A blizzard of Sanderlings on Moro Bay, California

A Blizzard of Sanderlings: Watching Wildlife on Morro Bay

Story and photos by David A. Laws – except as noted.  (Feature image courtesy Danna Dykstra-Coy.)

Our kayak slid effortlessly over the glassy-smooth water of the estuary. From the shore, an eruption of sanderlings burst into the sky. Swooping and diving in choreographed formation, a wheeling blur of birds enveloped us in a blizzard of beating white wings. Within seconds, they returned to the pickleweed marsh, cheeping and feeding as if nothing had happened. For us, this spectacular avian welcome to two days of watching wildlife on Morro Bay was a memory we will treasure.

The Monolith of Morro Bay

My wife and I arrived in the Central California coastal community of Morro Bay late the prior evening. A cacophony of sea-lion discord echoing from the darkness beyond our harbor-front lodging at the Anderson Inn promised abundant wildlife activity ahead. Established as a seaside fishing village, Morro Bay is now a popular resort destination located on Highway One midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The coastal setting favors outdoor activities from biking, hiking, and kayaking to sailing, and surfing. Pristine estuarine waters and marshlands provide important habitat for wildlife on Morro Bay, migrating birds, home for many types of animals, and prime territory for natural history tourism.

Moro Rock at sunrise from Anderson Inn, Moro Bay, California
Morro Rock at sunrise from Anderson Inn balcony

On parting the drapes next morning, the massive bulk of Morro Rock reflected in the still water dominated our view of the harbor. First rays of sunlight peeking under a low veil of marine fog bathed the steep, rugged monolith in a soft, mellow glow. One of nine eroded volcanic peaks in a chain of sister pinnacles that stretch inland towards San Luis Obispo, Spanish explorers called it a morro (nose) rock after its distinctive profile. Sacred to local native tribes, it is also a state historic landmark and an important nesting site for Peregrine Falcons. As Morro Rock Natural Preserve, the area is protected from quarrying and other exploitation by prohibiting public access above the causeway linking it to the mainland.

Kayaking on the Estuary

Our day began at the marina in Morro Bay State Park where Paul O’Conner, an expert nature guide with Central Coast Outdoors, led us on a three-hour kayak tour of the lagoon formed by the estuary. As we moved out into the channel, an overcast sky absorbed the sounds of the world beyond the splashing of our paddles and plaintive cries of Western Gulls. Recently returned from summer quarters in the Channel Islands, a squadron of Brown Pelicans seeking fish on the rising tide sailed overhead in tight linear formation. At water’s edge the elegant finery of white-plumed Snowy Egrets contrasted with the formal black dress of Double-Crested Cormorants. Eight graceful White Pelicans, their rich black under-wing feathers exposed in flight, streaked across our bow just inches above the water. A perfect Instagram moment that came and went before we could even raise our cameras. Minutes later our blizzard of Sanderlings erupted from the shore.

Kayaking on Moro Bay estuary, Moro Bay, California
Paul O’Conner watches a sea otter relaxing on a floating kelp strand

We observed even more wildlife on Morro Bay when we sighted a dozen or so Harbor Seals lazed on an exposed mudflat. We watched from a distance as they hauled in and out of the water. Their ungainly gait on land belies their elegance in the ocean. Paul described how to distinguish between seals and the raucous sea lions we heard last night. Both are marine mammals called pinnipeds. Sea lions are larger, more aggressive, have brown fur, bark loudly, have visible ear flaps, and use their flippers to “walk” on land. Seals have grey mottled fur, wriggle on their bellies on land, lack visible ear flaps and are typically more laid back.

Brown Pelicans on Moro Bay estuary, Moro Bay, California
Brown Pelicans make themselves at home

We headed for the western shore of the estuary protected from the open ocean by the seven-mile long sand spit of Morro Dunes Natural Preserve. Paul offered us a choice of exploring the dunes or seeing more of the bay. We opted for the latter that allowed us to visit a floating oyster farm, a heron rookery at Franklin Point, and a low grassy island bustling with Long Billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, the ubiquitous Sanderlings, and the Elegant Terns in the photo at the top of this post. Our route also passed through a semi-graveyard of decaying and fixer-upper vessels awaiting an abundance of TLC. As we passed a trimaran with one amputated hull, Paul explained that they are permitted to remain in the channel as long as their owners pay the mooring fees. Brown Pelicans squatted on every available surface.

