Top Dozen Monterey County Birding Sites
Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing & vicinity
a page by Don Roberson
My choices for the ten best birds ever seen around Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing, and vicinity are set out below. Remarkably, each of the rarities was photographed, and those photos appear below (sometimes imposed over a background because of the dimensions of the photo).

#1 Swallow-tailed Gull at Moss Landing Harbor 8 June 1985
photo © W. Ed Harper

The gull roost at Moss Landing Harbor is a good spot to check, even when just driving by, and that is what Ed Harper did on 8 June 1985. Ed had left Sacramento predawn to 'chase' the Swallow-tailed Gull that had been at Hopkins Marine Station, Pacific Grove, on 6-7 June, but he, and many others waiting at Hopkins, were disappointed. Ed checked Moss Landing enroute home, and there was the gull! He telephoned me at home (I had just arrived after leaving Hopkins). I rushed back, told those left at Hopkins the news, and we all sped north. A group of us arrived at Moss Landing in time to see the adult at the gull roost, but before long it took flight, headed out to sea, and was never seen again. Swallow-tailed Gull is among the best birds ever found in California. It was controversial on origin issues for years — until another was seen at sea — but its occurrence followed the 1982-83 El Niño, the strongest climatic anomaly in the southeastern Pacific during the 20th century. For a time the entire world population was dispersed away from the Galapagos. Such birds may wander for years until finding a new landfall, as did this one in June 1985.

#2 Smith's Longspur at Moonglow Dairy 13-18 Sep 1990
photo 14 Sep 1990 © Don Roberson

It was Doug George who walked the dike around "pond #1" at Moonglow Dairy on 13 Sep, and found a skulking longspur feeding on the levee. He was uncertain of its specific i.d. He telephoned me; I telephoned Joe Morlan in San Francisco; and we converged to view the mystery bird, finally becoming convinced it was California's first Smith's Longspur. We spread the word via the birding grapevine, and the imm male kept put over the next 5 days for those 'chasing' it from all corners of the State.

This still remains among the best "Mega" birds from Monterey County. There are now a half-dozen or so California records, but only three from northern California, and this is still the only one found in MTY.


#3 White-winged Tern at Moonglow Dairy 4 Sep-16 Oct 1999
photo 7 Sep 1999 © Ronald L. Branson

Speaking of a "Mega" bird (see Smith's Longspur), the rare appearance of any Siberian species in California is a "mega-event." So it was in fall 1999. A couple local birders had reported a "Black Tern" on Moonglow's "pond #3" in late August, but it wasn't until Ed Kwater, a visitor from Florida, stopped there on 4 Sep that the small tern was correctly identified as a White-winged Tern — only the second ever for California! Word got out thereafter and hundreds of birders from across the West made the pilgrimage here over the next month. The second-fall individual remained to mid-October, the latest ever for North America. The combination of Smith's Longspur (1st CA record), White-winged Tern and Little Stint (both 2d State records), and White Wagtail (6th M. a. ocularis for CA) made the three ponds at Moonglow perhaps the most famous vagrant ponds in the State, vying with Crespi Pond for that distinction.

#4 Wilson's Plover at Moss Landing SB 15 Sep 1992-1 Jan 1993
photo 15 Sep 1992 © Don Roberson

The western population of Snowy Plover is a State and Federal endangered species, and a recovery plan was developed that included banding, monitoring, and nest protection. It was during a Snowy Plover monitoring project in Sep 1992 that Bernadette Ramer, Doug George, and others found this big-billed plover — the only northern California record of Wilson's Plover! Once settled it with a flock of Snowies, the first-fall Wilson's seemed right at home on the sandy shore of Moss Landing SB, and remained until at least 1 Jan 1993.

#5 Little Stint at Moonglow Dairy 10-21 Sep 1985
photo 19 Sep 1985 © Don Roberson

On 10 Sep 1985, John Mariani reported a juvenal Little Stint at pond #1 at Moonglow. He took photos, but those would not be processed for weeks. Birders had read the recently published paper by Jønsson & Grant (1984) "I.d. of stints and peeps," British Birds 77: 293-315, and were prepared to search for vagrants, using new characters. On 14 Sep, I located a juvenal Little Stint on pond #1, and spread the word. Comparison of photos much later proved it to be the same Little Stint found by Mariani. Crowds gathered over the next few days to view it . Pond #1 was half full with just a few mud bars showing The Little Stint was identified by a combination of its unwebbed toes, short and fine-tipped bill, contrasty mantle pattern of black-centered scaps and coverts, long primary projection, prominent white 'braces' on the back, and a prominent split supercilium. Another juvenal Little Stint was on this same pond, found by Todd Easterla, on 14 Sep 2008.

