Greg Miller's Big Year Tour Series

CALIFORNIA: Central Coast

Black-footed Albatross, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

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BIRDS & WILDLIFE

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SCHEDULED TOURS

2020 :: September 6 - September 12
2021 :: September 5 - September 11

TRIP LEADERS

TOUR COST

From: $1,950 (See details)
Cost is per person, double occupancy from San Jose, CA (SJC)

GROUP SIZE

3-5 Participants

AVAILABILITY

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.

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TESTIMONIALS

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Highlights of CALIFORNIA: Central Coast

  • Yellow-billed Magpie, Tricolored Blackbird, Bell’s Sparrow
  • World-class seabirding on a Half Moon Bay pelagic!
  • Majestic California Condors along the Big Sur coast
  • Sea otters, sea lions, and whales!
  • Desert species at Pinnacles National Park
  • Fall migration in beautiful, coastal California

Description of CALIFORNIA: Central Coast

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 diversity of habitats and birdlife here. In fact, this is one of our most species-rich tours! During a relaxing loop around the greater Bay Area, we will travel from the marshlands surrounding San Francisco Bay, to oceanside cliffs in Santa Cruz, to the world-famous Monterey Bay, and the Big Sur coastline. This tour also features a half-day pelagic birding adventure out of Half Moon Bay! We will also venture inland to the dry valleys, canyons, and volcanic spires near Pinnacles National Park.

The beauty of the Pacific Coast is enough to merit a trip to this region in its own right, but the unique habitats found here support a lot of regional specialties that are at the top of any birder’s Most Wanted! We’ll look for classic California species including the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie, endangered Tricolored Blackbird, and the mighty California Condor. There are many other specialties to see including Wrentit, California Towhee, California Thrasher, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bell’s Sparrow, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch! Along the coast we will see flocks of Elegant Terns and Heermann’s Gulls and we will scour the rocky shorelines for Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Wandering Tattler. How’s that for an epic list of birds!?

As if that list of speciality landbirds wasn’t enough, we will also be taking a half-day pelagic-birding boat trip into the deep waters of Pioneer Canyon, out of Half Moon Bay. A huge underwater canyon cuts into the continental shelf here with some areas of the canyon up to 1.5 miles deep! Upwellings along the steep walls of the canyon congregates huge numbers of birds and other marine life to feed on swirling balls of baitfish and krill! Notable seabirds we may see on this trip include Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, Pink-footed Shearwater, Black-vented Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Ashy and Black Storm-Petrels, Red Phalarope, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers, Cassin’s Auklet, Tufted Puffin, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Glaucous-winged Gull and Sabine’s Gull. And you never know what rarities we might encounter! Scripp’s Murrelet, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Masked Booby, Nazca Booby, and South Polar Skua have all been seen in this area during September. Marine mammals we are likely to encounter include California Sea Lion, ‘Pacific’ Harbor Seal, Northern Elephant Seal, Humpback Whale, Northern Sea Otters, and various dolphin and smaller whale species. We have even been lucky enough to spot Blue Whales on this trip! Central California is famous among wildlife watchers world-wide, 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, and we really hope to see you in sunny California!

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Length of Tour

7-days/6-nights

Brief Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrivals at San Jose Int. Airport (SJC). San Francisco Bay hotspots. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 2 – Pioneer Canyon pelagic birding trip out of Half Moon Bay. Evening birding or relaxing at the hotel. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 3 – San Mateo coastline, Big Basin Redwoods SP. Night in Santa Cruz.

Day 4 – Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough, and Monterey hotspots. Night in Monterey.

Day 5 – Big Sur coastline and Monterey hotspots. Night in Monterey.

Day 6 – Los Padres Natl. Forest, Gabilan Range, and Pinnacles Natl. Park. Night in Hollister.

Day 7 – Morning birding. Afternoon departures from San Jose Int. Airport (SJC).

Full Itinerary

*The exact order of each day’s itineraries is subject to change depending on the current year’s pelagic birding schedule*

Day 1 – Arrival at San Jose International Airport (SJC) in San Jose, CA. San Francisco Bay hotspots. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Arrivals at San Jose International Airport (SJC) in San Jose, CA. Please plan for an AM arrival so that we can maximize our birding this afternoon and evening! We will spend the day 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. Scrubby habitat surrounding the bay may hold California Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, “Heerman’s” Song Sparrow, and Black Phoebe. Raptors are abundant, including White-tailed Kite and Northern Harrier, and we may find Burrowing Owls! At the Palo Alto Baylands you will 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 plus over a dozen other shorebird species! As the sun begins to set on our first evening in California, we will look and listen for Ridgway’s Rails lurking through the saltmarsh. After dinner we will travel up and over the coastal mountain range to Half Moon Bay. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 2 – Pioneer Canyon pelagic birding trip out of Half Moon Bay. Evening birding or relaxing at the hotel. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Our first full day is dedicated to a pelagic trip out to Pioneer Canyon offshore Half Moon Bay, hosted by Alvaro’s Adventures. Pelagic bird species we expect here 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 Heerman’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!

After our pelagic trip we will enjoy a well-deserved (late) lunch and then guests will have the option to go out birding for the evening, or take it easy and relax back at the hotel. We can explore Pillar Point and Crescent Beach in search of Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone, Elegant Terns, and many other coastal species. California Towhee, “Nuttall’s” White-crowned Sparrows, and Anna’s Hummingbirds are abundant in the coastal chaparral habitat. Rarities like Harlequin Duck and Glaucous-winged Gull will be searched for if there are recent sightings. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 3 – San Mateo coastline, Big Basin Redwoods SP. Night in Santa Cruz.

