Sea Birds and Shorebirds of Monterey Bay

The fog hung thick over the pond next to the Pajaro Dunes Resort office. Red-winged Blackbirds broke the early morning silence by calling and gurgling their delight with the morning. The six participants and leader participating on the Monterey Bay Birding Festival’s field trip to Pajaro Dunes headed towards the pond where Mallards huddled near the shore. Two Snowy Egrets flew in and started working the shore.

“Let’s head to the far shore and check the threes,” Kumaran, our trip leader, suggested. Those trees tend to attract migrants – and anything is possible.”

As we approached the trees, we heard the buzzy call of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and quickly located it. Two Anna’s Hummingbirds alerted us to their territorial tussle.

“I hear a Hutton’s Vireo,’ Kumaran stated, and I quickly located it, as Kumaran explained to the others how to differentiate it from a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Then Kumaran, a classical pianist, heard the distinctive chips of Orange-crowned, Yellow and Townsend’s Warblers. His ability to differentiate the nuances in bird calls was an asset to our experience.

A flock of chickadees called as they worked the oaks. “Our only chickadee is the chestnut-backed,” Kumaran explained.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

We turned our attention back to the pond as a small flock of shorebirds swirled in and landed on the shore near us. Least Sandpipers. “While other peeps are possible, the two most prevalent shorebirds in this area are Least and Western,” Kumaran shared. Three Killdeer also foraged nearby.

“There are two Northern Shovelers still in eclipse,” Phil, a retired ornithologist stated, pointing to where they dabbled.

“Is that a wild or domesticated White-fronted Goose?” someone asked. Kumaran explained that a few non-domesticated ones visit in the fall and winter, and that this one had arrived recently.

A lone Red-necked Phalarope spun around the edge of the pond. “Monterey Bay is a staging area for the Red-necked. The Red Phalaropes are only found off the coast,” Kumaran explained.

Red-necked Phalarope

Before heading to the cars, we checked the coastal scrub habitat, which produced Bewick’s Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, House Wren, Western Scrub Jay, Wrentit, and Black Phoebe. There were a couple of possible Golden-crowned Sparrows.

We drove a short distance to the actual dunes, which separated the resort area from the beach. The sandy path up to the top of the dune didn’t look very steep; however, it was challenging to climb in the deep sand. When I got halfway up, my walking stick was not providing sufficient support. Fortunately, Kumaran let me take his arm for support – and I made it to the top!

I perched on a picnic bench at the crest of the dune, while the rest of the group headed down to the beach below. From my vantage point, I watched marled Godwits and Willets working the edges of the wave line, probing in the sand each time the water receded. A flock of Sanderlings ran in and out of the waves, like small children at play. Western and Heerman’s Gulls hovered nearby and a lone Whimbrel probed the sand a short distance away.

The rest of the group joined me on the top of the dune. A Black-belled Plover called as it flew overhead. Kumaran pointed out a Sooty Shearwater as it flew over the swells, its bullet-shaped body just barely skimming above the water. After studying its behavior, we were able to pick out another one a short time later.

Brown Pelicans and Brandt’s Cormorants flew by on patrol. Elegant Terns zigzagged as they watched for fish, and then dove straight into the surf to snag a meal.

“Watch the Parasitic Jaeger,” Kumaran suggested. “It is opportunistic. It doesn’t dive to catch its meal. Instead, it keeps an eye on the terns. When it sees one make a successful catch, it pursues it – until the tern tires and drops the fish. The Jaeger then darts under and catches it.” We watched fascinated as the jaeger wore out the tern.

After descending the dune – much easier than going up – we followed the Pajaro River through the lower slough to its mouth. Along the way we saw Black-necked Stilt and Greater Yellowlegs working the mud in exposed areas. At the mouth of the river were a Spotted Sandpiper and a small flock of Western Sandpipers. Three Common Mergansers paddled and dove at the confluence.

Along the beach, a small group of Elegant Terns huddled together near the shore, their shaggy topknots blowing in the wind. Further along, we found a Peregrine Falcon tearing flesh off of a gull. A Turkey Vulture waited patiently nearby knowing that the falcon would not be thorough and there would still be some left for it.

The next day my friend Sue and I met 13 other birders at Waddell Beach north of Santa Cruz at 7:30 a.m. This beach, at the edge of old-growth redwoods, is a good place to see Marbled Murrelet. Before starting our search, Jennifer, our trip leader and also President of Sequoia Audubon, explained the connection between old-growth redwoods and the endangered murrelet. “It is the only sea bird that nests in trees,” Jennifer explained. “It wasn’t until 1974 that its nesting site was discovered and documented.”

As she was talking, a Common Raven landed on the beach nearby. “The Raven is the enemy of the murrelet,” Jennifer stated. “The raven watches people and has followed researchers that are monitoring the murrelet – and then steals eggs and chicks. It is a catch 22.”

The fog was so heavy that even through a scope the murrelet was only a small ball on the water. I was glad I had seen them at close range near Seward, Alaska.

Heerman’s and Western Gulls huddled in flocks; however, a few Heerman’s stalked the beach on their own. “Watch the Heerman’s Gulls,” Jennifer advised. “They are resourceful and often adopt a Brown Pelican in hopes of stealing its bounty.”

Thirty-one Whimbrels foraged together, moving as a group. “They look like an army advancing,” someone laughed.

Cormorants flew back and forth – mostly Brandt’s and Pelagic. While both have short tails, I learned to distinguish them in flight by their bills – the Pelagic being very thin – and by their necks, the Brandt’s having a slight bulge.

The fog began to lift. We were able to spot a Common Murre bobbing beyond the waves, as well as a Sea Otter.

Waddell Beach

After an hour, we crossed the highway to explore Rancho del Oso, a state park, starting our birding at a freshwater marsh, then checking out the meadows, coastal scrub, and a riparian area long Waddell Creek.

In the afternoon, Sue and I explored Moss Landing. The tidal flats were alive with waders and shorebirds: Least Sandpipers, Semi-palmated Plovers, Whimbrels, Willets, Marbled Godwits, a Long-billed Curlew and a few Snowy and Great Egrets.

Long-billed Curlew with Least Sandpiper

After watching and photographing the birds in the tidal flats, we drove where we could look out over the mouth of the harbor. A raft of 33 Sea Otters lay on their backs taking their afternoon naps. When they rolled over, we could see their flipper-like feet.

Sea Otter

On the breakwater rocks, I spotted a Common Murre. It looked like a small penguin as it stood on the rocks and slapped its wings against its side.

Before we left the area, we had the opportunity to visit two more local sloughs – Elkhorn and Watsonville.

While only the Sooty Shearwater was a new bird for me near the shore, the festival provided me an opportunity to learn so much about the interactions between species and their habit from local birding experts.


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