Our California experience in September 2011 was one of our finest ever tours in the Golden State. The overall species total was an impressive 275, not too shabby when we consider a few niggling misses that included the curious absence of Buller's Shearwaters in Monterey Bay, and 'often-difficult' species such as Black Storm-petrel, Mountain Quail and Lawrence's Goldfinch. Misses aside, birding highlights were many. Despite running the tour annually since 2004, our sharp-eyed group still managed to add three new species to the Birdfinders California list – a Blackburnian Warbler near Morro Bay, Rose-breasted Grosbeak in California City and a Neotropic Cormorant near El Centro. All of these could be considered 'hotline' birds in California.
But the real attraction of the tour was the classic California species for which all of us traveled such a long way to see. We were not disappointed: Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed Shearwater, Ashy Storm-petrel, California Condor, Sooty Grouse, California Quail, Snowy Plover, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, South Polar Skua, Heerman's, California and Yellow-footed Gulls, Elegant Tern, Marbled Murrelet, Cassin's Auklet, (California) Northern Pygmy-owl, Allen's Hummingbird, White-headed and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Red-breasted and Williamson's Sapsuckers, California and Le Conte's Thrashers, Mountain Bluebird, California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Pinyon Jay, Yellow-billed Magpie, Black-throated Grey, Townsend's and Hermit Warblers, (Slate-coloured) Fox Sparrow, California and Green-tailed Towhees, Tricoloured Blackbird, and Cassin's Finchwere all seen well on this trip. Stand-out moments would have to include the Tufted Puffin found by our group on the dedicated pelagic in Monterey Bay, prolonged views of a hunting Great Grey Owl at dusk in the Sierras, double figures of Baird's Sandpipers (we're usually lucky to get one per tour!), and incredible close-up views of Wrentit near Solvang which posed beautifully for the entire group.
Nor was the tour just about birds. This was actually far from the case because the mammal show was simply outstanding. We recorded at least 25 species, including the finest display of Humpback Whales and Risso's Dolphins that we've ever seen.There were Elephant Seals hauled out on the beaches south of Big Sur, two sightings of Black Bear, including one ambling across the road at Mammoth Lakes at dawn, Lodgepole Chipmunks in the Sierras and the Desert Cottontails down by the Salton Sea. Our keen-eyed group also found two species of tree frog – North Pacific and Sierra, both of which were new to the tour.
Once again I'd like to thank Martyn Kenefick for his excellent co-leadership and for producing a fine trip report for the tour. Thanks also go to David Griffith for help with navigation in the LA suburbs, Roger Terrill for having genuine enthusiasm for the mammals, Graig Constance for his birdfinding excellence, to Brian and Pat Wetton who produced a wonderful three set DVD of the tour, and actually to the whole group for making it such an enjoyable tour to lead.
James P. Smith, Gill, MA, USA