October 23, 2020
THE BENEFITS OF BIRDING YOUR “PATCH”—SHOREBIRD SURPRISES ON THE MORRO BAY SANDSPIT
By Kevin J. Zimmer
Like most folks these days, I’m doing all of my birding at, or pretty close to home! But, with fall migration in full swing, the urge to get out once or twice a week for some socially distanced birding, particularly along the coast, is an itch that has to be scratched. I’ve always been a big fan of shorebirds, and that’s a passion that can’t be indulged from our yard. But within a 30-minute drive, I can be on the coast at nearby Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County, California), one of the best all-around birding spots in the country, and a place where sandy beaches, rocky shoreline, tidal mudflats, and estuarine Salicornia marshes combine to host an impressive diversity and sometimes staggering numbers of wintering and migrant shorebirds. One of my favorite spots for shorebirding is along the coastal side of the Morro Bay Sandspit, which separates Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The access point for hikers is from a trailhead within Montaña de Oro State Park. The trail from the parking lot traverses a lovely stretch of coastal chaparral before breaking out into some pretty big sand dunes, and then dropping rather steeply onto the beach at a spot popular with surfers. But once on the beach, you can hike for miles in either direction, often without encountering more than a handful of other people, if any at all. It’s the perfect spot for birding when you really don’t want to come into close contact with anyone! It also has a history of producing some rare birds, among them, the first county record ever of Bar-tailed Godwit in 2010, and the second (and only other) record of the same species, which my wife and I found during a hike in September of 2012.
Although shorebirds are typically scattered along the length of the sandspit, the biggest concentrations are usually to be found near the northern tip, directly across the channel from imposing Morro Rock and the jetty. That makes for an 8.8-mile roundtrip hike, through sand, to check the best area and then make it back to your car, topped off with a couple of hundred yards of steep uphill through loose sand to cross the dunes and get back on the firm trail to the parking lot. It’s a lovely hike along wild, deserted beach, but it’s physically demanding, and it can be pretty unforgiving on a sunny day, particularly if you don’t take enough water. I made the hike three times between September 4 and October 1 of this year, and the two September visits rewarded me with some nice finds and increasingly large concentrations of shorebirds, among them, 5 lovely juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers and a juvenile Red Knot on September 4, and a very unusual, melanistic (entirely dark brown) Western Sandpiper on September 23, the first such example of melanism I have ever seen in any shorebird.
Against that backdrop, I returned to hike the sandspit on October 1. Upon stepping out of my car at the trailhead parking lot, I knew that I was going to be in for a tough day. The usual marine layer of coastal fog was nowhere to be seen, and the temperature felt as if it were already 80º F at 8:00 a.m. Indeed, by the time I had completed my nearly 9-mile roundtrip hike some seven hours later, Morro Bay had topped out at a scorching 99º F, highly unusual for this coastal locale. Wishing to mitigate the effects of the building heat as much as possible for what I feared would be a brutal return slog in the afternoon, I decided to hustle through the early part of my hike so as to save my time and energy for thoroughly covering the northern end of the spit. This meant paying scant attention to the scattered Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, and Whimbrels using their absurdly long bills to deftly pluck Sand Crabs (a.k.a. Mole Crabs) from the water’s edge; the groups of ghostly-white Sanderlings engaged in their mad-dash perpetual game of Chicken with the roiling surf; or the eye-grabbing black-and-white wing patterns presented by otherwise drably plumaged Willets and Black-bellied Plovers each time one burst into flight at my approach.
My march came to a sudden halt when I spotted a Mountain Plover foraging in the wrack, well off the beach. Small numbers of Mountain Plovers winter most years in the arid Carrizo Plains at the eastern edge of our county, but they are rarely seen migrants anywhere along the coast, with most records involving single individuals in fall. After a pause to appreciate the elegant beauty of the Mountain Plover, and to document its occurrence photographically, I continued making my way north along the beach. Beyond the three-mile mark, it was apparent that the numbers of “peeps,” already impressive a scant week earlier, had more than doubled since my previous visit. Hoping to find a rarity, I spent much time methodically picking my way through the assembled masses of loafing and foraging sandpipers, which, conservatively, I estimated to include some 4,500 Western Sandpipers, 3,000 Least Sandpipers, 1,300 Sanderlings, and 100 Dunlin. To my amazement, I was able to relocate the melanistic Western Sandpiper from the previous week, no small task given the numbers of sandpipers present, and the fact that they would periodically, en masse, burst into frenzied flight, only to resettle 100–200 yards down the beach, thanks mainly to the occasional passes by a Merlin looking for its next meal. All of this took some time, but it produced no further surprises, and I was starting to think about calling it quits to begin the long trek back. Scanning ahead, I could see good numbers of Semipalmated and Snowy plovers scattered through the wrack, and so, I resolved to at least give that stretch of the spit the once-over before turning around. Moving slowly so as not to flush the Snowy Plovers (a threatened and declining species along the West Coast), many of which were squatting, cryptically, in the sand, their presence nearly undetectable until they stood up, I picked my way carefully through the wrack, pausing to document the presence of occasional color-banded individuals with my camera.
