We just returned from a family vacation/birding trip to Northern Arizona/Southern California, from June 30 to July 8, 2012. We flew to Las Vegas and rented a car in order to get around. On the trip was myself and fellow birdnerd wife, and two non-birding kids, ages 18 and 12. The trip was centered around getting the kids to the Grand Canyon, Sequoia National Park, the Pacific coast, and Death Valley. Because of the itinerary, we could only do incidental birding on some days, while others afforded enough time for the wife and I to get out on our own, with birds our only quarry. Luckily, our older son is mature enough to take care of the other one, and since they'd rather watch TV in the hotel room (or sleep in till 11AM) than hang out with their obsessed, weird parents, it works out well.
I'm also very lucky in that my wife is from Sierra Vista, in southwest Arizona, which may be the single best birding area in the US. So we've already spent a lot of time in the south part of that state, and on this trip we were focusing on birds that occur only in the north, as well as in California. Our goal was not to accumulate a high total species number per se, but rather to look for Lifers. All told, we ended up with 107 species and 22 Lifers.
The report that follows highlights what was seen that I consider interesting, along with general observations about birding in this area. Now that we have eBird, I don't think it's very useful in a trip report to simply list everything we observed everywhere, because one can get a more accurate picture by using the Explore Data option.
So here it is... the * indicate Lifers, and CAPS indicates birds that I don't normally see at home in Bloomington.
June 30 Las Vegas to North Rim of Grand Canyon
The drive from Las Vegas to the Kaibab forest on the north side of the Grand Canyon was mostly devoid of birds (and we did not try to bird on the way). Only Rock Pigeons, Mourning Dove, House Sparrows, and Turkey Vultures were seen.
We stayed at Kaibab Lodge, which is about a 30 minute drive from the north rim. They have cabins and a campground, and there are plenty of birds around. Costs are a bit steep (we paid $140 a night for a cabin) but that is typical for the area. Here, in Kaibab National Forest and along the north rim of the Grand Canyon, we saw CASSIN'S FINCH*, PINE SISKINS, BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD, VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW, COMMON RAVEN, Dark-eyed Junco, WESTERN TANAGER, EVENING GROSBEAK, AUDUBON'S WARBLER, LUCY'S WARBLER*, VIRGINIA'S WARBLER*, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE, BREWER'S BLACKBIRD, and many American Crows and Swainson's Thrushes. Unlike the migrant Swainson's we encounter at home, these birds sing, sing, sing! What a pretty song.
July 1 Grand Camyon
Birded along the Wildforss Trail at the North rim, from 6AM to about 10AM, and we saw many PYGMY NUTHATCH*, as well as the White- and Red-breasted versions. WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER* were common, as were STELLER'S JAY and Brown Creepers. Also saw one CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, several House Wren, and Olive-sided Flycatcher. Many of the previous day's species also seen.
In the afternoon, we took the Ken Patrick Trail heading away from the Visitor's Center, and saw THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, WESTERN TANAGER, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK. I will also note here that most species seen on this trip had juveniles with them, providing many confusing looks that were often only resolved when a parent showed up. A young pewee with an odd call in particular had us befuddled for over 30 minutes.
July 2 Grand Canyon
During the morning at the Kaibab Lodge we saw NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD, and MOUNTAIN and WESTERN BLUEBIRD. Returning to the Grand Canyon, we drove the 30 minutes out to Point Royal, where the habitat is somewhat drier (there is pinyon, sage, and prickly pear there). Saw SCRUB JAYS and WHITE-THROATED SWIFT. Wild Turkey along the way as well. In the evening, back at Kaibab Lodge, LESSER GOLDFINCH and Brown-headed Cowbird were seen. But the real odd sighting, in a dry, grassy meadow just north of the campground, was a pair of male Yellow-headed Blackbirds foraging on the ground.
July 3 Drive From Grand Canyon to Porterville CA.
We left around 6AM for a long (11 hour) drive to Porterville, which is in the Central Valley and a good basecamp for exploration of the Sierras and Sequoia National Park, as well as the orchards, vineyards, and farmlands of the valley. Leaving Kaibab we saw ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER.
