South-eastern Arizona &
24th July - 14th August 2001
See photo page here
Simon Woolley and Julia Casson
We had both been to North America before, but never together, and never on a
'pure' birding trip. I had read about the wonders of Arizona's late summer 'second
spring' for years, and was keen to try for maximum hummingbird diversity, along
with breeding activity in many other species. Once we had priced up flights,
it became clear that it was an attractive option to add on an extra week in
California, primarily for pelagic birding and mammal watching, but also to pick
up some endemics and near-endemics, Pacific coastal passerines and waders.
The flights with United Airlines from London to Phoenix (via Washington,
and, as it turned out, LA as well
..), Phoenix to San Francisco,
and San Francisco direct to London, all with United, cost a total of £480
each plus tax, which I think represents a huge bargain. The extra flight
to San Francisco, and the 'open jaw' nature of the transatlantic flights
only cost us about £60 extra each! We booked these flights through
We umm-ed and ahh-ed about this for some time. We weren't keen to camp
under canvas for three weeks. Should we get a car and book motels, or
get some sort of RV or motor-home? The former would be easier to drive
over distance, but might be a bit dodgy on rougher tracks. Also, the comfort
of motels, A/C at night and showers was attractive! However, we were keen
to be birding as early as possible each day, so the RV option looked attractive.
But we had visions of vast lumbering Winnebagos, and were unimpressed.
What about a VW type camper van? I searched around on the internet, and
quite quickly found two suitable companies offering VW Westfalia rental
(that's the kind with the extending roof). This seemed to be perfect compromise,
so we went for it and booked. We used Roamin'
Holidays for Arizona, and California
Campers for California - only to find out the two companies were in
joint venture and we were really talking to the same people in each case!
A good idea? On balance, yes! The vans were easy to drive (though do try and
specify manual transmission - we had automatic in California and it was not
good news), spacious, versatile on, shall we say, less good roads, and comfortable
to cook and sleep in. We did feel like old hippies at times, especially in California,
but we could live with that!
Once we'd decided on a VW van, accommodation became less of a problem, since
(in Arizona at least) it wasn't high season, and most of the campsites were
virtually empty. The standard charge for a non hook-up Forest Service site is
$10, payable in an honesty box on site. We paid $15 for electric hook-up near
Tucson, and camped for free once or twice in pulloffs on public land. Showers
are rather few and far between on these campsites, as are toilets beyond the
'pit' version - but your standards soon lower, you get better at hand-washing
clothes, and you become a past master at nabbing the odd shower when you can
- e.g. the tactical $5 day use permit at Patagonia Lake State Park followed
by showers in the lavish washroom block!
Perhaps inevitably, we did crack two or three times, and booked in to a motel
for a complete hose down. Motel prices vary from the cheap to the surprisingly
pricey - do shop around and, if booking ahead, make noises about it being too
much - the operator often 'miraculously' finds you a 'special' rate for the
very night you want to stay. Basically it's a fairly cut-throat market, and
out of season, I suspect you could almost name your price.
The situation in California was rather different. August is high season on
the coast, and camp sites get very full early in the day. We made the error
of not booking ahead, and we did waste quite a bit of time trying to sort this
out once in California. The advice has to be, book ahead, even if you're camping.
If you're motelling it, definitely book ahead at this time of year, especially
This has to be split into two :
Hot in the deserts! Very hot! It regularly reaches 110°C in the Sonoran
desert, and it cools to little over 90°C at night. This sort of heat is
appalling, even if you're used to Israel or Morocco in spring. And don't let
anyone kid you with this 'dry heat' business - at this time of year, the air
is quite humid, coming as it does from the Gulfs of Mexico and California. All
this humidity, of course, triggers thunderstorms, the so-called Arizona monsoon.
Each afternoon, huge thunderheads build up over the hills and roll down onto
the plains, soaking small areas with intense rainfall, but leaving immediately
neighbouring areas dry. These spectacular, but localised electrical storms are
a real feature of the region at this time of year, and offer welcome relief
from the heat.
The key approach to avoiding the heat, however, is to climb the hills,
the so-called 'sky islands' of SE Arizona. A whole series of discrete
ranges of mountains rise up from the flat plains, and each one is distinctly
different in topography, climate, and of course, birds. What they share,
however, is a cool microclimate! As you climb the roads up the hills or
into the canyons, you can see the vegetation changing with every mile.
The best example is Mt. Lemmon on the outskirts of Tucson - you start
off in baking desert with saguaro cacti, climb through mesquite thornscrub,
into juniper scrub, into oak/juniper woods, into mixed oak-pine forest,
and end up in boreal-type conifer forest with alpine meadows, all within
about an hour and a half! By climbing to 9500 ft, the temperature drops
dramatically, and it is genuinely cold at night. We used this tactic almost
every day. The added advantage is, of course, that by visiting all these
different habitats, you get maximum bird diversity.
A side point - you get a fantastic sense of these belts of forest on each range
being islands of habitat trapped in time - as the climate gets wetter (over,
say 15,000 years), the (say) juniper forest will presumably descend the hills,
spread across the plains, and (say) Bridled Titmice from the Huachucas will
meet their long lost cousins from the Santa Ritas, whereas now, they are separated
by non-Titmouse friendly desert. What will happen when they meet? Inter-breeding?
Or are the birds so genetically isolated (already?) that they won't? Could they
be species already? The joys of taxonomy and vicariance island biogeography
Much cooler! Along the coast (where we were almost exclusively), the main potential
problem is fog. This is caused by moist air cooling over the very cold offshore
water, the same water that drew us to California in the first place for pelagic
seabirds. The fog can be clear by 8.30am, or it can linger into the afternoon
- it comes and goes in any one place, too. Pot luck, really. Just pray that
it clears offshore by the time you go on boat trips! Offshore, the wind tends
to pick up a bit in the afternoon (sea breezes), which can give slightly choppy
conditions, but it really shouldn't be too bad at this time of year. Rain is
rare in California in the summer months.
As ever, the key to success is excellent gen. For Arizona, we used the superb
A Birder's Guide to Southeastern Arizona, by Richard Cachor Taylor (1995), published
by the ABA in their Lane Birdfinding Guide series. It's a really well designed
book, spiro-bound with a tuck in back flap to keep your place, lots of very
clear maps, tear-out trail maps for several of the canyons, and brilliant status
text and tables for all the special species in the back, plus full lists of
mammals, butterflies and other groups. We highly recommend this excellently
produced book. In addition, we had trip reports from Bob Self and Katie Hoff
(1991, Jim Frazier (1995), Alex Lees (May 2001) & Mark Lawlor (1993), plus
itineraries/reports from 2 or 3 commercial bird tour companies to suggest routing.
We also had tons of site gen. and maps, leaflets etc. from Dave Hawkins (Norfolk),
contacted courtesy of Chris Mills.
In California, our primary source was Kemper's (1999) Birding Northern
California. Although we only used a small proportion of the book, we found
it clear, accurate and entertaining, though not as readable as Taylor's
Arizona guide. In addition, Todd Newberry of Santa Cruz was fantastically
helpful on e-mail and in person, and we had further information from Mark
Lawlor (1993), Mark and Sandra Dennis (2000), the Monterey Bay Whale Watch
web site, Don Roberson's
Monterey County site, Joe
Morlan's California pages, the Point
Reyes Bird Observatory site, and the Bodega/Sonoma County Audobon
On both legs, our primary bird book was, of course, David Sibley's fantastic
new North American Bird Guide (2000), backed up ably by the older, less accurate
and taxonomically retro National Geographic guide. We used no tapes or recordings.
24th July - 7th August 2001
After delays, cancelled flights and a re-routing via Los Angeles, we finally
arrived in Phoenix at close to midnight, and walked out of the terminal into
suffocating heat - still 95°C+! We were shuttled quickly to our Motel, and
we tried to sleep - with only some success
The traditional 'first look from the hotel balcony' turned up Northern Mockingbird,
Great-tailed Grackle, Gila Woodpecker and White-winged Dove - not bad for three
minutes in a concrete blast furnace! After our rep. arrived with our VW camper
van and showed us how to make all the gadgets work, we were off (via a supermarket),
and heading (A/C on full blast) for our first stop, Dudleyville, on the lower
San Pedro river. We resisted the temptation to stop and look at every bird on
the way, judging they'd almost all be common ones that we'd pick up later. Dudleyville
was very quiet and rather warm by the time we got there, but produced the goods,
in the form of 1 or maybe 2 Mississippi Kites soaring over the cottonwoods.
Dudleyville and the surrounding area is just about the only half-reliable location
in the state for the species, and we were lucky to connect relatively easily.
We also saw our first Lesser Goldfinches, Hooded Oriole, Brown-crested Flycatcher,
Western Kingbirds (even a pair at the nest - which we didn't see again!), Vermilion
Flycatchers, House Finches and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Also, a major
target bird got nailed - Roadrunner!
We headed swiftly south after lunch to Aravaipa Canyon, where Common Black-hawk
was a possibility. Sadly, we found none, but made up for it with a Zone-tailed
Hawk perched up, American Kestrel, and our first Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed
Thrashers and Purple Martins, and what turned out to be our only two Gilded
Flickers of the trip. Heading south again, we had a ringtail Northern (=Hen)
Harrier by the road. We arrived late afternoon at the Catalina State Park campsite
just north of Tucson, and swiftly found such goodies as Phainopepla, Lesser
Nighthawk, Lark Sparrow, Abert's Towhee, and the very local Rufous-winged Sparrow.
The night brought two vast Sonoran Toads out a-hunting, and Julia surprised
a Tarantula in the toilet block!
We birded the campsite first thing, turning up new species such as a singing
Plumbeous Vireo, several Pyrrhuloxias, Bewick's Wren, Black-headed Grosbeak,
Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Bullock's Oriole, Cooper's Hawk, a pair of Broad-billed
Hummingbirds using a feeder set up outside someone's RV, and brief views of
what I suspected was, and later, in retrospect, turned out to be, a Black-chinned
En route to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, we had our first Gambel's Quails,
plus another Roadrunner, and very brief views of Black-necked Stilt from the
busy Ina Road bridge over a dry river bed. Once at the Museum, we saw plenty
of wild birds in and around the excellent landscaped desert ecology exhibits,
including Purple Martin, Verdin (one at the nest) and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.
All three of these turned out to be very elusive subsequently. We also had what
turned out to be among our best views of Canyon Wren. This species was a surprise
contender for 'bird of the trip' - gorgeous looking and with an absolutely lovely
song, seemingly designed to resonate off rocks and cliffs. The Museum was also
really excellent for butterflies, notably Gulf Fritillary, Pipevine Swallowtail,
Queen, Viceroy, and the brilliantly gothically-named Funereal Mourning Cloak.
That puts 'Meadow Brown' in the shade! Not seen here, but much in evidence elsewhere
in the mountains of Arizona, was the huge and quite fantastic Two-tailed Swallowtail.
It was now getting hot (well, even hotter!), and we took the standard advice
of heading uphill. We ploughed across Tucson as fast as we could, and found
the Catalina Highway without difficulty. Molino Basin seemed good for a break,
and duly turned up Summer and Western Tanagers, Canyon Towhee, Bell's Vireo
and our first Cassin's Kingbirds. Above this point, the road was undergoing
major construction, and so we were rather constrained in terms of where we could
stop and when we could ascend, travelling as we had to in pacecar-led convoys
for two long stretches. So we decided to head for the top and come down slowly
tomorrow. We camped at the Spencer campsite, which was very quiet (birdwise),
although it did produce Yellow-eyed Junco and Steller's Jay.
It was distinctly COLD this morning, especially at the very top of the road
by the ski area. I suppose we were at 7,500 ft. Bird diversity was quite low
in the pine woods, but we did get some good quality, with Cordilleran Flycatcher,
American Robin, Hermit Thrush, House Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler (our only ones
of the trip), Pygmy Nuthatch, 'Red-shafted' Northern Flicker, Brown Creeper
and Spotted Towhee. The feeders at the (closed) restaurant were good for hummers,
with a pair of Magnificent and at least one Black-chinned to add to another
10 or so Broad-tailed.
Heading downhill, we passed though the first convoy area for a quick stop at
Rose Canyon. It was so good that we ended up staying almost three hours! The
best area was the trail along the stream flowing down to the (artificial) fishing
lake - both diversity and turnover were high. The best bird was undoubtedly
a cracking Red-faced Warbler, one of our premier target species for the trip,
but it was ably supported by such good birds as Hepatic Tanager, Grace's, Black-throated
Grey and Hermit Warblers, and many White-breasted Nuthatches, plus Western Bluebird,
Chipping Sparrow, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous and Bell's Vireos and a
We rechecked Molino Basin on the descent, picking up Mexican Jay and another
Roadrunner, and then headed on down into the scorching plains to head south.
En route, we had our first Chihuahuan Ravens, a small flock of White-throated
Swifts, and a superb Coyote right by the road. The campsite at Bog Springs,
on the western flank of the Santa Ritas, produced our first Bridled Titmice
It was up early and into the famous Madera Canyon, our first possible
site for three major target species - Elegant Trogon, Sulphur-bellied
Flycatcher and Painted Redstart. We kicked off with several Acorn Woodpeckers,
and were soon scoring with Western Wood-pewee, Hermit Thrush and two more
Red-faced Warblers, but it became clear that woodland birding here was
going to be more tropical than temperate in style - wait for ages, then
it all comes at once! We soon had our first (of at least 4) Painted Redstarts
- just as good as expected! We found Dusky-capped Flycatchers high up
in the light pine woods above the switchback on the Hopkins Fork trail.
Plumbeous Vireos appeared common, and we also turned up a Hutton's Vireo
- like a Goldcrest on steroids! A Cooper's Hawk slipped off into the woods,
and Julia picked up a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher perched quietly on a
treetop branch - a cracker indeed.
We were about to give up on our third species as we returned (tired)
to the foot of the trail - we were at least 200m below the reputed start
of the 'trogon territory'. But a flash of red lit up the trees, and there
was a stunning female Elegant Trogon. We were ecstatic, but imagine how
much more so when she flew to a big old Arizona Sycamore tree and entered
an apparent nest-hole! Five minutes later, in came the male, and we spent
a good half hour watching these near mythical birds coming and going,
quite unconcerned, right by the trail! A supporting cast of Black-throated
Grey Warbler, Yellow-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch and Magnificent
Hummingbird made this a morning to remember.
The heat of the day is definitely not the time to bird Florida Wash,
but we had no real option - so in I went! It was appallingly hot and very
birdless. The only species I could pin down was Botteri's Sparrow, although
a singing male Varied Bunting brightened up lunch back at the road.
It was time to travel, and we were soon heading fast south to Nogales.
In fact, we overshot our turn and almost ended up in Mexico! But eventually
we found the right road, and, in humid and thundery conditions, had our
first (of three) visits to Kino Springs, an excellent wetland site set
in a grassy golf course. At the first pond, we quickly saw Green Heron,
a cracking (and calling) adult Gray Hawk, a male Common Yellowthroat,
2 Lucy's Warblers, at least 3 male Western Tanagers, Red-winged Blackbird,
Black Phoebe, 2 male Blue Grosbeaks, Pied-billed Grebe, and a family of
American Coots. The second pond held fewer birds, but the quality was
high, with 4 Tropical Kingbirds at their most reliable US site, a group
of Vermilion Flycatchers, a juvenile Great Blue Heron and a pair of Hooded
It was time to find a campsite - Patagonia Lake State Park was full up
with fishermen and boaters in RVs - yuk. We were better off out of it,
and found a nice quiet roadside spot in the hills above Patagonia for
the night. It was a wet one, but at least there were no flash floods!
We picked up Rufous-crowned Sparrow on the drive down to Patagonia, and
then headed straight for the famous Patagonia roadside rest stop, in search
of Rose-throated Becards. Unfortunately, just as we arrived, so did an
Arizona State Probation Service chain gang, intent on strimming the verges
for 1/2 a mile north and south of the parking area! Not ideal for birding
There was absolutely no sign of the Becards, nor of their supposedly conspicuous
nests (no-one else had seen them either), but we did find a Summer Tanager,
White-throated Swift, 2 Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and a brief Yellow-billed
We cut our losses and headed for the Paton's yard in central Patagonia
(which is not a big town).
Unfortunately, the heavy overnight rain had caused the Sonoita Creek
to rise somewhat, and we didn't trust our van to make it. The bed is very
treacherous (gravel and sand), and if you can't see where the rocky/concrete
bits are, you could be in trouble. We decided against it, and headed down
to the more southerly crossing to see if it was any better there. It wasn't
- and there was a car stuck in the middle! We gave the two guys trying
to extricate it a lift back to Patagonia, though not before watching a
smart juvenile Thick-billed Kingbird on the wires, and seeing our first
Black-bellied Whistling-duck flying by.
By now, we felt like we were wasting the day a bit, and headed back to
Patagonia Lake for some guaranteed good birds. The lake and the trail
from the east end of the car park didn't disappoint - Neotropical Cormorant,
a superb singing Yellow-breasted Chat, Warbling Vireo, Northern Beardless-tyrannulet,
Bridled Titmouse, several Yellowthroats, and, best of all, rather distant
but good views of a Least Bittern in the reeds. A Great White Egret was
an extra bonus.
Next it was back to Kino Springs - it had just been so good yesterday!
Waiting for us was another Great White Egret - a small arrival overnight?
Other new birds were 2 juvenile Gray Hawks, 8 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks,
Cliff Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, an American Black
Vulture, a surprise female Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a pair of Lazuli
And onwards towards the Huachucas. A brief lunch stop near Sonoita turned
up singing Grasshopper Sparrows, and we picked up Swainson's Hawk closer
to Sierra Vista. We saw our only rattlesnake en route - but sadly could
not avoid killing it as it raced out of the roadside grass. Bump-bump
- a dreadful feeling.
We headed straight for Carr Canyon, and made our way (slowly) up the
rough road to the Reef Townsite campground. This is a lovely spot, set
among pine woods and open areas recovering from forest fires some years
ago, and covered with aromatic Manzanita bushes. A brief evening walk
before dinner was well worth the effort - the crippler was undoubtedly
a Prairie Falcon soaring with Turkey Vultures, but we also had a juvenile
Eastern Bluebird (of the distinctive Mexican form), Northern Flicker,
many Western Wood-pewees, American Robin, lots of Yellow-eyed Juncos and
at least one Spotted Towhee.
It was a cold night, and when we set out at 6ish it was still distinctly
chilly - we were at 9,500 ft, after all! The birds soon started flowing
- several singing Greater Pewees, 2+ Virginia's Warblers in scrub, a flyover
Band-tailed Pigeon, and two birds we didn't see again - a single Strickland's
Woodpecker, and a highly distinctive Buff-breasted Flycatcher. In addition,
we had a Painted Redstart, several Steller's Jays, Grace's Warbler, Black-throated
Gray Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, Broad-billed Hummingbird and the same species
as yesterday evening. It was a lovely place, and hard to leave, but Miller
We easily found the Beatty's house in Miller Canyon, and settled down
by their red hummingbird feeders to see what turned up. Hummingbird numbers
were very low at feeders everywhere in SE Arizona this year - locals were
attributing this not to some catastrophe for the hummers, but to the fact
that there was plenty of 'wild' food this year, so the birds were much
more dispersed and less reliant on artificial feeders. Nevertheless, we
soon had Black-chinned and Anna's feeding. For variety, we were advised
to walk up to the 'photo station' feeders, much more attractively placed
on the hillside. Here, the numbers were higher too, and the diversity
was amazing - many Black-chinned, 2+ Broad-tailed (the males wings make
a distinctive whirring sound as they fly), another Anna's, 2 Rufous (both
very aggressive), 2 Magnificent, a massive Blue-throated, a Broad-billed,
and best of all a female Violet-crowned. 8 species in less than half and
hour! Also around the Beatty's were good stocking fillers like Black-headed
Grosbeak, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Western Tanager.
