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Nearshore flocks on Santa Monica Bay

November 18, 2022

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

Winter is the season for nearshore flocks on Santa Monica Bay. By “nearshore” I mean 25-500 yards from the shore. While there are flocks of gulls, I’m primarily talking about sea ducks and grebes. There can be many flocks of either, numbering from a dozen to many thousands of birds. Many of these birds also occur in and near lagoons, channels, bays, harbors and rivers, where they’re usually closer and easier to see. A telescope is not absolutely essential for the (much) closer birds — only 98% essential. The information below is a very rough guide.

If you’ve never seen some of the birds listed below, the time to get out out and look for them begins now. The several western capes/points (e.g. Point Dume, Mugu Rock) can be good and whales occasionally pop up there, plus dolphins and seals. The several miles of beach around Dockweiler Beach often has the largest nearshore flocks, but parking is tricky. The beach directly in front of the Hyperion water treatment can have large beach flocks of many species, including Mew Gulls, which seem attracted to sewage facilities.

The impetus for this posting was the following comment from LACoBirds chatline, which linked to a couple of photos. Richard Barth is a very well-known and long-time LA area birder who frequently checks the nearshore flocks in season:
Thurs 17 Nov
This morning a Surf Scoter flock south of Grand Ave (El Segundo Beach) had a White-winged Scoter and two Black Scoters. Poor photos on my eBird post, I scrambled to get some grainy long shots.
Richard Barth, West Hollywood

Richard’s Photos below:

Scoter Ducks
As 99% of scoters will be Surf, what you’re really doing is scanning for those that aren’t. Learn their field marks ahead of time and/or carry a field guide.
Surf Scoter: The most common sea duck
Black Scoter: Roughly 0.1-3.0% of scoter flocks
White-winged Scoter: About the same as Black

Other Ducks
The few eiders & Long-tailed I’ve seen were in small “harbors”, such as Redondo Beach and Ventura.
Common Eider: Accidental on West Coast
King Eider: Accidental on West Coast
Long-tailed Duck: Rare
Harlequin Duck: Rare

They can stay underwater for several minutes. Be prepared for them to suddenly pop up.
Western Grebe: Most common species by far in nearshore grebe flocks
Clark’s Grebe: About 1% of a Western Grebe flock will be Clark’s
Eared Grebe: On fresh & salt water; previously super-abundant on Salton Sea
Horned Grebe: Less common than Eared on fresh and salt water
Red-necked Grebe: Rare on SoCal coast, among westerns, likes bays, harbors, etc.
Pied-billed Grebe: Seen more often on brackish or salt water

Loons appear in small numbers nearshore. At Malibu they can be near the surf zone, very rarely in the lagoon. When feeding they dive a lot, can stay down several minutes, and may swim far underwater. Percentages below are for Surfrider Beach nearshore. They fly low to the water and constantly flap because they’re relatively heavy for their wing surface area.
Common Loon: 25%
Pacific: 60%
Red-throated Loon: 15%
Yellow-billed Loon: Rare; usually seen in bays or lakes.
Arctic Loon: Rare

These tend to be farther offshore, where some flocks may be large, but they occasionally show up nearshore or in bays and harbors. All of them dive a lot and stay down for minutes, except when resting. You’re not likely to see any of them from the shore, but they are listed here in rough order of probability. They also fly low and constantly flap.
Common Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Marbled Murrelet
Scripp’s Murrelet
Guadalupe Murrelet

All shearwaters “shear” the water, long glides between rows of waves, wingtips almost touching the water, rarely flapping; similarly-sized and shaped gulls flap a lot & fly higher.
Black-vented Shearwater: The most common close enough to shore to be at all visible; seasonal.

There are of course many other species out there flying around, diving and resting. This list is not intended to mention all possible birds.

One Comment
  1. rayjuncosa permalink
    November 18, 2022 9:02 pm

    Hi Chuck,

    This is a very helpful overview with enough detail to make it possible to go as far as you want. The identity of the flocks that I see off Will Rogers Beach have been a puzzle for me for years. While running or walking or bicycling I don’t have binoculars with me and the birds are just tiny black dots.

    Thanks, Ray



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