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USA | California Pacific Coast & Deserts

A 12-day birdwatching tour to California, exploring the Pacific coast and deserts of southern California just as the autumn migration is reaching a peak.
A host of seabirds, waders and passerine migrants plus all those alluring Californian endemics and West Coast specialities to look for - on a journey that will take you from the Salton Sea up into the San Jacinto Mountains, via oases in the Mojave Desert to the incredible scenery of Joshua Tree National Park. Add two special boat trips seeking the unique Island Scrub Jay and cetaceans including Blue Whale, to round off a trip that's packed with great scenery and birding.

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Chris Charlesworth

Max Group Size: 8
Duration: 12 Days

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crop Yellow billed Magpie 2 Santa Barbara California 0914 tour participant Paul Daunter

Yellow-billed Magpie at Santa Barbara - one of several exciting species on this tour that are more or less confined to the state of California © tour participant Paul Daunter

Late August/early September is prime time for birding along North America's bountiful Pacific coast. Abundant seabirds, shorebirds and some excellent regional endemics combine with a great diversity of habitats to provide all the right ingredients for a memorable birdwatching tour to southern California - one that will journey from high mountain forests to celebrated ‘migrant traps’ in the desert, and out on to the Pacific Ocean in search of shearwaters, cetaceans and the unique Island Scrub Jay on Santa Cruz Island.

After landing at Los Angeles, our birding begins in nearby Orange County, where the lagoons, bays and coastal parks make for an unbeatable start to our tour. Wandering Tattler, Surfbird and American Black Oystercatcher feature in a superb list of west coast waders, along with Allen’s Hummingbird and three range-restricted endemics: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, California Gnatcatcher and California Towhee.

Heading inland, the Anza-Borrego State Park is a desert wonderland full of avian and botanical surprises. Greater Roadrunner, Cactus Wren, Verdin and the smart Black-throated Sparrow all obliged on our last visit here, whilst amidst the impressive flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds to be seen at the land-locked Salton Sea, 220 feet below sea level, we will seek the rare Yellow-footed Gull - a species found nowhere else in North America.

At the opposite extreme and soaring to a height of more than 10000ft above Palm Springs, the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains are home to many unusual forest species; White-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch and the scarce Lawrence’s Goldfinch are among many possible treats in store here. Far below, the extraordinary Joshua Tree National Park is one of California’s scenic wonders, famed for its bizarre vegetation and peculiar rock formations.

At this time of year, migrant birds will be streaming south across California’s southern deserts. We could encounter almost anything from Lazuli Bunting and Black-headed Grosbeak to Townsend’s Solitaire and Black-throated Grey Warbler. Two localised specialities, California Thrasher and the ghostly Le Conte’s Thrasher are our main targets here, as real-life wily Coyotes roam through the arid creosote brush.

Returning to the Californian coast, we'll check the oak-clad hinterland for the unusual Wrentit and the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie. Our visit is planned to coincide with two boat trips off the Pacific shore. One will take us out to Santa Cruz Island, home to the endemic Island Scrub Jay, a species that occurs nowhere else; the other, a full-day pelagic off Santa Barbara, could produce Blue Whale and cetaceans as well as shearwaters, auklets and other seabirds in what promises to be an exciting finale to our tour.

Limosa has been operating a wide-ranging programme of bird tours to North America since 1994. Since earning his 'Limosa wings' more than a decade ago, guide Chris Charlesworth has led most of our tours 'across the pond'. Our 2015 tour will be his eighth visit to California and his sixth trip there for Limosa.

California Gnatcatcher T0B99476 BES webck011212

A threatened bird of coastal chapparal, the tiny California Gnatcatcher is found only in southern California and the adjoining peninsula of Baja California © Brian E. Small, briansmallphoto.com

Day 1

Our birdwatching tour to California begins with a morning flight from London to Los Angeles, arriving there in the afternoon. Chris will be waiting to welcome us. We transfer south to our hotel in Santa Ana, Orange County, which will be our base for the first two nights. Night Santa Ana.

Day 2

On our first full day of birding we explore a selection of city parks, coastlines and refuges in and around the Orange County area, an attractive suburb south of Los Angeles, where many California specialities are found.

We begin our day at Upper Newport Bay, listening out for the enigmatic and endangered "light-footed" race of Clapper Rail and enjoying our first Pacific shorebirds, Black Skimmers and California Towhees. The latter is one of a number of exciting specialities on this tour whose ranges are all but restricted to California and the adjoining peninsula of Baha California (Mexico) that lies to the south. Following the coast south, at Crystal Cove State Park we have the opportunity look for two more Californian endemics: the localised California Gnatcatcher and California Thrasher.

