Sunday, December 14, 2014

Birding Site Guide: Point La Jolla seawatch

Point La Jolla, California. Looking west-southwest. December 7, 2014. Greg Gillson.
In the northern part of the metropolis of San Diego is the affluent seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. It had the highest home prices in the nation in 2008 and 2009, where a standardized 4-bedroom home would sell for over 2 million dollars. This hilly community overlooks the ocean and rocky cliffs and tide pools. The average daytime temperature is 70.5 degrees Fahrenheit (Wikipedia).

This is a popular tourist destination with a sidewalk on the bluffs along a half-mile or so of the coastline, with two small sand beaches and some tide pools.


Scripps Park is a popular grassy area to picnic (or have your wedding). It also serves as the base for watching seabirds from shore on the west edge of La Jolla Cove ("A" in satellite photo below). The far left sandy beach in the photo ("B" below) is the Children's Pool near Seal Rock. It was taken over by Harbor Seals and they now "own" the beach, and people are not allowed. There is a walkway here down to the tide pools.


Getting there: From I-5 Northbound out of downtown San Diego take the Torrey Pines Exit. Or, from Hwy 52 go west to La Jolla Parkway, which becomes Torrey Pines Rd. Then head southwest on Torrey Pines Rd, right on Prospect, right on Coast Blvd to Scripps Park, La Jolla Cove, and Childrens Pool on Coast Blvd.  Parking: Very limited FREE street parking along Coast Blvd. If you arrive at sunrise, especially on a weekday, you shouldn't have trouble finding a close spot. Hours: Seabirds are best from dawn to as late as 9:00 am. After that you may find rocky-type shorebirds, gulls, cormorants, crowds, and not much parking. Map navigation: Scripps Park is 1133 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, California. Children's Pool is 303 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, California.

Where to bird: The main seabird watching spot is the farthest north portion of Point La Jolla on the sidewalk adjacent to the grassy Scripps Park area ("A" in satellite photo above). If you go at dawn, chances are good that Stan Walen--as he has for over a quarter century--will be sitting on the bench there scoping out seabirds that fly west past the Point (see photo below).

You can scan the open ocean for seabirds from near the Children's Pool ("B" in photo above) if winds blowing offshore and no birds are near or inside Point La Jolla. 

Notes on seabirding: This is a good place for seabirds during late fall migration and winter [November-December seem especially good]. You MUST be there at dawn. You also MUST watch birds primarily with a spotting scope.

Look again at the two accompanying photos. The large research boat in the photo below is about 1 and 1/2 miles north. One Brown Booby flew just in front of that boat and was the closest booby of the 8 seen that day. Loons and other birds flew much nearer. Gary Nunn's camera (on tripod with him below) has a 500mm lens and a 2x converter, giving his camera the equivalent of about 25x magnification. My scope there, left of Gary, is 20-60x zoom. Most of the time I set it about 40x and looked 2-3 miles west in the direction it is facing below.

Gary Nunn (standing, left) Stan Walens (sitting on bench, right) at Point La Jolla. Looking north.
Now go back to the very top photo. This is the view looking westward. The smooth water just about to the horizon are the kelp patties. I don't know if you can make it out, but just a bit right of center, 3 miles away at the horizon, is another smaller white boat, just beyond the kelp paddies. That is where many of the seabirds (boobies, shearwaters, and auklets) were flying by. With 8x binoculars I could sometimes make out the white headed and two-toned brown wings of adult Brown Pelicans at that distance. But I couldn't identify any other birds at that distance with just binoculars (except a couple of white egrets standing on the kelp).

Seawatching is often best during nasty weather with onshore winds blowing in your face, and blowing the birds closer to shore. A strong offshore breeze will have no nearshore birds. Fog is just as bad. Look for birds with naked eye or binoculars and switch to your scope when you see them.

To summarize
1. Dawn
2. Spotting scope
3. Patience and Practice

[For a post I wrote several years ago on this same topic, but from a different location, see Virtual Seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon.]