Birds

  • Black-crowned Night Heron, juvenile - Nycticorax nycticorax

    One of the more interesting nesters at Point Lobos is the Black-crowned Night Heron. Nesting both on the ground or in a tree, this striking bird and its young can usually be seen on or near a nest at Guillemot Island or the island between Pelican Point and Bird Island during the spring and summer. The highly streaked plumage of the juvenile bird contrasts dramatically with the more beautiful plumage of the adult birds.

  • Black-crowned Night Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax

    One of the more interesting nesters at Point Lobos is the Black-crowned Night Heron. Nesting both on the groundor in a tree, this striking bird and its young can usually be seen on or near a nest at Guillemot Island or the island between Pelican Point and Bird Island during the spring and summer. The highly streaked plumage of the juvenile bird contrasts dramatically with the more beautiful plumage of the adult birds.

  • Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

    The standing of this stately bird has become prominent in recent years with the establishment of a small colony of nesting herons at Blue Fish Cove and another on the north side of Coal Chute Point. The nesting birds and their young can be seen in the Monterey Pine trees along the west side of Blue Fish Cove from the North Shore Trail during the spring and summer. A smaller group at Coal Chute Point can be seen in the pine trees on the NE side above the Pit.

  • Snowy Egret - Egretta thula

    The Snowy Egret is also a close cousin of the Great Blue Heron, is a regular visitor to Point Lobos during the fall and winter, and can often be seen in the various coves and on the kelp beds along the western shore. The Snowy Egret is similar in size to the Black-crowned Night Heron, and differs from the Great Egret in bill and leg color. The Snowy Egret has a black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet (often called "Golden Slippers") while the Great Egret has a yellow bill and black legs.

  • Great Egret - Ardea alba

    This close cousin of the Great Blue Heron is a regular visitor to Point Lobos during the fall and winter, and can often be seen in the various coves and on the kelp beds along the western shore. These white plumaged birds stand out against the darker background of the shore and sea. The Great Egret approaches the Great Blue Heron in size, and differs from the Snowy Egret in bill and leg color. The Great Egret has a yellow bill and black legs, while the smaller Snowy Egret has a black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet.

  • Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

    Watch along the rocky shore at Weston Beach and the meadow areas nearby for this play-acting bird. The distinctive double breast bands and the loud piercing call "kill-dee" or "dee dee dee" make the Killdeer easy to recognize. It feeds almost entirely on insects, worms, and grubs. The female will lay her eggs on the rocks without a formal nest. To keep predators away she will feign a broken wing or leg and lure the intruder away.

  • Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus

    The large black birds sitting on offshore rocks, or flying low over the waves in long lines, are predominately Brandt's Cormorants. Doublecrested and Pelagic Cormorants are present in smaller numbers. Brandt's often gather in feeding rafts outside the kelp beds where they dive for fish. Their gregarious nesting colony at Bird Island during the breeding season can reach 2000-3000 nesting pairs. The Brandt's has a brilliant blue throat patch, especially prominent during breeding season.

  • Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani

    The loud, laughing call of the Black Oystercatcher may be the first indication of the presence of this year-round resident. Its striking long red bill, blackish body and pink legs make this denizen of the rocky shore a special attraction for the attentive visitor. Despite its striking appearance and emphatic call the oystercatcher can easily blend into the creases and folds of the offshore rocks. Most often they can be observed as they feed on various invertebrates along the rocky shore.

  • Western Gull - Larus occidentalis

    This large gull is the most common gull at Point Lobos and the only gull to nest in Monterey County. Its large size, dark gray back, white head and body, and pink legs distinguish the Western Gull from the other gulls that visit during the winter months. Their ground nests and the resulting chicks can easily be seen on the nearshore rocks and cliffs during the late spring and early summer. Western Gulls eat just about everything, ranging from morsels scavenged from the beach, to the young of other birds, to the picnic lunch of the unwary visitor.

