now expanded to TOP 25
a web page by Don Roberson, Rita Carratello, and Michael Rieser


Back in 2018, Michael Rieser asked "what are the top ten birds ever found in Monterey County?" That sounded like an interesting question so I enlisted Michael Rieser and Rita Carratello to assist in undertaking this project. Now, a year later, we think that two birds first discovered in MTY in 2019 should be added. So we've revised the original Top10 and expanded the project to the Top 25. You actually get two lists for the price of one!

One could structure such a list by picking just those with the fewest records in Monterey County. There are currently 38 species with only one accepted record for Monterey County by the California Bird Records Committee; e.g., the CBRC book (2007) and updated decisions on-line. We've listed those 38 species at the bottom of this page (righthand column); that total drops to 36 species if one deletes species with records accepted by other authorities. To be idiosyncratic, we excluded from consideration one species represented only by a dead carcass [Snowy Owl] and another seen only in-hand and not seen by anyone "in the wild [Arctic Warbler]. The arrival of a wild Snowy Owl or the discovery of an Arctic Warbler in the future might make a revised "top 25" list.

We did consider more factors than just the number of MTY records in creating this list. How rare is the species in the larger geographic picture? How many MTY vagrants remain incredibly rare on a California state level, or on a continental level? Further, some rarities are just more impressive than others, whatever the statistics. The appearance of an impressive Gyrfalcon or a gorgeous Painted Redstart here, far from expected habitats, provides a "wow" factor that sets them apart. This factor is subjective — even among the 3 of us — and results in a "top 10" or "top 25" list that will not be the same as someone else's choices. In the end, 9 of the 10 birds in the revised "top 10," and 20 of the "top 25," are currently supported by just one acceptable MTY record. We suspect their positions in the project would not dramatically change even with another occurrence. We were also a bit biased towards records supported by photographs for this web project. A few species with just 9-20 State records, and in competition with other comparable choices for the final spots, may have failed to make the cut on this point [e.g., Stejneger's Petrel, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Streak-backed Oriole].


Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus

This spectacular endemic gull of the Galapagos is a pelagic night-feeder, focused on squid, and mostly remains in the cold offshore currents between the Galapagos and Peru. It was not anticipated to occur in North America. But observers overlooked the power of El Niño, the occasional global phenomenon when warm waters of the western Pacific wash back over cold eastern upwellings, producing extraordinary high sea surface temperatures across the Pacific. The 1983-84 El Niño, the strongest on record, dispersed the entire Galapagos population far at sea, south and north, as the ecosystem collapsed.
      On 7 June 1985, Alan Baldridge was shocked to see an adult perched with nesting Western Gulls at Hopkins Marine Station, Pacific Grove. At night the gull left, presumably to feed on squid in the Bay, but returned on 8 June to the delight of local birders. It did not return 9 June 1985 to Hopkins, but Ed Harper found it mid-day at the Moss Landing gull roost where it stayed a short time.
      Eleven years later, prolonged warm waters brought one near the Farallones, and more recently (2017) adults were found in Washington state (late July-early Aug Puget Sound) and Bodega Bay, Sonoma Co. (5 Oct 2017). This gull epitomizes the best in vagrants: long distance dispersal, striking plumage, unusual habits, and pure serendipity to see.

photo 7 June 1985 © Peter LaTourrette

Little Curlew
Numenius minutus

The first Western Hemisphere record of Little Curlew was found 16 Sep 1984 by Paul Lehman in the Santa Maria river bottoms. That bird was in juvenal plumage; see Lehman & Dunn (1985) for more on the record and Schram (1985) for an account of the huge event that ensued as birders from across America chased it during a month-long stay in Santa Barbara Co.
      Four years later a Little Curlew turned up just a couple miles from the initial spot, and five years after that an adult was on an adjacent beach. Finally, in Sep 1994, an adult was at Carmel River State Beach. Given this species' small world population and its extreme rarity in North America, we believe the same bird was involved in all of California's records. It would have been 10 years old when it lingered on Carmel River SB for 3 weeks [6-28 Sep 1994], where it fed on the sandy shores by the rolling surf. It again attracted many observers and highlighted local TV news broadcasts.
      There has since been a spring record in Washington state (2001; it is possible that this same bird was involved; see Howell et al. 2014), and 2 late spring records from St. Lawrence I., Alaska. There remains only this one for California.

photo 9 Sep 1994 © Don Roberson

# 3
Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus

While Little Curlew [#2, above] may be the rarest Old World shorebird to reach North America, Terek Sandpiper may be the most endearing wader for its short legs, its long upturned bill, and its status as a major rarity in the New World.
      This first California record was an adult found 28 Aug 1988 by visiting birders from Maryland (details in Wilson & Harriman 1989). It occurred in a year that had an amazing run of Siberian vagrants (including Gray Wagtail and Long-toed Stint, see #4 and #13), which turned up within a 12 mile radius from Carmel. The Terek foraged on sandy Carmel River beach and amongst rocky tidepools, staying almost a month [28 Aug–23 Sep 1988]. It remains the only record of Terek Sandpiper for California. There was a prior record of an adult at Vancouver I., British Columbia (Jul-Aug 1987) but otherwise it is an extraordinary vagrant south of Alaska.

