Slough enters Monterey Bay at the sleepy fishing village of Moss
Landing. Since the building of two rock jetties in 1946, the tidal flow
is between the jetties at the harbor mouth (above; that's the Elkhorn
Slough Safari pontoon boat and pods of sea otters at the harbor
entrance). The entire Elkhorn and Moro Cojo Slough complex is an
extremely important tidal estuary for waterbirds in western North
America (e.g., American White Pelicans and Marbled Godwits, below). It
was one of the first Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in California, and
remains one of the best spots in Monterey County. About 320 species
have occurred within the IBA; look at a constantly evolving bar graph
of species from eBird.
Moss Landing skyline is dominated by the twin towers of a Duke Energy
power plant (see its location in the photo & map below). The photo
is taken from Jetty Road looking south over the Moss Landing harbor
towards the power plant. A favored gull roost is marked with an "x" on
the map, and is the sand flat at the lower left edge of the photo
(below). State Hwy 1 cuts through the middle of the map, crossing
Elkhorn Slough just north of the power plant and the intersection with
Dolan Road. Moss Landing town and marina are south of the harbor
entrance at the two jetties. The town and marina, and local businesses,
can be very busy with tourists on summer weekends; Hwy 1 itself is a
two-lane road with heavy traffic throughout the year. Moss Landing
harbor, though, can be birded leisurely from Jetty Road (this is a
State Park), or the gull roost scoped from the huge parking areas
between the Sea Harvest restaurant and the north harbor marina. The
tides affect everything here. At high tide there is no mudflats; at low
tide the mudflats are far from the road. The best birding is often at
an intermediate state of tide.
immediate vicinity of Moss Landing is just one slice of the birding
opportunities here. The entire Elkhorn Slough is very birdy as it
curves, crescent-shaped, to the north, between protected uplands and
many agricultural fields (the aerial photo, above, is looking east from
Monterey Bay, rather than oriented north, as are the maps. The aerial
photo was taken at high tide.). This map from eBird shows 30 "hot
spots" used by birders in the Elkhorn Slough vicinity of Monterey Co.
(=MTY), and north to the Pajaro River mouth [plus 2 more in Santa Cruz
Co. (=SCZ); the Pajaro River is generally the county line]. A few are
not open to the public (e.g., Nature Conservancy property, or Moro Cojo
Slough, although the latter can be scoped from Dolan Rd.), but most are
accessible, and the better spots are mentioned below.
Slough is a principal staging and feeding area for migratory
shorebirds. It is located right in the center of the curve of Monterey
Bay and drains directly into the Pacific Ocean through the Moss Landing
harbor channel. Before the channel was created (1946) and the rivers
diverted (1908-1910), the Salinas River ran north from its present
mouth to its old original mouth north of today's Moss Landing. Today's
Moss Landing harbor and various sloughs to the south are part of this
old river bed. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has published a fine
introductory guide to Elkhorn Slough by Mark Silberstein and Eileen
Campbell (1989). I can offer only a few highlights here directed to the
field birder (more details are published in Roberson 2002).
entire Elkhorn Slough watershed is globally important. Much tidal area
along the east side of the Slough is within Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve (Elkhorn Slough NERR; see below) and the
Nature Conservancy obtained land north and west of the slough.
California's Moss Landing Wildlife Area protects the old salt ponds
just east of Hwy 1 and Moss Landing Harbor (together these areas are
shown in dark green on the map, right). The non-profit Elkhorn Slough Foundation
has protected much of Moro Cojo Slough and upland areas (light green on
map). California State Parks operates Zmudowski State Beach, Moss
Landing State Beach, and Salinas River State Beach, which protect the
coastal dunes from the Pajaro River mouth to the Salinas River mouth.