  • Rock Pigeon - Columba livia

    Point Lobos is one of the few local places where you can readily see Rock Pigeons nesting "in the rocks" on the cliffs at Guillemot Island and just off Pelican Point. Most often we see them on our city streets or hanging out around the Monterey harbor area pecking at our leftovers. Here at the Reserve you can actually see them in an environment close to their ancestral origins.

  • Brown Pelican - Pelecanus occidentalis

    This large bird with its distinctive pouch is a common site at Point Lobos as it glides low over the waves or as it roosts quietly at Bird Island. Visitors must look closely at the rock face as this large brown and white bird can surprisingly blend in with the mottled background of the island. The adult bird has a brown body and a white head, while the immature is all brownish with white underparts. When a school of fish comes close to shore the visitor may get the chance to see the pelicans plunge-dive head first into the water after their prey.

  • Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

    The Red-tailed Hawk is a familiar bird to most people of the United States. Its broad wings, soaring style, and red tail in the adult mark this bird as a regular resident of the Monterey Coast. Although it isn't known to nest at Point Lobos, it does nest close by in the coastal mountains and frequents the Reserve as it looks for its favored rodent prey. Birds are occasionally spooked from daytime roosts along the forest edges and can be seen soaring high over the forest canopy.

  • American Kestrel - Falco sparverius

    This small falcon is a permanent resident and should be looked for on open perches near the edges of the Reserve's meadows. Its long, pointed wings and long tail identify it as a falcon, and its hovering while hunting is very distinctive of this species. Insects are its usual prey, although small birds (even hummingbirds) and mammals add to its diet. Both sexes have vertical, double black stripes on their white face, with the males having blue feathers covering the wings contrasting with the female's brown coverts.

  • Wrentit - Chamaea fasciata

    The punctuating first notes of its song and the subsequent descending notes are often all the acquaintance a visitor gets with this bird of the thick coastal scrub. Listen for it at the docent "info station." The song is often described as that of a "bouncing ping pong ball." Its habitat rather than its shyness makes the visual encounter with this somewhat small grayish-brown bird with a long tail a real treat. Primarily feasting on insects and spiders, the Wrentit will shift to fruit during the winter months.

  • Scrub Jay - Aphelocoma coerulescens

    The harsh shreep, aggressive manner, long blue tail, blue head, blue wings, and grayish markings make the Scrub Jay easy to recognize. Jays have a powerful all-purpose bill and will eat just about anything. Look for the jay year-round throughout the reserve, especially in the pine forest picnic areas and the scrub brush along the coastline.

  • White-Crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia leucophrys

    This year-round resident of the coastal scrub can often be seen around the parking lots and picnic areas of the Reserve. The sedentary, local subspecies nuttalli is joined by migrants from farther north during the winter months (November through April). Easily recognizable by its black-and-white, striped crown, this common sparrow spends most of its time within a few feet of the ground as it feeds on seeds, spiders, and plant blossoms.

  • California Quail, male - Callipepla californica

    A quick movement across a forest path or a sudden California Quailburst of whirring wings is often the first indication of the presence of this common year-round resident. Its emphatic call of "chi-ca-go" can carry for a long disstance through the forest. The plume curving forward from the bird's crown distinguishes this state bird of California. Although primarily seed eaters, they may supplement their diet with a few insects, spiders, and snails.

  • California Quail, female - Callipepla californica

    A quick movement across a forest path or a sudden California Quailburst of whirring wings is often the first indication of the presence of this common year-round resident. Its emphatic call of "chi-ca-go" can carry for a long disstance through the forest. The plume curving forward from the bird's crown distinguishes this state bird of California. Although primarily seed eaters, they may supplement their diet with a few insects, spiders, and snails.

  • Spotted Towhee - Pipilo maculatus

    The Spotted Towhee is one of the most strikingly patterned and colored birds of Point Lobos. However, it is often missed by the unobservant visitor because this year-round resident favors the thick scrub of the coastal areas and the tangled understory of the interior forest. Its black upperparts contrasting with bright chestnut sides and white underparts provide easy identification once it is seen.

