Wednesday 4 June 2014

Return to California and Arizona - Part 1

Sarah and I took our first major international holiday since Tobias was born 13 months ago. While some birding was done there were not many ticks in California/Arizona for me as I had birded it previously in 1996 and hence the emphasis was on a family holiday with some birding thrown in.

We started our trip in San Francisco spending a couple of nights to recover from the flight and allow Tobias to acclimatise. We chose a hotel on the north side of San Francisco bay over looking the Golden Gate Bridge and with extensive grounds supporting a range of more common species:

Male Annas Hummingbird
Bewick's Wren
California Towhee

While in San Francisco we visited Alcatraz, this was an amazing experience and the tails of daring escapes and the life of the prison was gripping - so much so that I didn't do much birding and I think I spent more time in the cells than in the field.

Western Gull (1st Year)
Western Gull (2nd Year)
 Western Gull (Adult)
Californian Sea Lion

After San Francisco we headed down the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey for a two nights stay. We spent some time birding around Point Pinos and Point Lobos State park where highlights include Black Oystercatcher, Heerman's Gull, Western Tanager, Californian Thrasher and Pygmy Nuthatch. However, Monterey Bay Aquarium was perhaps the most memorable with the jellyfish displays simply astonishing.

Black Oystercatcher
Californian Gull (Adult)
Heerman's Gull (2nd Winter)
Hudsonian Whimbrel
Wandering Tattler
Pigeon Guillemot
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Western Tanager

After Monterey we headed along the spectacular coast of the Big Sur stopping at various places on route. A stop at Andrew Molera State Park produced many birds particularly along the river trail where highlights included Wrentit, Song Sparrow, Swainson's Thrush, Wilson's Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Spotted Towhee, Northern Flicker and my first lifer of the trip, an adult Californian Condor soaring over the hillside. 
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Racoon foraging within the river

A highlight of the Big Sur was the colony of Northern Elephant Seal at Piedra Blancas which is said to support around 7,500 animals. During our visit there were few big males present and the famous battles had subsided however the site of thousands of animals lounging on the beach was an impressive sight, sound and smell.

Northern Elephant Seal

After a four hour drive inland from Morro Bay we arrived at Sequoia National Park for a one night stay which we found a little too brief to take in the park. I found birding fairly difficult here because of the height of the trees and saw relatively little although the Fox Sparrows which were relatively common were stunners with their massive bills and rich plumage coloration.

Fox Sparrow
Steller's Jay
Hammond's Flycatcher

We then drove on to Yosemite National park for a two night stay. My main target bird was Great Grey Owl but I considered my chances pretty low due to our limited time in the park and because I would not be able to be in the park at dawn and dusk on either day. So when we arrived at one of the main sites on the road to Glacier View Point and a birder showed me a photograph of one he had seen an hour earlier, firstly, I was gutted that breakfast had taken so long and we had not arrived at the site earlier, but I was a little more optimistic for seeing the bird the following day if a dawn start was initiated. The dawn start came and we got to the clearing fairly hopeful of a repeat of the preceding day but there was not a sniff of the owl. I plotted a visit to Finland in 2015 in my mind to see this, one of my most wanted ticks having come so close on this attempt. 

We proceeded to Glacer Point and enjoyed the stunning view of the Yosemite Valley and El Capitan. This is surely one of the most amazing views in the world:

View from Glacier Point

Part 2 of this post can be viewed here.