Fall-time California Dreamin’

This is a Birding Tour. The goal of this tour is to see as many birds as possible, with a particular focus on the specialties of the area. However, cameras are perfectly welcome, and you are free to take photos on this tour, when the opportunities arise.

If you want to experience the thrill of fall migration on the West Coast, then this is the tour for you! The California Coast is arguably the premier birding destination in the lower 48 states between mid-September and mid-October, and our weeklong tour, starting and ending in San Francisco, will showcase the region’s amazing avifauna. We’ll explore tidal mudflats, marshy impoundments, oak woodlands, scrubby chaparral, pinnacled ridges, rocky shorelines, and sandy beaches, and an optional pelagic will afford access to California’s offshore bounty – whales and dolphins included! While we’ll try to see as many species as possible, we’ll make special effort to find Ridgway’s Rail, Wandering Tattler, California Condor, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, Tricolored Blackbird, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. The pelagic will afford opportunity for albatrosses, shearwaters, skuas, jaegers, and alcids, and the ever-present possibility of Asian vagrants will add intrigue to our daily outings. With fantastic weather and a minimum of driving, this trip promises to maximize your California birding experience!

In addition, this itinerary forms part of our COVID-aware tours package. We will have to observe every mandated state and federal restriction, and we will be running these tours with significant additional safety measures included such as staying in select smaller hotels, using only a handful of establishments, eating outdoors during field lunches, and enjoying wilderness areas free of other people. For more information, please see http://www.tropicalbirding.com/covidustours2020/ or email [email protected] if you have any additional questions.

Clark's Grebe is on our target list of western specialty waterbirds
Clark's Grebe is on our target list of western specialty waterbirds (Dorian Anderson)

Day 1: Arrival in San Francisco. The tour will start at 1 pm at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), so please make sure you have arrived at the rendezvous point by then (if you have any issues with flights and timing please contact our office). Once everyone has arrived, we’ll drive fifteen minutes south to Coyote Point County Park for some introductory birding. The bayside refuge offers a nice mix of habitats, and we’ll enjoy views of waterfowl, waders, and passerines as we explore the park on foot. Shorebirds are particularly prevalent, and with luck we’ll run into western specialties like Long-billed Curlew and Black Turnstone among hordes of Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Western Sandpipers. Elegant Tern and Pelagic Cormorant are usually around, and we should encounter Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and California Towhee, a species endemic to the Golden State, in the park’s wooded sections. Depending on the tides, we might make a stop at Foster City for additional birding. Regardless, we’ll head to our San Jose hotel late in the afternoon (for a two-night stay), eat an early dinner, and retire early to help everyone catch up on sleep.

The handsome Chestnut-backed Chickadee another western specialty
The handsome Chestnut-backed Chickadee another western specialty (Dorian Anderson)

Day 2: San Francisco Bay. We’ll dedicate out first full day to exploring the southern end of San Francisco Bay, one of the most important estuaries on the West Coast. Our first stop will be the Palo Alto Baylands and adjacent Byxbee Park where the stealthy Ridgway’s Rail resides. We’ll certainly hear them calling, and we’ll work hard to secure views of these shy birds as they explore the tidal channels which run through the wetlands. Moving down the bayshore to Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, we’ll keep a lookout for American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and American White Pelicans near Alviso. Eared, Clark’s, and Western Grebes are possible, and we could intersect with Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, and California Scrub-Jay in the chaparral which abuts the bayshore. The volume of birds can be overwhelming, but your leader will help you establish an identification baseline. Once participants learn to recognize the common California birds, they’ll be positioned to appreciate the more specialised species we’ll encounter as the tour progresses. If there is sufficient energy and interest, we will use the late-afternoon to bird the mountains east of San Jose for Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-billed Magpie, and other woodland species. Night again in San Jose.

The odd, shiny Phainopepla
The odd, shiny Phainopepla (Dorian Anderson)

Day 3: Pinnacles National Park and California Condors. Our time at Pinnacles will be a radical departure from our bayshore birding, and the park’s arid surrounds are home to Canyon Wren, Phainopepla, Bell’s Sparrow, and the striking Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Wonderful as those birds are, they are understandably overshadowed by the park’s most famous resident, the gargantuan California Condor! The population of the enormous vultures plummeted through the 20th century, entirely at the hands of humans, but the bird has experienced a remarkable resurgence with the implementation of captive breeding programs after its 1987 nadir. Representatives frequent Pinnacles’s overhead bluffs, and we’ll scan the stunning rock formations with the goal of securing views of this amazing species – one of Earth’s greatest raptors and most inspiring conservation success stories. We’ll spent most of the day at Pinnacles before intersecting to the coast at Monterey where we’ll explore some local migrant traps before heading to our lodging and eating dinner. This will be the first of three nights in Monterey.

