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Northern California

Monday, Sept. 21: I arrived at San Jose a little ahead of schedule. After getting the rental car, I headed for Dixon, where I was supposed to call Jeri Langham so we could go birding. I made a stop for supplies on the way. It was hot, about 100 degrees. I called Jeri when I got to Dixon. In view of the heat, he suggested skipping our planned birding along the causeway, and gave me directions to his house. The directions were excellent, although I had a Garmin nüvi pointed to his house as backup.

Soon after I got to Jeri's we went in search of the magpie. No luck at the first two stops. We had dinner and then went to a friend's house where Red-breasted Sapsucker has been seen. I had expected to see it in Washington two years ago, but it became something of a nemesis bird. But first, the three of us had some other places to check for magpies. The first couple of spots did not have the magpies, so we crossed the American River to try a “guaranteed” spot on the other side. We immediately saw one as we drove up, and eventually ended up with over 40 of them. Thus Yellow-billed Magpie became my first lifer of the trip.

We then tried for the sapsucker, but without success. A flyover Swainson's Hawk added to my California list.

Jeri's house, Sacremento, CA

Tuesday, Sept. 22: We started the day with a Western Screech-Owl that was calling in Jeri's front yard. I had actually heard it during the night, but it was giving an unfamiliar call note (not on the tapes) and I wrote it off as a mockingbird. Wrong! Numerous other species were added from his back yard, which looks toward the American River and is pretty birdy.

After another check for the sapsucker (no), we went to breakfast. After that, we headed to the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area. It had large numbers of ducks and shorebirds.

After returning to Sacramento, I packed up and headed toward Stockton. I'll next see Jeri in Sydney in a few weeks.

I got to Susan Schneider's house shortly after noon, letting the nüvi do the navigation. You can just set it when you start, and follow the directions when it speaks. We had lunch and considered plans for the afternoon, taking into account that it's really hot again today. We delayed leaving for a while, eventually heading to Oak Grove Park. The sapsucker had recently been seen there, but not today. We saw a couple of possible warblers, but couldn't get good enough looks to be sure what they were.

From there we went to Woodbridge Road for Sandhill Crane and others, followed by Consumnes River Preserve. Killdeer and Black-necked Stilts were almost the only shorebirds there. The exception was an interesting shorebird sitting partially hidden on the bank. My best guess is Pectoral Sandpiper, based largely on bill shape and apparent size. We only saw the back of the bird, which was rather smooth-looking for a Pectoral Sandpiper, and I have some uncertainty about its ID. However, after looking through the book, the only other shorebirds that seemed plausible fits were wildly improbable, and it seemed possible that Pectoral might wear into such a plumage, so I'm going with Pectoral.

We waited a bridge for bats to come out. They didn't show, but we were rewarded for our efforts by 2-3 Common Barn-Owls. By then it was dark, and we returned to Stockton.

Susan's house, Stockton, CA

Wednesday, Sept. 23: Susan and I drove separately to Del Puerto Road, which we then birded up Del Puerto Canyon into the Diablo Range. We made numerous stops. Highlights included Greater Roadrunner, Golden Eagle, Yellow-billed Magpie, and Lawrence's Goldfinch.

After lunch at a small cafe by the junction with Mines Road/San Antonio Valley Road, we did a little more birding near the junction. After that, Susan headed for home while I continued toward the coast on San Antonio Valley Road. It was hot (100° F), and I didn't do any more birding. However, the road goes right by Lick Observatory on the top of Mt. Hamilton before heading down into San Jose. I stopped there and visited the old 36-inch refractor, once the largest telescope in the world.

I didn't stay for the whole presentation, but apparently Lick wanted to create a memorial for himself, and the head of the California Academy of Sciences convinced him that an observatory would be a suitable monument. Lick is buried by the base of the telescope's pier. Considering that his name is still known over 130 years after his death, and that Lick Observatory continues to be mentioned in print and on the web, I'd say he got his money's worth.

I fired the nüvi up on Mt. Hamilton and pointed it at the hotel. I was a bit amazed it not only knew how to get there, but took me a more efficient way than I had planned. It did get a little confused by one of the switchbacks on Mt. Hamilton, but that did not detract from its performance.

