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Greg Miller's Big Year Tour Series

CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts & Mountains



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2020 :: January 5 - January 12
2021 :: January 3 - January 10



From: $2,100 (See details)
Cost is per person, double occupancy from San Diego, CA (SAN)


3 - 5 Participants


2020 – 3 spaces available

2021 – 5 spaces available


This tour is available as a private trip for any size group. The tour cost will vary with the number of people and any custom requests.

  • If not already completed, please enter the tour name above.


63 + 8 =

Highlights of CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts & Mountains

  • San Diego County consistently has the highest species count of any county in the USA
  • Ridgway’s Rail, California Gnatcatcher and Mountain Quail
  • Mojave and Anza Borrego Deserts

Description of CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts & Mountains

When I think of Southern California, the first thing that pops into my head is the pleasant, Mediterranean-like climate all year. Its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean keeps it temperate. This kind of climate is especially appealing to this Ohio native. Smack during the dead of winter is when I am wishing I was in Southern California soaking up sunshine and feeling the gentle touch of a salty ocean breeze.

Maybe you have never been to Southern California. During the 1970s you may have watched the Beverly Hillbillies on TV and thought “Californy” was a place for millionaires, swimmin’ pools, and movie stars. Well, it is that, too. In fact, more than 20 million people call this place home because of its pleasant temperatures, stunning scenery, and convenience to well…everything. Of course, there is traffic. Lots of it. It’s incredibly urban. And maybe you’ve stayed away for those latter reasons. So why not let us do the driving for you?

Despite its urban density, birding can be fantastic right in the heart of the two largest cities, Los Angeles and San Diego. The parks are incredibly beautiful. They are like oases in the desert. And relatively large areas of natural areas still exist outside the cities.

Southern California is one of the must-visit places on every birder’s calendar. The bird life here is stunningly rich due to the amazing diversity of habitats that converge here. There is the Pacific shores, a coastal range of mountains, the grasslands of the Central Valley, the mountain ranges including the San Gabriels, San Bernadinos, and San Jacintos, and the Mojave Desert. We will touch each of these areas during our visit.

Nearly 500 species of birds have been recorded in California during  the first couple of weeks in January. Some of the goodies we will look for on this trip include Pacific Loon, Clark’s Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Ferruginous Hawk, Ridgway’s Rail, Black Oystercatcher, California Gull, Allen’s Hummingbird, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Wrentit, Oak Titmouse, Pacific Wren, California Gnatcatcher, Townsend’s Warbler, California Towhee, and Golden-crowned Sparrow.



Length of Tour


Brief Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival at San Diego International Airport; SD River
Day 2: Tijuana River Valley; La Jolla Cove
Day 3: Bolsa Chica; LA; Playa Del Rey; San Gabriel Mountains
Day 4: Antelope Valley; San Bernadino Mountains
Day 5: San Jacinto Wildlife Area; Big Morongo Canyon Preserve; Palm Springs
Day 6: Salton Sea; Imperial Valley
Day 7: Anza Borrego Desert; SD
Day 8: Departure from San Diego International Airport (SAN)

Full Itinerary

Day 1 ~ Arrival in San Diego; San Diego River

After our morning arrivals at San Diego International Airport, we’ll spend the afternoon birding the San Diego River, which hosts an overwhelming diversity and sheer number of birds, including Black Brant, Eurasian Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Red Knot, five species of grebes, and up to ten species of gulls and terns, including the gorgeous Heermann’s Gull.

We’ll also find our first “countable” exotic species of the trip, Scaly-breasted Munia (formerly Nutmeg Mannikin), farther upstream, and see why they live up to their new name. We may watch our first sunset along Sunset Cliffs while looking for rocky shorebirds, keeping our ears out for Red-masked Parakeets among other potential “non-countable” exotics, and keeping our fingers crossed to see the famous “green flash”. Orientation at dinner.
Night in San Diego.

Day 2 ~ Tijuana River Valley; La Jolla Cove

We’ll spend our first morning together right along the Mexican border in the Tijuana River Valley. This area is well known for a long list of vagrants that have shown up here, but it also contains a diverse cluster of habitats that host everything from the exotic Black-throated Magpie Jay, Red-crowned, Lilac-crowned, and Yellow-headed Parrots to the federally threatened California Gnatcatcher and endangered Ridgway’s Rail. Other characteristic SoCal species such as Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Cassin’s Kingbird, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Thrasher, California Towhee will be abundant in the coastal sage scrub, along with Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and Long-billed Curlew in the extensive tidal marshes.

