5 Best Spots for Birdwatching Near Monterey Bay

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Monterey Bay, located in Monterey County, 2 hours south of San Francisco, is exceptionally beautiful for birding due to the diversity of habitats including rocky and sandy coastline, wetlands in the river mouth, oak woodlands, chaparral, closed cone conifers and the crown jewel of them all, the Elkhorn Slough Estuary. Birdwatching enthusiasts come from all over the world to the Monterey area. There have been a total of 489 bird species recorded in the county, including many from Monterey Bay.

Monterey Bay is a designated marine sanctuary, rich in marine life largely due to the cold, nutrient-rich waters generated by the deep submarine canyon that runs through the middle of the bay and the California Current that moves north to south along from the coast of British Columbia to Baja California, Mexico. The mineral-rich sediments of the canyon dissolve in seawater and support a wide variety of marine invertebrates which in turn provide food for large numbers of dolphins, seals, squids, whales, of fish and birds.

It is a particularly privileged area for birdwatching at sea (pelagic) and on land due to the productivity of the ocean, its high oxygen content and the diversity of plant habitats.

Monterey Bay is so abundant that feeding “binges” can occur in many marine animals, including birds. The bay is a favorite spot for whale watching, fishing and bird watching. The Monterey Audubon Society offers tours to many areas of Monterey County where many species of birds can be seen, including woodpeckers, shorebirds, owls, falcons, falcons, warblers, sparrows and even California condors. Ocean boat tours are available at Fisherman’s Wharf, accompanied by naturalists and guides, who know a wide variety of marine animals, including birds. Here are five places I’ve frequented for bird watching over the years.

Pro Tip: I recommend 8×40 or 7×35 power binoculars for most birding. Some shorebird and water birders like to bring a tripod mounted scope. A complete and detailed book for the region is Birds of Monterey by Don Roberson.

Brown Pelican on the Carmel River (Darcy Jardine / Shutterstock.com)

1. The mouth of the Carmel River

The mouth of the Carmel River is one of the Monterey Peninsula’s premier birding areas and has been a popular site for avid birdwatchers since the early 20and century. In fact, the Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society excursions organized in the region in the 1930s that continue today. A total of 350 species have been recorded in the Carmel River mouth area, including terns, gulls, curlews and sandpipers.

The mile-long beach features a bird sanctuary in a lagoon (just before the Carmel River empties into the sea) with a varied amount of waterfowl, as well as incredible panoramic views of the bay.

This is because there is a diversity of habitats and foraging opportunities that attract birds. During the fall bird migration there are often wandering Oriental Warblers, but also a wide variety of ducks, shorebirds and brown pelicans. The banks of the river are lined with willows and other riparian vegetation, which serve as a green landmark for migrating birds. The Carmel Mission is nearby and the ornamental plantings surrounding it also attract birds. There is a nice trail starting at Bay School just south of the intersection of Highway 1 and Rio Road that leads to Carmel State Beach and the lagoon formed by the flow of the river. Visit the website for specific directions to State Beach.

Pro Tip: Dress in layers as the air coming in from the bay is crisp and cool due to the cold water. After visiting this site and working up an appetite, head to some great restaurants in Carmel Town or at the mouth of the Carmel Valley at Rio Road.

Migratory birds on Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay (1000Photography / Shutterstock.com)

2. Pelagic Birdwatching in Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay is also a great place for amazing pelagic bird sightings. Pelagic birdwatching involves boarding a seaworthy boat and traveling offshore to Monterey Bay to observe birds that live most of their lives on or around the water. Pelagic trips give you the opportunity to see other marine animals that feed in the protection of Monterey Bay, such as humpback, gray and killer whales, seals, dolphins and birds.

