MONTEREY AUDUBON SEAWATCH INITIATIVE
From the heights of Junipero Serra Peak to the reed bottoms of Odello Lagoon, Monterey County is a mosaic of diverse landscapes.
On land, its ecosystems are characterized by an abundance of terrestrial and freshwater species, including a famed endemic floral community and one of the last surviving populations of California condors.
On the coast, which Robert Louis Stevenson called the world's “most spectacular meeting of land and sea,” a dynamic mix of chaparral, wetland, and fog-fed forest plays host each year to a quirky array of local residents—animals and people alike—and flocks of "tourists," both human and avian.
But to truly see what makes this region special, one must look beyond the beaches and the crypress-clad shoreline to the blue expanse of the Pacific.
Like so many truths, it is paradoxical that our most important biome would be oceanic: unlike the alder-lined banks of the Big Sur River, we can’t see what’s going on offshore. Yet we know, through decades of research and the occasional glimpse of life rising to the surface, that in those blue waters there is beauty and richness beyond measure.
For birders both local and far-flung, Monterey Bay has meant something special for a while. Since ornithological legend Rollo Beck first jibbed Monterey’s swells at the dawn of the 20th century—a time when short-tailed albatrosses could reliably be seen from shore—our understanding of Monterey seabirds has expanded incrementally, generation by generation. In the decades following the 1943 incorporation of Monterey Audubon, “birding,” as we know it today, coalesced, with local pioneers such as Alan Baldridge taking the first steps in cataloguing the area's diversity. In the 1960s, noted out-of-towners like Guy McCaskie and Rich Stallcup quickly came to the realization that Monterey was a special place, where otherwise hard-to-find pelagic species could be seen with relative ease from a boat, or even from shore.
The 1970s saw the seminal foundation of Monterey as an international headquarters for sea-birding, thanks to Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys. The quality and quantity of local sightings again expanded when Don Roberson took up residence on the Peninsula in the 1980s and began curating and journalizing all of Monterey County’s sightings.
Roberson in particular began to “seawatch” with regularity from the vicinity of Point Pinos, the Peninsula's outermost tip, which overlooks the entire bay. During windy conditions, he found that the diversity and rarity of species seen from shore rose significantly above the already impressive baseline, and in addition to spotting shearwaters, occasional jaegers, and alcids, it wasn't long before Roberson recorded a mottled petrel during a gale. Mottled petrels, members of the highly pelagic genus Petrodama, are rarely seen inshore of 30 miles, even from boats.
Another renaissance occurred in the early 2000s with the arrival on the Peninsula of Brian Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sullivan not only collected an astonishing array of rarity observations, but as an Easterner he was able to place Pt. Pinos's importance as a land-based observation post of seabird activity in a national context. He soon convinced many of us that we were presiding over a critical data resource needing systematic attention. Point Pinos, many came to agree, could become a sentry tower not just for Monterey Bay, but for the entire California Current, which flows from the Aleutians to the Gulf of California, and indeed for the whole Northeast Pacific and its birdlife most broadly.
In 2015 Monterey Audubon recruited and funded the retention of one of America’s top bird counters, Tony Leukering of Cape May Observatory fame. His task was to systematically monitor and count seabirds from the Point, around the clock, for six weeks, from November 1 to December 15. We chose these dates for convenience’s sake, but they coincided nicely with the Pacific loon’s peak migration period. Leukering noted roughly a quarter-million loons en route from their Nearctic marshland breeding grounds to coastal and estuarine wintering seas from Central to Baja California.
Aided by a growing cadre of Audubon volunteer counters, Leukering noticed many other interesting things: dozens of black scoters, brown boobies, a Guadalupe murrelet, and Leach’s storm-petrels, to name a few. Our 2016 count, led by Skye Haas of Michigan's Whitefish Point Observatory, recorded even more dazzling rarities, including a Nazca booby and great frigatebird. Even more importantly, we were able to confirm the consistent scale of the Pacific Loon migration, as well as year-over-year declines in migratory Surf Scoters. With this strong baseline of data, the question has now become whether and how Monterey Audubon will find the partners and secure the funding necessary to expand our seawatch program in coming seasons.
The hour in which we now realize the full “Power of the Point” from a scientific and conservation perspective is late. The Pacific has already warmed and acidified well above the heady albatross days of Rollo Beck, and it will continue to do so in years ahead. The longterm consequences of human influence on marine ecology are unpredictable; even under the best of circumstances, Monterey Audubon’s seawatch experiment—assuming it lasts—will be a "deep dive" into the fluctuations of a “new normal.”
But even a deep dive can bring things into focus. Just ask any loon: sometimes you have to get below the choppy surface to be able to see.