California in Spring Itinerary

Intro Itinerary Information & Pricing Gallery Birdlist Registration


Dates: 27 April – 9 May 2018

Day 1, April 28 – Arrive LAX, Anaheim and Newport Back Bay. Participants arrive independently into LAX International Airport. Please plan your arrival for no later than 2:00 PM. Transfer to our hotel with birding at Newport Back Bay.

After getting everyone and their gear arranged in our vehicles, we’ll drive south to the “Newport Backbay”, more properly called Upper Newport Bay. With a watershed greater than 150 square miles, it’s the largest estuary in Southern California and a spectacular location to begin our birding travels around Southern California. The “Backbay” contains habitats ranging from open water, mudflat, salt marsh and freshwater marsh/pond to chaparral hillsides, riparian corridors and upland cliffs, bluffs and mesas. We hope to arrive on a rising or falling tide for our best chances to observe a number of rare birds. Endangered species we may encounter include California Least Tern, Ridgeway’s Rail, Belding’s Savannah Sparrow and Least Bell’s Vireo. Ridgeway’s Rail (formerly considered the “Light-footed” race of Clapper Rail) has more than half of its entire population located her and at low tide they can be found foraging along vegetated margins. Fortunate birders may find them feeding on mudflats like large shorebirds! Belding’s Sparrows sing from salicornia flats and and wooded arroyos may teem with birds as local species are supplemented by migration’s push. Night Anaheim.

Ridgway’s Rail. Photo by Rick Bowers ©

Day 2, April 29 – Santiago Oaks Regional Park, Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, to Ventura. After an early breakfast at our hotel, we’ll work our way into the chaparral covered hills and wooded canyons of Orange County. Traveling scenic roadways amidst the Santa Ana foothills to our first destination, Santiago Oaks Regional Park, we’ll encounter a nice selection of Southern California’s resident birds for the first time. Holding habitats ranging from riparian (Coastal Live Oaks, California Sycamore) to the fast disappearing coastal sage scrub, the park offers a nice diversity of habitats and attendant birds. Birds such as California Quail, Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, California Scrub-Jay, California Thrasher, Black Phoebe, Bewick’s Wren, endangered Least Bell’s Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, California Towhee, Rufous-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and other southern California resident birds and Spring migrants should be present.

Our next stop, the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, is quite similar with its riparian and chaparral habitat types. I have visited here on every trip, save one, that I’ve made to California and I am eager to return again. The numerous feeders in the sanctuary allow close observation of Band-tailed Pigeons, California Scrub-Jay, Spotted and California Towhees, Wrentit, California Thrasher and Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers among others. The star attractions, in my opinion, would have to be sparrows and hummingbirds. At this time of the year we should have good opportunity to study a variety of sparrows. Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Chipping, Fox and western forms of Dark-eyed Junco will keep us entertained when the hummingbirds do not! Our timing is good as we are right on time to experience spring migration across Southern California. This will allow us to see Anna’s Hummingbirds doing their flight displays and keep us looking for spring migrant Black-chinned, Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds.

We’ll drive to Ventura after lunch where we’ll check into our hotel before doing some local birding. Night Ventura.

Wrentit. Photo by Rick Bowers ©

Day 3, April 30 – Santa Cruz Island/Channel Islands National Park, Santa Barbara Channel pelagics, local birding. We’ll depart the Ventura marina for the short, one hour journey across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Cruz Island. Legend tells that the island was named for a priest’s staff accidentally left on the island in 1769. A Chumash Indian found the cross-tipped staff and returned it to the priest impressing them so much they called the island “La Isla de Santa Cruz,” the Island of the Sacred Cross.

Today the protection and preservation of Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service insuring that these precious ecosystems are in good hands.

Pelagic birding in the Santa Barbara channel is at its best during the Spring passage of birds moving northward along the 1,500 foot deep Santa Barbara Basin. Departing the marina we’re likely to see near-shore species like Surf, White-winged and Black Scoters, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, loons in a nice variety of plumages, grebes, gulls and terns—with Arctic Terns regularly found in flocks just off the coast. Birds we may find in deeper waters of the Channel include Black-vented, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, South Polar Skua, Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers, Sabine’s Gull, Scripps’s Murrelet (breeds on the Channel Islands and a Spring boat trip might be the easiest place in the world to see or photograph this dapper species), Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, Red Phalarope, Black, Leach’s and Ashy Storm-Petrels and Northern Fulmar. In addition, we have a good chance of seeing migrating Gray, Humpback, and occasionally Blue or Fin Whales and Orcas.

Blue Whale. The largest mammal to ever inhabit the Earth!  Photo by Rick Bowers ©

Our list of land birds is small, but significant. Island Scrub-Jay is endemic to Santa Cruz Island, thus giving it the trophy for the smallest range of any North American bird. Larger, darker and more deeply colored blue than its mainland relatives, as the only scrub-jay on the island there is no identification concerns. Also present are endemic races of Allen’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, Horned Lark, Orange-crowned Warbler, Loggerhead Shrike, Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Song and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. You’ll be able to contrast and compare them vocally and visually to their mainland counterparts we’ll encounter the rest of the tour.

