Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

California: The South

The Southern Coast, Santa Cruz Island, the Salton Sea, and the Mojave Desert

September 2023
with Jon Dunn as leader
featured image

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

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 short tour focuses on birds that are difficult or impossible to see elsewhere in the United States and it does so at a time when fall migration for many species is at its peak.

We’ll visit the coast and offshore islands northwest of Los Angeles, coastal areas south of Los Angeles and the legendary Salton Sea.

Day 1: The tour begins with a meeting at 6 p.m. in the lobby of our hotel near Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport. Night in Los Angeles.

Day 2: We’ll leave early, heading northwest and out of Los Angeles. Those used to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles will be pleasantly surprised at the unspoiled and scenic north coast of Los Angeles and southern Ventura Counties. Here steep hills drop sharply to the sea, forming a ruggedly scenic coastline. We’ll explore the canyons that hold some of California’s distinctive landbirds, including Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Wrentit, California Thrasher and California Towhee as well as a variety of western migrants. Exotic species such as Black-hooded Parakeet may also be present. Later we’ll continue to the Oxnard Plain to search for shorebirds, possibly including Pacific Golden-Plover and other uncommon or rare species (e.g., we’ve had Ruff in multiple years), along with passerine migrants, perhaps including Pacific-slope Flycatcher or Townsend’s Warbler. Later we will drive up through Santa Barbara to Buellton.

My first WINGS trip will not be my last!!!! I had high expectations because of what friends who had been on trips said about WINGS; they were exceeded. Jon was excellent; unflappable, making adjustments as needed re the forest fires and finding special birds. His long history of birding the area and his many contacts were very helpful.

Alice O’Donell, Oct 2013

Day 3: Our primary goal this morning is finding Yellow-billed Magpie, a California  endemic. While the overall population has declined due to West Nile Virus they can still be found in small numbers around Buellton. Other species of the oak woodland should be numerous as well. Later we will head up to southern San Luis Obispo County at Oceano, one of the better spots for migrants on the central coast. We’ll also search for Chestnut-backed Chickadee, the distinctive barlowi subspecies with no rufous on the flanks. Later will drive back south and east to Ventura.  

Day 4: 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 notably in recent years, perhaps as a result of West Nile virus or of predation on the young by the resurgent Island Fox population (there was a slight upsurge in 2011 and each year we have easily seen a few since then). 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 Jaeger. 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 often find Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black Turnstone and sometimes Wandering Tattler. Night in Ventura.

Day 5: 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. 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 possibly with 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. California Thrashers are present, too. Night at Laguna Hills.

Day 6: 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 if any are present. Late in the morning or in the afternoon 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 Westmorland.

Days 7-8: 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 Westmorland.

Day 9: After a bit more early morning birding at the Salton Sea we’ll depart to the north, possibly stopping at Desert Center, a desert oasis that can be excellent for migrants such as Western Wood-Pewee and MacGillivray’s Warbler. After lunch we’ll continue on to California City where we may have some time to do some late afternoon birding in the park there or around the golf course. We will be looking for western migrants. Night in California City.

Day 10: Our main goal today is to find LeConte’s Thrasher, small populations of which are found locally in the Mojave Desert. We’ll also be looking for the canescens subspecies of the Bell’s Sparrow. Another location we might visit (if reopened) is Galileo Hill Park, a high-desert ranch and club, an artificial oasis that attracts large numbers of landbird migrants including many rarities. Night in California City.

Day 11: This morning we may return to Galileo and nearby California City searching for 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 Los Angeles International Airport.

Day 12: The main tour concludes this morning near Los Angeles Intercontinental Airport. No birding is scheduled for this morning. 

Avalon Extension 

Day 12: This morning after breakfast we will drive south to San Pedro where we will take our shuttle to Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. This is a high speed transport, so we don’t expect to see many seabirds. Avalon is the beach resort/city on the island that became a favored destination after William Wrigley, Jr. developed it in the 1920s. If one has seen the movie Chinatown with Jack Nicholson, it is featured, particularly its most famous structure, the Catalina Casino built in 1929 in the Art Deco style. Starting in 1921, the Chicago Cubs used the island for their spring training camp. Much of the island is administered by the Catalina Island conservancy. Our time will be spent strolling the streets looking for Spotted Doves, the one remaining place where this Asian species is still established. Introduced over a century ago, it thrived for decades in Southern California, until Cooper’s Hawk became a common nesting urban species several decades ago. Only a very few individual Spotted Doves remain on the mainland. We should see a half dozen or so during our time in Avalon. We should encounter some resident species including perhaps Allen’s Hummingbird and the Channel Island subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler. An endemic and the darkest subspecies of Hutton’s Vireo is present on Santa Catalina Island (unitti, described in 1991 by Amadeo Rea and named after the curator of the San Diego Natural History Museum, Philip Unitt). After lunch at an Avalon restaurant or cafe, we’ll return to San Pedro on the shuttle and return back to our hotel near the airport where the extension concludes around dinnertime**. 

Updated: 29 April 2022


  • 2023 Tour Price Not Yet Available


Image of

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; 12 participants with two leaders. 

The itinerary for Days 2-4 may differ slightly, depending on the boat schedules to Santa Cruz Island. However, the elements of the tour will remain the same.

**The optional Avalon extension concludes late afternoon/early evening on Day 12. We’ll return to our hotel briefly to collect luggage and transfer to the airport in time for evening departures. We can assist with booking extra nights at our tour hotel near LAX upon request.   

Share on Facebook