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California Dreaming

Arriving at Los Angeles airport at 8pm after a long flight from Heathrow we were met with American red tape, bureaucracy and traffic jams before we finally made it to our hotel for the night.  A huge breakfast the next morning set us up for the drive north on a five-lane highway to Pacific Grove Monterey.  Our suburban apartment had magnificent views over the Pacific and Monterey Bay and my first bird was a Western Scrub-Jay shortly followed by Anna's Hummingbird right from the bedroom balcony.


A walk along the foreshore next morning I found Black Turnstones, Surfbird and Black Oystercatchers amongst the rocks with Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorant flying just offshore.  In the coastal scrub I was serenaded by song and White-Crowned Sparrows along with the ever present Black Phoebe.  

Black-footed Albatross in California, USA

I departed for the first of my three pelagics with Debi Shearwater from Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf.  Black Turnstones, Surfbirds and a female Sea Otter escorted us out of the harbour along with a flock of Western and California Gulls.  Brown Pelicans followed and our first Pink-footed Shearwater flew into view as well as the occasional Sooty Shearwater.  The sea was peppered with Red-necked Phalaropes and Rhinoceros Auklets when we got our first cetacean of the day, way off in the distance a Humpback Whale.  Pink-footed Shearwater numbers increased and several Pom Skuas flew around the boat.   In the distance a large dark shape revealed itself as a Black-footed Albatross eventually circling the boat and landing on the water.  It's white cap was similar to a Kaka making this an adult bird.  I grabbed a few photos before my attention was diverted to a small pod of Orca cruising by.  Out in the deeper water a Buller's Shearwater joined the day list and a distant Sabine's Gull.  Ever present were Pink-footeds criss-crossing the wake at the back of the boat.  


Keeping it local the next day I visited Moonglow Dairy, Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing.  Just half an hour north this working dairy farm is one of the best places in the world to see the Californian endemic Tricolored Blackbird.  I parked the car next to one of the biggest piles of cowshit I have ever seen and in the fields opposite were flocks of Tricoloreds, or as the American birders call them, "Trics".  Keeping company with their more common cousin the Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbirds and a couple of Killdeer running around.  I discovered a small flock of turkeys in a plantation of Eucalyptus trees and a quick movement at the base of a tree put Bewick's Wren - a smart looking bird with striking white supercilium - onto my list, along with Pacific Slope Flycatcher. 


Down at the lagoon Turkey Vultures soared overhead as I scoped Crimson Teal, Pec Sands, and a huge flock of Red-necked Phalaropes whizzed around the surface of the water like clockwork toys.  Next to the scrape I found Song Sparrows and a beautiful Clark's Grebe.  Waders and ducks panicked as a juvenile Peregrine flew over.  It took one of the Red-necked Phalaropes and headed off to a nearby tree to devour its prey, but an American Kestrel took exception to the larger raptor being in the neighbourhood.  


I moved onto Elkhorn Slough only 15 mins drive away from Moonglow Dairy.  In 1982 this site held the record for the most bird species seen (116) in a single day in all of North America.  Eating my lunch I had great views of California Towhee, Western Bluebird and Acorn Woodpecker in the trees around the picnic area.  Walking around the very large cool reserve I found a skulking Spotted Towhee and another Californian elusive bird, the California Thrasher and a pair of Oak Titmouse were among a flock of Chestnut-backed Chickadee.


Back towards the coast at Moss Landing completed this full day of birding.  Known for Sea Otters in the harbour, a huge raft of males dozed in the afternoon sun.  Sealions and Pacific Harbor Seals made up the mammals, waders were represented by flocks of Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Willets, Least Sandpipers, Long- and Short-billed Dowitchers along with Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons not forgetting hundreds of Elegant Turns, Brown Pelicans and the odd Northern Harrier.  Moss Landing is certainly a wildlife magnet and provides easy views from the roadside.  It reminded me of Oare Marshes back in Kent.


Early starts are an accepted part of bird watching and my trip inland the next day towards the east of Holister was no exception.  6am and the fog still hadn't lifted.  At the gas station I filled up the car and got a caffeine kick for me before driving up into the hills.  First bird of the day a Loggerhead Shrike.  Near a small plantation of oak trees the fog began to lift and I caught a quick movement at the very top of the tree - a White-breasted Nuthatch foraging for breakfast.  I spotted a pair of Black-tailed Deer watching me but the slight movement of raising my camera made them bolt for cover.  Further up the road was a Yellow Warbler feeding in a roadside bush and a pair of noisy Acorn Woodpeckers above.  A family of twenty-plus turkeys crossed the road, in turn flushing a pair of Californian Quail.  


By now the sun was up, the fog well and truly gone and a beautiful blue sky revealed.  A Northern Flicker drank from a water trough, a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree, and in the roadside verge was a flock of beautiful Lark Sparrows plus a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos.  In the distance a Golden Eagle appeared in my bins - no shortage of food here with the vast number of Ground Squirrels running about.  As I walked back to the car the bird I most wanted to see today joined my life list - a Yellow-billed Magpie.  This very striking corvid, with its long tail and yellow facial bare skin, has a tiny range within California so I was thrilled to see it, along with another lifer, Say's Phoebe.


This arid landscape up in the hills has a popular watering hole for local birds.  The area is also a popular place for cannibis growers and I had been warned to stay by my car and not wander too far from the road.  Heeding this warning I found the pond and set up my scope.  First to arrive was the beautiful Townsend's Warbler and a small party of Sage Sparrows flicked through the bushes towards the waters edge.  They looked nervously around as I watched them.  As a jeep drove slowly past it was my turn to look nervous as the driver studied me.  I kept my eyes on the striking black face mask of a Lawrence's Goldfinch that had suddenly appeared, and thankfully the jeep drove on.  It was a bit of a looney tunes day in more ways than one.  Great roadside birding and I saw a Greater Roadrunner and a Coyote.

Orca at Monterey, California - USA

Back at Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf for pelagic number two and the bird of the day was the tiny Cassin's Auklet.  For the American birdwatchers it was the rare Flesh-footed and Buller's Shearwater, birds that I see regularly back in New Zealand.  Cetaceans stole the show though with large numbers of Humpback Whale, a pod of Orca, Pacific White-sided Dolphins frolicked in the wake of the boat, Northern Right Whale Dolphins and Dall's Porpoise, bow riding for a while.  A small pod of Risso's Dolphin made a brief appearance as we cruised back into the harbour.


From our apartment in Pacific Grove we drove further north to Half Moon Bay which is about 30 miles south of San Francisco.  As we live in Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island where else were we going to spend our last few nights?  

Heermann's Gull at California, USA

We had a smart but tiny room overlooking the harbour and the next morning I was at the Pillar Point wharf at 7am for my third and final pelagic.  The harbour wall plays host to huge flocks of Brown Pelicans, Whimbrel and Sanderlings and a lone Glaucous-winged Gull was spotted along with its smaller cousin, the Heermann's Gull (surely one of the best looking gulls in the world!).


Once out in deeper water Sooty Shearwaters gathered in large numbers but our attention was seized by three female Orca and a calf.  The calf was very playful and breached often.    As we watched the calf displayed quite extraordinary behaviour as he hunted Common Murre (Guillemot), coming up beneath them.  Not much of a meal but good practice all the same.  Moving on we saw four Black-footed Albatross, three Buller's Shearwater, two South Polar Skua and a single Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger) which followed the boat for a while.  A few Ashy Storm-Petrels skipped around the boat but unfortunately always at some distance.  


My final day birding in California was at a reserve close to Half Moon Bay which was good for woodland birds.  Pygmy Nuthatch and Wilson's Warbler showed well along with Swainson's Thrush, Western Wood-Pewee, Stellar's Jay and Downy Woodpecker joined the trip list.


Nine days bird watching had produced 128 species and some great birding.  


As we left San Francisco airport at 10pm for the long journey home the planes got smaller as we travelled to Auckland, Christchurch, Invercargill, and finally Stewart Island.  We sifted through snail mail, turned the washing machine on for the next three days and watched the sun tan fall off!

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