Day 1 – Travel day. Meet at Los Angeles International Airport. Stay in hotel nearby.
Day 2 – Our first day of birding will be an exciting one and we begin our adventure in Laguna Beach where coastal viewpoints are excellent for scanning rocky headlands and beaches for shorebirds including Black and Ruddy turnstones, Surfbird, Willet, Black Oystercatcher and perhaps a Wandering Tattler. Scanning the Pacific we hope to add Elegant and Royal terns, Heermann's Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Brandt's Cormorants and perhaps Black-vented Shearwaters if they decide to venture close enough to shore. First sightings of Black Phoebes, Allen's Hummingbirds, California Towhees and Nuttall's Woodpecker are likely this morning as well.
At Crystal Cove Park we will explore the chaparral habitat where the rare and local California Gnatcatcher can be found. This scrubby habitat is also home to California Thrashers, California Towhees, and Wrentits among others. After lunch we'll make our way to Upper Newport Bay, home to one of North America's newest bird species, the Ridgway's Rail. Previously known as the 'Light-footed' race of the Clapper Rail, the Ridgway's Rail was given full species status in 2014. The bay is also home to an impressive number of shorebirds including Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitchers, and much more.
To finish off what will have surely already been a fantastic day we will pay a visit to the San Joaquin Sanctuary in Irvine. The pools and ponds here are home to many shorebirds, waterfowl and other marsh-dwelling species. Both Western and Clark's Grebes can be found side by side, allowing excellent comparisons of these two similar species. Herons are common and hiding in the reeds along the edges of the ponds can be Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron and the diminutive Least Bittern. Introduced species that have become countable can be found around San Joaquin as well, with Scaly-breasted Munia and Northern Orange Bishop of particular interest. Night in Orange County.
Day 3 – We will begin the day with a drive from Orange County to the desert in Anza-Borrego State Park. Not only does Anza-Borrego produce good birds, but it also yields stunning desert scenery and plant-life. At 600,000 acres, this is the largest state park in California. We will look for Black-throated Sparrow, Costa's Hummingbird, Phainopepla, Verdin, Greater Roadrunner, Gambel's Quail and other characteristic desert birds here. The afternoon sun will become almost unbearable as we near the Salton Sea. We'll check into the hotel for an afternoon siesta and emerge again later to explore Cattle Call Park in Brawley. Beneath the shady trees we'll search for migrants and other resident birds such as Abert's Towhee and Gila Woodpecker. Night in the attractive city of Brawley.
Day 4 – The Salton Sea was created when a massive flood covered the Imperial Valley in the early 1900s. The Salton Sea is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. Water birds cover the lake, especially during migration. We will be start the day off by walking through the trees at the Wister Unit where migrant warblers and other passerines are often seen. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Abert's Towhees and Lesser Nighthawks should be present in the arid scrub along the path. As we drive along the east side of the sea we'll stop to ogle at Burrowing Owls alongside the road. We'll then scan through flocks of shorebirds in the flooded fields near the sea. A wide variety of common North American shorebirds can be expected. The scenery is surreal along the shores of the Salton Sea where the moon-like rugged, rocky landscape meets the deep blue, calm waters of the sea. Yellow-footed Gulls a large dark-backed species occurring in North America only at the Salton Sea should be seen easily. Because of extremely hot temperatures we will most likely have to retreat to the hotel for an afternoon siesta. We'll seize the opportunity to study Western and Clark's grebes side by side at Finney Lake, a short distance from Brawley. Spend night in Brawley.
Day 5 – An early morning departure will be made as we head for the San Jacinto Mountains. One of the most scenic mountain ranges in Southern California, the San Jacintos tower almost 11,000 feet above Palm Springs. We will complete a loop, beginning in Palm Desert, which will take us through 4 different life zones. Phainopeplas feed on berries on hillside bushes near Hemet Lake. Hurkey Creek State Park is a great location in which to enjoy typical birds of the pine forest where we hope for birds will include Pinyon, Steller's and California Scrub jays, Nuttall's, White-headed and Acorn woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees and Pygmy, White-breasted and Red-breasted nuthatches. Hummingbird feeders hung in the state park attract good numbers of Black-chinned and Anna's hummingbirds. With luck, we may bump into a Lawrence's Goldfinch. After we're satisfied with our mountain birding experience we'll make the drive to Twentynine Palms on the doorstep of the great Joshua Tree National Monument.
Day 6 – To begin the day we will visit the original oasis of 29 Palms and the accompanying visitor's center. A morning stroll here often produces species such as Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, Phainopepla, Cooper's Hawk and Greater Roadrunner and with any luck perhaps a roosting Barn Owl. Next, we will enter Joshua Tree National Monument itself where birding can be somewhat quiet at this time of year, however that fact is soon forgotten when your imagination is lost amongst the stunning setting of rocks and twisted Joshua Trees. The park is good for elusive Le Conte's and Bendire's thrashers, as well as other sought-after species such as Pinyon Jay and Golden Eagle. A short walk to Barker Dam often produces excellent sightings of Canyon and Rock wrens, as well as Desert Bighorn Sheep. If there is water in the dam expect a few migrant passerines to be present. Overhead there should be chattering White-throated Swifts and we'll keep our eyes peeled for Prairie or Peregrine falcons.
