Shorebirds spend their time along the narrow strip of land we call the shoreline in order to be near the sea, which provides the major part of their food. Many birds nest on offshore rocks to provide a safe place for their young to survive the most vulnerable part of their life when they are not old enough to fly away from predators. Visitors to Point Lobos are blessed with being able to enjoy a variety of beautiful and/or whimsical birds.
The pine trees on Coal Chute Point afford a good view of Great Blue Heron nests from the bench at the Pit on the Granite Point trail. Bird Island and its neighboring offshore rocks give visitors a chance to watch the process from mating to fledging. Pelican Point is a great place to see newly hatched Western Gulls, Brandt’s Cormorants, and Black-crowned Night-Herons. Pelagic Cormorants and our iconic Black Oystercatchers, nest on other parts of the Reserve’s rocky shore. Read more about Shorebirds.
These birds are perhaps the most iconic shorebirds of Point Lobos. Their comical – one could even say charicature-like looks – make them entertaining to watch. And they are nice enough to call attention to themselves with their loud calls from land and while in the air. Once you get to know their calls they are easy to find despite their very dark feathers, which are actually brown. Except for their bright red/orange bill, they blend in very well with the rocks they occupy.
The name of the oystercatcher is a bit misleading. Our local birds mostly eat mussels and limpets. Their east coast cousins, the American Oystercatchers, can find oysters in beds shallow enough to “catch” them on their rocks.
These birds also have a number of behaviors that give them the charisma that many humans find endearing. They usually stay with the same mate for life, and the pairs are very territorial. They defend their territories from interlopers who would like to move in, and sometimes competing pairs stand in the margin between territories and loudly debate the exact location of the borderline. Both parents incubate the eggs and defend and feed the chicks.
They build their nests in shallow depressions in the rocks, and they are very choosy about which pebbles and shell fragments they use to provide a base for the eggs. They don’t start incubating the eggs until the female is done laying (usually 2-3), so that the eggs all hatch at about the same time. This is necessary because the spindly-legged chicks are up and walking about right after hatching – it would be much more difficult to defend their offspring if some were stationary eggs and others were wandering about and needing to be fed. Eggs hatch in 24-29 days, and chicks can fly starting in about 5 weeks. At this point their bills have become long, but the red color is only at the base while the tip remains black. The parents first bring food to them and later help them find and prepare it on their own. They sometimes stay with their parents until the parents decide it’s time to start the next nesting cycle, and for the “teenagers” to leave the territory.
But it is not as simple as that, because these birds do not have a very strong record of breeding success, measured as the percentage of eggs that result in additions to the breeding population. In the Monterey area, it is less than 20%. Because of this, docents have volunteered to monitor their breeding success in order to help find out how to improve it. Their populations are considered to be threatened but not endangered.
Many people with only a fleeting interest in birds will recognize this stately bird as a Great Blue Heron. When standing erect, they can be over 4 feet tall, and they have a wingspan of about 6 feet. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats. They nest high in the pine trees on Coal Chute Point, best seen from near the bench overlooking the Pit on the Granite Point trail – look up to the left from that area. Two to four nests up to 4 feet in diameter have been seen there every year for the past few years, some more easily seen than others. The nests are easier to spot when they are active. First we see adult bringing large twigs, then brooding the eggs, and later bringing food. The parents share these duties. The arrival of and adult with a full crop often sets off a loud chattering by the chicks, which can be heard at times from Whalers Cabin on the opposite side of the cove. When the chicks stand up in the nest it appears that you are looking at prehistoric monsters – they are really ugly! The chicks hatch from their eggs after about four weeks, and the feeding display described above lasts about 7-10 weeks until the youngsters set out on their own.
When the herons are not busy creating the next generation, they can often be seen standing on logs in Bluefish or other coves, patiently waiting for small fish to come into range. If you see this behavior, don’t blink, as the head can flash forward in an instant to grab/spear a fish.
Fortunately, their population is healthy and not at all endangered or threatened.
The Western Gull is the only gull seen year-round at Point Lobos and is the only one that nests there. They take four years to molt from the first year’s brown into their breeding plumage, which we usually see. They usually nest on offshore rocks for protection from predators. The best place to look is from the observation platform on Pelican Point. The chicks are surprisingly cute! They look like fuzzy white round granite rocks with black spots. The chicks spend most of the time hunkered down in the vegetation unless a parent is there with food for them. The eggs are incubated for about four weeks, and the chicks are capable of flight at about 6-7 weeks after hatching.
