Top Dozen Monterey County Birding Sites
Pt. Pinos & vicinity
a page by Don Roberson
'TOP 10' BIRDS AT PT. PINOS

My choices for the ten best birds ever seen within or from (sea-watching counts!) the Pt. Pinos area are set out below. If a photo was taken of the bird itself, that photograph is used here. If not, I've included a photo of the location with an inset of a painting of the species that was there (and, if available, a sketch of the actual bird):

#1 Yellow Rail at Crespi Pond 2-8 Oct 1970

As I understand the story, a Yellow Rail flushed from the grassy golf-course edge of the pond, near the 17th tee, and fluttered towards the Crespi reeds, about in the locality of this photo. It was seen in flight by Bill Reese on 2 Oct. Rich Stallcup saw it at the same spot on 8 Oct. The small dark rail showed the characteristic white primaries (as shown in this Doug Pratt painting from the cover of Birding magazine in June 1981). Details by Reese and Stallcup were accepted by the CBRC; a report of it again on 1 Nov did not have details and was not accepted.

A century ago Yellow Rails wintered in fair numbers in coastal marshes along the California coast, and there is report of a specimen taken in Nov 1905 on the MTY side of the Pajaro River. The specimen was presumably lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. Today, Yellow Rail is an exceptional rarity to the coast but occurs occasionally in saltwater marshes. To have had one on this freshwater pond is truly remarkable.

#2 LeConte's Sparrow at Crespi Pond 19 Oct 1974

LeConte's Sparrow is very rare in California, and this was just the second State record. After a boat trip on 19 Oct 1974, Bob & Carol Yutzy, Greg Butcher, and Eugene Makishima decided to go check Pt. Pinos. Bob writes: "We were birding Crespi Pond late in the afternoon and Greg and I were checking ... at the extreme NE corner of the golf course, while Eugene and Carol were checking the other side of the cypresses . Greg and I spotted a skulking sparrow under some low hanging cypress limbs in the shadows. We called over Carol and Eugene. It was hard to get field marks on the bird down in the shadows of the cypress trees but we kept watching and pooling the information on what we were all seeing. We all knew it was a good one for California ... but Greg said if he was back East (where he was from) he would ID it as a LeConte's Sparrow. ... So we called Alan [Baldridge] even though it was getting late [and he called] Ron Branson to come ... get some pictures . . . We waited for Ron while watching the bird and though it was fairly late ... he got some photos" [photo © R.L. Branson].
That was a new story for me, and it clarifies that the sparrow was not at the edge of Crespi, as I had thought, but was skulking under the cypress row to the east. Alas, all undergrowth there has since been removed.

#3 Mottled Petrel from Pt. Pinos ('Petrel Pt.') 12 Dec 1984

By early afternoon on 12 Dec 1984, gale force northwest winds were pounding the Monterey Peninsula. I decided to try sea-watching from my car. The winds were so strong at the Point itself that the car was rocking as I tried to scope out the window. I drove a bit east to a public pull-out (which I now call "Petrel Pt.") because there is a spot where one can park and be sheltered from the brunt of NW winds. Lots of fulmars were passing by, struggling to go west out of the Bay, and among them, amazingly, was a Mottled Petrel at kelp-line, bounding in high arcs as a master of the winds, working its way west. I had time to get multiple views of the ventral & dorsal aspects, and drew a quick sketch in the car (inset in photo left). Later this compared well (e.g., to Peter Harrison's art from his 1983 Seabirds book). The record was CBRC accepted as a first for MTY. It was only the 2d ever seen from shore in California [the other from Pt. Mugu, Ventura Co., 30 Dec 1981]. There have been 3 in MTY since 1984; one of them found injured on-shore in Seaside.

