Spring Seabird Watching
by Michael J. San Miguel, Jr.
What if someone were to tell you that by standing in one spot for just a few hours on any given early spring day, you could witness thousands of birds migrating before your very eyes? I know I would say: “I’m there!!!” One of the most exciting spectacles in nature is arguably the northward migration of seabirds off the Pacific Coast. In southern California we have the unique opportunity to witness this remarkable event every spring, from late February through late April, from shore at any coastal promontory, whether it is a pier or a vista point. A newcomer to ‘seabird watching’ will be floored by the thousands of loons, scoters, brant and gulls that stream by in a seemingly endless line. The only things you really need are some warm clothes, binoculars and a spotting ‘scope. It is often best to bird the first few hours of the morning, though anytime of the day can be rewarding.
For most birdwatchers, observing from the shore is the most convenient way to look at pelagic birds. Furthermore, for those who are prone to seasickness, it is often the only way to add pelagic birds to your list without losing your lunch. Most birdwatchers are fairly reluctant when it comes to seabird watching for many reasons. First of all, spending long periods at the end of a pier bumping elbows with fishermen, or at the edge of a cold windswept point, can be discomforting to say the least. A good onshore wind caused by bad weather is necessary for birds to get in close, and who likes birding in the rain and wind? Moreover, the birds are usually just too far out for simple identification by plumage.
Often, determination of certain species is based on flight style or by silhouette which is gained only by personal experience. A suggestion I have if you are new to seabird watching: spend some time with an experienced seabird watcher who can help point out the various characteristics of identifying these birds from a great distance. Not only will this aid novice seabird watchers on future trips, it will greatly improve their overall field identification skills. More than anything, seabird watching takes a great deal of time and patience, so hang in there. It is practically essential that a ‘scope be used to identify birds and to get closer looks. It is best to scan the horizon with binoculars, then use your ‘scope to get satisfying looks of a particular bird.
If you are with another birder and see a bird which is causing you some problems, it is essential to give accurate directions to the bird. This is not easy since you are staring out at the open sea with no reference points. What one needs to establish first is what is ‘straight out’ and make that point 12:00. That way, if you have a jaeger, for instance, all you need to say is “jaeger at 1:00, flying from left to right below the horizon fairly close to shore.” If you follow these simple rules of thumb, you are well on your way to a new and exciting aspect of birding.
Regardless of any shortcomings birding from shore may have, seabird watching is one of the most rewarding activities a birder can experience, especially during spring migration. Seabird watching is an excellent way to improve your identification skills and can provide hours of enjoyment to anyone who is ready to take the challenge. and who knows, the winds could blow some pretty unusual stuff your way!
Suggested Seabird Lookouts
SAN DIEGO COUNTY
La Jolla Cove is a favorite spot for local birders. Any of the well marked vista points along I-5 between San Onofre and San Diego are great spots to check.
Newport Pier in Newport Beach, is my personal favorite, though parking can be a bit tricky and the crowd of fishermen at the end of the pier can be quite excessive.
Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach, just to the north of Newport Pier can be just as good. Again, parking can be a nightmare, so get there early.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY
Point Fermin Park at the north end of LA Harbor can be worth checking.
Royal Palms State Beach, just north of Whites Point, is good because of the rocky shoreline and can be excellent for diving birds.
Abalone Cove at Portuguese Bend can have some diving birds and can be good during a good onshore wind.
Point Vicente Park as well as Point Vicente Public Fishing Access Lot to the south are excellent places to view pelagic species and are another personal favorite.
A few miles to the west of Malibu is Point Dume which is another excellent site.
Point Mugu is a favorite of local birders and has hosted its share of rarities.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
Finally, Goleta Point on the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara is one of southern California’s most famous promontories for watching seabirds.
Possible Spring Seabird List
Red-throated Loon (thru mid-April)
Pacific Loon (mid-April thru late May)
Common Loon (thru late April)
Northern Fulmar (irregular)
Pink-footed Shearwater (rare)
Black-vented Shearwater (early spring)
Black Scoter (rare)
White-winged Scoter (rare)
Red-necked Phalarope (irregular)
Black-legged Kittiwake (irregular)Sabine’s Gull (May)
Elegant Tern (after March)
Common Tern (mid-April)
This article was reprinted from the March/April 2000 issue of the Western Tanager, the newsletter from LA Audubon, with permission from the author.