After lunch, a visit to some attractively manicured parks offers chances to see Allen’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Wrentit. The San Joaquin Sanctuary makes an excellent stop for shorebirds, such as American Avocet, Short-billed Dowitcher and Wilson’s Phalarope. Flocks of American White Pelicans are often to be found at San Joaquin, along with graceful White-tailed Kites. Night Santa Ana.

Day 3

We begin the day with a drive from Orange County to the desert in Anza-Borrego State Park. Not only does Anza-Borrego produce good birds, but it also yields stunning desert scenery and plant life. Covering 600,000 acres, this is the largest state park in California. The cartoonish Greater Roadrunner, Gambel’s Quail with its distinctive top knot, the tiny Costa’s Hummingbird, Black-throated Sparrow, Phainopepla and the plush-capped Verdin are all characteristic desert birds here.

The afternoon sun may become almost unbearably hot as we near the Salton Sea depression. Birding close to our air-conditioned vehicle, we will explore the north end of this land-locked wetland, where Crissal Thrasher may be found. Thousands of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, pelicans and cormorants cover the shorelines and huge flocks of White-faced Ibis and Western Cattle Egrets feed in nearby fields. In the late afternoon we’ll check into our hotel for a two-night stay in the attractive city of Brawley. Night Brawley.

Day 4

Some thirty-five miles long and fifteen wide, the Salton Sea was created during a massive flood, which inundated the Imperial Valley in the early 1900s. Water birds litter the lake, especially at this time of year, during migration. We will start the day off by walking through the trees at the Wister Unit, where migrant warblers and other passerines are often seen. Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Abert’s Towhees and Lesser Nighthawks may be present in the arid scrub along the path.

As we drive down the eastern side of the Sea we’ll stop to ogle at the irresistible Burrowing Owls beside the road, then scan through flocks of shorebirds in the flooded fields close to the shore. A wide variety of common North American waders can be expected such as Western Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts and perhaps a Long-billed Curlew. The scenery is surreal around the shores of the Salton Sea, where the rugged, rocky 'moonscape' meets the calm, deep blue waters of the sea. Yellow-footed Gulls - a large dark-backed species occurring in North America only at the Salton Sea - should be seen easily. We’ll also seize the opportunity to study ‘look-alike’ Western and Clark’s Grebes swimming side by side at Finney Lake, a short distance from Brawley.

Because of the potentially very hot midday temperatures here - the sea lies in a basin 220 feet below sea level, where daytime temperatures can reach 43C (110F) - we will probably retreat to our Brawley hotel for an afternoon siesta. Once the temperatures start cool off slightly we’ll venture back out to a city park in Brawley, where Gila Woodpecker, a mainly Mexican species, can be found. The nearby town of Calipatria is located 184 feet below sea level and we’ll pause here to admire the country’s tallest flagpole - the top of which rises to precisely sea level! Night Brawley.

Day 5

An early morning departure is necessary today as we head for the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains. Amongst the most scenic of mountain ranges in Southern California, the San Jacintos tower almost 3500 metres (10800ft) above Palm Springs. We will complete a loop today, beginning in Indio and carrying us up through four different life zones to reach a maximum elevation of about 1700m (5600ft).

Climbing up through the woodlands, we will pass by Hemet Lake, before descending into the Sonoran Desert at Highway 74. The sleek but curious-looking Phainopepla can often be seen feeding on berries on hillside bushes near Hemet Lake. Hurkey Creek State Park is a great location in which to enjoy typical birds of the upland pine forests and we will be watching here for Pinyon, Steller’s and Western Scrub Jays, White-headed and Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees and three out of four North American nuthatches - Pygmy, White-breasted and Red-breasted. Hummingbird feeders in the park attract good numbers of Black-chinned and Anna’s Hummingbirds. With any luck, we will bump into the sought-after Lawrence’s Goldfinch, these delightful small birds gathering into small flocks at this time of year prior to leaving California and heading south to spend the winter in neighbouring Arizona and Mexico.

After we’re satisfied with our mountain birding experience, we will make the drive to Twentynine Palms, on the doorstep of the great Joshua Tree National Monument. Night Twentynine Palms.

Day 6

After breakfast today, our first stop will be Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. This oasis of cottonwoods and willows attracts many birds - both residents and migrants - and is a popular birding spot in early autumn. Brightly coloured Summer Tanagers, rare in southern California, should be found here. Equally eye-catching, Vermilion Flycatchers also frequent the reserve. Migrant warblers, vireos and flycatchers are likely to enliven our walk along the boardwalk through lush palm woodlands and we might encounter a charm of Lawrence’s Goldfinches feeding in the weedy fields at Big Morongo - although their chance appearances anywhere are notoriously unpredictable!

