Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Birds Among Us: Learning to Bird Along the Coast

I am fortunate enough to live within about a two-hour drive of the Pacific Coast (which is far enough away to avoid the traffic and potential earthquake damage, but close enough for day trips!).  Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories involve days spent on the beach at Carmel, and entire weekends and weeks spent along the rocky shore in Pacific Grove with my dad, building sandcastles and poking around in tide pools. 

Until I began birding seriously a few years ago, most of my time along the coast was spent like this:

Following in the footsteps of "Doc" Ed Ricketts:
tide-pooling in Monterey's Great Tide Pool area

... Looking for things like this:

Hermit Crab

... And this:


... And this:

California Sea Hare (found already dead, washed up on the beach)

I was aware of "seagulls" and "sandpipers," maybe even vaguely aware of that mystical group known as the "sea birds" which exist somewhere out there beyond the breaking waves.  But I had no concept of the richness and diversity of bird life that is found along the Pacific Coast of Central California.  Too busy looking down, running in the waves and peering in tide pools, I missed even the most common birds. 

Suffice it to say, it was with great excitement that I learned there are around a dozen species of gulls found along our coast, probably about nine that I'd call fairly common. 

Western Gull, our most common coastal species

And that flock of black birds roosting out on the rocks?  Those are cormorants - though they could be one of two, maybe even three different species! 

Brandt's Cormorant

Shorebird species abound, and they really don't look all that much alike, once you start to learn how to tell the plovers from the sandpipers! 


Imagine my delight at seeing my first male Surf Scoter, a sea-going duck with an ornately-colored face, and how thrilled I was to discover that several species of loons overwinter along our shores!

Surf Scoter

I must have scrambled over rocks and gazed into tide pools countless times right alongside Black Turnstones and Black Oystercatchers, without ever noticing them!  Both birds make their living by foraging along the rocky shore and are darkly colored to blend seamlessly into their habitat of seaweed-covered rocks.  Now, I see them (and hear them) every time I visit the coast - often as soon as I get out the car!

Black Oystercatchers

The amount of birdlife along the Central Coast is staggering!  Some species, like Heermann's Gulls, visit during the winter and breed in the Gulf of California; others, like Sanderlings, overwinter here and breed as far north as the Arctic Circle!  And many remain here year-round.  Some prefer sandy beaches, others mud flats, and still others require rocky shores.  A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope even brings some of those mysterious sea birds closer.  Point Pinos in Monterey is a great place for spotting sea birds with a powerful scope (scoters, auklets, murres, shearwaters, jeagers, even albatrosses!) and the harbor at Moss Landing often brings a few seabirds closer to shore, providing a quiet place for them to rest and fish.  (The harbor at Moss Landing is a reliable place to see loons, scoters, murres, terns, and lots of gulls!)

The harbor at Moss Landing: it may not look like much, but it's a favorite of mine, and birders come here from around
the world!

Of course, I still love tide pools and the magical creatures that live there, making a life at the intersection of two extreme places.  Within the tide pools of the rocky shore lie one of the greatest secrets of life: things are always more than they appear at first glance, and it behooves us all to pause for a closer look.  A cursory glance at a tide pool reveals little; it is only after careful observation one will begin to notice the abundance of life hiding just beneath the surface.  A purple-striped crab scuttles by; a minute, sand-colored sculpin keeps still to avoid detection; flower-like anemones wave their brilliant tentacles.  Bustling hermit crabs, secretive limpets and tiny, brightly colored nudibranchs all carry out their lives in tide pools, beautiful microcosms of life that offer a glimpse into an enchanted world, to those willing to look.

A glittering tide pool in Monterey

But now, I have also learned to look up! 

The tide pools along California's rocky coast, along with its stretches of gorgeous sandy beaches, tidal mud flats and estuaries (like Elkhorn Slough), vibrant dune and coastal scrub habitat, and kelp forests beyond and beneath the waves, are all intrinsically linked together in a biologically rich and diverse ecosystem.  And the birds, perhaps more than any other group of living things, serve to bind these habitats together: the dunes and the Snowy Plover, the kelp forests and the Sea Otters (and the gulls that hang out with them), the beaches and the Sanderlings, the mudflats and the shorebirds, and of course, the rocky shores with their tide pools and the birds that depend on them are all smaller parts of the greater system, and all are precious!

A Black-bellied Plover searches for a meal along the rocky shore

Peering into the pools is mesmerizing, as surf grasses and colorful algae (which seaweeds really are) move gently with the rhythm of the sea and strange creatures emerge from rocky crevices.  But always remember to be respectful and tread lightly while visiting these special places: many species have suffered considerably from over-collecting.  Take nothing but photographs and place all animals back exactly as you found them.  Watch your step so as not to crush the little rock-dwelling animals that live here.  They have valuable roles in the ecosystem - not least of which is feeding our newly discovered oystercatchers and turnstones!

In the vicinity of Point Pinos and The Great Tide Pool of Monterey.  In this photo are cormorants, oystercatchers and turnstones (though they aren't visible) to say nothing of the thousands of tide pool creatures among the rocks and the vast kelp forest beyond the waves!

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