Bay-to-Beach Life Blog

Do you know your gulls?

All winter I’ve been working on learning to identify our local gulls. So far I’ve learned that it’s really challenging!Gulls at Plaza by Chris Parsons The difficulty comes from not only recognizing different species (15+ commonly visit our area), but also different year classes within a species (there are 3 or 4 four classes each with different plumage, bill and leg colors). In addition, individuals vary and gulls crossbreed (mixed species really confuse matters). But like all challenges, I’m taking fledgling steps and tackling one gull at a time. (I’ve always called these birds seagulls, but it’s more correct to use the term gulls because not all live near the sea, so I’m using gull/gulls in this post.)

To identify a gull, according to local birding instructor Brian Weed, start by identifying the age of the bird — Is it an adult or immature, and if immature, of what age class? (This isn’t intuitive. I want to start with what it is, not how old it is.) Once the age is pinpointed, then work on identifying the species (all before the bird flies off). Brian provided a simple illustrated guide showing the characteristics of age classes of species that mature over four years — years 1, 2 and 3 are immature and year 4 is an adult. (Of course, some species mature over 3 years instead of 4, a complication I’m ignoring here.)

And now show-and-tell time. Gulls 3 at Roberts Lake by Chris ParsonsAlong this railing are three gulls that look different. They are, in fact, birds of different ages. The farthest is a year 1 gull: It’s all brown from head to wing covers (coverts) to underside. The rump (which you can’t see) is the same color as the back, and the wingtips are a solid brown. The bill and eyes are dark. The closest gull is a mature (year 4+) gull: Its head, neck and underside are all white (no dark streaks or smudges). The tail and rump are also white (easier to see in the photo at the start of this post). The back and wing coverts are dark gray. The bill is yellow and legs pink. The bird in the middle is of an age class between the other two birds (nice of them to line up this way for me). It’s head, neck and underside are mostly white. The back is dark gray, but the coverts are brown. The bill is pale with a darkish tip and legs pink. This middle bird is between the ages of the other two, either a year 2 or year 3 bird (I know, not exact, but this isn’t rocket science). It’s probably closer to year 2 because the back and coverts are different colors.Immature Gulls by Chris Parsons

Here’s another shot of two immature birds at the same location. The farthest is a year 1 bird. The closest has the back and coverts characteristic of a year 2 bird. (Making an ID is so much easier when they’re standing than when on the fly.)

If you haven’t guessed already, all of the birds shown so far are western gulls. The giveaway for me was the similar size of the adults and youngsters in this group, and the adults’ white head, yellow bill, dark gray back and pink legs. Also, they’re the most abundant gulls here.

Now it’s your turn (if you want to join my challenge). Remember: Age first, then species. Can you distinguish between the adult and immature birds in these shots? Click on them to get a closer look. (Unfortunately, they didn’t cooperatively line up by age.) To help you focus on age, I’ll divulge that there are California gulls, western gulls and mew gulls in these shots.

Gull Group Monterey by Chris Parsons

Gull Group Carmel by Chris Parsons
As you can see, this challenge will keep me busy on my walks for quite some time.


Don Roberson’s Creagrus website: Gull Subfamily
Also, Creagrus California List (with photos): California gulls
Santa Cruz Bird Club: Identifying Gulls
Also via Santa Cruz Bird Club, Morlan’s Flowcharts for Identifying Gulls (without pictures though)

Another odd goose

Odd Goose2 by Chris ParsonsThis is the second goose in a week that has tested by fledgling bird identification skills. I took this shot at the Hopkins Marine Station beach while watching the snoozing harbor seals. This goose, as you can see, is about the size of the Canada geese, but is more white than those birds or the one I showed you in my Carmel Bay walk post. Another Canada goose hybrid maybe, or an escaped domestic?

Winter walk along Carmel Bay

Carmel Bay is a lovely, exposed bay just south of Monterey Bay, and a good walking site almost any day. Carmel Bay by Chris ParsonsIt’s nestled between a southern rocky peninsula that is Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and a northern rocky peninsula that includes Pebble Beach — about 4 miles (6.4 km) of ocean, rocky shores and sandy beaches. The town Carmel (officially Carmel-by-the-Sea) straddles mid-coast. From a land perspective, Carmel Bay is separate from Monterey Bay. From an ocean perspective, submarine canyons — the Monterey Canyon System — connect the smaller Carmel Bay with the larger Monterey Bay. Because of that connection, and frequent Carmel visits, I feel justified writing about Carmel Bay in a Monterey Bay blog.

After a mild winter storm last week, I walked the Carmel Bay shoreline from south to north — from Point Lobos to the Carmel-Pebble Beach border. I’ve never walked the entire stretch before. The day was cloudy, breezy and cold, but that didn’t matter because the scenery was so amazing. Point Lobos by Chris Parsons(I’ll probably be using many superlatives in this post as this is a spectacular coastline.)

