For want of a better term, we are calling the birds that make a living further inland than shorebirds “land birds” because they spend little or no time away from land. Many of them nest at Point Lobos but tend to be more secretive about it than the shorebirds.
Birds have fascinated people for millennia. We are fascinated by their brilliant colors, their ability to fly, their great diversity (over 11,000 species worldwide), and their antics. Because they possess a wide range of physical capabilities, with most sharing the gift of flight, birds are able to inhabit almost every corner of the earth. They are the consummate traveler. One of the long-range travelers, the Arctic Tern, journeys from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back each year, and, in the process, probably spends eight months of that year in constant daylight. And birds have characteristics that set them apart from any other animal, including their feathers and hollow bones that enable them to fly, and two organs, the crop and the gizzard, that enable them to take on food quickly and grind up hard seeds to make them palatable.
The innate drive to migrate in some birds makes them world travelers, and either brings them to Point Lobos briefly in their travels or for longer periods to find food and/or a place to raise their young.
The Point Lobos docents, supported by the Foundation, have produced a brochure titled A Guide to the Birds of Point Lobos, which can be printed from this website or obtained from the Information Station.
This isn’t the most common woodpecker at Point Lobos, but its characteristic clown-like face and harsh vocal sounds make it the most easily identifiable. You can find them in the forest nearest the highway, e.g., from the South Plateau Trail, which has oak trees mixed in with the pines. Listen for a variety of calls, including “wacka-wacka-wacka (etc.)” and the name of our former president, “Barack!”
These birds are aptly named, as they harvest acorns and store them in ”granaries” for use during the seasons when oak trees are not producing. Their favorite granaries are dead pine trees after the bark has peeled off, but they have been known to use wooden power poles, fence posts, and even houses! (Some homeowners not amused by that.)
We often get the question, “What’s that beautiful blue bird?” from visitors. Many docents can answer that question without even seeing the bird or hearing a description, as it almost always refers to the California Scrub Jay. People from other parts of the country may be familiar with the Blue Jay but have not seen our very common local Jay. Formerly known as the Western Scrub Jay and commonly called just the Scrub Jay, gets its name from its association with the coastal scrub habitat, not from its raucous “scrubby” sound. Its blue color is quite astounding, but some locals let its aggressive nature and loud squawking diminish their appreciation for its beauty.
The Jay’s tendency to announce its presence makes it easier to find in shrub lands, oak forests, and residential backyards. They are not picky eaters, dining on fruit, seeds, acorns, insects, lizards, and just about anything smaller than themselves. They are near the top of the pecking order at bird feeders, where they commonly chase off other birds (exception: Acorn Woodpeckers). They probably nest at Point Lobos, but don’t make a big show of it.
The Scrub Jay’s cousin is easily identified by the tall pointed crest on its head that gives it a rather noble appearance. This bird is mostly seen in the pine forest at Point Lobos, and its own raucous calls may help you find it. This video will let you hear two of the most common calls. The blue is not quite as vivid as on the Scrub Jay, and the head and shoulders are black or brown. But the crest more than makes up for its less brilliant blue, and it is always a delight to spot one in a tree. Note that it is named after the scientist Georg Steller, not stellar, despite the fact that may people may consider its appearance quite stellar.
Steller’s Jays range in the western part of North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Rockies, with small variations in appearance depending on the location. They are known to mimic the raptors that share their areas, including fellow Point Lobos birds the Osprey, the Red-tailed Hawk, and the Red-shouldered Hawk. The function of this mimicry is not known.
The California Quail male has a most remarkable plumage, with different colors of feathers intermingled in a very complex pattern. This makes it stand out as unique, but surprisingly also acts as very effective camouflage in their usual habitat. The head is crowned with a one-feather crest (technical term: “deely-bopper”). The female is less fancy, with more muted plumage and smaller crest. Because of their effective camouflage, they are not easy to spot in Point Lobos’ pine forest unless you hear one or more of their calls.