#6 Lesser Sand-Plover at Moss Landing: 3 records
13-19 Sep 1980, 14-16 Aug 1989, 16-20 Sep 1992
photo 17 Sep 1992 © John Sorensen

As discussed above, on 15 Sep 1992 Snowy Plover researchers discovered a Wilson's Plover on Moss Landing SB. Clay Kempf, Kim Kuska, and others 'chased' that super-vagrant the next day. They saw the Wilson's . . . and discovered a newly arrived juv "Mongolian Plover," now known as Lesser Sand-Plover (photo left)! This is another example of the "Patagonian Rest Stop Effect" in birding [skilled birders flocking to a good spot because of a rarity are likely to find another rarity]. This was not the first Lesser Sand-Plover in MTY, but was the first to be photographed. Donna Dittmann & Carol Deuel found the first California record on 13 Sep 1980 at the Moss Landing salt ponds (now Moss Landing W.A.); a juv that stayed to 19 Sep 1980. Doug George found the second MTY record (3rd for CA) there on 14-16 Aug 1989. Moss Landing thus hosted 3 of the first 5 Lesser Sand-Plovers to be discovered in California.

#7 Rufous-necked Stint at Moss Landing W.A. 13-14 July 2001
photo 14 July 2001 © John Sorensen

Snowy Plover work also led to the finding on this stunning vagrant. Doug George was monitoring nests in the Moss Landing Wildlife Area on 13 July 2001 when he found this gorgeous breeding-plumage adult in fall migration. Because of the breeding plovers, the Wildlife Area is off-limits to the public, so it took a day to arrange a 'one-time-only' supervised visit for hardcore local birders the next day. There was many an anxious moment until the bird was refound, but then some lengthy scope views were obtained, and those with powerful lens obtained great photos from a distance. There are now about a dozen records for California, and all but one of them have been adults in spring (May-June) or fall (late June-July) migration. This species breeds primarily in Siberia.

#8 White Wagtail at Moonglow Dairy 23 Dec 1988–21 Jan 1989,
4–11 Dec 1989, and 7 Nov 1990–21 Jan 1991
photo 22 Dec 1990 © Don Roberson

Another Siberian species is White Wagtail. For a time (1982-2005), the AOU checklist split northeast Asian populations into two species: White M. alba ocularis and Black-backed M. lugens wagtails. Some ocularis nest in western Alaska; lugens is a bird of Kamchatka to Japan. A first-year ocularis was found by Doug George at Moonglow Dairy, Moss Landing 23 Dec 1988-21 Jan 1989. A White Wagtail that frequented the Pajaro R. mouth on both sides of the MTY/SCZ line 4-11 Dec 1989, and returned for another winter at Pajaro R. mouth 7 Nov-1 Dec 1990, then moving back to Moonglow Dairy 21 Dec 1990-21 Jan 1991 was, in my judgment, the same bird returning for 3 successive winters. This explanation is consistent with records of other returning wagtails in California. When at Moonglow it foraged along the edges of half-empty pond #1 (photo left) or the drying piles of cow manure that stretched out from the dairy. Birders chasing this "mega" were thus treated to a variety of visual and olfactory sensations. Together with an earlier adult male lugens along the Pajaro River in Aug-Sep 1979, returning Jul-Sep 1990, and a fall vagrant ocularis at Big Sur R. mouth in Sep 1998, there are now three records of White Wagtail for MTY.

#9 Roseate Spoonbill at Moss Landing 1 Jan–13 Feb 1978
photo Jan 1978 © Bernadette Ramer

In 1973 and again in 1977 there were amazing influxes of Roseate Spoonbill into southern California, primarily around the Salton Sea. There were at least 79 between June–Oct 1973, and ~40 in fall 1977. Still, no one imaged that this tropical wader would reach northern California. But on the annual Moss Landing CBC following the 1997 flight — the 1st of the year every year, thus 1 Jan 1978 — Phil Gordon found a bright pink bird with Great Egrets in an artichoke field near Castroville. For six weeks thereafter this Roseate Spoonbill was seen around the Moss Landing area, including the old Salinas River channel where it was photographed with the pilings of the old one-way Sandholt Bridge in the background. There have been a few small influxes of spoonbills to the Salton Sea in recent years, but this remains the only one to reach northern California.

#10 two Vermilion Flycatchers at Moonglow Dairy 10 Oct 2004–28 Feb 2005,
both returning 4-8 Oct 2005, with one present to 12 Feb 2006
photo 30 Jan 2005 © Don Roberson

One of the fun stories of autumn 2004 was that of two male Vermilion Flycatchers at Moonglow Dairy. Michael Getty found the first bird, a young male, on 10 Oct 2004 but by 29 Oct a second young male was reported. Rarely were they seen together, and both were not photographed on the same day until 30 Jan 2005, but both lingered well into winter. The most oft-seen male was in the little fenced wetlands to the left of the main road into the dairy, just past the power lines. The second young male was more often to the west, around the edge of the power plant. There were small differences in the amount of red on the underparts, the extent of red on the head, and the pattern and wear on various wing coverts. Both were present in 2006; one lingered to 5 March. Incredible, both returned the following winter, beginning 4 Oct 2005 (Alex Darocy) to the west the 2nd bird at its 'usual' spot in the small wetland patch on 8 Oct. One disappeared at 22 Oct but the other wintered to at least 12 Feb 2006. These constitute the 6th & 7th MTY records of this attractive flycatcher — and by far the most fun, as everyone who wished to got to see them during their prolonged visit.

