A park where thousands of shorebirds and Brant spend the winter and where a terrific birding festival is held each January.
By Leslie Jones | Published: 12/22/2014
On a recent brilliant morning at Morro Bay State Park, the water was glassy and calm, American White Pelicans floated in the bay, and Brown Pelicans flew in V formations overhead. In the distance, several sea lions barked. The peacefulness concealed the significance of Morro Bay and its surrounding protected areas, where more than 320 bird species have been recorded. The bay has been described as “one of the most important waterbird stopover and wintering locations in California south of San Francisco Bay.” It hosts as many as 20,000 wintering shorebirds and thousands of Brant. On the western side of the bay, a seven-mile-long sand spit is home to about 30 percent of the Western Snowy Plovers in the state.
The 576-foot-tall Morro Rock, the area’s most prominent and breathtaking landmark, is located at the entrance to the bay. Peregrine Falcons nest on it and can be viewed year-round. Other must-see spots are the heron rookery in trees just north of the park’s Museum of Natural History, the Marina Peninsula Trail, and 800-acre Morro Estuary Natural Preserve, where tidal sloughs and expanses of pickleweed provide habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. — Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones is a writer and media-relations consultant from San Luis Obispo. She has written for Yosemite Conservancy, WildBird, and other magazines.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Lagoon, bay, saltmarsh, grasslands, riparian areas, coastal sage scrub, dunes.
Mostly flat. Some hills; mountainous above estuary. Many areas wheelchair-accessible.
More than 240 species in park. Year-round: Brown and American White Pelicans, Great and Snowy Egrets, Double-crested, Pelagic, and Brandt’s Cormorants, Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Horned and Barn Owls, Anna’s Hummingbird, Spotted and California Towhees. Winter: Common, Pacific, and Red-throated Loons, Western, Clark’s, Eared, and Horned Grebes, Surf Scoter, Cinnamon Teal, Brant, California Gull, Royal Tern, Say’s Phoebe, American Pipit, Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers. Mid-June through April: Willet, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew. Fall: Heermann’s Gull, Elegant Tern. Unusual: Manx Shearwater, Scripps’s Murrelet, Yellow-breasted Chat.
When to go
Year-round. Best birding in early morning and at dusk.
Museum of Natural History offers nature walks, exhibits, lectures, and tours. Campsites available. Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival January 16-19, 2015. Trails, canoe and kayak rentals, cafe. Restrooms at museum, campground, and cafe.
State park. Open daily. Adults $2, children free; parking $8. Variety of annual passes available. Museum open 10-5 daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Bring a spotting scope for birding the estuary. Dress in layers.
For more info
Morro Rock Natural Preserve
Two minutes from park at north end of bay. Shearwaters, pelicans, shorebirds, grebes, gulls, and Peregrine Falcon.
Montaña de Oro State Park
Approximately 10 miles southwest of Morro Bay State Park. More than 8,000 acres of beaches, coastal plains, streams, canyons, and hills.