Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival 2014

I’m back from the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival. I’ve been trying to sync this into my schedule for three years now and finally did; it’s the first time I’ve participated in a festival like this.

For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, birding festivals let birders get together in a region to share information and go out and birdwatch with the local experts. Many are single day events, the bigger ones can go on for 3-4 days. They can be an interesting way to meet people, explore new areas and see new birds to add to your lists. The Morro Bay festival is one of the larger and better organized festivals, and this year had well over 500 people attend.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t need much of an excuse to visit Morro Bay, and the festival was a great excuse to take a few days off work and haul out the cameras. I went down there for four days, and participated in three big festival outings: a full day birding tour of Carrizo Plains National Monument, and a full day pelagic tour on a boat offshore, a half day harbor cruise (led by PhotoMorroBay founder Mike Baird). I then spent some time doing some other things, including an extended visit to Sweet Springs Nature Preserve (a favorite location of mine), followed by a half day up at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, since the seals are pupping and there’s a high amount of drama and chaos going on there this time of year.

I was really impressed with the Festival; well organized, a good, interesting program. Things started on time from what I could tell, the leaders I worked with were good and knew their stuff, and everything was planned out appropriately. I was very happy with all aspects of the festival.

Because I spent so much of the time of the festival on all day trips, I didn’t see much of the “on site” seminars. I’d planned on some of the evening activities, but to be honest, the day trips kicked my butt, and I spent the evenings in the room working on photos and sleeping — 5AM alarm calls encouraged that behavior. I did want to write some notes on the trips I took.

Day 1: Carrizo Plains National Monument.

I’ve birded and explored Carrizo before (look here for my photos), this was my fifth trip. I’d felt I’d gotten as far as I could at learning the monument poking around on my own, so I wanted to spend some time with people who knew it better than I did and see what I could learn. This trip was perfect for that. We were led by two people, one from Audubon and one from the Nature Conservancy, a group very involved in protection and management of the Monument.

When I’d visited last year, one of the things I came away with was how dry it was from the (at that point still just starting) drought. With the work I’ve been doing out in the central valley refuges and some of the areas I explore on a regular basis being hit so hard by this drought, I had a feeling the Carrizo area was going to be brutal.

I was right; the Monument is exceptionally parched, and much of the normal winter bird population has relocated to other locations. Our best birding of the day came at a rest stop at a park on the way up the highway to the Monument, where among other things we found a Red-Naped sapsucker and I was able to magically turn a fox sparrow into a hermit thrush as it walked behind a bush to the amusement of many.

So the birding was slow, but we got most of the expected unusual species  like Sage Sparrow. In the bus we were in, going off road after the Le Conte’s Thrasher wasn’t possible, so that’s still a bird for a future visit (and higher clearance).

The conversation was great; not only about the birds and the area, but we had interesting talks about the drought and california water policy (an area I’ve been digging into recently), and solar power and some of the mitigation requirements for the project out there, which has been a lot more progressive about mitigation than the Panoche Valley project. And we even ventured into some real science geeky topics, like, oh, Kit Fox poop.

So I had a great time and learned what I was hoping to learn from the trip, and more. I literally never hauled out the camera; the group situation wasn’t compatible with landscape work, and the birds, other than at the rest stop area, really weren’t photographable in the context of being with a group and under time deadlines. So I ended the day happy, tired and without a single image. I guess I’ll have to go back again.

Day 2: Offshore

Day two opened with an early alarm and a long boat ride. About 40 of us got onto one of the fishing day boats that work out of Morro Bay, and we spent the day about 6 miles offshore looking for birds.

This was my first pelagic. I’ve been meaning to go on one for a while, but as usual, my schedules never meshed. And literally, what a pelagic does is put everyone on a boat and drive it around for hours.  With my knee not being a huge fan of standing for hours on end, I stood as much as I could, but I early on grabbed a seat on the engine housing and spent chunks of the trip watching from there — but as you might imagine, hours of sitting on a vibrating platform without back support tired out the back. None of which is a complaint, it’s what I expected.

Birds? Lots of good birds. Photos? Some decent ones. First time out, not sure what to expect, and shooting from a moving, rocking, vibrating platform and trying to get good shots of flying or swimming birds? Easier said than done. I did end up adding six lifers to my lists: Pink-Footed, Short-Tailed, Manx and Black-Vented shearwaters, Pomarine Jaeger and Scripp’s Murrelet, and it was fun, but exhausting.

My best shot of the day wasn’t a bird at all, but of a pod of Gray Whales we ran into. One of three pods during the trip, plus a possible humpback whale.

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For what it’s worth, I slept well that night.

Day 3: Harbor cruise

If anything, the trip I was most looking forward to. I’ve done this trip before as part of the Morro Photo Expo, and it’s a great way to get up close and personal with some of the harder to access parts of the harbor. Mike Baird led the group, and we spent a few hours wandering the harbor looking for interesting stuff. I ended up doing some spotting and ID and answering questions with Mike when I could.

Even though it was officially a birding expedition at a birding festival, as you might expect, Sea Otters always win. We ran into a raft of them out in the harbor, including at least three carrying pups.

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The weather was awesome and cooperative.

After that outing, I decided to break off and do some independent wandering. After lunch, that means spending some time out at Sweet Springs Nature Preserve, where as usual I couldn’t help taking some panoramic shots of the rock and harbor

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It’s also a great tidal area, good for shorebirds, ducks and the like.
That ended my time with the Festival. I had one day left in Morro Bay, and that was dedicated to the Elephant Seals….