PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 158, Fall 2009: Notes From The Field


The Outer Point of Point Reyes Peninsula

Birding the O.P.

Rich Stallcup

Conservation Success on Private Lands
CEO's Column
International Conservation Mission
Kenya Connection
Mixed Marine Signals
Teacher At Sea
PRBO Highlights
Securing Our Future
Focus on Outer Point Reyes
Staff Migrations

At the narrowest part of Point Reyes Peninsula (dashed line), the bird-rich Outer Point begins. Graphic by Dewey Livingston
Outer Point Reyes (the O.P.) in Marin County is unique in its geography and resulting bird life. Though attached to the mainland, its biogeography is in many ways insular. At the far edge of Point Reyes Peninsula, the O.P. is nearly chewed off at the narrow isthmus where Barries Bay in Drakes Estero gnaws to within one-half mile of the Pacific at South Beach. Driving Sir Francis Drake Boulevard toward the lighthouse, one arrives on the O.P. when passing mile marker 37.44.

This small area is famous, in part, because 410 species of birds, some from very far away, have been identified there, but equally amazing is the absence of some common locals. California Towhee, Steller's Jay, and Oak Titmouse, which are abundant permanent residents and breeders less than 20 miles away, have not been recorded on the O.P. Scrub-jays, Hairy Woodpeckers, and bushtits are rare; White-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches and Chestnut-backed Chickadees have occurred only once. These are all birds that refuse to cross so much open ground—the grassland that stretches for miles between each small patch of woodland on the Outer Point.

Here is an overview, season by season, of birding the O.P.

Landbird migration. During periods of ideal "migrant weather" (light breezes from any direction except northwest and a high, even overcast), an amazing assortment of lost landbirds may gather in the oases of trees and brush that birders call "migrant traps." Because they travel at night, have overshot the coast, and are out of fuel, these off-course songbirds are returning to the continent from the sea. They are tired, thirsty, and hungry and so are attracted to the first vegetation available. The first cover for them is that farthest out on the peninsula; the cypress trees near the lighthouse apartments may hold many avian surprises. Next, the cypress grove and other vegetation on the west side of the historic "A" Ranch (the Nunes Ranch) can also be excellent, and the cypress, hedge, brush, and especially Monterey pines at the Fish Docks round out the three most productive spots. The historic "B" Ranch (Mendoza Ranch) has sheltered an amazing diversity of birds over time but is usually not as active as the outer three "traps."

Graphic by Dewey Livingston
The cypress and willows at Drakes Beach are worth checking out, as is the pond behind the parking lot. The next several ranches—"D", "E" and "F" (the "abandoned ranch")—are not nearly as attractive to traveling birds as those previously mentioned. The RCA Station (now called North District Operations), way back toward the "mainland," often has a few migrants when the trees far out on the point hold many; birding RCA is generally best close around the buildings.

The seasonal windows for rare landbird migrants are (when the weather is right) from 25 May through June, and from 15 August through October.

Summer birds. From April through June, thousands of Commons Murres amass for nesting on sea stacks off the headlands, most obviously near the lighthouse. Diligent scoping of nearby waters may yield a Rhinoceros Auklet or Tufted Puffin. Pigeon Guillemots are also common breeders and may be admired around (and on) the pier that is the Fish Docks. Peregrine Falcons are usual at the end of the Chimney Rock trail and near the lighthouse. Rock Wrens are scarce residents, most easily located in summer when singing.

It is likely that Drakes Bay shelters more summering loons (non-breeders) than the entire rest of the California coast. The usual three species can be seen here all summer, Pacifics and Commons in numbers.

The recent maturing of riparian vegetation at Drakes Beach and near the Fish Docks has allowed Wilson's Warbler, Swainson's Thrush, Bewick's Wren, Hutton's Vireo, and Purple Finch to colonize as local nesters. American Goldfinches are abundant all over the point.

Winter birds. On the ocean and especially on Drakes Bay, many hundreds or thousands of loons (three species), grebes (six species), scoters (three species), and many other waterbirds congregate. Up to ten species of gulls may be present in the flock on the beach at the Drakes Beach Visitor Center.

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Tom Grey.
Raptors are very common over the grasslands and may include Golden and Bald eagle, Ferruginous and Rough-legged hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Merlin.

Sea watch. Scoping the ocean from the end of Point Reyes can be excellent, but the observation deck's elevation may make some objects appear small. Early morning is best, and, by the calendar, April and May, then September and October may be the most exciting. Over 1,300,000 loons (one million of them Pacifics) fly right past the point, north in spring and south in fall. You might see fulmars, shearwaters, or even albatrosses, as well as whales and dolphins.

At any season, on days when the obnoxious northwest wind is down, Outer Point Reyes is a great place to hike, bird, botanize, or tidepool, and the scenery—with the ever-changing moods of light and fog—is mesmerizing.

Online Special - Birding Outer Point Reyes for Landbird Migrants

By 1970, we had the landbird migration elements here pretty well known. We knew what variables of wind and sky brought migrant waves, we knew to anticipate a broad range of surprises, we knew the calendar "windows" to expect migrants, spring and fall, and we knew how to bird the point without causing trouble.

Most of these topics are covered in other Focus columns, found on the PRBO website (click Observer online, then Focus articles. There are 79 available, free to read or download. Previous ones that talk about birding the O.P. are "Seeking Vernal Vagrants" and "A Fall Treasure Hunt on the O.P."

Here, let me discuss do's and don'ts (mostly do's) of finding migrant landbirds, spot by spot, from the headlands back.

