San Francisco, Yosemite and California gulls

We stayed in the downtown, Financial District Hilton Hotel – as you do when someone else is paying (my wife had been invited to speak at a conference). First morning, early, I set off for the nearby Embarcadero, and the waterside piers that line San Francisco Bay.

I did not expect to encounter parrots.

It was light and the city was beginning to stir, but apparently not so light that the parrots were ready to leave their roost. I found them in the tall trees of a small park between Washington and Clay – Streets, that is. I could hear them rather better than I could see them among the thick foliage. However, I would check them up in my Field Guide when I got back to the hotel.

Which I did. They weren’t there. I wasn’t surprised.

I turned to the interweb where I discovered that they were escapees, or rather, the offspring of escapees, well known in this part of the city. They were red-masked parakeets (also known, in the pet trade, as red-headed conures) , natives of Ecuador and Peru. I saw them later in daylight at the top of the nearby Telegraph Hill – their main haunt in the city. Parrot-green, red faces and shoulders, a tail as long as their bodies – and harshly garrulous. I was reminded of the ring necked parakeets now to be found all over West London and along the Thames. Only they have been increasing and spreading at a rate of knots, whereas these San Francisco parrots seem still to be confined to this one part of the city even after some decades of freedom.

As I walked down the sidewalk I noticed a small bird almost at my feet. It showed no concern at my presence. It was the size of a starling, but slimmer. It had a starling’s sharp eye and bill, but the eye was bright yellow and the plumage black, with an iridescent purple sheen to the head. It was accompanied by a grey-brown and dark eyed companion. I watched them search under the low park hedge and perch on the park railings, all within a yard or two of where I stood. This time my Field Guide answered my query. They were Brewer’s blackbirds, male and female. I met with their kind everywhere over the next week or so, from coast to mountains, all as unperturbed as these.

It was then that I met my first California gull. I had crossed the bay-side road, passed the (relatively) old Ferry Building and was walking south down the promenade in the direction of the Oakland Bay Bridge. A gull stood on the iron railing that ran along the water-side edge. It looked just like a herring gull until I was close enough to see that instead of a yellow bill with a red spot below, it had a yellow bill with a black spot or band just short of the tips. (In fact older birds have a red spot too, but the herring gull has no black). I could see the bird trying to decide whether or not to take to the air as I approached. I moved out and away from the railings and kept walking. It stayed put.

But more of gulls later.

The next morning – not so early – my wife and I walked along the promenade north, towards Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. Pier 39 is famous for its colony of California sea lions – except that here they are generally known as seals. Before we got to them we spied a night heron – black-backed, black capped, white below and grey wings with three white plumes lying down its back. I small, squat heron hardly half the height of a grey heron. It stood on a marina pontoon staring fixedly towards an adjacent yacht’s hull. The pontoon rose and fell gently. So too did the yatch. The heron also rose and fell – except for its head. Its head remained fixed in space as everything else – its body, the pontoon and the yacht – rose and fell. We watched this curiosity for some time, puzzling, while the bird’s gaze remained fixed upon nothing.

Having thought about it, I suspect that the heron was resting rather than concentrating. It was keeping its head at a fixed point in space so that it could more easily detect movement – a fish in the water or the approach of a threat, for example. I am reminded of the head-bobbing – quickly forward, slowly back – of a chicken or a pigeon as it walks (or even when it is carried it seems) which results in a series of fixed views with rapid head movements between.

The marina was bounded by a harbour wall. As we approached a pelican rose from behind it – and instantly another – and yet more – a tight squadron of birds rising against the wind in military formation each bird positioned inches from the next. Ridiculous bills, but necks curved elegantly back to the shoulders, like fine carriage horses. Brown pelicans, common along the California coast, in San Francisco Bay, and elsewhere, but we had been treated to a very special display. Possibly a vision.

The sea lions occupied a flotilla of wooden pontoons anchored just a few yards from the pier. Or rather, each pontoon was occupied by a single massive male, dark brown, almost black, with an attendant retinue of mostly tawny-brown females, some with pups. The pontoons were solid with sea lions. Blubber to blubber. Others swam between and around searching for space on the pontoons, only to be repelled by the occupiers if they dared to try and climb aboard. Even those on the pontoons constantly quarrelled with one another over their highly squeezed personal space, with bared teeth and raucous, croup-like barking. Especially the females, who moved quickly. The big males simply swung their heads a little and barked in the general direction of anyone daring to approach them. Had they tried to move any more, they would probably have tipped the pontoon-load into the water.


If you visit San Francisco you must also visit the not too distant Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We hired a car and drove there. We stayed in the furthermost organised lodging, Curry Village – otherwise, Camp Curry – named after the couple who first opened a tented camp for visitors there back in 1899. We were greeted by a bonnet and pinafored lady who introduced herself as Ma Curry.

I realised in an instant that she was an imposter.

I went along with it anyway.

The village is located in a mile wide valley which opens up after a long ascent through narrow gorges between granite cliffs and peaks. The valley itself, the result of an ancient glacier scouring out a river bed and then filling with sediments, is also surrounded by granite – towering, vertical, vast, including the Half-dome – like an upturned pudding cut neatly in two and one half removed – except made of granite. The first white Americans who made their way up to this valley were awestruck by the mountains’ immensity and grandeur.

Quite right too. So were we.

Unfortunately the first white Americans to actually enter the valley were probably the soldiers of the Mariposa Battalion, in 1851. They were in punitive pursuit of a band of native Americans who called themselves the Ahwahnedchee, the people of the Ah-wa-nee valley. The band had been objecting to the intrusion of forty-niner gold miners into the area by conducting a few raids of their own. This was not to be tolerated, especially as it was by then US Government policy to do away with such opposition, and indeed of the people themselves if necessary. Such is manifest destiny. In this case the chief was captured, the villages burnt and the band taken to a reservation. However, they were also soon allowed back, only to fall out with another part of their own people – the Mono – through stealing their horses after enjoying their hospitality. The Mono pursued the Ahwanedchee thieves in turn and killed many of them, including the chief. Such are the squabbles that may go on without proper law enforcement.

Fortunately, shortly after this everyone became friends and outsiders soon began to settle and open up the valley and the mountains for tourists.

Curry Village and the valley lie at an elevation of 4,003 feet (1,220 m). Immediately above, sheer, is Glacier Point at 7214 feet (2199 m). We drove up to the Point and looked down 3000 or more feet to the camp directly below. Fortunately there was a wall to the observation area. The camp, the valley, the trees and the cars below had been miniaturised. Only the surrounding cliffs and the mountains retained their stature.

My wife stayed a while and then drove back down. I set off on what turned out to be an eight hour descent, ascent, further descent, and so on, on foot. I carried my lunch with me – left-over pizza from the evening before. Back at the camp every tented cabin had a secure, steel box outside into which all foodstuffs and even soap and toothpaste were to be put to protect them – and campers – from bears. Nor were any such attractions to be left in one’s car, as the bears had learned the trick of inserting a claw and ripping the door off. It therefore occurred to me to wonder whether my pizza lunch was such a good idea after all. It was wrapped in plastic, but to the nose of a bear it might be detectable at half a mile for all I knew. I comforted myself with the notion that the bears would probably be asleep in the heat of the day. Nonetheless, when I stopped to eat beside a mountain torrent I sat with my back to the cliff and kept alert for unwelcome attention.

Except for a few minutes when I was distracted. High in the trees opposite I caught a flash of colour – yellow and red among the bright green leaves and dark shadows. I had to look hard to find it again and it remained mostly hidden, but I eventually saw it well enough to identify it as a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), looking very much like a very large finch, with its solid bill and average length of tail. However, it is not a finch. It is not even a tanager anymore, but has now become a member of the cardinal family. This was a breeding male. Its head was startling red, its nape and body bright lemon yellow. Its back and wings black, with yellow shoulders and white wing-bars.

It was a Western tanager because the great chain of the Rocky Mountains forms a substantial barrier to the avifauna of North America. This was part of the excitement of this trip – I had never before been to the West, and many of the birds are unique to this region. The Steller’s jay, for example. The common Blue Jay is to be found everywhere to the east. The Steller’s jay only in and to the west of the Rockies. Where the former is pale blue or white the latter is a darker blue or grey – and has a considerably more prominent crest, sitting on the top of its head like a slice through a pyramid. They were common in Yosemite.

Meanwhile, there is no Eastern tanager as such. There’s a Scarlet tanager to the east and a couple of others to the south instead.

The Brewer’s blackbird, by the way, is one of those endemic to the west, as is the California gull.


As noted above, the California gull and the herring gull are very similar to look at, especially at a distance. The herring gull is very familiar to anyone from the UK like me, therefore I was interested in spotting the new-to-me California gulls, and not the seen-them-before herring gulls. However, this meant I had to check every likely gull I came upon to determine which of the two it might be. Mostly, it seemed, they were herring gulls. But I kept checking. There were enough California gulls among them to keep me at it. Nonetheless, I would have been happy had there been no herring gulls at all.

In fact, I wished they all could be California gulls.


Anyone who knows about Californian gulls, that is, about the gulls to be found in California – of which there are many – will also know that I have in fact got it wrong.  That is, they were not Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) at all, but Western gulls (Larus occidentalis) instead.  I had been relying on my old Field Guide.  This was a bad mistake, but apparently a common one  :

Western Gull: There is much unnecessary confusion about this species. Most field guides picture the very dark-mantled southern race, which occurs in Northern California only during the winter. The vast majority of our birds are a much lighter slate-gray. Beginners often misidentify Western Gulls as Herring Gulls because of the misrepresentation in the field guides. (Joseph Morlan, 1980 – )

This means I could have been equally happy spotting either of these gulls – although I still prefer the California gulls of course.

I discovered my mistake by accident.  I was looking to check that my California gulls might not have been – sometimes – Ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis).  Both have a black ring just before the tips of their beaks, and are otherwise similar.  However, the California gull’s ring is not so pronounced on the upper mandible and, most clearly, the adult has a red spot on the lower mandible, like a herring gull.  I can only say that when I had the opportunity to take a close look, gulls I identified as Californian had a red spot.  Also, I was visiting in late May/early June and the Ring-billed gull is a winter visitor to California, whereas at least some California gulls are resident in the San Francisco Bay area all year round.

It just goes to show that even an experienced birdwatcher (such as I – obviously) can become as a beginner in territories new. But then that’s half the fun of it.