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Courtesy of James P. Smith

Perhaps it’s better to get the negative news out of the way first. The Golden State looked parched and barren in September 2014, more so than we’ve ever seen it before. Every place we went the locals spoke of the worst drought to hit California in 100 years and this may have been reflected in our relatively low species tally of about 265 species for the entire tour. But that’s where the bad news ends because, in terms of quality, this tour will be difficult to match in future years.

Throughout the tour we encountered spectacular wildlife events: Island Scrub-Jay and Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island, breaching Humpbacks in Monterey Bay, flocks of Lawrence’s Goldfinches at a drinking hole near Hollister, a fabulous Northern Pygmy-owl near Yosemite, Sooty Grouse at our feet in Yosemite itself, Black Bears outside the motel in Mammoth, Black-footed Albatrosses on the pelagic, a hulking California Condor along the Pacific shore, immense concentrations of water birds at the Salton Sea, the tiny, scrub-dwelling California Gnatcatcher and a true desert phantom, the Le Conte’s Thrasher. All of these were hugely enjoyed by our group though, to some extent, also expected on a tour of California.

On the other hand we had a fantastic tour for unexpected species and added four new species to an already impressive Birdfinders list of California birds (now almost 400). Additions included Black-legged Kittiwake (Big Sur), Broad-winged Hawk (California City), Hooded Merganser (Julian), Glaucous Gull (off Tijuana), and Nutmeg Mannikin (San Diego). It was also another incursion year for boobies and our visit to San Diego gave us double figures of Brown Boobies on two straight days as well as a single Blue-footed Booby. And for the second year in succession we recorded Yellow-green Vireo on the tour, this time with two birds working Ficus trees in a San Diego city park.

Our dedicated pelagic into Monterey Bay was highlighted by unprecedented numbers of Black-vented Shearwaters, the furthest north we’ve ever seen them. Close review of the images after the trip also revealed that a Manx Shearwater had passed close to the boat without anyone on board noticing! Where else in the world could Manx and Black-vented Shearwaters be photographed together?

Even the declining Spotted Dove put in a last minute appearance as one flew across the highway on the way to Los Angeles airport on the last day. It was the first time that we’d had a multiple-observer Spotted Dove sighting on the tour since 2001!

Once again the tour ran completely full this year, testament to the rich avian diversity, spectacular mammals (28 species in 2014) and superb scenery. The 2015 tour will take place during September and early booking is advised as this trip fills quickly!

Gracious thanks to Pete Lansdown for his excellent co-leadership, and to all our participants who helped so much with the bird finding.

Good birding,

James P. Smith, Northfield, MA, USA

California Quail Black-footed Albatross
Pink-footed Shearwater Sooty Shearwater
Manx and Black-vented Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater Black Storm-petrel
California Golden Eagle
South Polar Skua Pigeon Guillemot
Sabine's Gull Yellow-footed Gull
Great Horned Owl Northern Pygmy-owl
White-headed Woodpecker Nuttall's Woodpecker
Yellow-green Vireo Chestnut-backed Chickadee
California Gnatcatcher Wrentit
Townsend's Warbler Savannah (Belding's) Sparrow
Savannah (Large-billed) Sparrow White-crowned Sparrow
Lawrence's Goldfinches Scaly-breasted Munia
Island Fox Ocean Sunfish
Humpback Whale (courtesy of Helen Stedman)
Joshua Trees
Owens River Valley
Mono Lake
Half Dome, Yosemite
Birdfinders birding on the border with Mexico
California Thrasher

California Thrasher