#3 Eastern Yellow Wagtail at 'Crespi Beach' 19 Sep 1982

There is a small rocky beach just across Oceanview Blvd from Crespi Pond. Wave-borne kelp washes up here, attracting flies as it decays, and the flies attract birds. On the Sunday morning of 19 Sep 1982, Jon Dunn was leading a Wings Tour here and found the imm Yellow Wagtail. Local birder Ron Branson was simply out birding, and Jon called him over to see the vagrant with the tour group. It had landed briefly, wagging its way along the pebbly shore, but did not stay long. Like most such wagtails in California, it was a brief 'one-day wonder' that was gone by the time others, alerted by Jon, reached the site. At the time this was just the 4th record for the State. Ten years later there are 14 records, and all of them within the narrow time window in fall migration of 27 Aug–21 Sep [drawing of 1st-cycle yellow wagtail by Bill Zesterstrom in Alström & Mild's (2003) Pipits & Wagtails].

#5 Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at 'Crespi cypresses' 21 Sep 2004

On the morning of 21 Sep 2004, as I was completing my loop around Crespi Pond, I found this interesting Empidonax flycatcher. To me it looked 'tiny,' short-tailed, short-billed, with a big round eyering, on a bird that was green above and very bright yellow below. It also had black wings with which the white wingbars and tertial edgings contrasted strongly. And it gave a call I did not recognize: a sharp spweek! with a squeaky or sneezy quality to it, a little like a rubber ducky. So I tried a few digiscope pics as the bird was cooperative in sitting on the fence surrounding the City's maintenance yard. There were numerous points that suggested Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. After posting to the Birdbox, many observers got to see it and additional photos taken. I got to spent another 1.5 hour with it in the evening, but it only stayed this one day. More details are at this link. In due course, it was accepted by CBRC as the first MTY record, and the 12th for California. This denizen of the northeastern spruce forest is a very rare bird in California and given the difficulty of separating Empidonax, it documentation here was gratifying for all lucky observers involved.

#6 Slaty-backed Gull at Pt. Pinos 5 Feb 2007

Right at the tip of Pt. Pinos is large public pull-out adjacent to a little sandy beach that separates the pull-out from the rocks at the northwesternmost reach of the Point. Tourists regularly walk this beach and, at low tide, use it to clamber up into the Pt. Pinos rocks. But early in the morning, or in bad weather, gulls use it as a favored resting spot. Yet, because of the tides and the tourists, they are rarely there for long. But at 8 a.m. of the morning of 4 Feb 2007, among 50 or so gulls, Brian Sullivan found MTY's first Slaty-backed Gull (left © B.L. Sullivan). Note the very pale eye on the second-cycle large Larus; the pale wing coverts but all black primaries; and the dark-gray color of the new back and scapular feathers, along with size, stance, and bill shape. A number of Arctic migrant gulls were also there that morning, including 11 Glaucous-winged and one Glaucous Gull. California now has records of ~50 Slaty-backed Gulls, but so far only two have been well-documented here in MTY.

#7 Snow Bunting on 'Crespi beach' 23-26 May 2009

One of the most unexpected birds at Pt. Pinos, considering the date of its occurrence, was this female Snow Bunting present from 23-26 May (photo 26 May © D. Roberson). Found by visiting birder Daniel Gilman on the beach across from Crespi Pond, it remained at its favored spot near tideline for many happy birders until it left on the first clear night after its discovery. This was the 3rd record for MTY and was the latest spring record for California. It was hard to imagine this Arctic breeder so far south and so late in spring. However, a female Snow Bunting at Ocean Beach, San Diego Co., 30 Apr-7 May had been both unusually late and exceptionally far south. Peter Pyle & Brian Sullivan [Western Birds 41: 261-265 + back cover, 2010] compared close-up photos of the San Diego and Pt. Pinos bird, and determined they were of the same individual! So this wayward Snow Bunting was doubly amazing.

