Monterey Bay Birding Festival: A Beginner's Bird Walk

By Maria Grusauskas

The best time to go birding is in the early morning. That's when birds are most actively out and about, looking for breakfast and welcoming the day with their various warbles and cries.

As the Sun climbs higher and their stomachs are filled, most winged creatures then retreat, finding refuge in bushes and trees where they relax and digest—and there's really not much to see or hear.

This was our first lesson, and the opening line from Wally Goldfrank, birding expert and educator at UC Santa Cruz, our guide for the 2013 Monterey Birding Festival's "beginning birding" walk on Saturday. Our small group of seven newbies, hailing from Hayward, Woodside, San Francisco and Watsonville, felt a pang of collective disappointment: It was a crystal clear afternoon in Watsonville, and the 1 p.m. sun burned high in the sky.

What we didn't know was that the sloughs of Watsonville are a haven for some of the world's most beautiful species of birds—and they hang out all day. The treat we were in for caught us completely unawares.

Our first stop was Struve Slough, its banks once the fertile home of Ohlone Indians. Bordered by townhouses and the Highway 1 overpass, the shallow body of water seems like an unlikely habitat for majestic birdlife worthy of National Geographic photo spreads. But it is.

Our first delight was a solo great blue heron, frozen still on its tall, skinny legs, patiently waiting for a fish to swim close enough to spear with its blade-like bill and toss down its gullet. When this expert fisher finally spread its giant wings and took flight, we all gasped. It's impossible to relay in words the breathtaking beauty of the great blue heron in flight. With its two-meter wingspan, these amazing creatures can reach 20 to 30 mph.

In the same area, we also fixated on numerous great egrets, large birds with graceful curved necks and yellow bills, and their smaller relative, the snowy egret, which have black bills and yellow feet. Stark white, these birds are also amazing to follow across the sky with binoculars.

"Before the introduction of suitable optics, wildlife researchers used to shoot and kill birds just to get a closer look at their features," says Mary Ann Hunter, a knowledgeable volunteer who helped guide the walk.

Our group was happily armed with binoculars of all shapes and sizes, and one 20x60 spotting scope on a tripod. My own pair of Orion UltraView 10x50 binoculars delivered crisp close-ups of the birdlife, and I realized that the intrigue of birding would not be so addictive if it weren't for these powerful optics.

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Two white pelicans glided through the air on black-tipped wings, ending their descent in a skid landing that churned the slough waters. They joined a large group of of their kind, which was being sketched by a group led by Carol Bennet. Unlike the coastal brown pelicans, their swanlike relatives prefer to congregate in more inland habitats.

We also enjoyed two white faced ibises, which birders classify as "Cartoon Birds" due to their ungainly appearance and large feet. A black turkey vulture also cruised through, and Goldfrank told us that they have an incredible sense of smell—which is why they're often first to the scene of roadkill, and enjoy visiting cattle ranches to feast on afterbirth.

Tearing ourselves away, we headed to Pelican Point in the Pajaro Dunes area, where birders have special access: just wave your binoculars at the gate, and you'll be let in!

Just steps from Sunset State Beach, and nestled against farmland dotted with stooping migrant workers, the Watsonville Slough winds its way slowly towards the Pajaro River, which empties into the ocean just a few miles north of Elkhorn Slough.

Here, we were greeted by a red-tailed hawk perched atop a telephone pole. We scanned the roped off sand for snowy plovers—tiny, baby-faced birds that lay their eggs in little depressions in the sand, defenseless to dogs, prey, and beach-tromping feet. We also spied an osprey, a few double-crested cormorants, and a long-billed curlew, which sports a comically long, curved bill it uses to reach deep burrowing marine crustaceans and invertebrates, not to mention dozens more.

After three hours spent spying on avian creatures with our binoculars, I think we all felt a little less like beginners, and a little more in touch with a fascinating bird world we didn't quite know existed.

The beginner's walk consisted of several twenty and thirty-somethings just getting into the hobby—a glimmer of hope for the perpetuation of bird appreciation. Along with species identification tips, we also learned a litany of factual tidbits that will likely be lodged in our brains for life. For example: The varying bills of shorebirds are each evolved to eat a specific invertebrate or worm found at a specific depth; nature's way of sharing the food supply?

But the most profound lesson of the day, for me anyway, is that in addition to Watsonville's many cultural charms, the city contains several accessible pockets of precious habitat, where incredible wildlife grows and thrives.

The complete list of birds sighted:

Cinnamon Teal
P-b Grebe
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Gr Blue Heron
Gr Egret
Snowy Egret
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Amer Coot
Snowy Plover
Black-necked Stilt
Amer Avocet
Spotted Sand
Gr Yellowlegs
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Long-billed Dowitcher
Red-necked Phalarope
Ring-billed Gill
Western Gull
California Gull
Elegant Tern
Eurasian Collared Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Black Phoebe
W Scrub Jay
Amer Crow
Eur Starling
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch