Anna's Hummingbird going to roost

America part 1 – The California Coast

Having hinted in my last post at a trip my husband and I took in April, I thought I would start by telling you about the first half of the trip including LA and the California coast here:

We flew into Los Angeles and spent a couple of very enjoyable days catching up with friends, seeing the sights and eating too much. For me, the best part of LA was the short hike we did to the top of Griffith Park. The views were pretty incredible, especially with the observatory in the foreground – it really gives you a sense of what a huge place LA is. I did manage to make a fool of myself by slipping on a rock and spraining my ankle in spectacular fashion, but apart from that it was still a good start to the trip!

Griffith Observatory, LA

Having picked up painkillers and a support bandage we collected a hire car and drove up the California coast to Morro Bay. This beautiful little seaside town was to be our base for the next week and a wonderful place it would prove too, with Sea lions and Sea Otters in the harbour and hummingbirds frequenting the neighbours’ gardens.

Anna's Hummingbird

Our first morning there we decided to explore around the iconic rock at the entrance to the harbour. It teemed with life from Peregrines nesting high on the rock and Pelicans fishing in the waters around it, to Turkey Vultures soaring in the blue above.

Turkey Vulture

A little further down the coast we shared the beach with a variety of waders including this lovely Hudsonian Whimbrel which didn’t seem at all phased by us or the kite surfers beyond.

The following day we drove the Pacific Coast Highway up to Carmel. Every turn yielded yet another fantastic view so we stopped at many of the various viewpoints along the way to take in the scenery.

As you may have gathered from the teaser in my last post, we also took a detour to visit one of the Elephant Seal rookeries. The colony was quite noisy, despite being in a supposedly quieter moult season, and rather pungent too! Nevertheless it was amazing to see such impressive creatures up close and personal. I particularly enjoyed watching the youngsters play fighting in the shallows while plucky little Black Turnstones foraged along the surf’s edge, seemingly oblivious to their huge neighbours lumbering in and out of the water.

Elephant Seals

Further north, we decided to take a side road up Palo Colorado. It wound through a narrow valley of tall pine trees where delicate Redwood Sorrel bloomed in the shade. Emerging into the sunlight higher up, we found a small covey of California Quail feeding together at the edge of the forest and watched Acorn Woodpeckers frantically drilling holes in any available tree trunk or telegraph pole. I was also pleased to find a rather beautiful plant in the Lily family, the Purple Fairy Lantern (Calochortus amoenus), which is endemic to California. It has lovely drooping pink flower heads with petals that are hairy on the inside of the bell.

Purple Fairy Lantern (Calochortus amoenus)

Another day we decided to head south from Morro Bay to explore Montana de Oro State Park, and the other end of the sandy spit which creates the sheltered harbour at Morro.

The coastal footpaths afforded lovely views over the rocky shore and I enjoyed hobbling down to explore some of the more accessible rock pools. They were full of hermit crabs, anemones and characterful little fish called Wooly Sculpin that darted into the shadows if they sensed movement above. There were lots of different butterfly species too, some of which were quite obliging like this Variable Checkerspot which posed beautifully for a photograph!

Later in the week we headed further inland where the scenery changed considerably as farms with irrigated fields gave way to sprawling cattle ranches and sparsely wooded hillsides. Despite the blazing sun and nearly cloudless blue sky, it made for some interesting landscapes.

Wide Open Plain, Bitterwater Road

It was all exceptionally dry owing to the current severe drought, but in spite of this there were surprising numbers of wildflowers although less obvious among the desiccated brown grasses. There were a number of different birds too including striking yellow and grey Western Kingbirds and stunning Loggerhead Shrikes hunting grasshoppers from fencepost perches.

One of my favourite moments of the whole trip came on another occasion when we were wandering round a small nature preserve near our hotel. We had already seen a couple of different birds and some interesting flowers when I spotted a tiny Anna’s Hummingbird perched in a bush beside the path. I slowly edged closer and took a few photos but it held its nerve and didn’t budge. Having seen them on many occasions earlier in the trip, but been unable to get much more than a fleeting glimpse, I was thrilled to have such a close encounter with this little jewel.

Anna's Hummingbird

Our final day on the California coast was an absolute gem too. We decided to check out a reserve called Oso Flaco Lake near Oceano where there are small sections of woodland and lakes backing on to the dune system. We were not disappointed! Before we had even parked the car we spotted several Swallowtail butterflies zipping around at great speed. Needless to say that was all they did, barely settling at all, so I didn’t manage to photograph them but it was a lovely sight.

There were plenty of birds around as well as other butterflies including a pair of White Faced Ibis, Cinnamon Teal and Pied-Billed Grebes. One of the highlights for me were gorgeous Tree Swallows with iridescent blue-green plumage forming a mask pattern reminiscent of a tiny avian superhero. They were skimming low over the water to catch insects but occasionally retired to a treetop to rest and preen.

Tree Swallow

After dinner on the final evening in Morro Bay we sat in the shadow of the rock watching the Sea Otters gathering in the shelter of the bay for the night. There were over 20 when we finally headed back to pack our bags. The California coast was certainly a wonderful place, full of wildlife and hard to forget.

Sea Otter Trio

Join me in my next post as we continue our adventure further inland.