We will set off early to travel south along the coastline, following US1. We will make multiple stops at scenic sites like San Gregorio Beach, Pescadero Beach, Pebble Beach, and Greyhound Rock. Rocky outcroppings often hold thousands of loafing gulls and cormorants, and careful scanning may turn up the stunning 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 Heerman’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.

After a stop at the Whale City Bakery for pastries and a coffee refill, we will head up into the coastal range and explore the vast Redwood forests! Big Basin Redwoods State Park is an incredible place to explore for a few hours, and can seem like a completely different world to those who aren’t used to standing below truly massive trees! We may see the most colorful subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawks in North America here. Songbirds like Pacific-slope Flycatcher, 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. The 300-acre Quail Hollow Ranch is probably most popular as a wedding site, but this is also a decent birding location. In addition to some of the birds that have already been mentioned we’ll be looking for Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, and Western Tanager. Continuing south toward Santa Cruz, our final destinations today will be to 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 foraging in the kelp beds. This will be our first view of the famous Monterey Bay! Sometimes migrant flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes gather on the small lagoon, and Black Oystercatchers often nest on the natural arch formation. Night in Santa Cruz.

Day 4 – Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough, and Monterey hotspots. Night in Monterey.

This day is dedicated to exploring the shoreline of Monterey Bay. Watsonville Slough is one of the largest remaining freshwater wetlands along the Central Coast of California, and can be a great place to spot herons and egrets. Virginia Rail and Sora may be heard calling from the cattail marshes. 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 up 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 attracts huge numbers of blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and has been open for birders since the 1970s. Shorebirds also congregate here, and the 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, and Brewer’s Blackbirds are abundant. Hutton’s Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Nuttall’s Woodpecker will be top targets as well. We will visit flowering shrubs and try pick out an Allen’s Hummingbird among the more abundant Rufous and Anna’s. Sometimes we have been able to find Costa’s Hummingbird too, but they are quite rare.

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 coming 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 local residents like Western Bluebird, and in past years we have turned up some crazy eastern strays like Blackburnian Warbler and Yellow-green Vireo! You never know what might be hiding in Monterey! Fox Squirrels and Columbian Black-tailed Deer are abundant. Night in Monterey, CA.

Day 5 – Big Sur coastline and Monterey hotspots. Night in Monterey.

Today our primary objective will be to cruise down US1 along 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 canyons. Sometimes the mornings can be very fogged in, but as the fog lifts condors too may 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 various waterfalls and other stunning natural sights! White-throated Swifts and Peregrine Falcons can be seen ripping past the overlooks! After tracking down a condor or two, we will head back to 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. After dinner we may take a drive out to a nearby canyon in search of owls, depending on everyone’s energy level and interest. Possible species include Great Horned, Barn, Western Screech, and even Spotted Owl! Night in Monterey, CA.

Day 6 – Los Padres Natl. Forest, Gabilan Range, and Pinnacles Natl. Park. Night in Hollister.

Now we will leave the coast to visit some inland sites and very different habitats. We will be on the road early to travel up into the pine forests of Los Padres National Forest and try our luck at finding the elusive, almost mythical, Mountain Quail. West Coast forest birds like “Western” Purple Finch, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Band-tailed Pigeon, and “Pacific” White-breasted Nuthatch can be common, and we also see a nice assortment of colorful species like Western Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak. California Scrub-Jays and Oak Titmice are abundant here, and we may find Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Ash-throated Flycatcher. From there we will wind our way through hills and vineyards toward the Gabilan Range. California Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, and Golden Eagle may be seen. In the valley we have found Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, and huge flocks of House Finches. Following dusty roads up and over the mountain, we hope to find Prairie Falcon and a few special songbirds including Bell’s Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow. Some of the more common species include Wild Turkey, Western Bluebird, California Quail, and Lesser Goldfinch. For the remainder of the day, we will visit Pinnacles National Park and hike a few trails in search of wildlife. This area is more arid than our other destinations, and the rocky spires filling the steep mountain slopes have an eclectic beauty. Much of the vegetation is oak-scrub. Bobcats and Gray Foxes are common here. California Condors can be seen soaring in the distance, as well as Golden Eagle and “Western” Red-tailed Hawk. Rock Wren and Canyon Wren can be heard singing from the rock walls. We have found Townsend’s Big-eared Bats sleeping in small caves, and seen California Red-legged Frogs in shaded puddles. Flocks of Yellow-billed Magpie are sometimes gathered in cattle pastures, and one time we actually found 24 condors mixed with Turkey Vultures feasting on a dead cow! It was insane! Some other desert specialties like Phainopepla and Greater Roadrunner may be seen. Night in Hollister, CA.

Day 7 – Morning birding. Afternoon departures from San Jose Int. Airport (SJC).

The primary target of our final morning will be to visit spots in the Coyote Valley for better views of Yellow-billed Magpie, and we have also found Savannah Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow out here. Western Kingbirds and Western Meadowlarks are common, plus the “California” subspecies of Common Raven. Please plan your departures from San Jose International Airport in San Jose, CA (SJC) after 12 noon.

Cost

Cost is $1,950 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 $300 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, but we may have a few more difficult hikes over uneven 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 half-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 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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