photo 28 Aug 1988 © Peter LaTourrette

# 4
Gray Wagtail Motacilla cinerea

The fall of 1988 that began with a Terek Sandpiper (#3) and a Long-toed Stint (#13) brought the only Gray Wagtail to California. It was found on Sunday afternoon of 9 Oct 1988 by David Sibley & Jeff Kingery at the Salinas River mouth. By the time word got out it was dark. Many local birders were leaving at 10 p.m. that night on a long-scheduled 24-hour boat trip from Monterey to the Davidson Seamount, so there appeared no way it could be chased the next day. But the weather was rough off Pt. Pinos and the boat trip was canceled before getting any farther; all returned to Monterey harbor by dawn. This allowed many of those from the boat trip to chase — and see — this major rarity on its last day of occurrence. It remains the only California record of this Siberian vagrant. There are 3 more recent records, two in British Columbia (Nov 1991, Oct 2004) and one offshore Washington state (Sep 2016).
    The wagtail foraged along the shore and rip-rap at the river mouth estuary, sometimes flying close enough for photos. It took a lot of luck to tick this major rarity, including the luck of living nearby and the luck of bad weather offshore!

photo 10 Oct 1988 © Stephen F. Bailey

# 5
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor

Frigatebirds sail over tropical oceans. Any frigate is a rarity as far north as Monterey Bay. There are a handful of summer records of Magnificent Frigatebird F. magnificens here, most of them dating to the last century.
    There are just three California records of Great Frigatebird, and all of them at dates not usually suitable for Magnificent. The state's first was an adult male photographed from a boat just offshore Salinas River mouth on 13 Oct 1979; the state's second was at SE Farallon I. on 14 Mar 1992. And the third was this immature (photo right) first noted by a fisherman over Monterey harbor on 2 Nov 2016 and which ended up flying west past Skye Haas, the professional seawatcher at Monterey Audubon's formal seawatch at Pt. Pinos, on his second day of counting that fall. Skye's nice set of digital images were the key to sorting out the identification of this frigate, which can be difficult (see Howell 1994).

photo 2 Nov 2016 © Skye Haas

# 6
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus

For reasons known only to the birding gods, this huge falcon, an apex predator of Arctic realms, appeared on the Pajaro River mouth beach during a sunny and sweltering hot February Saturday that would break temperature records. There Blake Matheson spotted it, sitting on driftwood but wary of dogs and children running loose on the beach. No one had anticipated a Gyrfalcon would reach Monterey Bay, let alone under such unusual circumstances.
    The wary predator did not linger long on the busy Pajaro River mouth beach. By mid-day it had flown south, stopped briefly atop a telephone pole 1.5 miles south, and headed for Moss Landing or points south. The next morning it was photographed at Salinas River NWR and nearby Salinas River SB and then . . . we aren't sure. Although reported between Salinas River and Moss Landing off and on for over a week, no diagnostic photos have appeared and details usually were of a distant falcon seen briefly. Yet for two glorious days [3-4 Feb 2018] it was the wonder of the birding world. And then, astonishingly, it reappeared at the Pajaro River mouth on 4 March for its finale.
    California now has about 17 records, mostly far north near Oregon, but two interior birds have reached as far south as Kings and Riverside counties. This February 2018 vagrant is the farthest south of any on the Pacific coast.

photo 3 Feb 2018 © Blake Matheson

# 7
Gray-faced Petrel Pterodroma gouldi

The AOU checklist and most field guides still label this southern seabird as "Great-winged Petrel P. macroptera." Following Olney & Schofield (2007), most world checklists (including eBird/Clements) and Howell et al. (2014) split Great-winged Petrel into two species, with Great-winged in the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and Gray-faced Petrel P. gouldi breeding in New Zealand. It is the New Zealand taxon that has occurred 4 times off California: in Marin Co. in Jul-Aug 1996, and the others in Monterey Bay in Oct 1998, Sep 2010, and Aug 2011. Of those in Monterey Bay, only one [18 Oct 1998] was on the MTY side of the Bay.
    Howell et al. (2014) notes that this Pterodroma is not a trans-equatorial migrant, and "wasn't on anyone's list of expected pelagic vagrants." They opine that all 4 California records "may have involved only one individual," based on an unseasonal molt pattern shown in some photos. If so, it is surely remarkable that a single bird in a vast ocean was seen on 4 different boat trips over 4 different years. Whether just one or four birds are responsible for the observations, it is certainly a great bird here.

