2015-06-17 King City to Morro Bay

Yellow-Billed Magpie - Pica nuttalliThe reason I chose King City as my destination on the previous day was twofold. First I planned to drive over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Big Sur coast on the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, and the second reason was the hope of finding the Yellow-Billed Magpies, known to occupy the region.

County or local community parks can sometime prove to be magnets for birds so on the afternoon of my arrival in King City I scouted one of these. Despite my stop-look-listen strategy, I found no outstanding birds at the location called San Lorenzo County Park. I found it a charming park with lots of historic agricultural displays … tractors, harvesters and exhibits relevant to the culture of this area.

Early the following morning after breaking my fast, I launched on my quest for the magpies. I followed an eBird report for a week old sighting up a valley called Pine Valley. I found deer and hawks , but no magpies so I turned back and started my push to the sea on Jolon Road which would connect me to the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. I continued west and kept an eye out for large black and white long-tailed birds. Sure enough, a few miles down this road just such a bird flew overhead. I stopped. There were more! There was a riparian grove near a ranch that I’d just passed by that they seemed to be drawn to. I approached slowly and learned that there were dozens of birds in this group, and there were nests in these trees. I figured that like their black-billed cousins, these bird might be nesting communally as a family group. The birds seemed content to watch me from on high, and while I wished for an eye-level view, that did not seem to be in the cards on this day.

After my time with the magpies I pointed westward again, resuming my path to the sea. The Nacimiento-Fergusson Road crosses an army reserve called Fort Hunter Liggett which nestles in a valley on the inland slopes of the coastal mountains called the Santa Lucias. My route would cross these mountains. There were no security alerts on this day and I traversed the base without being stopped. There were many hundreds of soldiers camped along the road and across adjacent fields, lots of humvees, and tented cots for sleeping. I must say, the cots with their attached pop-up shades looked like a pretty smart solution … I want one!

After crossing the base, where the road climbs steeply over the mountains, there are a couple of campgrounds near a small running stream. I’d spent some time at one of these places in years past, and knew there would probably be some nice birds there. It did not disappoint. There were vireos, warblers, flycatchers, finches, jays and juncos here.

If the vistas from atop the ridges of the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road as it crosses to the ocean side were the only reason to drive this route, it would be enough to justify the wear and tear. On this day the morning’s coastal marine layer was just beginning to pull away from the beaches and the vistas were spectacular.

Heading south again after reaching the coast highway, I wanted to find my way to the beach at Piedras Blancas and the Northern Elephant Seals sure to be found there. A few miles north of San Simeon I arrived at my destination and found that the beach was occupied by females and immature males. The really big animals, the mature males, were foraging out to sea. Sometimes interesting birds can be found here. I once found a Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher on this beach and took some pictures that are archived in a Cal Poly library somewhere to document this rarity.

My next planned stop was at Morro Bay, where I would stop for my last night of this epic journey. I pulled into the town late in the afternoon, secured my room and then headed down to the harbor to see what I could find. What I found birdwise did not perk my interest much, though there were Peregrine Falcons soaring high on the side of Morro Rock, who’s iconic Gibraltar-like presence looms large as a prominent landmark for this area. Seabirds of many kinds nest or roost on this monolith, whose origins are in a volcanic past as a remnant of the Santa Lucia mountains that I’d crossed earlier on this day.

The subjects that I found compelling were the rafts of Sea Otters a few yards from the rocky rip-rap that lined the shore. The nearest raft’s occupants were mature adults, some with nursing, though rather large babies. Shortly after I began capturing images of these somewhat well-behaved individuals, but it was my good luck that the more distant raft began to move closer and mingle with the first group. To my delight, the members of this new group had several rowdy juveniles or subadults. I witnessed the start of a boisterous episode  when one juvenile placed his paw square in the face of another … let the games begin! For the next 10 minutes or so these two began tussling and chasing each other with rolling, tumbling and leaps from the water. It was a grand way to finish up the adventure, for tomorrow I would have to grind out my return home through Los Angeles and back to Poway.

Subjects include Ash-Throated Flycatcher, Bullock’s Oriole, Dark-Eyed Junco, Hutton’s Vireo, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Mule Deer, Northern Elephant Seal, Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Sea Otter and scenery.

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