Staring at a map, it looks like it’s smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. But the Carrizo Plain National Monument is only a scenic 90-minute drive from San Luis Obispo, two hours from Santa Barbara or a quick hour from Bakersfield. And for anyone who makes the trek, a thrilling reward of winter birding awaits.
“It’s a spectacular landscape with a tremendous diversity of winter raptors and other birds,” said Tom Maloney, a project director in The Nature Conservancy’s Central Coast Region. “You can see raptors in every direction, and there are roadrunners and other grassland birds like mountain plovers. Take binoculars. You won’t be disappointed.”
The Conservancy made its first major purchase on the Carrizo, which was named a national monument in 2001, more than 20 years ago. Since then, we have worked with the Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management to increase the Carrizo Plain National Monument to 250,000 acres. Today it increasingly attracts attention —visitors have come from 6,000 miles away in Mongolia, and researchers are using satellites located many miles above the Earth’s surface.
A Pristine Wilderness
The Carrizo Plain has been called “The Serengeti of California.” Vast expanses of grassland are punctuated by golden rolling hills with limitless vistas. The Carrizo is a spectacular and unique example of California’s rapidly disappearing wilderness.
There are few roads and even fewer people, especially in winter. If you’re looking for solitude, with no one but birds, tule elk and pronghorn for company, the Carrizo Plain is the place.
More Birds Than You Can Imagine
According to Greg Smith, retired superintendant for California State Parks (he visits the Carrizo Plain dozens of times a year), the outstanding bird diversity here in winter is due to the large protected habitat situated directly beneath the Pacific Flyway, the U.S.’s westernmost commuting corridor for millions of migratory birds.
“It looks desolate,” Smith says, “but there’s a lot of life out there.”
See for Yourself
If you get a chance, go explore. Soda Lake, which sits at the northern end of the Carrizo, is a hot spot for birders when it has water. The Conservancy’s Maloney advises you to get there by 9 am, when the ground begins to heat up — encouraging thermals that create a playground in the sky for hawks, eagles and falcons.
Many raptors can be seen throughout the day. If you are looking for owls — great horned, short-eared and others — then stay until twilight.
Maloney says to pack a picnic and water for the trip and be sure to have a full tank of gas. There are no services. You’re in the wilderness when you’re at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
What You Can Expect to See:
- American Kestrel
- Prairie Falcon
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Ferruginous Hawk
- Golden Eagle
- Barn Owl
- Burrowing Owl
- Great Horned Owl
- Long-eared Owl
- Short-eared Owl