Bird Dunes

On Sunday morning I headed to Watsonville, to worship at the Alter of Shorebird known as Pajaro Dunes.

Yes I know that June us not exactly shorebird central on the Central Coast but I had two shorebirds on my Santa Cruz County wishlist: American avocet, and black-necked stilt.

Pajaro Dunes is a coastal vacation community built on and over the Monterey Bay dunes. No doubt that this development has affected the original residents of these dunes and tidal flats: shorebirds. Their habitat here has been compromised, restricted, and expunged. That is one reason that birders are allowed access to this private community.

I do have a disclaimer: my family has spent much time at Pajaro Dunes when I was a kid. Once a year we rented a house at Pajaro with our neighbors on Cormorant Court. (Pajaro is the Spanish word for bird.) I somehow think that spending time here, as a child, made me appreciate this place and being a noticer, I noticed the natural world that was thriving here. I remember digging for sand crabs and catching lizards. And the brown pelicans that hugged the coast raised my eyes skywards.

On this Sunday morning, after checking in at the gatehouse, I kept my eyes towards the water channel, which was to my left. The tide was in, so water was much deeper, which would not be attractive to both avocet and stilt.

I headed to the bay where the Pajaro River becomes brackish. There where a large group of white pelicans, foraging in a raft and many double-crested cormorants drying their feathers. On the beach was a large flock of gulls, including about 40 Heerman’s gulls, one of the world’s most beautiful gulls, in my opinion.

The beautiful Heerman’s gull a Pajaro Dunes. The white-headed gulls are adults while gray-headed birds are juveniles. These gulls are newly arrived from Mexico or points south.

Since I was here last, a fence had been installed around the dunes to protect the breeding habitat of the threatened snowy plover. I have seen snowies here before in the winter where but they where not wearing the black headband and black epaulets of their breeding plumage. Some of the plovers were wearing colored bands on both feet so biologists can identify individual plovers in the field.

A child created sign on the fence placed around snowy plover habitat. Judging by the drawing and the capitalization (or lack of it) I would say it was done by a 3rd grader. It is funny that children draw the head like a separate circle plopped on the body when in reality there is usually a smooth transition from head to body. Sadly, most adults would draw birds in the same way because around this time, nine to tens years old, most realize that their drawing no longer captures realty and their artist development stops at that age.

I did see three snowy plovers. One was running circles around me looking like a windup toy dune-runner. This male was sporting jewelry in the form of four leg bracelets, known as bands in America or rings in Britain. I incorporated the bands in my plover drawing.

It was good to see the plovers on their breeding territory but I did note that there was a woman with her off lead dog that was crossing the fence line. She needed to read and internalize the 3rd graders’ message: “Please Stay away from The BiRDS.” Dog and dog owners vs snowy plover have been an on going conflict on beaches on the west coast where these plovers breed. They nest on the ground, making them vulnerable to walkers and dogs. For all of those whole claim to be “animal lovers” lets not forget about animals that don’t wear a collar, respond to their “given” name, and who are flying free. (I’m starting to sound like the Lorax here!)

I headed back towards the exit gate and I looked to the water channel, which was now to my right. I passed Avocet Circle (no avocets). As I passed the tennis courts and sports field, near Willet Circle, I spotted the undeniable form of a black-necked stilt, foraging on the the far bank. Santa Cruz County life bird!

Black-necked stilt.

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