Our morning was cloudy and windy all along the coast. We got some welcome sunny warmth in the afternoon.
The birds didn’t seem to mind the wind as much as we did. We saw 48 species, with about 15 new for the trip, during the day’s 6-mile trek to Princeton-by-the-Sea and Pillar Point Harbor. Our focus was on shorebirds and seabirds, and we were delighted with surprises at the start and end of our walk. Here are some highlights.
Our first surprise was a snowy plover near a nest with an egg, a sighting that hasn’t occurred on these beaches for years. This is good news for this threatened species.
Our next big surprise was a flock of both Caspian terns and elegant terns. The elegants weren’t expected. They usually arrive in early summer. The elegant terns are smaller than the Caspians and the black crest looks more ruffled.
One of my best shot of the day was of this eared grebe in full breeding plumage.
Our biggest surprise of the day was a sighting of a Northern gannet on the breakwater. Yes, a gannet! This is a beautiful North Atlantic bird that’s been hanging around Half Moon Bay for awhile. How it got here, no one knows. A rare treat.
Monday was cool and overcast all day.
During our 6-mile walk along a trailer park creek through the Ritz Carlton golf links to downtown Half Moon Bay, we saw 61 bird species. Amazing. There were many of the usuals — sparrows to crows, and a few surprises, too. Here are the special ones.
A great horned owl in a eucalyptus tree behind a trailer park.
A Hutton’s vireo in a 150-year-old cypress grove.
And, a Western bluebird on a coastal bluff in town.
I’m walking this week on a Slow Adventure with Alvaro Jaramillo and a great group of birders.
Today was beautiful walking the Coastide Trail on the south end of Half Moon Bay.
There weren’t a lot of bird species, but there were a lot of sparrows. The surprise find for me on my solo walk, besides the song sparrows and white-crowned sparrows, was this secretive, solitary savannah sparrow that popped out of the brush and showed off a bit.
The other treat was a patient parent white-crowned sparrow feeding an insistent youngster.
More tomorrow with Slow Adventure’s birding trip and Al Jaramillo, and my test of blogging from the road with my iPad.
This week sanderlings showed up on my local beach en masse — nearly a thousand little pinball birds, along with marbled godwits, whimbrels, and a variety of gulls. All were feeding on sand crabs in the wash of very big surf (which we’re expecting all week).
I love watching sanderlings moving in unison as waves recede, then turning and running quickly in unison chased by waves washing up the beach. Between ebb and flow they mill around in disarray, or are shooed away by the other birds. Their energetic behaviors are comical and their tenacity remarkable. All this activity for a bite of sand crab.
The most amazing thing about these little birds is that they’re here from the Arctic and are heading to the south end of South America. That’s an incredible migratory trip for any species, but I find it astounding for an 8 inch, 3 ounce (20 cm, 100 g) bird. Whenever they visit here, I’m enthralled.
Protecting 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.)
I 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.)
The 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.
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).
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.