birding Elkhorn Slough and the Moss Landing vicinity, it is not only
important to be aware of the tides — and their effect on seeing
shorebirds — but beware of cold coastal fog much of the summer, windy
conditions in many afternoons, and the busy traffic on Highway 1 and,
to a lesser extent, Dolan Road. Moss Landing harbor is easily
accessible to all, but public access to the Slough itself is limited to
a few points — primarily Elkhorn Slough NERR and Kirby Park in the
upper reaches of the slough. Some of the best spots are:
° Jetty Road:
This paved road leaves Hwy 1 a half-mile north of the Hwy 1 bridge over
Elkhorn Slough, and continues .75 mi to a dirt parking area at the base
of the north jetty. There are several pull-offs/parking areas with
portable toilets. Sometimes the wind blows sand across the road and the
road can be closed for some time. A tidal gate under the road near the
entrance lets the tide run either way, and whether there are mudflats
(and waders, like Long-billed Curlew, left) or salt water depends on
the tide. Migratory shorebirds are usually around in good numbers (at
the right tide) except in June, when only a few stragglers are left. In
winter, flocks of scoters (mostly Surf), scaup (mostly Greater), and
Bufflehead enjoy the harbor. Scarcer but regular species include Brant,
Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck or Harlequin Duck. All 3 cormorants
are resident. In winter, all 3 loons may be present, as well as Eared,
Horned, Western, Clark's and a very few Red-necked Grebes. Great Blue
Heron and both egrets are resident. Numbers of Brown Pelicans,
Heermann's Gulls, and Elegant Terns appear from July to October, with
numbers dwindling after that. A few American White Pelican can be
present at any date. The standard migrant and winter shorebirds are
Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Willet, Marbled Godwit,
Long-billed Curlew, Western & Least Sandpipers, Dunlin, and both
dowitchers (although Short-billeds use the tidal mudflats more than
Long-billeds, which are more common up-slough). The sandy shore or salt
ponds have resident Snowy Plover (some areas are closed off for their
nesting); Sanderlings run along the waves most of the year. In spring
and fall migration look for Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot.
half-way to the end of Jetty Road there is a standard gull roost at
harbor's edge; views from the State Park are best in the afternoon.
Western Gull nests here and is resident; California Gull is common but
in summer numbers are reduced as breeders leave the area. The winter
gull flocks are best from November-February, and regular species are
Glaucous-winged (and various intergrades), Herring, Thayer's, and
Ring-billed Gulls. Mew and Bonaparte's are less dependable. Forster's
Terns are present most of the year in varying numbers; in summer
Caspian Tern is common. Pigeon Guillemots nest around the harbor and
can be seen in spring and summer just offshore or, sometimes, inside
the harbor and even up Elkhorn Slough. Savannah Sparrow is resident in
the salt marsh; "Nuttall's" White-crowned Sparrow breeds in the coastal
At road's end there is a parking area
and one can walk to the jetty on the north side of the harbor. The
entire State Beach itself is full of birds -- gulls, terns diving
offshore in season, shorebirds, flocks of Snowy Plover in season, and
rarities such as Wilson's and Mongolian Plover have been with these
flocks. Huge swirling flocks of Sooty Shearwaters can be just offshore
in spring through fall; Common Murres and flocks of Western &
Clark's Grebes are often present in winter.
is also public access just north of the bridge over Elkhorn Slough to a
large parking area for restaurants [the most famous to birders was
"Skipper's Restaurant" but it burned down 25 Ap 1998; a Sea Harvest
Restaurant has now been built on the site] and the north harbor marina.
From this parking area and the nearby boat ramp one has views of Moss
Landing harbor and the gull roost directly across. A scope is needed to
search the gull flock. Many rare species have visited this roost,
including Swallow-tailed, Glaucous, Franklin's and Laughing Gulls.
° Elkhorn Slough pontoon boat: Another great way to bird the area is from the Elkhorn Slough Safari
pontoon boat rides; the trips leave from the Moss Landing marina; see
the web site for details. Close views of Sea Otter, California
Sea-lion, and Harbor Seal are certain. The selection of waders depends
on the tide but cormorants, herons, egrets, and grebes are generally
dependable. Some scarce birds, such as Brant, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon,
and in summer, Black Skimmer or Least Tern, are often found best by
The operators of the pontoon boat also own and operate The Captain's Inn at Moss Landing, a lovely bed-and-breakfast right in 'downtown' Moss Landing itself.
° Moss Landing town and the South Jetty
-- the town of Moss Landing is accessed off Highway 1 just south of the
power plant and the bridge over Elkhorn Slough. A loop road goes
through the tiny town (which is famous for antique stores) and connects
back up with Highway 1 a short distance farther south (Moss Landing
Marine Lab and a cemetery are along the south end of this loop). In the
middle of town the only cross-street (Sandholt) heads past the Moss
Landing marina (where one begins the Elkhorn Slough safari boat trip)
and over a bridge to Moss Landing "island" (actually a thin peninsula
that ends at the south jetty to Moss Landing harbor). There is a
parking lot for the state beach at the north end of the bridge, and
this lot, plus both ends of the bridge, given good views to other tidal
areas of south Moss Landing harbor. [In fact, in crossing the bridge
you are crossing the old Salinas River channel.] When tides and seasons
are right, this area is great from shorebirds, grebes, ducks, and
Brant. The paved road meanders through various ship-docking areas and
shops and dead-ends at the South Jetty. Park here and walk the very
short distance to the base of the jetty; bring a scope. Four species of
loons (three regular, Yellow-billed very rare) have been found here,
all the sea-ducks (including the very rare King Eider), all the grebes,
and there is always a chance for alcids. Parasitic Jaegers sometimes
chase Elegant Terns at the harbor mouth in fall.
