Pigeon Guillemots at Point Dume
On Father’s Day, I often get to go out birding by myself. It is a gift to have alone time in nature. I’d honestly prefer it if my boys or my entire family came along with me. But they’re hard to rouse at 6:30am on Sunday mornings. They’re especially hard to rouse if the reason they’d be getting up is to search the June gloomy horizon for something called a Pigeon Guillemot.
Which is not to say that Pigeon Guillemots aren’t worth it. They are. Pigeon Guillemots are alcids: web-footed diving birds of the ocean. They’re related to puffins. Pigeon Guillemots are jet black from bill to tail, with the exception of red-orange legs and a white patch on the wings. They prefer rocky coasts, and are exclusively West Coast birds. (This video doesn’t involve Pigeon Guillemots, but it’s a stark introduction to how rough life can be for a baby alcid. Jump from a cliff having never flown before, land without really knowing how to put on the brakes, and if you don’t make it to the water, run for your life from the foxes.)
Los Angeles county waters are the southern end of the Pigeon Guillemots’ expected annual summer range. Not sure if it’s water temperature or our lack of rocky coastline that keeps them from going further south. This June, a handful of Pigeon Guillemots have been spotted along L.A. County’s western-most coast and at Palos Verdes. I decided to use my Father’s Day morning on a shot at adding a lifer to my LA County list.
I got up at 6:30am and made the drive to Pt. Dume in Malibu. The coast at Point Dume runs west-east, and Pt. Dume juts out into the ocean. Birds and whales migrating along the west coast often make a line from Pt. Dume to Palos Verdes. A friend had seen 4 Pigeon Guillemots there the day before. The biggest challenge of birding Pt. Dume is probably the parking. Next to the short trails atop the bluff, where the best seawatching happens, is a 9 car parking lot. You can park down on the beach in a large parking lot, but you’ve got to pay for that one. Being both cheap and hoping for some pelagic species, I headed to the bluff-top parking lot. When I pulled up at 7:10am, it was full. I decided to give it until 7:30am before driving down to the beach. Happily, in 10 minutes, a surfer returned from his morning ritual. After he took off his wet suit, and changed his clothes, and poured water on his head, and then dried his hair with his towel, and then stowed his surfboard, and then chatted with his surfer dude friend, and then checked his phone, I had my parking spot.
It’s a short walk out to a couple wooden viewing platforms at the point. Upon arrival, I immediately saw a pair of Pigeon Guillemots swimming together maybe 100 yards off shore. They drifted a bit before flying over to some exposed rocks. A birding couple that had joined me at the platform with scopes pointed out a third Pigeon Guillemot on the rocks.
I stayed for another half an hour watching the sea. The viewing conditions were great despite the lack of sun. The ocean was super calm, and any bird in the air or water stood out easily. The birders spotted a flock of shearwaters way out, but I couldn’t ever find them with my binoculars. A loon flew by, as did a tiny Least Tern, an oystercatcher moved around on the rocks below, and a Wrentit popped up in the bushes right below the viewing platform. But no good pelagic birds.
On the way back home, I stopped at Malibu Lagoon. A breeding-plumaged Wilson’s Phalarope was hanging around, and an adult Song Sparrow was feeding a begging Brown-headed Cowbird chick. Then I walked up the lower part of Tuna Canyon just off PCH. That looks like a great spot that I plan to check out again in the early morning some day.