January 26, 2019

Photo Essay: Birding Morro Bay's Parks, Estuaries, and Harbor

I think it was nearly two years ago, during the Owens Lake Bird Festival, when someone suggested I try the bird festival in Morro Bay.

I'd been to the area only once before, having taken a good look at Morro Rock—a volcanic plug that's one of the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo, a.k.a. the "Gibraltar of the Central Coast"—and turned around and gone on my merry way.

But my experience in the Owens Valley taught me that a bird festival could be a great way to get to know any particular area—even if all I ended up seeing were familiar favorites (like the Western gull, above).

But Morro Bay had much more than that in store for me, as the king tide sent waves crashing against the cliffs, drowning the beach and sending lots of fish to the shore in its gigantic swells.

At MontaƱa de Oro State Park, the cormorants were poised and well-positioned to go fishing.

California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica, formerly known as the western scrub jay) perched and screeched, swaying to the wind and the waves.

House finches, song sparrows, and wrentits sang out in the open, while bushtits stayed under cover.

I'm good at spotting where a bird is—but not necessarily what it is—so I'd ask, "Who's that guy over there?" and one of our guides would get it in the 'scope to have a closer look (like at the California thrasher, above).

We'd then examine beak shape and plumage feeding behaviors and mating rituals.

Watching birds is like fishing, but without the murder. Sometimes you've got to wait a while before something tugs on your line. Sometimes to have to really search for and stalk the birds. And then other times, a California towhee just poses for you on the roof of a park structure.

Unashamedly, I'll admit that among the highlights of the morning bird trip along the Bluff Trail and the state park campground was spotting two peahen, an exotic species that have taken up residence in the park...

...and the multitudes of cottontails that dined and dashed along the trails we treaded.

Another fruitful excursion turned out to be at the Morro Bay State Park marina...

...were we plopped ourselves down in tandem kayaks (to keep the water traffic to a minimum)...

...and were led on a watery tour around the bay by Central Coast Outdoors.

Before we even started officially birding, I spotted my first sea otter of the trip—all alone out there, clapping merrily to itself, causing quite a splash and clatter.

Just beyond it erupted a feeding frenzy of pelicans diving down and fish leaping up out of the water, right there between the sand bar and the shore.

Because the tide was so high, we could take our kayaks over the submerged pickleweed and get closer to the shorebirds—like the long-billed curlew in the salt marsh—than normally possible.

Intriguingly, the sandpipers, sanderlings, willets, and white pelicans—not to mention the great egrets and great blue heron—in the back bay didn't seem to mind us gliding across the surface of the water, even as we paddled, even as we gawked and pointed at them.

Being on a bigger boat—especially a motorized one—is a little more disturbing to the loons and grebes in the water below. But the bird festival's boat cruise did offer yet another way to see Morro Bay from the water, so I gladly came aboard.

It was also a good opportunity to get an even better look at a peregrine falcon, like the one I'd seen high up in a tree above the marina... well as an osprey or two...

...since they like to hang out on the top of the masts just as much as the falcons do.

In this light—and this up close—we could see how iridescent cormorant feathers can be...

...and how much preening it takes to keep them that way.

The brown pelicans and the gulls hung out lazily on the sandbar...

...though they were nothing compared to the napping sea lions that lounged on a former dock they've commandeered.

The sea, however, was restless—beating up against the black oystercatchers on the rocks of the breakwater.

The surf sent smaller boats into topsy-turvy mode...

...and left the cormorants to spread their wings in order to dry off.

Related Posts:
Birding Without Binoculars
Photo Essay: Birding Anza-Borrego During the Superbloom
Photo Essay: Birding the Channel Islands

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