Grand California Aug 08—23, 2015
Posted by Jeri Langham
Whenever someone asks if I get tired of leading VENT’s 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 dozens of Humpback Whales, and one time I counted 40 Black-footed Albatrosses sitting on the water around a long-line boat.
It is always difficult to select the top experiences from any tour 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.
After our early breakfast, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and stopped at the other end to photograph the bridge and San Francisco in the early morning light. At Muir Woods National Monument we had great views of the majestic, tallest tree species in the world—Coast Redwood, saw several Pacific Wrens, and had our first views of the Oregon race of Dark-eyed Junco. Soon we arrived at the eastern edge of Bolinas Lagoon and found many Harbor Seals loafing in the shallow water and dozens of Elegant Terns on the mudflat, along with Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels, and Black-bellied Plovers.
At Bodega Bay, we managed to see Common Murre, Pacific Loon, and Surf Scoter along with Heermann’s, Western, Ring-billed, and California gulls. I took you to the north, protected area of the bay where we had super looks at Common Loon and Black Turnstone and heard two Virginia Rails.
Early at Doran Beach we spotted about eleven Snowy Plovers, most sitting in depressions left as people walked along the sandy shoreline. After breakfast we headed out to Bodega Head where we were able to compare side by side Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants and see hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters gliding past us with an occasional Pink-footed Shearwater. Up the coast at Jenner By The Sea, we found a Marbled Murrelet swimming with Pigeon Guillemots and saw hundreds of Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s Gulls resting on the sand by the Russian River Mouth.
We continued our drive inland and stopped in Davis to look for Burrowing Owls. Judy was first to spot one, and we got out for great views and photos. Arriving in Sacramento, we had time to visit my home where we had close looks at California Quail and Black-chinned Hummingbird. Best for me was the surprise arrival at my feeders of two Hooded Orioles and a Black-headed Grosbeak.
At the Yolo Basin Wildlife Refuge, the male Blue Grosbeak was easy and was followed by two male Yellow-headed Blackbirds and three Great Horned Owls. There were lots of White-faced Ibises and a few White-tailed Kites. An adult Peregrine Falcon was in the rice field. The best surprise of the morning was waiting for us when we found and photographed a Barn Owl standing on the gravel road. There were four species of swallows, and a few glimpsed a Tricolored Blackbird.
After our siesta, we searched for the still elusive Yellow-billed Magpies. Finally we found some near Effie Yeaw Nature Center. Then, while driving back streets on the way to dinner, we hit pay dirt with a flock that permitted close-up photos.
The landscape changed dramatically as we drove past Placerville and entered the Yellow Pine Ecosystem. Going through the seven miles of burn area, we added Vaux’s Swift, Pine Grosbeak, Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. A wonderful mixed flock just past Ice House Reservoir included Black-throated Gray, Nashville, Hermit, and Orange-crowned warblers. Golden-crowned Kinglets were not as numerous as the Mountain Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and there was a single Cassin’s Vireo.
The unpaved road above Hope Valley gave us great scenery and wonderful looks at a Black-backed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Rufous Hummingbird, MacGillivray’s Warbler, White-headed Woodpecker, and Townsend’s Solitaire.
After crossing the tiny Owens River we drove up the mountain to Toll House Springs. The best bird seen here was a totally unexpected Northern Pygmy-Owl. Other highlights seen while seated here on the hillside watching the morning unfold were Pinyon Jay; Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, and Calliope hummingbirds; Western Tanager; Bullock’s Oriole; Black-headed Grosbeak; and Lazuli Bunting. On we went to Schulman Grove where we were treated to the ancient gnarled bristlecone pine tree forest—some trees nearing 5,000 years old. I always marvel at these ancient trees.
While at the entrance gate to the old mining town of Bodie, about seven Greater Sage-Grouse flew away, and Vesper and Lark sparrows were later seen near town. Then it was off to the shoreline of Bridgeport Reservoir. We spent over an hour having a great time. The best birds were probably the two Sanderlings and the Baird’s Sandpiper, but there were hundreds of American White Pelicans, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts. There were some Willets, but only one Marbled Godwit, Forster’s Tern, Greater Yellowlegs, and Black-bellied Plover. Smiling and happy, we returned to the van and headed back.
We left Yosemite View Lodge at 5:00 a.m. and were soon staring at the incredible El Capitan. After breakfast we drove to the Tamarack Flat campground road and found seven White-headed Woodpeckers and four Red-breasted Sapsuckers.
Our most incredible adventure today began when we returned to White Wolf campground. Four of us walked just inside the forest edge while two walked the grassy edge of the meadow as we searched for Great Gray Owl. Eventually we arrived back at the main road without seeing or flushing our target. Then I heard a strange noise on the other side of the road and we went to check it out. Joe saw the Great Gray Owl fly out of the trees and to a distant set of trees. Most of us saw it in flight, but never got to find it perched.
On the trail back from McGurk Meadow we were treated to great views of a Yellow-bellied Marmot.
On the road to Chew’s Ridge we heard Northern Pygmy-Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Western Screech-Owl before dawn. Fortunately, we had seen all three species earlier in the tour. We got great looks at California Thrasher, along with Band-tailed Pigeon and Purple Finch, before our picnic breakfast.
At Fisherman’s Wharf, Debi Shearwater checked us in at the dock. We saw our first Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants, California Sea Lions, and more sea otters while still cruising near shore. One of Debi’s four leaders always begins to throw popcorn and pieces of sardines off the stern to keep a flock of gulls with us all day. The chum attracts some of the great pelagic species we would see later in the day. Rhinoceros Auklets appeared from time to time and a few Cassin’s Auklets, too. Black-footed Albatrosses were easy with up to 63 visible at one time. This was a great pelagic trip, as we also saw two Parasitic and many Pomarine jaegers with several full adults. There were at least two Long-tailed Jaegers seen and several beautiful Sabine’s Gulls. 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 with a few Black-vented appearing in the area with feeding whales. What I really enjoyed most today was seeing the displays by the Humpback Whales whose number is being estimated around 50 individuals. We enjoyed hundreds of Common Dolphins and one group of Risso’s Dolphins. It was a wonderful pelagic trip experience.
We headed south on Highway 1, where the scenery is absolutely fantastic, scanning hillsides and skies for our target bird, the California Condor. One was spotted soaring above the hillside and all of us were very excited. We continued to a tall cliff where some often perch. There a huge California Condor flew next to us and perched on a nearby rock. I have never been this close to one of them. We had fantastic views of California Condor #470, a male hatched in the wild near Big Sur on April 12, 2008 and named Fuego. We got to watch it fly, once as it left the close perch and landed near Bill, too close for his long camera lens. With smiles from ear-to-ear, we slowly headed back up the coast to Carmel and on to San Francisco for our farewell dinner.