Greg Miller Big Year Tour Series

CALIFORNIA: Central Coast Specialties & Seabirds

Black-footed Albatross, photo by Alex Lamoreaux


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2024 :: September 8 - September 14



From: $2,350 (See details)
Cost is per person, double occupancy from San Jose, CA (SJC)


3-7 Participants


2024: from $2600


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.

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Highlights of CALIFORNIA: Central Coast Specialties & Seabirds

  • Dozens of regional specialties including Yellow-billed Magpie
  • World-class seabirding on a Half Moon Bay pelagic!
  • Majestic California Condors at Pinnacles National Park!
  • Sea otters, sea lions, & whales!
  • Fall migration in beautiful coastal California
  • Incredible habitat diversity & birdlife
  • Averages 150+ bird species in 7 days!

Description of CALIFORNIA: Central Coast Specialties & Seabirds

The incredible diversity of plants and animals found along the Central Coast of California allows this tour to cover a much smaller geographical area than most of our other ‘Big Year’ itineraries. It isn’t necessary to drive very far to experience a wide range of habitat types and their unique bird communities. In fact, this is one of our most species-rich tours averaging 150 species or more in just a week of birding! During this relaxing loop we will travel from the marshlands surrounding San Francisco Bay, to the arid canyons and volcanic spires of Pinnacles National Park, to oceanside cliffs in Santa Cruz, to world-famous Monterey Bay, and the Big Sur coastline. This tour also features a full-day pelagic seabirding adventure out of Half Moon or Monterey Bay with Alvaro’s Adventures!

Combine the stunning scenery, peaceful vibes, and a long list of regional bird specialties and Central California quickly becomes high on any birder’s bucket list! We’ll search for classic West Coast species like the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie, endangered Tricolored Blackbird, and the mighty California Condor! Along the way we’ll find Wrentit, California Towhee, California Thrasher, Greater Roadrunner, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Oak Titmouse, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bell’s Sparrow, Hermit Warbler, Pacific Wren, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and much more!

Coastal hotspots can produce huge locks of Elegant Terns and Heermann’s Gulls. We’ll scour rocky shorelines for Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Wandering Tattler. In fact, the timing of this tour is at the height of fall shorebird migration, and this tour often records over 25 shorebird species including Snowy Plover, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, and sometimes exciting rarities including Ruff and Bar-tailed Godwit! Endangered Black Rails and the “San Francisco Bay” subspecies of Ridgway’s Rail are lurking in back-bay saltmarshes!

As if the landbirding wasn’t good enough, this tour showcases a full-day pelagic seabirding boat trip into the deep waters of Pioneer Canyon! This huge underwater canyon cuts into the continental shelf, with some areas of the canyon up to 1.5 miles deep! Upwellings along the steep walls of the canyon congregates huge numbers of fish and marine life at the surface which in turn attracts all sorts of marine mammals and dozens of seabird species to feed on the swirling balls of baitfish and krill! Notable seabirds we will be looking for include Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Ashy and Black Storm-Petrels, Red Phalarope, all 3 jaegers and South Polar Skua, Cassin’s Auklet, Tufted Puffin, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Sabine’s Gull. Plus, you never know what rarities we might encounter! Scripp’s Murrelet, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Masked Booby, and Nazca Booby have all been seen in this area during September! Marine mammals likely to be encountered include California Sea Lion, ‘Pacific’ Harbor Seal, Northern Elephant Seal, Humpback Whale, Northern Sea Otter, and various dolphin and smaller whale species! With a little luck we might even spot an Orca or Blue Whale on this trip! It’s no wonder why Central California is famous among wildlife watchers worldwide, and we can guarantee you’ll want to come back again! There’s just so much to see!

We will fully immerse ourselves in the local wildlife and California culture while keeping a focus on tracking down regional specialties at the peak of fall migration. This tour is scheduled for arguably the best week of the year to visit the Central Coast! For the ultimate experience of fall migration and seabirding along the West Coast, consider combining this with our WASHINGTON: Pacific Northwest tour the following week!

Length of Tour


Brief Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrivals at San Jose Int. Airport (SJC). Don Edwards NWR, Shoreline Park, Palo Alto Baylands, San Francisco area hotspots. Night in San Jose.

Day 2 – San Jose hotspots, Coyote Valley, Pinnacles National Park, Bickmore Canyon. Night in Monterey.

Day 3 – Monterey Harbor, Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing, Pacific Grove, & Point Pinos. Night in Monterey.

