Day 45 – Klamath Falls to Fort Klamath

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View over Klamath Lake, with Mt Shasta in the background

After the madness of yesterday we took it easy today. A slow drive from Klamath Falls to Fort Klamath, only forty odd miles if you take the direct route, which we didn’t. Instead we visited a number of mainly woodland reserves along the western edge of Upper Klamath Lake. We started a new State list for Oregon yesterday, so we’ve been slowly adding to it during our various excursions. Bird of the Day, an addition to the GABRAT list, America List and my World List – the lovely White-headed Woodpecker. One of a trio of nice ‘peckers’ today, the other two being Red-breasted Sapsucker – a ‘grip-back for Jane, and Hairy Woodpecker. We’re just getting our eye in for what we hope will be a bit of a Woodpecker-fest, when we get further north, in a few days time. Meanwhile we’re really enjoying the scenery of this State. High, pine-clad, snow-topped mountains, lush green ‘alpine’ meadows, fast flowing crystal-clear rivers and mirror-like reed-fringed lakes which stretch to the horizon – and birds – lots of them!

First of three good ‘peckers’ today – World ‘tick’ – White-headed Woodpecker

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A most welcome ‘grip-back for Jane – Red-breasted Sapsucker. Missed at Whitney Portal

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Finally, Hairy Woodpecker (western interior race) in our ‘local’ wood this evening

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Day 44 – Klamath kaleidoscope

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First new bird of the day was this dazzling Mountain Bluebird

After six weeks of continuous birding – dawn ’till dusk, I confess to occasionally feeling a little jaded. If the weather’s not good or you have to work particularly hard for the birds, the days can seem long. But then you get a day like today and all that changes! When we arrived in Weed yesterday it was pouring with rain, the light was fading and there was low cloud restricting our view. As we drove out of Weed this morning, heading for Klamath Falls, the scenery was transformed – the rugged landscape dominated by the imperious, snow-capped Mt Shasta, a potentially active volcano, and at just over 14,000 feet, the fifth highest mountain in the USA. We visited several reserves in the Lower Klamath Basin during the day, adding nearly twenty new birds for California and seven trip ticks. The day just got better and better! As we drove to our motel in Klamath Falls this evening we crossed the State line into Oregon – a new State and a new list!

Lower Klamath Basin is a regular winter location for Bald Eagle. Although they’d mostly dispersed, we did see around half a dozen, including this low-flying immature 

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Having missed out in other States, we were keen to ‘score’ with Sage Thrasher, before we get too far north. Looking not unlike our own Song Thrush

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This is one of those birds that if you think you’ve seen it – you haven’t. When you do, it’s immediately obvious – Tricolored Blackbird. At long last, after scrutinising every Red-winged Blackbird since we got to California

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Last of the days highlights was Bufflehead, on the amazing Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge reserve. We saw fourteen species of duck today, that’s the same number as breed at the internationally recognised wildfowl hotspot of Lake Myvatn, Iceland 

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Day 43 – Another transition day

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Grab-shot of Yellow-billed Magpie, seen near Colusa – presumably at the very northern edge of it’s restricted range. A real bonus

We dropped Bob & Sue at their airport hotel in San Fransisco mid-morning and then headed for Weed, our over-night stop, three hundred miles north and close to the Oregon border. We broke the journey at a couple of excellent National Wildlife Refuges, Colusa and Delevan. Both were auto-routes around tracts of riparian woods, reed beds and shallow pools – situated in an area of intensive agriculture, mostly rice paddies. This wasn’t planned birding but we did, nevertheless, produce a ‘trip tick’, in the form of Ring-necked Pheasant, along with a good supporting cast which included American Bittern, Northern Harrier, Wild Turkey, Cinnamon Teal, Black Tern & Wood Duck. The weather deteriorated as the day went on and by mid-afternoon it was pouring down – that put paid to any birding once we arrived at the motel. Let’s hope for better things tomorrow.

In the meantime, Bob & Sue, thanks for your company over the last four weeks – your continuous optimism and enthusiasm has kept us going and you’ve certainly found your fair-share of the birds – we’ll miss you. Safe travels.

Maintaining  our near perfect record of a new bird each day – todays offering is a bit ‘naff’ but welcome nonetheless – Ring-necked Pheasant

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Day 42 – North Bay birding miscellany

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Bird of the day – an unexpected Vaux’s Swift, over Las Gallinas wildlife ponds. Record shot

Today was our last birding around the Greater San Fransisco area and the final full day with Bob & Sue, before we drop them off at their airport hotel tomorrow morning. We visited half a dozen sites around North Bay and, perhaps surprisingly, added a number of State, GABRAT and America ticks. After we’ve said our farewells tomorrow, Jane and I make the long drive north to the California / Oregon border. We’ve really enjoyed being based here in Petaluma for these past few days. The town has a real community feel – friendly, with interesting buildings, very good places to eat and accessible birding. A fitting place to end this stage of our Great American Birding RoAd Trip. As far as the numbers go, we’ve now birded five States, driven well over five thousand miles and seen over 420 species – 167 of those in California. Who knows what the next three weeks has in store.

Day 41 – Birding Point Reyes

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Nuttall’s Woodpecker – largely confined to west California. An America tick for me

Before we started this trip our research suggested that Point Reyes would be a high point. Situated on the Pacific coast, 30 miles north-west of San Fransisco, the Point Reyes Peninsula is bounded by Tomales Bay to the north-east and by Bolinas Lagoon on the south-east side. This strategic location, combined with a variety of habitats, means that the species count for the region is approaching an incredible 500. We’d originally planned to spend a couple of days birding the area but by lunch today, admittedly not helped by the weather which was a steady light drizzle and mist, it was apparent that the birds just weren’t around.  Things did improve in the afternoon when first we managed to find a lone Oldsquaw (Long-tailed Duck) at Abbott’s Lagoon and then, at Bolinas, a young Bald Eagle and a Nuttall’s Woodpecker – the latter an American tick.

A young Bald Eagle – only the second of the entire trip. Record shot

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Another good bird for the day was Band-tailed Pigeon, which we’ve only just started seeing

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The beach below the light-house on Point Reyes is a traditional breeding location for Elephant Seal. Here, looking down the ‘business-end’ of a female

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Day 40 – Crossing the Golden Gate

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – shrouded in mist. Inset, Alcatraz, iconic prison – 1934 to 1963 

We spent the morning visiting three coastal reserves between Monterey and San Francisco – Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge, Moss Landing and Año Nuevo State Park. In the afternoon, after checking in to our rather up-market hotel in Petaluma, we visited the local town wetland – Shollenberger Park. Although the weather was cool and overcast, we avoided actually getting wet. Surprisingly, we racked-up probably our biggest day list of the trip, including several America ticks. The National Route 1 / State Route 101, fortuitously, takes you right over the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped-off and did the tourist thing, though it would be nice to see it again in that famous California sunshine! The iconic Alcatraz Island –  home to the abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of America, early military fortifications, and a colony of nesting seabirds (mostly Western Gull and cormorants ), was barely visible in the mist.

Snowy Plover –  there are thought to be around two thousand breeding pairs along the  California coast

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Adding a little colour to an otherwise drab day – American Goldfinch. A GABRAT tick

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Day 39 – Monterey Bay – birding and more

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The most amazing spectacle of the day was the Southern Sea Otter in the harbour. These amazing creatures keep their new-born infants safe and dry – they aren’t fully waterproof at this age, by nursing them on their bellies, whilst doing the back-stroke to get around!

Our itinerary brought us to Monterey for one specific purpose, to look for sea-birds. We had originally hoped to be able to connect with a pelagic (a dedicated boat-trip to deep off-shore waters) but were told that, because of the unpredictability of the weather in Spring, the boats don’t run. We were advised that the next best option was to take a whale-watching cruise into Monterey Bay. There’s plenty of choice – for $200 we could have got any number of boat trips, but recent sightings only involved Hump-backed Whale, Dolphin, Seals and Sea Otter – with no specific information on bird species. Instead, we decided to spend the day looking for birds in the harbour, on the adjacent beaches and sea-watching from Point Pinos. What a good decision! We saw some excellent birds and marine wildlife and some interesting historic places into the bargain. Altogether, a fabulous day, packed full of interesting stuff and virtually no driving!

Also in the harbour, Common Loon and Pigeon Guillemot (very like our Black Guillemot)

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In the gull roost at the local boating lake we found this 2cy(?) Glaucous-winged Gull

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Historic Fisherman’s Wharfe – home to some amazing marine wildlife

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Harbour Seal and Brandt’s Cormorant

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Highlights of the afternoons sea-watch (aided by the arrival of local sea-watching expert Mark Kudrav – thanks Mark for your invaluable assistance) – Heermann’s Gull (record shot)

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Black-footed Albatross – a ‘life tick’. Seen here with some of the thousands of Sooty Shearwaters streaming past

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Oh, and this guy – a relatively close in-shore Hump-backed Whale. Who needs a whale-watching trip when you can see all of this from the shore

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Day 38 – I do like to be beside the seaside

