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Courtesy of James P. Smith

The Golden State again provided Birdfinders with an extremely exciting autumn tour. Upon arrival ground conditions looked parched as California’s drought continued resulting in several large fires, including the much discussed ‘Rim Fire’, which threatened to disrupt our time at Yosemite. But these hurdles were successfully overcome and, although our species tally was the lowest in the history of the tour, the quality was very much in keeping with (and probably better) most of our recent trips. Indeed, we saw all of the key species for California and saw most of them very well indeed. These included Black-vented Shearwater, California Condor, California and Mountain Quails, ‘Yuma’ and ‘Light-footed’ Ridgway's Rail, Yellow-footed Gull, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Oak Titmouse, Island Scrub-jay, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Towhee, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the recently-split Bell’s Sparrow. Thrown into the mix were four ‘classic’ western shorebirds – Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird and Black Turnstone, which provided a wonderful scene on the first morning when we had all four species close together. And then we had the four ‘classic’ western warblers with MacGillivray’s, Black-throated Grey, Townsend’s and Hermit, the latter providing staggering views in Yosemite. In many respects, all of these species are to be expected in California but running the tour in September ensures that surprises turn up each and every day. This year provided some real gems including four new additions to an already impressive tour list of almost 400 species! We were exceptionally fortunate to be in California at the beginning of an unprecedented northward incursion of Blue-footed Boobies. Birds found themselves displaced to both ocean and inland locations, sometimes in large numbers. Our group witnessed a single flock of 15 birds at the Salton Sea and logged over 20 for the tour. The scale of the incursion reached historic proportions just after the tour had ended with birds reaching as far north as British Columbia and as far inland as Lake Havasu the middle of the California/Arizona desert. Over 100 Blue-footed Boobies were estimated to be at the Salton Sea alone!

Just two days after our booby experience, we watched a Yellow-green Vireo at Point Loma thanks to the courtesy of some very generous San Diego birders. It was the first time that either the booby or the vireo had been recorded on any Birdfinders itinerary in the United States. Although known to be a rare resident, it was equally unexpected to record a calling Black Rail in late September when we heard a male giving its classic ‘kikki-deer’ calls one evening at the Salton Sea. And then there was the long staying Arctic Loon (aka ‘Green’-throated Diver) which we watched at point-blank range on an inland lake on the last full day of the tour. Arctic Loons are exceedingly rare anywhere in the US south of Alaska, and mostly occur as winter vagrants. To have one summering on an inland lake near the Los Angeles urban sprawl was simply unprecedented. Species of this calibre don’t come around too often and 2013 will go down as one of the most memorable California tours that we’ve ever had. Kudos to David Jefferies who made the trip for the second year in succession and went home with a bunch of unexpected new birds and some great photos!

California continues to be one of our most popular North American tours, and is fully conveyed by Martyn Kenefick in his excellent trip report. Thanks go to him for his excellent co-leadership throughout the tour, and to the 17 tour participants for making California 2013 such an enjoyable experience. Please enjoy the galleries of images from this year’s tour.

Good birding,

James P. Smith, Gill, MA, USA

Mountain Quail, photo by Guy Wilkerson Sooty Grouse
Arctic Loon Black-footed Albatross
Sooty Shearwater Blue-footed Boobies
American White Pelicans White-faced Ibises and Cattle Egrets
Ridgway's Rail American Avocet
Surfbird Western Gulls
Barn Owl Willow Flycatcher
Yellow-green Vireo
Yellow-billed Magpie Bell's Sparrow
Young Elephant Seals Bristlecone Pines
Blue Whale Birdfinders at the Salton Sea
Alisal Canyon Mono Lake
California Thrasher

California Thrasher