Images from the trip can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/neiljulianthomas/albums
To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail, and I felt we had done insufficient homework before this trip in terms of staking out particular ‘must see’ species. Basically we planned an itinerary that allowed us to visit some prime sites for scenery and wildlife in California, at a reasonably leisurely pace with the idea we would just enjoy the wildlife we chanced upon at these locations. This strategy was not a total failure and we had some memorable sightings with some excellent photo opportunities. We asked ‘America and Canada as you like it’ to put arrange flights, car hire and accommodation.
5th-6th August. San Francisco. Visited Golden gate park on the 6th.
7th August. Picked up hire car and drove to Moss Landing. Viewed Elkhorn Slough from roadside viewpoints as reserve was closed. Spent 4 nights at Monterey Tides Hotel.
8th August. Short whale watching trip in morning from Monterey in morning, In afternoon visited Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing and Moonglow Dairy.
9th August. Drove south to Andrew Molera State Park and various viewpoints along Big Sur Coast. In late afternoon viewed gulls on Monterey beach.
10th August. All day (10 hour) trip with Monterey Whale Watch.
11th August. Drove to Hollister, spent 2 nights at Fairfield Inn. In afternoon and evening visited Pinnacles NP (30m from Hollister)
12th August. Visited Pinnacles NP all day.
13th August. Drove to Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia NP (2 nights). Walked trails around Lodge and Wolverton Meadow.
14th August. Day spent in Sequoia NP, visited Crescent Meadows early morning and dusk, rest of day walked trails in Giant Forest and visited Sherman tree
15th August. Drove to Yosemite NP, spent 3 nights at Tenaya Lodge. In afternoon/evening visited Mariposa Grove.
16th August. Long drive via Mariposa to access Tioga Road in Yosemite NP, because of forest fires causing road closures. Visited Tamarack Flat and Tuolumne Meadows and sites in between.
17th August. Yosemite NP, spent day around Wawona, walking meadow trail.
18th August. Drove to Mono Lake via Tioga Road, and Yosemite Valley. Visited Tuolumne meadows, walked trails to Lembert Dome and Dog Lake. In afternoon visited Mono Lake at west board walk. Spent 2 nights at lake View Lodge, Lee Vining.
19th August. In morning (pre-dawn) went to Bodie State Park. Afternoon/evening spent at Mono Lake, visited South Tufa and west board walk.
20th August. Drove to San Francisco airport. Brief visit to Alviso Slough at south-east end of San Francisco bay.
5th August. After un uneventful direct flight with United Airlines we arrived at San Francisco International Airport, with an inevitable prolonged delay at US immigration. I wasn’t quite sure why only 4 desks were used when the staff at several others were redundant, and indeed after an hours queueing we were sent to one of these booths. From here we took the fairly cheap, fast and efficient BART train almost to our city centre Bijou Hotel on Mason Street. The hotel was perfectly comfortable except for the absence of any bathroom mirrors, and the usual completely inadequate lighting. Always taking comments on Tripadvisor with a pinch of salt, I would confirm the accuracy of any reports about the large numbers of homeless people on the streets around the hotel. There were far more of these unfortunate human flotsam and jetsam than in any UK city, with many in clearly very poor health and others qualifying as genuine ‘crazies’. During the train ride the bird list extended to three species; Great Egret, Mallard and American Crow.
6th August. After the heat and humidity of the UK it was relief that the weather at the Californian coast offered perfect temperatures and blue skies, with yesterdays fog rolled back until late afternoon. From close to the hotel we took the cheap and frequent 5 bus service to the Golden Gate Park. The park is only about 0.5 mile wide, but 4 miles across, running to the Pacific Ocean, and although thronged with people still offered a relaxing introduction to birding in California. The water courses and lakes held Great Blue Herons, one of which excelled itself by stabbing and swallowing a large Asian Carp, Pied-billed Grebes, loafing Western Gulls and Canada Geese, with Barn Swallows and Black Phoebes hawking insects over the water. A variety of birds were seen we walked the trails; both a single Downy, and a noisy pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, several California Towhees foraging on the ground, White-crowned Sparrows, House Finch, Brown Creeper, Steller’s Jay, American Robin, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and Brewer’s Blackbirds. Considering the urban nature of the site it was surprising to see numbers of raptors, with several Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks soaring overhead, one of the former being mobbed by a Cooper’s Hawk, and an Osprey along the coast. Common Ravens were frequently seen particularly along the beach, where a dead bull Californian Sealion was on view. It had a number of wounds, probably not caused by a Great White Shark. Numbers of birds flew along the surf beach, towards the guano and bird covered Seal Rocks, which lie just offshore from Lincoln Park, which is another coastal park to the north of Golden gate Park.
There were many Brown Pelicans cruising past in long wavering lines, as well as Brandt’s Cormorants and Heermann’s Gulls, and a single moulting 1st summer Glaucous-winged Gull. An abandoned swimming pool system had been taken over by a Double-crested Cormorant, and noisy piping here drew attention to several Black Oystercatchers. I had not brought a scope which would have been an asset here but many distant alcids appeared to be all Common Guillemots. I had rather hoped to see our first Californian Sealions here but the only pinniped on view were the much more familiar Harbour Seals, with 16 hauled out on the rocks. Lands End gave great views of the coast and of the Golden Gate Bridge, until fog began to roll in and obscure much of the coastline.
7th August. We picked up the hire car from Alamo and set off along Route 1, which follows the coast to Monterey. Much of the route is still undeveloped, passing through some coastal heath and chaparral, with a procession of rocky headlands and sandy surf beaches. We made no stops until we reached Moss Landing, some 20 miles north of Monterey, but on route seeing large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures and various gulls, and Brown Pelicans. As we passed areas with extensive kelp beds we could see the dark shapes of Sea Otters floating amongst the algae. The estuary at Moss landing was viewable from a perimeter road, and gave superb views of a range of waders and other wildlife. Some of the wading birds were very confiding, allowing photographs from just a few metres, as was the case with Long-billed curlew and Marbled Godwits. Other waders seen here were Willets, Grey Plover, Long-billed Dowitchers, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Sanderling, Western and Least Sandpipers. At one point there was commotion amongst the waders, and I guess the cause must have been a Peregrine, but I failed to spot the raptor, but a Marbled Godwit was struck out of the air and the crippled bird ended up being predated by Western Gulls. Grating calls, very similar to Sandwich Terns drew attention to circling and roosting flocks of Elegant Terns, which also had a few Caspian Terns amongst them. A pair of Eared (Black-necked) Grebes loafed close to the shoreline, while on sandbanks in the estuary channel we could view a large haul out of Harbour Seals, Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants. I suppose the star attractions here had to be the Sea Otters. There were two large rafts of resting individuals but a single animal in a channel, where the road crossed gave fantastic views as he caught and devoured a succession of crabs just a few metres from me. J had similar close views further down the estuary, but was also treated to a mass arrival of over 100 Californian Sea-lions which then either clambered out onto rocks, or relaxed en masse in the estuary channel. Amongst the surrounding dune system saw the diurnal Californian Ground Squirrels, and Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows. It was hard to leave this spectacle, but we retreated to a restaurant in Moss Landing for a very late lunch, before driving east to the far end of the saltwater inlet of Elkhorn Slough. The reserve itself was closed but it was quite possible to view the area from pull ins further along the road, so this was no great disaster. A different selection of waders could be seen here. The lagoons were dotted with hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes seeking flies, in some areas joined by Bonaparte’ s and a few Mew Gulls. There were also many Greater Yellowlegs, with fewer Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Semi-palmated Plovers, as well as large flocks of Grey Plover, Marbled Godwits and Least Sandpipers. A neat Common Yellowthroat in fringing vegetation was the first American warbler of the trip, while other birds around the margins of the slough included a noisy Belted Kingfisher and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers. As we continued our journey to Monterey an excellent male Northern Harrier swept over the road near the Moonglow dairy. Finishing off the day with a walk along the beach from the Tides Hotel gave the opportunity to peruse the gull flocks, with hundreds of Heermann’s and Western Gulls, with a few American herring Gulls thrown in for good measure.