#8 Cook's Petrel from Pt. Pinos 18-19 Jan 2010

Okay, this fanciful collage does show a painting of Cook's Petrel (from Harrison's Seabirds) and does show Brian Sullivan looking out to sea (albeit from Rocky Pt., not actually Pt. Pinos), but Brian is responsible for the 3 records of Cook's Petrel from Pt. Pinos. From July-Sep 2009 there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Cook's Petrel offshore MTY (over 300 on 31 July 2009 from 2 boats). Presumably numbers lingered during this 'El Niño' warm water year into early winter, as 3 were seen from shore at Pt. Pinos on these two dates in mid-January. Brian Sullivan had the first at some distance mid-day on 18 Jan. He telephoned me, and I had a Cook’s at 3:45 p.m. that date. Both were heading west out of the Bay is strong, gusty winds, mostly from S and SW. Huge breakers were then hitting shore from offshore storms. Sullivan had another, a bit closer, on 19 Jan 2010. The Cook's that became California's first specimen was found in a Santa Cruz, SCZ, driveway on 17 Nov 1983, but otherwise nearly all birds have been far offshore (except a very few at the Salton Sea). So scoping them from a coast-based observation point is quite impressive.

#9 Ruff at 'Sea Palm Beach' from 28 Oct 1976-19 Mar 1977

'Sea Palm Beach' is a small sandy cove at the foot of Seapalm Ave. where it meets Oceanview Blvd. between Otter Pt. and Lovers Point. Storm-tossed kelp regularly washes ashore here, attracting flies and the flies attract birds. Flocks of rocky shorebirds forage here. Among them on 28 Oct 1976, Rich Stallcup found a juvenal-plumage Ruff (photo in Nov 1976 © Ronald L. Branson). Back then, Ruff was considered quite a rarity anywhere in California [today it occurs regularly as a fall vagrant in very small numbers]. Judged a male on size, this Ruff found the location congenial and spent the winter here; January photos show it in full basic plumage. The next winter a Ruff was found foraging on kelp at Rocky Shores, the north end of Asilomar SB, on the Christmas Bird Count 27 Dec 1977. It remained until at least 5 Feb 1978. At the time they were judged to be different individuals, but I suspect it was the same Ruff returning for a second winter. Together they formed the 'bookends' for the definition of the Pt. Pinos listing area (see preceding page). MTY now has accumulated over 50 records of Ruff — the vast majority in fall migration — but this one (or two?) remains the only record for Pt. Pinos. except for a juv that wandered widely Spanish Bay to Asilomar Aug-Nov 1999, and was at Otter Pt. 29 Oct 1999.

#10 Mountain Bluebird on 'John Denver beach' 9-12 Oct 2009

Late on 9 Oct 2009, visiting birders from the Iowa Ornithological Union (Jim Bangma et al.) discovered a female-like Mountain Bluebird on a beach near Pt. Pinos, and it was present again the next morning. This is the beach the locals call the "John Denver beach," as his plane crashed just off this beach on 12 Oct 1997. At the time there was a homemade memorial, including a large driftwood with Denver's name on it. The bluebird often sat on that driftwood (photo 12 Oct © D. Roberson) or hovered over the beach. It was still present on the 12th anniversary of Denver's death, 12 Oct 2009 (at which time the memorial had flowers). A sentimental spirit might even attribute the lovely bird to the Rocky Mountain songster. A permanent plaque commemorating Denver is now embedded in a rock here. These circumstances made this first-cycle male Mountain Bluebird memorable. There are only two prior records on the Monterey Peninsula, both at Pt. Pinos: 21-22 Oct 1972 & 14 Oct 1979.

 
It is difficult choosing a "top ten best birds" at Pt. Pinos because so many vagrants have occurred. While sea-watching, birders have seen almost the entire panoply of Pacific seabirds while standing (or sitting in their cars) onshore. In the photo above — that's Pt. Pinos in the background — over 60 Sooty Shearwaters (and 1 Western Gull) are in the frame (19 May 2007 © D. Roberson). Observers on-shore can sometimes see multiple thousands of these shearwaters passing by over a couple hours. In windy conditions, they are pushed much closer to shore than in this shot.