Birds travel to this rich food source from as far away as the Arctic, Antarctica and New Zealand. They travel thousands of miles to find the bay, surrounding the Monterey Peninsula. Here is a great opportunity to see birds such as auklets, puffins, skuas, petrels and albatrosses. Their names alone should motivate you to go there! Although sea birding is a year-round activity, the recommended months to venture out on these guided tours run from mid-August to October. Monterey Seabirds is a well-known company that organizes tours with high recommendations from its customers.

Pro Tip: Dress warmly and wear a hat and even gloves, as you will be leaving in the morning. If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to take the proper medication before the trip, as Monterey Bay can experience significant swells and chops due to the wind.

Sign for Moss Landing State Beach
David A Litman / Shutterstock.com

3. Moss Landing State Beach

Moss Landing State Beach is a popular birding spot 15 miles north of Monterey. You will see the twin towers of the Duke Energy Generating Station in the distance just east of the highway. Just past the factory, cross a bridge that spans the mouth of Elkhorn Slough, the largest estuary south of San Francisco. On your right is the Moss Landing Wildlife Preserve parking area. Here are boardwalks and trails that lead near the water and depending on the tides, many types of shorebirds, including snowy plovers (which breed here), avocets, stilts, egrets and sandpipers , and waterfowl such as grebes and loons. The traditional birding area at Moss Landing is along Jetty Road, to the left (west) of Highway 1, just north of the wildlife preserve. The road runs along the harbor to the left and ends with a rocky jetty. Large flocks of gulls and terns frequent the area as well as diving ducks and cormorants.

If you prefer to travel over the quagmire to observe birds and marine life, I recommend the Elkhorn Swamp Safari, a very stable pontoon boat that navigates a few kilometers in the quagmire. The boat has 26 people on board, including a pilot and a naturalist to get information and answer your questions.

Elkhorn Slough Estuarine National Research Reserve
Photo credit: Amy Brewster

4. Elkhorn Slough Estuarine National Research Reserve

Elkhorn Slough Estuarine National Research Reserve is a reserve of approximately 1400 acres with breathtaking views of the quagmire and the ocean. The estuary was once threatened by development, but thanks to the efforts of conservation groups and local people, the area is protected and is part of the federal system of wetland reserves.

At Elkhorn Slough there is a small visitor center and 7 miles of trails that overlook the full extent of the curving swamp. This is a great place to see hawks, kites, swallows, western bluebirds, woodpeckers and, at the edge of the quagmire, egrets, herons, pelicans and many shorebirds searching for clams and innkeeper worms in the mud. The reserve is an important stop along the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. The South Pacific Railway runs overland over the quagmire, so you can hear the wonderful sound of the train as it travels from north to south.

There are excellent tours led by weekend guides, knowledgeable about the plants, birds, local history and origins of this incredible estuarine habitat. Elkhorn Slough is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday.

Pro Tip: Call ahead for tour times. Be sure to bring binoculars. Dogs and food are not allowed on the trail as they interfere with wildlife, but there are picnic tables where you can have lunch or a snack after your adventure.

Garland Ranch Regional Park in California
Photo credit: Amy Brewster

5. Garland Ranch Regional Park

Garland Ranch Regional Park is popular with hikers and nature lovers, and there’s a lot to love. The Carmel River flows through the park and empties into the Pacific Ocean and along the willow-covered banks you are likely to see warblers, towhi, wrens and wrens and hear the cries of California quail. You may even see a few wild turkeys and in the spring the males put on quite a display, fanning their tail feathers to attract the females.

There are towering sycamore trees in the floodplain that provide shade as well as houses for peaks such as the Acorn Woodpecker. There are incredible views if you choose to climb one of the trails at an elevation of 2,000 feet to the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Along the trail there may be a Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk among the oaks and maples, as well as Chickadees and the Oak Chickadee. Before hiking and birding, pick up a list of common bird species from the visitor center. The park is located 8.6 miles east of Highway 1 at 700 West Carmel Valley Road. It’s a nice place to spend an afternoon or a morning.

Pro Tip: Consider visiting Kathy’s Little Kitchen at 13 W. Carmel Valley Road for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

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