south to Big Sur to look for California Condors, and offer an optional visit to the unique Monterey Bay Aquarium before heading up the coast to San Francisco.

The wide smiles and good cheer around our farewell dinner table say it all. Come join us next year and see for yourself what a "grand" experience we offer!