photo 18 Oct 1998 © John Sorensen

# 8
White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus

This White-winged Tern was present at Moonglow Dairy on Elkhorn Slough from 23 Aug–23 Sep 1999, but it was not identified as such until 5 Sep. On that date a visiting birder, Ed Kwater from Florida, was the first to properly claim a White-winged Tern. Those seeing it from 23 Aug–4 Sep assumed it was a Black Tern -- a rare but regular species in MTY. White-winged Tern is a vagrant on a continental scale; indeed, there are many more records from the east coast and midwest of North America than from Alaska or the Pacific coast (see more in Howell et al. 2014).
    The Moonglow bird was in second-fall plumage, and is identified by the lack of 'shoulder bars' on the sides of the breast, the lack of a distinct cap (rather, it wears 'ear-muffs'), and is paler above than Black Tern, with white rump and pale gray tail.
    The only other California record is a breeding-plumaged adult at Arcata, Humboldt Co., present off and on during June–August 1996. This was the second for the State . . . and the most recent to date.

photo 5 Sep 1999 © Ed Kwater

# 9
Common Eider Somateria mollissima

Before the discovery of this sea-duck, only King Eider had occurred as far south as Monterey Co. All four of the world's eiders breed in the far north, and before recent times only King and Steller's Eider had made it to California. Then, in this century, a male Common Eider appeared at Crescent City, Del Norte Co., in July 2004, and a female was there in Nov 2011. But before 2019, there was no Pacific Coast precedent for a Common Eider this far south.
    And yet there it was, among a flock of Surf Scoters visible just off the Bird Rock viewpoint in Pebble Beach, as Rick Fournier scoped the scoters for the tour group he was leading on 2 Feb 2019. Rick got the word out immediately and the locals came flocking. Indeed, as this impressive eider remained to the end of February, interested birders from throughout the West came to see it, many of them enduring strong winds and pouring rain to do so.
    Expert opinion suggested the eider was an adult female of the Alaskan race v-nigrum. In the Atlantic, of course, Common Eiders from other populations have been recorded as far south as south Texas and south Florida.

photo 23 Feb 2019 © Don Roberson

# 10
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher Myiodynastes luteiventris

This neotropical flycatcher is among the most elusive landbird vagrants in California. This is the 21st record for the State and the first for MTY. Nine have been in northern California and the rest in the south, yet only 7 have remained longer than one day. Many hardcore State birders have chased and missed the few that have occurred, some of them multiple times. And that would be the case again.
    Rick Fournier, leading a tour group, discovered this striking, large flycatcher near the NW tip of Pt. Lobos near midday on 16 Sep 2019. One group member got a photo (left) but the Sulphur-bellied disappeared quickly. Word of this major rarity was posted promptly but only three very lucky locals refound it briefly about 20 minutes later before it dived towards Headland Cove and was never seen again. Several others who were just arriving missed it by minutes.

photo 16 Sep 2019 © Judy Ellyson

.... AND THE NEXT 15 to complete a TOP 25 RARE BIRDS ....

# 11
Bulwer's Petrel Bulweria bulwerii

This first record for the Pacific coast of North America was this individual, seen following a chartered pelagic trip on calm seas about 16 nmi west of Pt. Pinos. This is a tropical species and breeds as close as the Hawaiian Islands. It does not look like other petrels but is characterized by its long tail and low weaving flight pattern. This coincided with a major El Niño in 1997-1998.
    There are now at least 3 other records which may or may not be Bulwer's Petrel. Birds in Sep 2003 and Sep 2007 off southern CA, and another on the SCZ side of Monterey Bay on 12 Sep 2015, may represent records of its Indian Ocean relative Jouanin's Petrel B. fallax. A Jouanin's Petrel was caught on Santa Barbara I. on 1 June 2016 for the first official State record and, who knows — Jouanin's Petrel may be more expected than Bulwer's? (!)

photo 26 July 1998 © Richard Ternullo

# 12
Smith's Longspur Calcarius pictus

When the buffy longspur found by Doug George on the Elkhorn Slough dike at Moonglow Dairy on 13 Sep 1990 was confirmed as a Smith's Longspur, it was among the most anticipated first new State records ever for California. A long-distance migrant from its patchy breeding grounds far to the north in Alaska and Canada to limited wintering grounds on the southern Great Plains, experts expected a 'wrong-way' migrant to eventually turn up here. The fact that other vagrants were initially misidentified as "Smith's Longspur" further stirred the pot. Most of the State's active birders made the journey to Moonglow Dairy during its 6-day stay.
   Today, Smith's Longspur still remains a major CA rarity, with 11 records. Single individuals wintered south of the Salton Sea twice (2001, 2005) but the rest have been widely scattered fall and spring vagrants. This remains the only record for MTY, with no additional birds in the last 28 years.

photo 14 Sep 1990 © Don Roberson

# 13
Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta

At first glance one might think that Long-toed Stint was the northeast Asian version of Least Sandpiper — because they are similar in plumage — but genetically they are not placed near each other in genus Calidris (AOU). Yet positive separation of a vagrant Long-toed Stint from Least Sandpiper is difficult. It is good to have photos that show the length of the bill, tarsus, and middle toe for comparison. The difficulty in identification likely means that most vagrant Long-toed Stints go unnoticed. Long-toed Stint can occur in some numbers in spring in western Alaska, but fall vagrants are few. Only two have been confirmed along the Pacific coast south of Alaska. Both were juvs: in Clatsop Co., Oregon, 2–6 Sep 1981, and the one at the Salinas wastewater ponds in MTY from 29 Aug–2 Sep 1988. [Those wetlands were open to the public in 1988; since then permits are now required and the ponds themselves are no longer used for wastewater regularly, and are now often dry.]
    Anomalous conditions must have been involved, as fall 1988 brought both a Terek Sandpiper (#3) and a Gray Wagtail (#4) to MTY, not to mention other Siberian vagrants elsewhere in California.