I started my walk at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which according to the map and guide is considered “the crown jewel of California’s state park system.” Artist Francis McComas claimed (and I agree) it’s “…the greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” Point Lobos Pines by Chris ParsonsPoint Lobos (referring to the sea lions on rocky points) is a mosaic of headlands and coves shaped by tectonics and pounding surf, as well as forests and meadows buffeted by stiff winds, blanketed in drifting fog and baked dry the rest of the time. (You could easily spend an entire day exploring this place.) It’s a dynamic, life-rich environment that presents a different face each time I visit. This time there were signs of winter (wet from rain) and spring: leafy green poison oak, dusty yellow pine pollen and bright flowering Indian paintbrush. With hardly anyone else there, I was able to soak in the varied, and sometimes eerie, beauty.

To continue my stroll toward Carmel, unfortunately, I had to walk about a half-mile (.8 km) along Highway 1. It’s a very busy road. There is a broad shoulder and the walk is short, so it’s not too bad, however, a more natural path between the park boundary and Monastery Beach would certainly enhance the experience. Along the way, I was stopped by two different sets of visitors seeking directions. (I guess I looked like I belonged.)

The next leg was Monastery Beach (the local’s name due to the nearby Carmelite Sisters Monastery), but also shown on maps as San Jose Creek Beach (due to the creek that flows to it, although I’ve never heard anyone call it that). Monastery Beach by Chris ParsonsThis beach is awe-inspiring and, for locals, fear-inducing. It’s gorgeous with pebbly sand and breathtaking surf. On a sunny day, it’s irresistibly attractive. What many visitors don’t realize, even though there are warning signs, is that this beach is deadly — people die here just about every year. (Some call it Mortuary Beach, but I’ve only seen that in the media.) The attractive surf is extremely dangerous due to its power, the steep angle of the beach and the coarse sand that gives way underfoot. It’s easy to be hit by a wave, get swept away and drown. The beach also attracts SCUBA divers. The diving is probably exquisite, but again, the water is rough and only for the most experienced on the calmest days.

Last year I kayaked along this side of Point Lobos with friends and Monterey Bay Kayaks guides. We launched and landed successfully from the south end of Monastery Beach making use of the water-calming kelp beds to protect us. I’m not sure I’d do it again though. (I’ll post about that adventure another time.) Trekking across the loose sand of Monastery Beach was challenging, but necessary to reach the Carmel River Beach Trail and continue on my way to Carmel.

The Carmel River Beach Trail (map) is part trail and part service road, and was a wonderful surprise. It was a broad path that followed a rocky shore dotted with beaches. It looked like a great secluded spot to enjoy on a warm day, but was chilly in the wind and so I kept walking to where the Carmel River flows into the ocean (sometimes). Carmel River Mouth by Chris ParsonsWhere river and sea met was a broad, shallow freshwater lagoon. In the water on this day, there were a flock of gulls, a few cormorants and two pairs of buffleheads in full breeding plumage.

Mystery Goose by Chris ParsonsI also spotted an odd bird on the shore, and still haven’t figured out what it was (any guesses?). It was about the size of a Canada goose, maybe a bit smaller, but as you can see, its coloration, neck and feet were all wrong (right for this goose, but wrong for identification). My best guess was that it may be a Canada goose hybrid, but with what?

Blocking the mouth of the Carmel River was a sand berm (which sometimes is cut open to let the river flow into the sea and not flood homes). However, this year we’ve had little rain (one of our driest winters on record) and the river was just a trickle. (I got only one shoe wet during my crossing.) Gulls at Carmel River Lagoon by Chris ParsonsAll along the berm were gulls — different species and age classes. I identified the larger ones as Western gulls (year-round residents) and most of the smaller ones with yellow legs as California gulls (which are now starting to migrate out of our area). When I have time, this could be a great place to work on my gull identification skills, especially when we have so many over-wintering species and there’s such a crowd of gulls.

After crossing the northern section of Carmel River State Beach, my path took Scenic Road around Cypress Point, still along the coast but also past Carmel homes. This area is all part of the Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation Area (I’ve written more about local state marine protected areas in a previous post). The tidepools on my left were spectacular, as were the homes on my right. Scenic Road leads to the dog-friendliest city and beach that I know. Carmel Beach by Chris ParsonsWe raised our German shepherd on Carmel Beach, and I’m sure she’s a friendlier and healthier dog because of it. The beach is leash-free for well-behaved canines. Dogs of all sizes and ages get to socialize and learn proper manners from both canines and people But I have push-pull about the dogs running free. It prevents shorebirds from feeding along the beach. We’ve never allowed our dog to chase birds, but not everyone is so mindful. My justification is that there are many other areas along our coast where wildlife are protected from human disturbances. And, I think Carmel’s economy is closely tied to its welcoming policies toward canine companions. I certainly appreciate it when I visit with my dog.