The Dark-eyed Junco could be considered one of the iconic birds of the pine forest. Although It is well camouflaged, it is quite easy to see as it spends most of its time on or near the ground, where it feed on seeds. You may see them skittering down the road as you drive or fleeing your approach on a trail. If you see a small bird with white outer tail feathers, you have probably seen a Junco flying away from you. But you can often see them just collecting seeds on the ground. Two characteristics stand out – their dark hood (black for the males) gives them the look of an executioner. But the bill stands out because it is white.
Two unique behaviors can also help you know you have seen a Junco. They apparently are quite territorial, and easily offended by the image of themselves in the side mirror of a car. Their furor is displayed by repeatedly jumping and pecking at the mirror, often leaving a white deposit on the mirror and door of the car. They also forsake their usual place on the ground, where they nest as well as feed, when they are ready to sing for a mate. For this, they fly to the top of a tall tree (where you can scarcely identify them by their field marks) and set into long twitters.
They breed all over the Monterey Peninsula and are known to have large clutches of tiny chicks which typically run behind the adults. When the brood is out and about, one parent roosts on a nearby shrub and clucks to alert for possible predators. Then the other adults herd the chicks to cover. Quail have a number of recognizable calls, the most common of which seems to be calling, “Chicago, Chicago.”
Nature can be a lot like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – “you never know what you’re gonna get!” This can be particularly true in trying to judge the personality of animals from their appearance. Take the California Thrasher is as an example. Would you expect a plain brown bird with a menacing-looking sharp, down-curved bill to entertain you with its song? If not, listen to this short video and judge for yourself. Even better, listen to one singing in the coastal scrub near the Information Station at Point Lobos. If it reminds you of the song of the Northern Mockingbird, it is because the two species are related.
The mockingbird’s tone is a bit more melodic, but no more varied than this thrasher.
The Peregrine Falcon is a bird of superlatives. First of all, they could be the poster bird for endangered species, as their reproduction was severely affected by DDT-caused eggshell thinning. But after coming back from the brink of extinction, they are now seen throughout the world in a wide variety of habitats — from wilderness to highly populated cities. Their name suggests that they travel (“peregrinate”) a lot, but a more likely explanation is that they just occupy a wide swath of the earth’s surface. Most impressive is their record for animal speed, as they can reach 200 MPH when diving after prey, birds in flight. When they hit a bird at that speed, the result is often an explosion of feathers and the lifeless body of the prey bird, which may be caught before it reaches the ground. When being fed on the nest, the chicks have been seen to viciously attack the parent offering food, such that the quickly parents learn to just fly over and drop the food to the chicks. The fledglings are taught to do their own hunting by having dead birds dropped near them that they can catch in flight.
Peregrine Falcons are often seen high in trees or rock promontories, where they are on the lookout for birds flying below them. They often hunt cooperatively, with one bird scaring up prey and the other hitting them in the air. At Point Lobos, the best place to look for this superlative bird is in the dead pines near China Cove and Bird Island.
Point Lobos visitors who see a Turkey Vulture often think their quest to see a California Condor has been realized. Alas, although gigantic in their own right, the vulture’s mere six-foot wing span does not begin to measure up to the condor’s nine-foot span. Size can be difficult to estimate in nature when you are seeing a single species, but in addition to the size difference there are a few ways of differentiating between the two species. The condor has bright white on the front underside of the wings, vs “dirty white” on the rear underside of the Turkey Vulture.
The condor soars on very steady, flat wings, while the vulture “wobbles” on wings held up at an angle (dihedral). (One could imagine that they are just learning to fly.) Finally, due to their endangered status, California Condors are tagged with colored wing tags; you won’t see these on vultures.
Vultures and condors are both considered raptors, but these raptors do not kill their prey. They are attracted to the lovely smell wafting from dead animals. It is not unusual to see vultures riding on a dead marine animal they are dining upon. An immature Turkey Vulture was once seen using its immense wings to hide its meal from potential competitors, including the author.