Top Dozen Monterey County Birding Sites
Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing & vicinity
a page by Don Roberson

Birding at
Moss Landing

For avid birders there may be no better spot in the entire Elkhorn Slough vicinity than the privately owned MoonGlow Dairy. I was first able to arrange birding access in the late 1970s, and the owners — Louis & Carol Calcagno — have welcomed birders ever since. Because I "discovered" this site and arranged access over 30 years ago and have birded here regularly ever since, I feel a special responsibility for birders' behavior here. Indeed, this web page is only posted with the permission of the Calcagnos, and birders must remember that access could be closed at any time. You have no "rights" to be here —we are very lucky to be welcome at present.

The main road into MoonGlow, described below, is now controlled by an electronic gate. This gate is usually open, and birders are welcome to enter. Even if the gate were to close during your visit, it would automatically open as you drove out. However, there are times now when the gate is closed and access is not available. Louis Calcagno has advised me that theft and vandalism in recent years has caused the Dairy to reduce access at certain times. Obviously, birders are not involved in these illegal activities, but sometimes we, like the owners, are victims of circumstance. Please be understanding that the Dairy is no longer always open.

MoonGlow Dairy is located 1.2 miles east of Highway 1 in Moss Landing off Dolan Road (Dolan Rd. goes inland from Hwy 1 at the Moss Landing power plant). There is a large sign and one turns left (north) on a dirt road into the dairy. In about a half-mile you reach the first cattle pens. Turn left here and continue as far as you can, turning right at the end. This dirt road ends in a hundred yards in a lot overlooking the freshwater pond and Elkhorn Slough. Your view is similar to that shown in the photo (right) when the pond is full, but the water level in the freshwater pond varies seasonally. When the pond is low, it looks more like the shot above. Cattle pens will be on your right, and a huge eucalyptus grove (see photo below) is immediately on your left.
Park only along the edge of this eucalyptus grove.

The eucalyptus grove is now owned by Elkhorn Slough Foundation and is also open to birders. There are wide dirt tracks through the grove, and birding for landbird migrants can be good in fall and spring migrations at times. In recent years the slough-side of the grove is a very active heronry for Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and hundreds of Double-crested Cormorant (photo, left).

There are times when you can walk on the road overlooking the big pond (we call it pond #1) to a nice overlook to the east, but sometimes dairy run-off prevents that by a muddy dribble across the road, so be aware of that.

You should be aware that MoonGlow looks and smells like a dairy (right), and there are lots of flies. Don't visit if you don't like these conditions.

Here are the absolutely critical rules that you must follow to bird at MoonGlow Dairy. They are actually just common sense and good manners, but I am amazed that sometimes birdwatchers desperate to see some rare bird will forget their manners:

  • Park only along the eucalyptus grove (unless you are a long-time local birder who is permitted to park at another viewpoint).
  • In any event, you must park AWAY FROM THE CATTLE TROUGHS. The cows are fed daily by a truck that goes along the troughs. If you park next the troughs you would block the feed truck. Some birders have thoughtlessly done this in the past — NEVER PARK NEAR A CATTLE TROUGH OR CATTLE PEN.
  • Also never leave your vehicle where it will block any of the roads.
  • Drive slowly on the dirt roads — It doesn't matter that you've been driving fast freeways for hours to chase some rarity. You are now on private property through the good graces of some really nice people — so be courteous, damn it.
  • Drive so you do NOT raise a cloud of dust!
  • It goes without saying that you should take nothing but photographs, and leave nothing but footprints.
  • Stay away from the residences. Be aware of the dairy operations, and always stay out of the way of the workers. This is all that has been asked of us -- surely simple enough.

Also be aware that dirt roads get very muddy in wet weather, and therefore this is not a spot to visit in wet conditions. Stay out when the roads are wet. The mud here is very thick and sticky; you don't want to ever risk getting stuck. But visits in summer & fall are usually dry (and dusty).

I would also add from sad experience (right; photo Sep 1979 by M. J. Lippsmeyer) that you should not try to walk out into the drying ponds to get better views or photos. What looks like dry muck is actually a thin dry crust over a wet green bog. Basically it is watery cow dung with a dry crust. I had to throw these pants away (and I didn't get the photos of the mystery stint either).

Here is what you may do:

  • Scope the freshwater pond and the Slough from the heights overlooking the pond. You can walk from the eucalyptus grove along a dirt road up by several cattle pens for fabulous views of the Slough.
  • The tidal Elkhorn Slough is full of birds, and with a scope you can work on waders, gulls, terns, ducks, grebes (both Western & Clark's regular just here), and occasionally a rare alcid. The weedy hemlock next to the road, and above the ponds, has Allen's Hummingbirds in spring, and Yellow Warblers in fall, plus an autumn chance for Willow Flycatcher or Palm Warbler.
  • Walk the levee that starts at the eucalyptus grove, goes around the big freshwater pond (which we call "pond #1") and heads upslough along the edge of Elkhorn Slough itself. Pond #1 has held some exceptional birds over the years, and the edge of the Slough adjacent to that pond has had Bar-tailed Godwit, Franklin's Gull, Least Tern and much more. The freshwater pond #1 is regularly visited in fall by Red-necked & Wilson's Phalaropes and Pectoral, Baird's, and Semipalmated Sandpipers (but the latter is rare and should not be confused with the many Least and Western Sandpipers present). In good Pectoral years a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers have occurred, and Ruff and other vagrants are semi-regular as rarities. This freshwater pond is kept full during the winter/spring/summer but is drawn down during the early fall to prepare it for the next winter's rains. This management creates the wonderful shorebird habitat in September-October.
  • The levee between pond #1 and Elkhorn Slough continues inland past a variably wet reedy area (Bobolink, rails) to pond #2 which is a much smaller and reedy-edged pond that often has ducks, shorebirds, and phalaropes (in season). The dike (a broad dirt road but which grows low weeds) ends at a wooden fence from which you may view pond #3 to the east (pond #3 is not owned by MoonGlow Dairy, so we have no access beyond this viewpoint). Pond #3 is often filled with water and ducks. In fall 1999 it was daily visited off-and-on by a White-winged Tern for two months; many other rarities have occurred over the years.
  • The cattle pens of the dairy hold flocks of Tricolored Blackbirds from at least July into April (in May-June the "Trikes" are at breeding colonies). These flocks often have a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds in May and in early fall; in late fall-winter the pens sometimes have Cattle Egrets. Check the mucky cattle pens which have held rare blackbirds (including Great-tailed Grackle once) and golden-plovers in fall.

Finally, there is a large and old eucalyptus grove that is bisected by several rarely-used old roads (photo left). While eucalyptus are non-native and usually not particularly good for birds, this grove is an exception. It was planted early in the 20th century for wood and a windbreak, and was last harvested 50-60 years ago. It is now an "old-growth" eucalypt grove that has created a habitat of tall trees with shady canopy and little undergrowth. In this aspect it mimics the characteristics of a redwood grove and, remarkably, that redwood-grove specialist — Pacific Wren — is now resident. This phenomena is recent and was not known during the Monterey Breeding Bird Atlas (Roberson & Tenney 1993). Dan Singer, Bob Tintle & I discovered the first fledgling here 30 Apr 1994, and they have nested successfully every year since. Their beautiful songs fill the grove in spring/summer. Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Downy Woodpecker, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees also nest. Allen's Hummingbirds are conspicuous Feb-May. House Finch, American Goldfinch, and Pine Siskin vocalizations are constantly heard. In fall migration, the northern and eastern edge of the grove often harbor interesting landbird migrants. Some of these appear in the Elkhorn Slough vagrant page (click below). Flocks of Yellow & Wilson's Warblers in September give way to many Yellow-rumpeds in October, but watch especially for vagrant warblers and Empidonax flycatchers.

In all, over 250 species have occurred at or been viewed from MoonGlow Dairy. Check out the constantly updated and evolving list and bar graph from eBird.

I wish to thank Louis & Carol Calcagno for their hospitality in permitting birder access here, and for their management of the freshwater pond in ways that provide outstanding shorebird habitat in fall, and fine duck habitat in winter. The Calcagnos have twice received American Birding Association commendations: in 1990 for the White Wagtail event and in 1999 for the White-winged Tern episode. In the photo (right) Louis & Carol Calcagno received their 2000 ABA commendation from Rita Carratello, local Audubon newsletter editor. The famous "White-winged Tern pond" is visible directly behind them (photo 30 Sep 2000; © 2000 D. Roberson). The Calcagnos were also honored by the local Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society in 1985 for their graciousness during the Little Stint. In each situation MoonGlow Dairy hosted hundreds, maybe thousands, of birdwatchers. [Louis Calcagno has also served on the California Coastal Commission and is currently on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.]

Literature cited:
Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, eds. 1993. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County, California. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.


many of these are from Moonglow Dairy! [ below: birders looking at a Little Stint in drying pond #1, Sep 1985 ]

page created 21-23 2000,
updated 27 July 2012

all photos & text © Don Roberson

back to