photo 1 Sep 1988 © Greg W. Lasley

Painted Redstart Myioborus pictus

Even within its breeding area (mountains of Arizona south to Nicaragua), the Painted Redstart is a favorite. Its bold colors and tail-fanning behavior provide charisma. And to see one well outside its range, well, that's just dreamy. A very few have nested in southern CA mountains but only about 8 have reached northern California.
    The lone MTY record was called into the local BirdBox by Joe Narvaez on 31 Oct 1996, who had seen it in Mission Trails Park, Carmel. After several hours of searching locals would refind it that day, and it remained to 3 Nov. "During its visit the bright vagrant foraged actively through the canopy of local Monterey Pines, cottonwoods, and live oaks, spreading its wings and tail and often fluttering down like a falling leaf" (Roberson 2002).

photo 1 Nov 1996 © Don Roberson

# 15
Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja

Among tropical herons and storks, none may be more memorable than a bright pink Roseate Spoonbill. California has had occasional incursions of spoonbills, presumably from western Mexico, since the 19th century, including nearly 70 in and around the Salton Sea and nearby southern California from June–Oct 1973.
    The next biggest incursion was some 30 birds, occurring singly and in small groups, at the Salton Sea in summer-fall 1977, one of which reached Goleta, Santa Barbara Co., in Sep–Oct 1977, and another one in the fields between Castroville and Moss Landing in January 1978, where it was found by Phil Gordon on the Moss Landing CBC. Ed Harper writes that it was "observed in an artichoke field of all places! This bright pink bird stood out and was easily identified by its spatulate bill which ruled out any thought of [an escaped] flamingo." During its time it moved around a bit, including feeding in the sloughs created by the old Salinas River channel, and down-slough as far as Moss Landing Marine Lab. [The Salinas River once flowed into today's Moss Landing but the mouth was rerouted to its current location nearly a century ago; see Roberson & Tenney (1993), p. 40].
    This remains the northernmost Roseate Spoonbill on the Pacific coast; the only other northern CA record was at Mendota, Fresno Co., on 24 Sep 1966.

photo 15 Jan 1978 © W. Ed Harper

# 16
Wood Stork
Mycteria americana

In the New World, storks are tropical species, and tropical residents very rarely reach northern California. When a big bird like a Wood Stork occurs, it is a red-letter day. Long ago, on 29 June 1930, two were on the Salinas River near Gonzales, and one was collected (McLean 1936). It was 46 years later when MTY's second record occurred, in July 1976, on private lands south of Big Sur. Locals Paul Hettich and Gale Post got word to the P.G. Museum of Natural History, who passed the news to Ron Branson. He visited on 18 July and obtained this photo (right). The stork's visit began "about 10 July" and it remained "to the end of the month," but exact dates are not available. It has now been over 40 years since this "most recent" occurrence. According to Am. Birds 30: 997, the stork "frequented small farm ponds in the area and was seen to roost in redwood snags nearby."
    Before 1935, a few storks appeared in northern CA from MTY to Modoc Co. in the far northeast. Since then there have been about a half-dozen scattered reports in the interior of northern California, in Tulare, Fresno, and Yolo counties. Ron Branson remains the only local birder to have one on his MTY list.

photo 18 July 1976 © Ronald L. Branson

# 17
Louisiana Waterthrush Parkesia motacilla

This large and elegant streamside warbler has reached MTY twice. The first was banded by BSOL on 30 May 2003 and released; it was found later that day foraging along the Big Sur River. The second was found 23 Dec 2017 by visitor David Dovalina along the Big Sur River in Pfeiffer-Big Sur SP, and wintered until at least 14 Feb 2018. It sometimes foraged at locations up to a half-mile apart, and could have been missed at later dates.
    This is among the rarest of eastern vagrant warblers to reach CA; it and Cerulean Warbler currently had just 19 accepted records each when we put together our first ranked County list in 2018, we listed it at #10. The search for "eastern vagrants" has been a focus of the MTY birding community since the 1960s, and we wanted to include at least one eastern vagrant among the other extraordinary birds in our "top 10," which range from Siberian waders to southern seabirds, from Arctic wanderers to tropical apparitions. Yet by 2019 there 22 CA records (including this one), so it dropped a fair bit down the list.
    Beyond its methodically but cocky demeanor in flipping dead leaves in the cold clear stream, the cathedral of tall redwoods that surrounded its venue added to the surreal coincidence that it was discovered here at all.