° Potrero Road
— at the south end of Moss Landing town, Potrero Road heads west and
ends at another access point for the Salinas River State Beach. Right
at the end the road crosses the old Salinas River channel again; this
is another good shorebird area in season. The artichoke fields to the
south are hunted by a wide selection of raptors in winter; these fields
can also be viewed along Molera Road which loops through them and back
to Highway 1 south of Castroville.
|° Moss Landing Wildlife Area
encompasses the old salt ponds on the inland (east) side of Highway 1,
just north of Elkhorn Slough. The ponds are controlled by tidal gates;
those near the Slough are sometimes good for roosting waders at high
tide, and may also be a major roost of Brown Pelicans. There is also a
Harbor Seal pupping area. The more northerly ponds are mostly kept dry
from an important breeding colony of endangered Snowy Plovers. Access
used to be through trails beginning at the northeast corner of the W.A.
but currently that access point and the trails are closed. Access is
now available through a gate portal (left) that includes explanatory
signs about the area, and that leads to a trail along Elkhorn Slough
itself for a short distance. A scope is often needed here to view the
dry ponds (on which terns roost in fall), the pelican roost area, and
the many happenings in the Slough (sea otters and sea ducks are
common). This access area is reached from Highway 1 just north of the
bridge over Elkhorn Slough through a short dirt road that is
sign-posted. Western Gulls routinely nest atop the gate portal (see
roof in the photo).
° Zmudowski State Beach
— another good waterbird area with a freshwater pond and reedy edge is
north of Jetty Road. Just north of Jetty Road the highway turns back
east for a short distance and Struve Road exits to the left. Take
Struve to the first left (Giberson) and follow that zig-zagging paved
road to Zmudowski SB at the end (there are signs; the road does
deteriorate near the end). There is a freshwater pond just before the
end of the road where many interesting ducks and other rarities (Little
Gull, White-faced Ibis) have occurred. American Bitterns, Snowy Egrets,
Black-crowned Night-herons and rails have bred in the reeds at the
north end of the pond (no access to the site). Marsh Wrens are resident
in the reeds [Do be aware there have been some car break-ins at the
Zmudowski SB parking lot in the past.] Photo (right) shows Zmudowski
pond at dawn, looking toward the coastal sand dunes.
the way in or out, along Struve Road near its intersection with Hwy 1,
one can scope a portion of Bennetts Slough. This is a good spot in
winter and spring for Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, and (sometimes)
Redhead or Canvasback.
° Pajaro River mouth
— from Zmudowski SB parking lot one can walk the beach north for the
half-mile to the Pajaro R. mouth which always has lots of roosting
gulls, and many terns in summer (and various rarities over the years).
Both sides of the Pajaro R. mouth are usually in Monterey County, but
the Pajaro Dunes colony north of the river, and a short stretch of
beach south, are within Santa Cruz County. The river mouth can also be
accessed from Sunset SB in Santa Cruz Co. by walking the beach past the
Pajaro Dunes colony, but that is a very long walk.
° Dolan Road fields
— Dolan Rd. goes inland from Hwy 1 at the Moss Landing power plant.
Elkhorn Road intersects it about 3 miles inland; one follows Elkhorn
Road north (left) to reach Elkhorn Slough NERR and the upper end of
Elkhorn Slough. Just before (west) of Elkhorn Road, Castroville Blvd.
goes south (right) and connects with Highway 156 near Castroville.
Road and Castroville Blvd. both have views of Moro Cojo Slough (south
of Dolan Road; Castroville Blvd. crosses the upper end of Moro Cojo
Slough). Scopes are needed but the slough often has a wide variety of
ducks and shorebirds. Dolan Road passes through cattle-grazing land,
and sometimes Cattle Egrets are with cows in fall/winter. The swirling
blackbird flocks usually have Tricoloreds and the occasional
Yellow-headed Blackbird in May and again in fall. In recent years the
fields south of Dolan Road, just opposite the entrance to Moonglow
Dairy (Moonglow sign, right), have hosted flocks of hundreds of Canada
Geese. In winter, these geese flocks attract rarer species: Greater
White-fronted, both 'Aleutian' and 'Ridgway' Cackling, Snow, and Ross's
Geese in small numbers.
° MoonGlow Dairy
— for avid birders there may be no better spot in the entire area than
the privately owned MoonGlow Dairy (in the photo left, a blimp passes
over Moonglow Diary; a freshwater pond is in the right foreground).
