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A Report from

California (and Las Vegas) August 2006 ,

Chris Hill

            From Toronto I then moved on to California, beginning in San Francisco. The first thing to say about San Francisco is the weather. Even in the middle of summer the weather is often cloudy/foggy and cool due to the winds blowing in off the Pacific Ocean, thus a sweatshirt is a must. I stayed in the Fisherman’s Wharf area which is at the northern end of the city and lies right next to San Francisco Bay. Although the area heaves with tourists, I still saw a variety of birds. HEERMANS GULL, WESTERN GULL, BROWN PELICAN, AMERICAN CROW and BREWERS BLACKBIRD are all pretty much unmissable here, with the latter being very tame and somewhat Starling like as it foraged about for food.

            Like most tourists I visited Alcatraz Island, which also doubles as a refuge for a number of birds as the island is now run by the National Park Service. Species seen on the island included SNOWY EGRET, NIGHT HERON, BRANDTS CORMORANT, WESTERN GULL, RAVEN AND PIGEON GUILLEMOT. The latter is very similar to a Black Guillemot and can easily be identified by the white in its wings.

Although it may be better known for other reasons, Alcatraz Island now acts as an important refuge for a small but interesting variety of species.    

            As I only had one full day for birding in San Francisco and was limited in how far I could travel because I had no access to a car, I did all my birding within the city. Despite this limitation it is still fairly easy to see an impressive variety of species. I focused all my attention on the Presidio, which is a large park in the heart of San Francisco run by the National Park Service. A cheap and efficient way to get about is by bicycle hire. However, there are a number of steep hills in the Presidio, whilst older birders may not fancy the thought of riding about all day with a scope on your back. Nonetheless, if you are young and fit I would recommend this as it does give you greater flexibility when compared to getting around via taxi.

            Probably the best area in the Presidio was the place known as Crissy Field Marsh, which is found at the northern end of the Park and borders San Francisco Bay. There is a Visitor Centre here plus a mix of habitats including beach, dunes, scrub, grassy fields, scattered trees and tidal marsh. Not surprisingly the area was attractive to a wide variety of species, with the following birds being seen (not including those already seen in San Francisco, barring the odd exception):

SEMIPLAMATED PLOVER – common, very similar to Ringed Plover

KILDEER – a few seen

WESTERN SANDPIPER – this small peep was still in its attractive summer plumage

WILLET – common, a godwit like bird which is noisy and conspicuous

LONG BILLED CURLEW – unmistakeable owing to its incredibly long bill



GREAT BLUE HERON – just like a Grey Heron but with a noticeably different call

NIGHT HERON – a small number were seen just east of Crissy Field around West Harbour

WHITE CROWNED SPARROW – common in the dunes and scrubby areas

HOUSE FINCH – common, the male being most attractive but the female very nondescript

PYGMY NUTHATCH – a tiny bird which is often found in small groups

RED TAILED HAWK – the commonest hawk over most of America

CLIFF SWALLOW – a few seen over the grassy area next to the tidal marsh


VIOLET GREEN SWALLOW – one seen - the green on its back was not particularly prominent with the white around the side of its rump being the most distinguishing feature

CASPIAN TERN – a massive tern, with a number of juveniles also being present

FORSTERS TERN – small numbers seen but compared to the Caspian’s they appeared tiny

            From here I then headed off west in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge along Old Mason Street. I then climbed a steep hill which brings you out on Lincoln Boulevard. Turning right here brings you almost instantly to a small car park which adjoins an area of scrub and woodland. A quick walk around here revealed a number of new species including:


WILSONS WARBLER – an all yellow warbler with a black cap

ANNAS HUMMINGBIRD – a tiny ‘hummer’, the males having bight red around the head

BLACK PHOEBE – seen around the houses that are on the opposite side of the road to the car park

Also in this area here I saw a Red Tailed Hawk capture a small mammal and then eat it in a nearby tree

            I then decided to cross the Golden Gate Bridge but once you get on the other side the roads start to become very steep so I decided to turn round and go back across the bridge. However the detour was not a total waste of time as I had some good views of Cliff Swallows whilst there were also quite a few WESTERN SCRUB JAY’S about. Back on the other side of the bridge if you continue to head south along Lincoln Boulevard you will eventually come to the Lobos Creek area on your left. This area is a mixture of scrub and woodland and efforts are being made to restore the area back to its natural state by planting native species. New species seen here included:

