California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia Trip Report 1/3

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Subject: California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia Trip Report 1/3
From: "Paul G Dodd" <>
Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2012 23:04:23 +1000
We arrived at LAX on Saturday 14th July and headed for our hotel in Newport
Beach, Orange County (south of LA). We didn't go birding - rather looked
around Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar, did the inevitable
shopping at Fashion Island and then had dinner at The Cannery, Newport Beach
( - highly recommended!


The following day was our first day of birding. We had arranged to meet a
local birder, Madeline Bauer for a day's birding around Orange County.
Madeline, who has birded in Australia several times, brought another local
birder and wildlife photographer, Chris Taylor ( Chris and
his wife Sara are mentioned in Mark Obmascik's book, The Big Year, because
they go birding with one of the three protagonists, Greg Miller (the Jack
Black character in the movie). Our first stop with Madeline and Chris was
the San Joaquin wetlands where we got our first real look at hummingbirds -
both Anna's and Allen's (the two common species around LA). What amazing
little birds! At this site we also got a good look at a Clark's Grebe with
its chick on its back! Clark's Grebes are difficult to distinguish from the
far more common Western Grebe - fortunately we had two very experienced
local birders to help!


Next stop was the Newport Back Bay - where we looked for, and successfully
found, California Gnatcatcher - a tricky bird to see at the best of times.
>From there, after a brief stop for lunch, we went to the Bolsa Chica
Ecological Reserve - a must visit site for any LA/Orange County visit. The
highlights of this visit were the Black Skimmers - brilliant birds to watch.
We also got a view of the single Reddish Egret that was present, and a bunch
of waders including a species that we'd tried to see in Victoria in 2010,
Semi-palmated Plover.


Finally on this first day's birding we went to the breakwater at Playa Del
Rey (south of Venice Beach) and the adjacent Ballona Wetlands. At the
wetlands we found a smallish pond with both species of Yellowlegs (Greater
and Lesser) and about eight Wilson's Phalaropes (the first of three species
of Phalarope for us for this trip, the other two being Red and Red-necked).

>From Playa Del Rey we drove an hour and a half north to Santa Barbara for
the night. Dinner was at Enterprise Fish Company
( - yes there is a slight theme
developing here!


The following morning we did the first of three whale-watching trips - this
one on the Condor Express. I had wanted to do the deep water pelagic from
Santa Barbara on this boat, but just could not get it to work with our
schedule. Anyway, the whale watching was absolutely brilliant - with at
least eight Blue Whales seen, 30 Humpback Whales and around 800 dolphins.
Seabirds were light-on, with only Sooty Shearwaters and Pigeon Guillemots at
Santa Cruz Island.


Following the whale-watching, we consulted our trusty "A Birder's Guide to
Southern California" by Brad Schram (Californian birders only refer to the
book as "Schram") to find our way to the Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve -
suggested to us by Chris Taylor back in LA. This point is a good site for
Snowy Plover. In order to get to the point, you must pass along the Devereux
Slough (pronounced "slew") estuary which offers great opportunity for
birding, and is a reliable area for Cassin's Kingbird. We actually
encountered Snowy Plover with chicks! at just about our first stop along the
slough - so it saved us a long walk to the point later on. We also found
Cassin's Kingbird quite easily, and California Thrasher, a bird that we
would struggle with later in our trip.


>From Devereux Slough we headed to the strange little town of Solvang. This
is a Danish-inspired town, complete with a Viking restaurant (yes, we ate
there!) The golf course near this town is one of the reliable sites for the
Yellow-billed Magpie, California's only endemic species. Interestingly,
there are TWO golf courses near this town, the River Course Golf Course,
immediately to the south of town, has just a couple of holes visible from
the road - and there were no magpies to be seen there! The other course,
Alisal Golf Course, is a couple of kilometres further south. Funnily enough,
we'd given up on the magpie and were heading back to the highway along
Alisal Road when we encountered the second golf course - on telegraph wires
immediately over the main entrance to the course was a Yellow-billed Magpie,
which posed beautifully for photos!