It is much more difficult to get photos of seabirds flying by the Point , given the weather conditions, the speeds at which the birds are flying, and the fact that most viewing is through birding 'scopes. Still, Brian Sullivan managed this shot of a rare Horned Puffin flying past the Point on 7 March 2007 (right © B.L. Sullivan). At least 2 more were seen flying past the Point that day or the next. Other impressive seabirds seen from shore at Pt. Pinos include:

  • Short-tailed Albatross — at least 3 birds in recent years, plus they were seen regularly from shore here in the 1800s
  • Laysan Albatross — at least once
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater — perhaps a half-dozen times
  • Manx Shearwater — at last 7 observations from shore in the last 25 years
  • Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel — in extraordinary times, dozens present (Sep-Nov 1958, Aug-Sep 1983), but usually rare
  • Leach's Storm-Petrel — a couple of times
  • Least Storm-Petrel — at least twice
  • Red-footed Booby & Brown Booby — at least one each
  • all the jaegers (but Long-tailed by far the rarest from shore) plus a couple South Polar Skua
  • multiple Ancient, Marbled, and Scripps' Murrelets, and at least one Guadalupe Murrelet
  • more than a dozen shore-based records of Tufted Puffin flying by

 

Meanwhile, a surprising selection of waterbirds have appeared on Crespi Pond. One of my favorite photos is this remarkable shot by John Sorenson (above; 21 Jan 1995 © J. Sorensen) that shows a female Common Merganser (left) side-by-side with a female-plumaged Red-breasted Merganser (right). Common Merganser is a major rarity here; Red-breasted Merganser is regular along the coast in fall and winter. However, to have them side-by-side to compare things like the shape of the bill, their posture, structure and color of the crest, and the presence or absence of white throat patch is amazing.

A spectacularly unseasonable waterbird at Crespi was this "Blue Goose" morph of Snow Goose — actually the first record of this morph in the county — that summered with a pair of Canada Goose and their two young from early June 2012 onwards (right, photo 4 June 2012 © Bill Hill).

Surely the rarest waterfowl ever present was a Fulvous Whistling-Duck 20 Oct-30 Nov 1974 (Art Edwards, Rich Stallcup et al.), back in the days when that species was much more regular in California as a whole. It is surely in the running for the "top ten" list.

Species that are more regular in MTY, but are still unusual and especially so on Crespi Pond, include Solitary Sandpiper (juv below 20 Sep 2004 © D. Roberson; this was when Crespi was low enough to have a tiny bit of mudflat) and Long-tailed Duck (28 Mar-10 Apr 1994, photo Apr 94 © John Sorensen).

 

As to vagrant landbirds, almost all of our semi-regular eastern vagrants have appeared either at the cypresses around Crespi Pond, or in the neighborhoods that stretch east to Esplanade Park. September-October are the prime months, and most vagrants found are HY [=hatch-year"] individuals, such as this imm Chestnut-sided Warbler (above 5 Oct 2008 © D. Roberson). The most common of 'eastern' vagrants around Crespi are birds like Blackpoll & Palm Warblers; Clay-colored, Swamp, and White-throated Sparrows; and Bobolink.

Much rarer are southeastern vagrants like Hooded Warbler; skulkers like Mourning Warbler; or vagrant flycatchers, such as Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (far right 8 May 1990 © D. Roberson; the only record for the Point).

The Esplanade Park neighborhoods have had such impressive birds as White-winged Dove (near right 26 Nov 2005 © D. Roberson), Phainopepla, Gray Catbird, and Prothonotary and Cape May Warblers. Two of the best, though, are this female Scarlet Tanager (below left 25-26 Oct 2001 © Sarah Lane), found by Blake Matheson in the cemetery, and this Yellow-green Vireo (below right 9-12 Oct 1988, photo 9 Oct © Bob Tintle), in a yard just two houses east of Esplanade Park.


 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BIRDING AT PT. PINOS
by Don Roberson

Pt. Pinos and environs have been known as a bird-attracting area since the first ornithological surveys here. The point is named for the many native Monterey Pines that grow to the shoreline edge among the old sand dunes at the point. The unique freshwater vernal pool is named for friar Juan Crespí who accompanied father Junípero Serra to found a mission on Monterey Bay in 1770. Of course, these environs are now much changed. The old sand dunes at the point are now a public golf course. Crespi Pond is now maintained year-round as a golf course pond by the City of Pacific Grove. Private homes (all now quite expensive) make up neighborhoods with ornamental plantings, and the pine forest is much reduced (although good numbers of pines still exist). Fortunately, long ago the City of Pacific Grove obtained the shoreline as public land, so there are wonderful views of the ocean. South of Pt. Pinos the views are west into the Pacific Ocean and the numerous pull-outs attract visitors each clear evening to watch the sunset. East of Pt. Pinos the views are into Monterey Bay, and this shoreline park is alive in color each spring with P.G.'s "purple carpet" of ornamentals.

