Day 1: Arrival in California
Our California birding tour begins with arrival in San Francisco and meet-and-greet over dinner. Night in San Francisco.
Days 2 and 3: Point Reyes National Seashore
We start early to travel north over the Golden Gate Bridge to Inverness for a two night stay, perhaps stopping at Bolinas Lagoon en route to look for our first shorebirds, gulls and terns. Our main destination is the Point Reyes National Seashore, a superb area supporting a variety of pristine habitats of riparian willow and oak thickets, dry chaparral, lagoons and estuaries. The peninsula sticks out into the Pacific Ocean, sometimes allowing ready viewing of shearwater concentrations off the Central California coast, and close inshore Pigeon Guillemot and Pelagic Cormorant. Oak and conifer woodlands and riparian thickets provide shelter for resident and migrating landbirds – Anna’s and Allen's Hummingbirds, Band-tailed Pigeon, Steller’s Jay, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pacific Wren, Bushtit - and we look especially for warblers, including Hermit, Townsend’s and Wilson’s. California Quails scurry across clearings, White-tailed Kites hover overhead, Black Phoebes and Western Bluebirds are here, and we should find our first Tricolored Blackbirds.
In drier chaparral, another distinctive group of birds occurs - the elusive Wrentit, plus Spotted Towhee, Bewick’s Wren and Western Scrub-Jay. At Tomales Point, Harbour Seals and Tule Elk occur; Tule Elk is a small subspecies of Elk, perilously close to extinction but now recovering somewhat under protection and reintroduction programs. Brackish lagoons and small estuaries attract many shorebirds - Western and Least Sandpipers, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, both species of dowitchers, Willet and Whimbrel - many of these can be approached quite closely and hence afford good photographic opportunities. Elegant and Caspian Terns can be found alongside Western, Heermann’s and California Gulls along beaches, and Sanderling, Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers and Black Turnstones forage along sandbars and rocky promontories. Time permitting, we may visit the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. Nights in Inverness.
Day 4: Transfer to Sierra Nevada
We leave Point Reyes early, and travel inland across the Sacramento Valley to the foothills of the imposing Sierra Nevada, through the spectacular Carson Pass and down to Lee Vining, making birding stops along the way. A couple of stops in oak-pine country could turn up Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Black-billed Magpie, along with Douglas’s Squirrel and Tahoe Chipmunk. Arriving in Lee Vining, we will appreciate the large number of Eurasian Collared Doves in the town, easily outnumbering the native Mourning Doves. Night in Lee Vining.
Day 5: Mono Lake
Mono Lake is the oldest body of freshwater in North America. It is shrinking in size, revealing unique calcified rock formations along the shoreline. The lake holds large numbers of Eared Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, American Avocets and California Gulls, and in September migrant shorebirds such as Pectoral Sandpiper. Ospreys are frequent visitors. We look for sagebrush specialists - Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush and Brewer’s Sparrows, as well as Vesper Sparrows, and with good luck Greater Sage-Grouse.
Coniferous forests support Pygmy Nuthatch, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, Green-tailed Towhee and the unwoodpecker-like Lewis’s Woodpecker. During the afternoon we cross Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park for a three nights stay. Night in Yosemite.
Days 6 - 7: Yosemite
Yosemite National Park has some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere, a vast wilderness with huge waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant Sequoias and high altitude montane forest covering elevational changes from 2,000 up to 13,000 feet. This superb park contains five major vegetation zones: chaparral/oak woodlands, lower montane, upper montane, subalpine and alpine. Breathtaking vistas are a feature, as are natural wonders such as Bridalveil Falls, Half and Sentinel Domes and Cathedral Rocks. Woodpeckers are particularly well represented, including Red-naped, Red-breasted and Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and Hairy, White-headed, Pileated and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Golden Eagles and White-throated and Vaux's Swifts soar overhead, and passerines include Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Nashville and MacGillivray’s Warblers, American Dippers are along fast-flowing rivers, and Rufous Hummingbird, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Bluebird, Red Crossbill and Cassin’s Vireo can be found. With luck we’ll encounter Mountain Quail and Sooty Grouse, as well as Great Grey Owl. Nights in Yosemite.
Day 8: Transfer to Monterey
Today we drive to Monterey for a three-night stay, crossing flat open basins where Prairie Falcons hunt and foothill woodland and oak savannah that supports Greater Roadrunner, Lewis’s and Acorn Woodpeckers, Oak Titmouse, Say’s Phoebe, Western Bluebird and Phainopepla. Night in Monterey area.
Days 9 – 10: Monterey
The Monterey peninsula supports groves of Coastal Redwoods and cypresses, rocky and sandy shores, and mudflats. Rocky shores are frequented by Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Black Oystercatcher, maybe an early Wandering Tattler or Surfbird. On offshore rocky outcrops, California Sealions loaf, and nearby among the kelpbeds are Sea Otters. Oak and conifer woods and chaparral have Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Wild Turkey, Bushtit, Bewick’s Wren, Western Tanager and Purple Finch. Range-restricted Tricolored Blackbirds can be found in small marshy areas. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is a fine reserve of estuary, coastal marsh, and oak and pine woodlands, supporting egrets, herons, waterfowl, shorebirds, Red-shouldered Hawk, Hutton’s Vireo, California Thrasher, and Barn Owl. One day we travel to Pinnacles National Park, an area of riparian woodland, canyons and chaparral, with towering sandstone rock formations that resemble pinnacles. Here, we look for the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie, as well as Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Oak Titmouse, California Thrasher, Rufous-crowned and Bell's Sparrows and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Pinnacles NP is where the re-introduction of California Condors is being undertaken, and we will look for some soaring over the canyons – an exhilarating spectacle.
During our stay we take a pelagic boat trip for seabirds and cetaceans, into famous Monterey Bay and beyond. Monterey Bay is particularly attractive to marine life because of the close proximity to shore of the continental shelf and deep underwater canyons over 3,000 m deep. Upwellings of nutrient-rich water attract a wide variety of pelagic seabirds. Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, shearwaters – Sooty, Pink-footed and Buller’s, Ashy Storm-Petrel, jaegers, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, auklets, auks, murrelets, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes – the list seems endless. We could encounter great whales such as Gray, Humpback or Blue Whales, Northern Fur Seal, and dolphins and Dall’s Porpoise, and sometimes Killer Whale (Orca). Black Turnstones occur on the harbour jetty. Nights in Monterey.
Day 11: Return to San Francisco
Today we look for species not yet found upto now, then we leave Monterey, and visit the Northern Elephant Seal colony at Año Nuevo State Park, a splendid marine wildlife sanctuary. We then continue back to San Francisco, where we spend the night. Night in San Francisco.
Day 12: Departure
Our tour ends today, we can depart anytime for our flights home.