Illustrated California

Note:  Bird pictures are down the page – other stuff to read first.

A (relatively) short summation of the California trip … omitting the conference days which have been pretty well disposed of already. I shall also include a list of the birds seen for the inveterate listers amongst my loyal readers – a more detailed album will appear elsewhere once I get it organised. Please note, before anyone complains, that the big camera did not come for the journey so some of the extreme enlargement shots of obscure birds are for record purposes only being taken with a handheld pocket camera (Canon G9).

As a carrot to keep you reading this … Sea Otters.  When we visited the Monterey coastal area last, 16 years ago, the Sea Otter was pretty endangered and they were trying reintroduction and conservation measures.  Clearly a stunning success as the little blighters are all over the place today.  I finally got some pictures of wild ones playing in the surf and diving for clams (end of posting) but also video close-ups of some youngsters in the Monterey aquarium which show how truly beautiful these creatures are.  So glad they are coming back from the brink.  You will find this treat down the page after the bird list.

First though, the main part of this visit was work while I attended a conference in SF … here is the obligatory picture of the Golden gate Bridge but that’s not sea-mist hiding it, it’s smoke form the 100 forest fires still burning in the state.  Air quality was not good.

Two things stand out about our visit down there … drought and illegal immigrants. Drought is a big thing in California and everyone is very conscious of not wasting water, gardens are xeroscaped and so on – unless, that is you are running a tourist venue with splashing fountains or you are a farmer or a golfer. Just outside Monterey we drove across a golf course set amongst dry forest, surrounded by brown pastures and covered, itself, with obscenely fluorescent grass of a shade of green unknown in nature. Later, for many miles along the road south of Salinas we passed 50 or sixty miles of vast fields of fruit and vegetables being irrigated by spray cannons under the hot sun so that we in Canada can have our strawberries any day of the year. Is there a drought or not? The awful forest fires filling the air with smoke say yes, but golf is more important to some people.

The other striking thing – common in the US but very evident in California, was that only Mexicans (etc) are apparently employed in the service industries and that they all give the impression of going in fear of their lives. Paid at minimum wage and subject to the sack and deportation daily … yet the US economy would collapse without them as who else would do those menial jobs?

Whatever … the wildlife is splendid and we added many really good birds, some rarities and several lifers to our lists. It was especially interesting to note that certain birds, the Bell’s Vireo for example, do not stray far from the distribution maps in the field guides, but stray they do in real life if the habitat they prefer is available to them. Especially, unusual birds seem to enjoy living close to highway rest areas (a rich alternative to the famous sewage ponds beloved by birders that should be investigated thoroughly by the travelling birder). While distribution maps are important and should not be ignored lightly, they are guides and if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s a duck … or a Bell’s Vireo.

Hard to know what was the bird of the trip. Probably it should be the Long-billed Curlews we saw in the salt marsh and mudflats at Morro Bay (very distinctive – plus we have photos for doubters) but the Oak Titmouse is a lovely little fellow and the Yellow-billed Magpies were both cooperative and, as they live in a very limited range, unlikely to be seen easily elsewhere. Whatever they were, the birding was excellent for the time of year but most certainly was not carbon-neutral Bigby birding – to which we are now returning.

Best place? No doubt about that – Montana de Oro State Park which I would go back to like a shot anytime … what a site to have as your local “patch”. No point showing you pictures of cliffs and surf as you know what that looks like but here is a picture of the “golden hill” taken in the morning sea mist that is so characteristic of this coast … gorgeous place. These flower meadows were alive with birds.

Before we get to the birds … (patience) … something entirely different.  In SF there is a modern art museum showing a major exhibition of the stunning glass art by Chihuly.  High wow factor.  the boat is about 15 feet long and the leaf-like items are three feet across each.

Finally – here is the list of birds seen … only 53 species as we weren’t really targeting birding as an end in itself on this trip but we did get four or five lifers so the quality was high:

SPECIES SEEN (pictures inserted where available and good enough to share):

Western Grebe [swimming in surf line just off the coast near Monterey]
Sooty Shearwater [the only Shearwater you can count on seeing from shore]
American White Pelican [small group in the shallow water of Morro Bay]
Brown Pelican [everywhere]
Double-crested Cormorant
Brandt’s Cormorant (picture below shows him ignoring a seal)

Great Egret
Surf Scoter [Monterey]
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
California Quail (Montana de Oro State Park] – see below

Black Oystercatcher
Killdeer
Long-billed Curlew [small flock of perhaps a dozen birds in Morro Bay … this one had crossed the sand dunes and was on the sea coast] – see below


Heermann’s Gull – see below

California Gull
Western Gull

Pigeon Guillemot – see below (+short video at this link :Pigeon Guillemot Video)

Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
Black Phoebe
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Northern Mockingbird
California Thrasher
American Robin
Bushtit
Oak Titmouse
Western Scrub-Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Yellow-billed Magpie [another bird for the highway rest-area habitat] – see below

American Crow
European Starling
Bell’s Vireo [in river-bottom scrub beside a highway rest area north of SLO]
Gray Vireo
Common Yellowthroat
California Towhee
Sage Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow [Heermanni sub-species]
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Black-headed Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird – see below


Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch [These guys seem to be everywhere, the Chickadee of the west coast, but over half are orange or yellow coloured rather than red … there is dispute as to whether this is due to diet, the usual reason, or to an endemic disease in the population. Lovely singers] – see below


American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

We did not, not surprisingly, see Snowy Plovers in the area of dunes roped off for their nesting but we did get picture of a “sheltered” one … here’s where they were hiding:

… and here’s a real one, if not a wild  and tickable one

And now, what you have all been waiting for … the Sea Otters.  Below is a real, live wild fellow and here is a link to a video of them doing magical stuff.

Sea Otters (video)

Oh yes … different climate, you can grow lemons in your garden down there (these belong to old friends)

Californian Poppy

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