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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

California: Central and Southern

Pinnacles National Park, The Coast, Santa Cruz Island, the Salton Sea, and the Mojave Desert

Thursday 29 August to Wednesday 11 September 2024
with Jon Feenstra as leader
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Regular nowhere else north of Mexico, the handsome Yellow-footed Gull makes a visit to the Salton Sea well worth our while. Photo: Paul Lehman

Central and Southern California may call to mind rampant development and crowds of people, but in fact it has many areas that are both wild and beautiful. Our tour focuses on birds that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere in the United States. These include California Condor and the endemic Island Scrub-Jay and Yellow-billed Magpie, but there are many other species that occur primarily (and are easiest to find) in California. The tour takes place when fall migration for many species is at its peak.

We’ll visit the coast and Santa Cruz Island northwest of Los Angeles, coastal areas south of Los Angeles, the legendary Salton Sea, the high conifer forests in the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Mojave Desert.

Day 1: Arrivals and 6pm meeting and dinner. Night in San Jose.

Day 2: This morning after an early breakfast we will drive south to Pinnacles National Park. Along the way, through oak-savanna habitat, we’ll watch for Yellow-billed Magpies, a California endemic species and one that has declined in range and numbers due to West Nile Virus. Arriving at Pinnacles, we’ll scan the rocky outcroppings or overhead for California Condor. The last birds were taken from the wild in 1987 to breed in captivity, which eventually enabled releases back into the wild, and this is one of the best places to see free-flying birds. Morning and late afternoon are the best times to find them, as they fly off elsewhere to forage during the day. The east side of Pinnacles is surprisingly well-wooded, and we will search for a variety of oak-woodland species like California Quail, Acorn and Nuttall’s woodpeckers, Hutton’s Vireo, California Scrub-Jay, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit (coastal subspecies), White-breasted Nuthatch (coastal aculeata subspecies which calls very differently from all the other two subspecies groups), Bewick’s Wren, Western Bluebird, and California Towhee. In rocky areas we’ll search carefully for Canyon Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. With good luck we might find Lawrence’s Goldfinch. There should be migrants around as well. Possibilities include a wide variety of western migrants, but amongst them include Pacific-slope Flycatcher plus Black-throated Gray and Townsend’s Warblers. We will plan on staying into the early evening to try for Western Screech-Owl and there is at least a chance for Northern Saw-whet Owl. It is about a 40-minute drive to King City where we will spend the night. Night in King City.

Day 3: If we have not had satisfactory views of Condors we will try again this morning. Otherwise, or later in the day, we will head south towards Morro Bay and coastal San Luis Obispo County. The rocky coastline there is quite beautiful, and the creek mouths can have a number of migrants, including rarities. The birding community in this area is quite active and we will be appraised of the latest sightings of interest. Rocky shorebirds like Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattler are all possible along with Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants. Perhaps we might find a lingering Pigeon Guillemot, most of which will have migrated north. Later we’ll drive back to Atascadero. After dinner we might have a chance again to look for owls. Night in Atascadero.

Day 4: If we have missed Yellow-billed Magpie previously, we’ll search carefully for it this morning in the beautiful oak grassland areas east of Atascadero towards Creston. From here we will stop and bird along the rocky coastline at Pismo Beach where we will have additional chances to see rocky shorebirds. We will look on the ocean for Common Murre and perhaps a lingering Pigeon Guillemot, or summering Surf Scoters or a loon. Nearby Oceano is an excellent place for migrants, and we’ll look carefully for feeding flocks here. Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Hutton’s Vireo are resident. From here we’ll drive south through Santa Barbara, stopping to look for anything special that might be around before continuing on to Ventura. Night in Ventura.

Day 5: We’ll spend the morning crossing to Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most wooded of southern California’s Channel Islands. Once on the island we’ll hike gently in search of the Island Scrub-Jay, an endemic California (and Santa Cruz Island) species that has declined in recent years, perhaps as a result of West Nile virus or of predation on the young by the resurgent Island Fox population. If the weather is favorable, we may encounter a scattering of western migrants such as Black-throated Gray Warbler or an eastern vagrant such as American Redstart. Resident species will likely include the distinctive largely resident sordida subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler that can be found on the Channel Islands and a few points along the adjacent mainland.  Although transport across the Oxnard Channel is on a high-speed catamaran, we’ll hope to see a few pelagic birds including Pink-footed, Sooty and possibly Black-vented shearwaters and Pomarine and Parasitic jaegers. In 2015 we had an adult Red-billed Tropicbird only a few miles off Santa Cruz Island. Marine mammals, including whales, are possible. Along the jetties around the marina, we’ll search again for Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and sometimes Wandering Tattler. Night in Ventura.

