Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

The trip was really supposed to be in celebration of the completion of a writing project. But when I booked the trip, I knew that if said project was not completed, the trip would be a much-needed break – a welcome respite – from a project that has, well, been quite a project! Unfortunately, it’s the latter, and even worse – I’m working on the project on the plane, in the hotel, and on the boat (OK, so working on the boat didn’t actually happen). But the birding has been amazing, and the break has been very welcome, and downright therapeutic.

Boarding my flight in Portland dark and early on Wednesday the 4th, a long-awaited birding adventure was in store. But yeah, I was leaving Maine at the peak of rarity season! Of course, when I landed to – barely – grab my connection in Chicago, I see the report of a Townsend’s Solitaire at Schoodic Point and the reappearance of a Franklin’s Gull at Sebasticook Lake (and so it begins!). But it was of little consequence; life birds awaited!

For a couple of years, I’ve been wanting to join Paul Lehman and company on a West Coast “repositioning cruise.” This is when those massive cruise ships move from one port to another, mostly to switch from the starting point of one season’s itinerary to the other. Sailing predominately well offshore, passengers come aboard for a short getaway, or just a long weekend escape. And these trips are a helluva deal! For birders, the passage through deep, open water from a large, stable platform that even allows you to use a spotting scope to study passing seabirds – it’s low-cost, multi-day, deep water pelagic.

Good friends Adam Byrne and Brad Murphy from Michigan were joining me, as we joined Paul, Barbara Carlson, and several other birders for a sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to LA. But Adam, Brad, and I were meeting up early to do some Pacific Northwest birding. None of us had been to British Columbia before, so we had a few life birds each to seek, and more importantly, since we had to fly all of the way to Vancouver – we might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Frequent flier miles delivered me to Vancouver a day before Adam’s arrival, so I took a train to our hotel, settled in, and took a walk. Of course, I began to experience the culinary delights of this fantastic foodie city, as well as sample some of the birdlife in a few small urban parks. I started to get familiar with how dark the local Song Sparrows were, and reacquaint myself with the snappy call note of “Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos. I also refreshed my memory about how impossible it is to identify large gulls in the Pacific Northwest, although at least a few adults looked identifiable. My dinner at a Ramen bar was a perfect end to the day, and a good way to ring in my trip to this cultural city.
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I could enjoy these dark Song Sparrows all day!

Day 2, 11/5: Vancouver.
I covered over 10 miles this morning, walking from my downtown hotel to Stanley Park, and around the entirety of its perimeter. Passerines weren’t in large supply, but it’s been far too long since I have seen the likes of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds. An American Dipper at the bay’s edge was a welcome surprise.

And the birding along the shoreline was spectacular. I very well may have seen more Barrow’s Goldeneyes this morning than I have seen in sum throughout the East; there was one raft of over 150! A couple of Eurasian Wigeons joined big groups of American Wigeons, a few Cackling, one Snow, and one Greater White-fronted Goose were in lawn-feeding groups of Canada Geese, and Surf Scoters were plentiful. Mew and Ring-billed Gulls, a few Thayer’s Gulls, and a mess of large gulls that were mostly – in quantity and presumably genetically – Glaucous-winged.

More of these dark Song Sparrows and lots of “Oregon” Juncos, several Bald Eagles, and impressive cityscapes – not bad for a morning walk!

Adam arrived in the early afternoon, and after lunch at a Frites Granville (deep fried poutine, need I say more…but the kimchi and Korean beef-topped fries was much better), we spent a pleasant few hours, including a little bit of sunshine at Stanley Park. Adding a few more species to the triplist, including “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, we mostly spent the time taking advantage of the nice light to photograph Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Mew Gulls, among others.
Am in Stanley Park.
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Korean-Belgian-Canadian fusion!
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Pm…back in Stanley Park.
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River Otter devouring flounder.
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So many Barrow’s Goldeneyes!
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Day 3, 11/6: Vancouver.
Light rain and drizzle returned by dawn, as Adam and I headed for the hills. Rain continued, steady at times, as we hiked around Cypress Provincial Park looking for forest denizens, especially Sooty Grouse. While we didn’t see much – the conditions were not very bird- or birder- friendly, seeing scattered Varied Thrush was a real treat, along with a Red-breasted Sapsucker, several small flocks of Red Crossbills, and other resident species.

