Fall Birding on Southern California Coast

The morning was cool and clear and a slight breeze wafted across White’s Point off of Palos Verde Peninsula. Before scanning the off-shore rocks, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of the ocean air and absorbed the sound of the waves lapping against the rocky shore. It was the sound of my Santa Monica childhood and filled me with a sense of peace.

I opened my eyes and gazed through my bins at the large rocky mass protruding a short distance from shore. Brandt’s Cormorants clustered on the far right. On the left a group of Double-crested Cormorants sunned themselves and dried their wings. Western Gulls swooped and dove. A single Brown Pelican rested in the middle, while others patrolled from the air.

My friend Sue and I were enjoying fall birding along the Southern California coast between visits with two of our friends from college.

Our attention was diverted to the rocks immediately in front of us. A medium-sized shorebird pranced on the jagged boulders. We were hopeful it might be a Surfbird.

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler

“Nope,” Sue said. “Look at it bounce. It’s a Wandering Tattler.” We had seen them in Alaska, but from further away. It was fun to observe it at close range.

A group of smaller shorebirds flew close to shore in a perfectly synchronized pattern, and finally landed on piles of kelp flung by the waves against the retaining wall below the parking area. Within a few minutes they were swarming over the kelp. Most were Black Turnstones.

I started inching closer while Sue gazed at them through her scope. The tide was coming in. As each wave receded over the gravel, it created a roar that sounded like distant thunder.

“There also are Ruddy Turnstones,” I stated.

A Snowy Egret flew in and landed nearby.

CA-coast-catsWe headed back the other way where we encountered about 30 feral cats that had crept out of their hiding places between the rocks for their morning meal, which a woman was offering out of the trunk of her car. While it was sad to think about all of these homeless cats, it also was disconcerting, knowing the risk that feral cats pose to birds.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Further on we watched two Black-bellied Plovers fly in and settle on the rocks. They were joined by some Willets and a Wimbrel.

As we returned to the car we encountered a gathering of gulls sitting on the sand at water’s edge – mostly Western Gulls, with a few Heerman’s mixed in. In a blur of black and red, a flock of about 15 Black Oystercatchers joined them.

Our next stop was Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. We drove out towards the fishing pier. Both Forster’s and Elegant Terns sailed over the water, occasionally diving to retrieve a small fish. Brant’s and Double-crested Cormorants stood sentinel on their respective pilings, while Brown Pelicans cruised overhead.

Snowy Plover - photo by Sue Clasen

Snowy Plover - phto by Sue Clasen

A flock of gulls foraged along the edge of the inner harbor. Four Snowy Plovers were dwarfed as they buzzed between them. “They look like they’re motorized toys,” Sue laughed.

After a lunch of seafood at Sunset Beach, we spent two hours at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach.

Seventeen Killdeer were active in a marshy area near the parking lot. We then walked along the road to get to the trail that followed through a grassy habitat on the ‘mesa’ along the east side of the preserve. Everything was parched and brown. Occasionally a few Beldings Savannah Sparrows or Say’s Phoebe would pause on the boundary fence. A Red-tailed Hawk was perched on a eucalyptus branch a short distance beyond the fence.

Marbled Godwit - photo by Sue Clasen

Marbled Godwit - photo by Sue Clasen

We walked to a lookout over the inter-tidal marsh and inlet. Unfortunately, we were looking into the sun and hadn’t brought the scope, so we only were able to clearly identify the larger shorebirds, including Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Willets.

Further on we watched two Merlins fly out from their perch on a snag, and then return a short time later.

When we reached the trail that led across the tidal gate, we could see the extensive expansion of the reserve. We watched Great Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets along the shore of a nearby cove.

Western Sandpiper - Photo by Sue Clasen

Western Sandpiper - Photo by Sue Clasen

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the newly expanded areas, so headed across the paved walk-way where Forester’s Terns hovered over the tide gate, and then headed north along the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway. It provided us a good vantage point to observe shorebirds foraging along the edge, including Greater Yellowlegs, Western and Least Sandpipers, and Semi-Palmated Plovers.

It had been a wonderful day enjoying the California coast!

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