Our destination was Taft in the Central Valley but we made a stop at Jawbone
Canyon, not far from Ridgecrest. This gave us our first real opportunity of
Le Conte's Thrasher, one of the main targets of the trip. We called in at
the BLM Visitor Center, where a chance conversation with the Ranger on duty
led to us being shown a hibernating Desert Tortoise, all of 104 years old!
We then spent the rest of the morning in the Canyon. I thought I saw a
Thrasher sitting on a distant bush but by the time I got nearer it had
disappeared. Birds were thin on the ground. We found just 3 Say's Phoebes, a
Loggerhead Shrike, a Canyon Wren, 5 House Finches and the usual Ravens. It's
not helped by the disturbance from off-road vehicles. We were intrigued to
see one man ride his motorbike almost vertically up the side of a mountain,
then freewheel down!
After heading west into the Central Valley from CA58, we came across a
somewhat surreal landscape of miles of flat, open, agricultural land with a
foggy backdrop. It turned even stranger as we approached Maricopa when oil
wells became increasingly more numerous. We stopped off briefly along
Petroleum Club Road but found little apart from Western Meadowlarks. We
spent the night at the Holland Inn, Taft.
This was going to be my only real chance to find Le Conte's Thrasher so I
got up early, leaving Kay in bed, and arrived at Petroleum Club Road (PCR)
by 6.30 a.m. I tried a number of spots between Kerto and Cadet Roads,
particularly where a tarmac road crosses PCR just north of the oil gusher
memorial (as recommended to me by Bill Bouton). I heard a Thrasher singing
could have been a California or Le Conte's. There were plenty of Sage
Sparrow's ('canescens' race), some singing and at least 5 Loggerhead
Shrikes. Other birds were California Quail, White-crowned Sparrow and
Meadowlark (many singing). I gave up at 8.15 and headed back to the hotel.
After checking out, we went back to PCR for one last try. We got there at
9.15 and concentrated on the area around the tarmac road mentioned earlier.
After following the tarmac road east from PCR for a bit, I noticed movement
by a bush and saw two Le Conte's Thrashers** standing by it then running
across the road into the brush - not to be seen again! Still, the views had
been good, even though brief.
We then crossed over to the Carrizo Plain, via CA58. Along the road we saw 2
Golden Eagles and a couple of Mountain Bluebirds. We checked out the dirt
fields along the beginning of Soda Valley Road but found little of note
from Long-billed Curlews. Further down the road, inside the National
Monument we found a large flock of Mountain Bluebirds that performed well
along the roadside. Other birds included Say's Phoebe, Horned Lark,
White-crowned and Sage Sparrows (common), a single Lark Sparrow and lots of
Western Meadowlarks. Mammals included a Coyote.
After leaving the plain, we headed west on CA58. At the junction with Pozo
Road, we stopped to have a look for Lewis's Woodpeckers, without success
(perhaps I was being greedy!). We did see another Prairie Falcon, perched on
top of a telegraph pole until it was dislodged by an Acorn Woodpecker! We
made a further stop at the junction of CA58 and CA229, mainly for a drink
to check the map. As we were about to leave, Kay asked me whether it was a
cat she had seen climbing up the bank. I took a quick look through the
binoculars and replied "Bobcat!" It walked casually up the hillside, giving
us just a glance and ambled into the chaparral. Definitely one of the mammal
highlights of the trip.
We spent the night at the Super 8, San Luis Obispo.
We had intended to check out some of the coastal spots to the west of Arroyo
Grande. In the Shell Beach area, we stopped briefly at Margo Dodd Park.
Apart from lots of Brown Pelicans, Brandt's Cormorant and Black
Oystercatcher, it produced our only Caspian Tern of the trip.
Since it was cool and a bit foggy, we decided to try a bit further up the
coast so went to Montana de Oro State Park, just south of Morro Bay. This
proved to be a good decision since the sun was out (but not for long!) and
the scenery was good. We did the walk along the bluffs, just southwest of
park headquarters. The birding was pretty good. There were lots of Pacific,
Common and Red-throated Loons moving in flocks offshore, a Black-vented
Shearwater** close inshore, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, 40+ Brants
flying south, Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, 1 Elegant Tern, Belted
Kingfisher, Says' Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Common
Yelllowthroat and Song Sparrow. A couple of Sea Otters were visible in the
This looks to be a good spot that deserves more time than we could afford.
