By Michele Roest
Photos by KS Nature Photography/Krisztina Scheeff
Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, hundreds of people come to Morro Bay to learn about, watch, and photograph birds. Why?
Morro Bay is part of the Pacific Flyway, a north-south highway in the sky extending from Alaska to Central America. During the summer, millions of birds spend long days feeding and breeding in northern and polar regions. As autumn approaches, birds take flight, staying ahead of winter storms as they wend their way southward along the edge of the continent. Many birds stop at estuaries, lakes, and reservoirs to rest and feed before continuing on their southward migration.
By November, millions of birds have arrived in central California to rest or spend the winter in the region’s mild climate. Numbers reach their peak in December, and many remain until spring.
Morro Bay is located halfway along this massive migration pathway and serves as a resting spot for thousands of birds. Morro Bay is recognized as a Global Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by BirdLife International and other wildlife organizations, and it’s no wonder — more than 200 species are seen there most years.
Morro Bay’s estuary and its surrounding areas offer a diversity of habitats for migrating birds. Nature’s fast food restaurants, the eelgrass beds, shallow waters, and pristine coastline offer food and respite for hungry and weary feathered travelers.
Nearly a quarter century ago, local residents had the bright idea to combine birdwatching and tourism by offering a mid-winter festival to celebrate this remarkable natural phenomenon, and Morro Bay’s Winter Bird Festival was born. This year’s festivities run from Jan. 17 to 20, 2020.
The Morro Bay Community Center serves as the main hub of the festival — the departure point for more than a hundred field trips stretching from Paso Robles to Santa Ynez and the Carrizo Plain. Boating trips include kayaking, sunset cruises on the bay, and open water voyages. The festival covers four days filled with field trips, presentations, workshops, and special events. Some classes last an hour, while “Big Day” van trips travel to different habitats to see a hundred or more species in a single day.
Birdwatching is compatible with many other recreational activities, like wine tasting, with events like Wings Over Wine. Many trips are geared for nature photographers to get that elusive great shot. Some birds can be identified by their calls, so workshops on recording and identifying bird calls are popular. Other field trips offer a chance to see the iconic California Condor, which is still recovering from the brink of extinction. There’s even “Bare Naked Birding,” in which attendees observe birds with the naked eye (without the help of binoculars or telescopes).
While attendees are off on their daytime trips, the Morro Bay Community Center hosts a Bird Festival Bazaar that is open to the public, filled by vendors loaded with nature-inspired art, telescopes, binoculars, jewelry, wood carvings, and more. Young bird watchers are encouraged to attend the festival’s Family Day at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History, on Jan. 18, 2020.
Pacific Wildlife Care offers tours of their wildlife rehabilitation facility, where more than 2,000 wounded wild animals are recovered annually. Their Meet the Raptors program is appealing to all ages and open to the public.
Evening events are held at the Harold J. Miossi Cultural and Performing Arts Center at Cuesta College. Woodpecker expert Stephen Schunk’s talk, “How Woodpeckers Can Save the World,” is the topic for Saturday evening, while professional wildlife and nature photographer Krisztina Scheeff will give her stunning photo presentation, “Dancing With the Grebes,” on Sunday night.
Birding is popular in the United States, with more than 60 million Americans participating in some form of birdwatching activity. It makes a significant contribution to the U.S. economy, too — approximately $41 billion is spent annually on birdwatching equipment, books, feeders, and decorative items. According to the Morro Coast Audubon Society, San Luis Obispo County is one of the top-ranking birding locations in the U.S., with more than 200 species regularly observed during annual surveys. This makes Morro Bay a birding destination hotspot for beginning and experienced birdwatchers alike.
If you’re taking a Highway 101 day-trip on the third weekend in January, and it leads you in the vicinity of Morro Bay, you’re likely to see folks with binoculars. There’s a good chance they’ll be looking at birds.
To learn more about the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, visit morrobaybirdfestival.org
Michele Roest is a biologist and naturalist with a lifelong love for California’s Central Coast. Michele is the lead instructor for the UC Extension California Naturalist Program at Cuesta College.