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California in Fall - Birding Tour

Tour Overview:

If you want to experience the thrill of fall migration on the West Coast, then this is the tour for you! California is an amazing birding destination, and our ten-day adventure is designed to showcase a wide sample of the state’s extensive avifauna. We’ll scour tidal mudflats and marshes on San Francisco Bay, walk through oak woodlands and chaparral in the Diablo Range, explore alpine elevations in the Sierra, venture into sagebrush at Mono Lake, and head offshore to experience California’s pelagic bounty. We’ll try to see as many species as possible on this birding-focused tour, and we’ll make extra special effort to find regional specialties like Ridgway’s Rail, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Bell’s Sparrow, Mountain Quail, Greater Sage-Grouse, California Condor, Tricolored Blackbird, and California Towhee. 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 loads of beautiful birds, this trip promises to maximize your California birding experience.

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Tour Details:


6 - 15 September

$4650; Single Supplement: $650


5 - 14 September

Price: TBA

Length: 10 Days

Starting City: San Francisco

Ending City: San Francisco

Pace: Moderate

Physical Difficulty: Easy

Focus: Birding

Group size: 7 + 1 leader

Ready to Book?

Day 1: Arrivals in San Francisco
After arriving and claiming luggage, clients should take the free shuttle to the airport hotel in Burlingame. There is no birding on this day, so arrival is very flexible. If there is sufficient interest, the leader might organize an optional group dinner (not included in tour price).

Day 2: San Francisco Bay
We’ll dedicate out first full day to exploring San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the West Coast. While tides will influence our precise itinerary, we’ll visit some combination of Coyote Point County Park, the Palo Alto Baylands, Byxbee Park, Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, and Coyote Hills Regional Park. Shorebirds like American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Western Sandpiper, and Marbled Godwit will abound, and we’ll make special effort to secure the stealthy Ridgway’s Rail as it explores tidal channels. Birding bayshore thickets, we could intersect Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, Lesser Goldfinch, Black Phoebe, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, California Towhee, and California Scrub-Jay. We’re likely to encounter many of these birds throughout the tour, so this day will help clients establish an identification baseline from which to recognize the more specialized species which we’ll encounter as we progress. We spend the night at the same Burlingame Hotel.

Day 3: Diablo Range and the Central Valley
Today we will venture across SF Bay and into the Diablo Range which separates that tidal body from the drier Central Valley. Gaining elevation into scrub-oak and chaparral, we’ll look for Lewis’s and Acorn Woodpeckers, Phainopepla, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, Oak Titmouse, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Rufous-crowned and Bell’s Sparrows, the last a particular challenge. Wild Turkey and California Quail are possible, and Golden Eagle could cruise over at any moment. If we’re really lucky, we might glimpse Greater Roadrunner, Canyon Wren, or Costa’s Hummingbird — three desert species which are present in very small numbers. We’ll descend into the Central Valley as the afternoon progresses and make a stop or two as we close the distance towards the Sierra Nevadas. This night and the next will be spent at the western base of that range, in Sonora.

Day 4: Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada
Our day will begin at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Though most people visit for the humungous Sequoias — some over 200 feet tall and upwards of 30 feet in diameter — we’ll set our sights on Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Black-throated Gray Warbler. Woodpeckers are usually well-represented, and we’ll be looking for White-headed, Pileated, and Hairy Woodpeckers along with Red-breasted and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Once our time at the park expires, we’ll bird our way higher towards higher elevations before returning to Sonora for a second night. 

Day 5: Sierra Traverse and Mono Lake
This morning we’ll start east over the Sierras and make a number of birding stops as we traverse the range. Common Merganser, Bald Eagle, Western Tanager, Cassin’s Vireo, and Hermit Hermit Warbler will be among our targets at Pinecrest Lake, and we’ll hope for the tricky Mountain Quail as we climb towards Sonora Pass at 9,600’. Reaching that crest, we’ll take a short walk to look for Clark’s Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finch, Green-tailed Towhee, and Townsend’s Solitaire before descending towards Mono Lake at the eastern foot of the range. Reaching that body of water, we’ll be greeted by a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds which could include Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Eared Grebe, White-faced Ibis, and Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes. Our day winding down, we’ll head to Lee Vining for the first of two nights.

Day 6: Mono Lake and Surrounds
Our focus today will be on securing a number of Great Basin birds which reach the western limits of their ranges in the eastern Sierra foothills. These include Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Sage Thrasher, and Sagebrush Sparrow. Dusky, Hammond’s, and Gray Flycatchers are within the realm of possibilities, and we could encounter Brewer’s Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Pinyon Jay, and MacGillivray’s Warbler as well. We’ll also look for Greater Sage-Grouse, a once plentiful bird that has suffered precipitous declines in California. Fortunately, the Bodie population is still hanging on, and we’ll do our best to find one around the former mining town. Regardless of the precise birds we find, our time around Mono Lake will be unforgettable because the untamed, wild-open landscape is a nostalgic throwback to prior centuries when the American West was wilder than it is today. We’ll spend a second night in Lee Vining.

Day 7: Travel day with en route birding
After a bit of Mono mop-up, we’ll cross back over the Sierras and Central Valley with stops for any species which we might have missed on earlier legs of the tour. Depending on what time we reach Hollister, where we overnight, we might have time to check out a couple local spots.

Day 8: California Condors and the Pacific Coast
We have a singular focus this morning — the enormous and incomparable California Condor! Though the iconic bird suffered a near-terminal population collapse in the mid-twentieth century, careful management has guided a slow but steady recovery. There are currently around 300 wild birds, and Pinnacles National Park is a reliable a spot to intersect a fraction of those. The birds roost on the overhead rocks, so we’ll arrive early to ensure we don’t miss the mid-morning liftoff. Once all the birds have departed for the day, we’ll cut back towards the Pacific at Santa Cruz. Cruising north along the picturesque coast, we’ll make several oceanfront stops with hopes of turning up Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants, Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone. Riparian areas might hold migrants like Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Townsend’s Warbler, and we should catch up with some of the resident passerines we might have missed, such as Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, and Pygmy Nuthatch. We’ll spend the next two nights in Half Moon Bay.

Day 9: Deepwater Pelagic from Half Moon Bay
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, South Polar Skua, all three jaegers, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, Common Murre, Cassin’s Auklet, Rhinoceros  Auklet, Tufted Puffin, and Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. Laysan Albatross is always possible, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for something totally outrageous like Hawaiian Petrel. We’ll likely see Humpback Whales, and we sometimes even spot Blue Whale, the world’s largest animal! The trip will run from 7am to 5pm, and we’ll retire to our Half Moon Bay Hotel to recover after our finale dinner. If the pelagic is cancelled due to weather, we’ll use the day for additional terrestrial birding or rarity chasing.

Day 10: Departure from San Francisco
After breakfast, we’ll drive to SFO airport, and we expect to arrive by 9:00am. Please plan flight schedules accordingly.


Trip Considerations

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. 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: High quality, modern hotels throughout with the typical amenities; all have wi-fi. 


PHOTOGRAPHY: While not a photography tour, there will be opportunities for casual photography as we bird, especially on the pelagic.

Other Information

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. 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 a 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 9; meals from breakfast on day 2 through to breakfast on day 10; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the morning of day 10; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the morning of day 10 in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver; pelagic tour out of Half Moon Bay (if you know in advance that you will not take the pelagic, please let us know and we can discount the cost from your invoice. We can only do this if you let us know well in advance since we have to prepay the pelagic).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: 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; 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.

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