Ramsey Canyon is just a short drive from Miller Canyon, and we were soon
parked up at the Nature Conservancy visitor centre. Inside, we were faced
with the somewhat surreal sight of two nuns with binoculars, reporting
a sighting of a Mountain Lion chasing Wild Turkeys just up the Canyon!
We didn't hang about - but then nor did the Mountain Lion (or the Turkeys).
I have to confess to not being a huge fan of the Canyon - it just seemed
not a patch on Madera or Carr Canyons to me. Nevertheless, we did see
the endemic Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog, Acorn Woodpecker, 3 Sulphur-bellied
Flycatchers and (best of all) the female Berylline Hummingbird close to
her nest high above the visitor centre. There seem to have been fewer
than 10 previous breeding records in the USA, so we felt privileged -
later reports suggested that at least one young Berylline fledged successfully.
We headed back up to Carr Canyon for the night - hummered out. Unfortunately,
a group of obnoxious teenagers had decided to wreck the atmosphere of
the campsite with much beer, a boogie box and various shouts of 'woooo!',
'yeah!' and possibly 'alright!'. Quite how 'people' like these derive
pleasure from listening to Britney Spears at volume 11 is beyond me. Heavy
rock, yes; Britney, no. Luckily, we had the option of driving up to the
second campsite - we took it
The campsite produced similar birds to the day before, and we quickly
headed down the hill and north to Fort Huachuca where, after signing the
necessary forms for the entirely humourless sentry at the gate, we were
on the army base and birding the extensive, bird-rich grasslands. We were
delighted to find Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Botteri's Sparrow,
several Blue Grosbeaks, 100+ Violet-green Swallows, Lark Sparrow, 'Mexican'
Mallards and both Canyon and Abert's Towhees.
Up at Scheelite Canyon, we rapidly found another calling male Elegant
Trogon right by the access road, as well as more Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.
The canyon itself was wonderfully evocative - narrow, densely vegetated
and humid. Sadly, we could not find any Spotted Owls (although the tour
group that followed us up the canyon did find them). Compensation came
in the form of 2 more Red-faced Warblers, Canyon & Bewick's Wrens,
Plumbeous and Hutton's Vireos and further Western Tanagers and White-throated
We headed east for the afternoon, spending some time doing the touristy
bit at Tombstone. It was rather bird free, although we did have a Hooded
Oriole in Boot Hill cemetery (favourite epitaph : "Here lies Lester
Moore / Four slugs from a .44 / No Les / No more". Brilliant.)
We spent the last part of the afternoon at the San Pedro house, by the
San Pedro river - much too hot for many birds (apart from Say's Phoebe
and a few Black-chinned Hummingbirds), but it was good to do a recce for
tomorrow. Luxury tonight - showers, washing and A/C at the Thunder Mountain
Back at the San Pedro House for dawn, we had the best morning's birding
of the trip so far. We had three new species (Common Ground-dove, Scaled
Quail and Black-throated Sparrow), but the key was the diversity and quality
of birds. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Loggerhead Shrike, 12 Lesser Nighthawks
feeding in broad daylight, Chipping Sparrow, Say's Phoebe, many Vermilion
Flycatchers, Ladder-backed and Gila Woodpeckers, American Kestrel, Swainson's
Hawk, Lazuli Bunting, Lucy's and Yellow Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat
and Brown-crested Flycatcher made this a day to remember, in a lovely,
tropical-feeling spot. Sadly, no Green Kingfishers had been seen since
at least February - never mind!
We quickly checked the more southerly river crossing, at Hereford Bridge
- it was well worth it. A cracking male Indigo Bunting headed the list,
along with Swainson's Hawk, Summer Tanager and Yellow Warbler.
It was time to head east to the Chiricahuas, but en route we did an outright
twitch to a supposedly reliable site at 10th Street Park in Douglas for
Inca Dove, which we had so far missed. The gen. was spot on, and we had
four without getting out of the van!
It was a fair old drive to Portal, and we hardly stopped en route - it
was hot, and we only saw a few Chihuahuan Ravens from the car. Once we'd
got to Portal and found a campsite in Cave Creek, we enjoyed some late
afternoon birding along the canyon, turning up our fourth Elegant Trogon
(another male), Black Phoebe, Acorn Woodpecker, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
(heard only - it's the squeaky rubber ducky again) and best of all a perched
Golden Eagle low down on the rocks above the road.
Another excellent morning in the field. We did the 'desert loop' as detailed
in the Lane guide, and scored heavily. We were clearly on the same route
as the tour group we'd met yesterday at Scheelite Canyon - their leader
was most generous in letting us join his group for some good birds. Almost
the first birds in the valley were five White-tailed Kites (an adult and
four youngsters) - this is a scarce bird in Arizona, and a very rare breeder
indeed. Mind you, we actually saw the birds in New Mexico - although the
adult kindly crossed the road to get on our AZ list!
We were surprised to see about 12 Lark Buntings - early August is distinctly early for this non-breeding visitor. Scott's Oriole and Cassin's Sparrow finally fell,
but we had only brief views of our main target bird, Bendire's Thrasher.
As we were to discover, all thrashers are really hard at this time of
year - they're much easier in February-March, when they're singing. Other
birds along State Line Road included Cactus Wren, Swainson's Hawk, Loggerhead
Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Lark Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher, a ringtail
Northern (=Hen) Harrier, Say's Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Roadrunner
and American Kestrel. The Willow Tank by the dump at the southern end
of the road looked good, and produced Red-winged Blackbird, Green Heron
and American Coot.
We decided to get to Big Thicket before it got too hot - this was our
final chance for Crissal Thrasher. We settled down at the feeders at Dave's
house on Crissal Lane (with the tour group again!), and quietly waited.
We heard Crissals calling, but would they show? No
. The feeders
were bedecked with birds, though - our first Western Scrub-jay, Curve-billed
Thrasher, Black-throated Sparrow, several Cardinals and Pyrrhuloxias,
House Finch, no fewer than 40 Gambel's Quails at once, Black-chinned Hummingbird,
and very brief views of a Violet-crowned Hummingbird.
The Spofford's yard in Portal was extremely disappointing, given the
write-ups it widely receives - no hummers at all, and just a Canyon Wren,
a House Wren and Black-headed Grosbeak by way of back-up.