Later in the day, we enter the spectacular Joshua Tree National Park. Although birding can be relatively quiet here at this time of year, that fact is soon forgotten as one’s imagination is lost amidst the stunning setting of rocks and surreal, twisted Joshua Trees - not a true tree, but in fact a giant yucca! Encompassing more than 570,000 acres of rugged desert terrain, this remarkable park ranges from sea level up to around 2500m (8000ft), and is home to a number of special birds, including the shy Le Conte’s and Bendire’s Thrashers. Chipper Rock Wrens sing from the tall rock outcrops and ‘giant-sized’ Cactus Wrens chatter from the strange Joshua Trees.

In the late afternoon we continue to the town of Mojave, which is situated in the middle of the fantastic Mojave Desert, where we shall spend the next two nights. Night Mojave.

Day 7

The Mojave Desert lies in the rain shadow of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and is dominated by the hardy Creosote bush. At this time of year, many migrant birds will be making their way south across the arid Mojave. Seeking food and shelter from the sweltering heat, they (like us!) concentrate at the few relatively lush but entirely man-made oases in the desert. And like the birds, we shall want to start early today to beat the desert heat!

Our travels will take us through various areas within Eastern Kern County, beginning with a visit to Jawbone Canyon to look for Le Conte’s Thrasher, and Sage and Black-throated Sparrows. Rock Wrens sing loudly from tiny gravel escarpments, and the introduced Chukar seems quite at home here, clambering about the rocky hillsides. From here, we’ll follow a gravel road through a forest of Joshua Trees and junipers to Butterbredt Spring, another spot where migrant birds pause to take advantage of food and shade. Great Horned Owls are often to be found resting up amongst the tall cottonwoods.

After lunch, we’ll make our way out to the Silver Saddle Resort at Galileo. A playground for the rich, the Silver Saddle Resort grounds consist of a golf course with numerous ponds and many large trees. As migrants pass over the barren Mojave Desert they are irresistibly drawn to this verdant oasis and, at times, the birding here can be fantastic. Lazuli Bunting, Lark Sparrow and Great-tailed Grackle are all possible, along with a variety Neotropical migrants - perhaps including Yellow and Black-throated Grey Warblers, Warbling Vireo, and the big Black-headed Grosbeak. September also brings the vanguard of wintering species such as Say’s Phoebe, Hermit Thrush and White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Night Mojave.

Day 8

The drive west from Mojave to Santa Barbara is quite scenic as the arid desert landscape gradually gives way to tree-cloaked mountains and ultimately to the open beaches of California’s Pacific coast. North of Santa Barbara we will explore some gorgeous oak woodlands that are home to the surprising Yellow-billed Magpie, another California endemic. Flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons fly purposefully over the tops of the oaks, often perching on exposed snags for us to see. Little coveys of Californian Quail scurry from bush to bush and Red-shouldered Hawks watch intently from above.

We’ll then head for the beaches and regional parks near Santa Barbara, where flocks of shorebirds and gulls are well worth checking for oddities in September. In autumn, trees and shrubs in these locations can be fantastic traps for migrant passerines, too. Noisy Wrentits sing from the chaparral, and are often accompanied by curious Blue-grey Gnatcatchers. In the late afternoon, we will arrive at our hotel in Camarillo, at the start of a three-night stay. Night Camarillo.

Days 9 – 10

The coast of southern California offers excellent seabirding opportunities and - weather permitting of course - we shall enjoy the first of two exciting boat trips today, sailing from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is the largest and most wooded island of southern California’s Channel Islands, and home to the endemic Island Scrub Jay, a unique species that has never been recorded off the island.    

The boat to Santa Cruz usually departs Ventura at eight in the morning and returns to the mainland again in the afternoon, at around five. An on-board galley is available for food and drinks, and once docked at Santa Cruz Island we’ll be free to wander at will, enjoying a leisurely day discovering the unique fauna found of this offshore national park. The scrub jays themselves are sometimes to be found at the dock, leaving time to explore a variety of other habitats within easy walking distance. Also of particular interest on Santa Cruz are the island’s several endemic subspecies, including Orange-crowned Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo and Song Sparrow.

The boat crossings to and from the island take about 90 minutes each way and usually produce some nice pelagic species: Pink-footed, Sooty and Black-vented Shearwaters, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas, Heermann’s Gull and Elegant Tern are among birds we’ve recorded in the past, along with Common Dolphins and California Sea Lions.