It was then, while thus engaged, that one plover caught my eye. There were more than 150 Semipalmated Plovers loosely congregated through the wrack, as there had been on my visit the previous week. But, all of the Semipalmated Plovers I had seen to this point, both on this day and on 9/23, had been adults or juveniles well into winter plumage. Now, I was confronted by a single male plover in full breeding plumage, with a solid black breast-band and extensive black on the face, a contrast so stark that it immediately caught my attention, even with the naked-eye. Raising my binoculars to better appreciate the handsome plumage, I felt an instant jolt of excitement upon seeing a long, bold, white eyebrow topping the black facial “mask.” “It couldn’t be,” I told myself, “No way that there’s a Common Ringed Plover (the Old World counterpart of our Semipalmated Plover) here!” Nevertheless, this bird now had my full attention, as I concentrated on checking for additional subtle distinguishing field marks and on getting documentary photos. It appeared to be slightly larger than nearby “Semi-Ps,” as well as paler and grayer above, and with a particularly wide, black breast-band. Given the harsh, nearly midday sun, I could not ascertain any sign of an orange orbital ring around the eyes (a mark of Semipalmated Plover lacking in Common Ringed), nor could I tell for certain if the black of the face met the bill at the gape (as in Common Ringed) or above (as in Semipalmated), but what I was seeing sure looked promising. Suddenly, the plovers and nearby peeps all burst into frenzied flight, and I looked up to see the Merlin come rocketing past again. The panicked shorebirds flew north along the spit and quickly disappeared from sight. I pushed on for a few hundred more yards, but when subsequent scans failed to relocate the plovers, I opted to conserve my energy and dwindling water supplies for the 4-mile return trek.
Upon my return home hours later, I was able to view my photos in good light and greatly magnified, and all of the confirming details were there—it was, indeed, a male Common Ringed Plover! In some of my photos, the bird had one foot lifted enough to reveal the lack of any webbing (or “palmation”) between the toes—another feature (albeit one seldom discernible in the field) separating Common Ringed from Semipalmated Plover. Common Ringed Plover is one of the rarest and least accessible of North America’s breeding birds, known to breed only in small numbers in remote areas of Arctic Canada, and, at Gambell, on Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska, where, in most springs, at least one or two pairs are present and presumed to breed. Gambell is probably the easiest place to see the species in North America, and, indeed, our tour groups are routinely successful in finding them there during our annual June visits. But, away from Gambell, the species is basically a very rare vagrant anywhere in the United States—I have found lone migrants at nearby Nome on three other occasions (all in early June) but have never found it elsewhere in mainland Alaska, and never anywhere (until October 1) in the “Lower 48” United States. My bird represented the first San Luis Obispo County record ever of the species, and only the 5th state record ever for California! Needless to say, I immediately put the word out on all of the local and statewide rare bird alerts, which precipitated a steady stream of birders, both local and from more distant parts of California, to the Morro Bay Sandspit during the next week. The bird was still being seen as of October 8, exactly one week later, but I have not heard of any further reports since.
For me, there’s a particular satisfaction that comes from discovering a very rare bird just by doing due diligence in checking your local patch. It also underscores my philosophy that each excursion into the field, no matter how far from home, or how seemingly familiar or mundane the venue, carries with it the potential thrill of discovery, the opportunity to learn, and the reinforcement of our appreciation for the natural world. I sincerely hope that each of you in the VENT community is staying healthy and safe in these uncertain times, and that, until we can safely bird and travel together again, you are able to continue to visit your local birding spots, in the process, renewing and refreshing your own bonds with birds and the many natural wonders that are such an important part of all of our lives.
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