Greg Miller's Big Year Tour Series
CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts, & Mountains
BIRDS & WILDLIFE
From: $2,100 (See details)
Cost is per person, double occupancy from San Diego, CA (SAN)
3 - 5 Participants
2020 – 1 space available
2021 – 5 spaces available
PRIVATE TOUR OPTION
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.
Highlights of CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts, & Mountains
Description of CALIFORNIA: South Coast, Deserts, & Mountains
Southern California’s Mediterranean climate is especially appealing during the dead of winter, when most of the country is locked into cold, dreary conditions day after day. This January tour begins and ends along the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, but travels in a large loop of the region and covers habitats varying from the urban streets of Los Angeles, to chaparral hills and pine-oak mountains in the San Bernardinos, to the vast Mojave Desert and Salton Sea. This whirlwind tour is the perfect winter escape for some solid birding while soaking up sunshine, and kicking your year list off right!
Birding might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Southern California, and maybe instead you recall the 1970s ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ on TV and thought “Californy” was a place for millionaires, swimmin’ pools, and movie stars. It certainly has that, but SoCal is so much more. In fact more than 20 million people call this place home, but with California’s pleasant temperatures, stunning scenery, and convenience to everything, how can you blame them! Of course, with lots of humans there is lots of traffic. Maybe you’ve stayed away for these reasons. But if so, you are missing out on California’s wild side. So why not let us do the planning and the driving for you? Despite its urban density, the birding can be absolutely fantastic right in the heart of the two largest cities, Los Angeles and San Diego. The coast varies from sandy beaches, to saltmarsh, and even scenic cliffs. The city parks are incredibly beautiful and vibrant, and large natural areas still exist outside the city limits. You won’t believe how the scenery changes from one hour to the next, and you never know what birds might pop up!
Southern California is a must-visit area on every birder’s calendar. The birdlife is stunningly rich due to the diversity of habitats that converge here. The Pacific shoreline, the grasslands of the Central Valley, the trifecta of mountain ranges coming together in the highlands, and the Mojave Desert and Salton Sea brings together 100’s of species. Huge numbers of over-wintering birds seek out sheltered bays, marshes, and lakes. We will visit each of these varied habitats during the course of our trip, and plan to tally up a really nice list of over 200 species of birds, many of which are western and California specialties!
Christmas Bird Counts in Los Angeles and San Diego are the most species-rich in the country, and with good reason – huge numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, terns, gulls, and raptors visit the region during winter and regional residents are in good supply, many of which are beginning to sing and set up breeding territories. Over 20 regional specialties are completely or nearly endemic to California and we will be searching for each of them, including Ridgway’s Rail, Black Oystercatcher, Allen’s Hummingbird, Bell’s Sparrow, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Wrentit, Oak Titmouse, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Mountain Quail, Tricolored Blackbird, Pacific Wren, and Golden-crowned Sparrow. And of course, 6 out of the 7 bird species beginning with ‘California’ are top targets of this trip…. California Gull, California Gnatcatcher, California Towhee, California Thrasher, California Quail, and California Scrub-Jay! This is really a great tour for a taste of the excellent birding in California.
NEW for 2020 we have a 4-day target tour that works as an extension to this 8-day trip! This short tour focuses on finding California Condor, Island Scrub-Jay, and a bunch of Los Angeles exotic birds! Contact us to learn more!
Length of Tour
Day 1: Arrival at San Diego Int. Airport (SAN), Tijuana River Valley, Imperial Beach. Night in San Diego.
Day 2: San Diego River, Mission Bay, Point La Jolla, Mile Square Regional Park. Night in Huntingdon Beach.
Day 3: Huntingdon Beach, Bolsa Chica, Compton exotics, Playa del Rey. Night in Lancaster.
Day 4: Antelope Valley, Lancaster fields. Night in Moreno Valley.
Day 5: San Jacinto Wildlife Area, San Bernardino NF, Idyllwind. Night in Palm Springs.
Day 6: Coachella Valley, Salton Sea loop. Night in Borego Springs.
Day 7: Anza-Borrego Desert hotspots and oasis, Warner Valley. Night in San Diego.
Day 8: Local birding around San Diego. Departure from San Diego Int. Airport (SAN).
*Exact birding itinerary subject to change depending on current conditions.
Day 1 – Arrival at San Diego Int. Airport (SAN), Tijuana River Valley, Imperial Beach. Night in San Diego.
After morning arrivals at San Diego International Airport, we will set off for as much birding as we can pack into our first afternoon in southern California! San Diego is well-known for a long list of vagrants, so any major rarities will be prime targets. A vagrant Thick-billed Kingbird has over-wintered near Poggi Creek for a few winters now, and if it returns we will try to track it down.
Beyond rarities, we will get started with resident specialties. The diverse habitats in the area host everything from exotic Black-throated Magpie Jays and various parrots, to the federally threatened California Gnatcatcher and endangered Ridgway’s Rail. Additional SoCal species including Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, Cassin’s Kingbird, California Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Thrasher, and California Towhee should be plentiful in the coastal sage-scrub as we bird our way around San Diego. Be on the lookout for White-tailed Kites and other raptors.
We will end the day at Imperial Beach and Tijuana Slough NWR, where we hope to spot a Ridgeway’s Rail skulking in the marshes. Ducks, waders, and big shorebirds like Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, ‘Western’ Willet, and Long-billed Curlew gather to roost here.
Night in San Diego.
Day 2 – San Diego River, Mission Bay, Point La Jolla, Mile Square Regional Park. Night in Huntingdon Beach.
We will kick off our first full day birding the San Diego River. The narrow river and it’s estuary flow into the Pacific Ocean, and host an overwhelming number and diversity of birds, particularly waterfowl and shorebirds. Targets to be on the lookout for here include ‘Black’ Brant, Eurasian Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Red Knot, up to ten species of gulls and terns, including the gorgeous Heermann’s Gull. Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Great Blue Herons, and Little Blue Herons can be abundant and we would be lucky to spot Tricolored Heron and Reddish Egret. Both night-herons may be tucked into dense trees, sleeping the day away. The diversity of shorebirds can be mind-boggling, but we will carefully scan through them and point out species while giving helpful ID help. Having so many species together, and relatively close-by, is a great chance to learn!
Heading north, we will bird around Mission Bay. Various parks and preserves around the bay offer great birding, with lots of ducks and shorebirds gathered in prime foraging areas. Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve can have ‘Black’ Brant, Ridgway’s Rail, egrets and herons, and maybe a few Red-masked Parakeets will fly past! California has various unique subspecies of Savannah Sparrows, and we have the chance to find the dark ‘Belding’s Sparrow’ and maybe the ampty-named ‘Large-billed Sparrow’ while we bird around Mission Bay. Crown Point is one of the only places to see wintering Black Skimmers in California. Up to 6 species of grebes can be found wintering here too. Say’s Phoebe, Black Phoebe, and Cassin’s Kingbirds are common wintering flycatchers here. ‘Audubon’s Warbler’ and Orange-crowned Warblers are abundant in winter, but we will check flocks carefully for other wintering warbler like Yellow or Townsend’s.
Now we will visit La Jolla Cove, for a bit of seawatching on the beautiful Pacific. A deep underwater canyon runs very close to shore here, and allows pelagic species to be seen right from the cliffs, sans nausea. We’ll be looking for Black-vented Shearwater, Wandering Tattler, three species of loons (Common, Red-throated, and Pacific), and the Pacific trifecta of cormorants (Double-crested, Pelagic, and Brandt’s). Brandt’s Cormorants nest on the cliffs and their close proximity offers an incredible photo-opportunity. Surf Scoters, Clark’s Grebe, and Black Turnstones may also be spotted. Heermann’s Gull, Western Gull, and California Gulls should be plentiful along with Royal Terns, and maybe even a jaeger! The nearby seal haul-out is a great chance to see ‘Pacific’ Harbor Seals and huge California Sea Lions up on the rocks and small beaches. Northern Elephant Seals sometimes turn up here too.
