Proposed trip to California in early August

I have to be in Los Angeles on the 7th August for several days of business. I like to arrive a few days early, and am wondering if anybody has suggestions as to how I can fill this time profitably mammal-watching.

My current North American list includes Californian ground squirrel, eastern & western grey squirrels, fox squirrel, desert cottontail, Mexican free-tailed bat, elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. My marine mammal list also has nine species including all the obvious ones. In that regard common stuff like raccoons, opossums and skunks still holds a fascination for this Australian, but overall, anything to increase the list. I also bird so places with a good bird list won’t go unappreciated.

I’ll have a thermal scope, head-light, and binoculars, and can bring a small spotting scope if that is an advantage.

I know this is the summer, so would rather head north than south into the heat. I also would prefer to be looking at animals rather than driving, I’m also aware this is the North American summer school holiday period, so that will probably affect accommodation availability especially along the coast.

13 Comments
  1. Lee 3 months ago

    Michael, I spent summers of my youth in the Sierra Nevadas. California Bighorn Sheep (formerly a subspecies, but now demoted, I believe, erroneously), Tule Elk, Ring-tailed Cat (not a cat, of course); fisher, but hard to see. Humboldt’s flying squirrel (Glaucomys oregonensis) there and in the San Bernadino Mountains. Desert Bighorn Sheep in Mojavi Desert and east slope of the Sierras. western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis) . Pacific marten (Martes caurina) . This may be too far from L.A. for you to reach in a few days, but there’s a place where we always saw martens near Lassen National Park.

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  2. Leslie Sokolow 3 months ago

    In August, you’ll be most comfortable weatherwise on the coast or in the Sierra Nevada Mtns (the Sierra). Avoid the desert or Central Valley. The heat can kill and many animals are estivating.

    Not sure if you’re more interested in quantity over quality, but I suggest you focus on species unique to California. Northern Elephant seals haul out year round at Piedras Blancas in southern Big Sur. Sea otters frolic in the same vicinity. A day’s drive inland takes you to Pinnacles National Park, where there’s a reliable population of California Condors. Off the coast, on Santa Cruz Island (Channel Islands National Park), you’re almost guaranteed to see Island Foxes, which tie with Quokkas as the world’s cutest mammal. Boats to the island leave from Ventura or Oxnard Harbors. I’m happy to discuss other ideas. Write me at lsokolow-at-hotmail.com.

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  3. Matt H. 3 months ago

    In and immediately around LA the most likely new species for your list would be coyote, striped skunk, opossum, raccoon, and Botta’s pocket gopher. For a better range of possibilities I’d probably head to the Sequoia National Forest/National Park area, which is only a few hours north of LA. Guaranteed sightings of perhaps 6 species of squirrels, along with mule deer and jackrabbits. The national park proper is a reliable spot for black bears, and the area in general has good potential for a variety of other carnivores on night drives. Pika are findable in the higher elevations. This is a pretty good birding area as well, especially for woodpeckers and corvids. If you’re willing to visit hotter areas, the Carrizo Plain isn’t too far and would provide opportunities for pronghorn, kit fox, and kangaroo rats. This might also yield roadrunner, and there’s a nearby site for California Condors (Bitter Creek NWR).

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  4. Jon Langeland 3 months ago

    In Monterey Bay you can see and photograph different sea mammals , Harbour Seals, Elephant Seals. Along High Way One you have access to the beach, a beautyful coastline saved for and beeing available for public, and you can park many places. Also great for landscapes / sunsets, with long exposure time of the sea . Do not forget ure stable drypod , wide angele 14-24 or 16-36, 24-70 and 70-200 and a long lens 400-600 for the animals . Good luck ! Jon from Norway

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  5. Charles Hood 3 months ago

    This is a difficult post to reply to since there are some false assumptions and also a lot of unexplained parameters. Heat is not just a south / north thing, but variable depending on local conditions — even downtown San Francisco was 41 c / 106 f once — and easily “worked around” by changing elevation. The San Gabriel Mountains immediately behind Los Angeles rise to above 3000 meters, and if you tried hard enough, it would be possible to freeze to death even mid-summer. Many mid-altitude sites like Charlton Flats are quite pleasant in August, and still rather birdy. (See for example my entry on that site in the book “Wild LA.”)

    So if the request is to spend more time looking that driving, I assume that behind that is “looking and seeing things all the time,” as opposed to just looking in the sense of field time. After all, you can LOOK for Botta’s pocket gophers in almost every urban park. No driving, just lots of looking. But if you want to SEE raccoon, striped skunk, and gray fox all in the first hour, then the plan would be to fly to SF and go to Pt Reyes and arrive after dark. Badger too maybe, and bobcat as well. Elephant seals during the day (etc).

    August is actually a good time to try for Bighorn at Anza Borrego, so that could make the trade-off with daytime heat acceptable? Bats there too — I would guess 15 species possible, without bothering to look anything up. (That number is very much a guess.) Ringtail of course, coyotes. Great herps. Not far from the Salton Sea, with its Yellow-footed Gulls and Burrowing Owls.

    This website has many trip reports, so it’s easy to decide what one’s radius is going to be (and one’s budget). Just make use of these resources.

    I actually would vote for SE’n AZ in August myself. (See all the reports to see why.)

    Two notes for 2022. The first is that the West is in a multi-year drought. That may seriously depress desert rodents overall, and certainly that late in the season. Some places, like Big Bear, may be okay (it just got late snow a week ago), but the larger picture is grim.

    And then point two relating to that is for sure there will be large fires in summer of 2022. (And for most summers yet to come.) That means you could have the perfect itinerary like Big Sur or Sequoia, and because of fire closures, it just will not be possible. Whatever “Plan A” is, you will need “Plan B” as well. Right now the mountains behind Los Angeles remain closed to hiking due to a fire two years ago (the Bobcat Fire), but in April that closure supposedly lifts. Sequoia Nat Park is not fully open I think? And Yosemite is going to reservations.

    For birds, the California state list is now at 679 species, with half a dozen additional exotics likely to make the list eventually. August is good for shorebirds, eg Willow Street on the Los Angeles River. Scope required, though. There are currently about 450,000 eBird checklists posted for Los Angeles County (that number is not a typo) — to know where things are like white-headed woodpecker or California gnatcatcher, just do searches by species. Conversely, check eBird’s hotspot maps. You also can poach the tour itineraries eg from Field Guides, Wings, Victor Emanuel. They all do California in late summer or early fall, so you can get a sense of what they hope to do, and how many days they spend per site.

    For herps and some mammals, iNaturalist also is reliable.

    If you have a specific target bird and if eBird is not clear, contact me off post at

    hoodcw AT gmail DOT com.

    Broadly speaking, I know where everything is. I also can make suggestions about work-arounds for traffic if you know where you will be based.

    Charles Hood

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  6. Jon Hall 3 months ago

    There’s lots of good advice here and of course it all depends on how much time and what species yiu want to see most but you could do a lot worse than drive up the spectacular coastline to San Francisco and fly back. Stopping for a night or two at Monterey to go whale watching for species like Blues, pacific white side dolphin and northern right whale dolphin plus sea otters and also a night or two at Point Reyes just north of San Fran for close cues like Badger, Bobcat and River Otter. But you could daily fill two weeks seeing new species every day on that area.

    • Author
      MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

      Thanks. Please see general reply at end.

  7. Author
    MIchael Johnson 2 weeks ago

    Thanks everybody for your help. Some great suggestions. The question was asked what was I after quantity or quality? This will be my first trip overseas for two and a half years, so I’m itching for a bit of quantity. Plus, I’m interested in diversity and seeing skunks, racoons, gophers and opossums would give me four new families.

    I’ve been to Monterey twice, once for a wonderful whale trip that was the subject of a report on this site. I’ve also been fortunate enough to see elephant seals both on the beach and at sea. Point Reyes sounds like a great option except that I have family friends and relatives in San Francisco that would need to be visited, which will extend the time I need substantially. I’ll keep Point Reyes for when I’m back in California with my wife.

    Sounds like Sequala National Park / Forest is the best option overall. I am very familiar with the issues of fire and summer heat, we have similar problems here in Australia. Backup will be to just stay in LA.

    But things have changed a little with illness in the family. I may not have the time in the end and may have to satisfy myself with what wildlife watching I can do over a couple of days around LA.

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