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 also 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 access is limited to shoreline or the cypresses next to the restroom at Crespi Pond. Yet the public has access to the entire shoreline, so viewing rocky shorebirds and gulls is usually easy, and one can sea-watch from extensive public pull-outs along this entire stretch of coast. For a further discussion of seawatching at Pt. Pinos, see the text and photos on the Monterey Audubon Seawatch conducted dawn-to-dusk for six weeks by Tony Leukering and volunteers from 1 Nov to 15 Dec 2015 [that discussion is the major portion of the seasonal highlights there].

eBirding the Pt. Pinos area:

The map below shows the boundaries of the major eBird Hot Spot — Pt. Pinos (general area) — and its 'sub-locations' called Pt. Pinos--seawatch only, Pt. Pinos--Crespi Pond only, and Pt. Pinos--south gull roost only. Most visitors will wish to use just the major Hot Spot [Pt. Pinos general area]. You can search the shore, check Crespi Pond, and conduct a seawatch all within the same checklist. Stay off the golf course. The 'sub-locations' are embedded within the Pt. Pinos (general area) Hot Spot. This makes them different than normal Hot Spots as the 'sub-locations' are meant to be used only for limited and specific circumstances. Please use the "general area" Hot Spot unless you understand the limits of the 'sub-locations'

The Pt. Pinos 'sub-locations' have these parameters:

Pt. Pinos--seawatch only: You can scan the sea with binoculars or (preferably) a good scope in any weather. Windy days tend to be better for pelagic species, and very windy days (gale force winds) can bring rarities. There is public access along the seaward side of all of Ocean View Blvd. and Sunset Drive. The purple "x" sites on the map are some popular sea-watching locations. Looking west is best in the morning, and "Raven seawatch" is a small pullout halfway between the 'south gull roost' and Pt. Pinos itself. "The Point" seawatch is right at the NW tip of the Peninsula, views the series of rocks lying offshore, and permits one to view west or north from the same site. The "Leukering" seawatch is the site of the formal Audubon-sponsored seawatch effort in late 2015 conducted by Tony Leukering (and volunteers). The site known as "John Denver beach" is a good gull roost. The "'Petrel Point' seawatch is named for a Mottled Petrel seen from here on 12 Dec 1984; it is more sheltered than other spots in gale-force conditions. An ebird seawatch list is generally a stationary count from one of these sites. The eBird list is meant to be limited to birds seen or heard from the seawatch site, and not birds seen elsewhere on the Point (e.g., should not include birds on Crespi Pond).

Pt. Pinos--Crespi Pond only: Crespi Pond is a small freshwater pond on Sunset Drive that is used as a water hazard for the 17th golf course hole. It can dry up in drought years but is generally full; see more about it and its history further down this page. The eBird sub-location 'Crespi Pond only' is meant to be strictly limited to birds on or adjacent to the pond and its marsh, plus a tall netting that separates it from the driving range, and power lines that cross overhead, or birds flying directly over the pond. The list should not include birds in cypresses to the west or the east, nor any birds on the rocky beach or the sea across Sunset Drive to the north. Mostly it will be local birders who are interested in "Crespi Pond only" lists. Crespi Pond is part of Pt. Pinos general area so you can properly include birds on the pond within an unlimited walk along this stretch of coast.

Pt. Pinos--south gull roost only: this is an area of rocky and sandy shore that often has a large gull roost (in season) and an islet that is always covered with cormorants. Cormorants do not nest on this islet but it is a favored roost [except in very unusual conditions, Brandt's are the common species, with a few Pelagic around the edges, and Double-crested is the rarest with just a couple, if any]. In eBird this sub-location is intended to be entered as a stationary count of the gull and cormorant roost, and any seabirds seen flying by over the sea, and anything else you hear or see while doing so. Local birders will likely use this sub-location more than visitors would, just to keep track of rarities at this spot. For visitors, it is just another part of the Pt. Pinos (general area) Hot Spot.

