California Central Coast: An Introductory Birding Tour Dec 02—07, 2011

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Early December proved to be the ideal time for the return of our California Central Coast tour. We enjoyed four beautifully sunny days of birding amid the varied habitats of San Luis Obispo County, and, in the process, saw 13 species of mammals and over 160 species of birds.

 
Wrentit, Montana de Oro State Park, California, December 7, 2011

Wrentit, Montana de Oro State Park, California, December 7, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 
  

Our first day afield was spent mostly around the estuary of Morro Bay, one of the most important sites for wintering and migratory waterfowl and shorebirds on the entire Pacific Coast. We sorted through throngs of curlews, godwits, and Willets, and studied the field marks that differentiate basic-plumaged loons, grebes, and peeps. Among the masses of waterfowl were hundreds of Brant and a lone male Eurasian Wigeon. Other highlights were provided by a Golden Eagle being harassed by a Peregrine Falcon, a flock of Bushtits that were close enough to touch, minimum-focus views of Wrentits and California Thrashers, and a wonderful bobcat that was hunting pocket gophers in a state park campground. We put the exclamation point on this remarkable day by visiting a communal roost of White-tailed Kites at sundown, and counting more than 40 kites in view at once!

 
Mountain Plover, Carrizo Plains, California, November 30, 2011

Mountain Plover, Carrizo Plains, California, November 30, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 
  

Our second day was in stark contrast to the first, as we headed inland to the eastern part of the county and an entirely different set of birds. Our first stop was in my yard in Atascadero, where we were treated to a few hundred Band-tailed Pigeons, cooperative Oak Titmice, and a lovely Red-breasted Sapsucker among other birds typical of the oak woodlands. From there, it was on to Bitterwater Valley and the Carrizo Plains, home to soda lakes, rolling tumbleweeds, and sprawling, sparsely inhabited (by humans) arid scrub that could hardly be more different from the coastal part of the county. But this lonely area, part of which is a National Monument, is the winter home to impressive numbers of raptors. During the course of the day, we tallied 10 species of raptors (including more than 50 Red-tailed Hawks and 40+ American Kestrels), highlighted by great studies of Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, 3 Golden Eagles together in one spot, and scope views of a Merlin plucking some unlucky and unidentified passerine. Finding 3 Barn Owls roosting in a lone tree was a particularly pleasant surprise, as was seeing a flock of more than 150 Long-billed Curlews flying high above the Elkhorn Mesa. More expected were the Yellow-billed Magpies, bunches of Mountain Bluebirds, the ultimately very cooperative pair of Rock Wrens, and the last-minute Sage Sparrow. However, the top honors for the day had to go to the 25 Mountain Plovers that treated us to great views in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun.

 
Monarch Butterflies, Pismo Beach, California, December 5, 2011

Monarch Butterflies, Pismo Beach, California, December 5, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 
  

Day 3 found us visiting the southern part of the county, but not before a stop at picturesque Morro Rock, whose resident pair of Peregrine Falcons showed nicely in our scopes. The rocks and cliffs at Shell Beach gave us our first exposure to the "rockpipers"—shorebirds who spend their winters clinging to the wave-battered and nourished rocks of the Pacific Coast. Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone were all present and accounted for, but, alas, no Wandering Tattler could be found.  Our next stop was Pismo Beach, where a short walk into a grove of eucalyptus trees revealed a winter staging site for masses of Monarch butterflies. On this particular day, the official count (conducted by docents and other volunteers) had tallied over 21,000 Monarchs, which is a spectacle that even the most tunnel-visioned birder could appreciate. Oceano Campground and Oso Flaco Lake produced a number of goodies, among them numbers of snazzy Townsend's Warblers, dazzling male Cinnamon Teal, and a too-close-to-focus-on Hutton's Vireo. But top honors belonged to the family Rallidae, as we enjoyed binoculars-optional viewing of highly responsive Soras and Virginia Rails, both of which nearly walked across my feet in the process.

 
Townsend's Warbler, Montana de Oro State Park, California, November 27, 2011

Townsend's Warbler, Montana de Oro State Park, California, November 27, 2011— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 
  

Our final day found us working the north coast, beginning with stellar views of a skulking Wilson's Snipe at the Morro Creek mouth. Old Creek mouth and the ambient beach gave us bunches of Whimbrels and side by side comparisons of Royal and Caspian terns. The strand near San Simeon Creek mouth delivered more than 40 threatened Snowy Plovers, and the creek itself offered up a locally rare Common Gallinule that was inexplicably foraging out in the open over sun-bleached rocks. The rocky coast near Cambria allowed us more opportunities to study "rockpipers," whereas the beach at the mouth of Pico Creek offered up a large flock of gulls that were highlighted by no less than three Thayer's Gulls amid the masses of Western, California, Mew, and Ring-billed gulls. We also netted our last new mammal of the trip, with a visit to a rookery of northern elephant seals. It was early in the season for the seals, so most of the animals hauled out on land were small juveniles, but there were a few massive, battle-scarred beachmasters present as well. The day ended with a visit to Cerro Alto Campground, where a rare (in winter) Hermit Warbler, multiple Townsend's Warblers and Steller's Jays, and a pair of Brown Creepers seemed perfectly in keeping with the shaded canyon and the numerous redwoods (but not with the sunlit chaparral on the south-facing slopes above).

Along the way, we enjoyed some great meals, lots of laughs, and got quite a bit more familiar with the birds and the habitats that make California's Central Coast a birder's paradise. I greatly enjoyed birding with each of you, and thank you for providing me the opportunity to share the beauty and natural history riches of my "home" county.