Day 4 – Big Sur Coastline, Monterey hotspots. Night in Santa Cruz.

Day 5 – Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz hotspots, Davenport, Route 1 hotspots. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 6 – Full-day seabirding pelagic out of Pillar Point Harbor with Alvaro’s Adventures. Night in San Jose.

Day 7 – San Francisco Bay hotsposts. Departures from San Jose Int. Airport (SJC).

Full Itinerary

*Exact daily itinerary subject to change depending on current conditions, and an ever-increasing threat of wildfires which may cause closures to some birding destinations. The exact day and departure location of the pelagic is also subject to change depending on each year’s schedule.

Day 1 – Arrivals at San Jose Int. Airport (SJC). Don Edwards NWR, Shoreline Park, Palo Alto Baylands, San Francisco area hotspots. Night in San Jose.

Please plan for an AM arrival at San Jose International Airport (SJC) in San Jose, CA so that we can maximize our birding this afternoon and evening! Better yet, we encourage you to arrive the evening before the tour begins! We will spend the morning hours birding hotspots along the western shoreline of San Francisco Bay. Our first destination will be to Don Edwards NWR where wetland impoundments hold huge numbers of shorebirds, waterfowl, terns, and gulls. More than 20 species of shorebirds have been found here in September including rarities like Ruff and Pacific Golden-Plover. Scrub habitat surrounding the bay may hold California Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, “Heermann’s” Song Sparrow, and Black Phoebe. Raptors are abundant including White-tailed Kite and Northern Harrier, and we will check for Burrowing Owls which are rapidly declining in this region. In just the right habitat, we might be able to hear endangered Black Rails calling!

Based on recent sightings we may detour up to downtown San Francisco to chase any staked-out rarities such as unusual songbirds, flycatchers, or shorebirds that are being reported.

At the Palo Alto Baylands you’ll be blown away by the number of shorebirds gathering to roost in the marshes! There can be hundreds of Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets here and over a dozen other shorebird species! As the sun begins to set on our first evening in California, we will look and listen for “San Francisco Bay” Ridgway’s Rails lurking through the saltmarsh. Night in San Jose.

Day 2 – San Jose hotspots, Coyote Valley, Pinnacles National Park, Bickmore Canyon. Night in Monterey.

We’ll kick off day 2 by bouncing around to a few urban parks in southern San Jose to try our luck at some odds and ends like Scaly-breasted Munia and other songbirds. We’ll likely have our first introduction to Oak Titmouse, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and perhaps California Thrasher. The stunning “California” subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk can be quite abundant in urban areas as well.

From there we will work our way south toward Pinnacles National Park. Along the way, a quick detour to some backroads in the Coyote Valley should result in finding the endemic and quite handsome, Yellow-billed Magpie! These magpies are often in large flocks roaming through the vast oak-savannahs and cattle pastures of this area. While searching for the magpies we may also encounter Savannah Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, the “California” subspecies of Common Raven, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and perhaps Golden Eagles!

Much of the afternoon will be spent in Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles is tucked into the dry forested hills and mountains. This area is more arid than our other destinations, and the rocky spires filling the steep mountain slopes have an eclectic beauty. The wide-open spaces and limited access make this region ground zero for the northern-most population of California Condors, and the massive birds can often be spotted soaring along the tall ridgelines surrounding the park. Golden Eagles, “Western” Red-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Kite, and other raptors can also be found in the area. Much of the vegetation here is oak-scrub, and mammals like Bobcat, Gray Fox, Black-tailed Jackrabbit, California Ground Squirrel, and Mule Deer can be found here. Rock Wren and Canyon Wren may be heard singing from the rock walls of narrow canyons. Other desert specialties like Phainopepla, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Greater Roadrunner are uncommon but regular. Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, California Scrub-Jay, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher will also be top targets during our time in the park.

Along nearby La Gloria Road, which winds up through Bickmore Canyon, we have another opportunity to spot condors in addition to Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Bell’s Sparrow, California Towhee, Fox Sparrow, Western Bluebird, Bewick’s Wren, California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, and Bushtit. From there we will head toward the coast. Scattered cattle troughs along this road lure in birds looking for a sip of fresh water in the otherwise dry landscape. Night in Monterey.

Day 3 – Monterey Harbor, Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing, Pacific Grove, & Point Pinos. Night in Monterey.

