Top Dozen Monterey County Birding Sites
Pt. Pinos & vicinity
a page by Don Roberson
Pt. Pinos is the northwestern tip of the Monterey Peninsula in Pacific Grove (above). It is world famous as a sea-watching site, but is almost as well known for the diversity of vagrants seen on Crespi Pond or in the adjacent cypresses. Unfortunately, most of the northwestern portion of Pacific Grove is a golf course, so birding acces is limited to shoreline or the cypresses next to the restroom at Crespi Pond. All 11 eBird "hot spots" within the Pt. Pinos listing area are shown on the map below. These include not only Crespi Pond and the Point itself but also a small neighborhood to the east, between Esplanade Park and the El Carmelo cemetery. This listing area was defined ~1980 to include the ~260 acres of the entire Point, "from Ruff to Ruff outside the RR track." In the 1970s, individual Ruffs wintered (in different winters) at Sea Palm beach (foot of Sea Palm Ave) and on kelp below the gazebo at Rocky Shores. These spots provide nice "bookends" to the coastal crescent — about a 2 mile walk between the spots on Ocean View Blvd. and Sunset Drive. The old "railroad tracks" are gone but are now replaced by a public hiking trail from Railroad Way & Lighthouse Ave., through the middle of the eastern reaches of the golf course (where obscure) and that picks up again at the foot of Lovers Pt., just outside the listing area. In eBird, the "Pt. Pinos" hot spot is used for general checklists around the Point, while the other "hot spots" are intended for more specific checklists at those locations. A complete list of species and a bar graph of their occurrence is available via eBird [click that link]. Over 320 species have been recorded, a truly remarkable number given the small size (~0.4 sq mi or 1.08 sq km) of the area. Few sites in North America this small can match this diversity.

Birding at Pt. Pinos

Seawatching can be good at any season. The entire shoreline around Pt. Pinos is open to the public via large pull-outs on the Bay or Ocean side of the Point; there are benches or one can easily stand with a scope (or sit in a vehicle with a scope) to scan the sea. The sun is in your eyes looking west in the afternoon, but it is often better at any time to scan north from the Point, watching for birds flying out of the Bay westward towards the open ocean. The wind tends to pick up in the afternoon, and wind generally means better seawatching. Black-footed Albatross are almost routine on windy afternoons in the summer.

The far rocks at the Point often have 3 species of cormorant (dominated by Brandt's) and loads of Brown Pelicans in season (summer, fall); an occasional booby has landed here. Huge waves batter these rocks (below). The strong winds usually come from the northwest. It is when these winds are howling at gale force — and waves completely engulf the rocks (inset below) that seawatching can be superb, as huge numbers of seabirds are blown into Monterey Bay and try to escape by flying west — into the winds — and past the Point. I remain in my car and scope out the window in those conditions; when it is too rough I may chose a spot several pull-outs east of the bare Point itself. Pelagics recorded in these conditions here include Cook's & Mottled Petrel; nearly every shearwater or storm-petrel recorded from the county; all 3 jaegers and skua; and nearly every west coast alcid.

Rocky shorebirds are a key group here, with good habitat throughout the area, but especially on the ocean side. Black Oystercatcher (left, with precocial young) are resident and breed on the small rocky islets. [Incidentally, these rocky islets are part of California Coastal National Monument, established on Jan. 11, 2000.] New signs went up in 2012 to protect regular nesting sites (below).

In winter (Oct-Apr) oystercatchers are joined by flocks of Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Whimbrel, Willet, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, and occasionally Pacific Golden-Plover. Ruff and Rock Sandpiper have wintered twice. Wandering Tattler and Ruddy Turnstone are a spring and fall migrants.

The tides make a difference for seeing rocky shorebirds. At high tides there are just a few flocks huddled together on offshore islets. At low tide, rocky shorebirds spread out to forage widely among the edges of tidepools or the ocean-rock interface.

There are always gulls at Pt. Pinos. Western Gull breeds on the Point. A fairly standard winter array is shown above — four California (center & left), a Western (in back), and two Mew (lower right) — although it is odd that all but one are adults. In summer & fall, Heermann's Gulls arrive in numbers (inset in above shot). Scarcer gulls here, although regular, include Glaucous-winged (left: 1st cycle & adult), Herring (right: adult standing, Western sitting ), and Thayer's (right, botton, standing). Be very aware that hybrid or intergrade gulls are usual here in winter, and especially Western X Glacous-winged (left, bottom, probably 3rd cycle).

Visitors should also be aware that on a typical day, 90-95% of gulls at the Point are Western and California Gulls. Ring-billed Gull, for example, is a major rarity on the rocky coast and needs documentation. [It is common in winter on the mudflats at Moss Landing.] Gulls misidentified as "Ring-billed" or "Herring" are the two most common mistakes made by visiting observers.