As there are no services available on Santa Cruz Island, we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch during our excursion. Likely to entertain us during our birding intermission is the diminutive and thoroughly engaging Island Fox. There are six subspecies of Island Fox, each endemic to the island upon which they occur. A major conservation success story, they have worked their way back from the brink of extinction through the efforts of a dedicated group of stakeholders. While the largest native land mammal inhabiting the Channel Islands, Island Fox is one of the smallest canids in the world, about the size of a common house cat.

Our day will pass all too quickly and we’ll soon have to board the ferry and our return to Ventura, giving us another opportunity for Scripps’s Murrelet. Night Ventura.

Day 4, May 1 – Santa Barbara County—East Camino Cielo Road, Cachuma Lake, Happy Canyon, Nira Camp, Solvang. Early morning will find us traveling along East Camino Cielo Road which rises to the crest of the Santa Ynez range with spectacular ocean vistas. While the scenery is beyond nice, we’re visiting this remote backcountry road as it offers good access to search for chaparral species. Specialties like Mountain Quail, Costa’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Greater Roadrunner, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Rufous-crowned, the uncommon Bell’s and Black-chinned Sparrows, California Towhee and Lazuli Bunting. What’s more, during May’s migration Black Swift may be seen along the ridge top.

Cachuma Lake Recreation Area is the largest body of fresh water in Santa Barbara County. Accordingly it attracts a number of waterfowl species we’re unlikely to find elsewhere along our tour route. Bald Eagle, Clark’s and Western Grebes, Common Loon, Hooded Merganser and other waterbirds. Oaks ringing portions of the lake and campground areas hold Bewick’s Wren, Oak Titmouse, Hutton’s Vireo, Western Bluebird and are attractive to migrating birds of all types. Just a great place to bird.

Bald Eagle. Photo by Rick Bowers ©

A short distance north we’ll take a side trip into the southern sector of the Los Padres National Forest. A scenic drive crossing the Santa Ynez Valley, our route is good for oak-savannah birds such as Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Western Kingbird, Yellow-billed Magpie, Lark Sparrow and Bullock’s Oriole. If time allows we’ll make various stops for short birding hikes as the area can be quite productive for Spring migrants—vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, grosbeaks, warblers and sparrows.

Late afternoon we’ll arrive in the picturesque city of Solvang. Founded in 1911 by a group of Danes intent on establishing a community far from the severe winters of Denmark or Midwestern US where many Danes had elected to settle. Solvang’s architecture, Danish windmills, Danish memorials, arts, pastry shops and eateries attract tourists from all over. Solvang has become famous among birders as well as a reliable locale for Yellow-billed Magpie. We’ll do our part, savoring the sights, sounds and flavors of Solvang as we search for Yellow-billed Magpies. Night near Solvang.

Day 5, May 2 – Yellow-billed Magpie, Foxen Canyon Road, Los Padres National Forest. As we leave Solvang, Yellow-billed Magpie becomes target number one. The oak savannah, vineyards bordered by grasslands and riparian woodland ribbons following stream crossings along our route are the best areas to find Yellow-billed Magpies in Santa Barbara County. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, Hutton’s Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Lark Sparrow and Bullock’s Oriole and a host of warblers, vireos, flycatchers and sparrows migrating through the valley.

After lunch near Santa Maria, we’ll begin our pilgrimage to the Los Padres National Forest, “The Sign” and California Condors. On my first trip to California in March 1984 “The Sign” was THE place to look for California Condors. To my amazement, the area still holds its magic as each visit over the past couple of years has yielded California Condors to mesmerize us. Hopefully the trend will continue as these magnificent birds are spectacular beyond words. The sad struggle of these prehistoric looking birds to survive in a modern world as their population declined to the brink of extinction only to turn into a modern conservation success story. One worthy of Hollywood that’s as uplifting as the thermals rising from the valley floor below the sign!

After a late afternoon sit at “The Sign”, we’ll continue eastward through these scenic mountains to our home for the next two nights. Night near Frazier Park.

California Condor. Photo by Rick Bowers ©

Day 6, May 3 – Los Padres National Forest, Mt. Pinos to Mt. Abel (Cerro Noroeste). From the elevated perch of Mt. Pinos at 8,847 its possible to see an amazing slice of Central California. From the Central Valley to the northeast, to the Santa Barbara Mountains on the west and the infamous San Andreas Fault to the east. The views are simply stunning. Equally captivating are the birds who call this tangled landscape home.

We’ll spend our entire day birding Mt. Pinos and Mt. Abel in the Los Padres National Forest searching for mountain specialties like Northern Goshawk, Mountain Quail, Northern Pygmy-Owl, White-headed Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Steller’s Jay, Dusky Flycatcher, Hermit Warbler, Pygmy Nuthatch, Green-tailed Towhee, ”Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, Cassin’s Finch and Red Crossbill. If conditions are good, and stamina allows!, an after dark search for owls is possible. Targets would include Northern Saw-whet Owl and Northern Pygmy-Owl. Night near Frazier Park.