Other excellent birds, but unphotographed, include:
Lesser Black-backed Gull on Elkhorn Slough 11 Jan 2003 (Todd Easterla) — 2d MTY record (21st in California)

Bonus picks:

Little Gull at Zmudowski SB pond 19 Jan–1 Mar 1975
photo Jan 1975 © Gary Zamzow

This Old World gull, the world's smallest gull, is rare anywhere in North America (although there has been sporadic breeding in Hudson Bay area). There were a couple in southern California in the 1960s, but the State's first truly 'chaseable' one was this first-winter bird at the pond by Zmudowski SP from 19 Jan-1 Mar 1975. It was found by Brian McCaffery and his father, and 'chased' by many as a lifer and State bird. [It was one of my first 'chases' in California; I was living in Berkeley at the time.] There have been 3 others since then in MTY, but none have had the impact of this vagrant.

Reddish Egret at Elkhorn Slough 2-8 Oct 1990
photo 28 Jan 1990 © Don Roberson

This southern egret is rare in California, but there are now about 100 State records, the vast majority around San Diego. Only two have reached northern California, and both of those were around Moss Landing. Both were hatch-year birds. The first was present from sometime in August through 8 Oct 1967, but was not identified until rather late in its stay (it was initially called a "Little Blue Heron"). The second visited the salt ponds (Moss Landing W.A., where discovered by Carolyn Rodgers & Doug George) and Elkhorn Slough (could be scoped from Moonglow Dairy) from 28 Dec 1989–25 Jan 1990. In January it was often along Jetty Road, but was found dead on 28 Jan 1990 near the base of the jetty (by Alan & Sheila Baldridge). The photo (left) is of the carcass, inset against the harbor. It is now a specimen at Calif. Acad. Sciences.

Emperor Goose at Moss Landing: ~1950; 1 Jan–20 Mar 1978,
and 29 Dec 2002–7 Jan 2003
photo Jan 1978 © Ronald L. Branson

This lovely Alaskan goose rarely makes it as far south as California, but there are now 6 records for MTY, and three of these were at Moss Landing. The first was shot by a hunter about 1950, and is now on display at Pacific Grove Mus. Nat. Hist. The next was an adult that visited Moss Landing harbor 1 Jan–20 March 1978 (photo right), which could be successfully 'chased' by interested observers. The third was a young bird on Elkhorn Slough 29 Dec 2002–7 Jan 2003. It, too, was 'chaseable' for a short while — and could be scoped from Moonglow Dairy, although it favored a resting spot at a point on the curve of Elkhorn Slough — until it, too, was apparently shot by a hunter in early January.

Craveri's Murrelet at Moss Landing Harbor
14 Aug 1972 & 7 Oct 1978
photo © Don Roberson

Craveri's Murrelet breeds on islets in the Gulf of California and off the tip of Baja California. It disperses northward in late summer/fall, and can be common at times offshore southern California. In some warm water years, fair numbers can reach Monterey Bay. Still, these birds are seen on boat trips, usually rather far offshore in fingers of warmer water, and quite exceptional near shore. A few fly-bys have been seen from Pt. Pinos & Cypress Pt., but only twice (so far) have birders had the luxury of studying one from solid ground in the harbor. On 14 Aug 1972, Ted Chandik, Bob & Carol Yutzy, and others, had one just off Jetty Road. During a 'Big Day' effort on 7 Oct 1978, L.C. Binford, the Parmeters, and I had this one (left) right next to Moss Landing Road at the edge of the marina. As it was a 'Big Day,' though, we hardly had any time to enjoy the moment before rushing off . . .

Bar-tailed Godwit at Moonglow Dairy 5-8 Sep 1994
photo © Don Roberson

Rita Carratello & I were walking along the Moonglow dike on 5 Sep 1994, and had just reached the famed "Smith's Longspur" spot (see bird #2, above), when I spotted this juvenal-plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit with a small flock of Marbled Godwit. It proved to be 'chaseable,' but the very next day (6 Sep 1994) Bill Hill & Dave Haupt independently found a Little Curlew at Carmel R. mouth, and the stampede was on! This cool godwit, of the Siberian race baueri, became a small footnote. At the time it was just the 2d record for MTY, and the 18th for California.

multiple Yellow-billed Loons at Moss Landing / Elkhorn Slough
photo18 Apr 2004 © Bill Hill

Yellow-billed Loon is a northern breeder that is very rare this far south. Yet, in California, 8 of the State's first 10 records were in MTY! Six of those were around the Monterey Peninsula, but 2 were here in Moss Landing (23 Jan-6 Mar 1971, now a specimen at MVZ, Berkeley, and 26 Jan 1971). Since then over 20 more Yellow-billed Loons have visited MTY, and several more have been at Moss Landing, including10 Jan-13 Feb 1991, and this first-winter bird on Elkhorn Slough, first spotted by Shirley Murphy, between 15 Apr-17 May 2004. It ranged from Kirby Park — where it could be seen at close range (photo left) — to Moonglow Dairy (where a scope was needed).


page created 20 Sep 2000;
revised 28 July-9 Aug 2012

all photos & text © Don Roberson

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