After a quick stop to admire a vagrant Thick-billed Kingbird, we’ll eat authentic Mexican tacos, and then head to La Jolla Cove for seawatching. The deep underwater canyon here allows pelagic species to be seen right from the cliffs, sans nausea, and has also made this location famous for numerous spectacular vagrants. We’ll be looking for Black-vented Shearwater, Wandering Tattler, three species of loons (Common, Red-throated, and Pacific), and a trifecta of cormorants (Double-crested, Pelagic, and Brandt’s).
Night in Newport Beach.

Day 3 ~ Bolsa Chica; LA; Playa Del Rey; San Gabriel Mountains

Bolsa Chica Preserve is a coastal lagoon that underwent a major restoration effort in the 1970’s, and it’s now paid off with having a nice variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders, such as Ridgway’s Rail, Reddish Egret, Western Snowy Plover, Black-necked Stilt, and American Avocet. We’ll make a short visit here and likely chase a nearby rarity.

We’ll then brave the LA traffic and head right in to the heart of the beast in order to see Spotted Dove. This species has an interesting history, but precipitously crashed in numbers over the past two decades. It’s now hanging on by a shoestring in the mainland US, and we’re going to chase after possibly the last ten or so birds left here.

The jetties and breakwaters of Ballona Creek and Playa Del Rey are a wonderful place to see rocky shorebirds like Black Oystercatcher, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, Black Turnstone, and Whimbrel up close and personal. Loons, grebes, diving ducks, and gulls add to the experience.

Leaving the coast, we’ll head straight up to Ponderosa Pine forests along Angeles Crest to search for Williamson’s, Red-breasted, and Red-naped Sapsuckers and White-headed Woodpeckers. While up here, we’ll also enjoy Pygmy Nuthatch, Band-tailed Pigeon, Mountain Chickadee, and Purple Finch among others.
Night in Lancaster.

Day 4 ~ Antelope Valley; Apollo Park; San Bernadino Mountains

We’ll start our morning in the beautiful high Mojave Desert, in the western limit of Joshua Tree forest, with the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains looming above us. Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons should be in good supply among other raptors, but our real targets for the morning will be the elusive LeConte’s Thrasher among Bell’s and possibly Sagebrush Sparows. We’ll have our first chances for Tricolored Blackbird, Vesper and Lark Sparrows, Mountain Bluebird, and Mountain Plover. A walk around Apollo Park offers good chances of finding roosting Great-horned, Barn, and possibly Long-eared Owls, California Quail, and Greater White-fronted Goose along with the chance for a vagrant blown down from the Sierras.

Our afternoon will be spent in the high elevations of the San Bernadino Mountains searching specifically for rare and hard-to-find species such as Mountain Quail, Cassin’s Finch, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire, Red Crossbill, and possibly even Pinyon Jay, Evening Grosbeak and Clark’s Nutcracker. While searching for these, we’ll enjoy Nuttall’s, Acorn, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jay, Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, Phainopepla, Brown Creeper, and try for Western Screech-owl before dinner.
Night near Moreno Valley, CA.

Day 5 ~ San Jacinto Wildlife Area; Big Morongo Canyon Preserve; Palm Springs

San Jacinto Wildlife Area is another wetland oasis with an overload of birds that’s located just barely on the cismontane (coastal) slope of the San Gorgonio Pass, which itself is a major migratory corridor. The abundance of waterfowl and small mammals in the surrounding grasslands provide ample food for raptors like Golden Eagle, Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, Ferruginous Hawk, and White-tailed Kite. Tricolored Blackbird, Mountain Bluebird, American White Pelican, American Bittern, White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, and Sora will be a few of our other targets. It’ll be difficult to leave this busy spot.

The compost piles at a nearby egg ranch can host a great selection of gulls, with Thayer’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls being quite regular. This will be a great educational opportunity for learning the intricacies of difficult gull ID.

After making our way down through the San Gorgonio Pass, we’ll climb back up in elevation a bit to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts and the chaparral below San Gorgonio Peak. This makes for a great study in Ladder-backed and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, which both occur here, and even occasionally hybridize. We’ll use the remaining daylight to search for Sage Thrasher, LeConte’s Thrasher if still needed, and visit lush urban parks with Costa’s Hummingbird and Vermilion Flycatcher.
Night in Palm Springs.

Day 6 ~ Salton Sea; Imperial Valley

We’ll get an early start today so that we can fully appreciate the Salton Sea. Famous as a geologic oddity, bourgeoisie vacation destination turned ghost town, and vagrant bird magnet; there’s nothing quite like it. Gulls, grebes, cormorants, and both pelicans are packed all along the receding shoreline of fish skeletons and barnacles. It’s one heck of a spectacle.

We’ll be hoping to find one of the few (maybe total of two) overwintering Yellow-footed Gulls among this mass, but, hey, we found it last year! The surrounding agricultural fields are also a great place to observe both Snow and Ross’s Geese together, with Burrowing Owls in the drainage ditches, and there may even be a possibility for Sprague’s Pipit in the fields with Mountain Plover and Mountain Bluebirds. Along the brushy edges of the sea we should find Abert’s Towhee, Gambel’s Quail, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Verdin, and we’ll look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the wetlands.
Night in Borrego Springs.

Day 7 ~ Anza Borrego Desert; San Diego

We’re going to be typical birders this morning and start out at a sewage treatment pond in a beautiful, lush pocket of desert looking for Crissal Thrasher and Brewer’s Sparrow. White-winged Doves will be flying about town and we may find a Gray Flycatcher or Plumbeous Vireo in one of the resort oases. We may give one more try for Sagebrush Sparrow and LeConte’s Thrasher in the alkaline flats if needed, and we should find Black-throated Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, White-throated Swift, and Rock Wren along the way.

The rest of the day will be spent cleaning-up any missed targets and/or desired rarities on our way back over the mountains into SD. Lewis’ Woodpecker, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Aleutian Cackling Goose, Clark’s Grebe, Cackling Goose are among the many options we may chose to pursue.
Night in SD.

Day 8 ~ Departure from San Diego International Airport (SAN)

If there’s any time available after eating chilaquiles, we can spend a few hours getting better looks at any desired species before flights leave.

Cost Details


Cost is $2,100 per person, based upon double occupancy, from San Diego, CA (Airport code SAN).
This trip ends in same as arrival city (Airport code SAN).

Cost Includes

Cost includes airport transfers, all ground transportation, accomodations, entrance fees and services of your professional leader(s).

Cost does not Include

All meals, flights to/from destination city, trip insurance, or anything that is not specifically mentioned in the itinerary.

Minimum Number

If fewer than the minimum number of participants registered, the trip can still run with a small-group supplement fee per person determined by the number of participants.

Single Supplement

If a single room is preferred, or we are unable to find a suitable roommate for you, a single supplement fee of $450 will be assessed.

Deposit Requirements

A $500 deposit per person is required to hold each space on this tour. Deposit may be made online by clicking the "Book Your Trip Now" button and using any credit card. If you prefer, you may call us at 888-875-9453 to pay by phone. You may also mail us a check, however, remember that all space is held on a first come-first served basis as deposits are received.

Minimum Number

If fewer than the minimum number of required participants are registered, we may still be able to run the trip by adding a small-group supplement fee, per person, determined by the number of participants registered.

How to Book

In order to hold your space, click the "Book Your Trip Now" button above and complete the deposit process, including payment of the deposit through our Paypal portal using ANY CREDIT CARD. Upon completion of deposit, please visit our secure, online CLIENT INFORMATION FORM to complete your registration.

Final Payment

For all land-based tours: full payment by check is due 120 days prior to the departure date.

For all boat-based adventure cruises of 7-days or longer: full payment by check is required 180 days prior to departure.

NOTE: If you prefer to use credit card for final payment, a 3% fee may be added to cover the credit card merchant fees we incur.


Standard hotels will be used, as close as possible to our birding location.

Activity Level

Activity Level Rating: (Note: 1 is easy and 5 is difficult)

Mostly easy walks, however, there may be a couple longer walks in warm, to hot conditions.

Additional Information

Recommended Field Guide

Sibley Birds West (2nd Edition, 2016, Knopf)
by David Allen Sibley

Sibley Birds is also available as an App


Purchasing Flights

Do not purchase your flights until the trip has been confirmed to go.

Detailed Trip Information

Upon notification that final payment is due (120 days prior to departure for land based tours / 180 days for boat based tours), you will receive a trip package of detailed information for your tour.

Any additional information about the trip, including lodgings, contacts, participants, meeting locations, etc., will sent about 2 weeks prior to the trip departure, or after final payment is received for late registrants.

Travel Insurance

As with all tours, we highly recommend purchasing Travel Insurance to cover your investment. Please see our section on Travel Insurance.

Passport & Visa

US Citizens may require a visa to enter certain foreign countries. See above for any required visa information.

Participants arriving to the USA from a foreign country may need to get a travel visa to enter the United States. Be sure to check the requirements for your country of origin.

Itinerary Changes

The trip itinerary is developed many months ahead of time. Occasionally, despite our best planning, changes may occur during the trip, or we may be forced to alter our plans. Changes may occur because of weather, road conditions, safety concerns or other circumstances. In these situations, it is the leader(s) responsibility to carefully consider and implement appropriate alternatives. Any additional costs incurred because of changes will be the responsibility of each individual participant. Refunds will not be issued as a result of itinerary changes.

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