photo 24 Dec 2017 © Rita Carratello

# 18
Cerulean Warbler Setophaga cerulea

California was where birders learned that eastern warblers could be predictably found, far out of range, during spring and fall migrations. I remember the 1970s when searching for eastern vagrants was at its peak. At that time I thought the best warblers one could find would be a Cerulean and a Prothonotary — both spectacular warblers from the swamps of the southeast U.S. Now, 40 years later, California has tallied over 100 Prothonotaries but just 19 Cerulean Warblers, which remains the rarest of these eastern warblers [Louisiana Waterthrush now has 22 accepted records]. We are very fortunate that four of these have been in MTY, two at Carmel R. mouth and 2 at Big Sur R. mouth.
    The collage (left) shows the HY male banded at Big Sur Ornithology Lab (BSOL) on 4 Oct 1995. There is a close-up of the banded Cerulean in-hand. I then followed the released bird for over an hour, as it joined a flock and eventually bathed in the Big Sur River. The distant part of the collage shows the warbler approaching the river for its bath. Too bad we didn't have digital cameras then. Even more spectacular was a singing male along the Big Sur River on 24 May 2004, watched by Rob Fowler. So far, all of MTY's Cerulean Warblers have been "one-day wonders."

photo collage from 4 Oct 1995 © Don Roberson

# 19
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris

This east Asian gull was first recorded in California in 1954 but went unrecorded in the state for 54 years. Elsewhere, since 1990, there had been a wave of 70+ records, from Alaska through the interior of North America to the east coast, but very few were on the west coast (Howell et al. 2014). There are still only about 8 for all of California.
    January 2017 produced several amazing gulls in central California. An adult Slaty-backed Gull at the tip of Pt. Pinos, just the 3d for MTY, and a Ross's Gull in San Mateo Co. on 12-13 Jan, produced an influx of State birders looking for both of them. Several southern Californians who chased the Ross's showed up on Friday, 13 Jan, looking for the Slaty-backed (it was gone) but some found this first-cycle Black-tailed Gull on or near Crespi Pond. [Later we learned it had been photographed but not identified the day before.]
    Once it had been identified this Black-tailed Gull became erratic, making appearances both at Pt. Pinos and at Carmel River lagoon, off and on until 22 Feb, and also appeared at Gazos Cr. mouth, San Mateo Co., on 25 February.

photo 13 Jan 2017 © Bill Hill

# 20
Wilson's Plover Charadrius wilsonia

Most of our vagrant waders are "wrong-way" migrants from as far away as Siberia but his plover comes from the south, with a breeding range stretching from Virginia to the Gulf, the West Indies, and the Pacific coast of Central America north to Baja California. A San Diego specimen goes back to 1894; a female even laid eggs at the Salton Sea in 1948. There are now 25 records in California, but only one Wilson's Plover has reached northern CA: this hatch-year bird that associated with Snowy Plovers on Moss Landing SB from 15 Sep 1992–1 Jan 1993. There are, however, more recent records for Oregon (1998) and Washington (2 in 2012, one inland; fide Paul Lehman).
    Found by Snowy Plover researchers Doug George and Bernadette Ramer, there was a time in mid-Sep 1992 when a vagrant juv Lesser Sand-Plover was attracted to the same Snowy Plover flock on the same beach, and eager listers could view two superb rarities in the same field of view.

photo 15 Sep 1992 © Don Roberson

# 21
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis

Red-necked Stint is a small Siberia-breeding wader that migrates in the Old World all the way south to Australia and New Zealand. Such a long migration route has spun-off "wrong-way" vagrants to the New World. At least 25 have reached California, but so far only one has been found in Monterey County. On 13 July 2001, Doug George, doing Snowy Plover research in the Moss Landing salt ponds, discovered this vagrant in gorgeous breeding plumage. Birders were able to arrange very limited access to this restricted location on 14 July, and photos were obtained.
    So far, 24 of the 25 Red-necked Stints in California that were accepted by the CBRC were in alternate (breeding) plumage. Difficulties in separating juvenile Calidris have complicated identification of these small shorebirds in migration. Little Stint C. minuta, another Old World species, has 34 records for California, four of which were in MTY [adults in Apr and Sep, 2 juvs in Sep].

23 June 1996 © John Sorensen

# 22
Dusky Warbler Phylloscopus fuscatus

On 2 Oct 2004, banders at BSOL caught a small, brown warbler that proved to be a Dusky Warbler — an Old World species that migrates from breeding grounds in NE Asia to winter in SE Asia [inset right]. It was considered truly amazing when the first Old World Phylloscopus was found in California [27 Sep 1980 on SE Farallon I.] but now there are 20 records.
    On 27 Oct 2019, Michael Rieser discovered MTY's second Dusky Warbler (photo left) in a dense willow patch in the Yankee Pt. vicinity. He noted its "Fox Sparrow-like" call-note and saw quick views of a small brown skulker. It was documented and identification verified the next day by photos and recordings.
    BSOL also captured an Arctic Warbler P. borealis on 13 Sep 1995 — the State's first — but since then the taxa has been split into 3 species, each similar and best separated by vocalizations. The CBRC relegates the State's 9 records to Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf Warbler (P. borealis/examinandus). P. borealis would clearly qualify for MTY's top 25 if ever discovered "in the wild."