Now it’s time to sit back and relax; we have 2 hour drive north towards Los Angeles. The remainder of the day will be spent exploring the Mile Square Regional Park near Huntingdon Beach. The golf course attracts Canada Geese which in turn attract rare wintering geese like Snow, Ross’s, ‘Aleutian’ Cackling, and Greater White-fronted. Exotic, but established, Egyptian Geese are residents here. Raptors are often plentiful, including the stunning local subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk. Eucalyptus Trees are invasive but do offer a winter habitat for warblers and other songbirds. Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Red-breasted Sapsucker may be hiding in the oaks. Various exotic species are residents in LA’s city parks, and we may encounter Scaly-breasted Munia, Bronzed Mannikin, Northern Red Bishop, Swinhoe’s White-eye, and others!
Night in Newport Beach.
Day 3 – Huntingdon Beach, Bolsa Chica, Compton exotics, Playa del Rey. Night in Lancaster.
At sunrise we may have a quick check around Huntingdon Central Park for a few exotic songbirds, but can’t let that bog us down too much. We want to head to the coast and bird our way north through the Bolsa Chica Preserve’s coastal lagoons for a few hours. This reserve underwent a major restoration effort in the 1970’s, and is really paying off with a nice variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. Sea ducks like Surf Scoter, Greater Scaup, and sometimes a Long-tailed Duck can be at close range in the multiple bays and lagoons. California Gnatcatchers still persist in the scrubby hillsides around the lagoon. Pacific Golden Plovers are rare, but if one is staked-out we might chase it.
Then we have to bite the bullet and brave the LA traffic… we will head right in to the heart of the beast in order to see the famous, resident Spotted Doves. These Asian doves look like brighter, fancier Mourning Doves and were first introduced to southern California in 1915. Their population exploded and they became common throughout urban and agricultural areas in the region. In the last two decades, however, Spotted Dove numbers have precipitously crashed. They are now hanging on by a shoestring in California, and only found in densely urban sites around Compton. We will try our luck with tracking down a dove or two, before there aren’t any left to find. Other rarities may be searched for depending on recent sightings. In 2019 we saw a wintering Red-flanked Bluetail at the UCLA library, so you never know what might be around!
The jetties and breakwaters around 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. Sometimes rarer gulls like Mew and Glaucous-winged can be found here. We will spend a few hours on the coast here, and have lunch in this classic California beach town.
The remainder of the day will be spent heading inland for the next portion of our tour. We will leave the city, venture through the suburbs nestled into the coastal mountain ranges, then cross over Angeles Crest on our way to the Antelope Valley. Night in Lancaster.
Day 4 – Antelope Valley, Lancaster fields. Night in Moreno Valley.
We’ll start our morning in the beautiful, high-elevation Mojave Desert. Exploring the sagelands and western limit of iconic Joshua Trees in the Antelope Valley can turn up really interesting birds, while the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains looms above us. Targets for the morning include Le Conte’s Thrasher, Sage Thrasher, Ross’s Geese, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Bell’s Sparrow. Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Coyotes roam the desert. Weather conditions can sometimes be overcast and cool in the mornings but quickly heat up by mid-day, so bring layered clothing and a hat.
A slow loop around Apollo Park offers a good chance f0r finding roosting owls. In the past we have found Great-horned, Barn, and even Long-eared Owls sleeping in the junipers. California Quail, various ducks, and point-blank Greater White-fronted Goose are common here. Large numbers of juncos overwinter at this site, and although the flocks are dominated by ‘Oregon Juncos’ we have also spotted ‘Slate-colored’, ‘Cassiar’, and ‘Pink-sided’ subspecies here too! Both ‘Audubon’s’ and ‘Myrtle’ Yellow-rumped Warblers gather in the trees around the park, and we will search through them carefully for rare songbirds. Mountain Bluebirds winter in the fields nearby; sometimes with dozens in one field!
After lunch we will make a loop around the eastern half of the Antelope Valley. Targets will include Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Merlin, and grassland shorebirds like the rare, and range-restricted Mountain Plover. Horned Larks, American Pipits, Loggerhead Shrike, and 100s of Common Ravens can be expected. ‘Western’ Red-tailed Hawks overwinter here in large numbers, and we might get to see the rufous or dark type birds which compose less than 10% of the population.
We will have a 1.5 hour drive to the Moreno Valley where we are staying for the night, so the later afternoon will mostly be spent driving south. Depending on time and interest we may also hit some birding hotspots along the way, namely Saint Andrew’s Priory. This tiny oasis in the desert offers dense vegetation and fresh water to birds, and we can often find a few notable species hiding out in the trees including Townsend’s Solitaire, Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers, and Oak Titmice.