RED SHOULDERED HAWK – it can be told apart from Red Tailed Hawk by its black and white tail



OLIVE SIDED FLYCATCHER – the largest of the drab brown Tyrant Flycatchers to be found in North America and made easy to see by the fact that it likes to perch in conspicuous locations

CALIFORNIA TOWHEE – a sparrow like bird

RAVEN – even within the middle of the city this bird is very common


            Whilst in the area I was lucky enough to come across a local birder who was able to show me an area nearby where LAWRENCES GOLDFINCH had bred. The location was on Battery Caulfield Road next to a small playground. We were in luck as a small flock of birds appeared within minutes and landed in a bush only a small distance away from where we were standing. Shortly after, we came across a soaring GOLDEN EAGLE, which caused much excitement for my new found friend who informed me that the bird was very rare in the city. The area around Lobos Creek is also said to be good for CALIFORNIA QUAIL, whilst a pair of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS had also bred in the area for the first time for many years, although I saw neither species.

For more information about looking for birds in the Presidio the two following websites are very useful:

Also, if you are visiting San Francisco for a longer period of time or have access to a motor car, the following website provides some good information on bird watching:

            From San Francisco I then made the five hour drive to Yosemite National Park., which is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Rage. Although we didn’t stop along the way I did see TURKEY VULTURE AND WESTERN MEADOWLARK on the journey, with the former being a common sight soaring over the more rural areas.  Yosemite is an incredible place, with some of the most spectacular landscapes and scenery anywhere in the world. The sheer size of it and the fact that I was only their for a few days meant that I was only ever going to see a tiny part of Yosemite but this did not limit me in the slightest in terms of seeing a good variety of birds. Like many visitors to the Park I stayed in Yosemite Valley at Yosemite Lodge which provides excellent modern accommodation right in the middle of the Park. I stayed in the Dogwood Lodge and immediately behind the Lodge is an area of woodland which was good for birds. Despite the fact that this area is adjacent to three lodges, while I was there I was often the only person about. Birds seen in this area included:

AMERICAN ROBIN – very common

WESTERN TANAGER – common, the males being unmistakeable with their yellow bodies and red heads


WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER – common, a small woodpecker

NORTHERN FLICKER – common, somewhat Green Woodpecker like

STELLERS JAY – common and very vocal

RAVEN – common



            Another good spot not far from here can be found by walking along the cycle track which heads off from the Lodge area towards the Merced River. After about a hundred or so yards turn left in a gap in the bushes and this will bring you out next to the Merced River. It is probably best visiting this spot early in the morning or late in the afternoon as during the day the spot is popular with walkers and canoeists. Species seen here included:

BELTED KINGFISHER – a large noisy bird

SPOTTED SANDPIPER – presumably breeding somewhere within the vicinity

CALIFORNIA GULL – the only Gull likely to be seen within Yosemite Valley

LINCOLNS SPARROW – common in shrubby areas around the river

YELLOW WARBLER – a bird that very much lives up to its name

WESTERN WOOD PEWEE – common, can be told apart from the other similar drab grey Flycatchers in its range by its larger size and the fact that it does not wag its tail

DOWNY WOODPECKER – common, a tiny woodpecker


BLACK PHEOBE – one seen


RED WINGED BLACKBIRD – one or two about

            I would also recommend visiting Glacier Point. You can reach this site either by driving their or by catching a daily coach from the Lodge area. The second option you have to pay for, but is particularly worthwhile as you can then make the spectacular walk back down to the Valley Floor. The walk back to the Lodge Area is about 4-5 miles and is all downhill and is not too strenuous. The views from Glacier Point are spectacular and as you are a few thousand feet higher than the Valley Floor, there is the potential to find a different range of birds than those lower down. Birds around the area included GREEN TAILED TOWHEE, WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER, WHITE THROATED SWIFT, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, YELLOW WARBLER, WESTERN TANAGER, STELLERS JAY, RAVEN and DARK EYED JUNCO. The walk down initially passes through coniferous forest while as you get lower down the vegetation becomes more scrubby and deciduous. From my experience the coniferous forest held much more birds, with birds difficult to find as you got lower down. The following species were seen in the coniferous forest area:

MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE – very common, its presence quickly detectable by its buzzy call

RED BREASTED NUTHATCH – common, you will probably hear it before you see it as it has a loud distinctive call


BLUE GROUSE – a female seen

TOWNSENDS SOLITAIRE – one seen, the bird has a distinctive white eye ring

HERMIT WARBLER – a distinctive warbler with a black body and yellow head

HUMMINGBIRD sp – Not sure what species it was as I only got a brief view of it

The views from Glacier Point are stunning with the added bonus of a great variety of birds.

