Top Dozen Monterey County Birding Sites
Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing & vicinity
a page by Don Roberson
Elkhorn 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.
The 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.
The 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.

Elkhorn 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).

The 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.

In 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.

About 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 dunes.

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.

There 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 boat.

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.

On 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.

Dolan 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.


The 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.


Literature cited:

  • 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.

Acknowledgments: 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.

page created 5-23 Sep 2000;
revised 17 June 2012

all photos & text © Don Roberson

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