While seawatching, seabirds, shorebirds, and gulls are a major part of birding at Pt. Pinos, it is also an exceptional location for migrant landbirds and waterfowl. This view (below) of Pt. Pinos from a boat just offshore shows the rocky shore; the parking areas used by tourists, and beyond them the Pacific Grove golf course and then the Monterey Pine forest of Pacific Grove, shrouded in typical summer fog, in the background. The Pt. Pinos Lighthouse is dead center. In front and to the right of the lighthouse are some of the Monterey Cypress trees that attract migrant landbirds near the public restrooms (the small brown building just right of the white pick-up truck). [Crespi Pond is out of view to the left of the white pick-up.]
Crespi Pond (above) is a small natural pond, adjacent to the coast, named for Friar Juan Crespí who co-founded the Carmel Mission for Spain in 1770 with Father Juniperó Serra. Today Crespi Pond is used as a water hazard between the 17th tee and green on the Pacific Grove golf course. The inset photo (above) is from Oceanview Blvd, which separates Crespi from the shore, and shows the P.G. Lighthouse in the back of the reedbeds at the back side of Crespi. [The lighthouse, operating since 1855, is the oldest countinuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast.] The photo above shows a Ross's Goose among the coots that winter at Crespi Pond. Canada Geese (from an introduced population) are resident here and breed, but migrant geese — Ross's, Snow, Greater White-fronted, Cackling, Brant — appear in small numbers during winter or migration. The pond has attracted a wide variety of waterfowl over the years, and even migrant waders when the pond level is low enough to have mudflat. "Bicolored" Red-winged Blackbirds often nest in the Crespi reedbed, which is also used as a day roost for Black-crowned Night-Herons. Watch for swallows over the pond in summer, and bathing gulls in winter. The Pacific Grove golf course is off-limit to the public when golfers are playing, so birders must view from the edge of Oceanview Blvd., or get here before 8 a.m. in the morning. A pebbly beach directly across from Crespi often has roosting gulls, or rocky shorebirds, and sometimes vagrant landbirds (e.g., Mountain Bluebird, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Snow Bunting have all occured there).

An incredible plethora of migrant landbirds have occurred in the cypress and pine trees adjacent to Crespi Pond, primarily in Sep-Nov, but also May-early June. Tropical Kingbird (right) is a vagrant but is found at Pt. Pinos in Oct/Nov of most years, and some (like this one photo'd in Jan 2010) have wintered here. At least 18 species of eastern warblers have occurred in the trees; the Crespi reeds have hosted Least Bittern, Bobolink, and Swamp Sparrow, among other rarities. [A link to the "top 10" vagrants at Pt. Pinos is below.]

Unfortunately, access to key areas has diminished over recent decades, as a driving range was built and is now heavily used next to the Crespi reedbeds. It was once fairly easy to bird here (e.g., 1970s) but today birders' access to the back side of Crespi is essentially only very early or very late in the day, when no golfers are present. Since there are almost always golfers playing or using the driving range, birding is now generally limited to the cypresses in the immediate vicinity of the public restroom (FYI, the restroom is locked at night so may not be available for use very early and very late). Pacific Grove has a fenced maintainence yard between the restrooms and the Point which is also off limits except to a few local birders with permission and key.

There is lots of public access on paths along the coast from Pt. Pinos east to Lovers Point. In the spring a non-native flower blooms a "purple carpet" in these public areas; this view (left) is from Otter Pt. A good spot is Esplanade Park with tall pines halfway between Pt. Pinos and Otter Pt. Neighborhoods on either side of Esplanade Park are good for migrants in fall migration (Sep-Oct) and sometimes for wintering vagrants, such as Orchard Oriole (right, from 1988).
There is also good habitat for landbird migrants at the El Carmelo cemetery, at the corner of Lighthouse & Asilomar, and adjacent to the public golfcourse clubhouse. The cemetery is open to the public and landscaped long ago with pines, cypresses, planted Myioporum bushes, and red-flowering 'flame trees' in the summer/early fall (center of photo, right). These 'flame trees' attract hummingbirds in Aug-Sep. In the NE corner of the cemetery is a spot called "the thicket" — a topic of much public debate when it was trimmed to make room for more grave sites. Locals were concerned about a refuge and fawning area for the ubiquitous Black-tailed Deer that are a constant part of the landscape of this cemetery, and basically forced the City of Pacific Grove to replant much of "the thicket" with native plants. The small area is a nice spot to check in migration these days, as is the row of Myioporum that separates this part of the cemetery from the golf course. Visitors are reminded to stay off the golf course and limit their wanderings to the cemetery grounds.

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page created 17 June- 11 July 2012

all photos & text © Don Roberson

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