A specialty shorebird of the west coast, the incomparable Surfbird
A specialty shorebird of the west coast, the incomparable Surfbird (Dorian Anderson)

Day 4: Big Sur, Carmel, and Monterey. We are going to see a lot of birds today, but the landscape is going to star; with emerald waters churning at the base of precipitous cliffs, the Big Sur Coast is spectacular! We’ll start our day at the Carmel River mouth where we’ll bird the riparian area for neotropical migrants like Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, and Townsend’s Warbler. Virginia Rail and Sora are sometimes present, and a stop at the adjacent beach will offer chances for Whimbrel and other southbound shorebirds.

Another specialty of the Golden State, California Thrasher
Another specialty of the Golden State, California Thrasher (Dorian Anderson)

Once the air warms and overnight fog dissipates, we’ll move south along the cliffs with an eye on the sky for condors. Arriving at Andrew Molera State Park, we’ll beat the bushes for Spotted Towhee, California Thrasher, and the skulky Wrentit. Migrants should abound, and we might encounter Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and others. We’ll have a leisurely lunch in Big Sur before returning north towards Monterey via Point Lobos and 17-mile Drive where we’ll look for Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone, and Wandering Tattler. We’ll round out the day exploring Point Pinos for waterbirds and El Carmelito Cemetery for resident and migrant land birds. We’ll return to Monterey for a second night.

Western specialties songbirds like this Wrentit will also be a focus
Western specialties songbirds like this Wrentit will also be a focus (Dorian Anderson)

Day 5: Elkhorn Slough, Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing, and Salinas NWR. Yesterday we journeyed south from Monterey, and today we’ll strike north to explore a number of closely-situated sites. The first of these is Elkhorn Slough, a tidal estuary the American Bird Conservatory has identified as a Globally Important Bird Area. Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and other dabbling ducks will be out in force, and we’ll work hard to tease Whimbrel, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Semipalmated Plover from the shorebird milieu. Elkhorn is a good place for raptors, and we hope to find Red-shouldered Hawk and White-tailed Kite during our visit.

The glorious Allen's Hummingbird
The glorious Allen's Hummingbird (Dorian Anderson)

From Elkhorn it’s over to Moonglow Dairy where we target the resident flock of Tricolored Blackbirds. The bird has declined over much of its range, but Moonglow remains a stronghold for the species. We’ll have ample time to study the bird against Red-winged Blackbird (sometimes a proposed split as California Bicolored), Brewer’s Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and we might intersect the blindingly-bright Yellow-headed Blackbird if we’re really lucky. Loggerhead Shrike and Say’s Phoebe sometimes grace fenceposts, and Cliff, Barn, Tree, Violet-green, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows navigate the sky above us.

We’ll have lunch in Moss Landing and resume our birding in the adjacent harbor where Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls, and Surf Scoter abound. Elegant Terns can be present in large numbers in warm water years, and we might get lucky with a Brant or an early Long-tailed Duck. With rafts of snoozing sea lions and piles of hauled-out harbor seals, Moss landing is a great place to study marine mammals. Salinas NWR will continue the beachfront theme and add the possibility of Snowy Plover and Sanderling. Scanning Monterey Bay from the sand, we might see Sooty Shearwaters, Parasitic Jaegers, or even Humpback Whales! We’ll return to Monterey for dinner and a final night.

A handsome western seabird, Heermann's Gull
A handsome western seabird, Heermann's Gull (Dorian Anderson)

Day 6: The Santa Cruz and San Mateo Coasts. This will be our final day of terrestrial birding, and we’ll use it to travel north along the coast towards Half Moon Bay. Our first stop will be the cliffs and beaches between Lighthouse Field State Beach and Natural Bridges in downtown Santa Cruz. Scanning the ocean from those points, we’ll look for sea ducks, cormorants, gulls, and any rocky shorebirds we might have missed farther south. If seas are calm, we’ll work extra hard to find Marbled Murrelet, a mysterious alcid which nests in trees. The first Marbled Murrelet nest was actually discovered nearby in 1974; the cryptic species was the last bird species in North America to have its nest described!

Departing the ocean, we’ll gain elevation into Big Basin Redwood State Park in the Coastal Mountains. Birding in the shadows of the woody giants, we’ll search for the tiny Pacific Wren and the magnificent Pileated Woodpecker. Wild Turkey, Band-tailed Pigeon, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Steller’s Jay are all possible, and we’ll spend the remainder of the morning in the park.

Elegant Terns are regular on the Cal coast
Elegant Terns are regular on the Cal coast (Dorian Anderson)

Returning to Highway 1 and continuing north, we’ll lunch in the tiny town of Pescadero ahead of afternoon birding in and around that municipality. The town’s riparian areas are well-known migrant traps, and the front beach is often teeming with birds. A Masked Booby was observed on the rocks right next to Highway 1 in March of 2020, so anything is possible!

