Wednesday, 13 January 2016

CALIFORNIA 2016: Los Angeles to Monterey (12-13 January)

This blog is the first of several to report on a very enjoyable and successful short-notice trip to California with Matt Eade.  Matt did all the driving and most of the bird finding, I did the navigating and more of the strategy - a division of labour that worked well for me!  Matt's blog will have more detail on what we saw and better pictures, so if you haven't already done so check out:

Introduction.  Various plans for a trip in the early part of the year failed to materialise so I was very interested when Matt told me he was planning on visiting California for a couple of weeks in late January and would be pleased to have some company.  A number of tempting species were possible, not least the chance of an orange Varied Thrush!  Virgin flights from Heathrow were reasonably priced and after a bit of uncertainty as to how long I could be away I booked flights just over a week before we were due to leave.  I would have 12 days, Matt would stay on for another three. Matt secured a good deal on an SUV with Alamo and we booked a couple of motels at the start and end of the trip around a whale watch trip from Monterey and a visit to Santa Cruz Island from Ventura.  I obtained some useful information from Nick Gardner, who was recently back from San Franciso with Russell and Frank Lambert provided contact details for Guy McCaskie who Matt contacted about Salton Sea and agreed to meet us there for a day. I checked ebird for recent sightings and we both worked on an outline itinerary. Top birds for the area on a Rare Bird site were not encouraging - Tufted Duck, European Wigeon and European Green-winged Teal - but it was to prove useful for others.

12 January.  Matt picked me up at 05:00 and drove to Heathrow. The M23 and M25 were quite busy but caused no delays. We checked in and the flight departed on time, Matt securing an upgrade thanks to a friend who worked for the airline. A good flight with plenty of films to choose from but I was so engrossed in The Martian that I forgot to look out for Greenland.  We arrived on time but I had to queue for 45 minutes to clear immigration and declare a half eaten Marmite sandwich (it was also let in).  Matt being nearer the front of the plane was through quicker but it didn't seem a good idea for me to attempt to queue jump and join him.  An Alamo courtesy bus arrived within a minute and we were soon in a Jeep Compass and driving NW out of LA.  It was 15:30 and we had just over 90 minutes of daylight.  We had hoped to stop on the coast near Santa Barbara, our destination, but were clearly not going to make it in time.  I consulted the Southern California site guide and it seemed Surfer's Knoll in Ventura would be a more realistic option.  We arrived at 16:40 and set off down the beach towards the river mouth.  We saw Willets, Pied-billed and Western Grebes and California and Western Gulls before walking back in the dark at 17:10.  Nice to have seen some birds but another half an hour of light would have been welcome.  We drove to Santa Barbara and checked into the pre-booked Sunset Motel.  We were both pretty tired and fell asleep by 21:00 after having a slice of pizza from a 7/11 store.  It wasn't likely to be a healthy eating trip despite Matt's best intentions!

13 January. We planned to bird all the way up the coast to Monterey, returning the same way two days later when we could concentrate on what we had missed.  It was reckoned to be a five hour driving and with only 10 hours of daylight we would have to be selective or risk rushing things.  Jet lag meant we were wide awake before 04:30 and we decided to drive up to Oso Flaco for dawn, leaving Santa Barbara at 05:00.  We arrived at 06:40, 20 minutes before dawn, and parked by some other vehicles.  They were fishermen and agricultural workers and a passing car stopped and asked Matt if there was any work. We had just got out of the car when it started drizzling heavily. We walked down the main track to the boardwalk which we followed across the edge of a large pool, through some chaparral, by which time the weather had improved, and eventually to the beach. Birding was excellent and we spent 4 hours in the area seeing a wide range of species including Bufflehead, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Snowy Plover, Heerman's and Glacuous-winged Gulls, Anna's Hummingbird, Hermit Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, California Thrasher, Wrentit and Sooty Fox Sparrow.  
American Bittern at Oso Flaco, my first photo in California and the light was dreadful

the second wasn't much better
Oso Flaco lagoon
Great White Egret
Lesser Scaup

Black-necked Grebe
Song Sparrow

California Thrasher

Hermit Thrush, the day's roundest bird?
Northern Flicker showing the red-shafts of the western race
Snowy Plover on the beach at Oso Flaco

California Gulls on the beach at Oso Flaco with three Westerns amongst them 
a brave Sanderling too
one California gull was colour-ringed, just like being on the Adur!
Matt was quick to spot when a Heerman's Gull joined the flock
as did a first-winter Glaucous-winged

it was quite a heavy-weight ...
Matt drove on to an area of rocky coast and we stopped for half an hour at Shell Beach seeing Black Turnstones (one of my main targets), Black Oystercatcher and Pelagic Cormorant.  
rocky coast at Shell Beach
Western Gull
Brandt's Cormorant
Shell Beach, note the fence chains
Audubon's Warbler

quite a performer
Spotted Sandpiper on the cliff top at Shell Beach
Next stop was the Elfin Forest overlooking Morro Bay.  A good boardwalk led to a viewpoint over the estuary which was teeming with ducks and waders on a rising tide.  It also provided good views of California Quail, California Scrub Jay and Spotted and California Towhees. 
Turkey Vulture
view over Morro Bay with the tide rapidly coming in
unlike Anna's Hummingbird at the Elfin Forest, this male's throat was brilliant crimson when it caught the light (unfortunately not on film)

California Quail
Sooty Fox Sparrow digging in the dirt at the entrance to the Elfin Forest when we returned to the car

after a while a California Towhee took over and had a scratch around

We continued to nearby Morro Rock spending an hour there.  A walk along the eastern side produced two Townsend's Warblers feeding with some Audubon's.  Very smart, as were some Heerman's Gulls in the car park.  At 16:15 we felt time was running out and we were only half way to Monterey.  We decided to take the much quicker inland route which could be reached by a road, highway 41, over the mountains. This, we hoped, might produce some final birding if we could access any decent habitat. We set off and half way along the highway took the first track into forest, to a campsite at Cerro Alto, parking by the entrance road. We walked a short way up the road, the habitat looked good but it was rather birdless, something we put down to the late hour.  Acorn Woodpecker and Oak Titmouse on our return made the stop worthwhile and we continued on our way, oblivious to the fact that we would be returning to this site in the near future.  The freeway to Monterey was quiet and we arrived at 19:45 and checked into the very pleasant Inn by the Bay.  A Denny's was just down the road and we had a good meal there and wrote up our notes before turning in.  It had been an excellent first full day and adding up later I had seen 99 species of which seven were new - my highest totals of the trip.
one of several Western Gulls in the car park at Morro Rock

a younger bird, I couldn't decide if a second or third-winter
Ring-billed Gull at Morro Rock

Heerman's Gull at Morro Rock

this one was particularly inquisitive, or expectant of being fed

female Townsend's Warbler at Morro Rock, I didn't manage a shot of the much brighter male with it
Black Turnstones on the beach
Marbled Godwits

the Morro Bay harbour entrance
Sea Otter in the harbour
Surf Scoter

White-crowned Sparrow
by far the commonest sparrow we saw

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