California, with a little bit of Nevada and Arizona

12–27 August 2002

James J. Packer


This trip was our honeymoon! Getting married on 10 August 2002 was an extra special day. Thanks to everyone who came to our wedding - those birders who were present had to sit through the day with the knowledge that a Pallid Harrier had just been found on the Isle of Sheppey, only a few miles away!

A honeymoon has a slightly different agenda from a birding trip, especially if your wife is not a birder, therefore the birds on this trip weren’t planned at all. This was my first visit to North America, so I was content simply to identify any birds I happened to bump into. Most of the birds were observed on route or whilst being true tourists, but I thought a trip report was still worthwhile as many people might be interested in what can be seen with virtually no effort.

Accommodation and Travel Arrangements

We booked the whole trip, including flights and rental car, with Virgin Holidays selecting hotels from their brochure choices. The flights on Virgin Atlantic were fantastic and I’d certainly travel with them again. The accommodation varied in its quality. If I was going on a birding trip, I’d not bother to pre-book except in the National Parks where pre-booking a long way in advance is probably essential.

We flew from London Heathrow to San Francisco, picked up a hire (oops, sorry, rental car) which we dropped at Los Angeles and flew back from here. The hotels we stayed at were:

The Queen Anne, San Fransisco

Bizarre, English style hotel with over ornate antiques. It seemed to be popular with people on business. Excellent help yourself American style breakfasts included in the price, but no other food available.

Cedar Lodge, South Lake Tahoe

With the huge choice of similar style accommodation in South Lake Tahoe it seemed strange that little effort was made here to do anything different. We had a large, basic room, which was fine. No more, no less.

Cedar Lodge, just outside Yosemite National Park

No relation to the above. Probably one of the most convenient places to stay near the park, and about 45 minutes drive to Yosemite Village (45 minutes drive is really not very far in Yosemite where distances by road are easily underestimated). Good room and facilities were excellent with two swimming pools, sauna, a shop, restaurant and Mexican (I’d avoid this – too much re-fried green mush they called beans). If you can stay within the park itself you will experience a much better feeling of being part of the wilderness and will certainly see more wildlife. Camp, or try to get in a NP Lodge.

Circus Circus, Las Vegas

Why on earth would birders want to stay here? They wouldn’t. Worth seeing for the spectacle, but prepared to get totally piss*d off with the MASSIVE check-in queue. Don’t stay for more than a day or two, unless you want to loose your mind.

Yavapai Lodge, Grand Canyon NP

Some said these lodges were basic, but I really enjoyed being in a semi remote area within a woodland with scenery and wildlife all around. The rooms certainly weren’t basic and were very clean. Nearby was a cafeteria and general store selling everything you need and more.

Ramada Inn, Lake Havasu

It’s difficult to believe that some people (quite a lot actually!) choose to live in this place. The London Bridge and British theme is quite ridiculous, though may be appreciated slightly more by non British tourists! The accommodation was quite comfortable and thankfully the air conditioning was working well. It was so hot here that even the cacti were dying. I had to ask myself why we came here, and couldn’t come up with an answer, except that it was too far to drive from the Grand Canyon to LA in one day.

Sheraton, Anaheim Los Angeles

Why does everything need to be themed? The hotel is obviously not a medieval castle, so why pretend? Build a nice hotel, not a crap looking pretend castle. After sounding so grumpy, I should also add that despite receiving derisory comments about Los Angeles before we arrived, we really enjoyed it. Traffic seemed no worst than most UK cities (and countryside come to that), there were many really attractive areas, and the city streets seemed much cleaner than most in the UK.

The Birds

12 August 2002

Arrived at San Francisco Airport tired but excited, and picked up our rental car and upgraded to a Chrysler Sebring Convertible because we thought it would be cool! Our first birds between the airport and hotel were Mourning Dove, Feral Pigeon and House Sparrow.

13 August 2002

The object of the day was to head South towards the Ana Nuevo Nature Reserve. We stopped briefly at Point Lobos, the first sight of sea for Brown Pelican, Double-crested, Brandts and Pelagic Cormorant, Western Gull, House Finch, Red-winged Blackbird, Heermans Gull and Mallard. Further south along the coast we pulled into a few sandy bays where we also saw Californian Gull, Caspian Tern and Marbled Godwit, Brewers Blackbird and a Long-tailed Weasel peering out of a small hole next to a trash bin. The two blackbirds were very common and seen almost everywhere, sometimes in large flocks.

At Ana Nuevo, we paid our small permit fee and walked to the Elephant Seal viewing area. Along the footpath were lots of White-crowned Sparrows with Coopers Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Common Yellowthroat, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, American Swallow, Western Scrub Jay, Bewick’s Wren, Californian Quail, American Kestrel and Bushtit. At the viewing area we were greeted with the sight, sound and smell of many Elephant Seals, with two males performing particularly nicely. Other mammals here included Californian Fur Seal, Stellars Fur Seal, Harbour Seal and Sea Otter. Birds were also excellent from here with Black Oystercatcher, Western and Least Sandpiper, Killdeer, Snowy Egret, Osprey, Rhinocerus Auklet, Common Murre, and Black Turnstone. On the walk back we passed a small pond that had American Coot, Ruddy Duck, and Pied-billed Grebe. A Whimbrel on the beach near the information centre was an additional shorebird for our list!

Ana Nuevo Reserve was excellent, and would deserve more time than our brief visit. The two rangers we met were friendly, but really didn’t know anything about the birds of the reserve. It was my first full day in the continent and I found myself pointing out the birds I could ID – admittedly, there were a few I couldn’t.

On the way back to San Fransisco we passed at least one Red-shouldered Hawk amongst the many Red-tailed Hawks. We stopped briefly in the Golden Gate Park where a Great Egret posed photogenically on one of the ponds

 14 August 2002

It was tourist time and a trip to Alcatraz Island. On the island itself were lots of breeding Western Gulls and a few White-crowned Sparrows, but the far end of the island was out of bounds due to the colony of nesting seabirds. A large colony of Brandts Cormorants was the most spectacular sight, but a couple of Pigeon Guillemots flying in and out of a nest hole was a nice surprise. Seen initially from the boat just before it docked, was a colony of breeding Black-crowned Night Herons, which could also be viewed from the eastern side of the island.

After a rather long walk across SF, we were concerned how time was rapidly disappearing and drove to Fort Point for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Here a lone, but close in Western Grebe was swimming about in the bay.

15 August 2002

The drive from San Fransisco to Lake Tahoe takes you via Sacramento, which you skirt on a fast road. Inland the temperature gets much hotter and a Yellow-billed Magpie that flew over the car got a barrage of appreciative curses. American Kestrel and Great Blue Heron were the only other birds identified from the car.

Arrival at Lake Tahoe was greeted with Stellars Jay, Common Merganser, Canada Goose, and Californian Gull.

16 August 2002

Near South Lake Tahoe is an excellent Forest Information Centre and Nature Trail along which we saw Mountain Chickadee, Clarkes Nutcracker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Wood Pee-wee, Wilsons Warbler and Dark-eyed Junco. On the edge of the lake were several Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer. A large, mainly dark raptor that flew overhead briefly was probably a juvenile Bald Eagle.

17 August 2002

The road from Tahoe to Yosemite passes some memorable scenery, and we stopped several times on route. Lake Topaz looked interesting whilst bombing past in the car, and a view from a roadside layby revealed Northern Mockingbird, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, Northern Shoveler, Black-billed Magpie and a number of distant shorebirds which were frustratingly too far off to identify, but included many phalaropes. An equally distant, long legged duck stood on the edge of the lake was written down in my notes as Whistling Duck spp. I’m sure it was, but none of the two species seem to occur here – any thoughts?

Lake Mono could easily be driven past, especially with no prior knowledge of birding sites. A brief stop at the boardwalk on the north-western corner was all we had time for, but what a fantastic sight! Tens of thousands of Wilsons Phalaropes were swimming around in the lake and were encrusting the edge of what seemed like the whole lake – and it’s a bloomin’ big lake! Many Red-necked Phalarope were mixed in, bit in much smaller numbers. Other species included lots of Californian Gulls and Eared Grebes, Raven, Sage Thrasher (sat on top of a Tufa Mound), Song and Sage Sparrow, Killdeer, American Avocet, Western Sandpiper, Yellow-headed Blackbird, House Wren, American Robin and Virginia Rail.

18 August 2002

Yosemite is awesome. Particularly impressive for me was how the National Parks have managed, successfully in my humble opinion, to attract a lot of visitors but retain a feeling of remoteness and specialness throughout the whole park. Yosemite village was always busy with people on day trips as well as serious Half Dome climbers, but it still always felt special and I can think of nowhere in the UK that even comes close.

Birding in Yosemite would certainly have been more productive had we got up at dawn, but being a honeymoon we didn’t need any more excuse to lie in! We did manage a few birds, and on this, the first day we walked to the top of Vernal Falls and drove to Glacier Point, then to the Sequoia Grove at Mariposa. We got back to the lodge totally knackered!

Birds encountered whilst walking included White-throated Swift, Bullocks Oriole, Mountain Quail, White-headed Woodpecker, American Robin, Rufous Hummingbird, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Bar-tailed Pigeon.

19 August 2002

The agenda for Yosemite was to visit some slightly more remote areas, including Mono Meadow. Whilst walking around the edge of Mono Meadow we heard a distinctive owl calling which I have transcribed as ‘peeeooooh’. We saw the bird flying through the trees, and basically, it was big and grey. The nearest I could get was to a juvenile Great Grey Owl. I have this species on CD, but unfortunately it only has calls of an adult male – any comments? Was I stringing? Other birds seen on this day included Cliff Swallow, Northern Flicker, Western Wood Pee-wee, Green-tailed Towhee, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper, White-headed Woodpecker, Hermit Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Bushtit.

20 August 2002

The day was spent driving to Las Vegas via Death Valley. Not many birds were seen, except some rather hot looking Brown-headed Cowbirds and Great-tailed Grackles at Stovepipe Wells.

21 August 2002

Las Vegas. Wild, weird, fun, bizarre but birdless!

22 August 2002

The road to the Grand Canyon via Route 66 passed some grassland where Western Kingbird, Western Meadowlarks and American Kestrel were identified.

23 August 2002

The Grand Canyon is possibly too spectacular for me to do justice to in my writing skills, so I won’t attempt it. The woodlands around the lodge seemed to have lots of birds and I’m sure would have repaid early morning walks!

Mountain Bluebird, Western Tanager, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Violet-green Swallow, White-throated Swift and Turkey Vulture were all seen easily. Ravens were amazingly tame at some of the viewpoints, but the highlight was definitely the three Californian Condors which were seen very well from the Bright Angel trailhead.

24 August 2002

An attempt at an earlier start provided Pygmy Nuthatch and red-backed Dark-eyed Junco around the lodge before heading towards Lake Havasu. Black Phoebe were in several rest areas along with the usual Great-tailed Grackle and Brown-headed Cowbird.

Lake Havasu does surely have an abundant birdlife, and we managed a few birds around the lake at dusk such as Tree Swallow, Gambels Quail, Ring-billed Gull and a spectacular display by at least 30 or 40 Lesser Nighthawk.

25-27 August 2002

Birding in Los Angeles was prevented partly by a severe cold and our location in the middle of urban Anaheim. Only a Calliope Hummingbird was noted which was so tiny I thought it was an insect!