It was time to head uphill for the afternoon, and we took the Silver
Creek Road to Paradise. The dry hillsides along here, so well-known for
Black-chinned Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse, were very, very quiet. Only
a flock of Chipping Sparrows and a second Western Scrub-jay at the cemetery
enlivened the heavy heat. We spent an hour watching the feeders at the
George Walker House, and despite plenty of common passerines, Black Phoebe,
Magnificent, Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds, we saw no Juniper Titmice.
Apparently the young had yet to fledge, and the adults were only visiting
the feeders two or three times a day. We returned down the hill for the
night back in Cave Creek Canyon, where we saw a Grey fox hunting a Cottontail
We decided to give the Silver Creek Road another hour before heading
for the high mountains - it was worth it! We managed to find several Black-chinned
Sparrows quite quickly - confirming our earlier, untickable views at Catalina
State Park - including at least two singing males. Once more, we were
thinking the same way as the tour group, and it was nice to be able to
find a bird they needed for a change! Together, we turned up our only
Rock Wren of the trip, an early migrant Nashville Warbler, a Virginia's
Warbler, Say's Phoebe, Rufous-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows, a female
Bullock's Oriole and another Crissal Thrasher - but heard only!
Paradise Cemetery was rather livelier today, and within minutes we had
found the required species - a pair of Juniper Titmice. This meant we
could skip Paradise proper, and head straight up to the high Chiricahuas,
via Onion Saddle. Our first proper stop was at Barfoot Junction, and it
turned out to be a good choice. Almost immediately, we had 4+ Red Crossbills
overhead, and it then became apparent that a decent-sized mixed feeding
flock was using the pines by the junction. Mexican Chickadee is the major
target species in the Chiricahuas - it is the only truly accessible site
for the species in the USA. We quickly and easily found 3 birds, along
with our first two Olive Warblers, at least 6 migrant Hermit Warblers,
a couple of Grace's Warblers, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches (plus
Red-breasted, heard only), Brown Creeper and Steller's Jay. An excellent
Barfoot Park was quiet, with no sign of Zone-tailed Hawk, or any other
raptors - just a couple more Grace's Warblers. Rustler Park, however,
was rather better. We hiked up the hill from the end of the road, and
were soon seeing more good birds. Another 2 Olive Warblers, 4+ Mexican
Chickadees, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Broad-tailed
and Magnificent Hummingbirds and many butterflies, including Painted Ladies
and Camberwell Beauty (known in North America as Mourning Cloak - more
The best bit was yet to come, however, just above the car-park. I heard
some branches cracking among the bracken in the burn area downhill, and
stopped to look, expecting a deer. A black deer? BLACK BEAR! Julia
came hurrying down just in time to see the animal lumbering noisily off
downhill - it was about half grown, so our first thought (after WOW!)
was, where's Mum? We checked all around, rather nervously, but with no
result. So we did what you're supposed to do - make yourself obvious,
be noisy and make sure she doesn't mistake you for something edible. What
a great animal.
By now we were well into the afternoon, and it was heating up, so we
drove down the far side of the mountains, and spent the rest of the afternoon
in the Chiricahua National Monument, with its fantastic rock formations.
Birds were quite thin on the ground, but did include a Zone-tailed Hawk
in the foothills.
We failed to find any Montezuma Quails around the meadow by the campsite
at Chiricahua NM, although we did see a Plumbeous Vireo and another Black-throated
Grey Warbler. It was now time to leave the hills behind, and head down
to the town of Willcox in the plain.
Willcox is not an attractive place, unless you happen to be a wader.
We checked two roadside pools to the east of town before heading in to
the main 'golf course' ponds, and scored well, with 250+ Wilson's Phalaropes,
4 Black-necked Stilts, 5 American Avocets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs,
Western, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, a flyover wader that
called like a Pectoral Sandpiper, but might just have been a Baird's,
3 Eared (=Black-necked) Grebes, Pied-billed Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy
Duck, Swainson's Hawk, Northern (=Hen) Harrier, a single Tree Swallow
among other hirundines, a group of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Northern
Mockingbird, Eastern Meadowlark and 2 Scaled Quails, which showed very
It was time to head back west, via Patagonia, where, as hoped, the river
had dropped (a bit!) and was eminently crossable. The Paton's yard was
excellent - 2 Violet-crowned, Black-chinned, Broad-billed and an Anna's
Hummingbird, plus 4 Inca Doves (see, we needn't have gone to Douglas Park!),
Yellow Warbler and our only Bronzed Cowbirds. The Sonoita Creek Reserve
was a bit hot and humid, but we did see Cooper's Hawk, Phainopepla, Vermilion
Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo.
We couldn't resist another look at Kino Springs, and it again turned
up trumps. Within seconds of arriving, Julia pinned down a female Green
Kingfisher on the reeds by the clubhouse pond - another major target nailed!
We saw much the same birds as before, plus extra Lazuli Buntings, a Ruddy
Duck, and at least 2 Ash-throated Flycatchers in the dry area between
With rain threatening, we headed beyond Nogales to Pena Blanca lake and
the campsite, where we had Common Ground Dove, and heard a Common Poorwill
The big target today was Five-striped Sparrow, in one of its very few
accessible US haunts - the famous California Gulch. Be warned - just the
drive to the final 'road' turn-off west of Pena Blanca takes at least
3/4 of an hour, and the road from there on is painfully rocky and slow.
We were somewhat nervous of going too far in, without being sure if anyone
else would turn up all day, so we parked up and hiked. By 7.30, it was
already hot - by 8.30, it was really hot! But we reached the gulch OK,
and walked down the final steep hill into a lovely, lush little valley.
And within seconds, there was a singing Five-striped Sparrow on the hillside!
Excellent stuff, backed up by a singing Indigo Bunting, 4 Varied Buntings,
a male Hooded Oriole, and Canyon Wren, and on the way to and from the
car, 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos, 3 Ash-throated Flycatchers, 2 Nashville
Warblers, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (only our second), Lucy's Warbler and
Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Now it was REALLY hot, and we were relieved
to reach the van and drive back east to Nogales.
We checked the sewage ponds from the fence, although they remained technically
closed - a small flock of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, large numbers
of Red-winged Blackbirds, and a flock of distant flyover White-faced Ibis
were the highlights.
We headed back up to Tucson for a rather longer look at the Arizona-Sonora
Desert Museum - it really is an excellent place. Wild birds were few (still
no Costa's Hummingbird) - although we had several Cactus Wrens and 2 Verdins.
