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Courtesy of James P. Smith

After a short hiatus this fabulous tour was rekindled for 2018. By the end of our 16 day odyssey we’d recorded 260 species, driven over 2700 miles and enjoyed immaculate weather and majestic scenery. The tour more than lived up to its reputation for avian diversity and excitement as we explored the broad range of habitats offered by the California coast, the grasslands, deserts and canyons of Arizona, and even the urban parks and wetlands of Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego. Each element would add an array of new species to the trip and life birds were enjoyed by the whole group, including the leader!

Considering that we were based in the arid regions of the American south-west we did remarkably well for seeing some essentially Old World species with Eurasian Wigeon, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Red-throated Pipit and White Wagtail all being recorded on the trip. But, of course, the core of the trip was centered on the resident and wintering species for which the region is justly renowned. Waterfowl highlights included thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese at the Salton Sea, great views of Mexican Mallards in Willcox and several handsome (and much sought-after) male Barrow’s Goldeneyes on Lake Havasu. Being post-hunting season game birds were not easy to come by, but again we succeeded with Gambel’s, Scaled and Mountain Quails all being well seen on the tour. Raptors seemed curiously scarce though much-wanted Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons were found within the first two days of the trip. Indeed, excessive flight prices into Phoenix meant that we had to start the tour in Los Angeles but that didn’t hurt our opportunities to view shorebirds after we made a new start to the tour in Ventura. By the end of the first morning we’d already found Black Oystercatcher, American Avocet, Black Turnstone and Surfbird as well as a fascinating hybrid American x Black Oystercatcher! But of all the shorebirds seen on the tour, Mountain Plover would have to be the bird of choice for most of our group with 11 in the southern Salton Sea and no less than 62 in Santa Cruz Flats! Owls often feature on this tour and this year was no exception with Whiskered Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Burrowing Owl and Short-eared Owl all recorded during daylight hours. It was also a stellar tour for thrashers with Sage, Bendire’s, Curve-billed, California, Crissal and Le Conte’s all performing extremely well. Aloof Sprague’s Pipits made us work in Calipatria but eventually we had superb views. An Olive Warbler came as a surprise in the west Chiricahuas and a Rufous-capped Warbler looked about as close to a feathered jewel as one could imagine as it brightened the winter shrubbery in the Santa Rita Mountains. A Painted Redstart at the latter site was tough to see but more than compensated for by an approachable male in a San Diego park much later in the tour. McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs proved popular when we found them in relatively large numbers with Horned Larks in a cow pasture near Sonoita, especially when we came across males of both longspurs in near full breeding plumage!

Although not a major focus for us, it’s fair to say that rarities also form a part of this trip and we enjoyed a number species that were either nationally rare, regionally rare or simply new to our winter tour. In addition the Red-throated Pipit and White Wagtail previously mentioned, we also recorded several Reddish Egrets, Red Phalarope (off San Diego), Nazca Booby (two in San Diego Bay), Rufous-backed Robin (two at Tumacacori near Nogales), and a totally unexpected Rose-throated Becard also at Tumacacori.

This excellent tour provides a superb introduction to the birds of the American south-west and takes place in (usually) delightfully warm winter sunshine. We hope you enjoy this gallery of images and look forward to returning once more in January 2019.

Good birding,

James P. Smith, Northfield, MA, USA

Snow Geese Ross's Geese
Eurasian and American Wigeons
(Mexican) Mallards
Mountain Quail Gambel's Quail
Reddish Egret Red-tailed Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk Black Oystercatcher
Hybrid Black/American Oystercatcher Long-billed Curlews
Red Phalarope Glaucous-winged Gull
Black Skimmers
Northern Pygmy-owl Burrowing Owl
Allen's Hummingbird Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Lewis's Woodpecker Lewis's Woodpecker
Red-breasted Sapsucker Hammond's Flycatcher
Hutton's Vireo Plumbeous Vireo
Rock Wren House Wren
California Gnatcatcher Rufous-backed Robin
White Wagtail Red-throated Pipit
Sprague's Pipit Chestnut-collared Longspur
McCown's Longspurs Rufous-capped Warbler
Painted Redstart Grasshopper Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow Pyrrhuloxia
Eastern Meadowlark Red-winged Blackbird
Pacific White-sided Dolphin Grey Whale
Boyce Thompson
De Anza Trail
San Rafel Valley
Heermann's Gull

Heermann's Gull