From the Dairy there are fabulous views of Elkhorn Slough (a scope
needed), a freshwater pond next to the Slough, and the State's best
eucalyptus grove. It is located 1.2 miles east of Highway 1 off Dolan
Road. I was first able to arrange birding access here about 1980, and
the owners — Louis & Carol Calcagno — have welcomed birders ever
since. However, this is an active dairy operation and there are
important rules you must know before birding here. It is the active
operation of the dairy that attracts huge flocks of blackbirds
(Tricoloreds in huge numbers except in spring when they return to
breeding colonies), and it is the dairy's active management of the
freshwater pond that creates duck habitat in winter/spring and
shorebird habitat in fall. The pond is the single best freshwater pond
in Monterey County and it would not exist except for the dairy. It is
one of the most important resources on the Slough.
SEE A SEPARATE PAGE ON BIRDING AT MOONGLOW DAIRY
photo (below) shows part of the Dairy with the eucalyptus grove in the
right-hand background, and the power plant in the background to the
left. The cattle pens host the blackbird flocks. In recent years the
slough-edge side of the eucalyptus grove has been the colonially
breeding site for Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Double-crested
Cormorants. Please remember to be on your best behavior Moonglow Dairy.
Read the rules on the separate page; park
well away from dairy operations; and to drive slowly on the dirt roads.
I feel a special responsibility here since none of us would have access
but for the groundwork laid over 30 years ago
° Elkhorn Slough NERR — Elkhorn Slough NERR is open to the public daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (but double-check the web site); there is an entrance fee. The Reserve is located 2.2 miles north of Dolan Road on Elkhorn Road (there are signs; also see its website).
The Reserve protects an amazing variety of habitats, including tidal
mudflat, tidal sloughs, a few freshwater ponds, coastal grasslands, and
live oak woodlands (the habitat shot, right, shows combination of tidal
basin, oak woods, and a eucalypt grove where herons/egrets nested in
prior decades). There is a very fine visitor's center and many miles of
peaceful trails; obtain a map and information at the visitor's center.
The grasslands host White-tailed Kites and Red-shouldered Hawks, and
the oak woodlands have Oak Titmice, Chestnut-backed Chickadees,
Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Hutton's Vireos. Indeed, it was the wide
variety of habitats within a short distance that enabled a local team
to set what was then an all-time "Big Sit" record here (117 species on
31 Oct 1982 from a flatbed truck sitting on the hill overlooking the
"Five Fingers" area; there is a nice bench here now). The entire
wetland area are prime hunting grounds for Peregrine Falcon, Osprey,
and Merlin (in fall/winter).
|° Kirby Park and Elkhorn Road
— north of Elkhorn Slough NERR, Elkhorn Road follows the edge of
wetlands and is therefore lined with birds. A small wetland at the
intersection of Strawberry Road is a traditional site for the few
Lesser Yellowlegs that winter locally. Look also for flocks of wigeon
in winter; search them for the occasional Eurasian; or phalaropes (in
spring & fall). There is an overlook pullout about a mile north of
here to view Estrada Marsh (photo left) with lots of egrets and ducks,
and then comes the access road to Kirby Park. There is a lot of parking
adjacent to the Slough and a boat ramp. A boardwalk meanders north
along the Slough. Lots of rarities here over the years including
White-faced Ibis, Tufted Duck, and even Long-eared Owl (in the first
willow patch right of the boardwalk). When the tide is high, Common and
Red-throated Loons can be upslough to this point. There once was a
small population of Clapper Rail in the pickleweed here, but the rails
were extirpated by non-native Red Foxes in the 1980s. Farther north,
Elkhorn Slough crosses the upper end of Elkhorn Slough near a railroad
bridge, where you can scope both directions: the end of the Slough to
the west and Potter Marsh to the east.
Elkhorn Slough itself is accessed by boat via Elkhorn Slough Safari
pontoon boat trips which are led by naturalists (above). You can also
join kayak trips up the Slough and around Moss Landing harbor (right).
Out-of-towners may obtain private tours from Elkhorn Slough area resident Rick Fournier at Monterey Birding Adventures (for a fee). Also see the separate photo page on MoonGlow Dairy.
- Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds. 2d ed. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.
- Silberstein, M., and E. Campbell. 1989. Elkhorn Slough. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey.
I thank Rita Carratello, Steve Bailey, Todd Newberry, Steve Rovell, and
Roger Wolfe for comments on an earlier version of this page. I also
thank Mark Silberstein for permission to use his aerial photo of
Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing harbor. The remaining photos are mine.