Barn Owl Montana de Oro State Park

A napping Barn Owl at Montana de Oro State Park

Labor Day Weekend at Montaña de Oro State Park

My family took a Labor Day weekend getaway to Montaña de Oro State Park, near San Luis Obispo, California. There’s a campground right on the coast, and it has a decidedly central California feel. There are cliffs, and rock formations in the surf, and mountain bikers everywhere. I was still nursing an achy back, so I spent more time lounging around than I’d prefer. But it was a good weekend.

The park’s coast on a sunny day (we had clouds and fog the whole time we were there)

I did almost all of my birding in and around the Islay Creek campground, where we were staying. It’s a nice enough campground (the rules are certainly enforced with vigor). The spots don’t provide much isolation or privacy, though. And the raccoons at night will find any bit of food left unprotected.  On the plus side, there are trails heading off up the creek, into the hills, and along the coast, all within a mile or two of the campground. There’s good habitat along the creek that makes for good birding.

While we were there, birders were hunting a Tennessee Warbler along the creek that had been reported the day before we arrived. I never saw it, but did get looks at a variety of southbound migrants, including Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend Warbler, and Hermit Warbler. A quartet of turkeys roamed the campground, and California Quail could be heard, and often seen, emerging from the poison oak that surrounded the campsites. At dusk one night, a Great Horned Owl flew over our campsite and perched for a hot minute in a tree across the way.

Wild Turkey Islay Creek Campgroun

Wild-ish Turkeys at Islay Creek campground

But I spotted the best bird of the weekend not around the campground, but Saturday afternoon staring out at the ocean. And I didn’t know what it was I had seen until we got home Monday. While everyone checked out the tide pools in Corralina Cove, looking for seastars and octopus, I was trying to figure out what kind of shearwaters were steadily flying south a couple of hundreds yards out. They were far enough away to make a binocular ID under the cloudy conditions difficult. But I was fairly confident that most of them were Sooty Shearwaters. There must have been a couple thousand of them, because they were flying past at a rate of about one per second. 

As I squinted at the shearwaters, I got a much bigger bird in my sights. It was all dark, and flying mostly low to the ocean, but occasionally rising up like it was riding an invisible roller coaster. My first thought was a booby, but then I got excited that it might be a Black-footed Albatross. I quickly fired off a bunch of pictures, and crossed my fingers that they’d make an ID possible. Zooming in on them on the back of the camera revealed an all-dark bird with super long wings, a 4-pointed star look, and what looked like a lighter neck. Black-footed Albatross was more likely at this location on the coast, though not this close to shore. The overall shape suggested that it was either a juvenile Brown Booby or a juvenile Red-footed Booby. Red-footed Booby had only been reported before once in San Luis Obispo, in 1984, so that seemed less likely.

When I got home on Monday, I got my pictures downloaded, cropped, and pixel-peeped in Photoshop and posted them on eBird as a Brown Booby (which would trigger eBird review; Black-footed Albatross wasn’t flagged as rare). Later that night, I saw a Monday morning report of a Red-footed Booby in Morro Bay (just 10 miles from where I’d seen my big-winged pelagic bird). That sighting was up close, and the excellent photos showed an all-dark bird just like the one I’d seen two days earlier. It also had a lighter neck. And it showed some feather wear/molt that, if you zoomed in even farther than I have for the pictures above, was also present in a couple of my photos.

The next morning, an eBird reviewer emailed that the bird I saw Saturday looked a lot like the Red-footed Booby seen on Monday in Morro Bay, and suggested I change my report from Brown Booby. So I did. And that’s how I came to have the second eBird record ever for Red-footed Booby in San Luis Obispo County.

Red-footed Booby Montana de Oro State Park

The view at 400mm (on a crop sensor camera)

We got one last birding gift as we left the campground. Perched in a bush, visible from the road, was a beautiful napping Barn Owl. All in all, a wonderful weekend getaway.