In the afternoon we called in at Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, in the
south-eastern corner of Morro Bay. Luckily the fog lifted a short time after
we got there. The most noteworthy birds here were 7 American White Pelicans,
1 Short-billed Dowitcher, 100+ Marbled Godwits and 6+ Forster's Terns.
We spent the night at the Best Western, King City.
Before setting off on our travels, we hadn't been sure how best to use this
day so we decided to visit the western part of Pinnacles National Monument.
It was a good decision because we left the fog behind on the climb up,
leaving a nice, sunny day. On CA146, the approach road, we had good views of
an adult Golden Eagle. When we got there, White-throated Swifts were
twittering over the Pinnacles. Other birds seen included Red-breasted
Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Bushtit, Oak Titmouse (1 tame bird came near
picnic tables), Wrentit, California Thrasher (two tame birds running between
the picnic tables and then foraging on the open hillside under the trees!)
and Spotted and California Towhees. The scenery was great.
We spent the night at the Days Inn, Los Banos (good steaks at a steakhouse
about a quarter mile west of the motel).
The last big birding day of the trip. We started off at Merced National
Wildlife Refuge, that we had previously visited in September 1999. We had a
good list of species (41), with the last lifer of the trip, Ross's Goose**.
Highlights were White-faced Ibis (16), Snow Goose*,
Greater White-fronted Goose* (500+), White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier
(8+), Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, Sandhill Crane (63+, small fry
when you consider the official count on the previous Thursday was 13, 784!),
Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Curlew, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser
Yellowlegs (a few), Western and Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher,
Tree Swallow (100+), Savannah and Song Sparrows.
When we headed west towards San Luis Refuge, we saw a number of mixed
Blackbird flocks along Henry Miller Road. Here we saw our only Tricolored
Blackbirds of the trip. San Luis was disappointing (as we had found it in
September 1999) but we did see a few more Sandhill Cranes and there were
even more Harriers here than at Merced. A new wildfowl species for the trip
was Cinnamon Teal. Afterwards, we saw 6 Cattle Egrets along CA140 at its
junction with Edminster Road.
We returned to Clayton for the night.
We took our car back to Concord airport and took the BART into San Francisco
for the day. We went to the western part of Golden Gate Park. The problem
here is that we spent a fair bit of time looking for somewhere to have lunch
so we didn't make the best of our time. We briefly visited most of the lakes
in the western part. New birds for the trip were Ring-necked Duck, Brown
Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Waxwing (one of which was taken by an
accipiter) and Townsend's Warbler. There was a good selection of gulls on
the main lakes.
Another hike up Donner canyon produced a few new birds for the trip - Hairy
Woodpecker, Hutton's Vireo and Lincoln's Sparrow. Other good birds included
Golden Eagle, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Hermit Thrush,
Wrentit (3 obliging birds together) and California Thrasher. In the late
afternoon we went out with the family to have Thanksgiving Dinner with
friends of theirs. It gave us a our first taste of pumpkin pie!
A full family excursion to the San Mateo cast led us San Gregorio State
Park, south of Half Moon Bay. The usual coastal birds were here - Brown
Pelican, Surf Scoter, Heermann's, Mew, Western, Herring, California and
I made a brief visit to Donner Canyon in the afternoon, between rain
showers. The only bird out of the ordinary was a Northern Harrier, the first
I had seen at this site.
Farewell to California and our flight home.
In all we recorded 171 species. This was pretty satisfactory since we
had mainly concentrated on target birding. We made no attempt for higher
altitude species, for example. I added 12 lifers, 9 new species for the ABA
and 27 to my California list (now 237). The only disappointments were
missing out on Mountain Plover, Ruddy Ground Dove and Varied Thrush. In
hindsight I would perhaps have chosen a less tight schedule. It meant we
spent a fair bit of time travelling, so birding opportunities were sometimes
I'll produce a detailed trip report for publication on the Internet in due
I'd like to thank again all the California birders who provided me with
useful information. I'd also like to compliment Brad Schram on his ABA
guide - the maps and directions really are good (not always the case in some
We can't wait to return!