The Lighthouse – Park in the main lighthouse lot (toilets), lock your car and walk the quarter mile to the row of Monterey cypress just before the Park Service apartments (and another toilet.) Many fine migrants, regular and rare, have been found near the search-and-rescue towers (100 yards up from the parking lot) and in the bush lupine bordering the road all the way. Bird the cypress trees and adjacent brushy slopes. To avoid crowds of tourists, this is best accomplished before ten A.M.

The last cypress in the first group has branches that reach the ground, and after I had seen 14 different Ovenbirds in there over the years, I named it The Oven. It is dark, and glimpsing Catharus thrushes or Oporonis warblers can be frustrating. When one Ovenbird is found during migration, is it a "microwave"?

Mid-morning to mid-afternoon on fly days, lost diurnal migrants may put on a good show near the lighthouse. Raptors, swallows, swifts and finches swirl a bit after seeing ocean in all forward directions and before turning back to correct their routes. Peregrine Falcons and Rock Wrens are sparse permanent residents.

Past the lighthouse visitor center and just before the long steps to the lighthouse itself is an observation deck. If one has a good scope, many oceanic wonders may be witnessed. I have seen 13 species of cetaceans once, including six sperm whales. For seeing true pelagic birds (those that would never willingly go to land except to breed), the deck, because of altitude, is not usually as productive as are lower promontories like Pigeon Point in San Mateo County or Bodega Head in Sonoma; but most pelagic bird species have been documented here. Great Horned Owls sometimes roost in the wind-eroded "caves" down to the north and have even nested there !!

The Fish Docks is birder-talk for the trees around the house that are easily seen from the Chimney Rock Trailhead parking lot (toilets). You can bird all around the outside of the cypress grove and walk the paved road through the gates in front of the house to the string of Monterey Ppines on the way to the historic lifeboat station. The pines are usually more attractive to insectivorous gleaners (like warblers and vireos) than are the cypress. Check the lone cypress and "briar patch" below it for small flycatchers and skulky wood warblers and sparrows. Please obey the signs about the driveway and the yard around the house. Great Horned Owls live here.

Scoping this end of Drake's Bay can be exciting, especially late fall through April, and the spunky and dapper Pigeon Guillemots nest under the dock itself.

Harbor seals hang out in the kelp forest, northern elephant seals haul out and do all their business at this extreme west end of Drakes Beach, and harbor porpoises are frequently seen rolling by when the water is calm, offshore.

The trail to Chimney Rock itself goes through a riot of wildflowers (especially March through May), and views of the mainland, grand waters, seastacks and the Farallon Islands are breathtaking. Black Oystercatchers, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, and Peregrines are usually found by those-who-seek, below the cliff tops at the end of the trail.

Nunes – The Historic "A" Ranch – We are free to bird below the row of mature cypress trees on the west side of the building complex and also anywhere from the main road. We are barred from going between houses or into the yards. Ninety percent of the blackbirds here in winter are Tricoloreds. The tangled brush below the quarry (which is above the major road fork) should be checked during major waves, and access is unlimited.

Mendoza – The Historic "B" Ranch – The grove of cypress trees across the main road from the building complex is entirely open for birding. We may walk on the road or on the opposite side of the grove along the "pasture". Because of traffic, the pasture side allows a more pleasant experience. Leave gates as you found them. Do not approach the houses or barns.

The farm pond below the upper row of trees has hosted many rare Anseriiformes and waders (six different Sharp-tailed Sandpipers over time), Red-throated Pipit and Rusty Blackbird--but the shorebirds seldom stay long.

The Mendoza Ranch has recently quit the dairy business, so there are few cows. What's next is anybody's guess, but access by birders will probably stay the same or improve.

Spaletta – The Historic "C" Ranch – Northeast of the big red barn there are two to four (depending on current use) ponds that may be accessed through the gate near the north end of the barn. This is not the milking barn but the older one on the mainland end of all the buildings.

In respect for the ranch workers and their families, we do not go to the large cypress trees on the ocean side of the houses.

Drakes Beach – The cypress, willow and myoporum on the right at the bottom of the steep hill into the large parking lot are the primary focus, but any trees and underbrush here could shelter migrants. The beach is a natural gathering spot for gulls, and scoping Drakes Bay from here can be terrific. Loons, grebes, scoters and harbor porpoises are usually present in good numbers and excellent diversity (oops, there is only one species of harbor porpoise).

A pond (with a trail over a footbridge behind one of the few picnic tables) is worth a look any time of year, with a variety of ducks and bathing gulls October through March. There are a café, NPS visitor Center, bathrooms and a pay phone. Cell phone coverage on the O.P. is snarky.


A couple of places are worthy back on the "inner" point.

Abandoned Ranch – the Historic "F" Ranch is open parkland. Park outside the stile on the side of the main road, and walk 200 yards to the trees. There are often some migrants here (when there are many on the O.P.), and Great Horned Owls are resident. Watch out for bulls.

RCA – Now known as North District Operations – For decades we would have to sneak in to bird, always outfoxing the guard and radio folk. Now, it is all National Park and all open to seeking wildlife. You may drive in below the arbor-like cypress row to a small parking lot on the left, just before the buildings. (Pay phone, but no facilities).

Most passing migrants are located in the vegetation nearest the buildings, as plant species diversity is much greater than in the cypress.

There are many, many more things that should be told about Point Reyes National Seashore and its amazing birdlife. Maybe somebody should write a book.

[back to top] [printable page]