            As previously mentioned, as I got lower down the variety of species did dry up but I did manage to get a brief glimpse of a SPOTTED TOWHEE. One you get back down to the Valley Floor you can either continue walking to wherever you are staying on the Valley Floor or catch the regular free shuttle bus service which stops off not far from where you reach the road. I opted for the former and it paid off as along the road I came across a HUTTONS VIREO amongst a flock of Mountain Chickadees.

            Although the whole of the Yosemite Valley area seemed to contain lots of areas which seemed perfect for AMERICAN DIPPER, the only place I actually saw the species was at the foot of Lower Yosemite Water Fall, which is right next to the Yosemite Lodge. The final place I visited was the Mirror Lake area, which is easily accessible by catching the Shuttle Bus and then walking for about half an hour. I didn’t see all that much there apart from SPOTTED SANDPIPER, BROWN CREEPER AND GOOSANDER, the latter having clearly bred at the area, with 2 ducklings being present.

            The sheer size of Yosemite means that to do the area justice you would have to spend a couple of months there but even if you stay there for just a few days you will be rewarded with seeing a wide variety of species in an awe inspiring location.  It would be probably a good idea to go prepared when visiting Yosemite, thus I would recommend buying The Rough Guide to Yosemite National Park which is sold by most UK Bookstores. The book has lots of good general information about the Park as well as a variety of maps and tips on hiking and visiting some of the less well known parts of the Park. On entering the Park, when you pay your entrance fee, you will also be given lots of useful information.   

            After three days in Yosemite I then made the journey back to San Francisco. Between the two locations there were a number of areas which looked good for birds but the journey between the two is long enough without making any stops. However, on the journey back a flock of AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS did fly over the car just west of the town of Oakdale.

            After reaching San Francisco I caught a plane to Las Vegas. As you would probably imagine Downtown Las Vegas offers little in the way of birds but I did see NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD and GREAT TAILED GRACKLE. The following day I caught a light aeroplane to the Grand Canyon which takes about 45 mins and offers great views of both Lake Mead and Hoover Dam on the journey over. By the time I reached the Canyon I was in little mood to do any birdwatching as I was in a dreadful state after suffering travel sickness on the journey over. However, the scenes their rival Yosemite for their brilliance and towards the end of my time their I was feeling a little better, which did allow for a small amount of birding. I managed to see WHITE RUMPED SWIFT, TURKEY VULTURE, AMERICAN CROW and ROCK WREN, the latter being much larger than the Wren you get back in the UK and being somewhat Wheatear like. The area is also good for GREATER ROADRUNNER but apart from one possible glimpse, the bird remained elusive.


The views at the Grand Canyon are spectacular. If you are lucky you might come across some birds but like most deserts around the world finding birds during the heat of the day is not easy.

             Once back in Las Vegas, the journey from the airport back to the hotel produced views of INCA DOVE from the coach. The other full day I spent in the city I didn’t do any birding but the website below is an excellent source of information for birding around and within the city:

            One word of warning with regards to birding in Las Vegas is that if you are reliant on Public transport for getting around you might want to reconsider as getting taxis away from the Strip and the Hotels is very difficult and is likely to involve very long waits. Your best bet is probably to hire a car. I would also recommend doing your birdwatching as early as possible, as during the summer months it gets unbearably hot. The heat has to be experienced to be believed. However, if you go out the city in your quest for birds and go up into some of the more mountainous areas, the temperature does apparently drop quite markedly.  

I then flew from Las Vegas to Boston, via Chicago, and after an overnight stay in the latter, the following morning made the journey to Cape Cod, which was to be the setting for the last leg of my holiday.


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