Advice for December Trip to Central California Coast

In December, I will be making a trip to the Central California Coast with several others. They are not birders so I am trying to find places that have both new birds for me and have historical, natural, or pop culture significance for them.

The target species for me are red-breasted sapsucker, wrentit, band-tailed pigeon, red-throated loon, lewis’s woodpecker, nuttall’s woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, california thrasher, california quail, oak titmouse, chestnut-backed chickadee, and golden-crowned sparrow. I know it is unlikely to get all of these but hopefully I can get a few!

We will be in Morro Bay whale watching and possibly Morro Bay State Park, go to Cambria for 2 days to see the elephant seals and possibly explore Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Hearst Castle and the areas around there and then travel back to Santa Monica Mountains area where from what I’ve seen Malibu Creek SP is the best option.

If anyone has any experience in these areas and can make recommendations, it would be greatly appreciated! Also, any recommendations on trails within these parks are welcome. Thank you!


Well, that’s quite a bit south of the area I’m familiar with; but several of those species are not hard to find. Any time I went into the hills outside Napa, I would see Oak Titmice if there were oaks in the area, and California Quail if there were semiopen brushy areas. I expect those to be similarly close to the cities and towns you are visiting. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, likewise, is fairly likely where there are woods. Golden-crowned Sparrows are less common than White-crowned Sparrows, but they will occasionally be seen together in wilder areas of towns.

Now the Wrentit is a bit harder, as I have only come across it by luck. It was in landscaping shrubs along a greenway in American Canyon, with marshes along one side and residential neighborhood along the other.


I’ve spent most of my time closer to the Bay Area, but having been to Morro Bay once, I would recommend checking out Cerro Alto Campground in Los Padres National Forest (about 15 minutes drive up a road from Morro Bay). This is a very beautiful area where you should be able get most of the forest birds you mentioned (band-tailed pigeon, California quail, Nuttall’s woodpecker, wrentit, oak titmouse, chestnut-backed chickadee, golden-crowned sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, California thrasher). If you spend the night there or get there early in the morning, you can also get mountain quail, and northern pygmy-owl is fairly common at the campground during the day.

Red-breasted sapsucker and Lewis’s woodpecker aren’t likely at Cerro Alto, and I’m not sure where the best spots are for them in this area.

The marinas in Morro Bay have a lot of loons. I only saw common loons in March, but I think your chances for red-throated are pretty good.

If you are interested in non-avian species, this region has a number of cool endemics such as:

  • Big Sur shoulderband snail (Helminthoglypta umbilicata)
  • Morro shoulderband snail (Helminthoglypta walkeriana)
  • San Simeon slender salamander (Batrachoseps incognitus)
  • Morro manzanita (Arctostaphylos morroensis)
  • Sand Mesa manzanita (Arctostaphylos rudis)
  • Arroyo de la Cruz manzanita (Arctostaphylos cruzensis)
  • Oso manzanita (Arctostaphylos osoensis)
  • Santa Margarita manzanita (*Arctostaphylos pilosula)
  • Santa Lucia manzanita (Arctostaphylos luciana)
  • Pecho manzanita (Arctostaphylos pechoensis)
  • Bishop manzanita (Arctostaphylos obispoensis)

Some of these you can find in Morro Bay State Park, but most you will have to research and find very localized sites in the surrounding area.

If are willing to go to the Central Valley portion of SLO county, you find some cool regionally endemic kangaroo rats.


Thank you! I’m interested in all species but usually focus on birds when travelling to new places. Are there many trails around the campground at Cerro Alto or is it mainly driving around? Also, do you have any tips to find salamanders in general? We don’t really have any here in South Texas so I don’t really know what to look out for.

I looked at the Santa Monica Mountains and Angeles National Forest and they seemed promising for the Lewis’s woodpecker and red-breasted sapsucker when we are heading back toward LAX.

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Thank you! I’ll keep looking into the habitats and behaviors of these species to try up my odds!

Please keep in mind that winter is when California gets most of its rain, and many of the roads along the Central California Coast, including US 1, are prone to extended closures due to enormous rock slides. There are many amazing nature areas and parks around Big Sur, but one cannot count on being to get there from Morro Bay. Morro Bay itself is quite gorgeous, and you are likely to see many of the birds you mention on the trails leading out of town.


When we looked at the map, it looks like highway 1 still has two closures from last winter so we found a backup route if we need it! Thank you for the heads up


Cerro Alto Trailhead is inside the campground, which leads to both 1.7 mile and 4.7 mile trail options. I spent my short time there mostly along the entrance road, which is also very nice and had most of the species you mentioned, in case you only have a short time to spend there.

Winter is an ideal time to find salamanders in California, so most species can be found in December. Salamanders like to stay under cover where there is sufficient moisture, more often logs than rocks (although there are exceptions). When you flip a an object, carefully scan to see salamanders underneath. Larger species are rather obvious, but smaller species in Batrachoseps may be harder to see at first and may only have tails exposed. There are some exceptions, for example, Taricha newts are more easily found in breeding ponds, and Aneides lugubris is more often found in tree crevices and water utility boxes. Many species are found throughout California, but many are highly localized. California Herps is a good site for habitat and identification information for various species.

As a matter of practice, please be careful when you are flipping to minimize damage to the underlying microhabitat. Be judicious in the amount that you flip in any given area, avoid crushing any organisms you find (remove organisms, replace log, and place organisms to the side of the log instead of rolling logs back onto them), and always place flipped objects back exactly as you found them. Also note that in many reserves and parks flipping of any kind is not allowed. Minimize handling of salamanders (oils and products on hands are absorbed through the skin, also desiccates), and use gloves when possible.


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