Large numbers of a different gull, the Heermann’s Gull, often populate the rocks near the Whalers Cove parking lot in the winter. This gull is easily identifiable by its bright red-orange bill.
This heron is much smaller than the Great Blue, but is considered to be one of the most handsome of the heron/egret family -- they appear to be dressed up in their evening wear. Look for the long white plumes trailing from the head down their backs. But the chicks are not spared the gawky prehistoric look of the Great Blue Hereon. Point Lobos is graced with a very active nesting rookery near Bird Island, which offers visitors outstanding views of these birds, their nests, and the eggs and developing chicks. These nests are built of twigs or dry grasses on the ground, and some are easily seen from Pelican Point. After 21-26 days in the egg, young Black-crowned Night-Herons leave the nest at the age of 1 month but cannot fly until they are 6 weeks old. There are often docents on site with spotting scopes when the nests are active.
Three species of cormorants are seen at Point Lobos, and two of them nest there in different types of terrain. Brandt’s Cormorants nest on the top surfaces of offshore rocks, and the slightly smaller Pelagic Cormorants nest on the sheer sides of cliffs. The two species can be difficult to tell apart, except in breeding plumage. Brandt’s sport a brilliant blue “gular pouch” under the bill, and Pelagic develop a white spot on each side of the rump.
You can find Brandt’s Cormorants nesting in a wide variety of places, most easily on Bird Island and the smaller rocks closer to Pelican Point. Their nests occupy the island very close to the Pelican Point observation platform from April through July.
Pelagic Cormorants nests can most readily be seen on the cliff face to one’s left when standing at Sea Lion Point overlooking the Sea Lion Rocks. Look at the top of the white guano streaks. If you are lucky, there may be a docent there with a scope looking at otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and other natural wonders. You may be able to talk one into giving you a view of the Pelagic Cormorant chicks in one of the perilous nests on very shallow ledges on the cliffs
The third cormorant is the Double-crested Cormorant, identifiable by the yellow on its face near the bill. It is most commonly seen in and around Whalers Cove.
These birds visit Point Lobos in the spring and summer, after coming to nest in the crevices of large rocks. While not year-round residents of Point Lobos, their fantastic looks earn them a place in this article. In the photo at right you can see that the brilliant red on the feet is repeated on the inside of the mouth, only seen when the bird is emitting its very high-pitched calls. In flight, the feet are used a ailerons (or horizontal rudders) to help them steer. These birds nest in the large rocks on Sea Lion Point and on the south side of Pelican Point. They can be seen in flight over Sea Lion Cove during much of the summer, swimming on the cove, and perching together on the rocks straight down from the Sandhill Cove trail. The large white patch on the wing will help you identify them. If you are lucky enough to still have your high-frequency hearing, listen for their squeals when you are near these places.
At Point Lobos we think of shorebirds as the ones that flock to our beaches and rocks. But the definition of “shorebird” is sufficiently flexible to include other birds, like the Osprey, that depend on the sea for food, but prefer to roost in trees.This bird used to be called a “fish hawk”, and we see them in the trees above Whalers Cove. How can a raptor catch fish? They plunge feet first into the water for fish they see in a reconnaissance flight over the water, and often come up with fish dangling from both talons. In order to get the fish to a pleasant place to eat it or feed it to their young, they turn the fish so it flies head-first in order to minimize the headwind drag.
Most of you will recognize this distinctive bird. In the words of Ogden Nash, “A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill will hold more than his belican.” Illustrators of children’s books often take liberties with the looks of this bird, but it is truly a wonderful bird. Long strings of them glide gracefully over the ocean swells, but look quite look quite ungainly on land. Among the fishing tactics is their dramatic plunge into the sea, falling like a dart into an area where they have viewed small fish from high above. It’s truly a spectacular sight.
These huge birds with a nine-foot wingspan once nested at Bird Island, but have moved their nesting further south to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. The most likely explanation for this is that DDT in the environment has caused their eggshells to become so thin that they cannot brood the eggs without danger of smashing them. In the very early 21st century they seemed to show interest in nesting again at Point Lobos, but that didn’t last. So we have to be content with enjoying them virtually all year except when they are breeding. You can often see very large numbers of them perched on Bird Island or the rocks along the north shore. But you have to look carefully, as their brown coloring makes them blend in very well with the rocks.