Frank Chapman tells about camping in Pacific Grove and birding at the Point in late May 1903 with Louis Fuertes (Camps & Cruises of an Ornithologist, 1908, D. Appleton & Co., New York). He says that by then Monterey was already "famous among students of Pacific Coast bird-life." Of the 40 species seen, one was a vagrant Clark's Nutcracker! The Pt. Pinos area was birded by Laidlaw Williams and local Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society members going back at least into the 1930s. Roger Tory Peterson & James Fisher told about birding along the shoreline here, with Laidlaw Williams, in June 1953 in their famed book Wild America (1955, Houghton Mifflin, Boston).

Pt. Pinos's potential as a vagrant trap appears to have been first tapped in the fall of 1965 when Ron Branson found Palm and Blackpoll Warblers here, and then it really took off in fall 1966 with discoveries of many first county records here by Branson, Bill Reese, and Vern Yadon, abetted by visitors like Dave DeSante. By fall 1969 the Point was regularly attracting birders from the San Francisco Bay Area, such as Laurence C. Binford and the Greenberg family. Rich Stallcup's presence here was felt most strongly from 1969-1972, and he lived in the vicinity during the autumns of 1971 & 1972. A substantial portion of today's data base of bird records comes from these pioneers. I moved here in 1979 and chose an apartment as close to Pt. Pinos as I could get (3 blocks away); I birded the Point and vicinity heavily in the early 1980s.

By the mid-1980s changes were apparent. Golf course usage became much heavier, and, although other Audubon members & I testified against it, a driving range was installed and then expanded. This driving range, adjacent to a row of Monterey Cypresses which had hosted an incredible number of rarities, essentially cut-off public access to this prime locale. The driving range also wiped out a naturally grassy field that had once attracted migrant sparrows. Crespi Pond itself was continually modified, dredged, and the subject of local committee reviews (on which I have served from time to time, as have other local birders like Rita Carratello, Steve Bailey, and Brian Weed). Efforts to manage the Pond primarily as bird habitat have taken second place to the income-producing golf course. By the 1990s, the City's maintenance yard, which had always been open to birders among those cypresses, was fenced and locked, providing only occasional access to locals with permission. For all these reasons, I have tended to bird elsewhere more often (e.g., Carmel R. mouth, Big Sur R. mouth, or the Moss Landing area) and de-emphasize the Point. The "Esplanade" (a public park) and its vicinity received good coverage in 1996 when Steve Rovell rented a home there for a time, and Jim Booker and he regularly searched the flowering bottlebrush. And, of course, the area is still prized for the chance of rarities during the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Things did perk up for a period when Brian L. Sullivan, an eBird project leader, moved to Pacific Grove and took up serious sea-watching at the Point. He added many impressive sea-bird finds there during his local residence nearby 2006-2010. Today, however, the entire Pt. Pinos area seems to be as often-surveyed by out-of-town visitors as by local observers. I still visit regularly to sea-watch, and especially in very high winds when seabirds can be pushed inside the kelp line as they struggle out from Monterey Bay.

The various public pull-outs to view Monterey Bay between Crespi Pond and Otter Pt. now have names adopted by local birders. The little pebble beach just across from Crespi Pond is called "Crespi beach." The last one available to the east, before one reaches Esplanade, to known as "Petrel Pt." for the Mottled Petrel seen from there in a gale on 12 Dec 1984. In between these two pull-outs is another with a larger sandy beach, a large rocky islet just offshore, and is often a busy gull roost. It was just off this beach that songwriter/singer John Denver crashed in an experimental single-person airplane on 12 Oct 1997. For years there were annual commemorations there; today, a permanent plaque is embedded there.

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page created 17 June-15 July 2012

all photos & text © Don Roberson

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