photo in-hand 2 Oct 2004 © BSOL, Jessica Griffiths
photo 28 Oct 2019 © Blake Matheson

# 23
LeConte's Sparrow Ammospiza leconteii

This small colorful sparrow, a breeder of prairie pothole country of the northern Great Plains, winters in coastal marshes along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. About 40 vagrants have reached California, widely scattered throughout the State. Only one has been found in MTY — and that was 45 years ago.
    On 19 Oct 1974, Greg Butcher, Bob & Carol Yutzy, and Eugene Makishima, all visiting from the Bay Area, were birding Pt. Pinos and split up to search the edges of Crespi Pond. It was Greg and Bob who located the unfamiliar sparrow they tentatively labeled a LeConte's. They telephoned local expert Ron Branson, who came right out and was able to obtain photos. At the time it was just the second record for California [the first was on SE Farallon I. in Oct 1970].
    Since then the usually elusive skulker has occurred in spring and fall migrations, and a few have wintered at coastal marshes or near the Salton Sea. MTY has rather limited access to coastal marsh habitat, possibly limiting the odds of finding another one here.

photo 19 Oct 1974 © Ronald L. Branson

# 24
Mexican Whip-poor-will Antrostomus arizonae

At dusk on Saturday night 22 June 1996, the participants in a San Joaquin Audubon Society field trip to Andrew Molera SP were settling in at the campground when a caprimulgid began singing. Leader Jim Rowoth recognized that song as Mexican Whip-poor-will, which breeds as near as mountains in southern Arizona and a couple of locations in southeast California. He got the word out to Monterey locals, who gathered at dusk the next evening. When the whip-poor-will began singing again, it was tape-recorded with the cassette recorder shown in the photo. It responded vigorously to recordings of nw Mexican populations and its own song, but did not respond to a tape of Eastern Whip-poor-will. When responding it was seen in flight with flashlights. The Eastern and Mexican populations of whip-poor-will were split into two species in 2010. This encounter was well before that split.
    This remains the only confirmed record of Mexican Whip-poor-will in coastal northern California; a whip-poor-will flushed at Pt. Reyes, Marin Co., 6 June 1986, is presumed to have been this species but did not vocalize. There are now 3 records of singing birds in the interior of northern CA: in the Sierran foothills of Tulare Co. (June 1983) and Butte Co. (June-July 2010), and near Willow Creek, Humboldt Co. (June-July 2007, Apr-May 2009).

photo collage based on events of 23 June 1996 © Don Roberson
[collage shows cassette tape-recorder used to tape the song, backdrop]
[from Andrew Molera SP, and art from Sibley's field guide]

# 25
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor

This colorful and graceful tropical heron is a comparatively frequent visitor to southern California marshes and lagoons but only four have reached northern California (as far north as Sonoma and Marin counties). The only one ever to reach MTY was this first-summer individual in late May and early June 1999. It was found by Jim Booker, then the BSOL director, and his interns. Unusual late rains had created shallow vernal pools in the sand dunes on the causeway that connects Pt. Sur and its lighthouse with the mainland. BSOL obtained permission to do bird surveys there in these unusual conditions.
    As the location was on private land, only a couple of escorted small groups of birders were able to watch this vagrant. On 24 May I noted that it was apparently feasting on tadpoles. The day this photo was taken (2 June 1999), Booker and invited local birders also found a vagrant Least Bittern in the few reeds growing among the vernal ponds.
    This is one of just 5 records for northern California. The others are: Honey Lake, Lassen Co., Aug-Sep 1971 (McCaskie et al. 1988); Santa Rosa area, Sonoma Co., Nov 1992; Bodega Bay Sep-Oct 1996 with same bird on Pt. Reyes, Marin Co., Oct 1996; and Tulare Co., June 2000. Birds have also reached Oregon and Idaho.

photo 2 June 1999 © Don Roberson




  • AOU = American Ornithologists' Union
  • BSOL = Big Sur Ornithology Lab, operated by Ventana Wildness Society from 1992 to 2010, upstream from the Big Sur River mouth, in Andrew Molera SP
  • CA = California
  • CBC = Christmas Bird Count
  • CBRC = California Bird Records Committee, operated by Western Field Ornithologists to review reports of a designated set of rare birds in California
  • HY = "hatch-year" in bird banding lingo, i.e. a bird born that year
  • MTY = Monterey County
  • nmi = nautical mile
  • NWR = National Wildlife Refuge
  • P.G. = Pacific Grove
  • SCZ = Santa Cruz County
  • SB = State Beach
  • SP = State Park
  • SR = State Reserve


