Breakwater birds

Breakwater byCMPProtecting the north side of Monterey Harbor is the U.S. Coast Guard breakwater and wharf. It doesn’t look like much of a birding spot from the parking lot, but if you look over the railing at low tide, there’s usually quite a variety of shorebirds on the riprap rocks or in the water. (There’s usually quite a number of divers, too, but that’s a separate story.)

Surfbird by CMPI often find two small, similar shorebirds: surfbird and black turnstone. Both of these birds are common in the winter and the populations appear to be healthy. The surfbird is mostly gray (breeding plumage is spotted), with yellow legs and a pale lower bill at the base. It runs along the surf-washed rocks looking for goodies to eat. This little bird can pull mussels and barnacles from rocks and swallow them whole. (It doesn’t look that strong.)

BlackTurnstone by CMPThe black turnstone is about the same size and has a black back and bill, white belly, and dark pink legs. It appears to eat the same foods as the surfbird, but does more probing and stone turning (as per the name). The black turnstone is especially lovely when it takes flight, flashing a chevron pattern across outstretched wings. Both species are very animated and fun to watch.

BlackOystercatcher by CMP

Another breakwater bird that looks to me like a wind-up toy is the black oystercatcher, with its bright orange bill and pink legs protruding from a dark black-brown body. This bird is also noisy when disturbed or in flight. The oystercatcher, too, searches for limpets and mussels along the rocks. (This year the mussel beds are substantial and healthy due to the missing sea stars — see my seastar wasting post.) Did you know that you can tell the difference between the male and female (which look identical in the field) by looking the bird in the eye? Males tend to have no or few eye flecks (the pupils appear round) and females tend to have dark eye flecks (the pupils looks oddly shaped).










MewGull by CMP

GlaucousWingedGull by CMP

WesternGulls byCMP

No local breakwater would be complete without gulls. During this breakwater visit, I saw three: mew gull, glaucous-winged gull and our year-round Western gull (all of the shots are adults or near adults). The mew gull is a small white-headed gull with a short bill. As a result, I think it always has a quizzical look on its face. Its legs are yellow (which you can’t see here).

The glaucous-winged gull looks a lot like the Western gull, except its wings are a much paler gray, as are the wingtips. The Western gull (paired below) has a darker back and black wing tips. Both have pinkish legs, but to me the Western gull’s legs are usually a cleaner pink. The glaucous-winged gull has dark eyes, while the Western’s eyes are yellow. It helps to have them near each other to tell them apart.

Although all of these breakwater visitors are vulnerable to coastal pollution, especially oil, their populations are healthy and hearty at this time. (Speaking of oil, did you know that our daily activities account for more oil in the ocean than oil spills? That surprised me. About 8% comes from oil spills, 60% from natural seeps including the largest off Santa Barbara, and the remainder from our poorly maintained and operated autos and boats. View the Dell’Amore & Nunez article linked below or The National Academies Press report.) Each of us carries quite a responsibility for negative or positive impacts on our ocean and its inhabitants.

If you have a chance, take a closer look at the rocks of your local breakwater, especially at low tide. And remember, it’s their territory (even though we created it), so try not to disturb them. Just watch for interesting behaviors and feeding surprises.

Dell’Amore, C. & Nunez, C. (2014, Mar. 25). 3 surprising souces of oil pollution in the ocean. National Geographic online. Available at
Guzzetti, B. M. et al. (2008). Secrets in the eyes of black oystercatchers: A new sexing technique. Journal of Field Ornithology79(2), 215–223. Abstract available at
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds website.

2 Comments on “Breakwater birds

  1. I love watching the birds around our jetties. Probably much like the breakwater. I still haven’t invested much in telling the gulls apart. There just seem to be far too many of them. Our oystercatchers seem to mostly hang out around the rocks and islands close to shore. I’ll have to keep and eye out for the surfbird and black turnstone. Perhaps the best time might be at minus tides?


    • Hi Gunta
      Gulls are so tough. What I learned was to identify the age first (juvenile, middles, adult), then work on the species ID. Here’s a link for aging gulls: I take particular notice of the bill, eyes, legs, then body plumage colors. I’ve got a few common ones down, but I figure identifying gulls will be a lifetime effort.
      The surfbirds and turnstones seem to like lapping waves on rocks at low tide. Doesn’t have to be a minus tide. Enjoy.



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