We fetched Brad at the airport; or triumvirate now complete. Real Chinese food (noodles with roasted chicken, broth, veggies, etc.) stuck to the bones – which was needed for the damp and chilly visit to Delta’s Boundary Bay. Adam needed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, so we thought we would just spend a couple of hours trying to get lucky.

We were a little unprepared for what a task finding one specific shorebird would be. I’ll let the photos explain.

There were easily several hundreds of thousands of birds, 90-95% or so were Dunlin and Northern Pintail. Healthy amounts of American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal were supplemented by Black-bellied Plovers, 10+ Eurasian Wigeons, groups of gulls – mostly Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged intergrades, some Sanderlings, a couple of Western Sandpipers, and one particularly interesting, short-billed peep. Perhaps the one that got away!

Am in Cypress Provincial Park.
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Boundary Bay.
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Day 4, 11/7: Vancouver.
Rain was falling in earnest as we departed the city, once again heading for the hills. Thanks to a tip from a local birder, the suggestively-named Grouse Mountain ski resort was our destination. The rain continued, and got heavier and visibility dropped to near nothing as we gained a little elevation.

But the place was busy, and the Skyride tram was running, and for a price, we were whisked uphill. It was still raining…hard. Was this worth it? What self-respecting bird would be out in this?

And then Adam found a Sooty Grouse!

The only non-pelagic lifer for all three of us expected on the trip, this was a most-welcome development. For a moment, we forgot how soaked to the bone we were. And this was no dumb grouse! He would come out to feed in a little weedy garden, and then return to a shed/small livestock pen to preen. After a bit, it was back out into the rain.

We too finally went inside, the triumvirate triumphant, had some coffee and/or hot chocolate, and then went back out for another visit with the grouse, and some quality time with Black-tailed Deer and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches.

With rain still falling, wind and fog as bad as ever, we packed it in, dripping our way into the tram, and back down the hill. Unfortunately, conditions were even worse at Cypress Provincial Park, and although the donair stop for lunch was great and hit the spot, the rain finally defeated us all on a near-birdless walk at the park. It was time to retreat.
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It might be raining a little…but Sooty Grouse!

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Day 5, 11/8: Vancouver.
Stanley Park was the destination again today, wanting to spend more time looking at birds – any birds – than driving to more distant sites. I added a few more species to my trip list, including some good studies of Pacific Wren. But the tame Chestnut-backed Chickadees, joining Black-caps in looking for handouts stole the show.

Making our way towards the airport, we spent our last hour of birding in Vancouver at Sea and Iona Islands. More huge flocks of Dunlin were impressive, and several additions to the list ranged from Pied-billed Grebe to Long-billed Dowitcher to Trumpeter Swan.

But before we knew it, it was time to return our rental car, hop on the train, and make our way to Canada Place and the Star Princess – our floating-city home for the next three days, and our big, steady platform for pelagic birding. In other words, the real reason for this trip was only now about to begin!

Another morning in Wonderful Stanley Park.
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“Do you think the Chesnut-backed Chickadees get fed here?”
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I will always stop to photograph Wood Ducks!
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Anna’s Hummingbird.

Setting Sail.
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Day 6, 11/8: Victoria.
As the sun came up, we were docking in Victoria, only a short trip across from the city of Vancouver. While Brad and Adam set off in search of Skylarks and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, I joined the rest of the group of birders in walking to Beacon Hill Park. The triplist grew with the likes of Barred Owl, Bewick’s Wren, and Ancient Murrelets.