  • Anna's Hummingbird - Calypte anna

    Although the smallest bird to maintain year-round residence at Point Lobos, Anna's Hummingbird is certainly one of the most colorful. Their bright green backs and the male's deep rose-red head and throat offer a striking complement to the flowers upon which they feed. The male's courting high dive, ending with a sharp sound, can be heard as early as December as this permanent resident begins its breeding season. Anna's can be seen throughout the year flitting from flower to flower or hawking out from an open perch for insects as they feed in the coastal scrub and meadows.

  • Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura

    This cousin of the California Condor can usually be seen during most of the year soaring high above the forest canopy as it looks for its next meal of carrion. It flies with its two-toned wings (flight feathers silver and linings black) held in a shallow "V" as it rocks side to side in its quest for a meal. Although fairly common from early spring to late summer, it becomes scarcer in the fall and may be absent from the Reserve during the winter months.

  • Dark Eyed Junco - Junco phaeonotus

    Members of the sparrow family, Juncos are most often seen feeding along many of the paths throughout the more forested portions of Point Lobos. These year-round residents are easily recognized by their black-hooded head, reddish-brown back, and buffy-orange sides. Their white outer tail feathers are conspicuous as they fly up from the forest floor. The Dark-Eyed Junco is regularly seen foraging near the park entrance and is often the first bird seen upon entering the Reserve.

  • Pygmy Nuthatch - Sitta pygmaeapygmy

    This permanent resident is found high in the canopy of the pine forest as it forages for insects in the branches, needle clumps, and cones. Its staccato call notes regularly indicate its presence (the notes sound like a telegraph or morse code). It would be a rare day that pygmies wouldn't be heard on even the most casual walk through the forests of Point Lobos. This small bird has a grayish back, a brownish-gray cap, white chin, and buffy underparts.

  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee - Parus rufiescens

    The Chickadee is easily recognizable by its chestnut colored back and rump, sooty-brown cap, whiter cheeks, black bib and white underparts. This resident can be found foraging for insects in the canopy of the coastal forest. While gleaning the tree leaves and needles for insects, the chickadees can often be observed hanging upside down on the twigs and cones. Its hoarse "chick-a-dee" call can be heard as it feeds. During the winter the Chickadee often flocks with other "leaf-gleaners" such as kinglets and warblers as they search for insects.

  • Black-crowned Night Heron, juvenile - Nycticorax nycticorax
  • Black-crowned Night Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax
  • Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias
  • Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
  • Great Egret - Ardea alba
  • Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus
  • Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus
  • Black Oystercatcher - Haematopus bachmani
  • Western Gull - Larus occidentalis
  • Rock Pigeon - Columba livia
  • Brown Pelican - Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
  • American Kestrel - Falco sparverius
  • Wrentit - Chamaea fasciata
  • Scrub Jay - Aphelocoma coerulescens
  • White-Crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia leucophrys
  • California Quail, male - Callipepla californica
  • California Quail, female - Callipepla californica
  • Spotted Towhee - Pipilo maculatus
  • Anna's Hummingbird - Calypte anna
  • Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura
  • Dark Eyed Junco - Junco phaeonotus
  • Pygmy Nuthatch - Sitta pygmaeapygmy
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee - Parus rufiescens

Fascination with Birds

People for thousands of years have had an enduring fascination with birds. Whether this attraction centered on the symbol of the Golden Eagle for the earliest inhabitants of the North American West, or the totems of the Bald Eagle and the Raven for those living in the Pacific Northwest, or the sacred ibis in Egypt, or the Roc and Phoenix of Arabian mythology, birds have held a special place in all phases of human life.

