San Diego Trip - La Jolla

La Jolla!!!!!!!! (la hoya - not la joe-la)... Famed bird photography destination  - the place where you can photograph pacific Brown Pelicans with their beautiful red throat-pouches.... It's everything you've already heard from a photography perspective. I went several times, and Pelicans definitely stole the show - although I  never really had any truly spectacular lighting conditions, there were endless opportunities to be creative. More pelicans:

Whenever I needed a Pelican-break, it was easy to switch over to Gulls or displaying Cormorants (99% Brandt's).


Two of my visits had "high" high tides, so I spent some time on the shorebirds scattered around the rocky shoreline. It is my understanding that there are better rock-piper locations in San Diego, but I was quite happy with my images from La Jolla and ended up skipping more established hotspots for these species. (They weren't terribly tame, but a 600mm and a bit of patience did the trick). 

One last element of the site (that I was able to take advantage of) is the age-old adage of "high volumes of people = tame birds" (unless they're hunters). I spent some time along the coastal trail which runs north of the "traditional Pelican spot" and was rewarded with some of my most obliging opportunities with common species in the area. Check it out: 

Final Rundown:

The good: everything

The bad: not much

The ugly: nothing

I wanted to write these posts to highlight some of the "other" locations I visited in San Diego. La Jolla is thee place to go, so I don't have much to add. I highly recommend it!

San Diego Trip - Tijuana Slough NWR

Nearing the end, and I've been saving the best for last! Another breakdown from the San Diego area. This was the first and last place I visited during my trip (not quite, but close enough). My cheap motel was close, and "a huge NWR" nearly the definition of "my favourite places to visit in the USA". 

My understanding of this site is similar to La Jolla shores - a hot tip on a place I'd never really heard of before... Lots of trails, access points & a decent variety of habitats to explore and (hopefully) shoot! It was the "feel good" destination of my trip... I spent my very first afternoon wandering around in search of passerines but the variety of options/habitats meant you could shoot a decent variety of things. Anyways here's a few songbirds!

I was happy to shoot a new subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, but needless to say I was happier to get the Say's Phoebe! I never quite connected with any of the Audubon's Wabrlers, Bushtits, etc that were wandering about, but some extended time here would surely result in opportunities.

The marsh was also hopping with neat chances - herons, shorebirds, ducks, rails - usually a little too far away or with a slightly strange light angle, but the chances were there (I also blew a great chance with a tame American Kestrel). 

The majority of my time was around the estuary mouth, walking south along the coast. A consideration of tides, wind, light etc. would probably result in wildly different photos and opportunities. Plus - the estuary mouth was also a great birding spot - with some really neat birds out of photo range (Pacific Golden Plovers!). While they stayed far away, I ended up with the expected "Western Willet photo ops". 

Near the end of my adventure, I was lucky to have gotten shots of most target species. One that I really wanted, but didn't have, was Long-billed Curlew. With beautiful afternoon light, I sat near the estuary mouth and photographed some of the larger shorebirds that were coming and going from the mudflats to the north. The odd LBCU was taking part, but I never quite connected with "the shot" I had wanted - but it was still pretty fun! 

A golden glow gave way to pink skies - and there was more shooting to be done!

Then pink skies gave way to a fiery sunset, and I made some of my favourite images of the trip! (and they were of Willets! If you can believe that...) 

Final rundown:

The good: the tone of this blog post (kid in a candy store style, not a proper review) will hopefully convey the fun I had at this site. IMO - it was the best "birding photographer" or "photographer who also wants some great birding" place during my trip. The birds aren't quite as tame as elsewhere, and it's a bit harder to get around to get the shots, but there are lots of species and lots of chances - so eventually you'll connect! I hardly scratched the surface of what could be done here (imo). 

The bad: endless helicopters? Not a big deal, but it would be even more magical without the added noise! :) 

The ugly: not much. It's a long walk to get to the estuary mouth, and depending on season/light/tides, it's possible you'll go long stretches without a big-time shooting chance. 

I'd highly reccomend visiting this area! 



San Diego Trip - La Jolla Shores

Another breakdown! La Jolla Shores! (not to be confused with the famous La Jolla photography hotspot - this is the beach to the north!) and yes, this site is (apparently) a decent place to get some boring/standard American Crow pictures. Thankfully there was a lot more to be had. 

My understanding of the site came from a few hot tips I received during my visit. The beach proper (I parked at La Jolla Shore  Park) was a good place to get some breeding garb Heermann's Gulls on some sweet sandy beaches - and also - if you walked north - past a large pile of rocks - beneath the beautiful cliffs - you could shore some wicked afternoon photo op's with Whimbrel (and other large shorebirds - if you were lucky). 

The hot tips were 100% correct. My first *proper* shoot was in the afternoon, when I decided that I shouldn't leave SD without getting my first good Whimbrel pics. One has to be mindful of the tides, and I was lucky to hit it bang on - and had some really sporadic-yet-incredible encounters with the Whimbrel! 

That last image - although bland - is one of my favourite from the trip. I also fully realized something during this shoot (that I probably already new, but had never fully noticed) - you DO NOT need to try for Western Willet photos... You might as well try for something else, and sooner or later a Willet is going to plop down in front of you in great light (it might even chase away your intended target). 

I did manage a few Heermann's Gull photos, but they weren't really my primary target. I was also a bit sad to not get any photos of the uber-tame Marbled Godwits on the beach proper - so I planned a second (morning) visit. I quickly topped off my HEEG collection: 


And in similar fashion, I topped up on my Mudwit pics! This group was unbelievably tame - and thankfully quite active - so despite a fairly narrow window of shooting (with decent light between fog and then full sun) - I was able to make some fun images. 

And that's about it! Time for the breakdown:

The Good: I wanted Heermann's Gulls, Whimbrel and Marbled Godwits. I had chances out the waa-zoo! 

The Bad: It's a bit of a haul to the "north" beach, so be prepared. But it's totally worth it. Similar to nearly every other site I visited, the diversity was low, but I didn't care! 

The Ugly: The tides! The fog! Nothing here was "ugly" but i need to write something. Be mindful of the light & tides and you'll clean up. 

San Diego Trip - Mission Bay / Crown Point

Next up in my San Diego Bird Photography Trip breakdown - the Mission Bay / Crown Point area!

Another area I only managed to shoot at for a single afternoon, so this "review" is somewhat limited, but it was such a great place - I had to write about it! I arrived early and managed to get amazing views of a long-staying Painted Redstart! It wasn't my photography-target, but will surely be one whenever I make it to their proper range in the future. Other tame passerines were out and about, but I found the shooting options were fairly limited. The Cassin's Kingbird (above) was a quick grab from the parking lot on route to the waters edge. The wind & light were a bit tricky at times, so I kicked things off with some "boring" photos of Western Gulls (in bland light). Nothing amazing, but I also didn't want to leave California without doing their age classes some (basic) justice. 

As the day wore on, the light improved. I moved down to the shoreline where an impressive collection of Coots, Snowy Egrets, Marbled Godwits, Willets and (especially) Black Skimmers had amassed. It's possible I was very lucky in hitting the "right" tides without giving them any consideration, as there was some excellent activity of birds coming and going. I spent a fair bit of time working the shorebirds flying past in irregular groups. 

I spent the last 2+ hours of daylight in close proximity to the skimmers, as I wanted to gain their trust and try to make some interesting images. They're a species with a "wow" factor due to their behaviour, structure, colours etc.... But they can be a real challenge to create a truly compelling image of (other than when they're skimming on calm water - or through a wave washing upon a beach). They seem to mass-up like Zebras, so even getting one standing by itself is a tall order. As the sun was setting, most of the birds began to leave for their evening roost - but luck was on my side when a mere FIVE birds decided to wait with me to get some basic shots under a beautiful pink sky. It won't win any awards, but I couldn't have been happier to get some true "field guide" style portraits of an isolated bird in that light.

Final rundown:

The good: lots of tame (to tame-ish) birds to shoot. I didn't come across many of my "target" bird species here, which was part of the reason for only visiting one afternoon - but I somewhat regret it, as I'm sure there were more great opportunities to be had. 

The bad: not much... I can imagine this area gets pretty busy at times, which might interfere with a shoot  - but I can't really say that for sure (just a guess). 

The ugly: again, I'm stretching, but a key drawback was a lack of perches for songbirds (mostly sitting on picnic tables or high in trees) and nothing particularly fancy about the shoreline...

Overall it's very much worth a visit (and perhaps plan some extra scouting time to fully take advantage of the area)! 


San Diego Trip - Cabrillo

I was fortunate to do a ten day trip to San Diego County in February 2017 - with 100% of my time dedicated to bird photography (maybe 95%). I was surprised at the relatively sparse information online regarding bird photography hotspots, so I wanted to put a few quick posts (based on my limited experiences) to hopefully aid others who visit SDC in the future. This post details my time at the Cabrillo National Monument!

My understanding of the site is - it's an incredibly beautiful park/monument, and not one you'd immediately think of as a bird photography destination. I was lucky to get some inside tips on this site, and capitalized on a select few species. Be sure to check up on entry/exit times for the park, as you could be left high and dry (outside the gate) if you're trying to arrive for dawn... My first visit was a mid-day scouting expedition, as I was told there were tame California Thrashers that hung out in the parking lot. During the scout, I quickly realized that two pairs of tame California Scrub-Jays and California Towhee's were hanging around the visitors centre - so the stage was set for this explosion of California-themed birds! 

Due to the abundance of morning-suitable destinations and the unfavourable morning hours, I arrived early afternoon & was ready to shoot as soon as the light was good. The California Towhee's were the most reliable - and the biggest challenge was simply trying to get a shot of them on something other than the walkway... Some creative ideas + time eventually resulted in some opportunities. 

Before long, the California Scrub Jays returned. Similar to the CalTow's - they were so relaxed that getting eye-contact was one of the bigger challenges... Another challenge was the wind direction - directly the same as the position of the sun, so the birds were facing directly towards me when perched in many images (such as the intro image!). Here's a different look at one of the Jays:

With CalTows and CalJays covered reasonably well, the only Cal left was the CalThras! (Calthrashies?). I would sporadically hear their songs, and when one started from the bushes in the parkinglot - I ran over to check it out. I could clearly see the bird from a backlit angle, but couldn't locate the darn thing from the proper side! Pushing the light-angle to the extreme, I was finally able to get a tiny window to shoot through the branches. The image isn't an award winner, but I was really happy to get SOMETHING presentable of this super-cool species. 

Beyond these three species, my opportunities were extremely limited... During a brief 10 minute period, a small wandering pocket of birds arrived and I somehow managed to make a few "keepers" (Orange-crowned Warbler and Golden-crowned Sparrow) despite the fact they were pretty wary. 

By 5pm, the site was closing - and I was genuinely worried about drawing the ire of park staff - so I quickly shuffled down the road to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery to watch the sunset. I'm not a fan of doing bird photography in a cemetery, but I couldn't resist a few tame Western Bluebirds. You can be sure that - if I were a San Diegoian - this peninsula would be a favourite birding haunt of mine - but that's not the purpose of this post!

So: here's the standard summary:

The Good: Tame passerines are a real treat to photograph. This site had the specialties I was after (CalTow, CalJay, CalThrashes). You could practically rename it Calbrillo! I was very happy with the shots I came away with after only a few hours of shooting. 

The Bad: The diversity & shooting options were pretty limited - however it's hard for me to truly judge with only a single afternoon of proper shooting in February... 

The Ugly: Cabrillo does not cater to birders. Or bird photographers. The hours are not ideal (afternoon may be best for photography, but it's hard for me to really say). I think it would be great to keep the "over-the-top" photographers at bay, but then the tables are turned when you suddenly feel like someone might question (or scold) you for whatever techniques you're trying to get the shot. It's very minor - as my experience was 100% positive - but I couldn't help but get a vibe I typically try to avoid at all costs.