We'll pick up lunch and make our way to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. This oasis of cottonwoods and willows attracts many birds, both resident and migrant and is a popular birding spot in September. Brightly colored Summer Tanagers, rare in southern California, will be found here. Equally attractive Vermilion Flycatchers also frequent the preserve. Migrant warblers, vireos and flycatchers will be seen as we walk the boardwalk through the lush palm woodlands. With a little luck Lawrence's Goldfinches will be feeding in the weedy fields at Big Morongo, although their appearances are somewhat unpredictable. In the late afternoon we'll transfer to the aptly named town of Mojave, situated in the middle of the fantastic Mojave Desert.
Day 7 – Our travels will take us through various areas within Eastern Kern County. Beginning early in the morning, we will bird through Jawbone Canyon searching for Le Conte's Thrasher as well as Black-throated and Bell's sparrows, the latter of which has recently been split off from Sage Sparrow and can be found almost exclusively in California. Rock Wrens sing loudly from tiny gravel escarpments and Chukar are often seen clambering around on rocky hillsides.
As we pass through California City we will pick up lunch and take it to Galileo Hill and the Silver Saddle Resort where we will spend much of the afternoon searching for migrants in the trees and around the ponds and pools which make a veritable oasis in the Mojave for passing birds. Flycatchers are often particularly numerous here and we could see Willow, Pacific-slope, Vermillion and Olive-sided flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee and Say's and Black phoebes. Warblers can be numerous as well and the common species include Wilson's, Yellow, Orange-crowned and Common Yellowthroat. Rarities are always possible and on a previous tour we had Yellow-throated Vireo here. California's only record of Eyebrowed Thrush comes from the Silver Saddle Resort, just to reiterate the potential of this as a vagrant trap. On our way back to Mojave we may make a short stop at Central Park in California City to check for interesting waterfowl on the lake and for migrants in the surrounding trees. Night in Mojave.
Day 8 – This morning we will leave the Mojave Desert and make our way south towards the San Gabriel Mountains. This rugged mountain range forms the northern rim of the Los Angeles Basin and the highest peaks in the range reach just over 3000 meters. Birding in the coniferous forests of the San Gabriels can be very rewarding. The pine forests are excellent for the sought-after White-headed Woodpecker, as well as other woodpecker species including Nuttall's, Hairy and the enigmatic Acorn woodpecker. All three nuthatch species are possible here (White-breasted, Red-breasted and Pygmy), along with Brown Creeper and Clark's Nutcracker. These forests are home to a good population of Northern Pygmy-Owls so we have a good chance at finding one of them today. The 'Thick-billed' race of Fox Sparrows calls the San Gabriel Mountains home and we have a good opportunity to spot a Green-tailed Towhee here as well. The elusive Mountain Quail is sometimes seen scurrying through the underbrush of these mountains. In the late afternoon we will make the descent from the mountains to Hwy 101 and drive north to Carpinteria where we spend the night.
Day 9 – Today we will travel from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park, where the endemic Island Scrub-Jay lives. The jays are often found right at the dock, leaving plenty of time to explore the variety of habitats within easy walking distance. Also of interest on the island include many endemic subspecies, including Orange-crowned Warbler, Hutton's Vireo and Song Sparrow. The trip departs Ventura at 8 AM and returns at 5 PM. An on board galley is available for food and drinks and once docked at Santa Cruz Island we'll wander about enjoying the unique fauna found there. The boat trip to the island may produce some pelagics, like Pink-footed and Black-vented shearwaters, jaegers and maybe a whale or two, not to mention impressive numbers of Common Dolphins and California Sea Lions. Spend night in Carpinteria.
Day 10 – Hoping for good weather this morning, we'll take a whale watching excursion out into Santa Barbara Channel with high hopes of seeing some exciting cetaceans. Past trips have yielded excellent sightings of Humpback Whales and spectacular views of the world's largest mammal, Blue Whale! In addition to whales we should see great numbers of Common Dolphins, as well as California Sea-Lions and who knows what else. While we're on a whale watching boat, this doesn't mean we won't be looking for birds. Black-vented Shearwaters should be about in good numbers and mixed in amongst them could be Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters. We sometimes see Black Storm-Petrels in the channel and there is a chance for Scripps's Murrelet and Cassin's Auklet as well. Most trips out into the channel this time of year produce Parasitic and Pomarine jaegers and we have a chance at Northern Fulmar as well. In the afternoon we'll pop into Devereux Slough, a good area shorebirds such as Snowy Plover, while the chaparral habitat surrounding the slough has Wrentit, California Thrasher, Allen's Hummingbird and California Towhee to name just a few. There is a roost of Black-crowned Night-Herons here, and we should see them snoozing in the tall eucalyptus trees. With any luck we'll see a White-tailed Kite hovering over the grassy areas nearby as well. Night in Carpinteria.
Day 11 – Our final morning in California, we'll head north of Santa Barbara to Alisal Canyon where Yellow-billed Magpie will be our main target species, though any number of other birds could also be present. Past trips have rendered Lawrence's Goldfinch, Dickcissel and several sightings of Bobcat in the area. With magpie in the proverbial bag, we'll turn south and begin the journey back to Los Angeles, popping in at one or two parks along the way to look for some last minute migrants. Tour ends late this afternoon when we return to Los Angeles.