Day 7, May 4 – Antelope Valley, California City, Galileo Hill. We’ll visit several locations in the Antelope Valley as we travel eastward. Species to be looked for include a nice variety of raptors, Cactus Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Sage and LeConte’s Thrashers, Lark, Brewer’s and Bell’s Sparrows, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Scott’s Oriole and Tricolored Blackbird. Night California City.

Scott’s Oriole. Phot by Rick Bowers ©

Day 8, May 5 – Jawbone Canyon Road, Butterbredt Springs, Joshua Tree National Park. Targets include Le Conte’s Thrasher and Chukar, as well as the canescens (interior) subspecies of Sage Sparrow. Predawn departure from our hotel in order to reach the northwestern Mojave Desert hillsides near Butterbredt Springs at sunrise. Precious morning hours in this area are likely to produce Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows singing on territory, Mountain Quail and Chukar calling from rugged hillsides and LeConte’s Thrasher singing, yet remarkably hidden, from sparsely vegetated terrain. We’ll hike along the streamed at Butterbredt Springs, well known as one of the single best locations to witness migration through the desert. If we’re lucky we may find Desert Tortoise, Desert Horned Lizard or other interesting herps of these high deserts.

Our early afternoon is spent driving to Twentynine Palms where we’ll be for two nights. If time allows, we’ll explore the northern portions of Joshua Tree National Park. Night 29 Palms.

Day 9, May 6 – Joshua Tree National Park. All day exploring Joshua Tree National Park. Night 29 Palms.

Day 10, May 7 – Clean-up day! Morongo Valley Preserve, San Bernadino Mountains, Salton Sea. Today is kept open and flexible to allow us to pursue those birds that remain unseen. We may revisit Joshua Tree National Park, perhaps slide westward to Morongo Valley and its wonderful riparian oases, or a bit further west into the San Bernadino or San Jacinto Mountains before dropping southward toward the Salton Sea. While this is not the best time of the year to visit the Salton Sea for rarities, it is a migration magnet beyond compare and offers many interesting birding options. Night Brawley.

Day 11, May 8 – Brawley, Ramer/Finney Lakes, Salton Sea NWR, to Los Angeles. Our birding day begins in Brawley at Cattle Call Park for Vermilion and Gray Flycatchers, Common Ground-Dove, Gila Woodpecker, Abert’s Towhee and roosting Barn Owls. Ramer/Finney Lakes are up next and we’ll search for any desert scrub birds we have yet to find and more water birds (herons, egrets, Common Moorhen, grebes and Western Marsh Wren) on our way to the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is truly one of the most unusual locations, historically as well as naturally, you can visit.

Here, in the northern Sonoran Desert of California’s Imperial Valley, human error has created a sprawling oasis for birds. Truly the world’s largest sewage pond—and all birders know how good sewage ponds are for birds! In 1905 engineers dug a series of irrigation canals from the Colorado River. A fatal miscalculation caused the canal system to collapse diverting the entire flow of the Colorado River into the Salton Basin FOR TWO YEARS! Increasing salinity, agricultural run-off pollution, algal blooms and fish kills have created an oases with a decidedly rank air. Scientists have described the smell as “noxious”, “objectionable”, “pervasive”, “rotten eggs”, “sulfurous” and ”unique”. One author’s favorite was, “puke on a hot sidewalk.”

Don’t let the smell put you off visiting the Salton Sea. Truly horrible days are more likely in the late summer, Spring season may be merely annoying. Besides, the birding really is fantastic. The numbers of water birds, despite the odor, can be overwhelming. We’ll look for Cinnamon Teal, Western and Clark’s Grebes, Snowy Plover and other shorebirds, Black Skimmers and other terns and gulls with a special effort to find a Yellow-footed Gull, the gull most closely associated with the Salton Sea. Large in size, dark mantled and wielding a massive bill, Yellow-footed Gull breeds on islands in the Gulf of California and comes north in large numbers toward the end of summer. The Salton Sea is the only location in the U.S. where it occurs regularly. We’re hoping to find one who is a bit early or very late.

Our stay in the Imperial Valley ends with lunch in the shade at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. After lunch we’ll depart for Los Angeles, our travels broken by a few birding breaks as time allows. Night Los Angeles.

Yellow-footed Gull.  Photo by Rick Bowers ©

Day 12, May 9 – Local birding, transfer to airport. A bit of last minute birding for Spotted Dove or other species still needed from this corner of Los Angeles. Our tour ends late this morning when we transfer those flying home to the airport. Everyone should make their return flights for any time after 1:00 PM. Folks joining us on our Pacific Pelagic Cruise will transfer to the cruise ship dock and board the Emerald Princess.

Leader: Kim Risen



Intro Itinerary Information & Pricing Gallery Birdlist Registration