Besides the early appeal as a religious and political symbol, birds often provided a reliable and easily harvested food source. In North America this sometimes led to the extinction of the species, as in the case of the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon. Unfortunately, this has often been the case throughout the world. So, while various birds may have been treated with special reverence, there are others whose association with humans has been less charitable.

Much of our interest in birds comes from their special physical characteristic of having feathers and, for most of them, the ability to fly. Because they possess a wide range of physical capabilities, with most sharing the gift of flight, birds are able to inhabit almost every corner of the earth. They are the consummate traveler. One of the long-range travelers, the Arctic Tern, journeys from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back each year, and, in the process, probably spends eight months of that year in constant daylight. As a consequence, it probably sees more sunlight than any other species.

Diversity

There are approximately 9,000 species of birds spread around the globe. They inhabit the densest cities, the coldest climates, and the driest deserts. They range in length from the eight-foot-tall Ostrich to the Bee Hummingbird about the size of a thumb; the twelve foot wingspans of the wandering Albatross, and the under water speeds of the "flightless" Penguin that approaches 20 miles an hour in short bursts. Migration flights are amazing examples of the varied capabilities of birds. The Pacific Golden Plover flies from Alaska to Hawaii in one hop. Not only does it make the 2,500 mile flight, it has to do some errorless navigation. Although small and seemingly incapable of such a feat, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes an annual fall trip across the Gulf of Mexico to South America in one night. And it doesn't do this on the back of a goose as some people erroneously think! The Blackpoll Warbler flies for three days straight to reach the north coast of South America from its staging area in Nova Scotia.

Feathers and Flight

While birds are warm-blooded like the mammals and lay eggs like the reptiles, it is their feathers and flight that sets them apart for most of us. The earliest record of a birdlike fossil is that of the Archaeopteryx, a transitional species between reptiles and true birds. Its feathered tail and forelimbs, plus opposable toes, suggest a very primitive bird. Besides flight, the feathers provide one of the best insulating materials known. Light and strong, the feathers help keep the bird's body temperature in the comfortable range as well as providing the lift necessary for flight.

The bird's skeleton is very lightweight and strong, with many hollow bones uniquely braced. The large keel (an extension of the sternum) provides a suitable anchor for the powerful and much used flight muscles. A hummingbird, for instance, regularly beats its wings 225 beats a second, and the Rufous Hummingbird often records beats of 200 per second during its courtship displays.

Because of the vital role flight plays in the life of birds, nature has further "lightened the load," so to speak, by providing for the eggs to be incubated outside the body. This allows for continued flight if necessary, as flight would be difficult, if not impossible, if embryos had to be incubated internally. Eggs vary greatly in size and number laid, with a hummingbird's egg being about the size of the nail on your little finger and various members of the grouse family laying clutches of 15+ eggs.

Feather Care

Because of the importance of the feathers for insulation and flight, birds spend a lot of time caring for them by passing the feathers through the bill to clean and straighten them. This process is called "preening." Most birds also have an oil gland just above the tail to aid in the cleaning process and to provide some waterproofing. While watching the gulls along the shore at Point Lobos, one will notice that they spend a good deal of their roosting time putting their feathers in order. The wings of the cormorants have wide spaces between the individual feathers allowing them to become waterlogged, reducing the bird's buoyancy and helping them get into deeper water in search of food. To dry out these feathers one can see them perching on the coastal rocks with their wings outstretched in the sun. Despite the care given to their feathers by the birds, they become worn by exposure to the elements of nature. Because having feathers in sound condition is so vital to their well-being, the birds shed and replace their feathers at least once a year. This process is called "molting." Some birds such as the Western gulls here at Point Lobos, have two molts a year; a partial one in the spring and another in the fall where all the feathers are replaced. Most birds that only molt once a year do so in the fall when they have finished breeding and before migration. Birds usually molt over a period of time in order to keep enough feathers for flight and warmth. However, most waterfowl molt all their flight feathers at one time, leaving them flightless and vulnerable to predators. While workable for water birds, such a molting strategy obviously wouldn't work for a small land bird like a sparrow.

Feathers, of course, come in many colors. Most of the color is found in the pigments produced when the feathers are formed. However, the color blue found in the Scrub Jays and Steller's Jays at Point Lobos does not come from pigment but from the structure of the feather and how it reflects light. Similarly, the iridescent color of the "gorget" feathering found on the throats of male Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds that breed here at Point Lobos State Reserve also is caused by the structure of the feathers and not from pigment.

Migration

While not unique to their order, with birds the marvel of migration is brought to its full fruition. Whether it's the lengthy movements of the Arctic Tern mentioned previously or the shorter trips made by some of the North American sparrow like birds, the strategy is used in some fashion by many of the birds throughout the world as well as those at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos has about 50 resident breeding birds; i.e., birds that live on the Reserve year-round and nest each year. Yet, over 200 species have been observed at Point Lobos since 1981. This suggests a lot of migrant movement. This includes species coming in the spring to nest on the Reserve, those coming to spend the winter, and those just passing through.

Just as it happens over the rest of the world, most of the spring movement is north to longer days and abundant insect life, and south in the fall to warmth and an assured food source. At least the birds hope the food source will be there. There is developing evidence that their winter habitat (rain forests, wetlands, etc.) is rapidly disappearing under relentless human pressure. Also, breeding habitat is being continuously strained here in North America.

We know a good deal about the who, what, when, and where of bird migration, but very little except conjecture about the why of migration. Why do some birds expose themselves to the hardships of a trip of often thousands of miles, sometimes over long stretches of water, twice a year, when other birds just like them stay put in their tropical or temperate homes? Whatever the complete answer is to the question of "why migrate," the fact that the birds seem to find it worthwhile suggests that it is a successful survival strategy. If it isn't, then many species of birds have selected a very poor course for reproductive success that may lead to their extinction.

Niches and Needs

The Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with its diverse vegetation of oaks and pines, coastal scrub and meadows, plus its rocky coast, pocket sand coves, offshore islands and ocean water, offers a very likely spot to attract the regular as well as wandering migrant. In May, a check of one of the sand beaches or shoreline rocks often catches migrating shorebirds as they pass through on their way north. Their stay is short, often just a few minutes, but it is a stop that is repeated year after year. In the summer and fall, a bit of scoping offshore should bring into view some of the hundreds of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters that pass through this area on their long journey from their nesting grounds in Australia around the Pacific Rim. With the arrival of the wintering birds, a check of the forest should bring the identifying calls of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend's and Yellow-rumped Warblers, while a glimpse offshore usually provides a look at at least one of the three wintering loon species.

With all this movement of bird species throughout the year at Point Lobos, it should be no surprise that birds are "making their living" in all parts of the Reserve, from the forest canopy high in the trees to the ocean waters framing this ecological sanctuary. A walk through the Reserve at various times of the year might yield Pygmy Nuthatches, Band-tailed Pigeons and Pine Siskins high in the trees, with Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Brown Creepers checking for insects at mid-level, and California Quail and Tufous-sided Towhee working on the forest floor. A check of the coastal scrub could offer a chance to see its resident denizens Anna's Hummingbird, Wrentit or White-crowned Sparrow. Along the shoreline a glance at the rocks or just offshore should give you an opportunity to observe the resident Pelagic Cormorants, Killdeer or Black Oystercatcher, Western Gulls, or, during spring and summer, a Pigeon Guillemot in its striking breeding plumage.

The Avian World

All of these birds are "making their living" in the niche provided by nature. Since each niche is different, each bird is different. As such, each adds to the diversity and scope of avian life. It is this uniqueness and complexity that draws people to this universal fascination with birds and bird study. With a little bit of patience you too can enter this compelling avian world. And where better to encounter this exciting part of the natural world than here at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with its varied and protected habitats? It is an appropriate place to follow Samuel Coleridge's counsel that...

"He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast."