Day 2 in California: Helpful Friends

Handsome Fella Day 2 started early as I met fellow Flickr birders Photo Patty and her husband Al for a day of birding in Monterey. I have to say right off that Patty wins the “Good Trooper” award for coming along two days after breaking her leg (she insisted).  I was excited to have some locals to show me hot spots, but I couldn’t have expected the pinpoint accuracy they would have with their predictions. Not only were they able to produce many new birds on my list, but they seemed to almost always do it at the first place they tried. Anyway, the trip to Monterey was nice as we caught up since their visit last July, talked about our trips to Arizona (man, I really want to go back), and they filled me in on the places we would be checking out.

Our first stop was “Dennis the Menace” park which was probably the only miss of the day: only mallards, Canada geese and gulls (never got close enough to ID). From there we went to the Monterey marina and the fishery pier there. It was crowded with divers and made me think fondly on my days of diving (it’s been a while). Then as we walked up the pier, Al pointed out my first new bird of the trip – a Pigeon Guillemot*, which was also my first alcid. I followed them around for a while, struggling to get nice shots of the uncooperative birds in tough light. Actually, the light was gorgeous but not when you’re shooting down from a pier. We spent a bit of time there then moved on to see what else was lurking. Turns out that a LOT of sea lions like this area: there were dozens in this little cove alone, along with a smaller number of harbor seals.

Doesn't LOOK like a pigeon

I Can Haz Cheezburger? I’ve seen both species before but never together and never in quantities like this (Al commented later that he had never seen this many pinnipeds in Monterey before). So I took quite a few shots of these neat animals, who were laying on buoys, rocks and even the occasional boat. A harbor seal came up below me, looking eagerly for a handout, according to Al. After a short time, it seemed to figure out that I was fishless and dove into the cerulean waters.

On our way back to the car, I had a chance to watch a half-dozen more pigeon guillemots in the waters just below the pier, including one who was showing off what I’d guess was mating behavior (noisy little buggers!) and a California Gull* An extra treat was yet to come – in the marina just opposite of the car, a single cormorant swam happily among the boats – a gleaming blue eye stood out from the black feathers: a Brandt’s cormorant*!  Life list entry #3.

Monterey Bay Coast Guard Pier

Our next stop was the Coast Guard pier, a wonderful place to see a number of cool things: hundreds of sea lions everywhere, timid enough for approaching close enough to touch, of all ages – it was a wonder to see and experience. They were of all ages, and the young ones were undeniably cute. Further along we were greeted by a few seals, another few Brandt’s cormorants and a small flotilla of divers all along the jetty (I have to admit, diving among the sea lions/seals would be pretty cool). But the big payoff was at the end of the jetty: dozens of sea lions, including a huge bull and a nesting colony of Brandt’s cormorants. I had the privilege of seeing mated pairs building their nests on the rocks out of colorful seaweed and other debris pulled from the sea. The male would return with the seaweed, do a short presentation dance, bright blue throat patch extended and glowing in the light.  Then he’ d place the materials gingerly at the feet of the female, where they nuzzled and worked together to put it in just the right place. Hard to describe how beautiful it was watching them work to make their nest in what seemed like a tenuous spot on the bare rocks amongst the huge sees lions.

...and I hear the school districts are good, too

Monterey Bay / Fisherman’s Wharf

Al was determined to help me find the other new cormorant for me, the pelagic cormorant, so after checking in with Patty, we walked along the bay toward Fisherman’s Wharf. Little did we know that this short side trip would actually be more productive than just the pelagic cormorant (which we never saw despite several false positives). Waking past the picnic area, I noticed a number of small birds flying back and forth among some trees and something made me stop. I’m glad I did, as those little birds were my first chestnut-backed chickadee*; a half- dozen of the little auburn-accented songbirds flitted in and out (and just out of sight) amongst the branches. But a few pssts later, I was rewarded by a couple of them coming out into the light on the end of some branches. A second bonus was when a couple of white crowned sparrows joined the fun. I’ve seen these tons of times but rarely in full breeding plumage, and I figured I’d try to get some shots. Turns out that these were a coastal sub species – Nuttall’s white-crowned sparrow*.

Not your average white-crown After this short sidestep, we continued on along the bay. The place was gorgeous, a meeting of jagged islets and bright blue green water, coupled with a gentle breeze that complemented the near perfect temperatures coming off the bay. We spent some time investigating several cormorants on a small rocky islet in a cove, desperately trying to make one a pelagic cormorant, to no avail. But my eye caught another shallow in the water nearby, which turned out to be a Pacific loon*, another new species (#5 so far, incl. the WCSP sub species).

Monterey Bay Aquarium

At this point, Al is getting a little bent at not having produced a pelagic cormorant for me (which wouldn’t be a lifebird, but would be my first GOOD look). In my mind, I was more than satisfied with what we HAD seen, so anything else would be gravy but he was determined, so we tried one last ‘can’t fail’ spot – the platform at the entrance of the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium. Along the way, I got to see Steinbeck’s famous “Cannery Row” and the rest of the nice town of Monterey. A first stop just short of the aquarium produced only Brandt’s cormorants and more pigeon guillemots, and we hurried to the aquarium. Sadly there wasn’t time to go into this landmark, but I was having a good enough time regardless.

We walked to the end of the canterlevered platform and quickly spied more Brandt’s cormorants and pigeon guillemots, but none of or target bird. Suddenly Al yelled,” There! With the green back!” I got a brief glimpse of an ebony bird with green accents, too fast to be sure as it sailed under the platform beneath us, but definitely leading. Sure enough, it or another bird came sailing out and this time I definitively saw the green tint and white patches on the wings that were defining field marks for a pelagic cormorant*. Now to get a picture, which was tougher as these seabirds moved quickly. After several near successes, I decided to see if I could spy one underneath the platform – and was surprised to find a male preening no more than 5′ from me!

It was a beauty in its own way, the green-black plumage iridescent in the sun, giving way to the bright red face of a breeding adult. The KALEIDESCOPE of colors was both beautiful and garish at the same time, brighter and more eye- catching than either the double- created or Brandt’s cormorants. Three only problem was that with my 300mm lens, I was actually too close to fit the whole bird in the frame! So I moved to the another side opposite of where I had been, trading proximity and optional light for a full-body shot.

Caught a little red-faced

A bonus moment was our chance to catch the attention of some other aquarium visitors (probably in part due to my hanging precariously over the railing to get the best angle). Al and I were able to interest two couples in the bird, explaining a little about it and maybe planting a little seed of interest in birding.

Pacific Grove

Now that I had my trophy shot of a pelagic cormorant, Al and Patty prompted me for anything else I might want to see. It took only a short moment for me to rattle off a short list: Heerman’s gull, black oystercatcher, black turnstone. It took them only a few seconds more to come up with just the place and off we went up the road to Pacific Grove. The drive alone would have been worth it for the breath taking views of the Pacific ocean, deep blue ocean crashing in frothy chaos against the rocks of the shoreline. I was captivated by the scenery, trying to capture it on my phone’s camera since my Nikon lens could never capture the breath of what I was seeing through the narrow aperture.

Funny bird We then made our way to a particular pull off and Al and I trekked onto the rocks to search for the trio of birds I had mentioned. Sure enough, a pair of mated black oystercatchers* appeared on the small island just beyond the spit of land we were on, the black feathers seeming to absorb as much light as their bright orange bills reflected. And nearby wandered not the requested black turnstones but something just as nice: a trio of surfbirds* which had lingered past their normal migration date. Other birds we encountered included numerous western gulls of all ages, a single 3rd-year California gull, a whimbrel and a Caspian tern. No Hearmann’s gull but a responding success nonetheless.

Monterey Bay preserve

Our last stop before lunch was part of the Monterey Bay preserve near Moss’s Landing. Housing a marina and access to the ocean, it also turned out to be one of the best spots to see the nearly famous California sea otters – nearly 30 strong, these large (~3 – 4′ long) mammals were a sight to see laying out and playing in the bay near the sea lions and seals nearby. Lucky for us, there was even one otter on the beach sunning himself (I’m going to pretend that’s all he was doing and he wasn’t sick).


What a Pair Seeing the otters was an unexpected pleasure, but hardly the only one as a Clark’s Grebe* popped up amidst the otters and gave me a good show as well. Then, after several minutes taking pictures of these magnificent and amusing critters, we were off to the locally famous Phil’s Fish Market for lunch, with a quick stop to take a couple pictures of a pair of otters (mother/child) who were lounging in the marina on the way. Sadly, it was then time to head back as I had a workshop that night, and we stopped only for Al to show me a Eurasian Collared Dove that he and Patty told me would be in a particular 50-square-foot parking lot; true to their word, there it was (with a second one) almost as though they had dialed in their order.

Overall, I had a GREAT time in the Monterey area – the combination of awesome weather, great wildlife, good food and good friends (who were GREAT guides) really made the day a pleasant experience throughout.

* = lifelist, ^= first of year, italics = sub-species

  • Canada Goose
  • Lesser Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Pacific Loon*
  • Clark’s Grebe*
  • American White Pelican
  • Brown Pelican
  • Brandt’s Cormorant*
  • Pelagic Cormorant*
  • Great Egret
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Killdeer
  • Black Oystercatcher*
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Whimbrel
  • Long-billed Curlew^
  • Surfbird*
  • Western Gull*
  • California Gull
  • Caspian Tern
  • Pigeon Guillemot*
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove^
  • Mourning Dove
  • Black Phoebe
  • Western Scrub-Jay^
  • American Crow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee^
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Nuttall’s White-crowned Sparrow*
  • Brewer’s Blackbird
  • House Finch


  • California sea lion^
  • Harbor seal^
  • California sea otter*
  • Golden-mantled ground squirrel^

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