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We arrived this evening in Monterey, on the Pacific coast, a month after we left Boca Chica and the Gulf of Mexico –  a mere 1629 miles, as the American Crow flies. It’s great to see the ocean again but, after the desert, it does feel decidedly chilly. Last night we stayed  in Merced, with a plan to spend this morning visiting San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. This premier reserve is mainly a winter site for wildfowl and Cranes so we weren’t expecting much. As it happens we saw fifty species, including a good number of State ticks, with the top birds being American Bittern and another Great Horned Owl! Given that we had failed to see California Condor at the Grand Canyon, we decided to execute Plan B and make a slight detour to the Pinnacles National Park, in the Gabilan Mountains. When we arrived, the park ranger told us we had a reasonable chance of seeing one if we were prepared to hike five miles, over very demanding terrain. We had little choice, so set off with decidedly mixed feelings about the whole venture. Less than half a mile out of the carpark we had our first brief view of a lone Condor hurtling across the ridge! Before long we spotted another, then a further two – all eventually roosting on a relatively close rock out-crop. On our way back down the trail I saw six together at on point, with a possible total of ten individuals – amazing! Add to all this the Yellow-billed Magpie, which we saw on several occasions after leaving Merced, made for a truly excellent days birding.

Bird of the day – unquestionably California Condor. Close to the point of extinction by 1987, all 27 remaining wild birds were taken into captivity. A successful breeding programme led to their reintroduction back into the wild from 1991. By December 2016 there were a total of 446 California Condor in the wild or in captivity. A very good news conservation story

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Coming a close second, American Bittern – seen at San Luis NWR

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Day 37 – Breakfast at Glacier Point*

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El Capitan, Yosemite National Park (photo courtesy of Jane)

As a Police Cadet, back in the mid-70’s, our education programme included occasional motivational talks. Most had little lasting impact but one in particular did stick with me – an illustrated talk by a couple of guys who had recently climbed El Capitan – a 3,000 foot sheer rock wall, in Yosemite National Park. Using an established route called The Nose, it took them several days, requiring them to bivouac overnight – using hammocks suspended from pitons hammered into the rock face. The tale of this heroic / crazy enterprise has popped into my head from time to time ever since. Today, I got the chance to see El Capitan for real. It is truly immense and the thought of anyone climbing it at all, in any circumstances, is quite beyond belief. El Capitan aside, the whole of the Yosemite NP is pretty breath-taking. We’d begun our day with breakfast at Glacier Point, a popular view-point, elevation 7,214 feet, from which you can see many of  Yosemite’s iconic landmarks. We birded our way down to the valley bottom, taking in several impressive waterfalls, before eventually exiting via the El Portal gate. This was not a day for birds, although we did manage to catch-up with a hand-full of State ticks, and an all important trip tick – American Dipper, which we found on the River Merced, late in the afternoon, on our descent out of the National Park.

The four of us after Breakfast at Glacier Point* – which Jane says would make a good title for a novel – after Picnic at Hanging Rock

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Birds were few and far between, but we did get good views of Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon race)

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Mountain Chickadee, at it’s nest

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and American Dipper – finally ‘ticked’ on the Merced River. Record shot only

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Taking a look at ‘Wiki’, I now read of numerous incredible ascents, by different routes, of El Capitan. This one in particular caught my attention:  In 1993, Lynn Hill came close to freeing The Nose, making it past the Great Roof and up to Camp VI without falling, stopped only on Changing Corners by a piton jammed in a critical finger hold. After removing the piton she re-climbed the route from the ground. After 4 days of climbing, Hill reached the summit, making her the first person to free climb The Nose. A year later, she returned to free climb The Nose in a day, this time reaching the summit in just 23 hours and setting a new standard for free climbing on “El Cap.” 

Day 36 – More travelling

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On the way to Kern River this morning, Sue spotted this nesting Raven with young

When we initially planned our GABRAT route we had hoped that we’d be able to travel from Death Valley, north west, to enter The Yosemite National Park via the Tioga Pass. This 9,000 feet pass is usually blocked with snow until well into May, sometimes not opening until June. This has been a pretty bad winter for much of the northern States and it was no surprise to discover that the pass remains closed. Fortunately we’d built in sufficient slack into the itinerary to allow us to take the much longer route around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains, up Highway 99 from Bakersfield, to enter the park from the south west. A minor tweak to our plans – we drove further than originally planned yesterday, allowed us to bird the lovely Audubon riparian valley reserve of Kern River this morning. Lots of additions to our California List, with several GABRAT ticks and a couple of America List ticks as well.

Oak Titmouse – a new bird for me in America

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Not a new bird for the trip, just new for California – the stunning Anna’s Hummingbird

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