by Mike Stiles
The richness and diversity of the bird life in San Luis Obispo County is hard to match. There have been 453 species of birds recorded in our county . . . more birds than many states can claim. Our Christmas Bird Count usually hovers around 200 species, which puts our count in the top ten in the United States and Canada. The Big Sit, a count that takes place in October in the United States and in several countries around the world, is limited to the number of species seen from inside a 17 foot diameter circle. The local Big Sit circle, at Bush Lupine Point in the Elfin Forest, regularly records over 100 species of birds from that single location. One year, our tally of 122 species was the top count in the world.
It’s all a matter of habitat diversity and it starts with the Morro Bay estuary, where fresh and salt water co-mingle, and, by definition, is one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. Combine that with the rocky shoreline from Montana de Oro to Arroyo de la Cruz, the numerous wooded creeks that flow into the ocean, the brackish lakes and dune systems at Oso Flaco Lake and Oceano, and east to the Carrizo Plain - all provide San Luis Obispo county with the variety of habitats needed to make our area one of the best birding spots in the country.
Birders, myself included, are often guilty of planning family vacations around prime birding spots. There are several areas that every birder considers. For instance, a visit to southeast Arizona will soon produce many species of birds seen nowhere else in the country. Seven species of hummingbirds can be counted on one feeder. Specialty birds, such as Elegant Trogon, Rose-throated Becard, and Thick-billed Kingbird, are on every birder’s wish list. Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay and is the last resting stop for many miles for migrating birds. The right conditions of timing and weather patterns can produce a “fallout” during migration, where the trees are literally dripping with warblers, vireos, and other birds, all actively fueling up for the next leg of their journey.
Local birders are blessed that we live in one of those ultimate birding destinations. Most serious birders will eventually visit Morro Bay to see the many thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds that spend the mild winter here. The biodiversity of the estuary provides ample food to fatten them up for the long spring journey back to their northern breeding grounds. Brant geese arrive after a nonstop flight from Alaska, commonly winter here in numbers above 4000, just to dine on eel grass.
Morro Rock itself stands as a symbol for one of the great success stories involving an endangered bird. In the early 1970’s there were only two pair of breeding Peregrine Falcons on the west coast, and one of those pairs was on Morro Rock. Birders would drive hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse of the bird, often times unrewarded for the effort. After years of a captive breeding program and the concerted research efforts of biologists and volunteer falcon watchers, the birds were removed from endangered status in 1999. It is estimated that 250 breeding pairs exist in California today.
Our little slice of the Central Coast is certainly a treasure of the birding world. We should all try not to take it for granted.
For more information about birds and birding in our area see the Morro Coast Audubon website and the Birdfinding Guide to San Luis Obispo County.