Further south along Alisal Road, we came across a remarkable spectacle. At
least fifty Turkey Vultures circling in a thermal, and above them all a
California Condor! The Los Padres National Forest (and the Sierra Madre
Range) to the north of Santa Barbara is known as "Condor Country" - as it is
one of the two release sites in California. In 1988 ALL remaining California
Condors were captured - bringing the total world-wide population in
captivity to 22. A concerted effort amongst the recovery team, involving
captive breeding, and training of the Condors to avoid powerlines - raised
the population to the extent that controlled releases could be undertaken at
the two sites in California, and also at the Grand Canyon. There are now 394
living California Condors, with 205 in the wild.


We made it to Monterey Bay that evening in time for our second
whale-watching trip in the morning. The whale-watching trips were an
insurance policy in case our pelagic later in our trip didn't get out. This
trip brought us a few life birds, including Cassin's Auklet, Red-necked
Phalarope and Common Murre. There were likely Red Phalarope too, but I
wasn't brave enough to try to distinguish Red from Red-necked in basic
plumage! Since we saw one Red-necked in alternate plumage, I was quite
confident with that ID. Later in the trip we did successfully get on a
pelagic birding trip from Monterey Bay, so the experts onboard found both
Red-necked and Red Phalarope for us. Once again we saw Blue Whales, Humpback
Whales, but this time we also saw a small pod of the slender dorsal fin-less
Northern Right Whale Dolphins, Risso's Dolphin and the very cheeky Sea


After the whale-watching one of the participants recommended that we go to
Elkhorn Slough and take a boat "safari" (
Unfortunately trips weren't running that day, or indeed for the next few
days, so we couldn't do that. Despite this, we fished out our Schram again
and headed for the slough by ourselves. Unfortunately when we got to the
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, it too was closed! Still
we headed to the nearby Kirby Point and went for a walk.


>From here we drove to San Francisco and spent the night there, with
breakfast at a San Francisco "institution" - Lori's Diner - these are 1950s
American diners. Funnily enough the first one was opened in 1986! Still, I
would thoroughly recommend them. Birding on this day was Golden Gate Park
(the Chain of Lakes, at the north-western part of the park), where we found
some of the little bush birds, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit and Pygmy
Nuthatch. Ruth had a close encounter with a very friendly Raccoon! We headed
next to Hawk Hill, on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Unfortunately we saw no migrating raptors (yes, many raptors in the US
migrate!) We did come across our first Wrentit of the trip and our first
covey of California Quail.


We drove north to the town of Arcata (just to the north of Eureka) for two
days' birding with local guide Ken Burton. Ken is quietly spoken, but knows
his "patch" - and is absolutely precise with his calls. I don't recall him
misidentifying a single bird. We birded the local area - Shay Park (a
recently rejuvenated patch of woodland within the town) - highlights were
Violet-green Swallow, Vaux's Swift (surprisingly our only swift of the
trip), Lazuli Bunting, Bullock's Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, and Ruth's
favourite, Black-capped Chickadee. Also within the boundaries of the town is
Redwood Park - where we found Varied Thrush (not always straightforward in
summer in California) and Hairy Woodpecker, amongst others. The next stop
was the well-known Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary - what a great place!
We found our first Canada Geese, Gadwall and Ruddy Ducks. We also came
across a few waders and managed to separate Long-billed and Short-billed
Dowitchers. The real specialty bird, though was the White-tailed Kite - once
considered con-specific to our Black-shouldered Kite. We finished the day at
the Potawot Health Village (Potawot is the local native American tribe).


The following day started at the Azalea State Reserve just to the north of
Arcata and south of McKinleyville, on the Mad River. This is a great spot
for woodland birds, and we saw Red Crossbill, the beautiful Orange-crowned
Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Swainson's Thrush,
Red-breasted Nuthatch, Western Wood-peewee, and my favourite, Golden-crowned
Kinglet. After this spot, we stopped off at a local house in McKinleyville
that Ken knew with bird feeders. This gave us the opportunity to have really
close views of some of these woodland birds that we'd just seen. From here
we headed to the Mad River Estuary and wound our way north towards Trinidad,
stopping at various sites along the way - seeing Common Merganser and two
sea ducks, White-winged and Surf Scoter. At a number of stops around a
little town called Orick (where we had lunch) we managed to see the scoters
again, Common Murre (which we had seen in Monterey Bay), and the highlight,
the diminutive Marbled Murrelet. These are odd birds - they're seabirds of
the Alcid family (which contains the Murres, Murrelets, Auklets and Puffins)
- the Marbled Murrelet nests in tree branches in the forests well inland,
but then "commute" to the ocean and back again - truly crazy!


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