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West Cliff Birding Surprise

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Story and photo by Maria Grusauskas

Ah, to be a seabird on the Monterey Bay.

After repeated swipes at the snooze button, I evacuated my warm cocoon of a bed last Friday morning to join a huddle of bird enthusiasts on West Cliff Drive. It was my first bird walk, and guided by the knowledgeable and laid-back Steve Gerow of the Santa Cruz Bird Club, I saw things that made me very glad I went.

Training my binoculars on the guano-covered crags just off the coast revealed, to my groggy surprise, that the bay is excessively active at 8 in the morning. No wonder birds travel thousands of miles just to visit while others stay all year. It’s a full-on party out there. The sanctuary waters are teeming with small fish for a bird to feast on such as anchovies and sardines, and the rock islands serve as resting stops for several species, all sharing the salt spray with my favorite seabird, the brown pelican.

“Ha, haa, haa!” cried one type of bird, only furthuring the notion that these critters are enjoying themselves. Gerow identified the source as Heermann’s gulls, which migrate from the south, and which were out in great numbers on Friday morning.

My first binocular fascination was, naturally, the wise old brown pelican, which lives longer than most dogs—to about 30 years of age. Dive-bombing the water, a pelican seizes a fish with the hook at the end of its beak, flips it it head-first down the hatch and swallows it whole. Watching them never gets old. Even in flight they’re remarkable: large, heavy and graceful, the Airbus 380 of the avian world. Gerow estimated around 150 of these brown pelicans off West Cliff on Friday morning—a major improvement since 1970, when they came very close to extinction.

A medium-sized double-crested cormorant stood with its wings outstretched for several minutes. Showing off for the ladies? Nope. Cormorants don’t have the same amount of oil in their feathers as other birds, so this is how they dry off after dive-bombing the water for a fish. We saw around 30 of these guys (Gerow notes that’s above average), along with five Brandt’s cormorants and eight pelagic cormorants.

Caspian terns also made regular fly-bys. These fish-eating divers look similar to Western gulls but with much skinnier, sliver-like wings, a pointed orange bill and black cap. Elegant terns arrived fashionably late in the morning, sticking together past the kelp beds. A bit smaller than Caspians, elegant terns sing out a shrill “Kiweeek, kiweeek!”

The most fascinating bird sighting of the day: a snowy egret, which I spotted some ways off, standing on floating pieces of a kelp bed. “Snowy egrets typically fish from floating objects in the kelp,” said Gerow. We watched it dance around the kelp on its long yellow legs, never losing its balance or composure even as large swells rolled through, lifting it several feet.

While we could have studied the seabirds all day, the 22-person group made its way to Lighthouse Field. It was all I could do not to break into an awkward binocular-toting canter when I heard there have been great blue heron sightings here.

In the field, the game changed from an easy, visually-indulgent feast to a much more meditative approach: listening to birdsong. A homeless man playing a log drum set excited the less-experienced of the bunch into thinking we’d found a giant woodpecker. No woodpeckers, but we did spot a quiet group of mourning doves (they tend to sing much earlier in the morning), as well as flitting chestnut-backed chickadees, house sparrows and a fat California towhee with a blackberry in its bill.

Would I go again? Definitely. The coolest and most unexpected part: After the walk, Gerow sent out a list of all the birds we’d seen that day via eBird.com, with estimated numbers and observation notes. eBird.com is a tremendously valuable database of bird observations from all over the world, sortable by bird type and location.

In other news, the group also spotted a rifle that had washed ashore below West Cliff but washed back out to sea before law enforcement officials arrived. I also glimpsed the naked backside of a male homo sapiens hopping up out of the water some 200 meters off, but nobody else did—or at least they were too polite to point him out to others. Birdwatching Etiquette 101: don’t call out the naked man. Everything else is fair game.

THE SANTA CRUZ BIRD CLUB leads free twice-weekly birding walks around Santa Cruz County. Click here for schedule of upcoming outings.

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