Shorebirds of the Rocky Pacific Coast
Fall is an excellent time to head to California's central coast. While it is the ideal season to set out on a pelagic birding trip across famed Monterey Bay, simply scoping for seabirds from the rocky headlands of Point Pinos can be productive as well. If seabirds are out of range, turn your attention to the rocks: a host of shorebirds partial to the rocky coast are sure to delight.
While Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, Sanderlings and several species of plover are almost certainly to be found probing sandy beaches and wading in quiet shallows, the five birds presented here are more likely to be found scuttling over barnacle-encrusted rocks just out of reach of the pounding surf.
The Black Oystercatcher (Heamatopus bachmani) is a noisy bird, often alerting birders and beach-goers alike to its presence by its shrill call. Black Oystercatchers are found year-round exclusively along the rocky West Coast of North America, where they forage for shellfish and other invertebrates they pry from rocks with their thick red bills. Look also for the Black Oystercatcher's bright yellow eyes and strangely fleshy-looking pink legs.
The Surfbird (Calidris virgata) is a bit of a departure from it's sandpiper kin of the genus Calidris (which includes common species of the sandy shore and mud flat, like Western and Least Sandpipers, Red Knots and Dunlin) in that it prefers to live life on the edge of surf-battered rocky shores. Breeding on rocky ridges of the Arctic, Surfbirds are seen along California's rocky coasts from fall through spring (which, in the shorebird world, extends from August through May!) Look for the Surfbird's sturdy yellowish legs and stocky yellow-based bill.
Black Turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala) are often nearly invisible as they scuttle furtively along against dark-colored shoreline rocks, poking their bills into crevices in search of a tasty morsel. When they burst suddenly into flight, however, their bold black-and-white pattern is quite striking! While they breed in Alaska, Black Turnstones are common along California's rocky coast from fall through spring.
Similar in size and shape to the Black Turnstone, the Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) has orange legs, a mottled red back, and an intricately patterned black-and-white face. The colors and markings are most vivid during the breeding season, when most individuals are far away in the Arctic, but the faded pattern may be detected all year. Like other Arctic-nesting shorebirds, Ruddy Turnstones are most common along our shores from fall through spring. Unlike Black Turnstones, Ruddies are equally at home on both the East and West Coasts of North America, and may also be found along sandy beaches and tidal mudflats around jetties and piers.
Another Alaskan breeder, the Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana) is most common along California's rocky coast during the spring and fall migrations, but may also be seen reliably during the winter months as well. Closely related to Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, look for the Wandering Tattler's relatively long, straight bill and yellow legs. Also notice the bird's horizontal posture and its habit of continually bobbing its tail.
There you have our five most commonly encountered shorebirds of California's rocky coast. I truly hope you're able to spend some time along our fine Pacific Coast some time this fall! And while you are there, be sure to keep an eye on the rocks and you just might spot one - or all! - of these beautiful birds.