This season we did not get as much rain in October as we had hoped, but for much of North America, the winter storm pattern has begun in earnest. Big storms start to spin up west of Alaska, riding the jet stream south and east across Canada and the lower 48 states. Thousands of birds fly ahead of the storms, with many stopping to rest along the Central Coast.
In December, the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count will endeavor to find more than 200 species of birds in San Luis Obispo County. Members of bird species that live here year-round are called “residents,” while those that spend winters here are called “winter migrants.”
A visit to the beach is quite interesting at this time of year, worth overlooking those smelly piles of kelp tossed ashore by winter storms. Millions of kelp flies provide nourishment for migrating shorebirds. Curlews, sandpipers and plovers patrol the surf like feathery salvagers, snapping up a meal or poking their beaks into the sand to find a hidden morsel.
A new addition to the shorebird party is a local resident, the mallard duck, which is normally found in creeks and ponds. Often seen in pairs, the male has an iridescent green head and yellow beak, while the female is streaky brown with orange legs. As a rule, mallards are freshwater birds, but in the past few years, they’ve headed to the beach to nibble on sand crabs. Biologists first observed this new behavior in 2011. Since then, mallards have been seen at the San Simeon Cove and Arroyo Laguna beaches. It’s a bit of a surprise to hear the familiar quack and see web-footed ducks amid all those leggy shorebirds.
Biologists speculate that this adaptation may have developed when freshwater creeks and estuaries began to dry up, causing the ducks to seek food elsewhere.
They suggest that mallards imitated surf scoters, winter migrants that also feed on sand crabs.
Around this time of year, we also start seeing “snowbirds” on our local beaches. Snowbirds are people who spend winters here for the same reason as the real birds — the mostly mild winter weather on the Central Coast.