We camped once more at Catalina State Park. Before dusk, at least 8 Lesser
Nighthawks were hawking overhead, and we had Rufous-winged Sparrow in
song, Bewick's Wren and Abert's Towhee. After dark, we could hear a Great
Horned Owl calling from some impenetrable thicket!
The hottest day yet - appalling from about 8.30 onwards! Much the 'usual'
birds around the campsite, plus Verdin, 2 Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and
In Tucson, we checked various urban wetland sites - Roger Road ponds
turned up 2 juvenile Night Herons, Song Sparrow and another Inca Dove.
Sweetwater Ponds held a male Wilson's Warbler, plus Yellow Warbler, Killdeer,
Cinnamon Teal and our only Common Moorhens of the trip. The Ina Road bridge
was rather good - a White-faced Ibis, 30+ Black-necked Stilts, Western
Sandpiper and more Killdeers, and there was a single Wilson's Phalarope
at the I-10 gravel pits. Now stinking hot. We drove north towards Phoenix,
stopping only at the Western Sod turf farm (a turf farm, in a desert
about it) - many Killdeers, a few Western Sandpipers and a Roadrunner
- and Arizona City Lake. Arizona City is a 'plastic' 'active adult' 'community'
in the middle of nowhere, with an artificial boating lake. Amazingly,
it hosted Black-necked Stilt, and, desperately sheltering from the sun
under a boating pier, a Neotropical Cormorant and a very out of place
female American Wigeon!
By now, the heat was just unbelievable, and we headed for Phoenix and
A/C. The temperature reportedly reached 114°F in Phoenix today - insane.
Why do people choose to live in such an infernal cauldron of searing heat?
Significant dips? Not many! Of species we didn't later see in California,
we might have seen Common Black Hawk, Harris's Hawk (Sweetwater and Roger
Road ponds are supposed to be a good stake-out), Wild Turkey, Montezuma
Quail, perhaps an owl or two, Burrowing Owl (though we had negative gen.
from more than one site), perhaps a White-eared, Lucifer or other Mexican
hummer species, Rose-throated Becard, Crissal Thrasher (grrrr), MacGillivray's
Warbler, maybe Evening Grosbeak, and
.that's about it!
Not quite a clear-up - but not far off.
So, for Arizona, that was that, birdwise at least. Fantastic, in a word!
Easy to follow gen, great birds and exciting landscapes made for a cracking
first part of our trip. Next day, we caught the morning flight to San
Francisco - California, here we come.
7th - 14th August 2001
The plane arrived from Phoenix at lunchtime, and once we'd met up with Tom
Brouillette (co-owner of California Campers) and done the paperwork on van no.
2 (this one was white and (drat) had automatic transmission), we were off and
birding. We wanted to get close to Monterey by the evening, so we headed straight
for the coast at Half Moon Bay, and headed south on Highway 1.
There was quite bad coastal fog, and our only real stop for birds was at Pescadero,
where we had quick looks at the littoral zone and the freshmarsh. Not bad for
a first stop! Plenty of Brown Pelicans, Western and Heermann's Gulls (as there
were everywhere along the coast), a Western Grebe offshore, a few Brandt's Cormorants,
2 Red-shouldered Hawks, California Quail, many Brewer's Blackbirds, both Great
White and Snowy Egrets, Caspian Tern, a redhead Common Merganser (=Goosander),
and many American Crows. First prize, however, went to the almost complete line-up
of much-wanted Pacific waders on the rocky shore : Surfbird, Willet, Black and
Ruddy Turnstones and (my personal top target for California) a sole Wandering
Closer to Monterey, we had Pied-billed Grebe and a Ruddy Duck, and then headed
up to Laguna Seca raceway to camp - very quiet, so long as it isn't a race weekend!
There had been no time-zone change between Arizona and California, but being
so much further west, the sun got up a good bit earlier, so we had the luxury
of another hour or so in bed - especially as there was dense fog until an hour
after dawn! It soon started burning off, however, and after nailing Western
Bluebird, Oak Titmouse and California Towhee at the campground, and seeing another
covey of California Quail, we got ourselves down to Monterey Bay Harbour for
our first of our two planned pelagics.
This trip was pre-booked with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, and was not specifically
aimed at birders, but the plan was to see the commoner inshore birds before
Sunday's 'proper' pelagic, and to concentrate on mammals. On both counts, the
trip succeeded. The boat pulled out at 8.30am, and at once we were seeing California
Sealions, Harbour Seals, Sea Otters, Pigeon Guillemots, Pelagic and Brandt's
Cormorants in among the canopy of the offshore kelp forest. Slightly further
out, we saw masses of Common Murres (=Guillemots), Elegant Terns, several hundred
Sooty Shearwaters, 3+ Pink-footed Shearwaters, 2 Northern Fulmars, (weirdly)
2 Great White Egrets heading west, and (best bird) about 15 Black-footed Albatrosses,
some close to the boat. A Leatherback Turtle showed very briefly off the stern
of the boat.
But, inevitably and wonderfully, the cetaceans stole the show. Even a group
of 6 Risso's Dolphins was vastly outperformed by two species of great whale.
We started off with a very brief Humpback, to be followed by prolonged views
of at least 6 magnificent Blue Whales, shallow diving and sounding within 50
feet of the boat. Soon afterwards, we located some more co-operative Humpbacks,
and soon had excellent views. We even had both Blues and Humpbacks blowing together
at one point! But what we wanted, of course, was 'friendly' Humpbacks - and
we found some! A group of 10 or so very active animals started investigating
the boat to within just a few feet, spy-hopping, fluke-waving, head-slapping
and (at last) breaching almost clear of the water. Absolutely astonishing stuff.
Final estimates were of about 14 Blue Whales and at least 20 Humpback Whales.
It was going to be pretty hard to beat that, though back on shore, en route
to the Big Sur coast, we had further goodies, such as Surfbird, Wandering Tattler,
Hudsonian Whimbrel and Belted Kingfisher.
The campsite on the Big Sur was a bit crowded, but still had Steller's Jay
and our first Dark-eyed Juncos of the trip.
The fog had rolled in again, and visibility was not good. We started out at
Andrew Molera State Park - not very exciting habitat, and too many campers (and
weird old hippies playing guitar (badly) in the car park). Watching the surfers at the beach was fun, though. We
picked up new landbirds like Wrentit, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker
and Vaux's Swift (which can be hard to find, we were told), plus White-tailed
Kite, Bushtit, several Wilson's Warblers, Black Phoebe and Warbling Vireo. Offshore,
we had 3 Western Grebes, Double-crested Cormorant and (best of all) a small
flock of Surf Scoters.
