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Point Pinos Seawatch

The 2023 Seawatch season ran from November 1 - December 15, 2023. Sightings were recorded on on eBird for November and December. You can find the Seawatch trip report for November and December.


A line of Surf Scoter flies southwest through Monterey Bay. Photo by Brian Sullivan. New Point Pinos Seawatch logo depicting a birder observing Surf Scoter and Pacific Loon flying near the offshore Point Pinos buoy. Designed by local artist and birder Morgan Lewis of Ripple in the Wild.

Alison Vilag, 2022 and 2023 Seawatch counter

At Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, there’s a park bench facing out towards Monterey Bay, situated midstream in a flow of abundant passers-by. Behind the bench, the traffic is primarily human, but on the other side, over the water, it’s birds that are traveling past. Movement happens at the bench, too: spotting scopes and binoculars sweep the horizon; fingers move over an array of clickers, making and keeping a record of avian passage.

Witnessing seabird migration at Point Pinos is like entering one of the most incredible theaters of avian passage there is on the North American continent. And, while many seawatch sites are difficult to reach and defined by violent weather, Pinos is refreshingly accessible; relatively temperate. In fall, the flights passing Pinos are high-volume and fast-paced. Some days, several thousand surf scoters—robust ducks southbound from northern Canada and Alaska—come by at close range, their flocks hugging the shoreline’s contours. Other days bring big loon flights, where winnowing the red-throats— lighter plumaged and delicate—from the dark and compact pacifics presents a fun challenge. And, there’s an ever-present possibility that something rare—a booby, a puffin, a petrel— might fly by.


Pt. Pinos is a dynamic place to marvel at migration, to hone identification skills, and to watch from land for species that spend most of their lives out at sea. More importantly, though, this site presents the opportunity to take the vitals of seabird populations. Many of its focal species both breed and winter in areas difficult for humans to access, but through seasons of standardized and dedicated observation at Pt. Pinos, we build a more thorough understanding of avian trends.


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A Common Loon flies over Point Pinos. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Since 2015, Monterey Audubon has funded and organized an annual count. This is the west coast’s only seabird census to be conducted from land, and it runs from November 1 through  December 15. Identifying birds in a seawatch setting is one of the most challenging types of birding; each year, Monterey Audubon recruits one of North America’s most skilled migration counters. From first light till last light, that person stands at Pt. Pinos to seek, identify, and tally migrating seabirds. They log hundreds of thousands of individual birds over the course of each season.

Migration counters carry significant responsibility. Sometimes, the flight brings thousands of birds in a single hour. Movement on this scale is beautiful; powerful—and keeping up with the pace can be overwhelming. Migration is a feat of endurance, and so is maintaining focus during long hours in the elements. Beyond that, though, there is a weight that comes with taking a front-row seat to natural rhythms that, right now, are faltering. This continent has lost a third of its birds in the last half-century. Making a record of migrations in a standardized manner from year to year is critical work. It is also a sort of reckoning and grieving. Going out to Pinos to witness migration presents this juxtaposition of standing still but being completely absorbed in movement—between summer and winter; between the world of birds and the world we’re more familiar with; between the past and the future. 

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Alison Vilag (R) and Trip at Point Pinos, December 2023

Total species count by year



The history of the Point Pinos Seawatch

The Power of the Point by Blake Matheson (c. 2018)

From the heights of Junipero Serra Peak to the reed bottoms of Odello Lagoon, Monterey County is a mosaic of diverse landscapes. Inland, our ecosystems are characterized by a celebrated abundance of terrestrial and freshwater species, from famed, endemic, floral communities to one of the last surviving populations of California Condors. On the coast, which landscape artist Francis McComas called “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world,” a dynamic mix of chaparral, wetland, and fog-fed forest create a place as biologically rich as it is beautiful. But to understand what makes our region truly singular one must look beyond the beaches and crypress-clad shoreline to the Pacific’s blue expanse. Like so many truths, it is paradoxical that our most important biome would be marine: unlike the alder-lined banks of the Big Sur River, we can’t readily 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 diversity of life 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 our shore—our understanding of Monterey’s 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 like 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. 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 for 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 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. 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.”


The science of the Point Pinos Seawatch

The Science Behind the Seawatch by Paul Fenwick (c. 2019)

The California Current is among the most ecologically rich marine regions on Earth. And Monterey Bay, with its world-renowned submarine canyon, is the wellspring of the Current’s abundant life. Perched above the Bay, on its southwestern rim, is Point Pinos, the outermost tip of the Monterey Peninsula. From here tourists and conservationists alike have a vantage to watch and study the Bay’s abundant wildlife. While Monterey’s Gray Whales, White Shards, Sea Otters, Salmon, and other famous species capture the general Public’s imagination, the birdlife of Monterey Bay and the California Current occupy a similar place of importance in the lives of birders and avian conservation biologists. Nowhere on the pacific Coast are seabirds and seabird migration more visible than Point Pinos. Beginning in 2015, the Monterey Audubon Society began a systematic daily count from Point Pinos during peak migration every autumn. In addition to documenting the presence and diversity of various seabird species, we also set out to establish a baseline population estimate of certain nearshore migratory species that pass the Point on their way south every year. Specifically, we hope to document the size and timing of the Pacific Loon and Surf Scoter flights which take place every October to December. By counting the birds during the same peak migration time from dawn to dusk, Monterey Audubon Society has been able to tack changes in the flight dates and abundance of seabirds and fluctuations in the count’s flagship species. In turn, these demonstrated changes in population dynamic are beginning to help us better understand the implications of changing climatic and marine ecological conditions on our seabird populations. As our data expands through time, we hope to answer the “why’s” of the changes in these migratory populations. Is the Pacific Loon population in steep decline? Or area warmer ocean conditions causing their range to retract northward? In addition to chronicling shifts in the numbers of nearshore migrants, our Seawatch also documents how visiting bird species change over time as ocean conditions shift. Every November, the number of Black-vented Shearwaters visiting Monterey Bay fluctuates, we think, in response to changing sea surface temperatures and food availability. These ocean-going seabird breed on offshore islands of the Mexican coast, in just one or two colonies. Our Seawatch will help document how heavily this species relies on Monterey Bay during its life cycle, and future underscore the degree of critical refuge of deep nutrient-rich seawater during an era of accelerating warming conditions. If Monterey Bay becomes more important to the survival of seabird species, careful planning to increase protective measure for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary will only grow more critical. Our Seawatch and many other conservation programs are possible thanks to volunteer and donor contributions. Please consider helping ensure we can continue our crucial work by donating today. Thank you, and please consider the living environment in your actions!

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