A View from Above

Marina Peninsula Loop Trail in Morro Bay State Park , Moro Bay, California
The Marina Peninsula Loop Trail in Morro Bay State Park

With the tide turning against us and the wind picking up, we adjourned to rest and refuel at the Bayside Café.  After a relaxing lunch in a casual dining area overlooking the marina, we strolled up a rocky pathway to White’s Point to meet Michele Roest, an instructor for the U. C. California Naturalist Program and Chair of the 2020 Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival. From this viewpoint overlooking the coastline from Montana de Oro State Park in the south to the Rock and Morro Strand State Beach in the north, we enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the site of our morning adventures. Michele pointed out several popular spots to explore wildlife, including an Audubon Society overlook at the south end of the lagoon near Los Osos.  She also suggested that we hike a boardwalk loop trail south of the marina for panoramic views over the marshlands where numerous birds and mammals breed, feed, rest and play.

Morro Rock and Estuary, Moro Bay, California
Morro Rock and Estuary (Photo: Courtesy MBNEP)

Michelle recommended the Museum of Natural History located just a short stroll from where we were standing in the State Park as an excellent introduction to the denizens of local habitats. A Wildlife Sighting board at the entrance listed Humpback Whales, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Bald Eagles as recently seen in the area. Striking interactive displays describe the topography, climate, wildlife, and impacts of natural and human forces through the ages. A taxidermy collection of local birds allowed us to view up-close the markings, colors and relative sizes of many of the species we had seen that morning. A Minke whale skeleton recovered from the sand spit and reassembled by volunteers enjoys a clear view of its former ocean home from an outside balcony.

The Peregrine Falcons of Morro Rock

We met biologist and natural history instructor Steve Schubert at the base of Morro Rock. Steve has worked as an activist on the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon population since the 1970s. He also helped establish and continues to play a pivotal role on the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Project that tracks California Condors in the Los Padres National Forest. The 581-foot volcanic-plug monolith, known locally as the Rock, was one of only two remaining nesting sites in San Luis Obispo County when Peregrine Falcons were added to the California Endangered Species List in 1970. DDT residue in their diet had reduced the population to near extinction. There were only 5 pairs left in the state. With powerful field glasses, we inspected streaks of “whitewash” splashed down its steep, rugged face. Steve explained that these bird-dropping stains offer clues to the location of falcon eyries. We spotted several Western Gulls and Pelagic Cormorants but no sign of falcons. We also checked three giant smokestacks of a defunct power plant that towers over the shoreline.

Peregrine Falcon in stoop mode, Moro Bay, California
Peregrine Falcon in stoop mode. (Photo: Courtesy Steve Schubert)

The female of a nesting pair from the Rock favors this launching point for her high-speed hunting dive – called a stoop. Clocked at over 200 mph, Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animals in the world. At these speeds their momentum delivers a lethal blow. With its sharp talons the hunter then retrieves its falling prey in the air. If still alive, it is quickly dispatched with a bite to the neck. Locally they pursue shorebirds, song birds, and the occasional pigeon.

“I don’t see any activity today, let’s walk round to the south face.” Steve continued, “Falcons are highly territorial, so when someone claimed seeing another pair on that side, we didn’t believe it.”  The matter was resolved with spotters in radio contact reporting simultaneous sightings. “Look near the top, to the left of that long vertical crack.” Following Steve’s direction, I saw the distinctive curved beak of a Peregrine Falcon peeking from a hole in the cliff. Poised on the tip of a flat projection from the rock face that Steve called the diving board, bright eyes matching the yellow of its beak and feet peered down inquisitively. That eyrie played an important role in a decades-long battle for the survival of the species. In his book The Peregrine Falcons of Morro Rock: A 50-Year History, Steve describes in blow-by-blow detail the story of heroic volunteer support of a breeding program managed by the U. C. Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. How eggs from a captive flock of falcons that had not been exposed to DDT were swapped for thinner-shelled eggs of wild birds. Month’s long all-night vigils followed to protect eggs and hatchlings from human predators. Their efforts were rewarded in 2009 when Peregrine Falcons were removed from the California Endangered Species List.

Returning to our car, we stopped at a table staffed by representatives of a satellite branch of Sausalito’s Marine Mammal Center promoting Sea Otter Awareness Week. Spectators thronged the water’s edge where a raft of 30 or more Southern Sea otters frolicked just yards offshore. All eyes focused on the antics of a single, grey-whiskered male aggressively seeking out females in estrus. On learning that he will continually harass every female until successful, several observers responded with “me too” comments.

Pacific Wildlife Care Center

Pacific Wildlife Care center, Moro Bay, California
Pelagic bird flight cage at Pacific Wildlife Care

The rehabilitation center of Pacific Wildlife Care (PWC) is open every day of the year as a refuge for orphaned, sick, and injured wildlife. Annually, the non-profit organization rescues more than 3,000 wild creatures, from seabirds covered in oil to mammal babies orphaned by trapped parents. A budget exceeding half a million dollars a year supports a clinic director, an on-site wildlife veterinarian, and four rehabilitation technicians assisted by a large team of volunteers. Funds are raised by grants, donations, memberships, and events.