The map above also shows the other "stand alone" Hot Spots in this part of Pacific Grove. These Hot Spots are separate and apart from Pt. Pinos, and birds present in any of these sites should not be included in the Pt. Pinos (general area) Hot Spot. Please use the boundaries shown on the map to enter eBird checklists for these areas. Two of them are along the shore:

Asilomar SB--rocky shore [north end: Arena to Jewell]: this Hot Spot is just south of Pt. Pinos (general area) and lies west of Sunset Blvd where there is a very nice public hiking trail and a few offshore islets. It is very good for rocky shorebirds (in season), and the coastal dunes have resident nuttalli White-crowned Sparrows.

Pacific Grove--Otter Pt.: this Hot Spot is just east of Pt. Pinos (general area) and is centered on Otter Pt. (not shown on the map above but is on the map below). It is another good spot for sea-watching, and tends to be more sheltered than Pt. Pinos itself. The Hot Spot is on the Bay-side of Ocean View Blvd.

The three other Hot Spots on the map above are inland areas and are not intended to be used for any birds along the shore or at sea. You should count any seabirds flying over any of these Hot Spots — a few gulls, a wayward loon or pelican or cormorant (almost invariably a Double-crested if even a block inland) — but mostly these Hot Spots are good for landbirds, and especially migrant landbirds in spring or fall:

Pacific Grove--Shell & Acropolis vicinity: this Hotp Spot features neighborhoods east of Asilomar Ave. and west of Coral St., centered on the intersection of Shell & Acropolis, where there is often a flowering bottlebrush.

Pacific Grove--Esplanade Park vicinity: the Hot Spot features neighborhoods centered around public Esplanade Park with its groves of cypresses, and extendes east of Coral St. to Sea Palm. Lots of fall vagrants have been recorded here in fall migration (mostly Sep-Oct). In both of the 'neighborhood' Hot Spots please be on particular good behavior. Your are birding around homes and residents will have privacy concerns about the use of binoculars.

Pacific Grove--El Carmelo cemetery: this is a public cemetery and a very fine birding location for resident and migrant landbirds. Birders are welcome in the cemetery (but stay away from actual burials at funerals). Birders are not permitted on the adjacent golf course or the adjacent "Monarch" condos, but those are shown within the boundaries, as you will see some birds on the golf course or the residential area while birding the cemetery. There are groves of pines and cypresses here, and red-flowering trees in late summer and early fall that attract hummingbirds and nectaring landbirds. These habitats are quite different than habitats on Pt. Pinos. Birds that are common here — but scarce at Pt. Pinos itself — include hummingbirds, woodpeckers, titmice and nuthatches. Please do not enter birds in the cemetery on your Pt. Pinos eBird list.

Further details on the Pt. Pinos "'sub-locations'" and the nearby Hot Spots follow [the photo below is a view of "south gull roost", looking north]

In the 20th century, and before eBird, local birders designated a "Pt. Pinos Listing Area" — a somewhat larger area than an eBird "Hot Spot," and this is shown on the map below. There are now ten eBird "Hot Spots" (including the 3 'sub-locations' embedded within the Pt. Pinos Hot Spot) within the old "listing area." Some of us use all 10 of them to define a "Pt. Pinos Patch" in eBird lingo.

This listing area — or "patch" —was defined about 1980 to include the ~260 acres of the entire Point, "from Ruff to Ruff outside the RR track." In the 1970s, a Ruff wintered in successive winters at Sea Palm beach (foot of Sea Palm Ave; photo right from 7 Nov 1976 © Ron Branson) 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 then picks up again at the foot of Lovers Pt., just outside the listing area.

You can access an ever-changing list of species and a bar graph of their occurrence for each of the Hot Spots shown via eBird. Many local birders are working to improve the bar graphs by entering eBird data for every week of the year.

About 340 species have been recorded within the Pt. Pinos "patch" and over 325 have been seen within the Pt. Pinos (general area) Hot Spot alone! These are truly remarkable numbers 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, bottom, 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 continuously 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 occurred 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 maintenance 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.


page created 17 June- 11 July 2012, updated 22 May 2016

all photos & text © Don Roberson

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