I lingered too long at one thicket, lost the group, but spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around this lovely park. Oregon Junco, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees were everywhere, with the ponds chock full of Mallards and American Wigeon. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds were plentiful, as were “more bona fide” Northwestern Crows (if there is truly such a thing). Feral Common Peafowl added a splash of color, and a “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco was on the rare side of things. I passed through a couple of waves of Bushtits, adding a dose of frantic and noisy excitement to the walk.

I took a spin through a sliver of downtown, finding a single “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler in a small city pocket park, along with several Bewick’s and Pacific Wrens, and a bunch of Oregon Juncos. Rhinoceros Auklets in the inner harbor were a very pleasant surprise.

The boat departed at 2:24 – next stop: LA! While we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, we made the most of it, as birds were plentiful. Masses of Mew Gulls, rafts of Common Murres, and later, scattered Northern Fulmar – our first tubenose of the trip – were encountered, while my last additions to my Canada List were ticked off – Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Brant, and Heerman’s Gull. Our first two Pomarine Jaegers, a single Red Phalarope, and two White-winged Scoters were added to the trip list as well.

The sun was setting, as the productive waters at the mouth of the Straight of Juan de Fuca off Flattery Point, Washington were just coming into view.

I bet you can tell which day the sun finally came out!
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Barred Owl.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow.

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1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull (presumed close enough to pure).

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“Sooty” Fox Sparrow. Worst-placed bread-bag clip litter.

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Spotted Towhee.

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Brown Creeper.

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March of the Mallards.

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..and American Wigeon.

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Anna’s Hummingbird.

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Common (Feral) Peafowl.

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Hen  Eurasian Wigeon (note nearly concolorous head, neck, and body and lack of black gape spot. Underwings, especially the axillaries, were gray, clinching the ID.

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“Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco.

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Rhinocerous Auklet in the harbor.

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The Olympic Mountains.
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There were a few Mew Gulls on the water.
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11/10, Day 7: Off Oregon.

Whoo-ee!

Passing through Washington waters overnight, we awoke in Oregon, about 40 miles off the north-central coast. As soon as there was just enough twilight to see, birds began to appear. And other than about an hour in early afternoon, it did not stop until it was dark. And the most dedicated of us had to drag ourselves, exhausted, achy, and hungry, off the bow.

It was amazing.

Birds all day. Marine Mammals were constant. At one point a dozen Humpback Whale spouts, a hundred or so Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and perhaps thousands of birds were in view. Northern Fulmars were the most abundant tubenose through early afternoon, when Sooty Shearwaters began to take over. I picked up two life birds, Buller’s Shearwater (well over 30) and Flesh-footed Shearwater (after frustratingly missing one earlier, I found one in the big evening feeding frenzy and saw the third of the day). Unfortunately, I also missed the “bird of the day,” an early morning Mottled Petrel. I wasn’t the only one, and unlike most everyone else on the trip, that was the one Pterodroma that wasn’t a lifer for me, so if I had to miss one great bird on the trip, that’s the one I would be least disappointed about. But still.

My lifer Northern Right Whale Dolphins joined Dall’s Porpoise, a Fin Whale, a Minke Whale, Northern Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, and California Sea Lions on the day’s mammal list, while additional avian highlights included Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Black-legged Kittwakes, Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, a single early Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, a few Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and plenty of gulls, including the first Western and California Gulls of the trip.

One of my other highlights, and just possibly my “highlight of the day” were several “nursery groups” of Mola Mola. Young molas, in groups of 4-7 or so, were moving south or lounging at the surface, usually with a gull or few in attendance. I’m not quite sure why I was so smitten with these, but I kinda wanted to hug one. I know, very scientific of me.

It truly was an amazing day, and as dusk was falling, the boat passed through a massive aggregation of dolphins, gulls, Sooty Shearwaters, and plenty of Pink-footed and Buller’s Shearwaters. This was the group that contained my lifer Flesh-footed Shearwaters, so it was a stupendous finish to an absolutely fantastic day on the water! And yes, with near constant activity from dawn to dusk, we are all exhausted, and frankly, I am unsure of how I am even seeing a computer screen right now.