Virginia Flaherty, a seasonal rehab tech and member of the PWC educational team, met us at the entrance to the center in a fenced compound behind the power plant. In the cramped space of the entrance lobby she introduced us to William Snakespeare, a handsome 4-foot gopher snake used for educational outreach. Animals admitted to the center follow a similar procedure as humans at a hospital but minus the hassle of insurance forms and waivers. Vital signs are checked, blood is drawn, x-rays are taken (this is particularly useful for detecting fish hooks in sea birds) and the data entered into a computer. A large white board records the status and needs of every critter in the building.

Specialized equipment, drying pens, and cages filled a warren of rooms for treating every kind of bird and land mammal except for adult deer, bears, and mountain lions. At any one time, the population can range from 50 to 150 patients. In the kitchen, the largest space in the center, Virginia showed us recipes and refrigerators packed with food to serve diets from humming birds to bobcats. The most cheerful room echoed with happy trills of recovering songbirds. A surgery contained a digital radiograph machine, an operating table, and surgical instruments. It also held a library of feathers collected from raptors and large birds who succumbed at the center. The vet can select from this collection to repair damaged wings of feathered patients until they regrow the following season.

Misty, the blind ambassador Screech Owl, Pacific Wildlife Care center, Moro Bay, California
Misty, the blind ambassador Screech Owl

An outside mammal shelter held enclosures designed to withstand the efforts of determined escape artists, such as bobcats, opossums, squirrels and raccoons. It’s most challenging set of teeth to date belonged to a beaver found far from its usual habit in a barn near Paso Robles. Talon wounds indicated it was probably dropped by a raptor. The successful beaver release is shown in a 2015 YouTube video. We were able to walk inside a large flight cage fitted with two pools accommodating gulls, pelicans and other pelagic species that can live harmoniously together.

Meeting Misty, a tiny Screech Owl who was struck by a car nine years ago, was the highlight of our visit to Morro Bay. After losing her vision and sustaining brain damage, Misty cannot be released into the wild. Today she serves as a PWC educational animal. California Fish and Wildlife regulations require such animals to make a dozen appearances a year at schools, clubs and other local organizations, in this case, to talk about wildlife on Morro Bay. Perched on Virginia’s gloved hand, she appeared healthy and well cared for, seemingly comfortable in her role as an ambassador. She loves her diet of six super worms and a mouse each day. Wondering why she went from 160 grams to 180 on the same diet, Virginia was told the weight gain signified middle age!

Thankfully, our busy schedule of kayaking and walking offset any weight gain we should have expected from the excellent and generous portions of food we enjoyed during our two days of exploring the hospitality and wildlife on Morro Bay.

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IF YOU GO: Morro Bay is located 14 miles west of San Luis Obispo, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco via Highway 101. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner stops in SLO. You can complete the journey via bus, taxi, or rideshare services.  The majority of Morro Bay’s hotels are within walking distance of the downtown, harbor, and beaches. We stayed at the Anderson Inn, a comfortable boutique hotel on the waterfront at 897 Embarcadero. Appropriate to its location on the coast in the center of a thriving agricultural region, Morro Bay has wide variety of restaurants focusing on seafood and farm-to-table fresh produce. We enjoyed breakfasts at La Parisienne Bakery (1140 Front Street) and Frankie & Lola’s (1154 Front Street) and lunch at the Bayside Café at the marina in Morro Bay State Park. Our upscale dinner at the new Port House Restaurant (885 Embarcadero) that included raw oysters harvested from the bay was enhanced by a panoramic harbor view of the sun sinking slowly behind the Rock. Our kayak adventure was operated by Central Coast Outdoors from A Kayak Shack at Morro Bay State Park Marina, 10 State Park Road. Visit Morro Bay Tourism online or at 695 Harbor Street for more information on lodging, dining, and things to do, from whale watching on the restless ocean to quietly communing with nature. As one of the most pristine estuarine habitats for migrating birds on the West Coast, the annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival attracts hundreds of human and tens of thousands of feathered visitors every January. Michele Roest, who serves as Chair of the 2020 Festival, told us that it all began with a conversation among a group of enterprising local women on how to attract visitors to their empty hotels and restaurants in the depths of winter. Living in a region designated by the Audubon Society as a GIBA (Globally Important Bird Area). the idea of a bird festival quickly emerged. A collaborative effort between local and state sponsor organizations, including the Morro Coast Audubon Society, the first event in 1997 attracted about 50 hardcore bird enthusiasts. Held over the MLK weekend, the 2020 program caters to a much larger audience.  Over 140 events, including pelagic cruises, birding by boat and kayak, and van and car trips serve the interests of birders of all levels. See this link for other Weekend Getaways.