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McGrath State Beach

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Old Friday 11th July 2003, 16:06   #1
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Join Date: Jun 2003
Location: Sunnyvale, CA
Posts: 104
McGrath State Beach

Saturday, July 5, I visited McGrath State Beach, about
60 miles or so up the coast from Los Angeles, in Ventura
County. McGrath State Beach is a well-known birding
hotspot in southern California, containing one of the
region's last remaining estuaries (the Santa Clara River
Estuary, known to locals as the SCRE), several miles of
sandy beachfront, and a small coastal lake (McGrath
Lake). Despite the fact that it can attract hordes of
visitors on summer weekends, it is always worth a visit.

Arriving at noon, I first headed to the beach to see what
might be there. The beach was crowded, due to the long
holiday weekend and the beautiful, sunny weather; the
crowds kept nearly all of the birds off the beach, except
for a few of the bolder WESTERN GULLS. However, just
beyond the water's edge, birds flew by in small fits and
spurts. Most of these birds were BROWN PELICANS,
GULLS, and WESTERN GULLS, but at one point, 28
juvenile WHIMBRELS zipped by. They were probably
the first of many migrants to come.

After the Whimbrels disappeared from view, the usual
pattern of pelicans, cormorants, and gulls resumed. Just
as it was starting to get a bit monotonous, I suddenly
spotted a small pod of COMMON BOTTLENOSED
DOLPHINS cruising by, maybe 50 yards offshore in
relatively shallow water. It was soon followed by another,
and then another, and then another still, with each pod
containing three to five individuals. The dolphins
seemed unperturbed by all the human activity close to
shore, and even paused a bit to investigate what a few
surfers were doing, as the surfers swam out in their
direction. After a while, however, the dolphins grew
tired of watching human antics, and continued on their
journey south.

With the dolphins' departure, I decided to make my way
to the Santa Clara River Estuary, which was just a short
walk away. The rather uneventful trip there took me
through sand dunes covered with pink sand verbena
and beach evening primrose, then through some
disturbed coastal prairie containing a mix of exotic
ornamentals and native plants such as coyote brush.
Within 10 minutes, I was standing at the start of the
boardwalk leading out to the edge of the estuary.

The boardwalk sliced its way through the dense tangle
of willow, cottonwood, and bamboo (or some plant very
much like bamboo) that sprawled along the eastern
banks of the Santa Clara River. This rank vegetation
provided lots of cover, so most of the birds here were
heard rather than seen. I most often heard the songs of
FINCH, but the ethereal, spiraling call of a single
SWAINSON'S THRUSH was a welcome surprise. I also
spotted a few ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRDS as they zipped
their way through the low canopy; although the closely
related Costa's Hummingbird is always a possibility at
this location, it is generally much easier to find here in
the winter months.

After a quarter of a mile, I emerged at the very edge of
the estuary. The water levels of the Santa Clara River
were rather low that afternoon, revealing a large
expanse of foul-smelling mudflats. A long way out on
these mudflats, I could see hundreds of shorebirds -
both the smaller peeps, and larger birds that were
possibly more Whimbrels. They were too far away for
me to see clearly from where I stood, so I ventured out
across the mudflats to get a better look at them.

Fortunately, the mudflats were only slightly mucky, so
the trek across them was not as dangerous as I first
thought it might be. I soon found a gravel bar where I
set up my spotting scope, and then proceeded to
examine the birds in the estuary. The peeps that I had
seen earlier turned out to be a mixture of WESTERN
early DUNLINS; there were probably about a thousand
of them in total. The larger shorebirds turned out to be
With more of the estuary visible from the gravel bar, I
was also able to spot 24 BLACK-NECKED STILTS,
Rounding out the shorebirds were 13 WILSON'S
PHALAROPES, foraging in the deeper water of the
estuary. The phalaropes included adults molting into
alternate plumage and newly minted juveniles.

Joining the shorebirds were 250 BROWN PELICANS,
a few COMMON YELLOWTHROATS, the usual hoard
of loafing gulls, and three different species of tern.
Most of the terns had gathered on the mudflats where
the shorebirds were foraging, away from all of the gulls.
The biggest and most spectacular of these were 6
CASPIAN TERNS, with their large, red bills glistening
in the afternoon sun. Interspersed amongst the
Caspians were 7 FORSTER'S and 14 ELEGANT
TERNS. I examined the Elegant Terns carefully, to see
if a Royal Tern might be hiding amongst them, but
unfortunately, the Royal Terns had decided to spend
the afternoon somewhere else.

After 90 minutes of enjoying all the birds in the estuary,
I decided that I had just enough time to look for the
Least Terns at Hueneme Beach, 15 miles down the
coast. So, I hurried back across the mudflats and the
boardwalk, disturbing a BEWICK'S WREN and a
BRUSH RABBIT in the process. It was a shame that I
couldn't make the long, six-mile hike to McGrath Lake;
I suppose I'll have to save that for a future visit.

Good Birding!
Arnel Guanlao


More information on McGrath State Beach can be found
at the following links:

California State Parks:

Yahoo! Travel:

Conejo Valley Audubon Society:

Ventura Audubon Society:



McGrath State Beach
Ventura County, CA

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Gadwall (Anas strepera)
Mallard (Anas platyrhyncos)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)
Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americana)
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri)
Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
Dunlin (Calidris alpina)
Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni)
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)
Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia)
Elegant Tern (Sterna elegans)
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri)
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)
Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhyncos)
Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidpn pyrrhonota)
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)
Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) [heard]
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) [heard]
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)
California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis)
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria)


Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
California Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi)
Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani)
Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
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Old Friday 11th July 2003, 17:12   #2
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Sounds like an excellent day , what species of gulls have you seen here apart from the Western & Heermann's that you have mentioned?
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Old Friday 11th July 2003, 17:43   #3
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Location: Sunnyvale, CA
Posts: 104
All of the Pacific Coast gulls are possible there - Herring,
Bonaparte's, California, etc. Since it's a long, six-hour drive
for me (I live in the San Francisco Bay Area), I haven't birded
there that often, so I don't really know what shows up there

- Arnel Guanlao
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