Grand California Aug 09—24, 2008
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, 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 in spite of the huge Big Sur fire this past year, we still had superb looks at seven California Condors, one adult landing on a dead California sea lion and starting the feast, while other condors and vultures waited their turn.
It is always difficult to select the top experiences from our tours because every day brings at least one special encounter. Here are three days of this year's tour taken from the daily journal I write during the tour and then mail to all participants at the end of the tour, along with a DVD of all photos taken by participants.
August 10: San Francisco to Bodega Bay. This morning we traveled up Highway 1 across the Golden Gate Bridge where fog was almost nonexistent for only the second time in seven years, allowing us to view the city lights and bridge from the parking lot at the far end. Right after breakfast we saw our first egrets, gulls, terns, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and a few shorebirds. As we arrived in Muir Woods National Monument, the gate had just been opened and we enjoyed views of the majestic, tallest tree species in the world, Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood. Using my Plant Biology class field-trip handout, I introduced everyone to the tree species visible from the parking lot. Pacific-slope Flycatcher was our first new bird. Several Winter Wrens inhabit the area and we had excellent views of three of them while we enjoyed a short walk among the tall trees, and I gave mini lectures along the way. The usual crowds began to arrive as we left and returned to the winding coast road, stopping for such things as Hutton's Vireo, Bewick's Wren, Steller's Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Wrentit, and Wilson's Warbler.
Soon we began our stops along the eastern edge of Bolinas Lagoon for hundreds of distant Elegant Terns and many shorebirds. We enjoyed Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwits, Black-bellied Plovers, and Willets here, but the prize was a Baird's Sandpiper. Several dozen harbor seals were loafing fairly close to us. Five Brooks produced our first Bushtits. As we ate lunch in the picnic area by the Point Reyes Visitor Center near the San Andreas Fault, we had great looks at Acorn Woodpeckers and their granary trees. We then headed up the road along Tomales Bay, passing all its oyster farms, and then inland before returning to the coast at Bodega Bay. Although the tide was high and no mudflats were exposed for shorebirds, we found Common Loon, both Western and Clark's grebes, Brant, American White Pelicans, two Heermann's Gulls, Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, and all three possible cormorant species. What a wonderful first day of birding!!
August 18: Yosemite Valley, Westfall Meadow, and Glacier Point. We left Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal and were soon staring at the incredible sheer wall of El Capitan. It has been such a dry year that there was little water coming down from Bridalveil Fall on the opposite side of the valley floor. After we drove out of the valley floor, we stopped at my favorite location for seeing three swift species and saw both Vaux's and White-throated swifts. We spent about a half-hour around a beautiful moist meadow that gave us our largest red firs and one small feeding flock. At Bridalveil Creek campground, during our hike on the Westfall Meadow trail, we had wonderful experiences with several trees that were filled with birds responding to my owl calls and pishing. By the end of the walk, we had added first a female Black-backed Woodpecker, both Dusky and Hammond's flycatchers, Violet-green Swallows, and finally a good look at MacGillivray's Warbler. Success made the walk back more pleasurable, especially when we spent 20 minutes watching two male Black-backed Woodpeckers flicking bark off a tree at eye level.
We drove straight to Glacier Point for lunch. This area had the best scenery of the trip, with Half Dome, part of El Capitan, people looking like tiny ants walking around the two sets of waterfalls, and Yosemite Valley floor—AWESOME VIEWING.
August 22: Monterey Pelagic Trip. Debi Shearwater checked us in at the Fisherman's Wharf dock while leaders Jennifer, Brian Williams, and John Sterling helped us climb aboard. Our skipper today was Tinker, who has been taking birders out on Monterey Bay since the late 70s and early 80s when I was leading 10–15 pelagic trips a year for Debi. He really knows how to approach birds so that most of us get a chance to see them. We began with out-of-season Long-tailed and Harlequin ducks sitting on a rock in the harbor…a good omen. We saw our first Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt's and Pelagic cormorants, sea otters, and California sea lions while still cruising near shore. One of Debi's three leaders threw popcorn and other chum off the stern to keep a flock of gulls with us all day. These attract some of the great pelagic species we would see later in the day. In the 100+ pelagic trips I have been on, I only remember once seeing Buller's Shearwater before the very abundant Sooty Shearwaters that would be with us all day. However, we had two individuals before the Sooty Shearwaters joined us for the rest of the day. Everyone would get many looks at Pink-footed Shearwater as well, but we also had—for the first time on any of my tours—a Flesh-footed Shearwater that most everyone saw. Rhinoceros Auklets appeared from time to time, but we had only a few looks at flying-away Cassin's Auklets. We did get great looks at Elegant Terns. Black-footed Albatrosses were easy, with up to four around the boat at one time. This was one of my best pelagic trips for seeing jaegers. Everyone got great looks at Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed, with a few full adults making identification very easy. Even more amazing was the appearance of one South Polar Skua. Part of the reason for such good luck with these four species was the large number of beautiful Sabine's Gulls we encountered today.
I would have to say that this was one of my best ever trips for species other than birds. As we cruised the Bay, we had northern right-whale dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphins around us for 3.5 hours, along with many humpback whales, a huge mola mola, one elephant seal, and two northern fur seals. This would rate as a very successful Monterey Bay pelagic trip.