California Dreamin': Part One
I've just returned from a truly memorable trip to the USA, spending two weeks spread across Las Vegas (Nevada), Santa Rosa and San Francisco (both California) and whilst the main reason for the trip was a friend's stag do and wedding, I did manage a little bit of wildlife watching along the way. Suffice to say I managed to rack up a good number of lifers and we had some amazing encounters! Vegas was a whirlwind of bright lights, walking the strip and enjoying the craziness of a mental city with wildlife unsurprisingly sparse. Santa Rosa was a different world and my first taste of American bird life and that's where I'll start.
We arrived at about 7pm on Friday 29th April and as we walked across the car park to the hotel I saw my first dark eyed junco singing its heart out on top of a small tree. Once settled in to our room we had a look at a map of the town and decided to spend the next day (at least the first half, pre-wedding) exploring the local area. We were situated close to a local park so I was hoping that might prove fruitful for a few new birds.
The day dawned bright and surprisingly warm and after a steak breakfast we got out and began investigating the quaint town of Santa Rosa. The pace of life was a welcome relief after the dizzying glitz and glam of Las Vegas and it was nice to potter along quiet streets in beautiful warm sunshine. On entering the park the first bird we saw was an anna's hummingbird. Wow! I'd not seen a hummingbird until that moment and I was blown away by its speed and aerial prowess. Sadly it was too far away for pics but what a start! Seconds after it zipped off I noticed a dark bird under a nearby tree which moved into the light to reveal a stunning flash of blue. A stellar's jay. Another wow moment! Another jay soon dropped down from a nearby tree onto the grass in pursuit of a butterfly. Unsuccessful, it started investigating some string that was close-by and clearly liked what it had found as it picked it up before it hopped away into the undergrowth.
A scan around the rest of the park revealed a number of other new birds for me including mourning dove and, the one that got me really excited, a handful of american robins. When these turn up in the UK it's a big deal so to see them in the flesh was fantastic. An even bigger bonus was the fact that they were fairly confiding though they refused to move from the shade of the many overhanging tress meaning the light was a bit hit and miss.
The following day, with a slightly fuzzy head, we headed South to San Francisco by car. A very long drive with some enticing looking habitat passed, with plenty of unidentified raptors seen as well as a few red-winged blackbirds. A tiring day but the next few days promised much!
We'd talked previously about hiring bikes at some point during our five days in San Francisco and decided there was no time like the present so chose to do this early on to get our bearings of the city. What a day we had! I've no idea how many miles we travelled but we went from Union Square and headed West, travelling through the incredible Golden Gate Park before exiting onto the impressive but heaving Ocean Beach. We then headed up to the Presidio National Park, passing the Lincoln Memorial before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and ending our journey with a ferry crossing back to the city from Sausilito. I cannot recommend doing this enough if you ever visit San Francisco as we saw an incredible amount in the one day and despite initial reservations about cycling in a huge city, we had nothing to worry about thanks to a superb cycling infrastructure.
In terms of wildlife seen during our day biking, it was a long list but the birds that stick in my mind are loads of american robins, allen's and anna's hummingbirds, ring-billed duck, chestnut-backed chickadee, brown pelican, caspian tern, tree swallow, pied-billed grebe and common grackle. I didn't really do much bird photography as we were pretty much always on the bikes and when we weren't we were taking in the stunning scenery.
The following day we had a trip out to Alcatraz booked. The weather was again fantastic and we had another brilliant day taking in the sights. Alcatraz isn't a huge place but it has an intriguing history not to mention features heavily in one of my favourite films (The Rock) so we spent longer than expected strolling around, listening to an audio tour and taking silly cell-based selfies. The island is though an important breeding area for a number of bird species including brandt's cormorant, snowy egret, western gulls and black-crowned night heron. All were welcome ticks though harsh light meant photography was tricky so no real standout images from that day though a wind-blown snowy egret made for something slightly interesting and the day was a wonderful experience.
As we'd cycled through the huge Golden Gate Park at a rate of knots during our 'bike day' we wanted to see more of it so spent most of Tuesday 3rd May walking through the park from Ocean Beach. We got the Muni-Metro from Union Square out to the coast and upon getting to the beach I couldn't help but have a quick scan for waders. It was a Tuesday morning and fairly cool and cloudy so the beach was almost deserted, at least in terms of humans. The same couldn't be said for waders and I immediately picked up on whimbrel, sanderlings and marbled godwits - a wonderful mix. Sadly I wasn't able to spend any significant time here as we had the whole park to navigate but I made a promise I would be back! During the rest of the day we tried to see as many areas as possible and as we were on foot I had a little more opportunity to get the camera out with some decent results and some incredible moments. The polo pitch was alive with birds including barn swallows hawking low over the grass and black phoebe's hunting from the perimeter fencing and hedgerows. A few american coots were seen on the smaller ponds as were countless mallards and canada geese. A number of american robins were also making the most of the well watered grass both on and around the pitch, with a very friendly individual present resulting in my favourite american robin image of the trip. I led down on the grass to get my much favoured eye-level perspective and slowly shuffled forward, stopping up to get a nice bokeh to isolate the bird from both the foreground and background.
Stow Lake was fairly quiet with the resident ring-necked duck a little far out for pics as was a pied-billed grebe. A western-scrub jay was stunning bird to see and on walking around the lake I saw my first great-blue heron which garnered concern by a pair of idiots who flushed it to 'make sure it could still fly' as it was very close to a road. They did this by driving their car at it at speed leaving pedestrians rather shocked. We walked on baffled by what we'd seen.
Then came one of those moments that makes this hobby so worthwhile and epitomises the 'right place at the right time' saying. We'd not walked more than 50 metres before we spotted another great-blue heron, albeit a smaller individual, which was again very close to the road and being admired but passers-by no more than a few feet away. I was immediately hopeful of some decent close-ups which I duly got nice and quickly. The audience continued to enjoy the show with passing cars stopping to enjoy this natural spectacle and I had a break and just watched. The heron seemed to be on the hunt but was nowhere near the water. Its target soon became apparent and I was thankfully ready for what happened next. As quick as a flash, the heron stabbed the earth and came up with a gopher impaled on its bill. Wow! It took a few steps forward and then swallowed the gopher whole. We could not believe we'd been lucky enough to see this. I then got chatting to a local bird photographer who just arrived and he suggested the gophers deemed themselves safe when people were about and that the herons had picked up on this, taking advantage of our presence to secure an easy meal. Nature at its finest and something we'll never forget.
The rest of the day went as quick as a flash with hummingbirds, jays, a spotted sandpiper, a pair of downy woodpeckers, more red-winged blackbirds and even more american robins seen, with the most confiding bird of the trip so far found and photographed. They really are mighty tidy birds and I loved being able to get so close to such a cool bird.
The walk didn't disappoint and was surprisingly action packed as we met a baby skunk followed shortly after by another gopher spearing great-blue heron. Bonkers! The skunk was fairly tame but I got too close a few times and it took a defensive pose threatening to unleash its famous weapon but thankfully things didn't go that far.
That's all for now but I'll be doing a follow-up post shortly to cover an amazing morning on Ocean Beach with just my camera gear and thousands of waders for company!
As always, thanks for reading!
Keywords: Alcatraz, American Robin, Birds, California, Golden Gate Park, Nature, Photography, San Francisco, Wildlife
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