We were keen to have a go for the reintroduced California Condors, and our
best tip was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a few miles to the south. Unfortunately,
the fog remained low, and we had no real chance. The compensations weren't huge
- the Park has little access beyond a heavily-used path to the coast and back
- only a female Anna's Hummingbird, American Robin, Purple Finch, Brown Creeper
and Song Sparrow. A pity.
It was time to head back north, and we stopped off at the beautiful Carmel
beach and river mouth. Two much wanted birds turned up - California Gull and
a Pacific Loon (=Diver) offshore. Back up was well provided by an amazing 12
White-tailed Kites (of which only one was an adult - presumably a post-breeding
gathering of several broods?), a very smart juvenile Northern (=Hen) Harrier,
Lesser Yellowlegs, a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Plover, Pied-billed
Grebe, Belted Kingfisher and a small flock of 'Bicolored' Blackbirds (the taxonomically
interesting local form of Red-winged Blackbird).
We spent the rest of the afternoon in Monterey, doing the 'ordinary tourist'
bit, and watching Sea Otters, Belted Kingfishers and Pelagic Cormorants along
Cannery Row. Then it was back to Laguna Seca for the night - only Killdeer was
Today we were due to meet up with Todd Newberry, a Santa Cruz birder I had
contacted via the internet. He had very kindly agreed to accompany us for the
day, and help us out with a few local specialities, and any birds we'd missed.
We started out at Moss Landing, scoring immediately with Long-billed Curlew,
Marbled Godwit, White-crowned Sparrow, Common Loon (=Great Northern Diver),
Elegant and Caspian Terns, Night Heron, and our first American White Pelicans
and Ring-billed Gulls. We also had 2 Sea Otters, one of them hauled out - Sea
Otters are supposedly 'never' seen on land. Over the road and into Elkhorn Slough,
we saw Snowy Plovers (really 'just' a race of Kentish Plover?), numerous
other waders, including Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes and Greater Yellowlegs,
a few Forster's Terns, Cinnamon Teal, Savannah Sparrow and Oak Titmouse. We
had only brief views of American Goldfinch, unfortunately, but did see Downy
Woodpecker and an excellent flock of Tricolored Blackbirds at the famous Moonglow
Dairy site, which we could not actually enter because of foot & mouth panic.
Up the road and low on fuel, we reached Santa Cruz and the University Arboretum.
Immediately, and as Todd promised, we were seeing plenty of excellent Allen's
Hummingbirds, including displaying males, as well several Anna's too. While
there were plenty of Spotted and California Towhees, and Brown Creeper, we could
not locate any California Thrashers - it was near midday, in mid-August, after
Down at the sea front, we failed once again on that missing rockshore wader,
although we had more Hudsonian Whimbrels, Black Turnstones, Pigeon Guillemots
and Sea Otters. Next, it was on to Todd's place of work, Long Marine Labs at
the north end of town. Just before we'd left the UK, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
had turned up there - I'd seen it on the local rare bird alert internet transcript,
and asked Todd to glue it to a twig for three weeks! Little did I expect it
still to be there - but it was, at least until the day before. We prepared for
a lengthy search, but within seconds, there it was - only the 2nd Scissor-tailed
Flycatcher for the county, but more importantly, a fantastic, unexpected and
Neary Lagoons are right in the middle of Santa Cruz, a part of a local sewage
works, in fact. We tried here for Marsh Wren, but only heard one call briefly,
although we did see our only Wood Ducks and Sharp-shinned Hawk, plus Common
Yellowthroat, American Kestrel and another Belted Kingfisher. It was by now
time to say goodbye to Todd, and head north along the coast en route to Dublin,
near Livermore. Back at Pescadero, we had more Surfbirds, Whimbrels and (at
last! the set is complete!) American Black Oystercatchers, plus Ravens, of the
likely soon-to-be-split Californian form.
The traffic around the bay was absolutely appalling, but we finally got to
Dublin and the relative luxury of our motel.
It was a toss up this morning - Mines Road, in search of Yellow-billed Magpie,
Lawrence's Goldfinch and Lewis's Woodpecker, or the more direct route via Mitchell
Canyon? We were pretty fed up of driving and birding from the van, so when we
saw a superb flock of Yellow-billed Magpies within feet of the Mines Road turnoff,
we decided to head for Mitchell Canyon instead of doing the 60-odd mile round
trip down the Road and back. Mitchell Canyon was much more fun - a good walk
through good habitat. OK, so the only new birds were Pacific-slope Flycatcher
and Hairy Woodpecker, but we also had several Red-shouldered Hawks, Hutton's
Vireos, Wrentits and Acorn Woodpeckers, plus another Wilson's Warbler and many
We had to negotiate the Bay traffic again to get north towards Bodega, but
eventually shook off the cars. One advantage of travelling slowly through the
Bay area was that we could pick up a few birds from the road - good numbers
of American White Pelicans, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and Caspian
Terns, plus Forster's Terns and Great White Egrets.
Once we reached Bodega Bay (via a brief Peregrine Falcon) and (just about)
found a camping spot, we spent a while out on the headland. Amazingly,
there were 3 Gray Whales just a few yards offshore - they weren't supposed
to be here until November! Apparently, occasional animals summer off the
Californian coast - we just got lucky. Also unseasonal, but less unexpected,
was a single adult Glaucous-winged Gull by the car park. 2 subadult male
Northern (=Hen) Harriers were working the headland, and we saw 2 Ospreys,
Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows, yet another Wandering Tattler, and
another American Black Oystercatcher. Bodega Bay itself held plenty of
waders, including good numbers of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers
and Marbled Godwits.
We were due to check in at the boat yard at 6.00am, so this was not the morning
for the van to get damp and refuse to start. The van got damp and refused to
start. Panic at 5.40am, until I managed to catch a lift from the campsite with
a similarly insomniac fisherman. A close shave. We got to the dock on time,
and checked in with Debi Shearwater, boarding our boat, the Tracer, just before
6.30am. This was the 'proper' birding pelagic, and we were relieved that the
weather forecast was OK, given that about 50% of the Shearwater Journeys trips
from Bodega get cancelled on account of the sea state. In fact, we were remarkably
blessed - the sea was pretty much flat all day, with only the slightest of swells
and no chop at all. Add in bright but overcast lighting, and you had pretty
much perfect seabirding conditions. On the boat were numerous highly experienced
American birders, who certainly had 1000s of pelagic birding-hours between them,
and the general consensus was that they'd never seen better weather! So, we
were incredibly fortunate, and well set up for success - but would the birds
live up to expectations?