The drive time can be shorter than this, but we took a more scenic route that took us up over Walker Pass. The kids didn't realize, of course, that the route taken was longer than really needed, and chosen so as to improve birding opportunities. :)
The best location along the route was a wonderful spot known as the Kern River Preserve, run by the Audubon Society, near Lake Isabella. Located low in a canyon on the east side of the Sierras, there is a nice mix of riparian and scrub habitats. Here we found our first CALIFORNIA QUAIL* (very skittish), along with LARK SPARROW, BULLOCK'S ORIOLE, BLACK PHOEBE, NUTTALL'S WOODPECKER*, and many LESSER GOLDFINCH and House Finch. Also non-singing Empids that were not identified, and female/young hummers that we also declined to study. Coming down the western slope into the central valley, we saw many ACORN WOODPECKER, WESTERN KINGBIRD, Great Egret and Cliff Swallow.
July 4 Portersville
We let the kids sleep in while my wife and I birded early AM up at Success Lake, just east of town, as well as the up the canyon where this reservoir lies. At the lake, we found a mixed group of WESTERN and CLARK'S* GREBES. I'd always been under the impression that the latter would be difficult to distinguish, and I was surprised by just how distinct they are. Seeing them together through the scope was nice. Also seen at the lake or in the canyon were Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, Redtailed Hawk, Killdeer, PHAINOPEPLA, and Loggerhead Shrike.
On our way back into town I got a very odd and unexpected Lifer, seen foraging on the side of the road: A female COMMON (aka INDIAN) PEAFOWL. I had not realized that feral populations of these birds roam about southern Cal.
We went up to Sequoia National Park around 10 AM and spent the entire day up there. It is certainly a forest of unrivaled beauty. The trees are so large as to be quite surreal. Near the General Sherman Tree, we found a flock of RED CROSSBILLS*. Near the Lodgepole area, we found WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER*, Wilson's Warbler, TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, and MOUNTAIN QUAIL.* Later, at Crescent Meadow, GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, and more silent Empids.
July 5 Santa Barbara County and Ventura
Once again we let the kids sleep in and we took and early morning jaunt up the canyon to a campsite known as "Quaking Aspen" - about an hour's drive. Our quarry was the stunning RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER*, and we found one after about an hour of frustration. Shy, quiet little guys. Also saw Nashville Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, and Song Sparrow, and more White-headed Woodpecker. As with the Kaibab forest, Swainson's Thrushes were singing everywhere.
We then drove west and south to get to Ventura, which is about as far south as you can go down the coast without being in L.A., and from what I read, is cheaper than Santa Barbara to the north. We drove through Santa Barbara at rush hour and the traffic was horrific. This was again a trip that was a good 2-3 hours longer than needed, because we swept through the San Luis Obispo area in order to look for Yellow-Billed Magpies. Question: since when is it hard to locate corvids? When you have only a very limited amount of time and the corvid in question is a potential Lifer, that's when. I chose a location (Noroqui Falls Park) where eBird indicated recent sightings, but no luck. Consolation Prize, however, was a BAND-TAILED PIGEON* doing a very good owl impersonation.
We were able to stroll the beach in Ventura for 30 minutes in the evening, where WESTERN* and HEERMAN'S GULLS were abundant. Many BROWN PELICANS as well.
Note: During late afternoon/evening hours, this area was COLD. A hard wind came from the northwest and was downright chilling. Also very foggy much of the time.
July 6 Ventura and Channel Islands
We stayed at a hotel near the pier, and birded the beach and estuary in the morning. WILLET, WHIMBREL, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, BEWICK'S WREN, Snowy Egret, Mallard, Barn and Northern Rough-Winged Swallows, Double-Crested Cormorant, Common Yellowthroat, EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE and ALLEN'S HUMMINGBIRD* were seen.
At noon, we took a boat trip from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz Island (one of the Channel Islands). We were only able to spend about one hour on the island itself, which was just enough time to see one ISLAND SCRUB JAY*. Also seen were the endemic Santa Cruz Foxes, which are about the size of house cats and very tame.
The trip to and from the island yielded several interesting birds. We saw on the order of 100 SOOTY SHEARWATERS*, most at a distance, many floating on the ocean, but a few flying close and giving great looks at their silvery underwings. (We had spent the previous evening watching videos of Shearwaters and other seabirds in flight on the IBC website, and this was time well spent!) Several PIGEON GUILLEMOTS were also seen floating about. On the return trip, we were fortunate to cross through a huge school (herd?) of dolphins that were in a feeding frenzy, with many birds in attendance, mostly Sooty Shearwaters and Western Gulls, but we were treated to a perfect view of a close-by PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER* banking and giving us a look at its underside.
July 7 Ventura to Ridgecrest
Birded the beach and estuary from 6AM to 8AM or so, getting nice looks at CALIFORNIA TOWHEES*, Caspian and Forster's Tern, Pied-billed Grebe, SANDERLING, BUSHTIT, and Downy Woodpecker. We also had a pair of mystery birds that looked like Giant Eastern (due to yellow belly) Hutton's Vireos. We still have no idea what they were.
We left around 9AM and drove 3 hours to Ridgecrest, CA, in the Mojave, where we dropped off the kids (in the hotel, not the Mojave) and then returned to the Audubon Kern River Preserve, which is about an hour's drive west of town. As we were there on a very, very hot afternoon, activity was limited and nothing new was seen, until around 5-7pm. An employee of the preserve had informed us of recent sightings of a mixed flock of RED-WINGED and TRICOLORED* BLACKBIRDS, and as the latter was new for us, we decided to pursue them. It was a lot of work. Unlike the Red-wings we are used to seeing in Minnesota, these birds were skittish and hanging out low in the vegetation surrounding a small ditch. During the first hour we had nothing but unsatisfactory views of these birds in flight, seeing nothing definitive to make the call of Tricolored. We moved a bit and found a nearby cattle ranch where a large flock of blackbirds was hanging out. It took about 45 minutes of waiting, scanning with the scope, and waiting some more, when finally we found two males sitting on a fencepost, giving us a chance to compare and contrast between red/yellow epaulettes on one bird and red/white on the other. Truly a best case scenario for these little buggers, because when viewed alone, we were always asking each other "is that really yellow? Is that white? Or is that light yellow?" etc. So we left the area very happy. On the way back, once things had cooled off, we drove through, and walked, much desert habitat just west of Inyokern, finding burrows of Burrowing Owls (as evidenced by abundant excreta) - but no good look at them was to be had.
We went to the Ridgecrest Watchable Wildlife Park at sunset and saw LESSER NIGHTHAWKS* in addition to unidentified female/immature hummers.
July 8 Ridgecrest to Las Vegas
We left early (6AM) in order to go through Death Valley in the AM, and then to let the kids see Hoover Dam before coming back to Las Vegas. We arrived in Death Valley around 8 AM and it was already 102 degrees(!) Needless to say, there was NO bird activity. I'm sure between sunset and sunrise there is plenty going on here, but it was absolutely dead at 8AM. This is a barren, desolate, hellish place during the day- interesting to see, but I do not intend to ever go back. I thought the name and lore surrounding this area was hyperbole. It is not.
The only birds we saw in the general area were about five BLACK-THROATED SPARROWS in the mountains west of Death Valley. Once we arrived in Nevada, Northern Mockingbirds, Ravens, and Mourning Doves were all we saw. It was also hot there, 110 or so at Hoover Dam. No birds at the dam.
We were hoping for a number of species that we did not find, despite looking for them: Xantus' Murrelt, Cassin's Auklet, and Rhinoceros Auklet were all recently reported between the coast and Channel Islands recently (on eBird), but we did not see them.
During our last evening, we drove and walked through the desert near Ridgecrest looking for LeConte's Thrashers, with no luck. Also, were hoping for Pinyon Jays in the Kaibab Plateau area, but saw none.
Empids were seen at almost all sites we went to, but not one of them sang or called. I don't do silent Empids! There were also many, many female/immature hummingbirds that we simply did not want to devote the time and energy to.
A drawback (for me at least) for some of these places is the sheer number of people. We chose the North Rim of the Grand Canyon because it is less crowded than the South side, but it was still very, very busy. Birding the trails near the visitor center entails literally being bumped into by a never-ending stream of people. It is very hard to find anything resembling solitude or quiet there. Even worse in this regard was Sequoia National Park. The place was a zoo. Some of the trails we hiked were adjacent to huge campsites replete with loud music. I don't wish to sound misanthropic, but this drives me insane. It's no different than visiting a cathedral with a ghetto blaster cranked up. In fact, it's worse. I love the beauty of our National Parks, but unfortunately they sometime serve as Meccas of The Outdoors For People That Don't Really Like The Outdoors. Our Wildlife Refuges are so much nicer in this regard. Okay, I'll stop ranting now.
Anyway, there are wonderful areas to bird where we went, and I'm certain that during migration it will be more interesting. You can reach a wide variety of habitats in a relatively small area. All in all, I'd say that the most unique and enjoyable birding (for a Minnesotan) was the coastal and island areas. What it really makes me want to do is return for a true pelagic birding trip, perhaps in the Monterey area during a more appropriate season. Birding on a rocking boat is a challenging and utterly unique experience.
Finally, most importantly, the kids are (generally) happy with what they saw, although the younger one told us that next time, he wants to take "a normal vacation" which means "flying to one place and staying there and not driving all over the place."