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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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Santa Cruz County Birding

I’ve never been a huge county birder. County birding is keeping track of how many species seen within the boundaries of a single county.

County lines are a purely human made boundary that birds fly over but it is a fun challenge to try to see as many species in a chosen county. The three counties that I focus on are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. I set the modest goal of seeing 200 species in each of the three county. Over the past year and a half I have tallied over 200 in each county.

But for Santa Cruz I wanted to see if I could become a member of the Santa Cruz Bird Club’s “300 Club”. To reach 200 took awhile and I knew to reach 300 species in Santa Cruz County would take time, persistence, patience, and luck. On the Martin Luther King Jr. three day weekend I thought I would attempt to add few birds to my Santa Cruz County list.

Now these birds were not especially rare nor were any of these lifer birds for me but they had somehow evaded my binoculars in the 831 area code. There are: snowy plover, snow goose, blue-winged teal, and American dipper.

I started my search at the very southern edge of Santa Cruz County at Pajaro Dunes. Pajaro Dunes is a private resort housing development. When I was growing up my family used to rent a house for a holiday so I have been familiar with the area from a early age. The development is gracious enough to allow access to birders.

Once I passed through the security gate I headed to the end of the road near the Pajaro river mouth after first checking the slough near the fire station for the rare long-tailed duck but the bird had flown a few days earlier and had not been seen again.

I wandered across the dunes toward the ocean looking for the small cryptic dune-plover. There were plenty of sanderlings running up and back with the tide. I checked all the flocks but no snowy plovers. I wondered how far down the beach I’d have to walk before I spotted the snowies.

I briefly checked out the backlit gull flock at the river mouth, just south of the river was Monterey County. I turned back and started walking north along the beach in Santa Cruz County. That’s when I spotted ten roosting snowy plovers which I must have walked right past.

This snowy plover is sporting jewelry. These are colored bands which helps researchers identify each individual plover. Snowy plovers are a threatened species because of habitat destruction and intensive use of their nesting grounds. Snowy ploverspopulations are declining with a recent survey estimating the total population of the Pacific Coast as 2,900.

My next stop was Struve Slough, just north of Highway One. This slough in Watsonville is a great winter hotspot for waterfowl. The waters were full of ducks, geese, and herons, but I was looking for five white snow geese. In the Central Valley, it is possible to see thousands and thousands of snow, Ross’s, and greater white-fronted geese in places like Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. But on the Santa Cruz County Coast, snow geese are a relatively rare find.

The snow geese stood out like five shining stars among the surrounding Canada geese and ducks. Another county bird was mind! Now it was time to head east to an birding hotspot: Pinto Lake.

My main target at Pinto Lake was a duck I had overlooked on previous visits. This is the blue-winged teal. Without too much of an effort I found a drake and duck.

Male and female blue-winged teal at Pinto Lake. The much larger male gadwall provides an interesting size comparison.

The final bird on my county wish list was turning into a nemesis bird for me. I had seen this bird many years ago flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River but it is has not seen on this river a while. So I headed up the San Lorenzo Valley. (I had not added this bird to my list because I have no record of the time I saw the dipper).

I was headed towards Ferndell Falls at the confluence of Zayante and Bean Creeks. This has been the American dipper hotspot in Santa Cruz County for the past ten years or so. But as hard as I tried, looking up Zayante and Bean Creeks, on over three visits, I was not able locate a single dipper. Nobody said county birding would be easy, in fact it can be a form of madness!! It just makes me even more determined to add this nemesis bird to my county list!

A nice consolation on my dipper search of Zayante Creek was seeing the world’s most beautiful duck in morning light. A wood duck pair.
I have searched for American dipper on about ten separate occasions since last summer. Maybe the 11th time’s a charm. This spread was about my July expedition up the San Lorenzo River in search of former dipper sites. The dipper is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because they prefer clear, clean streams and rivers. This is a sign that San Lorenzo is not so pure.