I ate dinner at the well-known Sardine Factory in Monterey. I had one of their speciality meals. Although it was good, and in line with the price, it was not up to expectations.

Best Western Victorian Inn, Monterey, CA

Thursday, Sept. 24: Today was the first of two Debi Shearwater pelagic trips I'm doing out of Monterey. The marine forecast described conditions as 2 ft waves on top of 4-6 ft swells, and the front of the boat was sometimes a roller-coaster ride. It was also foggy, sometimes more, sometimes less, but we never got a clear view of the horizon.

It turned out to be an excellent day! One big difference between Monterey and east coast areas such as Florida or North Carolina is the shear abundance of birds. We had very few periods where there was nothing at all, and sometimes there was quite a lot. At one point, a Humpback Whale was bellowing in front of us, dolphins were swimming in the bow wave, and a Black-backed Albatross picked that time to fly right over the bow.

We found some balls of krill. The whales had found them too and were actively feeding off the krill. Some of the seabirds were active here too. A bucket was thrown over the side to collect some krill so we could have a good look at it.

When the day was done, I had three lifers: Black-vented Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, and Ashy Storm-Petrel. While on the ocean, we also saw Black-footed Albatrosses, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Rhinoceros and Cassin's Auklets, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Sabine's, Western, and California Gulls, Elegant Terns, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Western Grebes, and Red-necked Phalaropes. Black Turnstones were out on the jetty.

Dinner tonight was at Domenico's. Had planked salmon I thought the food was better than at the Sardine Factory. The waiter told me that this dish was his favorite, and even described how he made a version of it at home.

Best Western Victorian Inn, Monterey, CA

Friday, Sept. 25: Pelagic #2 was today. A Merlin flew by a couple of times while we were still at the dock. It was calmer but foggier. I'm glad to say I didn't get seasick either day (some did on each day). I took Dramamine beforehand, and made sure to continue to snack during the day. It seemed to work. In any event, I didn't have even a hint of seasickness.

There weren't as many birds today, but still more than I've seen at east coast sites. We saw many of the same birds as yesterday. There were fewer albatrosses, but we found substantial flocks of storm-petrels (hundreds, almost all Ashy, and I couldn't pick out the single Wilson's or Black that were spotted). Birds not seen yesterday included Northern Fulmar, Arctic Tern, and Tufted Puffin. The latter caused some excitement as they are fairly rare here.

Although there was time to bird after returning, I did not as I was just plain tired (as was true yesterday).

Dinner was at Isabella's, on Fisherman's Wharf.

Best Western Victorian Inn, Monterey, CA

Saturday, Sept. 26: After leaving the hotel, I drove along the shore toward Pt. Pinos. A couple of checks for shorebirds added Black Oystercatcher to the trip list.

The road to Pt. Pinos was closed. I detoured around to Asilomar Beach. There were more shorebirds here. There were a couple of Marbled Godwits that were soon joined by a bird I took to be a Black Turnstone (many were present elsewhere on the beach). However, a look though binoculars revealed a bicolored bill, a Surfbird! This was only the second Surfbird I had ever seen. My life Surfbird was on Sanibel Island in October 2001.

I continued down the beach for a bit, then took a trail back to the road. I was surprised how far away the road was, but there were some more birds in the vegetation, so that was fine.

I left Asilomar Beach and drove toward the road out of Monterey. On the way, I spotted a Steller's Jay, my first for the trip. Doubtless there will be more in the mountains. I cut across the Central Valley and then took Sonora Pass Road across the Sierra Nevada. Although a little longer than traveling through Yosemite on Tioga Pass Road, I have no doubt it is much quicker. Besides, I will be on Tioga Pass Road in a couple of days and wanted to see different scenery.

I stopped at Donnell Vista in Stanislaus National Forest. It overlooks Donnell Reservoir on the middle fork of the Stanislaus River. Further up the road, I came to Sonora Pass itself, where I also stopped. Although there weren't many birds at Donnell Vista, Sonora Pass had a flock. The only trip birds here were Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco and Cassin's Finch.

I soon arrived at US-395 and turned south. After a while, I got to an overlook that provided good views of Mono Lake and the surrounding area. I drove to the South Tufa Area to see and photograph the famous travertine formations. Sage Thrashers and White-crowned Sparrows were present in the vegetation, while California Gulls and Eared Grebes were on the lake. I also found some Savannah Sparrows near shore.

By then it was late in the day and I headed for the hotel. I also had dinner there at their Indian buffet.

Best Western High Sierra, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Sunday, Sept. 27: I looked for grouse at Bodie this morning, no luck. I got there when the park opened and spent almost three hours scanning from the hill, walking through the ghost town, scanning from the other side, etc. No grouse!

There were only a few birds around—White-crowned Sparrows, a Flicker, a couple of Mountain Bluebirds, a surprising Audubon's Warbler, and of course Brewer's Blackbirds. There were also plenty of Least Chipmunks. On the road in, I found some Black-billed Magpies at a carcass, and Sage Thrashers along the road, while on the way out I noticed a Golden Eagle overhead.

I next looked for passerines in Lee Vining Canyon (there's a side road that goes below the main road into Yosemite from the east, has campgrounds, fishing access, and a power plant). Didn't have much luck there either, except for a singing Townsend's Solitaire. By the time I was done, it was 1pm. I figured further birding wouldn't be productive (not that it had been very productive anyway), and decided to do something else.

An alpine acclimatization hike seemed ideal. So I drove to Saddlebag Lake (elevation 10,070 feet) and headed out the trail into the Twenty Lakes region. The hiking guide listed a 7.6 mile loop hike, but I figured I would do something more modest. After all, it's been over two years since I've done a serious hike, and the listed loop (actually a lollipop, since the loop has a stem) involved finding dubious trails. The out-and-back I was thinking of was much simpler. I'd just walk along Saddlebag Lake, then over to Greenstone Lake, and return…under 4 miles. Enough to get me warmed up hikingwise. However, when I got to Greenstone, I felt pretty good and started to get more ambitious. So I continued to the next lake, and then the next. Rather than trying a loop I went up an old jeep road for a better view (although if I'd looked around, or read the book more carefully, I would have found my way to an even higher vantage point). By the time I'd done this, and part of another side trail, I ended up with a 7.7 mile hike!

Considering that I hadn't done any serious hiking lately, much less at 10,000 feet, it went pretty well. I had just enough energy to finish the hike. I managed to drag myself up from the dam to the parking lot, put my gear away in good order, grab a cold Diet Coke, and plop into the car.

Best Western High Sierra, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Monday, Sept. 28: This morning I stopped at a couple of Mono Lake viewpoints before heading out the Tioga Road. After a few miles I turned down the power plant road down into Lee Vining Canyon that I tried yesterday. Although birding there was slow previously, I had hopes for it this morning. Unfortunately, those hopes turned out to be unjustified. It was no birdier than yesterday. The highlight was the Townsend's Solitaire in the same place as before.

Returning to the Tioga Road, I headed up Lee Vining Canyon to Tioga Pass. The road passes though portions of the Inyo National Forest. I pulled off to stop at a nature trail they've set up, the Nunatak Nature Trail. A few birds were present, but nothing exciting. However, the reflection of Mt. Dana in some ponds provided some photographs. I later noticed this spot listed in one of the photographer's guidebooks for Yosemite.

Once in Yosemite National Park, I stopped at the Lembert Dome parking lot near Tuolumne Meadows. The trail to Lembert Dome had a good number of hikers on it. I ended up climbing adjacent Dog Dome instead of Lembert in order to guarantee a little solitude. The hike to the top crosses an expanse of open rock. At that point, you take whatever path strikes your fancy. I zig-zagged up the rock to the top. Dog Dome is about 50 feet shorter than adjacent Lembert Dome, but has many of the same views. I could see hikers out on Lembert Dome. After taking some photos, I continued circling Lembert Dome and back to the parking lot for a hike of about 4 miles and 750 feet.

I continued down the Tioga Road toward Crane Flat. The latter part was slow, as was the rest of the approach to Yosemite Valley due to roadwork. The Big Meadow area had been burned, with some areas still smoldering, and others showing small patches of resurgent ground cover. I later found out that this was the effect of a “controlled” burn that got out of control about a month ago. Florida birders will recall the close call David Simpson had with an out-of-control controlled burn.