8th August. The fog competed with sunshine for most of the day, but it was calm and mostly sunny as we headed out for a short excursion into Monterey Bay. We passed out of the harbour, viewing hundreds of Brandt’s Cormorants and Californian Sealions with Sea Otters dotted around the moorings. Instead of heading out to sea our route took us parallel to the shore, the reason soon became clear as I saw the distant bulk of a lunge feeding Humpback Whale rear out of the sea. There were several Humpbacks feeding close to the coast, in just 15m of water, with at least 10 present, including one mother and calf. The lunge feeding was fairly impressive, with up to three whales simultaneously breaking the surface, with anchovies scattering in all directions, like sparks from a sparkler, and a host of gulls ready to swoop in to pick up survivors. They also gave fabulous views as they cruised past the post, although in such shallow water they were not often showing their flukes while diving. The whales were accompanied by cohesive packs of porpoising Sealions, adding to the spectacle. We spent an hour with the Humpbacks and I had a suspicion this would be the limit of the trip, but we then headed out to sea to see some other marine life. An enormous Ocean Sunfish, one of three seen gave amazing views close to the boat, then shortly after this the dorsal fins of smaller cetaceans could be seen breaking the surface. Most of these animals were Risso’s Dolphins, a fairly easy species to identify, with a very tall pointed dorsal, and bodies of various shades of grey, the older and paler animals criss-crossed with scarring. The Risso’s lob-tailed and sometimes breached, but were less active than the one or two small pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins that seemed to be associated with them. It was obvious from the start the trip was not going to produce many seabirds but several Northern Fulmars (dusky Pacific birds) as well as Pigeon Guillemots were seen, as well as birds like Brandt’s Cormorants and gulls seen previously.
This trip concluded at 11.30, so in the afternoon we made a return visit to Elkhorn Slough and Moss landing. The Slough reserve was open today, so we walked the marshside loop trail, which gave views over the saline lagoons and walks through twisted shrubby oaks. The terrestrial habitats were generally quiet for birds, but we did see Lesser Goldfinch, the tiny Bushtit, Californian Scrub Jay, Californian Towhee, Mourning Dove, Cliff Swallow and Belted Kingfisher. The most interesting sighting was perhaps of dead trees penetrated with thousands of regular holes, excavated by industrious Acorn Woodpeckers. The birds themselves were seen perched at various heights in a nearby tree, from where they launched sorties after flying insects, seemingly a most un-woodpecker like method of foraging. Similar birds were seen as yesterday around and on the lagoons, although the White Pelicans had departed and amazingly not a single Red-necked Phalarope could be found. The boardwalk gave opportunities for close range photos of waders, although most of them were Least Sandpipers.
We then went to Moonglow Dairy, where dozens of Californian Ground Squirrels ran to, or peered out from their burrows along the track, and we also saw Loggerhead shrike and Killdeer.
Finally at Moss Landing a walk along the beach revealed 4 western Snowy Plovers along the strand line; the appeared to be 2 adults and 2 juveniles. On the other side of the dunes a very sad sight was a severely injured Sea Otter, presumably resulting from a collision with a boat propeller. The rangers were attempting to catch it – certainly it would not have survived without intervention.
9th August. Sunny with moderate temperatures on the coast, but with the inevitable fog rolling in intermittently. We spent the day at Andrew Molera State Bark, about 25 miles south of Monterey along the dramatic Big Sur coastline. A Cooper’s Hawk was seen on the journey. We walked along the Bobcat Trail, naturally not seeing the namesake animal. The only mammals we encountered along this trail were numerous Californian Ground Squirrels. The trail wound through oaks and maples, and groves of coastal redwoods, the latter very quiet and sombre habitats, parallel to the Big Sur River. The water was very clear, and from high above a few examples of the threatened South California Steelhead could be seen holding position in the current. I suppose that mid August would not be a particularly productive time to go birding in woodlands, with most species silent, but a number of species were recorded, some with question marks against their ID, such as a small Empidonax flycatcher, that I put down as Pacific Slope. A gaudy and very confiding Wilson’s Warbler gave the opportunity for several photos, while other birds seen included Brown Creeper, Warbling and Hutton’s Vireos, Pacific Wren, Slate-coloured Juncos, American Robin, Osprey and Acorn Woodpecker. Some neat Western Bluebirds were seen flycatching around a paddock at the start of the trail.
After a picnic lunch in the carpark, during which a Sharp-shinned Hawk was soaring overhead, being mobbed by Violet-Green Swallows we walked to the beach, the trail twisting through coastal scrub and heath. At the end of the trail lay a wide sandy bay, with rocks and sea-stacks at the end covered with nesting Brown Pelicans. Most of the bay was filled with Macrocystis, among which it was nice to see a Sea Otter in classic habitat. There were also Common Seals, but most interest focussed on the birds present – apart from a surprising group of Canada Geese on the beach there was a fine flock of c24 Surf Scoter, while around them were several sleek, cobra-necked Arctic Loons, and somewhat distant Western Grebes.
The return journey to Monterey was delayed by roadworks so on returning to the Tides Hotel a leisurely stroll along the beach tempted. There were large numbers of Heermann’s Gulls, densely packed and surrounded by fringing flocks of many Californian and fewer Western and the odd American Herring Gull. Finally scrutiny of the fenced in area revealed 8 Western Snowy Plovers, showing the importance of the fenced in area in protecting both the birds and the fragile dune vegetation. Offshore huge flocks, numbering thousands of Sooty Shearwaters flew north, which made it more astonishing that none were seen on the boat trip on the previous day.
10th August. Before leaving the UK I had booked an 8 hour trip with Monterey Bay whale Watching, hoping that this would allow more access to deeper offshore water, and so improved chances of seeing some Pacific tubenoses. To J’s relief the sea was calm for the entire day, with only slight swells and winds of F3 or less, although the downside of this was it made it less likely the fog would be dispersed and it was an intermittent nuisance for most of the day. As we waited for departure a Black-crowned Night Heron stalked the jetty structure, which were also festooned with loafing Californian Sealions, and Sea Otters entertained as they dived for what appeared to be clams.
Leaving the harbour scanning the breakwater revealed 6 Black Turnstones scuttling amongst the Californian Sealions. I was pleased to see this species which we had missed in Alaska in 2001. It took very little time to find the first cetaceans in the form of Common Porpoises quietly breaking the calm sea, before we moved from little to large with a tail slapping Humpback Whale. We then spent some time with the Humpbacks close to the beach, feeding in as little as 10m depth. The sheer abundance of food could be seen by peering over the side of the boat, with vast schools of anchovy visible just below the surface. Once again spectacular lunge feeding was demonstrated by the c10 whales in this area. With the calm sea warning of the whales appearance was given by a circular patch of desperate anchovies irrupting from the surface before the gaping leviathan rose through the middle of the circle, then closing the trap and slowly sinking as tons of sea water were pumped from its distended throat pouch. A few pods of Bottle-nosed Dolphins swam past here, and as well as gulls and Elegant and Caspian terns large flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes flew past. Heading out into deeper water massive flocks of Sooty Shearwaters were constantly in view, as well as numbers of Common Guillemots, many being males with ¾ grown chicks, and the first Pink-footed Shearwaters cruised past with the Sooties. In 100m depth the Humpbacks continued to lunge feed, this behaviour related less to water depth, than to the depth the prey is swimming at. There were spectacular aggregations of marine life here, with 10 or so Humpbacks surrounded by a seething mass of hundreds of Californian Sealions, and hordes of shearwaters plunge diving, and gulls picking off the surviving anchovies. As well as feeding other behaviours demonstrated by the exhibitionistic Humpbacks were repeated tail slapping and breaching. Heading out to deeper water where the Monterey undersea canyon plunges to 2000 feet we passed small groups of active Pacific White-sided Dolphins, more Common Porpoises and two Ocean Sunfish. Further offshore there was the hope of seeing more tubenoses and numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters increased before the first Black-footed Albatross glided serenely past, and 8 examples of these fine birds were seen, although surprisingly none came to the feeding frenzies we stopped to view. Smaller cetaceans seen over the deep water were several Risso’s Dolphins, which gave plenty of time to view, and speeding Dall’s Porpoises, which passed at high speed, not showing much more of themselves than the characteristic ‘rooster tail’ of spray. We stayed out for an extended period with a feeding frenzy of c12 humpbacks and sealions, with up to six Humpbacks rising simultaneously from the sea in a fountain of anchovies and water, and one giving an anchovies eye view of nemesis as it emerged in a lunge just 5m from the boat. Many phalaropes dotted on the sea here included at least one Grey.
11th August. The day did not get off to be best of starts as we left Monterey Tides Hotel as we were stung for an $80 car parking charge no-one had told us about in advance. We could have parked in the road but it did seem this was an extra ‘resort charge ‘which everyone had to pay, regardless of whether or not any of the facilities were used. Tantamount to fraud in my opinion. Just how extortionate this charge was, was shown by our purchase of a years admission ticket to all US national parks for the same price, for up to six people in a vehicle. On the drive from Hollister to Pinnacles NP saw Loggerhead Shrike, and several Red-tailed Hawks. We arrived at Pinnacles National Park in mid-morning where the very helpful staff insisted on printing off detailed mammal and bird lists, running to several pages, in spite of my half-hearted protests. From the visitor centre we took the free shuttle bus to Bear Gulch. By 10.30 it was very hot, with a temperature of 43’C but at least the humidity was low and all we could reasonably contemplate was a short hike along the Condor Gulch trail to the overlook. The trail wound up a slope of attractive chaparral vegetation with scattered pines. In the heat I did not expect to encounter many birds and this was the case, but we did see Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Red-shouldered hawk, Steller’s and Scrub Jays, and the characterful Acorn Woodpeckers. The backdrop to the overlook were towering volcanic pinnacles, whose true scale was only revealed with a human on top. Several Turkey Vultures cruised around the cliffs, but there was no mistaking the first Californian Condor that came into view; even though its massive size was hard to judge the square shape, short tail and white forewing allowed instant identification. A second condor joined this bird, then as these departed over one ridge, two others came into view, which were probably different birds, and they were joined by a darker immature bird.
We had expected seeing Condors to be a challenge, but we had further sighting of three birds overhead as we waited for the bus, as well as a cute Oak Titmouse. The afternoon was spent resting around the visitor centre, where a White-breasted Nuthatch put in an appearance. By 5.00 pm the extreme heat had subsided to the point where we could contemplate a walk along the wilderness trail, which passed through riparian woodland, although at this time of year the stream bed was bone dry. The first rather skulking Californian Thrashers were encountered, as well as Northern Flicker, Sharp-shinned Hawk, spotted Towhees, Bushtits, with a further sighting of four Californian Condors together. An addition to the mammal list was provided by an excellent Striped Skunk, padding across the trail to some fallen logs. As the light faded five Black-tailed Deer and two desert Cottontails were found feeding in the grassy areas, and as we drove back along the access road use of the spotlight revealed at least 8 Black-tailed Jackrabbits and then the bright green eyes of a Coyote which seemed unfazed by the light.
12th August. Another broiling hot day at Pinnacles NP. We arrived in the early morning in the park when it was still relatively cool. We had failed to see Californian Quail yesterday, which seems now inexplicable as they were so much in evidence today. Several large coveys of 20-30 birds were seen during the day, with about 250 seen in total. In the early morning and evening they foraged in the open, or along roadsides, during the heat of the day they skulked in bushes, often showing surprising arboreal ability. Black-tailed Jackrabbits were also seen both morning and evening, with one group of 6, loping along in a line – one would suppose a female and five males. There were also several Black-tailed Deer seen and a couple of Desert Cottontails. We walked through the caves to the reservoir. The attractive rock and reed fringed impoundment held an elegant Water Garter Snake, and Black Phoebe’s hawked insects over the water. Other birds seen on this walk included Bewick’s Wrens and Wrentits, the only resident old world warbler in the US. Having located Condor’s with relative ease yesterday it took far more effort today, but towards evening 4 were seen soaring over the ridge above the visitor centre. Another raptor seen was a Cooper’s Hawk hunting at dusk. We waited until dusk and then began spotlighting, but it was not tremendously successful, with another Coyote, as well as numerous Black-tailed jackrabbits and Black-tailed Deer the only sightings.
13th August. Much of the day was spent driving to Sequoia NP. Leaving the central valley we climbed through the foothills, covered in oak trees, and resembling Spanish dehasa, then gradually conifers appeared as we climbed to 7,000 feet, with a consequent temperature drop, before we arrived at King’s Canyon and Sequoia NPs, and we drove amongst the majestic and staggeringly large giant redwoods to Wuksachi Lodge. Three new mammal species were quickly encountered here – the noisy Douglas Squirrel, nimble Lodgepole Chipmunks and just one of the larger boldly striped Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, while there were also several astonishingly tame Black-tailed Deer. Only a few birds were seen, but one included a Green-tailed Towhee as well as many Steller’s Jays. In the evening we waited until dusk at the scenic meadow at Wolverton, close to the lodge, but little was seen apart from Black-tailed Deer and many American Robins going to roost.
14th August. Spent the day in Sequoia NP. At dawn we headed out to Crescent Meadow, these natural clearings in the coniferous forest are presumably too waterlogged to allow tree growth, and have a lush vegetation which is said to attract Black Bears, although none were seen in the morning. We walked through the beautiful old growth forest of spruce, Douglas Fir, Lodgepole Pine, and towering above them the magnificent Sequoias, most of which showed past fire damage around their massive bases. At the base of one fallen giant we found three Yellow-bellied Marmots had emerged to catch the first rays of the rising sun. These Marmots were quite confiding but a number found later on granite outcrops seemed quite wary. As yesterday large numbers of Douglas Squirrels and Lodgepole Chipmunks, with fewer Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels were seen – the small mammal density in these forests is far higher than in European forests. It was amusing to see the diminutive Douglas Squirrels running off with cones bigger than the squirrel. A number of White-headed and one Hairy Woodpeckers were seen, as well as Northern Flicker, while Pileated was heard but not seen. The old growth forest also suits Nuthatches, and both White and Red Breasted were seen and regularly heard. A number of American Warblers were present, the most numerous being Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers, which often came to the ground, but also present was a MacGillivray’s Warbler, which skulked in low bushes, Nashville Warblers, and an eye-catching Hermit Warbler. Other birds seen included Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, many American Robins and Western Bluebirds, Steller’s Jays and Lincoln Sparrow.
An hours spent mid afternoon around Wuksachi Lodge was quite productive, the scrubby areas giving a number of new species. A Fox Sparrow was quite skulking, hopping quickly between bushes where it spent most of the time skulking, while smart Mountain Chickadees, Western Tanager, and a Wilson’s Warbler were much more obliging. An Empidonax was photographed which allowed identification as Hammond’s Flycatcher. A photo also helped with identification of a singing Vireo, that I concluded was Cassin’s -it certainly had the yellowish flanks of that species, although the demarcation between the grey cheek and white throat seemed quite sharp.
In the late afternoon we went to pay homage to the largest living organism on earth, namely all 57,000 cubic feet of the Sherman tree. We had expected the site to be fairly deserted by late afternoon but it was still fantastically busy, in contrast to the other sites we visited but nothing could detract from the enormous size of this tree. We then returned to Crescent Meadows. A picnic was interrupted by the loud calls of Pileated Woodpecker, and the bird was seen well in flight, but unfortunately not working the branches. It was also heard giving the very loud drumming. Further on I had stopped to photograph two Black-tailed Deer bucks grazing in the meadow when a Black Bear crossed the path in front of Jane. The bear had disappeared behind some rocks, but fortunately it soon emerged and we were able to follow its progress along the edge of the meadow for a considerable distance. I was quite surprised that the deer took exception to the presence of the bear and trotted off very smartly. We waited until late dusk, seeing various bats, but neither spotted Owl or Flying Squirrel, both of which are said to be present here.
15th August. Clear and sunny all day with light winds. Very early in the morning I was pleased to find a covey of c12 Mountain Quail feeding by the roadside very close to Wuksachi Lodge, before they scuttled across the road to disappear. I then went to a meadow, just a mile or so from the lodge, but saw very little, and surprisingly saw very few birds around the lodge, although it had been alive with birds the previous afternoon. We then drove to Tenaya lodge in Yosemite. A fuel and food stop in the foothills gave views of a falcon appearing over the ridge line with a Red-tailed hawk, which I was fairly sure was Prairie, but it disappeared as I scrambled for the bins in the car. Otherwise little was seen but two dead barn Owls along the road were noted. We arrived at Tenaya Lodge to have confirmation that although most of Yosemite Park had reopened after fires, route 41 was still closed, so accessing most of the park would necessitate a long detour via Mariposa. In the afternoon we were still able to access the Mariposa Grove so we walked the Great Grizzly loop trail amongst the massive Giant Sequoias. The only mammals seen were Lodgepole Chipmunks and a Californian Ground Squirrel, and it was fairly quiet for birds, although in one area bird activity produced MacGillivray’s Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler.
16th August. Clear and sunny all day, but with light winds, which presumably must help those having to fight the remaining wildfires in the park. We set off for the park at 05.00 am, and driving the long way round via Mariposa, it took 1 hour 40 minutes to access the park entrance. No live mammals were seen on the way but we noted 2 dead Racoons, 1 dead Striped Skunk and an American Badger. As we drove up the Merced River valley we could see smoke rising from numerous small fires that still smouldered, and extensive devastated burnt areas were apparent. From Crane Flat the road climbed steeply to spectacular views over a valley with dramatic granite cliffs plunging below us. Numerous White-throated Swifts sped through the airspace below us before we continued along the Tioga Road. A turning off the main road to Tamarack flats took us along a minor road thorough open forest to some trails. We had the place to ourselves, showing that by avoiding the honeypot areas it is easy to find solitude in Yosemite, in spite of its five million annual visitors. There was a definite pattern for birds to be foraging in loose associations – the birds were far too scattered to be called a flock, but we would find areas of a hectare or so with many warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers and chickadees after long periods of walking and seeing nothing.
Mountain Bluebirds were seen in open forest with scattered trees, although we did not see this species later at Tuolumne meadows. A smart Clark’s Nutcracker flew in to land on the top of a pine, and another isolated bird in a pine proved to be a Black-headed Grosbeak. Black-capped Chickadees were definitely seen along the NG guide suggests this is out of range. Other birds commonly seen in the associations were Red-breasted Sapsuckers, White-headed Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Audubon’s Warblers. A Mountain Quail gave brief views as they flew across the road, and mammals seen here were the inevitable Douglas Squirrels, Lodgepole Chipmunks and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, but just before the turn off to Tamarack Flat a large squirrel on the road proved to be a Western Grey. Scat of both Black Bear and Mountain Lion were found along the track.
A brief stop was made at the attractive reed fringed Siesta lake, and here an excellent male Pine Grosbeak was located, unfortunately flushed by another group of tourists, in spite of this species reputation for being confiding.
We finally reached the extensive Tuolumne meadows late morning, the botanically rich sward bisected by the clear Tuolumne River, and the surrounding forest giving way to spectacular granite domes that contribute so much to the scenic grandeur of this park. This was supposed to be a guaranteed site for Yellow-bellied Marmots, but by the time we arrived they were no-where to be seen. However, two additional mammal species were seen here – the Belding’s Ground Squirrel, standing alert by their burrows, looking very like Prairie Dogs, and a more reclusive Montane Vole seen disappearing into cover. J also saw Garter Snake here. A nice herd of 22 buck Black-tailed Deer was grazing the grasslands, and although their antlers were still in velvet there was still a certain amount of chivvying and fencing. Close by the herd a Say’s Phoebe was seen, and on the river saw Great Blue Heron and Spotted Sandpiper.
With a long drive back to Tenaya Lodge we left Tuolume meadows at 17.00 and from that far in the park we did not arrive back until 20.00. A short late evening walk from the Lodge produced nothing.
17th August. Today we took the easy option of spending the day in the accessible part of the park around Wawona which avoided any long driving. Shamefully we didn’t arrive at the start of the Wawona meadows trail until 08.00, then spent the next few hours walking the trail around the grassy clearing. There was far more bear sign along this trail than anywhere else we had walked in California, but there were no sightings, and the only mammals seen were the expected Black-tailed deer, Lodgepole Chipmunks, Douglas Squirrels and also a Californian Ground Squirrel. However, some sought after bird species were found, with the best undoubtedly a magnificent Great Grey Owl perched on a snag, just 40m from the trail. I was surprised to find the bird in broad daylight, and still hunting – after a while it tipped off its perch into the long grass, and shortly after flew off to more distant trees with a vole.
A Red-shouldered Hawk hunted around the meadow, while within the forest a Northern Goshawk gave brief views, although it was obviously lurking in the area as numerous chipmunks and Douglas squirrels gave alarm calls. A covey of Mountain Quail was found along the trail, they seemed very shy quickly took refuge in cover. Another Pileated Woodpecker was seen, as well as several White-headed, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Hairy Woodpeckers. Red-breasted Nuthatches were common, and I was very surprised to see one flycatching with surprising aerial agility.
We walked up the Wawona creek, noting Rainbow and Brown Trout as well as Sacramento Suckers, but we failed to find American Dipper although the stream looked perfect habitat.
In the late afternoon we returned to the site and the Great Grey Owl appeared to hunt at 7.05 pm, well before sunset. It perched on prominent dead trees or on top of pine trees, then would float down quite slowly to where a vole had been located, but eventually it flew to the end of the meadow and out of sight. One Great Grey Owl should have been enough, but as we walked back along the trail at dusk we found two more Great Grey Owls. One on a fallen log was presumably an adult and flew up to a pine from where it began calling. The other bird was presumably a fully fledged juvenile – this bird remained in view, but gave creaky food begging calls. We did not use the spotlight on these birds, to avoid unnecessary disturbance, but when we scanned round with the light Black-tailed Deer and a Coyote were duly illuminated.
18th August. We left Tenaya Lodge at dawn for the long drive to Yosemite Valley. On the journey saw Mountain Quails, and had to stop to allow a Black-tailed Deer doe with two still spotted fawns to cross the road. Sadly a dead Cacomistle lay on the road right by the path entrance booth. We made a couple of stops along the Merced River and at the second, as well as Black Phoebes two American Dippers were found adorning midstream rocks, their eyes flashing white with the sweep of their nictitating membrane. We did not see a great deal of wildlife in our brief visit to the valley, noting another Western Grey Squirrel around a car park, and a number of Black-tailed Deer, but took in the grandeur of El Capitan and the Half Domes, which emphasise that Yosemite does indeed offer as much scenic splendour as anywhere in the world.
We returned to Tuolumne meadows, this time stopping at the eastern end and climbing through forest to climb Lembert Dome, at about 10,000 feet giving terrific views over the surrounding wilderness. Noisy and charismatic Ckark’s Nutcrackers initially proved elusive and were only seen in flight, but then perched on top of trees in true Nutcracker style. Another new species located here was Townend’s Solitaire, seen perched atop a pine, then in flight with conspicuous white showing in the tail. Mammals were the expected Golden-mantled Ground squirrels, Lodgepole Chipmunks, Mule Deer and Douglas Squirrels. From Tuolumne meadows it was only a short drive to Tioga Pass at just under 10,000 feet. There was a dramatic change in vegetation as we came over the pass, with far more arid conditions and a rapid depletion of tree cover. We stopped above the scenic Tioga lake at the head of the Lee Vining Canyon. I searched with the scope for Bighorn Sheep, finding none, but two Golden Eagles flew overhead as the crossed the valley, and then spent several minutes quartering the forest and mountainside on the other side of the valley.
Finally the atmospheric and slightly eerie Mono Lake came into view, and in the evening we went down to the lakeshore. Large numbers of Californian Gulls fed on the innumerable lake flies, some chasing the flies on land with a peculiar neck down and bill open run. There were many Black-necked Grebes dotted around the lake with 2-3 Ospreys around the rocky islands, but disappointingly no waders were found. In the grassy areas around the lake saw Western Meadowlark and a number of Black-billed Magpies.
19th August. We set off just as dawn was breaking through sagebush covered hills for the 30m journey to Bodie State Park, on the way seeing many Mountain Cottontails and fewer Black-tailed Jackrabbits along the road, as well as Northern Harrier ringtail, and the first Sage Thrashers of the trip, as well as numerous sparrows, that were eventually identified as Brewer’s Sparrows. As soon as we passed the perimeter of Bodie State Park we found the first Greater Sage Grouse, and in short order considerable numbers of these fine birds were located feeding on sage bush, or standing along the road. There very confiding birds gave superb close range views, lit up by the rising sun, from the car. We probably saw in excess of thirty birds, but what was quite extraordinary was how quickly they melted away as the sun rose higher. The sage bush was only about two foot high, but after 08.00 am we saw only one distant bird, another in flight and one trundling around in the abandoned town. Mammals seen were more Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Golden mantled and Californian Ground Squirrels and 2 Montane Voles. A new species encountered was the diminutive Least Chipmunk. This density of small mammals would be expected to attract raptors and as well as Red-tailed hawks, and American Kestrels perhaps 3 Northern Harriers patrolled the area. It was quite in order to drive along the approach road to the entry kiosk before the official opening, but once the park opened at 09.00am (to the nearest second) we explored the abandoned town and learnt a little about its history. A number of birds were utilising the derelict buildings, including several gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebe, Green-tailed Towhees, Sage Sparrow, more Sage Thrashers, and many Cliff Swallows. We found the nests of the latter species, elegant vases constructed of mud pellets in some of the buildings.
In the afternoon I went to the boardwalk on the west shore of Mono Lake. This strange environment, with just three organisms – algae, Artemia, and Alkaali Flies supporting the food chain proved a little disappointing. There were hordes of Californian Gulls, with rafts of Black-necked Grebes further offshore, but it took a lot of searching before I realised there were hordes of Wilson’s Phalaropes on the water, but so distant they were barely recognisable as such – I was told the Wilson’s Phalaropes had arrived in numbers in the last few days. I was able to take some nice photos of the gulls charging through the swarms of flies, which were also being predated by numbers of Tiger Beetles.
In the evening we went to ‘south tufa’, a site where limestone pinnacles had been created underwater where freshwater flowed in, and then revealed by the fall in water level. Many of these had Osprey nests atop them, and there were 14 Ospreys sitting around, including juveniles on the edge of fledging. The lake had become a rather eerie place in the evening with haze and smoke from wild fires casting a lurid glow over the surroundings. Also seen here were Say’s Phoebe, Least Chipmunks and Sage Thrashers.
