After reading reports of a rare influx of Horned Puffins (HOPU) along the San Mateo coast, Sarah & I decided to head over on Saturday and see if we could find one.
Our first stop was at Pillar Point in Princeton-by-the-sea, a small seaside fishing hamlet about 25 miles south of San Francisco. We’ve birded here before with mixed results, and this time decided to see if there are any trails along the bluffs, rather than our usual walk along the beach.
Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
It turns out there are several trails, and you can walk for a few miles, all the way to Fitzgerald Marine Preserve to the north in Moss Beach. We scoped the sea periodically, but found no puffins. Numerous Brown Pelicans were flying north in groups of 3-10, with some Western Gull escorts, a few Pelagic Cormorants were carrying nesting material, and a single Double-crested Cormorant flew fast overhead.
Looking eastward in the bushes and trees, we got an excellent view of a male Spotted Towhee, a bird that, although I’ve seen it a number of times, is not often in full view. This fellow perched on a tree limb and sang away for a little while. Alas, my camera was in my bag at that time, so I got no photos of him.
Beeplant (Scrophularia californica)
Coastal wildflowers (and invasives) were blooming nicely. Along with a handful of asters (which I may or may not try to identify), I was happy to see a Soap-plant in bloom. This odd-looking member of the lily family typically blooms at night (or so I was told), and anyways, I’ve only rarely seen them with their flowers open.
Soap Plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)
Other flowers included yellow lupine, harlequin lupine, yellow paintbrush, indian paintbrush, common yarrow, iceplant (yuck), mustard and radish, spring and giant vetch (yuck), and birdsfoot trefoil.
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
An interesting-looking aster caught my attention (I often bypass them due to the difficulty in identifying many of them!) – dense spiky heads with a milky secretion on them, flowering into bright yellow composites. After some quality time with “Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area” (a reduced excerpt of the invaluable Jepson Manual, but restricted only to the greater SF area), I determined it to be Pacific Gumplant (Grindelia stricta).
Pacific Gumplant (Grindelia stricta)
After walking perhaps a half mile or so to the north, we turned around and walked back to the car, puffin-less, but happy to have found this nice area for future walks.
Joe Morlan (the teacher of the excellent Field Ornithology classes I just finished) emailed the pen-bird alias that he saw Puffins on Thursday both at the parking lot for the Moss Beach Distillery, and a little to the north at Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, so we drove thataway.
Had we been more familiar with the geography of this particular area, we may have just walked, as it’s just a couple of miles along the lovely coastal bluffs to get from the Pillar Point parking lot to Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, but now we know.
The Moss Beach Distillery lot didn’t have anything to see from what we could tell, so we continued north a short ways to Fitzgerald Marine Preserve. This was our first visit here, unfortunately right at high tide, for this preserve is known for its excellent tidepools. We walked a short ways south, then west, from the parking lot to a trail leading to an overlook south of the tidepooling area.
Here we found two women scoping the sea, and as luck would have it, when I asked if they’d seen any puffins, one of them pointed to her scope and said she had one in it right then (whoever you were, thank you very much!)! It was quite distant, but definitely a Horned Puffin (LIFER!), with a nice bright white face. Setting up my scope, I got what was probably the same individual, barely visible at all with my 28x eyepiece, so I switched to the much dimmer and narrower 20-60x and got a pretty good look at it. Alas, due to its distance there was no chance at all of getting any pictures with my dSLR, and with the dimness of my scope at 60x, no hope of digiscoping either. Nonetheless I enjoyed looking at this unusual bird for a while, and then scoped the sea to see if I could find any other puffins or alcids.
I didn’t find any other HOPU (although one of the women did), but did catch a couple of Pigeon Guillemots and Pelagic Cormorants in the surf. After we started to get a little dizzy from staring at the swelling seas through my scope, we headed back to the car, and then home.
This was a great outing, both because we saw the Puffins we were looking for (still reported to be there as of this morning, BTW), and also our discovery of several miles of coastal bluff trails at Pillar Point, to which we will surely return.
|Birds seen||Wildflowers seen|
|– American Goldfinch
– American Robin
– Brandt’s Cormorant
– Brewer’s Blackbird
– Brown Pelican
– California Towhee
– Double-crested Cormorant
– Great Egret
* Horned Puffin
– Pelagic Cormorant
– Pigeon Guillemot
– Red-tailed Hawk
– Red-winged Blackbird
– Song Sparrow
– Spotted Towhee
– Western Gull
* = life bird
|– Aster sps.
– Beach Strawberry
– * Beeplant
– Birdsfoot Trefoil(?)
– Common Yarrow
– Curly Dock
– Indian Paintbrush
* Pacific Gumplant
– Redstem Filaree
– Yellow Bush Lupine
– Yellow Paintbrush
– Wild Radish
* = life flower, () = non-native