We’ll close out the day exploring the Pillar Point Harbor down the street from our lodging. A good night’s sleep is highly-advised ahead for those doing the next day’s pelagic trip, so we’ll eat dinner on the early side and get everyone into bed at a decent hour. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Buller's Shearwater is on offer on the pelagic boat trip
Buller's Shearwater is on offer on the pelagic boat trip (Dorian Anderson)

Day 7: Deepwater Pelagic from Half Moon Bay (Optional).
This pelagic trip is optional. If some people wish to not take part in this, then they can stay ashore with the tour leader and go birding on land for the day. The rest of the group would take the pelagic, which has an excellent on-board bird guide to help find and identify the pelagic birds and animals.

Note 2:The pelagics are being run with lower numbers of participants on board under new protocols for social distancing. Therefore, less space is available than usual, so it is best to book on this sooner rather than later to ensure a place on the boat trip. Booking for this will be undertaken under a first-come-first-served basis.

An optional pelagic opens up opportunities for birds like Black-footed Albatross
An optional pelagic opens up opportunities for birds like Black-footed Albatross (Dorian Anderson)

In the last decade, Half Moon Bay has come to rival classic departure ports like Monterey and Bodega Bay for pelagic birding excitement. The deep water Pioneer Canyon is an easy ride from Pillar Point Harbor, and we’ll have excellent chances at Black-footed Albatross, Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Ashy Storm-Petrel, Black Storm-Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, South Polar Skua, all three jaegers, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, Common Murre, Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, Tufted Puffin, and Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. Laysan Albatross is within the realm of possibilities, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for something totally outrageous. We’ll almost certainly see Humpback Whales, and Blue Whale, the world’s largest animal could appear any moment! The trip will run from 7am to 5pm, and we’ll retire to our Half Moon Bay Hotel to recover afterwards. If the pelagic is cancelled due to weather, we’ll use the day for additional terrestrial birding or rarity chasing. Our last night will again be spent in Half Moon Bay.

Day 8: Departure from San Francisco. After breakfast we will drop folks off at SFO 10am. Enjoy your flight home! You’re going to be the envy of your birding friends after your amazing California experience!

The smart-dressed Pigeon Guillemot
The smart-dressed Pigeon Guillemot (Dorian Anderson)

Burrowing Owls are always absorbing!
Burrowing Owls are always absorbing! (Dorian Anderson)



PACE: Moderate. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. One of the many benefits of perfect climate (see Climate section below) is that we can use the entire day for birding; it’s neither too cold in the morning nor too hot in the middle of the day to be out and about! Sunrise is at 7am, so we’ll be departing the hotel between 6am and 6:30am each day. Participants can expect to make multiple birding stops throughout the day, and we’ll aim to be at our place of lodging between 5 and 6pm to let people rest before dinner. There will be time to rest in the van as we move between locations, and we’ll have a field lunch on most days to avoid restaurants and crowds. Any lunches eaten at restaurants will be eaten outside.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of our birding stops will require light to moderate walking, but we’ll rarely cover more than a mile at a stretch. The pace will be very mellow, and the footing should be level everywhere we go. There won’t be steep hikes on rocky trails, and anyone in average walking shape will do just fine on this tour. Elevation is not a concern. We will be below 1,500ft (460m) the entire time, and the vast majority of our birding is at sea level. For those joining the pelagic, seasickness medication is advised.

CLIMATE: The California Coast offers virtually perfect climate during the fall. There is only a low chance of rain, and daily temperatures vary from 50 to 80F. There might be some coastal fog in the morning, but fall is generally the sunniest season. We might experience fog, wind, and sea spray on the pelagic, but layering a fleece or down-type puffer jack underneath a raincoat or windbreaker should be enough to keep the average person warm. A wool hat works wonders, and light gloves are advised for those whose hands get cold easily.

ACCOMMODATION: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO:This tour is specifically designed for a fall-time schedule, in order to look for the seabirds and other coastal migrant species that are best looked for in this season.

PHOTOGRAPHY: While not a dedicated photography tour, there will be opportunities to take pictures as we bird. The light is usually great, but there are not, for example, feeders to lure birds at any of the reserves we visit. We might have very close views of marine mammals – sea lions, whales, dolphins, etc – so weigh that into your equation as you decide what photographic gear to bring.


TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 7; meals from the night of day 1 through to breakfast on day 8 (if you do not leave too early for that); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer per person/couple (by hotel shuttle) at the start and end of the tour done as a group; Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the night of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 2 to 7 in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; OPTIONAL pelagic trip on day 7; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.