Northern California is more typically known as a late summer destination for it’s seabirds and cetaceans. However, during the less visited winter months there are some equally impressive wildlife spectacles to see. These include the Grey Whale migration, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of migrating Snow Geese, one of the largest mainland Elephant Seal colonies in the world as well as a great time to see two tricky mammals, Bobcat and American Badger!
The tour starts in Monterey Bay where the Grey Whale migration should be in full swing. We will take a morning boat trip out in Monterey Bay to see these amazingly friendly whales where we also have a great chance of seeing other cetaceans and seabirds.
The coastline around Monterey Bay is great for waders too and we will spend time looking for the specialities such as Surfbird and Black Turnstone. We will also visit an important wintering area for Monarch Butterflies close to our accommodation where hundreds of these amazing insects gather before their migration begins in March. We will head south along the coast towards Big Sur on one day where we should see a number of speciality birds including the tiny Wrentit and the impressive California Condor!
After our stay in the southern Monterey Bay area we will head north to the northern bay where we will explore the areas around Moss Landing for some great views of shorebirds and Sea Otters. On one day we will visit the Ana Nuevo State Park and one of the largest mainland breeding colonies of Northern Elephant Seals. At this time of year there should be thousands of animals on the sand dunes!
The final half of the tour concentrates on the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco.
Here we have a very good chance of finding two of our key mammal targets, the Bobcat and the American Badger. Of course, birding here is also good and we should see a great selection of waders, seaduck and passerines. Finally, we will visit one of the most impressive bird spectacles in northern California as we head for the northern Sacramento Valley where thousands of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese & Sandhill Cranes gather. The noise alone is impressive and it will be a great finish to the tour!
DAY 1: San Francisco
Arrive into San Francisco Airport during late afternoon and then transfer to a nearby hotel beside the San Francisco Bay Area where some good birding can be had just outside the hotel.
Overnight San Francisco
DAY 2: San Francisco Bay – Monterey Bay
This morning we will visit more of the San Francisco Bay Area before taking the 3 hour drive south to Monterey Bay and Pacific Grove. Once checked into our hotel we will explore the coastline where we should find some of the speciality waders such as Black Turnstone, American Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird and maybe Wandering Tattler too. A scan out in the bay may reveal some seaduck such as Black Scoter and Surf Scoter as well as a chance of Rhinoceros Auklet and even our first Grey Whales!
Overnight Pacific Grove
DAYS 3 & 4: Monterey Bay – Big Sur
Designated in 1992, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a protected marine area offshore of California’s central coast. It encompasses a shoreline length of 276 miles and 4,601 square nautical miles of ocean. The sanctuary contains impressive kelp forests and one of North America’s largest underwater canyons close inshore. An incredible 34 species of marine mammals and more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds have been recorded. During the next two days we shall explore this wonderful area concentrating on finding the speciality birds of the area as well as taking a morning whale watching boat trips for Grey Whales. At this time of year, it is not unusual to see up to a dozen of these fabulous marine mammals as well as good chances for Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Dall’s Porpoise as well as some of the less predictable species like Orcas or Northern Right Whale Dolphins. Though not the best time of year for seabirds we should see Rhinoceros Auklet, possibly Cassin’s Auklet, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants and there is always a chance of an out of season Black-footed Albatross.
A visit to explore the Big Sur coast should reveal California Condor, Wrentit, California Quail, Townsend’s Warbler and maybe Black-throated Grey Warbler and California Thrasher as well as commoner species such as Acorn Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, American Robin, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Pygmy Nuthatch. Overnight Pacific Grove
DAY 5: Monterey Bay – Moss Landing – Santa Cruz
This morning we will take an optional second morning boat trip for another chance of whales and seabirds before heading north towards Santa Cruz. En route we will explore Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing where we are almost guaranteed some great views of Sea Otters. The coastline here is worth look as there should be numerous waders such as Long-billed Curlew, Willet and Marbled Godwit as well as Forster’s Terns, White-tailed Kite and White-crowned Sparrow. A look off the sea should produce Pacific Divers. We will also visit the Moonglow Dairy, known as the best place to see Tricoloured Blackbird but also a good site for many other species including Clark’s and Western Grebes, Bewick’s Wren and a good selection of waders and raptors too. Overnight Santa Cruz
DAY 6: Ana Nuevo State Park
This morning we will take a guided walk around the Ana Nuevo State Park. This is one of the largest mainland Northern Elephant Seal colonies in the world and this is one of the most exciting times of year when there can be thousands of animals. Northern elephant seals come ashore to give birth and mate from early December through March. Bull seals engage in battles for breeding access to the females from early December through January. Pregnant females come ashore to pup from late December to early February, and mothers nurse their pups for about a month before mating and returning to the sea.
During the afternoon we will take the Cabrillo Highway along the spectacular coast and head towards San Francisco. If time allows we will visit the Botanical Gardens where there are often many good birds to be found and often quite tame such as Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet and more!. We will then travel over the famous Golden Gate Bridge and head towards Inverness, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore which will be our base for the next 3 nights.
Overnight near Inverness
DAYS 7 & 8: Point Reyes National Seashore
The next two days will be spent focused on trying to see Bobcat and American Badger.
The Point Reyes National Seashore area has long been known as a good place to see Bobcat and with perseverance at this time of year, we have an excellent chance of seeing this beautiful cat. American Badger will be much harder to find, but with the knowledge and experience of our local guide we have probably the best chance!
During the quieter times of day for mammal activity we will of course spend time exploring the best birding areas too. Here we should find Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Golden-crowned Sparrow and a good selection of waders and gulls. Overnight near Inverness
DAY 9 & 10: Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
On day 9 we will have a final morning to try for Bobcat if we need to and then we will head inland towards Colusa. Colusa National Wildlife Refuge is one of six refuges in the located in the Sacramento Valley of north-central California that provides nearly 70,000 acres of wetland, grassland, and riparian habitats for a wide array of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, waterbirds, songbirds, reptiles, and mammals.
At this time of year goose numbers should still be impressive with Snow and Ross’s Goose numbers in their hundreds and even thousands dependent on the year. Sandhill Cranes should also be present in smaller numbers. We will spend the day exploring the whole wetland complex and should find other species including White-faced Ibis and Cackling Geese of the smart ring-necked Aleutian leucopareia birds as well as smaller numbers of Small Cackling Geese of the minima race.
Overnight near Colusa
DAY 11: Colusa to SFO Airport
Today we have a full day before our early evening flight therefore we have plenty of time to enjoy the geese before taking a leisurely route south. En route, we can try a site where we should find Yellow-billed Magpies and dependent on time, we may also be able to visit the Botanical Gardens if we did not manage to visit it earlier in the tour.
*Please note this itinerary may change slightly (to increase our chances of key species) dependent on the most recent information from our local guides*