  • California Bird Records Committee (R.A. Hamilton, M.A. Patten, & R.A. Erickson, eds.). 2007. Rare Birds of California. WFO, Camarillo, CA.
  • Howell, S.N.G.1994. Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds in the eastern Pacific. Birding 26: 400–415
  • Howell, S.N.G., I. Lewington, and W. Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Lehman, P.E., and J.L. Dunn. 1985. A little-known species reaches California. Am. Birds 39: 247–250.
  • McLean, D.D. 1936. Some notable bird records for California. Condor 38: 16–17.
  • McCaskie, G., P. DeBenedictis, R. Erickson, and J. Morlan. 1988. Birds of northern California: an annotated field list. 2d ed. Golden Gate Audubon, Berkeley.
  • Onley, D., and P. Schofield. 2007. Albatrosses, Petrels, and Shearwaters of the World. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
  • Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds, 2d ed. Monterey Audubon, Carmel.
  • Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, eds. 1993. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County, California. Monterey Audubon, Carmel.
  • Schram, B. 1985. "Mahoney's Curlew." Birding 17: 15–18.
  • Wilson, E.M., and B.R. Harriman. 1989. First record of Terek Sandpiper in California. W. Birds 20: 63–69.

CREDITS related to birds chosen as among the Top 10 and Top 25

  1. Swallow-tailed Gull, 6–7 June 1985 at Hopkins, Pacific Grove [Alan Baldridge] and same bird 8 June 1985 at Moss Landing [W. Ed Harper]
  2. Little Curlew, 6–28 Sep 1994 Carmel River SB [Bill Hill, Dave Haupt]
  3. Terek Sandpiper, 28 Aug–23 Sep 1988 Carmel SB [Erika Wilson, Bettie Harriman]
  4. Gray Wagtail, 9-10 Oct 1988 Salinas R. mouth [David A. Sibley, Jeff Kingery]
  5. Great Frigatebird, first record 13 Oct 1979 just offshore of Salinas R. mouth [Rich Stallcup, Ron Branson et al.]; second record 2 Nov 2016 at Monterey [Peter Gray] and Pt. Pinos [Skye Haas]
  6. Gyrfalcon, 3-4 Feb 2018 Pajaro R. mouth to Salinas River NWR [Blake Matheson]
  7. Gray-faced (Great-winged) Petrel, 18 Oct 1998 Monterey Bay [Richard Ternullo, Steve Howell]
  8. White-winged Tern, 17 Aug–16 Oct 1999 Moonglow Dairy [Ed Kwater was first to i.d. it on 5 Sep 1999; others had seen as "Black Tern" earlier]
  9. Common Eider, 2-28 Feb 2019, Bird Rock, Pebble Beach [Rick Fournier]
  10. Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, 16 Sep 2019, Pt. Lobos SR [Rick Fournier]
  11. Bulwer's Petrel, 28 July 1998 Monterey Bay [Richard Ternullo, Jim Danzenbaker, Debi Shearwater, Greg Brinkley, Tristan McKee, et al.]
  12. Smith's Longspur, 13–18 Sep 1990 Moonglow Dairy [Doug George]
  13. Long-toed Stint, 29 Aug–2 Sep 1988 Salinas WTP [Brian E. Daniels, Michael A. Patten]
  14. Painted Redstart, 31 Oct-3 Nov 1996 Mission Trails Park, Carmel [Joe Narvaez]
  15. Roseate Spoonbill, 1 Jan–13 Feb 1978 near Moss Landing and near Castroville [Phil Gordon]
  16. Wood Stork, first record 29 June 1930 [2 birds; D.D. McLean]; second record ~10–31 July 1976 Rancho Grande, Big Sur coast [Paul Hettich, Gale Post, Ronald L. Branson]
  17. Louisiana Waterthrush, first record 30 May 2003 Big Sur R. m. [BSOL banded]; second record 23 Dec 2017–14 Feb 2018 Pfeiffer-Big Sur SP [David Dovalina]
  18. Cerulean Warbler, first record 27 Oct 1978 Carmel R. mouth [imm fem; Stephen F. Bailey]; second record 25 Oct 1979 Carmel R. mouth [imm male; Don Roberson]; third record 4 Oct 1995 Big Sur R. mouth [imm male; BSOL banded]; fourth record 24 May 2004 Big Sur R. mouth [singing adult male; Rob Fowler]
  19. Black-tailed Gull, 12–22 Feb 2017 Pt. Pinos & Carmel R. mouth [Steve Turley, Mark & Lucas Stephenson, Tom Wurster, Bill Hill et al.]
  20. Wilson's Plover, 15 Sep 1992–1 Jan 1993 Moss Landing SB [Doug George, Bernadette Ramer]
  21. Red-necked Stint, 13-14 July 2001, Moss Landing WA [Doug George]
  22. Dusky Warbler, first record 2 Oct 2004 Big Sur R. m. [BSOL banded]; second record 27-28 Oct 2019 Yankee Pt. vicinity [Michael Rieser]
  23. LeConte's Sparrow, 19 Oct 1974 Pt. Pinos [Greg Butcher, Bob Yutzy]
  24. Mexican Whip-poor-will, 22–25 June 1996 Andrew Molera SP campground at Big Sur R. mouth [Jim Rowoth]
  25. Tricolored Heron, 24 May–2 June 1999 [Jim Booker]