I think I will sleep well tonight, although the anticipation of what tomorrow might bring will no doubt impact a needed full night of rest!
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Off the Oregon Coast.

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Northern Fulmar.

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Black-footed Albatross

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Laysan Albatross

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Buller’s Shearwaters.

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Black-footed Albatross.

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Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

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Mola Mola.

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Buller’s Shearwater.

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11/11, Day 8: Off Northern California.

The air and seas were warmer as we found ourselves due west of Point Reyes shortly after sunrise. A nice following breeze – strong enough for seabirds to be flying, but in just the right direction to keep us warm and comfy at the bow – raised expectations, especially after the stellar day yesterday,

A Black-footed Albatross at first light also stoked the excitement, but as the day went on, and the lack of seabirds continued, many were left to reminisce about yesterday. Red Phalaropes were the most abundant bird of the day, by far, with a fair number of Northern Fulmars. Ashy Storm-Petrels started to show in 1’s and 3’s, including one that was grounded on the ship and was trying to hide in a corner. No doubt disoriented by the ship’s lights during the night, this “wrecked” bird could have had a long day were it not for two alert walkers who let us know. We raced over, identified it, inspected it, and then let it go off the stern – none of us had ever seen a storm-petrel fly as fast and direct as it booked it away from this floating island full of two-legged predators.

A Peregrine Falcon likely rode with us for a while today, and later in the afternoon, the regular appearance of a Brandt’s Cormorant – far from its nearshore environs – suggested a bird that was also resting on the boat now and again. The flock of 34 European Starlings, nearly 60km offshore, was a little harder to explain, however!

The long, tiring day of scanning the waters only produced a few new species for the trip, including a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels and a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes. But other than a scattered few Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, several Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Buller’s Shearwaters, and early Laysan and a handful of Black-footed Albatrosses, it was a slow day on the water. Very slow.

A few pods of Common Dolphins, several Humpback Whales, and a loafing Blue Whale were mammalian highlights…until dusk, when four Orcas steamed towards the ship, breaching and tail-slapping as they went by. While today was not the epic seabird and mammal day that yesterday was, the few of us still hanging on to the bitter end were rewarded with an Orca show. I for one was not complaining. Because breaching Orcas.

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Off Big Sur, California.

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Wrecked Ashy Storm-Petrel.

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11/12, Day 9: Los Angeles.
Docked in the busy port of Los Angeles well before sunrise, I stepped outside to take in the crisp, dry air, and take a gander at some Western Gulls and a flycatching Black Phoebe. Adam, Brad, and I were anxious to disembark, ready to pack in a full day of twitching LA-are specialties.

Three thousand plus people trying to jam through customs is never quick, but apparently today was particularly nightmarish. Two and a half hours later, we were finally off the boat, picking up our rental car, and finally on our way.

The first stop was Huntingdon Beach Central Park, in pursuit of now-countable Scaly-breasted Munias. It didn’t take long, and although introduced, these really are festive little birds, and an ABA-Area bird for all three of us (we had all seen them elsewhere around the world). A few White-faced Ibis, Black and Say’s Phoebes, and other common urban park denizens were also noted.

It took us longer to find our quarry at Legg Lake Park, but after covering the entire park without any luck, Brad’s lifer Tricolored Blackbirds were right at the parking lot where we began – exactly where my friend Catherine Hamilton told us they would be. Luckily, we had some other fun birds in the meantime, including single Townsend’s Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Lesser Goldfinch, and a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. The trip list grew by 14 species.

The time to find the blackbirds and some traffic en route put us way behind schedule as we entered Compton and headed for Colonel Leo H. Washington Park – the last “stronghold” of the once-common, established exotic, the Spotted Dove. I have a confession to make: this was a bird that only I needed. Yes, I was chasing an exotic. But honestly, it was such an interesting place to head to for a new bird (for the ABA-area), that there was a little bit of allure added. Readers of this blog know how much I love urban birding – and it doesn’t get anymore urban birding than this!