Day 6: After breakfast we’ll drive south through Los Angeles to Huntington Beach Central Park and the San Joaquin Marsh. We may stop in the south Los Angeles area. Both White-winged and the closely related Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (recently added to the California list by the California Bird Records Committee) might be about. Mitred and possibly Red-masked Parakeets (both considered established) are also present. Once reaching Huntington Beach Central Park we are likely to encounter a fine variety of migrant landbirds as well as introduced Scaly-breasted Munia along with (possibly) Pin-tailed Whydahs and Bronze Mannikins. Nearby at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, waterbirds including Elegant and Royal terns, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit should all be present along with the distinctive dark “Belding’s” Savannah Sparrow. Sometimes a Reddish Egret is present as well. Later we’ll continue down the coast in search of the endangered California Gnatcatcher as well as California Thrasher. If there is time, we might visit a parrot roost in Santa Ana where hundreds of introduced (but established) Red-crowned Parrots along with a few Lilac-crowned (also established) along with other Amazon parrot species might be present.  Night in Laguna Hills.

Day 7: Assuming we’ve seen the gnatcatcher, we’ll drive south to San Diego then east to El Cajon, perhaps stopping at a park to search for Tricolored Blackbird. Around midday we’ll head east, stopping in the low but lovely and unpopulated mountains of central San Diego County. Here among the pines and oaks we should find a variety of species including Oak Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee, the distinctive-sounding coastal race (aculeata) of White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, and with luck the local and often scarce and erratic Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Here or elsewhere in brushy regions we’ll watch for California Quail. Later we’ll drive down into the Imperial Valley for some local afternoon birding at the south end of the Salton Sea.  Night in Westmoreland.

Days 8-9: The Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea may test our endurance, for the area can be blazing hot even in late September, but our birding will be mainly confined to the morning and late-afternoon hours. The primary ornithological attraction is Yellow-footed Gull, a post-breeding visitor to the Salton Sea from the Gulf of California, the only regular location to see this species in North America. It is one of the world’s rarest gulls. Other birds may include Least Bittern, Inca Dove, Lesser Nighthawk, Costa’s Hummingbird, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Abert’s Towhee. We’ll also search for the yumanensis subspecies of Ridgway’s Rail. There should also be a variety of migrant landbirds about, possibly including Vaux’s Swift, Gray Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee and Lazuli Bunting. Nights in Westmoreland.

Day 10:This morning we will drive east to Desert Center, an oasis about an hour east of the north end of the Salton Sea. This is one of the best migrant traps in the Colorado Desert in southeast California; migrants being attracted to the well-watered green lawns and bush-lined ponds. Migrants like MacGillivray’s Warbler and Lazuli Bunting are usually present along with several other species. From here we’ll head west stopping near Palm Springs for lunch and then continue to Wrightwood. We should have time for some afternoon birding on Table Mountain (7000 feet/2150 meters) where we should see a variety of mountain species typical of the coniferous forest, such as Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, and Cassin’s Finch. Both Green-tailed Towhee and “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow nest here. Migrants should be present too and we’ll search in the feeding flocks for Hermit Warbler, which prefers pines at all times of the year. Scarcer species we might see include Williamson’s Sapsucker and Townsend’s Solitaire. If it is not windy we will spend at least a bit of time searching for Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Night in Wrightwood.

Day 11: We will spend the morning searching around Table Mountain and other areas for montane species. Early in the morning, Mountain Quail sometimes come out to the sides of the road, although it should be stated that this species is notoriously elusive. After a picnic lunch, we’ll head northwest to California City where after check-in at our hotel we should have some time for some late afternoon birding for migrants and possibly for a roosting Barn Owl. Night in California City.

Day 12: This morning our main target is LeConte’s Thrasher, a few of which are found in the area. Also present are Bell’s (paler canescens species which is found on the Mojave Desert and the western fringe of the San Joaquin Valley). Migrants should be present around Central Park and at clumps of trees around ponds on the golf course there. Night in California City.

Day 13: This morning we will bird around California City for lingering migrants, or we might head north and up the spectacular Nine Mile Canyon on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here we may see Pinyon Jays and at least have a chance for Chukar. After lunch we’ll head south back to Los Angeles, possibly birding a bit in the Antelope Valley or elsewhere on the return.

Night near LAX Airport.

Day 14: The main tour concludes this morning with flights home.

Updated: 27 September 2023


  • 2024 Tour Price : $5,350
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $1,190


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Questions? Tour Manager: Sara Pike. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

This tour is limited to seven participants with one leader.

The itinerary for Days 4-6 may differ slightly depending on the boat schedules to Santa Cruz Island.  However, the elements of the tour will remain the same.



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