20th August. A day of travel to San Francisco International Airport, across Yosemite via Tioga Pass. We stopped for breakfast there at 07.00 and scanned the rocky mountainsides for Bighorn Sheep, with no avail, seeing just White-crowned Sparrow and Northern flicker. The buck herd of Black-tailed Deer was once again grazing in Tuolumne Meadow, and we travelled through Yosemite we saw another Western Grey Squirrel, and a large accipiter, presumably a Goshawk flew across the road to disappear as it twisted among the trees. Lower in the foothills of the Sierras we saw yet another Coyote, out and about in broad daylight. American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures were a common sight as we approached the intensively cultivated Central Valley. With plenty of time and some difficult driving behind us it was tempting to stop at Alviso Slough, where there are large areas of salt pans, and a reasonably substantial brackish marsh impounded by a levee. We only had time for an hour, but could view hundreds of American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts feeding in the salt pans, there were also numbers of Greater Yellowlegs, American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants flew over and a Common Yellowthroat played hide and seek in the sedges.
Canada Goose Branta canadensis moffitti. About 30 birds seen in Golden Gate Park, with smaller numbers at Moss Landing, Andrew Molera State Park, and Elkhorn Slough.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. Common in a variety of wetland habitats, but surprisingly the only duck seen with any regularity.
Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata. A nice flock of 22 was diving among giant kelp at Andrew Molera State Park.
Mountain Quail Oreortyx pictus. Quite a striking bird with slender plumes rising like antennae from their crowns, the best views were at the side of the drive to Wuksachi Lodge, they were also seen along roadsides in Yosemite, with birds seen along the Wawona Meadow trail proving very shy and retiring, as they quickly scuttled into cover.
California Quail Callipepla californica. A very attractive and beautifully marked gamebird, which proved easy to see on the 12th, with many large coveys of up to 30 or so birds seen in several locations, including the carparks and campsites. They were more active early and late, but as we saw around 300 that day it seems inexplicable we could not find a single bird in spite of extensive searching the previous day. A few other coveys seen along roadsides.
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo. Up to 8 of these introduced gamebirds were seen daily in Pinnacles NP.
Greater Sage-Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus. These largest North American Grouse were easy to see in the sagebush covered hills at Bodie State Park shortly after dawn. As the sun rose we counted at least 30, with confiding birds along the roadsides giving superb views, as some feeding on sage bush. Remarkably, as the sun rose higher the grouse did a disappearing act, and although the sage bush was barely 2 foot high after 09.00 we only saw one further bird in the rest of the morning.
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps. Two birds were seen on the lakes in Golden Gate Park.
Eared Grebe Podiceps nigricollis. A pair of birds were seen on both visits to Moss Landing, while it was numerous at Mono Lake, with probably thousands dotted all over the lake surface, most actively diving for Artemia, although none were close to the shoreline.
Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis. Three birds were seen offshore at Andrew Molera State Park, initially distant, they came close enough to see features of this species.
Band-tailed Pigeon Patagioenas fasciata. Some 20 birds were seen along roadsides as we drove to Monterey on the 7th,and a few birds on the 10th in Andrew Molera State Park.
Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto. This introduced species was common in towns and villages.
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. This subtly attractive dove was common along roadsides in farmland and lightly wooded lowlands and foothills.
White-throated Swift Aeronautes saxatalis. Some 40 or so of these eye-catching swifts were hawking around cliffs and rock faces around the Tioga Road in Yosemite on the 16th August.
Anna’s Hummingbird Calypte anna. Shamefully the only hummingbird positively identified, a number were seen in the Golden Gate Park.
Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata. Two birds seen on freshwater pools at Elkhorn Slough.
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus. Fair numbers of birds were seen in the bunded saline pools at Elkhorn Slough, with larger numbers (around 150 birds) at Alviso Slough.
American Avocet Recurvirostra americana. Some 200 of these elegant birds were feeding in saline lagoons at Alviso Slough.
Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani. Six examples of this noisy species were seen around seal rocks and the rocky coast around Lincoln Park.
Black-bellied (Grey) Plover Pluvialis squatarola. Fair numbers, around 80 birds were seen at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, with many in summer plumage.
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus. Only a few examples of this adaptable wader were seen, with 3 birds found around Elkhorn Slough.
Semi-palmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus. Just two birds were seen around the shores of Elkhorn Slough.
Snowy Plover Charadrius nivosus. The threatened Western form was seen at Moss Landing, where 2 adults and 2 juveniles were seen, and just north of Monterey Tides Hotel where 8 birds were seen, including juveniles. All the birds were within fenced areas, which were far better vegetated that the surrounding beach areas, so the importance of protection measures was clearly shown.
Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus. Seven birds, mostly flyovers were seen around Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing.
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus. Some 55 birds were seen at Moss Landing and around Elkhorn Slough, most foraging singly. Some examples of this remarkably long billed species were very tame, allowing views from less than 10m.
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa. This large cinnamon godwit was fairly numerous at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, with 100+ seen on both visits to these locations.
Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala. Some six birds were seen scuttling around the masses of Californian Sealions on the harbour breakwater as we left for the whale watching trip on the 10th August.
Sanderling Calidris alba. A flock of 30 birds were seen at Moss Landing on the 7th August.
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri. Around 20 birds were seen in mixed flocks of small waders at Moss Landing on the 7th August.
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla. Certainly the most numerous ‘peep’ at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, with 300-400 birds seen on both visits. Had very close views and photo opportunities along boardwalks at Elkhorn Slough.
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus. Small numbers were seen on each visit to Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing, with around 10 birds seen on each visit. Often heard to give distinctive high pitched ‘keek’ call.
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius. Just one bird seen along the Tuolumne River in Yosemite NP.
Willet Tringa semipalmata. This distinctive wader was quite common at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, with around 30 birds seen on each visit. Seen feeding on crabs.
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca. This rangy wader, with its greenshank like triple flight call was more numerous than Lesser Yellowlegs, with c35 birds seen at Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, and a few birds at Alviso Slough on our final day.
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes. Around 8 birds were seen at Elkhorn Slough on 7th August, often alongside
Greater Yellowlegs, for comparison.
Wilson’s Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor. I had rather hoped for close range views of birds chasing Alkali Flies around the shores of Mono Lake, but although many had just arrived on the lake, they were all feeding on Artemia in open water, and so although thousands of birds were visible, they were all exceedingly distant.
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus. On the 7th August around 300 birds dotted the saline lagoons at Elkhorn Slough, picking food items from the water surface, but remarkably the next day, in the same locations none could be found. On the whale watching trip on the 10th August flocks of Phalaropes were seen, perhaps around 80 birds in total, with some pitching by the boat.
Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius. At least one pitched on the sea with Red-necked Phalaropes over deep water during our boat trip on the 10th August.
Common Murre Uria aalge. The most common alcid, with flocks seen off Lincoln Park, Andrew Molera State Park , and on the two boat trips, with c400 seen on the 10th . Many males with well grown chicks were seen, suggesting a successful breeding season.
Pigeon Guillemot Cepphus columba. Disappointingly the only other alcid we saw, small numbers, around 20 birds were seen close inshore at Monterey.
Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia. Around 20 birds were feeding on items picked from the water surface, with Phalaropes, at Elkhorn Slough.
Heermann’s Gull Larus heermanni. This distinctive and rather smart gull was common along the Californian Coast, with birds seen at Golden Gate Park, and the largest numbers roosting on the beach at Monterey, in dense flocks of up to 300 birds, often ringed by California and Western Gulls.
Mew Gull Larus canus. Two birds were seen with Bonaparte’s Gulls and Phalaropes at Elkhorn Slough on the 7th August.
California Gull Larus californicus. Around 300 birds were seen daily on the beach at Monterey, or feeding on anchovies driven to the surface with Humpback whales. There were also still hundreds of birds at Mono Lake, where they picked alkali flies from the surface, or charged full tilt into the swarms along the shoreline, with beak open.
American Herring Gull Larus argentatus smithsonianus. A few birds seen bathing in freshwater pools around the beach at Monterey.
Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens. One bird, probably a second winter flew along the beach at Golden Gate Park.
Western Gull Larus occidentalis. This burly, large billed gull was quite common on beaches around San Francisco and Monterey, with c100 seen daily, they were also seen in freshwater pools and estuaries.
Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans. A flock of 50 birds, with a few Caspian Terns were roosting at Moss Landing on the 7th August, or flying around giving Sandwich Tern like calls. Similar numbers were seen fishing for anchovies around the feeding Humpback Whales on the 8th and 10th August.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia. Small numbers, up to 8 birds daily, were seen offshore at Golden Gate Park, at Moss Landing and around Monterey.
Pacific Loon Gavia pacifica. Six birds were seen fishing off the rocky shore at Andrew Molera State Park. Some were close enough to see the distictive dark chin strap and lack of white flank patch to separate them from the otherwise similar Black-throated Diver.
Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes. These birds appeared when we reached the deep water canyon off Monterey, with at least 8 of these effortless gliders cruising past, some at very close range. We did not see any associate with the feeding frenzies involving whales, sealions and other seabirds.
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. A few birds, 10 and 25 were seen on the two boat trips off Monterey, with many close inshore. Most were smoky grey dark phase birds, but at least one distinctively contrasted light phase bird was seen.
Sooty Shearwater Ardenna grisea. Amazingly none were seen on the boat trip on the 8th August, but by the 9th August it was clear thousands had arrived in Monterey Bay, and vast flocks were seen from the shore in the evening. On the boat trip on the 10th birds were almost ever present, with probably tens of thousands seen, from close inshore to out in very deep water.
Pink-footed Shearwater Ardenna creatopus. These birds appeared as we reached deeper water off Monterey on the boat trip on the 10th August, with about 50 seen in total. When we were viewing the feeding humpbacks and sealions over deep water numbers of birds cruised round the action in carousel, and were also seen plunge diving.
Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auratus. A single bird gave close views on the disused swimming pool at Lincoln Park, and around 30 were seen on river channels at Elkhorn Slough.
Brandt’s Cormorant Phalacrocorax penicillatus. There were numbers of this species nesting on Seal Rocks off Lincoln Park, with c250 birds seen on 6th August. Breeding birds were also seen on rocky sea stacks at Andrew Molera state Park, and c300 were seen around Monterey Harbour, with long lines of birds flying past at sea, usually fairly close inshore.
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchus.A group of 15 were seen resting on a bund at Elkhorn Slough on 7th August, and two birds flew over at Alviso Slough on our final day.
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis. Long lines of these birds were a common sight along the coast of California; it was always amazing to watch how these big birds could use surface effect to skim just inches from the sea surface with hardly a wingbeat. Birds were nesting on Seal Rocks at Lincoln Park, and at Andrew Molera State Park. Some 150-300 were seen daily along the coast.
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias. A few birds were seen around the small nesting colony on the central lake at Golden Gate Park, one of which speared and swallowed a carp of at least 1kg, in an impressive feat of gluttony. A few birds were also seen along rivers in the high Sierras.
Snowy Egret Egretta thula. Small numbers of birds seen fishing in the creeks at Elkhorn Slough, about 10 birds in total.
Great Egret Ardea alba. Rather more numerous than Snowy Egret, with around 20 birds seen on each visit to Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, with others at Alviso Slough.
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. One seen prowling about the jetties in Monterey Harbour on August 10th.
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura. Commonly
seen sailing over the foothills and coast with 20-40 birds seen most days, except in the high Sierra.
California Condor Gymnogyps californianus. An impressive as its Andean cousin, this Pleistocene relic was seen with relative ease at Pinnacles NP. After a short wait at the overlook along the Condor Gulch trail three birds – 2 adults and a juvenile came into view, then three more probably different birds were seen as we waited for the bus by the visitor centre, and finally four towards evening along the wilderness trail. The following day we thought we might dip, but eventually 4 birds soaring over a ridge made a fine finale to the day.
Osprey Pandion haliaetus. Single birds were seen along the coast, and at Andrew Molera State Park, but the largest numbers were seen at Mono Lake, rather ironically as the lake contains no fish. The birds use the tufa (limestone columns) for nesting, where around 14 were seen, including near fledged juveniles cheeping from their nests.
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos. We had great views of a pair at Tioga Pass, the birds soaring up one side of the valley, then sailing overhead and hunting for several minutes over the opposite mountainside.
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius. A fine male was seen at Moonglow Dairy, while several birds, all ringtails, were seen hunting over the sage brush covered hills at Bodie State Park.
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus. Single birds were seen soaring over the car park at Andrew Molera State Park, being mobbed by Violet Green Swallows. The square ended tail was quite apparent.
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii. Seen quite regularly in a variety of habitats. The rounded tail was quite a useful feature to separate from the smaller Sharp-shinned. Birds were seen in the Golden Gate park, while we had a number of sightings in Pinnacles NP, including a bird hunting at dusk. It was also seen at Andrew Molera State Park.
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis atricapillus. One bird, probably an adult female, was seen amongst the forest along the Wawona Meadows trail. The bird was quite unobtrusive but chipmunks and squirrels were obviously aware of its presence and the forest rang with their alarm calls.
Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus. This buteo with its relatively long tail rather resembles an accipiter, and is often seen perched around forest clearings. No fewer than five birds were seen around Golden Gate Park, with single birds in Pinnacles NP and at Wawona Meadows in Yosemite NP.
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis. Other than Turkey Vulture this was the most common raptor, and frequently seen along roadsides during drives, with 2-8 birds seen daily (except when at sea!). There were astonishingly tame birds in Golden Gate Park and at Bodie State Park, proving far more confiding than Common Buzzards ever are in the UK.
Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa. Not having any definite sites for this species we were very pleased to find one perched on a dead tree at the edge of Wawona Meadows in Yosemite NP. It was still hunting and after a minute or so it crashed into the long grass and emerged with a vole, which it flew off with. In the evening from 7.00pm it was again hunting in the same area, and saw it make several pounces from various perches. Leaving the owl we walked on, and further along the trail found two more Great grey Owls, one on a low perch called then flew up to a higher branch and continued calling. The other bird made the repetitive food begging call, so I assume at least one was a fledged juvenile.
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon. Single examples of this noisy species were seen around Elkhorn Slough on successive days.
Acorn Woodpecker Melanerpes formicivorus. This charismatic social woodpecker was really common in Andrew Molera State Park and Pinnacles NP, with possibly up to 40 birds seen daily, and many trees, mostly oaks, were found with thousands of holes drilled into them by this species. Typically each clan of birds would sit on exposed branches of dead trees, launching sorties after flying insects, which always seemed a really atypical way for a woodpecker to feed.
Red-breasted Sapsucker Sphyrapicus ruber. Two birds were seen with loose mixed parties of forest birds at Tamarack Flat, and also at Wawona in Yosemite NP.
White-headed Woodpecker Picoides albolarvatus. A fairly common species in mountain coniferous forest, with up to 4 birds seen daily in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs. Quite a confiding species, could be watched prising away bark in search of insects.
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus. A few birds were seen in Golden Gate park, and in Yosemite NP. Birdds of this species showed very little whit spotting in the wing, and were presumably of the subspecies sitkensis.
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens. Just one example of this rather cute woodpecker was seen, in Golden Gate Park on our first day.
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus. One to four birds were seen most days in Pinnacles NP, Sequoia NP and Yosemite NP in open coniferous woodland, sometimes feeding on the ground, presumably on ants.
Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus. Quite an impressive bird, this species was heard drumming and calling fairly frequently in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs, and we had flight views at Crescent Meadows in Sequoia NP and Wawona Meadows in Yosemite NP.
American Kestrel Falco sparverius. Some 14 examples of this neat falcon were seen mostly while driving, with 3-4 birds seen daily in Pinnacles NP and Bodie State Park.
Western Wood-Pewee Contopus sordidulus. One bird seen in forest margin at Wawona Meadows.
Dusky Flycatcher Empidonax oberholseri. Members of this genus, particularly adults inn worn plumage are not the easiest to identify. Examining digital images I concluded this species was seen around Wuksachi Lodge, on the basis of the larger bill and shorter primary projection than Hammond’s.
Pacific-slope Flycatcher Empidonax difficilis. A neat small flycatcher, with orange wing bars, birds were seen at Andrew Molera State Park and Pinnacles NP.
Black Phoebe Sayornis nigricans. A fairly common and widespread species, and one or two birds seen in most areas visited. It was also a typical bird around lakes and mountain streams.
Say’s Phoebe Sayornis saya. Single birds were seen at Tuolumne Meadows, Mono Lake and Bodie State Park.
Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus. Single birds were seen on wires at Moonglow Dairy, and on the drive to PinnaclesNP.
Hutton’s Vireo Vireo huttoni. A pair of these ‘crest’ like vireos was seen in forest at Andrew Molera State Park.
Cassin’s Vireo Vireo cassinii. A rather secretive bird in bushes at Wuksachi Lodge was photographed. Clearly a vireo, the whitish spectacles and yellowish flanks suggested it was this species, although the border between greyish cheeks and white throat seemed quite sharp, a feature of Plumbeous.
Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus. A few birds seen along the Bobcat Trail in Andrew Molera State Park.
Clark’s Nutcracker Nucifraga columbiana. An eye-catching species in flight, with flashing white secondaries and outer tail feathers, it was fairly common in high altitude coniferous forest below Tioga Pass, with small parties of birds seen in flight, or perching in typical Nutcracker style in tree tops. Very vocal birds, their loud calls helped with location.
Steller’s Jay Cyanocitta stelleri. A common, noisy and conspicuous species in coniferous forest so seen daily in Pinnacles NP, Sequoia NP and Yosemite NP, including high altitude sites.
California Scrub-Jay Aphelocoma californica. Generally found at lower altitudes than Steller’s Jay, although there was much overlap, this was a common species in open deciduous and coniferous woodland, chaparral and forest edge. The largest numbers were seen in Pinnacles NP.
Black-billed Magpie Pica hudsoni. In a superficial view this species looks identical to Eurasian Magpie. A party of 6 or so birds was seen in scrub at Mono Lake.
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos. The first bird seen in California, this species was seen daily in small numbers along the coast and around Pinnacles NP, but not seen regularly in the Sierra Nevada.
Common Raven Corvus corax. A common species, ranging from the coast, where it was numerous along beaches, to the high Sierra. With birds often quite tame the smaller size of these Californian birds was apparent.
Violet-green Swallow Tachycineta thalassina. This species was first encountered at Andrew Molera State Park, where c30 birds were hawking high in the sky, and similar numbers were seen in our brief visit to Alviso Slough on the final day.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica. Some 30-100 birds were seen daily along the coast, in sites like Golden Gate Park and Moss Landing.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis. Four birds seen flying along the coast at Monterey on the 10th August.
Cliff Swallow Petrochelidon pyrrhonota. Birds were nesting in the buildings around the visitor centre at Elkhorn Slough, with c30 seen, and in the abandoned buildings at Bodie, with similar numbers. The vase shaped nests, constructed with mud pellets were beautiful constructions.
Oak Titmouse Baeolophus inornatus. This somewhat nondescript tit was fairly common in deciduous woodland in Pinnacles NP.
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus. Around four examples were seen in mixed species parties at Tamarack Flat in Yosemite NP.
Mountain Chickadee Poecile sclateri. Pairs of this quite smart tit were seen in the conifers around Wuksachi Lodge.
Chestnut-backed Chickadee Poecile rufescens. This distinctive tit, which is a bird of coastal ranges was seen in Golden Gate Park, and in Andrew Molera Park, about 4 in each location.
Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus. Always seen in foraging flocks, this active bird was seen at Elkhorn Slough, in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs.
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis. A small bird with a big personality, this species was common in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs, to judge from the frequency of its ‘toy trumpet’ calls, and several were seen in both locations. I was surprised to see birds actively flycatching, a most un-nuthatch like feeding behaviour.
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis. This species overlapped in range with the preceding species, and was common in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs, but was also found at lower altitude and deciduous woodland in sites like Pinnacles NP.
Brown Creeper Certhia americana. This unobtrusive species was seen at several locations, such as GoldenGate Park, Andrew Molera, Sequoia and Yosemite, usually associating with mixed species flocks, with up to 4 seen daily.
Pacific Wren Troglodytes pacificus. Certainly under-recorded but we saw birds in Andrew Molera State park, and in Yosemite.
Bewick’s Wren Thryomanes bewickii. Birds were seen along the rock strewn canyon that leads to the reservoir in Pinnacles NP.
American Dipper Cinclus mexicanus. We searched for this species along the Wawona Creek, which looked like perfect habitat but eventually found 2 birds in the rocky cascades along the Merced River. Scope views revealed the nictitating membrane sweeping across the eye of the bird.
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa. Two pairs of this firecrest look-alike were seen in Sequoia NP around Crescent Meadow.
Wrentit Chamaea fasciata. A pair of this species, the only new world representative of the Sylviidae, was seen in chaparral in Pinnacles NP.
Western Bluebird Sialia mexicana. This attractive species was seen around paddocks of forest edges, hawking insects in the style of a flycatcher. Several were seen in Andrew Molera State Park, and around Crescent Meadows in Sequoia NP, with up to 10 birds at these locations.
Mountain Bluebird Sialis currucoides. One bird was seen in open forest at Tamarack Flat in Yosemite, but the species was most easily seen around the abandoned town buildings of Bodie, where around 8 of these pastel blue birds were seen.
Townsend’s Solitaire Myadestes townsendii. One bird was seen in high altitude pine forest above Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite NP, the white outer tail feathers conspicuous as it flew away.
American Robin Turdus migratorius. Quite a common thrush in the coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada with 10-20 seen most days as we walked along trails.
Sage Thrasher Oreoscoptes montanus. Several birds, about 18 in total, were seen in the sage bush country around Bodie State Park. With the early morning sunshine birds would obligingly sun themselves on the tops of bushes, giving good views.
California Thrasher Toxostoma redivivum. Two birds were seen along the wilderness trail in Pinnacles NP. They seemed quite shy and furtive and quickly took to cover.
Pine Grosbeak Pinicola eunucleator. There is an outlying population in Northern California and a gorgeous raspberry pink male was seen around Siesta Lake in Yosemite NP. Unfortunately before I could photograph it a gaggle of tourists flushed it, in spite of the species reputation for being confiding.
House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus. About 20 birds were seen in Golden Gate Park, mostly around the Buffalo paddock, and also several around Alsviso Slough.
Lesser Goldfinch Spinus psaltria. A few birds seen around Elkhorn Slough, and around the reservoir in Pinnacles NP.
Orange-crowned Warbler Oreothlypis celata. A few examples of this somewhat nondescript species were seen in mixed species flocks in Sequoia and Yosemite NP.
Nashville Warbler Oreothlypis ruficapilla. A few examples of this species, somewhat reminiscent of a white-eye, were seen in mixed species flocks at Wuksachi Lodge.
MacGillivray’s Warbler Geothlypis tolmiei. Quite a distinctive species , with white eyelids, grey head, and yellow underparts but a skulking species, which kept to low cover. Single birds were seen in Sequoia NP and Yosemite NP.
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas. Examples of this smart but skulking inhabitant of marshes were seen at Elkhorn Slough and Alviso Slough.
Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler Setophaga coronata audoboni. This attractive and active bird, with its neat yellow throat was the most common American Wood Warbler in pine forest in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs. They would often forage on the forest floor as well as in the canopy, and up to 10 would be seen daily.
Hermit Warbler Setophaga occidentalis. Three birds were seen around Crescent Meadows in Sequoia NP, a smart bird with a distinctive yellow head.
Wilson’s Warbler Cardellina pusilla. A very obliging individual was found on the trail to the beach in Andrea Molera State Park, giving close range photo opportunities.
Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus. This handsome but rather secretive species was common in Pinnacles NP with 4-10 birds seen each day we spent there.
Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus. One bird was seen in scrub around Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia NP, while a number were seen in sage bush around Bodie ghost town. Quite a well marked and smart bird.
California Towhee Melozone crissalis. Several examples of this ground foraging bird were seen in the Golden Gate Park, and it was also common in Pinnacles NP.
Brewer’s Sparrow Spizella breweri. Identification of American sparrows was problematical. Even with quite good digital images it proved difficult to identify all birds. This species was fairly easy, with its strong head pattern and plain underparts, and was common in sage bush around Bodie, with 100+ birds were seen.
Sagebrush Sparrow Artemisiospiza nevadensis. This was another fairly distinctive sparrow in sagebrush around Bodie State Park, with a very clear white eye ring and an ‘ortolanlike’ sub-moustachial stripe, and 4 birds were seen around the ghost town.
Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis. A few birds were seen and photographed in sand dune scrub at Moss Landing.
Lincoln’s Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii. This species, with its broad grey supercilium was seen at Crescent Meadows, and Wawona Meadows, about 20 birds at both locations.
Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca. The thick-billed form of this large sparrow was seen at Wuksachi Lodge and Tamarack Flat. They were decidedly retiring birds, usually seen scuttling between patches of scrub, or could be viewed within thickets.
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys. This species was seen in small numbers in very different locations, namely Golden gate Park, sand dune scrub at moss Landing, and at 10,000 ft around the tree line at Tioga Pass.
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco Junco hyemalis shufeldi. A common bird, typically feeding on the ground along trails in forest or forest clearings, the white outer tail feathers conspicuous as they flew up to low branches. At least a few birds seen at all sites visited.
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana. In spite of its name, now longer a Tanager, in common with all the NA ‘tanagers’, around three birds were seen in pines around Wuksachi Lodge.
Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus. One bird gave scope views, perched in a pine along Tamarack Flat in Yosemite NP.
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta. Two birds were seen in grassland and scrub around Mono Lake.
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus. Large flocks of hundreds of birds were seen along the drive to Andrew Molera State Park, and at Moonglow Dairy. There were also flocks of 50 or so in reeds around Mono Lake.
Brewer’s Blackbird Euphagus cyanocephalus. This adaptable species was seen daily in habitats ranging from sand dune to mountain forest clearings, and very tame birds were an almost inevitable intrusion whenever we had a picnic.
Western Grey Squirrel Sciurus griseus. This species was quite distinct from Eastern Grey, being a clearly larger animal, with rather uniform steel grey pelage, reminiscent of a Chinchilla. Three examples were seen in Yosemite NP, so it was not a particularly common animal.
Douglas Squirrel Tamiasciurus douglasii. This attractive small squirrel was common in pine forests in both Sequoia and Yosemite NPs, with several seen each day – the density of squirrel species seemed far higher than in European coniferous forests. These squirrels were very vocal with a wide range of bird like calls. They were often seen carrying pine cones that seemed larger than the squirrels themselves.
Yellow-bellied Marmot Marmota flaviventris. This species proved harder to locate than I had expected. Three were found sunning themselves at burrow entrances around the root disc of a fallen forest giant at Crescent Meadows, while five or so very shy individuals were seen around rocky slopes further round the trail. The marmots were already massively obese, probably just as well as they actually start hibernation from August.
California Ground Squirrel Orospermophilus beecheyi. This was a common species in grasslands, paddocks, and rocky hills, with the largest numbers seen at Moonglow Dairy, Andrew Molera State Park, and Pinnacles NP, but seen at most locations, and although less abundant in the sierras if was regularly seen up to 9,000 feet in mountain areas. The silvery nape was the most consistent and useful feature to identify this species.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel Callospermophilus lateralis. This handsome squirrel was seen in small numbers daily in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs, in open forest, particularly where rock piles give them a sense of security. Up to 5 seen daily, many of them were quite tame and photogenic.
Belding’s Ground Squirrel Urocitellus beldingi. These squirrels of open grassland rather resemble Prairie Dogs, although they seem considerably less social, and have a similar habit of sitting bolt upright outside their burrows. Some five individuals were seen in the high altitude grasslands of Tuolumne Meadows.
Least Chipmunk Tamias minimus. The difficulty in identifying the chipmunks demonstrated the inadequacy of the photographic guide. This species was seen in the sagebrush around Bodie State Park, and we had close views of this diminutive squirrel around the ruined buildings, with around 15 seen.
Merriam’s Chipmunk Tamias merriami. Three animals were seen in Pinnacles NP, where it was the only chipmunk species present. They were seen along the boulder lined path to the reservoir.
Lodgepole Chipmunk Tamias speciosus. Quite how one separates Lodgepole from Long-eared Chipmunks, which seem to have overlapping ranges is something of a mystery. The chipmunks I photographed in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs appear to have a poorly defined lateral stripe, and lack a white sopt behind the ear, which fits with this species. These chipmunks were common in the forest and several were seen daily.
Montane Vole Microtus montanus. Presumed to be this species, based on mammal lists for the area, voles were seen at Tuolumne Meadows and at Bodie State Park.
Black-tailed Jackrabbit Lepus californicus. This rangy hare, with strikingly long ears was common at Pinnacles NP and at Bodie State Park. Most were seen with the use of the spotlight with 10-12 animals picked out in open areas, but some were still active early morning and towards evening. We saw a presumed female being followed by six other hares at Pinnacles NP.
Desert Cottontail Sylvilagus audubonii. With relatively long, black tipped ears this rabbit bore some resemblance to a leveret. It was less common than the Black-tailed Jackrabbit in Pinnacles NP, with two individuals seen around the visitor centre.
Mountain Cottontail Sylvilagus nuttallii. Several examples (c15) of this relatively short eared montane species were seen along the roadside at dawn as we drove through sagebrush country to Bodie State Park.
Coyote Canis latrans. Two individuals were spotlighted in Pinnacles NP on successive evenings, with the best views, again with the aid of the spotlight, at Wawona meadows in Yosemite NP. None of them appeared concerned about being illuminated, perhaps surprisingly for a heavily persecuted species. A fourth Coyote was seen in broad daylight in the foothills on our final day.
American Black Bear Ursus americanus. A second visit to Crescent Meadows in Sequoia NP in the late evening paid off with a Black Bear crossing the path in front of us, and then allowing reasonably prolonged views as we watched it moving slowly around the edge of the meadow. It seemed a relatively small bear, which would suggest a female, and it was jet black, although most Californian Black Bears are some shade of brown. There was a great deal of bear sign at Wawona, but we were unsuccessful here.
Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis. Normally recorded as an all too frequent road casualty, it was pleasing to see a live one cross the path along the wilderness trail in Pinnacles NP, to forage in some rotten logs. A smart and characterful animal.
Sea Otter Enhydra lutris nereis. The largest numbers and best views of this wonderful animal were at Moss Landing where aggregations of young male otters could be viewed. A single animal by the road causeway gave views of down to a few feet as it fished for crabs around a sluice, manipulating its catch with its small forelimbs as he floated on his back. Sadly one otter had sustained severe injuries after impact with a boat propeller. An attempt was being made to capture this otter, which would inevitably die without veterinary intervention. Smaller numbers were seen in Monterey harbour, and others in the giant kelp beds at Andrew Molera State park, the otters clearly at home in the pacific swells.
Californian Sea Lion Zalophus californianus. We hoped to encounter this species at Moss Landing, but none were to be seen until there was a spectacular mass arrival of around 120 porpoising in from the sea, to occupy a rocky reef. Similar numbers could be seen on the breakwaters at Monterey Harbour, with a tendency for the large bulls, with their prominent sagittal crests, to loaf around the jetties and docks. At sea large aggregations would accompany feeding Humpbacks, both just off beaches, and also in very deep water around marine canyons.
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina richardii. Seal Rocks off Golden Gate Park lived up to their name with about 20 Harbour Seals hauled out on the low reefs, while the estuary sandbanks at Moss Landing hosted around 50 seals. They were also present at Monterey, although outnumbered by Sea Lions, with c15 seen.
Black-tailed (Mule) Deer Odocoileus hemiones. This western species was regularly encountered in Pinnacles NP and in the Sierra Nevada in Sequoia and Yosemite NPs. At Tuolumne Meadows a herd of 23 bucks could be seen out in the grasslands, but it was usually encountered singly or in small groups of 2-5 animals. Compared with any wild deer in Britain, which will not tolerate a human in sight at almost any range most showed a remarkable tameness.
Humpback Whale Megaptera noveangliae. It may not be the largest rorqual, but certainly the most entertaining to watch. On the short trip on the 8th August we could view 12-15 Humpbacks lunge feeding in very shallow water (10m depth or less). The imminent emergence of the whale was presaged by an irruption of anchovies from the sea, with the whale then rising up in the middle of this circle of fish. With the trap shut, tons of water would be expelled from the sides of the whales mouth and the doomed fish swallowed, while gulls picked off the survivors. On the second day we could view lunge feeding both close inshore and in very deep water, with up to 7 whales rising simultaneously, the whales accompanied by a carousel of hundreds of Sea Lions. Other behaviours seen included multiple breaches and tail slapping. A reasonable estimate of numbers seen on the 10th would be 60-70 Humpbacks. One was seen with horrific but healed injuries caused by a boat propeller.
Risso’s Dolphin Grampus griseus. This sedate species with their scar covered bodies (in older individuals) and tall dorsal is one of the easiest small cetaceans to identify. Around 15 were seen in fairly shallow water on the 8th, with another 8 on the 10th, on that date over the very deep water of a marine canyon. Younger (less scarred) animals were prone to lobtail and were generally more active.
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus. Around 8 individuals were seen on the 10th August, with small groups working very close inshore off Monterey beach, at times almost among the breaking surf.
Pacific White-sided Dolphin Lagenorhynchus obliquidens. Small numbers of this active species were seen with Risso’s Dolphins on the 8th August. They did not leap clear of the sea, just giving low rolls, showing the distinctive bicoloured dorsal fins. Another small group was seen on the 10th.
Dall’s Porpoise Phocoenoides dalli. It was typically difficult to get good views of this fast moving species. Around 8 came past the boat as we watched Humpbacks in deep water, but views were limited to a black and white blur throwing up a ‘rooster-tail’ of sprayas they sped past.
Common Porpoise Phocoena phocoena. A few individuals were seen in typical quiet surfacing behaviour in calm seas as we left Monterey harbour on the 10th August.
Seen dead along roads – Cacomistle, American badger, Grey Fox, Racoon, Virginia Opossum.