Stalking the Wildlife of Cayucos Hillsides

 

Cayucos sits in the midst of varying ecosystems that support habitat for diverse wildlife: 

    • Our long stretch of sandy beaches with sandpipers racing from the waves;  
    • The shoreline of Estero bluffs with its oyster catchers and cormorants standing on the rocks;   
    • The surrounding grassy hillsides like Hollywood Hill, from which we can watch hang gliders and hawks circling in the updrafts; and 
    • The Morro Bay estuary with its otters and seals to the south.  

While Cayucos is often associated with seabirds like the Great Egrets on our welcome signs, the grassy hillsides of Cayucos have much to offer the wildlife watcher.  Our resident hillside expert, Dr. Joel Germond, maintains a list of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians spotted on Hollywood Hill.  This includes over 67 species of birds, 18 mammals and 12 reptiles and amphibians (excluding the shore birds, herons, water fowl and marine mammals that you can see from the hills).  You may even spot large predators like mountain lions.  Clearly, those of us who climb up the hills to exercise or get a great view of Estero Bay are missing a lot when we focus on reaching the peak and miss the wildlife! 

 

 

Birds spotted on Hollywood Hill include year-round residents, seasonal visitors, and nocturnal ones.  The bird list below is organized into broad categories (e.g., birds of prey) and subdivided into families (e.g., owls) or similar groupings.  For specific details like the size, shape, markings, color, habitat, behaviors and calls of different species there are many helpful free websites such as The Audubon Society’s audubon.org and the Cornell lab of Orinithology’s allaboutbirds.org, as well as many hardcopy guides to North American Western birds.  

 

 

Birds of Prey

Accipitridae - Eagles

    • Bald Eagle
    • Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle Face

  • Accipitridae - Kites and Hawks 
    • White-Tailed Kite
    • Northern Harrier
    • Cooper's hawk
    • Red-Tailed Hawk
    • Ferruginous Hawk
    • Red-Shouldered Hawk
  • Pandionidae - Osprey
    • Osprey
  • Vultures
    • Turkey Vulture
  • Falcons
    • American Kestrel
    • Peregrine Falcon
  • Owls
    • Barn Owl

barn owl in flowers

    • Burrowing Owl
    • Great Horned Owl
    • Screech Owl

The birds of prey include eagles, vultures, hawks, falcons and ospreys.  They have sharp beaks for tearing meat and talons designed to capture prey.  

  • Eagles are the largest in this family with wingspans of 6 to almost 8 feet.  Golden eagles are in the area year-round, and in the past have nested by Whale Rock Reservoir.   Bald eagles are winter visitors.  You are most likely to see eagles riding the updrafts where the wind off the ocean hits the Cayucos hills.  
  • Turkey vultures are slightly smaller and distinguished by their unfeathered red heads.  You may have seen turkey vultures feasting on carrion (dead animals), a common sight on the beach.  
  • If you are hiking at dawn or dusk, you may observe an owl.  There are at least four species in Cayucos.   
  • Common hawks include the large and ubiquitous red tailed hawk, often seen on posts searching for prey, the smaller red shouldered hawk,  the northern harrier with its distinctive owl-like mask around its eyes, and the Cooper’s hawk with its narrower tail and penchant for catching smaller birds.  The ferruginous hawk and osprey (a fish feeder) are winter visitors.   If you see a bird hovering like a helicopter, it is most likely a white-tailed kite searching for prey, it is a California protected species.  
  • In the falcon family, Cayucos hills are populated with American kestrel, formerly known as sparrow hawks.  They are the smallest of the birds of prey here and have very easily recognizable coloring.  Finally, we are very fortunate to have the fast-diving peregrine falcons nesting at Morro Rock.

You are probably familiar with the Game Birds (turkeys and quail)  and Corvines listed, especially crows, ravens and scrub jays.  The yellow-billed magpie is found only in California.  It is a black and white bird with a yellow beak and yellow streak around the eye, and is slightly smaller than a crow.   

 Game Birds

  • California Quail

California Quail on a log

  • American Turkey

Corvines

  • Common Crow
  • Raven
  • Western Scrub Jay
  • Yellow-Billed Magpie 

There are three hummingbirds commonly observed in Cayucos, Anna’s, Allen’s and Rufous hummingbirds.  Both Anna's and Allen's have green backs, but they can be distinguished by size (Anna’s is larger) and the presence of rust-colored feathers on the sides and tails of Allen’s hummingbird.  Male Anna’s have deep rose red feathers on their throats and crowns.  Male Allen’s have orange-red feathers on their throats only.  The male Rufous hummingbird is about the same size as the Allen's, but has a rufous back. The male birds are more colorful and most easily distinguished. 

Hummingbirds 

  • Anna's Hummingbird
  • Allen's Hummingbird
  • Rufous Hummingbird

 

Northern Flicker by Joel Germond

Passerines are perching birds with three toes pointing forward and one back to help them grasp their perches.  They include over half of all bird species, and most of the songbirds.  A description of the different passerines on Cayucos hills could fill a book.  Instead, we offer a few words of advice for fellow novice birders on their identification and recommend that you join the Cayucos Land Conservancy on one of its walks to learn more firsthand.  

Passerines

  • Sparrows
    • House Sparrow
    • Lark Sparrow

Horned Sparrow by Joel Germond

Lark Sparrow By Joel Germond
    • White-Crowned Sparrow
    • Gold-Crowned Sparrow
    • Song Sparrow
    • Grasshopper Sparrow
    • Savannah Sparrow
  • Towhees
    • Common Towhee
    • Spotted Towhee
  • Mimic-Thrushes
    • Mockingbird
    • California Thrasher
  • Starlings
    • European Starling
  • Shrikes
    • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Waxwings
    • Cedar Waxwing
  • Flycatchers
    • Western Kingbird
    • Say's Phoebe
    • Black-Crowned Phoebe
    • Olive-sided Flycatcher
  • Larks
    • Horned Lark
Horned Lark by Joel Garmond
Horned Lark By Joel Germond
  • Swallows
    • Cliff Swallow
    • Tree Swallow
  • Thrushes and Bluebirds
    • Western Bluebird
    • American Robin
  • Meadowlarks, Blackbirds and Orioles
    • Hooded Oriole
    • Western Meadowlark
    • Brewer’s Blackbird
    • Red-winged Blackbird
    • Tri-colored blackbird
    • Parrot Bills
      • Wrentit
    • Titmice and Chickadees
      • Oak Titmouse
      • Chestnut-backed Chickadee
    • Long-tailed tits
      • Bushtit
    • Wrens
      • Bewick’s Wren
      • Rock Wren
    • Kinglets
      • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
    • Vireos
      • Cassin's Vireo
    • New World Warblers
      • Yellow-Rumped Warbler
    • Cardinals
      • Lazuli Bunting
    • Finches
      • House Finch
      • Lesser Goldfinch
      • American Goldfinch
    • Nighthawk
      • Lesser Nighthawk
    • Woodpeckers
      • Acorn Woodpecker
      • Downy Woodpecker
      • Northern Flicker
    • Doves
      • Eurasian Collared Dove
      • Mourning Dove
    Most readers will be familiar with the Passerine species that regularly visit Cayucos backyards including sparrows, finches, blackbirds, starlings, mockingbirds, robins, orioles and doves.  
    • Similarity to a bird you know can help you identify them using a guidebook or website.  For example, if it looks like a mourning dove, but has a ring around its neck, check out a picture of an Eurasian collared dove.  
    • Next consider color;  Bluebirds and Robins are obvious examples of birds to be identified by color.  Other birds with distinctive red patches include the red-winged blackbirds, Cedar Waxwing, House Finch and Lazuli Bunting (with blue and red).  Birds with yellow feathers include the Western Meadowlark, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, and Hooded Oriole (yellow-green female and orange male).  
    • Bird location is helpful when trying to identify less common species.  Where there are trees, you may spot one of three types of woodpeckers: Acorn, Downy or Northern Flicker.  The Northern Flicker is a very timid woodpecker, and difficult to see close up.  Towhees perch in bushes in the chapparal, and thrashers are often found on the ground nearby thrashing through leaves searching for insects with their long curved beaks.  
    • Movement is another clue.  The Phoebes, Kingbird and Swallows are most easily identified by their darting or swooping flight patterns that help them catch small flying insects.   Similarly, one can watch the acrobatics of the goldfinch perched on a tree or plant eating seeds.  

