California Dreaming...

August 15, 2014  •  6 Comments

I was over in San Diego (SD), California attending a conference at the end of June. It was my first time on the west coast of the USA, so I was hoping to get some free time to see some birds. As it was a business trip, I could only take my Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens (plus camera body) and my FujiFilm X100 walk-around camera with me. I was fortunate to speak with someone I know in Boston who had been to the Convention Centre in SD before, so he gave me a few places to visit that were within walking distance of, or a short cab ride away from, the Convention Centre (the very same one which hosted the Comic Con a week or so later!). I had a trio of species I really wanted to see: Hummingbird (any species would do!), Heermann's Gull and Brown Pelican. As it turned out, I managed to bag all three on the first morning as I took a jet-lagged walk along the waterfront of SD near the Gaslamp Quarter at 7am :) Pressure was off, so it was a case of just enjoying what birds I saw when I was out and about. 

The following is a summary of the areas I visited and some of the photographs I managed to get. I think I was there during the "doldrums" of bird migration, where the resident species were busy finishing their breeding season and so were busy feeding chicks etc., and migration had yet to begin, so there was a lack of variety. I imagine that had I been there a month before or after, I would have seen a lot more variety in the areas where I visited. However, it's always exciting to see new species when travelling, so I am not complaining. 

San Diego Waterfront

I was staying in the Gaslamp Quarter, which is only a 5 minute walk away from the waterfront. This was a very pleasant area to walk along, looking at the yachts and being greeted by everyone out on their walk or run at 7am. One thing I noted about San Diego is that everyone I encountered were very friendly. Such a wonderful place. The birds which I saw along the waterfront were Heermann's Gull, Western Gull, California Gull, Caspian Tern, Forster's Tern, Elegant Tern, Least Tern, Royal Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Snowy Egret, Night Heron, House and Song Sparrow, House Finch, Anna's and Allen's Hummingbird, Mourning Dove, Brewer's Blackbird, Starling, Mallard, Osprey, American Crow, Brown Pelican, Feral Pigeon, Western Kingbird, Mockingbird, Black Phoebe, Yellowthroat and Peregrine. 

Western Gull

Snowy Egret

Night Heron

Heermann's Gull


House Finch

Unconditional Surrender - a statue of the famous scene caught on camera in Times Square, New York when Japan unconditionally surrendered, effectively signalling the end of World War II.

Botanic Gardens in Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a short cab ride north of downtown San Diego. There is a lot more here than just gardens, with a Shakespeare Globe-type theatre, a few churches and museums and of course, San Diego Zoo. A beautiful place to walk around. I was hoping to photograph dragonflies here but all the ponds I visited were being cleaned so no dragons flying around, which was disappointing. The US has some spectacular dragons. However, the birdlife here was fantastic. Very similar passerines as observed along the waterfront, but the gardens also held California Towhee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Bushtit, Hooded Oriole and Cooper's Hawk. With a bit more exploration, I would probably have found more. I can only imagine what it would be like during migration time!

The Hummingbirds were just bundles of energy; loud, aggressive and great fun to watch. I could have sat there all day taking photographs of them. I was delighted with how the lens handled them, more of which I will touch on later. There was a very tame family of Cooper's Hawk in the area as well, allowing quite close approach. Nothing like I've experienced with our Sparrowhawk here. All-in-all, a great place to visit, particularly if one is stretched for time. The Monarch butterflies here were also a huge thrill for me to see. 

Anna's Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird

Cooper's Hawk

Monarch Butterfly

Song Sparrow

Black Phoebe


La Jolla 

I managed to spend a morning up in La Jolla on my last day in San Diego. It is such an idyllic place. Very quiet, lots of cafes, big houses and pleasant people to chat with. I really enjoyed it there. This is where one can see California Sealions hauled out on rocks, and the richardsi race of Harbour Seal. Brandt's Cormorant breed on the cliffs, as do Double-crested Cormorants (albeit in small numbers). Pelagic Cormorant is also a possibility. I also (fortuitously) saw my only Black Skimmer of the trip here, as well as some close fly-by views of Royal Tern and squadrons of Brown Pelicans. The sight of tens of Brown Pelicans flying in formation right over the heads of people walking along the footpaths was something to behold. California Ground Squirrels are very common along the cliffs and people are asked not to feed them. Bird Rock (below) was cool to see as it held Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants, as well as Harbour Seals and Brown Pelicans. I am sure it has appeared in many movies and TV series in the past. The Harbour Seals were easily seen from the breakwater walkway at the Children's Pool area, while the California Sealions can be easily seen a little bit north at La Jolla Cove. Heermann's Gulls were loafing around on Scripp's Park in reasonable numbers. The Brown Pelicans breed along the cliffs at La Jolla Cove and are within spitting distance of people walking along the public footpath. It is a fantastic sight to see and the smell of guana is quite powerful!

Bird Rock

Brown Pelican

Brandt's Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Royal Tern

Black Skimmer

Heermann's Gull

California Ground Squirrel

California Sealion

This Sealion has a piece of rope embedded in its neck. This will slowly kill the young Sealion as it grows. The rope will tighten and gradually cut off its ability to swallow and so will slowly starve to death. Very sad to see and highlights the need to clean up our seas. 

Harbour Seal (richardsi)

The Camera Gear - how it fared

As I was limited with what I could bring with me, I took my Canon 400mm f/5.6L lens for wildlife and my FujiFilm X100 for scenery etc. This was the first time I was taking the 400mm with me on a trip, so it was a bit risky not having used it in anger too much. I also used my HTC One to take photographs when I was walking around without my Fuji, even though it is a very poor camera. The 400mm behaved admirably, despite a lot of flight images being dumped due to blurriness. That was effectively user error as opposed to a dodgy lens. As there is no Image Stabilisation on the lens, a pair of steady hands and a steady platform is necessary really to capture sharp images. However, I am delighted that I know that this lens works well, managing to capture Hummingbirds in flight and seabirds in flight as well. I will have to practice using this lens more if I am going to bring it with me on trips such as this. This is going to be particularly important to do in poor light. The light in SD was actually quite nice and so shutter speed and aperture were never an issue. Overall, I am very pleased with the 400mm. 

All in all, a great trip to San Diego in terms of wildlife. I would love to head back during migration time and rent a car to check out other habitats such as marshes, estuaries, gardens, woodland, desert and mountains further afield in California or Mexico. 


Mary Carmody O'Grady(non-registered)
Sounds like a wonderful place to visit Mark. I love the Anna's Hummingbird and the Squirrel!
Robbie Hudson(non-registered)
Very Good Mark, great shots.great article.
Karen Mullins(non-registered)
Beautiful photography and interesting reading.
shay connolly(non-registered)
Wow just love it all fella
Brian Carruthers(non-registered)
Great read & classic shots, especially the Black Phoebe
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