Unfortunately, despite quite a bit of searching, the Spotted Dove remained unseen. With so few left, they can be tough to find, and although Catherine promised they have been reliable here of late, she also cautioned that they are easily missed. We talked to a few residents who seemed to be used to random birders showing up in an otherwise less-than-touristy neighborhood and one guy playing soccer stopped to tell me about the Cooper’s Hawk that was catching rats in the alley behind his house; a short while later, a Coop flew overhead. Several other conversations helped prove that many inner-city residents do have a connection and appreciation for nature, as described by a recent study on urban residents’ recognition and valuation of birds in cities. I often sing the praises of the value of urban greenspaces to migratory birds, but these places are even more valuable to residents packed tightly into a confined space, desperate for the connection to fresh air and recreation of all kinds.

But yeah, all of this musing was really displacement behavior for my 1) decision to actually look for Spotted Dove instead of heading to straight to a park that would have had a lot of good birds, perhaps including my nemesis, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and 2) our failure to see it! We also checked Salt Lake Park – perhaps no longer hosting the dove, but at least that park had a few more birds, including some treats for us Easterners – Acorn Woodpeckers and Cassin’s Kingbird in particular. But alas, no Spotted Doves. Two residents, taking a break from chatting, pointed out a Peregrine Falcon on a transmission tower high overhead. Perhaps it knew where to find the doves.

By the time we took our first spin through Washington Park, we realized that with traffic building there was no chance to hit another site, so we just used up the remainder of daylight not seeing Spotted Doves. But, there’s little doubt I would never have seen Compton or Huntingdon Park were it not for searching for these birds, so there’s that. I guess.

As the sun set, Adam and Brad dropped me off at a hotel near the airport (“conveniently” located directly under landing planes) as they headed off to catch their red-eye flights. Thwarted by traffic and our dip on the dove, our afternoon of birding with Catherine turned into a dinner and beers. We caught up and reflected on Spotted Doves, or lack there of, and the meaning of life and listing. Or perhaps we talked more about the flavor composition of the beers we enjoyed.

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Legg Lake Park.

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Brewer’s Blackbird.

11/13, Day 10: Los Angeles.
A Cassin’s Kingbird was calling on the roof of my hotel to usher in the dawn, as I boarded my airport shuttle for the quick trip to the final leg of my journey. I have little doubt that I will be on another “Repositioning Cruise” sometime soon – I might be hooked. It sure was more comfortable than rolling around on a dedicated pelagic – and with unlimited food (but yeah, “bland” was my most used descriptor…I used a lot of hot sauce!) and several bars, this was pelagic birding in style!

Although I only ended up with three life birds (Sooty Grouse, Buller’s Shearwater, and Flesh-footed Shearwater), one ABA-area bird (Scaly-breasted Munia), three California birds (Buller’s, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and munia), and a boatload of Canada birds (I had not birded west of Ontario before), I would deem this trip an utmost success. In fact, I had a great time, enjoyed birding with good friends – old and new – and experienced a completely different avifauna. And no “Megas” were missed here in Maine!