Night near the Moreno Valley, CA.
Day 5 – San Jacinto Wildlife Area, San Bernardino NF, Idyllwind. Night in Palm Springs.
We are in for a big day birding some really great habitats and hoping for a bunch of regional specialties. At sunrise we will head to the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. This is a wetland oasis at the base of the cismontane (coastal) slope of the San Bernardino National Forest. The range itself is a major migratory corridor. The abundance of waterfowl and small mammals at San Jacinto and in the surrounding grasslands provide ample prey for raptors like Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine, Ferruginous Hawk, and White-tailed Kite. Cattail-filled wetlands, cattle farms, and dairies provide winter food and cover for the endangered Tricolored Blackbird, and we may also encounter Cinnamon Teal, American White Pelicans, American Bittern, Cattle Egrets, and White-faced Ibis. Compost piles at a nearby ranch can host a nice collection of gulls, with Thayer’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls being regular in winter… although we may have to scan through hundreds of California and Ring-billed Gull to find them!
For the rest of the day we will set off for the chaparral hillsides and oak-pine highlands of the San Bernardino Mountains. McCall Memorial Park is a great place to find California Quail and a number of mountain species like ‘Coastal’ Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, ‘Pacific’ White-breasted Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatches. Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers can be abundant. Huge pine cones scattered on the ground belong to Sugar Pines and Coulter Pines, native to these mountains. A quick check of the manzanita scrub along the shores of Lake Hemet can produce nice views of the skulky Wrentit and maybe a flock of Bushtit! Sometimes Bald Eagles overwinter on the lake. The Holy Grail of California birds is the regal Mountain Quail. Keep a sharp eye on the side of the road for this colorful quail. Keep your ears peeled for their ‘quee-ark!’ calls.
We will have lunch in the quaint mountain-town of Idyllwild and then check some parks for more woodpeckers! White-headed Woodpecker, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, and ‘Pacific’ Hairy Woodpeckers are attracted to the old-growth pines and cedars. Band-tailed Pigeons may be seen flying over in small flocks. Keep an eye out for Western Gray Squirrels and Mule Deer! Heading downhill towards Banning we will check a few side-roads for birds, and make a stop at a scenic overlook where Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Spotted Towhee may be found. Watch the skies for soaring Golden Eagles!
After making our way through the San Gorgonio Pass (which sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts), we will round the San Gorgonio Peak, and head towards Palm Springs. Night in Palm Springs, where the vibe and architecture almost make you feel like you’ve entered an alternate reality or 60’s movie set…. but that’s just California sometimes.
Day 6 – Coachella Valley, Salton Sea loop. Night in Borego Springs.
We’ll get an early start so that we can fully appreciate our last day in the Mojave Desert and around the Salton Sea. After a quick stop to check for rarities at one of Palm Spring’s city parks, we will head off for a true desert oasis. The Thousand Palms Oasis in the Coachella Valley is a small patch of towering California Fan Palms surrounding a few freshwater springs. Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Phainopepla should be abundant and we will try to track down Rock Wren, Sagebrush Sparrow, and others. The habitat here is really beautiful, and colorful wildflowers and cactus cover the landscape. Desert Gold, Arizona Lupine, Cholla Cactus, and Spanish Needle may host a number of butterflies if the weather is decent.
The remainder of the day will be dedicated to making a huge loop of the famous Salton Sea. This inland sea is a geologic oddity, bourgeoisie vacation destination turned ghost town, and a vagrant bird magnet – there’s nothing quite like it! Fish farms at the north end can hold egrets, herons, and good numbers of gulls. The dry, desert landscape is home to Greater Roadrunners, Common Ground-Doves, Cactus Wren, and Abert’s Towhee. The North Shore Marina often has an overwhelming number of ducks, coots, and grebes. Some years we have counted over 250 Eared Grebe from this one spot, as well as 100+ Ruddy Ducks and 300 Least Sandpipers. Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and other shorebirds are common along the salty shoreline. A careful scan through the Double-crested Cormorants may turn up a Neotropic. All the California Gulls should be double-checked for rarities, especially Yellow-footed Gull which is a summer resident but very rare during the winter months. Vegetated borders around the lake can house Sagebrush Sparrows, and probably some hybrids between Bell’s and Sagebrush. Great-tailed Grackles and Yellow-headed Blackbirds can be found in cattail-filled marshes, or mixed in with the hordes of Red-winged Blackbirds coming to roost here.
The irrigation projects and the Sonny Bono-Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge at the southeast corner of the lake provides nesting and wintering habitat for 1000s of birds. Listen for Sora and Virginia Rails, and watch for various terns to fly past. Sometimes you can find foraging flocks of 1000+ Long-billed Curlew in one field, as well as 100s of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis. Recently-plowed farmland may be another opportunity for us to find Mountain Plovers. Burrowing Owls are also found in the area. This is also the range of Gambel’s Quail, not California. A quick drive through the dusty streets of Westmorland may turn up a Gila Woodpecker or two! The day will end along Vendel Road watching as 1000s of Snow Geese and 100s of Sandhill Cranes gather to roost. Keep an eye out for rare Lesser Nighthawks at sunset.
Night in Borrego Springs.
Day 7 – Anza-Borrego Desert hotspots and oasis, Warner Valley. Night in San Diego.
We’re going to be classic birders this morning and start out at a sewage treatment pond, but actually the lush pocket of desert surrounding the ponds are a great place to look for Crissal Thrasher and Sage Thrasher. Lark, ‘Gambel’s’ White-crowned, and Brewer’s Sparrows may be found in nice flocks. White-winged Doves will be flying about town and we may find a Gray Flycatcher or Plumbeous Vireo in one of the resort oasis. Some alkaline flats will be a nice place to try for Sagebrush Sparrow and LeConte’s Thrasher if needed. We should find Black-throated Sparrow, Verdin, Black Phoebe, and Rock Wren along the way. Phainopepla are commonly seen feasting on Desert Mistletoe. Watch for Western Side-blotched Lizards and other reptiles if the weather allows. The Roadrunner Club housing community has multiple freshwater ponds that host a large number of overwintering American Wigeon. Scanning through the flocks can often turn up Eurasian Wigeon and other interesting ducks. Costa’s Hummingbirds are common at flowering cacti.
After lunch we will drive up the steep slopes of the San Ysidro Mountains, where we might find White-throated Swifts soaring along the rocky escarpments and hear Canyon Wren singing. White-sided Antelope Squirrels can be common.
The rest of the day will be spent heading back over the mountains towards San Diego. In the Ranchita area we can check side-roads for another shot at Mountain Quail, plus rare Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Lawrence’s Goldfinches. The Warner Valley grasslands are home to a plethora of wintering raptors, and Lake Henshaw usually has 100s of ducks, coots, and grebes. Bald Eagles are more common in this area. We will then wind our way back towards the coast, and enjoy a nice dinner in downtown San Diego. Night in San Diego.
Day 8 – Local birding around San Diego. Departure from San Diego Int. Airport (SAN).
Depending on departures we will do some local birding on the last morning. We will search for any remaining target birds or stake-out rarities. Another visit to the San Diego River estuary or the Mission beach jetty could yield coastal birds that we missed earlier in the week. A few local parks typically house a few wayward songbirds we might want to pick up, and Emory Cove has been the wintering grounds for an unusual American Flamingo for the past few winters. Participants will be dropped off at the airport in the afternoon, although they won’t want to leave!
NEW for 2020 we have a 4-day target tour that works as an extension to this 8-day trip! This short tour focuses on finding California Condor, Island Scrub-Jay, and a bunch of Los Angeles exotic birds! If any participants wish to stay for the extension, we will head north to Los Angeles and begin the next tour!
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 airport transfers, all ground transportation, accommodations, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This tour includes standard hotels, as close to our birding hotspots as possible.
Activity Level Rating: 2 (Note: 1 is easy and 5 is difficult)
Anticipate walks up to 1.5 miles in length, but mostly over flat and open terrain. Weather can vary dramatically from hot and sunny to chilly and windy so please bring layered clothing and rain gear. We will be traveling in large SUVS, so please be prepared for climbing in and out of the (quite luxurious) trucks many times per day.
Sibley Birds West (2nd Edition, 2016, Knopf)
by David Allen Sibley
Sibley Birds is also available as an App
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.
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.
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.