Monterey Bay Birding Festival draws more than 300 attendees

Ron Higa gets some bird shots at the Watsonville Slough.
Ron Higa gets some bird shots at the Watsonville Slough.

WATSONVILLE—As the sun was rising Friday morning, bird lovers trekked to strategic feeding and nesting areas throughout the Monterey Bay, their eyes attentive to the skies and the unique wetlands that attract hundreds of avian species and their admirers for the annual Monterey Bay Birding Festival.

“For a small region we have an amazing avian diversity,” said Wally Goldfrank of Santa Cruz who, with his wife Lois, was leading a small group of beginner birders through the Watsonville wetlands. The couple, which has traveled internationally to see birds, has been involved with the festival since its inception 11 years ago.

Within a few minutes, the group enjoyed the flight of a white-shouldered kite over a group of American avocets, white-faced ibis, great blue herons and other shorebirds dipping their feet in the freshwater slough near Heron Court.

At the same time, birders were gathered at Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur to see condors, Elkhorn Slough, Rancho Del Oso and Pajaro Dunes, just a few of the many birding events held this weekend. The event includes 35 field trips, 10 workshops and evening speakers.

“Everybody who’s involved in this festival really loves sharing this area with everyone else and enjoying the amazing bird life together,” said Debbie Dierch, festival chairperson and president of the board for the Monterey Bay Birding Festival Association.

Although the unusual heat and drought-shrunken reservoirs has had an impact on some of the field trips, smaller water supplies also means there is a higher concentration of birds in some areas making it easier to see more birds at once.

“When you’re looking for birds, it’s all about the food,” said Lois Goldfrank.

Bird lover Irene Higa, a volunteer docent for the Watsonville Wetlands and first-time festivalgoer, said she was there to learn.

There’s something special about learning from experienced birdwatchers, said Simon Thornhill of Santa Cruz. “What you’ve got here are experts that really know details about the birds and can identify them.”

Among the more than 300 attendees and 50 volunteers this year, are people from Britain, Florida and New York.

At the festival headquarters on the fourth floor of the Watsonville Civic Center, a community checklist of bird sightings was being checked off by the dozens. In addition to the many species common to the area was a growing handwritten list of surprises such as the yellow-headed blackbird, a white-winged scoter and a Lawrence’s goldfinch. People still reminisce about the previous years’ sightings of a dusky warbler and a common cuckoo, which helped put Watsonville on the map as a birding mecca.

“It’s wonderful for the community,” said Kurt Overmeyer, economic development manager for Watsonville. “We get a new crop of people every year and they all keep coming back because they love it.”

In addition to the boost for ecotourism it’s an opportunity for locals to get to know their own backyards.

“There are people who have lived here all their lives and never knew there was a slough,” said Cathy Gamble, volunteer coordinator.

The event continues Saturday with some of the same field trips and as well as shorter workshops on field sketching, bird photography and a class on a new bird identification smart phone app. After a raffle, the keynote speaker for Saturday is Jon Young, author of “What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.” There is also a night field trip to see owls in Robinson Canyon.


Monterey Bay Birding Festival

ABOUT: The 11th annual Monterey Bay Birding Festival is organized by a volunteer-run nonprofit association of the same name focused on birding and wildlife in the Monterey Bay region and California. The organization is involved in outreach through the annual festival, year-round ecotourism marketing of the region and wildlife education in local schools. The organization received the 2015 Mindful Birding Award for efforts to promote ethical birding guidelines and bird conservation.

TICKETS: Full event/day pass: $75/$40; students: $35/$20; children: free. Some events have additional fees such as $10 for workshops and up to $169 for a boat excursion. People are invited to sign up online at visit

FESTIVAL HEADQUARTERS: Watsonville Civic Plaza, 275 Main St., fourth floor.


6 a.m. Condor viewing at Andrew Molera ($15).

6:30 a.m. Various workshops at Elkhorn Slough, New Brighton Beach, Watsonville sloughs, Pinnacles.

7 a.m. Pelagic trip ($169) and bird photography basics.

8 a.m. Beginning birding.

9 a.m. Kayak trip ($55).

9:30 a.m. Field sketching.

3 p.m. Bird ID smartphone app.

6 p.m. Raffle.

7 p.m. Keynote speaker: Author Jon Young, “What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World” ($10).

8:45 p.m. Owls of Robinson Canyon ($15).

DETAILS:; 888-909-7829.


This article first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


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