Here’s my total triplist, in order of appearance:
Vancouver:
1. Rock Pigeon
2. Mallard
3. “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco
4. Song Sparrow
5. European Starling
6. House Sparrow
7. Northwestern Crow (with “better” birds later in Victoria?)
8. Glaucous-winged Gull
9. White-crowned Sparrow
10. American Robin
11. Black-capped Chickadee
12. House Finch
13. Lincoln’s Sparrow
14. Canada Goose
15. Cackling Goose
16. Ring-billed Gull
17. Red-breasted Merganser
18. Great Blue Heron
19. Double-crested Cormorant
20. Barrow’s Goldeneye
21. Golden-crowned Kinglet
22. Horned Grebe
23. Thayer’s Gull
24. Northern “Red-shafted” Flicker
25. Surf Scoter
26. American Wigeon
27. Pine Siskin
28. Common Merganser
29. Bufflehead
30. Belted Kingfisher
31. Spotted Towhee
32. Mew Gull
33. Pelagic Cormorant
34. Bald Eagle
35. Bonaparte’s Gull
36. Common Goldeneye
37. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
38. Anna’s Hummingbird
39. American Dipper
40. Eurasian Wigeon
41. Greater White-fronted Goose
42. Brown Creeper
43. Downy Woodpecker
44. Snow Goose
45. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
46. Red-breasted Nuthatch
47. Hooded Merganser
48. American Coot
49. Red-winged Blackbird
50. Golden-crowned Sparrow
51. Fox Sparrow
52. Common Raven
53. Lesser Scaup
54. Red-necked Grebe
55. Red-breasted Sapsucker
56. Varied Thrush
57. Red Crossbill
58. Hermit Thrush
59. Northern Harrier
60. Eurasian Collared-Dove
61. Brewer’s Blackbird
62. Northern Shoveler
63. Northern Pintail
64. Green-winged Teal
65. Dunlin
66. Black-bellied Plover
67. Sanderling
68. Western Sandpiper
69. Herring Gull
70. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
71. SOOTY GROUSE
72. Stellar’s Jay
73. Pacific Wren
74. White-breasted Nuthatch
75. Wood Duck
76. Western Meadowlark
77. Gadwall
78. American Goldfinch
79. Pied-billed Grebe
80. Peregrine Falcon
81. Long-billed Dowitcher
82. Sharp-shinned Hawk
83. Trumpeter Swan
84. Red-tailed Hawk
Victoria
85. Black Turnstone
86. Harlequin Duck
87. Barred Owl
88. Bewick’s Wren
89. Ancient Murrelet
90. Common Loon
91. Purple Finch
— Common Peafowl
— “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco
92. Bushtit
93. “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler
94. Rhinoceros Auklet
95. Common Murre
Cruisin’
96. Pigeon Guillemot
97. Pacific Loon
98. Brandt’s Cormorant
99. White-winged Scoter
100. Red-throated Loon
101. Northern Fulmar
102. Heerman’s Gull
103. “Black” Brant
104. Pomarine Jaeger
105. Red Phalarope
106. Pink-footed Shearwater
107. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
108. Sooty Shearwater
109. Cassin’s Auklet
110. Black-footed Albatross
111. California Gull
112. Black-legged Kittiwake
113. Laysan Albatross
114. BULLER’S SHEARWATER
115. Short-tailed Shearwater
116. FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER
117. Ashy Storm-Petrel
118. Leach’s Storm-Petrel
119. Red-necked Phalarope
Los Angeles
120. Black Phoebe
121. American Kestrel
122. Great Egret
123. Snowy Egret
124. White-faced Ibis
125. American Coot
126. Green Heron
127. Greater Yellowlegs
128. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
129. SCALY-BREASTED MUNIA
130. Say’s Phoebe
131. Osprey
132. Turkey Vulture
133. American White Pelican
134. Ruddy Duck
135. Lesser Goldfinch
136. Hutton’s Vireo
137. Townsend’s Warbler
138. Orange-crowned Warbler
139. Western Grebe
140. Northern Mockingbird
141. Black-crowned Night-Heron
142. Cooper’s Hawk
143. Mourning Dove
144. Common Yellowthroat.
— Red-whiskered Bulbul
145. Great-tailed Grackle
146. Tricolored Blackbird
147. Allen’s Hummingbird
— Yellow-chevroned Parakeet
148. Acorn Woodpecker
149. Cassin’s Kingbird

Mammals:
1. Eastern Gray Squirrel
2. Douglas Squirrel
3. Harbor Seal
4. River Otter
5. Black-tailed Deer
6. Dall’s Porpoise
7. Humpback Whale
8. Elephant Seal
9. Fin Whale
10. Northern Fur Seal
11. Pacific White-sided Dolphin
12. Minke Whale
13. California Sea Lion
14. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
15. NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHIN
16. Blue Whale
17. Orca
18. Fox Squirrel

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One thought on “Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

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