    Lesser Goldfinch eating thistle by Joel Germond

    Differentiating the many smaller birds can require a close examination of size, shape, beak, and color, especially for the sparrows!  Binoculars, cameras and a guidebook can be very helpful.  Join the CLC for a walk to get tips from an expert.

    Recently, a roadrunner was spotted racing along a trail in the hills above 13th Street in Cayucos.  Perhaps he was encouraged by a wiley coyote.  On the hillsides you may also encounter coyotes, other mammals, toads, lizards, snakes or frogs.  Large mammals like mountain lions, bobcats and deer are few in number and best spotted in the morning or near dusk in areas with large bushes or trees that provide cover. Also look for evidence of their scat.  Holes or mounds of loose soil may be homes for the smaller resident mammals.  Reptiles are often found basking in the sun, and the Pacific Tree Frog is only found in areas with significant water.  The California Striped Racer shown below is unusual in that it carries its head elevated because it hunts by sight.

                

    Pacific Tree Frog and California Striped Racer by Joel Germond

    Mammals

    • Mountain Lion
    • Bobcat
    • Coyote
    • Red Fox

    red fox

    • Striped Skunk
    • Raccoon
    • American Badger
    • Long Tailed Weasel
    • Opossum
    • Ground Squirrel
    • Tree Squirrel
    • Antelope Jack Rabbit
    • Brush Rabbit
    • Deer Mouse
    • Vole
    • Pocket Gopher
    • Bats (unspecified)
    • Mule Deer

     Amphibians

    • Sierran Tree Frog
    • Coastal Horned Toad

     Reptiles

    • Lizards
      • Alligator Lizards (various species)
      • Western Fence Lizard
      • Western (Skilton's) Skink
    • Snakes
      • Coastal Garter Snake

    coastal garter snake

      • Valley Garter Snake
      • Diablo Range Garter Snake
      • San Diego Gopher Snake
      • Monterey Ring Neck Snake
      • Western Striped Racer
      • Western Green Racer
      • California King Snake

     

    Coyote Brush

    Plant Notes

    On a walk up the hill, you will see a small number of the listed species.  The abundance of these different bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species varies greatly due to the available habitat, especially plants for food and shelter.   Just looking at the hillsides we can see that the dominant vegetation is grass like wild oats.  These grasses are overwhelmingly non-native and were seeded on hills to improve their use as rangeland.  These grasses are fair to poor in supplying habitat for wildlife.  However, the chaparral areas have shrubs like coyote brush and sagebrush, as well as over 75 species of wildflowers like lupine, money flower and California poppy.  These areas support brush rabbits, the California thrasher and western fence lizard.  In the washes you will encounter arroyo willow trees with a thick understory of poison oak, stinging nettle and blackberry.  There are California live oaks in some areas too.  These are great places for spotting song birds and animals taking cover.  Most other trees on the hillsides were planted by residents, including non-native species like eucalyptus and native species like Monterrey cypress.   You can also see birds and animals taking advantage of ornamental or invasive plants such as this yellow-rumped Warbler perched on an invasive watsonia.

    Yellow-rumped Warbler by Joel Germond

    Geology Notes

    Ultimately, the geology determines the available plants to support wildlife.  The soil in the hills surrounding Cayucos is formed from weathered rocks (mainly sandstone and shale) with a base of Diablo and Cibo clays.  These clays have a very heavy texture that does not retain much water.  Thus the hillside soil limits the kinds of shrubs and trees that can be established for wildlife.     In contrast, downtown Cayucos rests on a sandy loam soil formed from a more fertile old marine bed that can support a broader range of plant life.  

    The environs of Cayucos provide the habitat that supports a bounty of natural wonders, of which you may be unaware.  If you take the time to look around, you can spot and identify many different species of animals and observe their behaviors.  The Cayucos Land Conservancy looks forward to your joining one of our hillside walks and finding out why this land is worth preserving.

    Most photos courtesy of Joel Germond.  Special thanks to Joel Germond and Bill Henry for the wealth of background information and editorial corrections.