The California 7

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Jan 5, 2022 | by Alex Lamoreaux

Stretching 770 miles along the Pacific coastline of North America and spanning 250 miles inland, California covers a huge area of diverse habitats where over 450 bird species are regular breeders or migrant visitors. In fact, seven bird species are specifically named for California – California Condor, California Quail, California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, California Scrub-Jay, California Towhee, and California Gull. Ironically, though, none of these birds are technically endemic specifically to California! Yellow-billed Magpie and Island Scrub-Jay are the only two true California endemics. Nonetheless, the California 7 consist of some incredible birds and it is true that many are most common and most easily seen in that state. Our two tours to California, visiting central CA in September each year and southern CA in January each year, track down these birds and many other specialties. Here are some facts and stories about the California 7 plus a few honorable mentions!….

California Towhee is only found from southern Oregon to Baja California, and typically prefers open scrubby and rocky habitats particularly in close proximity to the coastline. This species is often found in pairs foraging quietly on the ground, blending perfectly into the dirt and woody vegetation. They are part of an interesting genus of Melozone sparrows which consist of 8 species found in the western US and Central America. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

California Thrasher is a strikingly large and vocal songbird of chaparral hillsides from southern Oregon to Baja California. This is the largest of the western thrasher species, and both males and females can be spotted perched prominently in tall bushes and trees belting out their mimicking repertoire. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

The smallest member of the California 7 is the endangered and declining California Gnatcatcher. These are only found in particular scrub habitats in a very small area of southern California and Baja. Pairs are strongly bonded and both the male and female incubate their eggs, and both will viciously defend their nesting territories from predators despite their incredible small size. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

California Scrub-Jay is a colorful and curious corvid of California’s cluttered conditions. They are at home both in vast oak savannahs and dense urban neighborhoods. Even for a large jay species, they can often be seen in climbing and leaping through the branches of dense vegetation with ease. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

California Gull is a common species along the coast and around inland lakes. This species is ironically the state bird of Utah, but can be found over a large area of the west. They are intermediate in size between Ring-billed Gull and Western Gull, and have a medium-gray mantle color as adults. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

My personal favorite of the California 7 is the massive and rare California Condor. These incredible scavengers require huge areas of suitable habitat to search for carrion that also provide nesting habitat in cliffside caves or large, hollowed-out trees. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

Last but not least is the beautiful and intricately-patterned California Quail. These are a fairly common species over a large area of the west, and can most often be tracked down by hearing their distinctive ‘Chi-ca-go’ calls! Other times a large family group of maybe 20 birds can huddle silently under brush until right before you walk up on them and then burst out in all directions! Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

A few honorable mentions….

Yellow-billed Magpie is an absolutely stunning bird with a bright yellow bill, varying amounts of yellow skin around the eyes, and a striking iridescent black-and-white plumage. They are smaller than the more widespread Black-billed Magpies and are more likely to gather in very large flocks. These flocks roam through oak savannah hills and fields, and can often be found around cattle. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

California’s other true endemic is the Island Scrub-Jay where it only occurs on Santa Cruz Island – part of the chain of channel islands off southern California. These are the largest of the scrub-jays and have a deeper blue color on their head and topsides than the California Scrub-Jay. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

The endangered Spotted Owl has 3 distinct populations, the ‘Mexican’ Spotted Owl of southern Arizona and central Mexico; the ‘Northern’ Spotted Owl of the Pacific Northwest; and the ‘California’ Spotted Owl of California. These subspecies is found in a declining number of oak and pine mountain ravines. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

And finally, the “California” Brown Pelican is a conservation success story. Previous listed as endangered this huge seabird is now quite common. The largest nesting colonies are on just two of the Channel Islands, and also a few locations in Mexico. They can be seen gliding in large squadrons on cliffside updrafts and gather by the dozens on rocky islands dotting the California coast. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

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