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Travels along Hwy. 1 (Monterey to San Simeon): Cormorants to Condors

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  • debbie viess
    There is a reason that we Californians put up with high prices and crowded cities.That reason, for me at least, is the tremendous wildlife spectacle available
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 8, 2006
      There is a reason that we Californians put up with high prices and
      crowded cities.That reason, for me at least, is the tremendous wildlife
      spectacle available to us all. I recently had the privilege of traveling
      along the Central Coast, and I encountered an amazing array of birds, along
      with various, gratuitous, marine mammal sightings. This is a bonus
      unavailable to our landlocked birding friends in neighboring states.

      My trip began on Thursday, March 2nd, in Monterey. As I observed a gorgeous
      red phalarope in breeding plumage (within the confines of the Monterey Bay
      Aquarium aviary), I noticed beyond the glass a number of interesting sea
      birds. Escaping to the deck that fronted a sunlit cove to the south, I saw
      six unusual geese. Floating regally upon the calm waters were black brant,
      striking sea geese. A covey of female red-breasted mergansers, red heads
      aglow, dove for fishy snacks; a lone male merganser popped up from the
      depths to amaze my cousin Beverly, visiting from Pennsylvania, with his
      flashy good looks. Meanwhile, a steady stream of pelagic cormorants, the
      large, startling white patches on their rumps proclaiming their identities,
      dove and emerged with beaks dripping with kelp. The cormorants were getting
      a head start on the breeding season by industriously gathering vegetation,
      with which to line the bare, rocky ledges of their nests.

      The next day, we headed over to Point Lobos State Reserve. Despite the
      predictions of thunderstorms and other nasty weather, the rain gods confined
      their displays to the nighttime, and we were treated to mostly fair and
      sunny days. The dire predictions did keep down the crowds, however, and we
      were practically alone at this normally crowded but always visually
      spectacular park. At the far north end of Pt. Lobos, a mixed flock of black
      turnstones and sanderlings dodged the waves in pursuit of sustenance. The
      apparent optimism of one turnstone, who stood upon a still submerged rocky
      prominence, made me think that the tide was going out (and indeed, that
      turned out to be the case). No need for tide tables for these fellows!

      We eventually made our way over to Bird Rock, at the south end of the park.
      Yellow- rumped warblers were flitting through the Monterey cypress, and the
      sweet song of the white-crowned sparrow filled the air. Within a small cove
      on the way to Bird Rock were a number of surf scoters, the males brilliant
      with orange and white markings set against the jet of their feathers. But
      the best was yet to be. I always look forward to seeing the local population
      of nesting Brandt's cormorants, with their flashy, electric-blue gular
      pouches. For the first time, however, I also noticed the delicate white
      nuptial plumes that grace their faces. It was too early for them to be
      nesting, but they were definitely getting in the mood. Everywhere I looked
      there was pair-bonding behavior: couples were allo-preening, and bending
      their heads back to touch their backs in an oddly graceless pas de deux,
      wings and nuptial plumes stiffly fluttering, all to catch the fancy, and
      coordinate the breeding readiness, of their chosen mates.

      A smattering of sea otters and harbor seals peppered the water within the
      various coves. A white-faced "Old Man of the Sea" otter floated placidly on
      his back in the kelp beds, and the heads of the seals looked almost doglike
      as they swiveled above the water surface. Despite my having observed
      humpback whales from these shores in the past, no cetaceans, gray or humped,
      made their appearance.

      As we drove down the coast to our lodgings in Big Sur ("Deetjen's Big Sur
      Inn", a charming, national historical site), I pulled over on a bluff
      overlooking a glassy, empty stretch of ocean. I promised my cousin that we
      would only stay for ten minutes, and that we'd look for whales. Needless to
      say, she was skeptical. Those first five minutes seemed an eternity. But
      darned if we didn't start seeing blows, and in fact, we counted twelve
      migrating gray whales in the next five minute span. As a tour guide, my
      credibility was rising along with the whales.

      The next day, we drove off to see the breeding colony of elephant seals at
      San Simeon. Dorris Welch, a good friend, and naturalist with the Oakland
      Museum, advised me to watch for condors along Highway 1, especially at the
      pullout near the Coast Gallery. She informed me that they were being fed on
      the ridge above that area, and that since they were usually quite a distance
      away, that I should bring my spotting scope. Despite being a notorious
      over-packer, I did not do so, and as my hoped for rendezvous with the
      condors approached, I was feeling some regret at the loss. If you have ever
      driven that stretch of coastline, you know how treacherous it can be, so my
      eyes were fixed firmly on the road. I did, however, tell my non-birding
      cousin to keep an eye out for big birds. Bev may not know the names of what
      she sees, but she's got the eagle eye. A few miles South of Deetjen's she
      pointed out a big bird. I glanced up, thought that it was likely a condor,
      and pulled over. Sure enough, high in the sky over the soaring rock face was
      the unmistakable silhouette of a condor, blazing white along the leading
      edge of the long, long wings, primaries extended like fingers. I leaned up
      against my car and watched in awe. Bev lay upon some rocks and did the same.
      After several glorious minutes of this, I noticed a cluster of people about
      a quarter mile down the road. They were at another pull-out, looking down at
      the ocean. I assumed they were watching for whales, or peering into Sea Lion
      Cove for the pinnipeds. I hated the thought of them missing this golden
      opportunity to see a condor, so I started down the road to cue them in,
      dodging cars along the shoulder-less highway. As I approached, it was
      obvious what had captured their attention. Perched just beyond the low rock
      wall that separated the pullout from the abrupt drop down to the sea, were
      six condors of various age groups. These were extremely tame animals, only a
      few feet away from their onlookers. They all had big number tags and
      transmitters on their wings. One fellow claimed that he had just seen two of
      the adults copulate, but there was no way to confirm this, since condors don't
      smoke. As coincidence would have it, Tom Steinstra's Sunday column (March 5,
      2006) in the SF Chronicle was about this very group of birds. He claimed
      that they were feeding on marine mammal carrion. That may well be, in part,
      but from my vantage point, this sure looked like a group of birds that
      associated humans with food. Regardless of the psychological implications of
      their behavior, it was quite a sight to see. I suspect that it was almost
      feeding time on the ridge, and they were hedging their bets. Or perhaps it
      was post-feeding, and they were just loafing where the humans hang out. I
      found it unlikely that they were perched there waiting for a mortal blow to
      befall the sea lions far below in the aquamarine waters of the cove.
      Whatever the reason, it was quite the serendipitous, mid-morning sighting.
      For those who might wish to attempt a repeat of our good fortune, I suggest
      contacting the local Ventana Wildlife Society (ventanaws.org), whose
      biologists are in charge of feeding and tracking these birds. Good luck, and
      don't delay. The wilds of California await you.

      Debbie Viess

      Oakland, CA
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