I continued my walk until the rocks jutting into the surf blocked my progress at the Carmel-Pebble Beach boundary. If I had wanted to continue, I could have by following the California Coastal Trail (Section 11) off the beach (using a set of wooden stairs) and winding along trails through the Del Monte Forest to Fanshell Beach and 17-Mile Drive on the north side of Pebble Beach. That’s a walk I plan to tackle another day.

Peb Beach view of Pt. Lobos by Chris ParsonsI looked back at Point Lobos, where I had started. Noticing that the sky was turning dark and it was getting windier, I decided it was a good time to finish. I trudged off the beach into Carmel (that hill is tough) and ended my walk with a treat at Doris Day’s Cypress Inn.


MBARI: Monterey Canyon System
Monterey County Parks & Beaches: List and interactive map
Point Lobos Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), includes Carmel area: Brochure (note: pdf document)
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Point Lobos Foundation

Marine protection (MPAs) around Monterey Bay

Did you know that along the central California coast there are four different kinds of state Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and 29 distinct places with protection? I didn’t until I attended a three-day meeting in Monterey last week. The meeting’s long title was: State of the California Central Coast: Reflecting on the first five years of MPA monitoring, management, and partnership. 

Courtesy CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

Courtesy CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

The symposium was dedicated to central California MPAs from Pigeon Point to Point Conception (including Monterey Bay), covering about 207 square miles (536 sq. km) or 18% of state waters. The presentations focused on lessons learned and baseline data garnered over the past five years (there were a lot of rockfish talks). About 300 people attended. I’m not going to report on all I learned or heard at the meeting in this post (there’s a lot to say), but I wanted to share two main takeaways.

First, as part of the meeting we received a packet of resources worth sharing via links. I’ve found them to be a treasure trove for getting to know Monterey Bay (as well as the coast to the north and south). However, I learned that MPAs are complicated, from the definitions to the designations to the protection, research and monitoring. So hang in here with me and use the links to dig deeper.

A short definition of a California MPA (Marine Protected Area) is: a named discrete geographic marine or estuarine area designated by law or other action to protect or conserve marine life and habitat. (The MPA link above goes to the full definition.) The types of MPA along the central California coast are (use each link below for details):

  • State Marine Reserve (SMR): No-take area
    (“Take” has a long definition and includes fishing or collecting, as well as injuring, damaging, etc. No-take doesn’t include those with proper permits for scientific collecting or research activities)
  • State Marine Park (SMP): Allows recreational or limited take, but no commercial take
  • State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA): Allows limited recreational and/or commercial take to protect a specific resource or habitat
  • State Marine Recreational Management Area (SMRMA): This is not technically an MPA and the only one is in Morro Bay, not Monterey Bay, so I’m just mentioning it.

For maps and detailed information about each of the central California coast MPAs, visit this California Department of Fish & Wildlife link and scroll down to the list. The Monterey Bay area MPAs (from Santa Cruz to Carmel) MBay beach by Chris Parsonsare Elkhorn Slough SMR, Elkhorn Slough SMCA, Moro Cojo Slough SMR, Soquel Canyon SMCA, Portuguese Ledge SMCA, Edward F. Ricketts SMCA, Lovers Point SMR, Pacific Grove Marine Gardens SMCA, Asilomar SMR, Carmel Pinnacles SMR and Carmel Bay SMCA.

At the end of this post are links to downloadable resources from the meeting’s key organizers. (Note: Hundreds of groups and individuals have been and are key to these MPAs, and partnerships were mentioned often during the meeting. My thanks to everyone for their hard fought and won work.) Using these resources, it’s easier to dive deeper into our bay’s marvelous seen and unseen treasures, and support their protection and sustainable use.

Next, this meeting was essentially a report card on a five-year old. As we were reminded (and which got lost in the media coverage, I think), the reports were of baseline data with only a taste of preliminary results. It’s too soon to ask for results (that’s like asking about the career successes of our five-year old), because the goal has been to set the low bar, to determine where we’re standing now. Although researchers, fishers, community members, environmentalists and policy people have learned a lot since these MPAs were officially established in 2007, there’s a long way to go and we all need to understand that. (I was amazed at the limited details known about the coastal environments before the MPAs, how well everyone did establishing them with the information they had, and how much more is known in just a few years.) Now that we know (or at least have a better idea of) where we stand, over the next 5, 10, 20, 30 years we’ll be able to tell how well the MPAs have or haven’t worked as compared to the baseline. Of course, a separate burning question is, Do we have the time?

Resources: Central California MPAs

For more about definitions and designations, visit CA Fish & Wildlife Central Coast Marine Protected Areas where you can download a pdf booklet and brochure showing local MPAs.
For the baseline results (info on the research!) see: State of the Calif Central Coast Results from Baseline Monitoring of Marine Protected Areas 2007 – 2012: Report (viewable online or downloadable)
For policy, visit California Ocean Science Trust (who moderated the meeting and is mandated by Calif. statute to assist ocean/coastal policy makers with science-informed decision making). Also, one of their reporting programs is: MPA Monitoring Enterprise

A long walk at low tide

Rain is on its way (winter has barely visited this year) and so I took a long walk to enjoy a pre-stormy bay and this week’s daytime low tides. It was cool, and the sky and ocean were soft gray (not unusual here). Gray March Day by Chris ParsonsMy walk started on the sandy beach below Del Monte Dunes in Monterey and ended on Moss Beach (where Asilomar State Beach meets Spanish Bay) in Pebble Beach — a lovely, easy 10-mile trek. Between the two stretches of beach are the rugged, rocky shorelines of Monterey and Pacific Grove.

The joy of a cloudy Monday in March is that the beaches and shoreline paths are mostly devoid of people. When bay beaches are deserted, turkey vultures are busy inspecting the coastline for a meal. Today was no exception. I happened upon one vulture working on a seal carcass and I stopped to watch it for a while. (Visit an earlier post for more about vultures.) I’m fascinated by such a scene because of its tenuous thread to a time when large animals frequented these beaches, when condors and bears scavenged beached whales. Not that I’d want to encounter a bear on the beach, but I feel the loss of such scenes forever gone. The mood was soon broken when a jogger bounced by, oblivious to the interruption, and the vulture took flight.

At the Monterey Harbor I walked down the Coast Guard pier and breakwater (see an earlier post for more about the harbor) to check on the sea lions and cormorants. Sea Lions Breakwater by Chris ParsonsAs usual, there was a roiling sea of sea lions, edgily jockeying for space and position. Unlike past weeks though, the rocks sported more gulls than cormorants. This was true for my entire walk and I’m still wondering were the cormorants had gone.

As the tide ebbed all along Monterey’s rocky shoreline, birds searched among rocks for tidbits — Turnstone Low Tide by Chris Parsonsturnstones and surfbirds along the breakwater, snowy egrets in harbor shallows, gulls and crows everywhere. With predators afoot and life-supporting water temporarily gone, sea anemones had collapsed, muscles shut tight, and snails and barnacles closed their doors. It would be a few hours before the invertebrates would be free of the pesky, poking birds. But it offered me great glimpses into the rough and tumble world that I seldom see on the wave-washed rocks.

Great blue on walk by Chris ParsonsFarther along in Pacific grove, while watching the waves crashing on the rocks to my right, I was surprised by a great blue heron between my path and the coastal road on my left. It strolled majestically, noticing me, but showing no alarm. Cars stopped and took photos. I stopped and took photos. It didn’t seem to mind any of us, as if this was an everyday occurrence. I was delighted to have such a large stately bird beside me. They’re surprisingly tall — growing to 46 inches (117 cm). Normally when I see one, its neck is pulled in and it’s flying away after I’ve interrupted a hunt or disturbed a resting spot. Great Egret at CrespiThe other impressive bird that I encountered was at the Pacific Grove Golf Links, which has a freshwater pond (Crespi Pond) at Hole 17. The pond is normally a haven for American coots, but today a graceful great egret stood at the pond’s edge. I often see them fishing atop the kelp beds as I paddle past in my kayak. Getting this close was a treat. This walk was becoming a great one for sighting wading birds.

Just past the golf course, I officially walked out of Monterey Bay. Point Pinos marks the southern end of our “sheltered” bay (although much of the bay isn’t very sheltered) and the start of a shoreline exposed to the full force of the Pacific. Rocky Shore Low Tide by Chris ParsonsOn a hill overlooking the point is the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in California, which began warning seafarers in 1855 and is still working. Around the point and past a few amazingly expensive houses, I picked up a great coast walk trail, part of Asilomar State Beach, that meanders along one of the most beautiful sections of the Monterey Peninsula’s coastline. At low tide, the coves and pools are delightful; at high tide, the winter surf is spectacular. At the end of the trail I was tiring and a chilling wind started to blow, and so, on Moss Beach I ended my walk.

I encourage you, wherever you are, to go out and get to know all that lives around you. Take a short or long walk and a long look. Young gull on walk by Chris ParsonsI’ve  lived here for nearly 30 years, but with each walk and paddle, I see animals and interactions that are new to me. That’s exciting. Although it’s great to learn about wildlife via books, images, lectures and blogs, it’s not the same as having a heron stand before me, a baby sea otter cry for mom next to me, or a seal catch a fish in front of me. Cherishing our wild neighbors (whether we like them or not) and protecting their homes (which is also our home) is the best hope we have for our future on this planet.

Monterey County Parks & Beaches: List and interactive map