Once in Yosemite Valley, I had a late lunch and spent some time getting oriented: what's where, how does the shuttle work, etc. I visited Yosemite Falls, which was completely dry. Once thing I did not get answered was “where are the birds”. Today was very discouraging from a birding perspective. Photography was a different matter, and after checking in to the motel, I decided to head up to Glacier Point for sunset.

I should have moved faster! The road construction delays made it a very near thing, with pink colors starting to fade as I arrived at Glacier Point. Fortunately, there was still time for some photos. The trip back to the valley was even more delayed. They were making a major re-paving effort this evening and a long line of cars waited about half an hour before we could head down.

Yosemite View Lodge, El Portal, CA

Tuesday, Sept. 29: I was a bit late getting up, and immediately headed into the park. I birded some in the lower valley. While standing on the Pohono bridge, I was surprised by a Mallard that flew under the bridge. So after, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew across the river downstream. All this time I was hearing call notes from a bird I suspected was an American Dipper. Pretty soon the dipper appeared, flew under the bridge, and then upstream out of sight.

Walking along the trail, I soon heard a Brown Creeper. I'd heard some yesterday, but didn't see any. It took some work to track this one down, but I finally did. Other than that, I only saw the same birds I've been seeing.

The Tuolumne Grove of sequoias was next. I was surprised to find the area quite birdy. In absolute numbers, there were quite a few birds there, including lots of robins, juncos, and Audubon's Warblers. The robins seemed to favor the areas with Mountain Dogwood. I expect they were eating it. In spite of the numbers of birds, diversity was low. There were also a number of woodpeckers of three species: Hairy, White-headed, and Northern Flicker. I was impressed by the range of vocalizations of the Chickarees. I also got good looks at some of the Long-eared Chipmunks.

Eventually I worked my way down to the Tuolumne Grove itself. Needless to say, the Sequoias are impressive. Since it was a birdy area, I kept walking down the trail for some distance and didn't get back to the car until after noon. I'm guessing I walked about 3 1/2 miles and down and up about 800 feet, half of it at a slow birding pace.

I then went back to the valley. After a stop at Bridelveil Falls, I decided to try the Ahwahnee for lunch. The Ahwahnee is a traditional park lodge in grand style. It's also a bit removed from the other parts of the valley, giving the illusion it is a separate park. It's a good thing I hadn't seen the place when I made reservations as I would have been very tempted to stay there, in spite of the cost.

After lunch, I took the trail up to the Vernal Fall bridge. You can see the fall. In constrast to most of the other falls in the park, it still had an obvious water flow, although it is nothing compared to the spring flow you usually see in photos. The distance was fairly short, 1.6 miles round-trip, with a 400 foot climb. I considered going further up the Mist Trail, but decided not to. Maybe next time….

It had been cloudy gray all day, and finally started to clear late in the day. I had planned to look for the owl, but ended up being distracted by the sight of Half-Dome. I spent the sunset taking photos of Half-Dome.

When I got back to Yosemite View Lodge, I found there was an hour wait for dinner at the restaurant. Fortunately, they also have a pizza parlor where I could quickly get a couple of slices of pizza.

Yosemite View Lodge, El Portal, CA

Wednesday, Sept. 30: I got an early start and headed off toward Wawona and the Mariposa Grove. I stopped a couple of times on the way in the hope of birds. The last such stop did have some birds. First a few nuthatches and chickadees, then some some tapping woodpeckers (Flicker, White-headed, and Downy), then more birds. It was a mixed flock! They were feeding in both conifers and deciduous trees in front of me. By the time it was over, I'd counted 20 species (including flyover Ravens and Clark's Nutcrackers and the local Steller's Jays). This included my life Red-breasted Sapsucker, a female Williamson's Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wilson's, Black-throated Gray (at least 2), Audubon's (several) and Hermit Warblers (two?), Cassin's Vireo, and Western Tanager.

Its mewing call alerted me when and where the Red-breasted Sapsucker arrived, and I quickly spotted it. I was getting really worried I would miss this one again. It waited until my last day to show up.