This day is dedicated to exploring the shoreline of Monterey Bay, from Point Pinos to Watsonville. Watsonville Slough is one of the largest remaining freshwater marshes along the Central Coast of California and can be a great place to spot herons, egrets, terns, and shorebirds. Zmudowski Beach is great for congregations of gulls, and we often find Whimbrel here. Next, we will wind our way along Elkhorn Slough, which opens to the Pacific Ocean at Moss Landing. This is where Monterey Bay’s massive underwater canyon begins. The deep water attracts three species of cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and Parasitic Jaegers close to shore. Huge numbers of shorebirds gather in the saltmarshes here, highlighted by the possibility for Snowy Plover and Red Knot! More abundant shorebirds include Marbled Godwit, “Western” Willet, Long-billed Curlew, and Short-billed Dowitchers will be present by the hundreds. The photo opportunities here are often very good. California Sea Lions, “Pacific” Harbor Seals, and Northern Sea Otters are abundant in the marina. Brush Rabbits (endemic to the immediate coastline) are common.

A visit to the privately owned dairy farm, Moonglow Dairy, is famous for its flock of Tricolored Blackbirds. This endangered species is a close relative of Red-winged Blackbird and looks very similar. The dairy cattle attract huge numbers of blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds and has been open for birders since the 1970s. The endemic subspecies of Red-winged Blackbird known as “California Bicolored Blackbird” is also abundant here, and lacks the yellow portion to their epaulets. Shorebirds also congregate on a few impoundments between the dairy and the slough and have often produced sightings of Wilson’s Phalarope and Pectoral Sandpiper. A small patch of eucalyptus trees can hold songbirds like Townsend’s Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, and Downy Woodpecker.

Heading into downtown Monterey we will bounce around to multiple small parks and ponds in search of Western Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Virginia Rail. Great-tailed Grackles are just beginning to colonize this area while Brewer’s Blackbirds are native and abundant. Hutton’s Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Nuttall’s Woodpecker will be top targets as well. We will visit flowering shrubs and try to pick out a Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbird among the more abundant Anna’s Hummingbirds. Sometimes we have been able to find Costa’s Hummingbird too, but they are quite rare in this region.

For the evening we will make a slow loop of Pacific Grove and Point Pinos. There is incredibly deep water just offshore from Point Pinos, and so this site is famous for pelagic birds like Black-vented Shearwater and even Black-footed Albatross cutting in quite close to shore! It has also lured in some mega-rarities like Red-footed and Nazca Boobies! Wandering Tattler and Surfbird hide in the rocks, and sometimes flocks of Whimbrel can be seen migrating by. Patches of trees near the point and at the nearby cemetery often hold migrant songbirds and residents like Western Bluebird. By carefully working the flocks of songbirds we have turned up some crazy eastern strays like Blackburnian Warbler and Yellow-green Vireo! You never know what might be hiding in Monterey! Eastern Fox Squirrels (introduced) and “Columbian Black-tailed” Mule Deer are abundant. Night in Monterey, CA.

Day 4 – Big Sur Coastline, Monterey hotspots. Night in Santa Cruz.

This morning our primary objective will be to cruise down US1 through the incredible Big Sur region and search for California Condors! These massive vultures were reintroduced to this vast, wild portion of the California coast and subsist on dead whales and sea lions that wash up along the shore. They nest in hollowed-out stumps and massive cavities in the huge redwoods and cedars that line the steep, coastal canyons. Sometimes the mornings can be very fogged in, but as the fog lifts condors take wing and soar along the seaside cliffs! Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, and singing Rufous-crowned Sparrows are also possible. At Point Lobos and Garrapata we will admire the beautiful plants and butterflies specially evolved for this Mediterranean climate and take some time to see a few waterfalls and other stunning natural sights! White-throated Swifts and Peregrine Falcon can be seen ripping past the overlooks!

After tracking down a condor or two, we will head back through Monterey and spend the afternoon visiting hotspots around town for new trip-birds and other species we need better views of. A visit to the wharf often allows for great photo opportunities of Northern Sea Otter and Pigeon Guillemot. We might make another stop at Moss Landing or nearby Watsonville hotspots depending on recent sightings. Night in Santa Cruz, CA.

Day 5 – Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz hotspots, Davenport, Route 1 hotspots. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an incredible place to explore for a few hours in the early morning and can seem like a completely different world to those who aren’t used to standing below truly massive trees! Songbirds like Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Pacific Wren can be numerous, and we often encounter migrant warblers including “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, Townsend’s, Hermit, and Black-throated Gray! Western Gray Squirrel, Merriam’s Chipmunk, Douglas Squirrel, and Mule Deer are abundant in these forests. Steller’s Jays fill the forests with their raucous calls, and brushy hillsides hold California Scrub-Jays.

