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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Day in Pismo Beach

A good night's rest after a somewhat fitful night's sleep on the train made us ready for our first full day in Pismo Beach. While there were lots of places we wanted to check out, the first thing we did was walk along the bluffs in front of our hotel again, as the views and birding were so good the night before.

In addition to Eurasian collared doves, which now seem to be everywhere, Brewer's blackbirds, white-crowned sparrows, and a few white-throated swifts, we also found a Bewick's wren (122) and a pair of California towhees (123) right in front of our hotel. The tide was high, so there weren't any shorebirds or much of a beach to walk on, but we did get some closer views of black phoebes.

First up for the day was one of the major reasons I wanted to come to Pismo Beach: the monarch butterfly grove. From October through February monarch butterflies overwinter in California, and Pismo Beach has one of the largest congregations at anywhere from 20,000 to over 100,000 a year.

Monarch butterflies are remarkable insects, and thanks to arriving just in time to hear the park docent give a talk about them, I finally understand their migration a little bit better. We got to witness several pairs of monarchs mating. They're all breeding now just before they leave their wintering site. From here, these butterflies will move north anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains, from elsewhere in California all the way into Canada. They will lay their eggs, then die. Their offspring, which require milkweed as caterpillars, will grow, mate, and die within 4 to 6 weeks. This will be the same for the following generation as well, all the way through four generations. Then, in the fifth generation, the caterpillars will be born with larger stomachs. They won't mate, but will begin to feel the urge to migrate based on the shortening days. They will eat much more, which is necessary to fuel them for their migration back to the wintering grounds in places like Pismo Beach. This fifth generation will live for 8 or 9 months, and will return to the same site their ancestors five generations ago came from. It's amazing!

Equally amazing to the feats they undertake was the experience of standing in a grove of eucalyptus trees with hundreds of butterflies flying around and perching on branches all around you. There were probably several thousand there yesterday, short of the 20,000+ they had during the peak season in December and January. Already some are starting to disperse, and most all of them could be gone in as little as a week. I'm so glad we got here in time to see them!

There was a lot of bird activity at the butterfly grove as well (though not to feed on monarchs - the milkweed they eat makes them toxic to birds). The first thing we noticed were several hawks flying overhead and calling. It took a bit to identify them as red-shouldered hawks (124) - not a common sight in the Pacific Northwest but as I'm finding out quite a common sight around here! I've probably seen close to ten already. The best view was a little later in the butterfly grove, where one was perched right out in the open. I would have missed it entirely if it hadn't been calling, and even then it was Keith who found it!

There was a lot of warbler activity in the grove, too. They were mostly yellow-rumped warblers, but with a fair number of Townsend's warblers (125) mixed in, too. Then, a woodpecker flew into view. I was about to call it a hairy woodpecker but something made me stop short - it looked different. Luckily I took a closer look - it was a Nuttall's woodpecker (126)! Not only a year bird but a life bird to boot. At the same time I was looking at the woodpecker I saw my first common yellowthroat (127) of the year, but he mostly got ignored in favor of the woodpecker.

The grove, part of Pismo Beach State Park, opened up right onto the beach, so we headed out that way. The transition from grove to beach was a beautiful one:

A small lagoon right near the path was a foraging spot for a flock of least sandpipers (128). I took my shoes off and left them here while walking on the beach - when I got back the least sandpipers were right near my shoes! They didn't mind at all when I went to put them on; I'm always amazed at how bold they are for being such tiny birds. There were lots of sanderling and a flock of about 20 whimbrel out near the surf line, and a brown pelican (129) flew by, too.

The warmth, the bare feet in the sand, the great birding, the thousands of butterflies....I was so happy!!

The day was far from over, though. After spending several hours at the grove and on the beach, we picked up some snacks and had a quick picnic lunch at a little county park. There was a lot of duck and gull activity there, and they were clearly used to being fed. Most exciting to me, however, were the great-tailed grackles (130), though it was also nice to find some California gulls (131) in with the ring-billed and westerns. And I couldn't believe how many coot were there! Hundreds, all on land grazing in the field. This big flock must have decided the grazing was better across the street:

Why did the coot cross the road?
Then, we headed off to do something I have always wanted to do - horseback ride on the beach. Of course, it just reminded me how much I miss being around horses after riding a lot growing up, but it was nice to be back in the saddle again, if only for a short time. The horse I rode was Rooster - Keith was on a furry horse named Stu. It was just us and the guide and was a beautiful ride along the beach and through the dunes.

We got back in time to enjoy a glass of California red wine on the porch of the hotel and take in our second stunning sunset of the trip:

Next up: our second full day features elephant seals, mountain climbing, and of course, more birds!


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Can only imagine what several thousand butterflies look like - never going to see that kind of spectacle here...and your list is going exponential!!

Looking forward to tomorrows adventures



Manny said...

A thousand butterflies does sound like quite a sight. Personally, though, I'd prefer to go find something rare and take a few pictures of it. Now that would be an adventure.