I then headed to the Mariposa grove where I did the 6.2 mile hike up to Wawona Point and back. It involved over 1500 feet of vertical gain, then loss. I very much enjoy walking in these sequoia groves (and surrounding woods). The temperature was perfect for a good walk. There was also a lot of wildlife, both birds and squirrels (including chipmunks).

Woodpeckers (including a male Williamson's Sapsucker), chickadees, creepers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, juncos, and Steller's Jays were all common. As on my last trip west, I found a MacGillivray's Warbler by call note. All those hours hoping for more than a glimpse of the Fern Forest MacGillivray's paid off!

I puzzled over the chipmunks. Are these Shadow or Merriam's? Or Lodgepole? Some were supposedly too high for Merriam's, but had the requisite dullness. Others, which I suppose are the interior form of Shadow Chipmunk had more color. The Long-eared Chipmunks were still more colorful. The Lodgepole would be too, but I didn't see any colorful chipmunks other than Long-eared.

I continue to be amazed by the vocal range of the Chickarees. I'd always thought of them as sort of western Red Squirrels (a 2001 paper by Arbogast et al. in the Journal of Mammology suggested they are conspecific). However, their voice is something else. One was even giving a decent imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk. Western Gray Squirrel and Califonia Ground-Squirrel were also fairly common

Shortly after passing the museum the other hikers disappeared from the trail. I walked two miles without seeing a soul, and three miles with only a distant view of the tram. This may have contributed to the non-stop wildlife show.

It was 2pm when I returned to the car. It takes an hour to get to Yosemite Valley. I stopped at the tunnel viewpoint and climbed up above the parking lot for some photos. When I reached the valley, I watched some of the climbers on El Capitan, then went to get a burger. After that, I headed out of the park. I made one last stop by a bridge after the roads came back together. I noticed some birds, I think feeding on elderberry, but they eluded me. Suddenly a bird flew in the tree in front of me. At first I could only see its undertail, which was barred in wren-like fashion. But what wren could it be? Wasn't it a bit large for the local wrens? As I started to see the rest of the bird it wasn't making sense. Then it fell into place, a Northern Pygmy-Owl! What a great way to end my Yosemite visit.

It was only 10 minutes from there to the motel, and I emptied out the car so that I could repack tonight for my early journey to the airport tomorrow.

I ended the trip with 152 species. These included 5 life birds: Ashy Storm-Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, Black-vented Shearwater, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Yellow-billed Magpie. The trip also added 50 species to my California list, which now stands at 217.

Yosemite View Lodge, El Portal, CA

Thursday, Oct. 1: There seemed to be an earthquake last night, at least I woke up around 3 this morning with the bed shaking. (I later checked, and there was a 5.0 earthquake at 10:01 GMT = 3:01 PDT centered at 36.388 N, 117.859 W, about 140 miles SE of El Portal.)

I wasn't sure how long it would take to drive to San Jose, and so left the Yosemite View Lodge at 6am. I thought travel out of the mountains would be slow, and the rest quick. In fact, it was relatively quick through the mountains, which meant I ended up catching some rush hour traffic. I didn't bird on the way except for what I saw through the windshield. The best bird today was Yellow-billed Magpie. I dropped off the rental car at 10:15, which meant I had plenty of time to get something to eat. This turned out to matter more than I expected.

Complications appeared as we approached Dallas. There was weather in the area, which was slowing airport operations, and we were put in a holding pattern. Then the weather shut down DFW completely for a while and we were told to expect to hold for another hour. We didn't have enough fuel to wait that long, and diverted to Oklahoma City to refuel. By the time we got back to Dallas, my flight to Miami (already delayed itself), was just finishing boarding. I was unable to get from C to D terminal that quickly, and the later flight left simultaneously, so I had to spend the night in Dallas. American put me on the 9am Friday flight and arranged a discounted room at the Quality Inn. It took a long time to get a shuttle to the inn, and I since I didn't get dinner, I was very glad to have eaten lunch in San Jose.

Quality Inn, Arlington, TX

Friday, Oct. 2: Today was not supposed to be a travel day, but it was. It went according to schedule, the only tricky part being a gate and terminal change for my flight. Fortunately, I had checked the American Airlines web site in the morning and knew about the change. It turned out to be very convenient as you were at the gate immediatly after clearing security.

Miami, FL