Yes! Although we had no 'megas' (in US terms), and we were just about the only
people out of the 20 or so on board having life ticks (always good to have plenty
of experience on hand when dealing with distant seabirds), we scored fantastically
well. The consensus was that this was a truly excellent pelagic. We ended up
staying out until after 7.00pm - planned return time was 4.00pm! Even Debi herself
was ecstatic - here's why (in systematic order) :
Laysan Albatross 1-2 Very early - normally doesn't occur off this coast
until considerably later in the season
Black-footed Albatross 100+ Many following the boat and eating
popcorn - at one point we stopped, and had over 50 around the boat, squeaking
Northern Fulmar 8 Of various colour phases, quite unlike Atlantic
Buller's Shearwater 500+ Just arrived (none here last week), and
really beautiful birds - right up there with Great Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater c.50 More like a Cory's than anything else
- wholly different flight action from commoner Sooties
Sooty Shearwater 100+ The only seabird scarcer here than in Monterey
Ashy Storm-petrel c.200 But only a pretty rough estimate!
Fork-tailed Storm-petrel 1 A lovely pearly grey colour
Pelagic Cormorant 20
Brandt's Cormorant c.10
Marbled Godwit 10
Red (=Grey) Phalarope c.1000
Red-necked Phalarope c. 500 Several huge, whirling mixed flocks
of phalaropes, giving superb views by the boat
Long-tailed Jaeger (=Skua) 151+ Excludes perhaps 50 distant jaegers,
most of which were probably of this species. This is perhaps the most
extraordinary feature of the day, smashing as it did all previous northern
California pelagic day count records. Many were fully tailed adults.
Parasitic Jaeger (=Arctic Skua) 3+ And probably rather few overlooked
Pomarine Jaeger (=Skua) c.30 Including many 'full-spooned' adults
South Polar Skua 2 One of which gave crippling views as it circled
California Gull 1 juv.
Western Gull many
Heermann's Gull many
Sabine's Gull 200+ Mainly adults, a few 2nd years, and no juveniles
Common Tern c.5
Arctic Tern c.2
Common Murre (=Guillemot) 100s
Pigeon Guillemot c.30
Xantus's Murrelet 12 All in pairs, often very close to the boat
Cassin's Auklet 100+ Many so laden with krill that they were unable
to fly! Aptly described as '[American] footballs with wings'
Rhinoceros Auklet c.100
Tufted Puffin 2 The first of these caused some on-board controversy,
since it showed anomalously pale underparts. But we were happy in the
(majority) Tufted camp
Brown-headed Cowbird 2 Bizarre!
The most productive areas were along steep thermo-gradients, especially at
the edges of Bodega submarine canyon, the continental shelf proper, and around
the submarine seamounts at the Cordell Banks. Cassin's Auklets, and to some
extent other alcids, were commoner around 50 fathoms, and birds became noticeably
scarcer in the really deep water over the abyssal plain (maximum depth reached
= 1500 fathoms, or 9000ft!). We checked this area for megas such as Pterodroma
petrels or outrageously rare Albatrosses and Storm-petrels, but to no avail.
Like we were disappointed!
And as for other marine life - plenty! We had distant views of at least 1 Blue
Whale, and excellent close views of c.30 Humpbacks, plus Pacific White-sided
Dolphin (some bow-wave riding right under the boat), Northern Right Whale Dolphin,
Dall's Porpoise, many California Sealions, Northern Fur Seal, an unexpected
Northern Elephant Seal, Blue Shark, Albacore and Ocean Sunfish.
In all, a truly fantastic trip - it puts the Scillonian and Bay of Biscay pelagics
in perspective, really!
We had rather a late start today, but headed mid-morning for Point Reyes, via
Nicasio Reservoir, where we had Osprey, 13 American White Pelicans and 2 Lark
Tomales Point is the northernmost part of Point Reyes - it's largely windswept
moorland and pasture, but the beaches and valleys look just like Porthgwarra!
It feels like a rarity trap (as of course it is) - but perhaps not in mid August
We scored with 3 juvenile Baird's Sandpipers on a beach pool, plus Peregrine
Falcon, American Goldfinch and White-crowned Sparrows. We also saw some of the
resident Tule Elk herd.
Kehoe Beach valley was another similarly promising site, and it turned up what
turned out to be last lifer of the trip - 2 juvenile Marsh Wrens - plus Common
Yellowthroat, 2 Ospreys, more American Goldfinches, White-crowned Sparrows,
Elegant and Caspian Terns.
We enjoyed a brief walk at Bear Valley visitor centre in the evening, with
no startling birds - 'just' another White-tailed Kite and good views of Hairy
Woodpecker. A Barn Owl flew out from roost at the camp site. Also a good tick
in the form of camping right on the San Andreas Fault!
Our final day. Fog bound once more, we visited Point Reyes Bird Observatory
first thing, more for a site tick than in the expectation of good birds. Just
as well, really, as the net round we followed produced a grand total of no birds!
We did see Cooper's Hawk, Northern (=Hen) Harrier, Northern Flickers, Spotted
Towhees and Purple Finches, but it was clear that there was rather little migration
Bolinas Lagoon was much better - a pair of Greater Scaups, and numerous waders,
including Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit.
We wended our way gently back south to San Francisco, stopping only at the
Marin headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge to clear out the van and have
a quick look around. We added our final bird of the trip - Bank Swallow (=Sand
Martin) - to make it 146 for the Californian leg, and an excellent 267 species
for the whole trip. Other species included Common Yellowthroat, American Black
Oystercatcher, Pied-billed Grebe and lots of Brown Pelicans, Common Murres (=Guillemots),
Pigeon Guillemots and Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants to see us on our way.
So, we drove back through downtown San Francisco, saw a couple of Forster's
Terns by the Bay, and returned our van to the office in Redwood City.
Significant dips? It was a pity not to see Clark's Grebe, and we might have
had a scarce Shearwater such as Flesh-footed offshore, or perhaps a Leach's
or other Storm-petrel. We were surprised not see a few more passage duck species,
and we didn't really try hard enough in the right places for rails or Sora Crake.
Spotted Sandpiper was a bit of an omission, and we saw no owls apart from Barn.
Olive-sided Flycatcher eluded us throughout, and we were perhaps a bit early
for the migrant Empidonax flycatchers. Hirundines were thin on the ground in
California, and we saw neither American Dipper nor Golden-crowned Kinglet, though
they are both long shots along the coast. Lawrence's Goldfinch and Lewis's Woodpeckers
were, as mentioned, possibilities, but I guess we just started to run out of
steam a bit - it was a holiday, after all!
And that was that - 3 weeks, masses of dirty washing, much exhaustion, brilliant
birds, mammals and butterflies, largely excellent weather, and great memories.
Well worth doing!