Regular nowhere else north of Mexico, the handsome Yellow-footed Gull makes a visit to the Salton Sea well worth our while. Photo: Paul Lehman
Southern California may call to mind rampant development and crowds of people, but in fact it has many areas that are both wild and beautiful. Our short tour focuses on birds that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere in the United States and it does so at a time when autumn migration for many species is at its peak.
We’ll visit the coast and offshore islands northwest of Los Angeles, coastal areas south of Los Angeles and the legendary Salton Sea.
Day 1: The tour begins with a meeting at 6 p.m. in the lobby of our hotel near Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport. Night in Los Angeles.
Day 2: We’ll leave early, heading northwest and out of Los Angeles. Those used to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles will be pleasantly surprised at the unspoiled and scenic north coast of Los Angeles and southern Ventura Counties. Here steep hills drop sharply to the sea, forming a ruggedly scenic coastline. We’ll explore the canyons that hold some of California’s distinctive landbirds, including Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Wrentit, California Thrasher and California Towhee as well as a variety of western migrants. Exotic species such as Black-hooded Parakeet may also be present. Later we’ll continue to the Oxnard Plain to search for waders, possibly including Pacific Golden-Plover and other uncommon or rare species (we’ve had Ruff in multiple years), along with passerine migrants, perhaps including Pacific-slope Flycatcher or Townsend’s Warbler. Night in Camarillo.
Day 3: We’ll spend the morning crossing to Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most wooded of southern California’s Channel Islands. Once on the island we’ll hike gently in search of the Island Scrub-Jay, an endemic California (and Santa Cruz Island) species that has declined notably in recent years, perhaps as a result of West Nile virus or of predation on the young by the resurgent Island Fox population (there was a slight upsurge in 2011 and each year we have easily seen a few since then). If the weather is favourable, we may encounter a scattering of western migrants such as Black-throated Gray Warbler or an eastern vagrant such as American Redstart. Resident species will likely include the distinctive largely resident sordida subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler that can be found on the Channel Islands and a few points along the adjacent mainland. Although transport across the Oxnard Channel is on a high-speed catamaran, we’ll hope to see a few pelagic birds including Pink-footed, Sooty and possibly Black-vented Shearwaters, and Pomarine Skua. In 2015 we had an adult Red-billed Tropicbird only a few miles off Santa Cruz Island. Marine mammals, possibly including whales, are possible. Along the jetties around the marina we often find Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and sometimes Wandering Tattler. Night in Camarillo.
Day 4: After breakfast, we’ll drive south through Los Angeles to Huntington Beach Central Park and the San Joaquin Marsh. We may stop in south Los Angeles where a few Spotted Doves might still be present. This introduced species had declined sharply in recent decades, probably due to predation from now urban resident populations of Cooper’s Hawks, but we still found two in 2019. Only Avalon on Santa Catalina Island maintains a stable population, a Cooper’s free zone. Both White-winged and the closely related Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (recently added to the California list by the California Bird Records Committee) might be about too. Once reaching Huntington Beach Central Park we are likely to encounter a fine variety of migrant landbirds as well as introduced Scaly-breasted Munia along possibly with Pin-tailed Whydahs and Bronze Mannikins. Nearby at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, waterbirds including Elegant and Royal Terns, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit should all be present along with the distinctive dark “Belding’s” Savannah Sparrow. Sometimes a Reddish Egret is present as well. Later we’ll continue down the coast in search of the endangered California Gnatcatcher. California Thrashers are present, too. Night at Laguna Hills.
Day 5: Assuming we’ve seen the gnatcatcher, we’ll drive south to San Diego then east to El Cajon stopping at a park to search for Tricolored Blackbird, perhaps the last “fairly” dependable spot in the county for this species. Late in the morning or in the afternoon we’ll head east, stopping in the low but lovely and unpopulated mountains of central San Diego County. Here among the pines and oaks we should find a variety of species including Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, the distinctive-sounding coastal race (aculeata) of White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Bluebird and, with luck, the local and often scarce and erratic Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Here or elsewhere in brushy regions we’ll watch for California Quail. Later we’ll drive down into the Imperial Valley for some local afternoon birding at the south end of the Salton Sea. Night in Westmorland.
Days 6-7: The Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea may test our endurance, for the area can be blazing hot even in late September, but our birding will be mainly confined to the morning and late afternoon hours. The primary ornithological attraction is Yellow-footed Gull, a post-breeding visitor to the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California, the only regular location to see this species in North America. It is one of the world’s rarest gulls. Other birds may include Least Bittern, Inca Dove, Lesser Nighthawk, Costa’s Hummingbird, Gila, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Abert’s Towhee, and - with luck - the distinctively pale, large-billed rostratus “species” of Savannah Sparrow, a post breeding visitor from its breeding grounds around the northern part of the Gulf of California. Sadly, none have been present over the last several years here. Another species we’ll search for is the yumanensis subspecies of Ridgway’s Rail. There should also be a variety of migrant landbirds about, possibly including Vaux’s Swift, Gray Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee and Lazuli Bunting. Nights in Westmorland.
Day 8: After more early morning birding at the Salton Sea we’ll depart to the north, possibly stopping at Desert Centre or Morongo Valley, desert oases that can be excellent for migrants such as Western Wood-Pewee and MacGillivray’s Warbler. After lunch we’ll continue on to Kramer Junction where a solar pond attracts a variety of shorebirds, notably Baird’s Sandpipers. Night in California City.
Day 9: Our main goal today is to find LeConte’s Thrasher, small populations of which are found locally in the Mojave Desert. They might be present at a friend’s yard near Inyokern, but they haven’t been present for a number of months. If necessary, we’ll drive a few hours north to Independence in the Owens Valley of Inyo County. We’ll also be looking for the canescens subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow. If we do that there are other destinations that might have migrant land birds (Diaz Lake) or shorebirds (Owens Lake). Another location we might visit (if reopened) is Galileo Hill Park, a high-desert ranch and club, an artificial oasis that attracts large numbers of landbird migrants including many rarities. Night in California City.
Day 10: This morning we may return to Galileo and nearby California City searching for migrants, or we might head north and up the spectacular Nine Mile Canyon on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here we may see Pinyon Jays and at least have a chance for Chukar. After lunch we’ll head south back to Los Angeles, possibly birding enroute in the Antelope Valley. Night near Los Angeles International Airport.
Day 11: The tour concludes this morning near Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport.
Updated: 06 May 2021