MONTEREY AUDUBON SEAWATCH INITIATIVE

Laysan Albatross on Monterey Bay; A rare sight from Point Pinos

Laysan Albatross on Monterey Bay; A rare sight from Point Pinos

The sea defines our home, here, on the Central Coast. It is true that we are blessed with an abundance of terrestrial and freshwater biological diversity, too. Salamanders, skinks, condors, cougars, and a famed endemic floral community imbue the landscape with a rich assemblage of life from the heights of Serra Peak to the reed bottoms of Odello Lagoon. Stevenson’s ubiquitous quote naming ours as the world’s “most spectacular meeting of land and sea,” finds few detractors amongst locals and tourists, alike. But it is decidedly the marine environment of Monterey Bay that rises to a level of global importance approximating the sacred. Like 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 the world’s leading research and from glimpses of life rising to the surface that there is beauty and richness beyond measure, seaward, in our roiling blue.

For birders, both local and far-flung, Monterey Bay has meant something special for a while. Since the ornithological legend Rollo Beck first jibbed Monterey’s big swells at the dawn of the 20th century - a time when Short-tailed Albatrosses were reliably seen from shore- understanding of Monterey’s seabirds has expanded incrementally, generation by generation. In the decades following the 1940s incorporation of Monterey Audubon, “birding” as we know it today, coalesced. Local pioneers like Alan Baldridge first cataloged the diversity of what we had. Noted out-of-towners including Guy McCaskie and Rich Stallcup, in the 1960s, too, quickly realized that Monterey was a special place where many otherwise hard-to-find pelagic species could be seen with relative ease from a boat or even, somewhat surprisingly, from shore.

In addition to seabirds, Humpback Whales are a regular and spectacular sight from Point Pinos.

In addition to seabirds, Humpback Whales are a regular and spectacular sight from Point Pinos.

The 1970s saw the seminal foundation of Monterey as an international headquarters of seabirding thanks to Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys. The quality and quantity of local sightings again expanded when Don Roberson took up residence on the outer Peninsula and began curating and journalizing all of Monterey County’s sightings in the 1980s. Roberson, in particular, began to “seawatch” with regularity from the vicinity around Point Pinos, the outermost tip of the Monterey Peninsula, overlooking the bay, especially during windy conditions when the diversity and rarity of species seen from shore rose above the already impressive baseline. Soon, beyond shearwaters, occasional jaegers, and alcids, Roberson recorded a Mottled Petrel during a gale, a bird belonging to the highly pelagic Pterodroma genus of petrels rarely seen inshore of 30 miles: even from boats.

Another renaissance occurred with the arrival on the Peninsula of Cornell Lab’s Brian Sullivan in the 00s. Sullivan not only collected an astonishing array of rarity observations but, as an easterner, was able to place the importance of Pt. Pinos as a land-based observation post of seabird activity in national context. He convinced many of us that we were presiding over a critical data resource needing systematic attention. The Point, many came to agree, could become a sentry tower not just for Monterey Bay, but the California Current, and indeed the Northeast Pacific and its birdlife most broadly.

So, finally in 2015, Monterey Audubon recruited and funded the retention of one of America’s top counters, Tony Leukering of Cape May Observatory fame. His task: 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’ sake but happily they coincided 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, lead by Skye Haas of Whitefish Point in the great lakes 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 movement, as well as year-over-year declines in migratory Surf Scoters. With this strong baseline of data established the question becomes whether and how Monterey Audubon will find the partners and secure the funding required to expand our program in coming seasons.

The hour in which we now realize the full “Power of the Point” from a scientific and conservation planning perspective is late. The oceans have already warmed and acidified well above the heady Albatross days of Rollo Beck, and will continue to in years ahead. The long-term consequences of human influence on marine ecology will be unpredictable but surely presents an ominous prospect. Monterey Audubon’s seawatch experiment, if it proceeds, even under the best circumstances, will be a "deep dive" into the fluctuations of a “new normal.”