Next day, we join a pelagic boat trip operating out of Santa Barbara. Condor offer pelagics on a high-speed, 75-ft catamaran and, in addition to the comfortable vessel (which can carry up to 149 people), they also provide experienced local guides. Again, a galley is onboard, serving hot and cold food throughout. No two trips are ever the same but virtually all are exciting - certainly for those who have never been on a west coast pelagic before! The boat usually sets sail at around seven in the morning, returning to port again around five in the afternoon. Our last group enjoyed a prolonged encounter with two superb Blue Whales, and other cetaceans to watch out for include Humpback Whale, and Risso’s and Long-beaked Common Dolphins. Although primarily a whale-watching trip, seabird possibilities off the coast here in September can include Black-footed Albatross, Buller’s and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Black, Ashy and Least Storm Petrels, and the similar-looking Craveri’s and Xantus’s Murrelets as well as an assortment of skuas, gulls and terns. Nights Camarillo.

Day 11

With our feet planted firmly on dry land once again, this morning we visit Devereaux Slough, where shorebirds such as Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs can be found. Black-crowned Night Herons often pose for a photo at the slough and other species we could see here include Snowy Egret and Green Heron. Afterwards, we will make one last check of some coastal migrant traps, such as Carpinteria Creek - a belt of riparian woods beside a creek in residential Santa Barbara - hoping for a ‘fall’ of exciting passerines to round off our birding in style.

It will be with some reluctance that we must then make our way back south to Los Angeles, travelling along famous Highway 101 that will take us through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Returning to Los Angeles airport, we bid farewell to Chris and catch the evening flight home.

Day 12

Our flight arrives back into London this afternoon, where our birding tour to California tour concludes.

LONG BILLED CURLEW (1) Florida Kevin ELSBY wildlifeontheweb.co.uk

The California coast is outstanding for shorebirds in September - 24 species were recorded on our last tour, including North America's largest shorebird, the cinnamon-hued Long-billed Curlew © Dr Kevin Elsby, wildlifeontheweb.co.uk

What To Expect

A 12-day birdwatching tour to California, exploring the Pacific coast and deserts of southern California just as the autumn migration is reaching a peak. A wealth of seabirds, waders and passerine migrants plus all those alluring Californian endemics and West Coast specialities to look for - on a journey that will take you from the Salton Sea up into the San Jacinto Mountains, via oases in the Mojave Desert to the incredible scenery of Joshua Tree National Park. Add two special boat trips seeking the unique Island Scrub Jay and cetaceans including Blue Whale, to round off a trip packed with great scenery and birding.

There will be early starts some days to beat the heat, especially in the Mojave Desert and at Salton Sea.

California weather is extremely variable. During late August/early September it is mostly hot and sunny, typically 14-27°C (57-81F) in LA; hotter in California’s arid desert interior, where midday temperatures can rise to 30+C (86F), and may occasionally reach 43C (110°F) in the Salton Sea depression. Generally cooler on the coast and at altitude, and it can be chilly, even cold first thing in the mountains. Wind and rain are unlikely at this season except (rarely) as localised thunderstorms in the desert.


180-200 species


5-15 species


We use good-excellent quality North American-style hotels, all rooms with air-conditioning and en suite. 


With Limosa, all main meals are included in the tour price. Food is good, varied and plentiful. Buffet-style breakfasts at the hotels. Lunches will usually be picnics but we sometimes visit a local restaurant or diner. As is the norm in the USA, evening meals will usually be taken at a local restaurant since most hotels lack in-house restaurant facilities.


Easy, short walks. It will be hot in the desert interior, but we’ll start early here and our air-conditioned vehicle will always be close at hand. Wear comfy waterproof walking shoes with sturdy corrugated soles.

Maximum elevation this tour: 1700m (5600ft), exceptionally up to 2000m (6500ft), in the San Jacinto Mountains.


Scheduled flights from London to Los Angeles with British Airways or similar.

Ground transport is by air-conditioned minibus.

Boat Trips

We plan to take two boat trips, out of Ventura and Santa Barbara: one to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park; the other a pelagic out into the Pacific Ocean in search of whales and seabirds (see main itinerary). Both trips are weather permitting and subject of course to availability and operation of the vessels at the time. Conditions in early September are generally settled but note that the Pacific Ocean can have quite a swell; participants should bring their preferred motion sickness medication for the boat trips.

Please note: in the event the boat trip/s are not running due to the weather or for operational reasons beyond our control, we’ll arrange a suitable land-based birding excursion/s instead.

5NAM view Joshua Tree National Park California Don King Sep 2008 PICT0148

Our California tour takes in a wonderful variety of scenery, including the unique Joshua Tree National Park - home to some fascinating birds and mammals © tour participant Don King

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