Tours: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, Birding Ecotours (Worldwide)
2023 California – Northern California: Mountains, Ocean and Desert
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Vacation Style Holiday Type
Activity Level Challenging
Group Size Medium Group
The mention of California usually conjures up visions of scenic mountain vistas, the blue Pacific, and sunbaked deserts of the south. The birds are no less spectacular, with everything from Black-footed Albatross to Lawrence’s Goldfinch to California Condor possible. During this ten-day birdwatching tour, we will search for many of California’s resident species as well as several migrants. We will visit a vast array of habitats, including marshlands and tidal wetlands, the scenic Sierra Nevada range, rich with montane birds (including seven species of woodpeckers), and the sage-filled lands east of the Sierras that harbor (Greater) Sage Grouse and Mountain Bluebird. Not to mention fantastic birding sites like Pinnacles National Park, the Diablo Range, Mono Lake and the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. The list of scenic views and target bird species goes on and on and on.
Mixed-oak woodlands will be birded intensely, as they contain several species of owls and passerines that are not easily found in other habitats. A pelagic trip is included for a chance at seabirds such as Long-tailed Jaeger, South Polar Skua, Buller’s Shearwater, and Ashy Storm Petrel. Of course, there is an excellent chance to observe whales as well, including Humpback Whale and the magnificent Blue Whale!
If you wish to continue the adventure and enjoy a full comprehensive tour of California, please check out our set departure birding tour to southern California immediately following this one. This trip includes stops in various habitats for California Gnatcatcher, Island Scrub Jay, Allen’s Hummingbird and a trip to the Salton Sea. Please see the separate itinerary for more information.
We will take a maximum of seven participants. On rare occasion we may extend the maximum to ten participants.
See the separate itinerary for full details about the Salton Sea Extension.
Duration: 10 days
Group Size Limit: 4 – 7
Date: 04 September – 13 September 2023
Start: San Jose, CA
End: San Jose, CA
US$5965 per person sharing assuming 4 – 7 participants
Deposit: 25% of full tour price
Single supplement: US$975
We can run the same trip at a price similar to the larger group price for 2 tour participants, if they rent their own vehicle and pay for fuel – please e-mail [email protected] for details.
- Guiding fees
- Entrance fees
- All transport while on tour
- Domestic and International flights
- Items of a personal nature, e.g. gifts
- Alcoholic drinks
- Personal insurance
- Laundry Service
Arrival in San Jose
The tour begins with your arrival at San Jose International Airport, after which we will then gather in the hotel lobby around 6pm before heading out to our first dinner to discuss the exciting possibilities of the trip. Depending on arrival times, we may be able to get in some birding around the San Francisco Bay before dinner and get our first taste of Pacific Ocean species such as Pelagic Cormorant, Western Grebe, California Gull, Black Oystercatcher and more.
Overnight: San Jose
Central Valley birding through the Diablo Range
We will head out early this morning and begin our journey eastward towards the Sierra Nevada. First, however, we will travel through the Central Valley and Diablo Range with several key species and birding spots. The amazing endemic Yellow-billed Magpie is typically restricted to the Central Valley, a flat, hot, scrubby region. During our search for the magpie, we will also be on the lookout for other nice species including California Thrasher, Bell’s Sparrow, Swainson’s Hawk, Golden Eagle, and California Scrub Jay. A few more stops for the day will have us searching for Lawrence’s Goldfinch and Lewis’s Woodpecker among others. Eventually we will make it to Sonora and the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada for the night.
Sierra Nevada birding
Today we will explore the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the conifers that dominate here. Our first stop will be Calaveras Big Trees State Park with its stands of Giant Sequoias hosting hopefully many great species including White-headed Woodpecker, Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, and Red-breasted and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. In the afternoon we will climb to higher elevations to target Mountain Quail along with other species such as Mountain Chickadee, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Green-tailed Towhee before making our way back to Sonora for the night.
Eastern Sierras to Lee Vining
This morning we begin our journey across the Sierras, winding our way through this beautiful range. Our plan is to do mostly road-side birding and a stop at Pinecrest Lake where we hope to find great species such as Cassin’s Vireo, Hermit Warbler, plus additional chances at Mountain Quail, if needed. Eventually we will make it to the crest at Sonora Pass and continue our birding, targeting Clark’s Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, and Cassin’s Finch, among others. From here we will begin our downward path in the eastern Sierras towards the Mono Lake Basin. We will get our first taste of birding here in the evening and hope to spot Eared Grebe, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, and Wilson’s Phalarope, before turning in for the night in Lee Vining.
Evening birding will be at Mono County Park looking for Yellow-headed Blackbird, Sora, Virginia Rail, Eared Grebe, and Red-necked Phalarope.
Overnight: Lee Vining
Mono Lake Basin
Today will be spent birding the sage and woodlands east of the Sierras, Mono Lake, and the abandoned town of Bodie. An early morning visit to Mono Lake should hopefully produce Prairie Falcon, Sage Thrasher, American Grey Flycatcher, Sagebrush and Brewer’s Sparrows. Additionally, Pinyon Jay, Black-billed Magpie, and Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay can be found roaming these areas. Eventually we will make it to the deserted mining town of Bodie, one of the last remaining California strongholds of (Greater) Sage Grouse. The landscapes, habitats, and scenery of the day will take us back in time to the days of the wild west.
Overnight: Lee Vining
Travel day back towards the coast
Today will mostly be spent as a travel day getting us back through the mountains and closer to the coast. Of course, some birding will be done along the way, and we can use it as an opportunity to target any potential species we may be missing at this point such as Sooty Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker or Pinyon Jay. We will spend whatever time we have trying to track down these loose ends before eventually ending up in Hollister for the evening.
Condors to the coast
This morning we will head off towards Pinnacles National Park to scope out a few cliff sides for one of the world’s rarest birds, California Condor. With a wild population estimated at only 440 individuals (up from as few as 13), this breathtaking monster is the poster child for conservation success. After a hopefully successful morning with the condors, we will continue birding some canyons in the region hoping for Bell’s Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and Oak Titmouse. From here, we head to the coastal marshes with the IUCN endangered Tricolored Blackbird as the top target. Of course, these marshes host more than just blackbirds and should be teeming with waterbirds such as Cinnamon Teal, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Elegant Tern, and Brown Pelican. We will continue our journey up the coast until we reach our final destination, Half Moon Bay.
Overnight: Half Moon Bay
Pelagic boat trip from Half Moon Bay
Today will be the first of our two potential pelagic trips from Half Moon Bay. Huge upwellings produced by a massive submarine canyon twice the size of the Grand Canyon, allow for rich and diverse wildlife viewing within a short distance of land. Potential species include Buller’s, Pink-footed, Sooty, and Black-vented Shearwaters, Ashy and Black Storm Petrels, Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaegers, South Polar Skua, Arctic Tern, and Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets. We will hope for a rarity such as a stray Fork-tailed Storm Petrel or a roaming Laysan Albatross. We have a good chance of finding Blue and Humpback Whales along with four additional cetacean species. Days out on the water are long and draining typically so we will have dinner and return to the hotel after getting back to land.
Overnight: Half Moon Bay
San Francisco Bay or pelagic backup
Today will serve as a backup day for our pelagic trip in case the trip was cancelled due to weather on the previous day. In this case, we will swap the plan of day 8 with day 9. If all goes well with the pelagic, we will spend today exploring San Francisco Bay and down the coast getting into various habitats. Species today could include Wrentit, Surfbird, Ridgway’s Rail, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. We will also let our remaining target species help us decide on the plans for the day. At the end of the day we will return to Half Moon Bay for our final dinner together.
Overnight: Half Moon Bay
Tour Conclusion and Departure
This morning the tour concludes with your transfer back to the San Jose Airport (approx. 50 min. drive) after what was surely an amazing expedition of northern California. For some of you, the California adventure may continue with our southern California set itinerary immediately following this one. These two trips are easily combinable and offer the most comprehensive experience possible of this avian-rich state!
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.
COMPLETE CALIFORNIA TOUR
7-20 September 2012
Top 10 lists are voted upon by the participants at the completion of each tour.
1 – Northern Pygmy-Owl – this bird was seen well at Mount Pinos, for a nice long period of time. Good looks at owls are hard to beat.
2 – Laysan Albatross – a single bird was observed numerous times during the second pelagic trip into Monterey Bay, along with several Black-footed Albatrosses.
3 – Island Scrub-Jay – a California endemic, found only on Santa Cruz Island. Several were seen.
4 – Spotted Owl – an after dinner owling trip produced a pair in Los Padres National Forest. One of the owls was seen exceedingly well.
5 – Yellow-billed Magpie – another California endemic. “We watched two Yellow-billed Magpies harass an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk and chase it off. After a couple of minutes the hawk returned and made several attempts to kill one of the magpies.” What a show!
6 – Mountain Quail – this elusive species was seen and heard several times on the tour. They were seen very well at Los Padres National Forest, picking grit from the roadside.
7 – California Condor – Big Sur yielded SEVEN Condors, soaring along scenic cliffs that overlook the Pacific.
8 – LeConte’s Thrasher – great looks at a species that is often difficult to find, especially outside of its breeding season.
9 – Ridgeway’s Rail – an adult with two young was observed at the Palo Alto Wetlands.
10 – Great Gray Owl – one was found in Yosemite National Park after searching several locations. This is always an exciting bird to see.
Will we do any birding the first day?
Yes! We have birding planned if time allows and everything is on schedule.
How should I dress for the tour?
Check the weather for the destination as close to your departure date as possible, and dress accordingly for your comfort level. You can also review our What to Bring page for more information.
Besides clothes, what do I need to bring?
There are many items the will be useful to you while on a Bird Treks tour. We have put together our list of recommendations on the What to Bring page.
What language are tours conducted in?
Our tours are all conducted in English, but we do have some experience working with client that don’t speak English well – Some English would be needed for safety reasons. In locations where another language is predominately spoken, a native guide may accompany the tour.
Can you help me book flights?
Yes, we will always try our best to help with anything at all! We’re here to serve you. However, it is usually easier if you book your flight through your own travel agent as we can’t always get the best deals from your particular country. But we will help whenever needed!
Can you book accommodation for us the night before the tour starts or the night the tour ends?
While Day 1 is usually a travel (arrival) day, and the last day of the tour is usually also a travel day (departure), many people do like to arrive early and/or leave late. We can indeed book extra nights before and after the trip, and we in fact recommend you let us book them, as it avoids confusion and allows us to book the accommodation that is most convenient for the tour.
NOTE: Most often it is the same hotel or lodge that you use on the first night of the tour, but in some instances, it could be an airport hotel or an accommodation establishment where the guide is staying.
Do you provide trip insurance?
No, we do not. We find that it is better for trip participants to purchase their own medical, trip cancellation, and baggage insurance through their own insurance provider in the country they reside in. We expect all tour participants to have comprehensive insurance, and we encourage everyone to send us a copy of their insurance documents.
Are meals included?
For most tours, meals are included in the tour price. This may include a hotel-provided breakfast, or guide-provided box lunches. For dinners, we strive to find interesting and delicious local restaurants – this allows us to give back to the local economy, and find exciting new place to eat.
Will I get seasick on the boat?
Most people will not get sick, although you should take precautions if you are prone to motion sickness, as the weather can dictate how rough the ride will be. There are various remedies sold at local pharmacies which can help relieve motion sickness and will make your trip more enjoyable.
Can I take the Extension Tour without doing the main tour?
You may participate in the 5-day extension with the regular 15-day tour or take either tour separately. Simply tell us your preference: 5 days, 15 days, or the full 19 days.