Back down on the coast in Santa Cruz, we’ll visit Natural Bridges State Beach and Lighthouse Point. These seaside overlooks are great places to watch surfers riding the waves, and for spotting tiny Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots foraging in the kelp beds. Sometimes migrant flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes gather on the small lagoons, and Black Oystercatchers often nest on the natural arch formation.

After a lunch stop at the Whale City Bakery for pastries and a coffee refill, we will head north up route 1 along the coast. This drive provides incredible vistas and classic California scenes straight out of the movies. San Gregorio Beach, Pescadero Beach, Pebble Beach, and Greyhound Rock are good spots to scan for condors from. Rocky outcroppings often hold thousands of loafing gulls and cormorants including Pelagic Cormorant. Scanning out onto the ocean we may see hundreds to thousands of Sooty Shearwaters flying by! Western Gull, California Gull, and the sleek Heermann’s Gull will be abundant. Surf Scoters are often the most common duck species, but Red-breasted Merganser is possible too. Black Oystercatchers blend in well with the dark rocks, and small flocks of Black Turnstones may be gathered along the coast. This will offer more opportunities for finding Wandering Tattler or Surfbird hiding in the rocks! A careful scan may turn up Pacific Loons. California Ground Squirrels are common (and very friendly) at the overlooks. Out on the sea it’s common to spot California Sea Lions and sometimes distant “Pacific” Harbor Porpoises. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 6 – Full-day seabirding pelagic out of Pillar Point Harbor with Alvaro’s Adventures. Night in San Jose.

Finally, the day of our pelagic has come! We’ll be departing from Pillar Point Harbor and heading out to Pioneer Canyon offshore from Half Moon Bay. These excellent pelagics are hosted by Alvaro’s Adventures. Seabird species we expect include Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, and Red Phalarope. Both Ashy Storm-Petrel and Black Storm-Petrel are possible. Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers are expected, while Long-tailed is uncommon. Tiny alcids like Cassin’s Auklet, Common Murre, and Rhinoceros Auklet may be spotted. If we are lucky maybe even a Tufted Puffin or Scripp’s Murrelet will make an appearance! Western Gulls, California Gulls, and Heermann’s Gulls will be abundant and sometimes we spot migrating Sabine’s Gulls – a very striking species! The more regular tern species include Common and Elegant, but we have also spotted Arctic Terns on these trips. Besides the excellent birding, there are many marine mammals out in the deep water. Sometimes Humpback Whales and even Blue Whales can steal the whole show! We have also recorded Risso’s Dolphin, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, and Harbor Porpoise. California Sea Lions are common, but closer scrutiny may turn up a Northern Fur Seal or Northern Elephant Seal loafing at the surface. The bird and mammal possibilities are seemingly endless, and every day out on the ocean brings new surprises! Once we’re back on dry land, we’ll head over the mountains back to San Jose. Night in San Jose.

Day 7 – Morning bird as time allows. Departures from San Jose Int. Airport (SJC).

Please plan afternoon departures from San Jose International Airport in San Jose, CA (SJC). Some local birding to nearby San Jose hotspots will be fit in as time allows prior to drop-offs at the airport. If you are planning to continue on to our Washington: Olympic Peninsula tour, please coordinate flights with our guides. There are often direct flights from San Jose to Seattle with Alaska Airlines around 1:30pm.


Cost is $2,350 per person, based upon double occupancy, from San Jose, CA (Airport code SJC).
This trip ends in San Jose, CA (Airport code SJC).

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.

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.

This trip includes standard hotels.

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

Most walks will be easy and over flat terrain. Be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions with generally cool, damp, and breezy conditions along the immediate coast and hot, dry conditions further inland. This trip includes a full-day pelagic birding trip out of Half Moon Bay. Please take precautions if you are prone to seasickness, and ask us for tips and tricks! This is an adventurous trip, but jam-packed full of great birds and other wildlife!

Recommended Field Guide

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

Sibley Birds is also available as an App for iPhone and Android.

Non-smoking Tour

This trip is for non-smokers only. Smoking is not permitted at any time during our tour.

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 recommend purchasing Travel Insurance to help cover your investment, for covered reasons. 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.

Location Map