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  • Photograph of Northern Elephant Seal

    Northern Elephant Seal at Ano Nuevo by Nigel Wheatley.

    NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

    Best Wildlife in Northern California

    Mammals
    Bobcat, Humpback (mostly May-Nov) and Grey (mostly Dec-Apr) Whales, Northern Elephant Seal (mostly mid-Dec to mid-Mar), Sea Otter, (Long-beaked) Common, Pacific White-sided and Risso's Dolphins, Dall's and Harbour Porpoises, California and Steller's Sealions, Northern Fur Seal, (Tule) Elk, Grey Fox, Coyote, chipmunks and kangaroo rats. Also a chance of Blue (mostly Aug-Sep), Fin (mostly May-Nov) and Killer (mostly second half of April) Whales, Common and Northern Rightwhale Dolphins, Black Bear, North American River Otter and even Long-tailed Weasel.

    Birds
    California Condor (reintroduced), (Greater) Roadrunner, Black-footed Albatross, Mountain Bluebird, Clark's Nutcracker, American Avocet, specialities such as the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie and the near-endemic Allen's Hummingbird, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Wrentit, California Thrasher, California Towhee and Tricoloured Blackbird, as well as Wild Turkey, Blue (Sooty) and (Greater) Sage Grouse, Mountain and California Quails, Western Grebe, Buller's, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Black and Ashy Storm Petrels, Brown Pelican, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, American Black Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, Black Turnstone, Wilson's, Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes, Heermann's and Sabine's Gulls, South Polar, Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets, Great Horned and Burrowing Owls, Anna's Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-breasted and Williamson's Sapsuckers, Lewis's, Acorn, White-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Steller's, Western Scrub and Pinyon Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Pygmy, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, American Dipper, Western Bluebird, Black-throated Grey, Townsend's, Hermit and MacGillivray's Warblers, Western Tanager, sparrows, Western Meadowlark and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Also a chance of Bald Eagle and Lawrence's Goldfinch, as well as American White Pelican, Black Skimmer, Great Grey Owl and Pine Grosbeak.

    Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish
    A chance of Basking and Blue Sharks, Blue Marlin and Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola).

    Invertebrates
    One winter roost of Monarch butterflies, at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz on the north shore of Monterey Bay, contained 8000 individuals in 2016 (way down from as many as 100,000 in the past). They are usually present from mid-October to mid-February but leave in January some winters. November is the best time to visit.

    Plants
    Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest tree species in the world, reaching a record height of 115.5 m (379 ft); Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), the largest tree species in the world; and Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), the oldest tree species in North America, many over 4500 years old.

    Other Natural Wonders of Northern California

    Muir Woods NM The tallest trees in the world, Coast Redwoods, grow here.

    Yosemite Valley This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery is stunning, thanks to the massive rock formations adorned by waterfalls (which usually reach peak flow in May-June, and which may be dry by August). Along the 13 km (8 mile) long valley sheer granite walls rise up from the flat valley floor for 910 m (3000 ft) at El Capitan, with the 188 m (617 ft) Bridalveil Fall opposite, and at the head of the valley Half Dome, with a sheer rock wall of 670 m (2200 ft), rises 1444 m (4738 ft) above the valley floor. In keeping with the scale of the landscape the largest trees in the world, Giant Sequoias, grow in nearby Mariposa Grove.

    Mono Lake Where freshwater enters this lake calcium carbonate deposits, precipitated by algae, form what are commonly known as 'tufa towers'.

    White Mountains The oldest trees in North America, Bristlecone Pines, grow here, at places such as Schulman Grove/Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where some of the oldest trees are believed to be over 4700 years old.

    Sequoia NP The largest trees in the world, Giant Sequoias, grow here, including the biggest of them all by volume; known as General Sherman, it has a 31 m (101 ft) circumference at its base and is 84 m (275 ft) high.

    Best Sites for Wildlife in Northern California


    Best Times for Wildlife in Northern California

    The best time to look for birds is mid-August to mid-September when summer visitors are still present, migrating birds from the north are passing through and there is usually the greatest variety of seabirds. This coincides with the best time for Blue and Humpback Whales, but not the peak time for Northern Elephant Seals (the males of which are most likely to be seen between mid-December and mid-March), Killer Whales (which are most likely during the second half of April) or wild flowers (which are usually at their best at lower elevations during the first half of May and at higher elevations in Yosemite NP during late July-early August).

    Recommended Books etc. for Northern California

    Mammals of North America by R W Kays and D E Wilson. PUP, 2009 (Second Edition).

    Mammals of North America by F A Reid. Peterson North American Field Guides, 2006 (Fourth Edition).

    Peterson Field Guide to Finding Mammals in North America by V Dinets. Houghton Mifflin, 2015.

    Field Guide to the Birds of North America edited by J Dunn and J Alderfer. NGS, 2011 (Sixth Edition).

    Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by K Kaufman. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

    The North American Bird Guide by D Sibley. Helm, 2014 (Second Edition).

    Birding Northern California by D Taylor and J Kemper. Falcon Press, 1999.

    Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America by J Brock and K Kaufman. Houghton Mifflin, 2003.


    Apps etc.


    National Geographic Birds: Field Guide to North America.

    The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America.

    Peterson Birds of North America.

    Audubon Birds - A Field Guide to North American Birds.

    iBird Ultimate Guide to Birds.

    Trip Reports for Northern California

    Many trip reports, some for Northern California, are posted on the websites listed here. On some of these websites some reports are independent and some are posted by tour companies who organize tours to Northern California. These tour companies and others also post their own reports on their websites, which are listed under 'Some Organized Tours to Northern California' below.

    Local Guides and Tours in Northern California

    The costs of organized tours partly reflect the quality of the tour leaders. Some leaders are certainly better than others and many companies claim their leaders are the best but even the best rely at least to some extent on the exceptional skills of the local guides they employ. If you are travelling independently, employing such local guides will greatly increase your chances of seeing the wildlife you wish to see.


    Accommodation in Northern California


    Some Organized Tours to Northern California

    There are many tour companies who organize tours to see mammals, birds, other wildlife and other natural wonders. The cost of these tours vary considerably according to such variables as the airlines used, the number of days the tours last, the number of sites visited, the number of people in the group (an important consideration if you wish to see such wildlife as rainforest mammals and birds), the number of tour leaders, the standard of accommodation and transport, and the percentage profit the company hopes to make. Generally, where the number of days tours last and the number of sites visited are similar, the cheapest tours are those that use the cheapest airlines, accommodation and local transport, that have the largest groups with the least number of leaders, and that make the least amount of profit. The most expensive tours tend to be those which are exceptionally long, use the most expensive accommodation (ridiculously lavish in some cases, even for single nights) and which make the most profit. Some tour costs partly reflect the quality of the tour leaders. Some leaders are certainly better than others and many companies claim their leaders are the best but even the best rely at least to some extent on the exceptional skills of the local guides they employ.

    While tour companies organize tours with set itineraries many also organize custom tours for individuals and private groups who instead of taking a tour with a set itinerary want to follow their own itinerary to suit their own personal tastes, whether it be mammals, birds, other wildlife, other natural wonders or even man-made attractions, or a mixture of them all. Many organized tours with set itineraries are also fast-paced and target as many species as possible, whether they are mammals, birds or other wildlife or everything, which usually leaves little time to enjoy the best sites and individual species, but on a custom tour those taking part can specify the pace and the sites and species they wish to concentrate on. Custom tours also suit people who like to travel with people they already know, rather than with a group of strangers, and people with partners with different interests. Individuals and small groups will almost certainly have to pay more than the price of an organized tour with a set itinerary but a large group of friends may be able to travel for less than the price quoted for a set tour.

    Tour companies who run organized tours or can arrange custom tours to Northern California include the following.