Swallow-tailed Gull at Moss Landing gull roost, 8 June 1985
photo © W. Ed Harper

per CBRC decisions, as of 30 Nov 2019

  • Greater Pewee, 27–29 Dec 1968 Monterey [Bill Reese]
  • Snowy Owl, found dead 11 Jan 1974 Salinas R. mouth [D.G. Ainley]
  • LeConte's Sparrow, 19 Oct 1974 Pt. Pinos [Greg Butcher, Bob Yutzy]
  • Roseate Spoonbill, 1 Jan–13 Feb 1978 nr Moss Landing [Phil Gordon]
  • Eastern Yellow Wagtail, 19 Sep 1982 Pt. Pinos [Jon L. Dunn]
  • Swallow-tailed Gull, 6–8 June 1985, Pacific Grove & Moss Landing [Alan Baldridge]
  • Terek Sandpiper, 28 Aug–23 Sep 1988 Carmel SB [Erika Wilson]
  • Long-toed Stint, 29 Aug–2 Sep 1988 Salinas WTP [B.E. Daniels, M.A. Patten]
  • Gray Wagtail, 9–10 Oct 1988 Salinas R. mouth [D.A. Sibley, J. Kingery]
  • Smith's Longspur, 13–18 Sep 1990 Moonglow Dairy [Doug George]
  • Wilson's Plover, 15 Sep 1992–1 Jan 1993 Moss Landing SB [Doug George, Bernadette Ramer]
  • Bendire's Thrasher, 3–5 Sep 1993 Salinas WTP [John Mariani, i.d. corrected by Joe Morlan]
  • Pine Warbler, 24 Oct 1993 Big Sur R. mouth [Bob Tintle, R.E. Maurer]
  • Little Curlew, 6–28 Sep 1994 Carmel River SB [Bill Hill, Dave Haupt]
  • Arctic Warbler, 13 Sep 1995 Big Sur R. m. [BSOL banded]
  • Mexican Whippoorwill, 22-25 June 1996 Big Sur R. m. [Jim Rowoth]
  • Painted Redstart, 31 Oct–3 Nov 1996 Carmel [Joe Narvaez]
  • Upland Sandpiper, 12 Sep 1997 Salinas WTP [Bruce Gerow]
  • Garganey, 25 Apr–5 May 1998 Salinas WTP [Craig Hohenberger]
  • Bulwer's Petrel, 28 July 1998 Monterey Bay [Richard Ternullo, Jim Danzenbaker, Debi Shearwater et al.]
  • Veery, 21 Sep 1998 Big Sur R. mouth [BSOL banded]; note, Roberson (2002) accepts another record from Sep 1998 at Carmel R. mouth
  • Gray-faced [Great-winged] Petrel, 18 Oct 1998 Monterey Bay [Richard Ternullo, Steve Howell]
  • Tricolored Heron, 24 May-2 June 1999 Pt. Sur [Jim Booker]
  • White-winged Tern, 17 Aug-16 Oct 1999 Moonglow Dairy [Ed Kwater]
  • McCown's Longspur, 3–4 Dec 2000 east of Gonzales [Todd Easterla], and presumably the same bird returning 18 Nov 2001 at same site
  • Red-necked Stint, 13-4 July 2001, Moss Landing WA [Doug George]
  • Streak-backed Oriole, 24 Nov 2003 Big Sur R. mouth [Jim Tietz]
  • Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 21 Sep 2004 Pt. Pinos [Don Roberson]
  • Golden-winged Warbler, 22 Apr 2007 in Washington Park, P.G. [Bill Reese]
  • Black Vulture, 14 May 2015 Pacific Valley [Greg Smith]
  • Gull-billed Tern, 16 May 2015 Pajaro R. mouth [John Garrett, Nicholas Kronick]
  • Black-tailed Gull, 12–22 Feb 2017 Pt. Pinos & Carmel R. mouth [Steve Turley, Mark & Lucas Stephenson, et al.]
  • Neotropic Cormorant, 13 Aug 2017 near Moss Landing [Brian L. Sullivan, Paul Fenwick, Cooper Scollan]
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee, 3–10 Nov 2017 Laguna Grande Park [Mark Kudrav et al.]; note, Roberson (2002) accepts 2 prior records from Dec 1986 & Sep 1999
  • Black-headed Gull, 27 Nov 2017 from Pt. Pinos [Brian L. Sullivan, Karl Bardon, Paul Fenwick]
  • Gyrfalcon, 3–4 Feb 2018 Pajaro R. mouth to Salinas River NWR [Blake Matheson]
  • Common Eider, 2-28 Feb 2019, Pebble Beach [Rick Fournier]
  • Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, 16 Sep 2019, Pt. Lobos SR [Rick Fournier]

38 species listed; however, note that if one includes the other accepted records in Roberson (2002), the total drops to 36 unique records. Also, technically, some recent records on this list may not yet have been reviewed by CBRC, but we believe they will be accepted.





  page created 21 Feb–2 Mar 2018, updated 30 Nov 2019  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved