Spring Summer Fall Winter
Pillar Point Harbor (a.k.a. Princeton Harbor) is the only protected harbor on the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. A series of breakwaters running south and east of Pillar Point encloses the harbor, situated at the north end of Half Moon Bay.
A prime birding location, its abundance and diversity are greatest in winter and fall. It is worthy of a half to full day of your time. Since this is a bustling harbor, human activity can greatly affect birding success. Weekdays and periods of bad weather, when human traffic is low, are most productive.
The best area for birding is the protected northwest corner, reached as follows: from Coast Highway One, turn west at the stoplight at Capistrano Road and continue along the north side of the harbor to Prospect Way. Turn left onto Prospect, then a brief jog right on Broadway, to an immediate left on Harvard Avenue. Proceed through the boat yards to the end of Harvard Avenue, then turn right onto West Point Avenue, which curves around a marshy area and heads uphill to an Air Force Radar Facility. You will find the "West Shoreline Access" parking lot below the radar station. Be sure to look over the marsh before continuing on. When it is in a wet condition it serves as a stop-over point for small numbers of migrant shorebirds and waterfowl. Uncommon but regular in August and September are Baird's and Pectoral Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. Red Phalaropes may be blown into the marsh during windy storms from October to December. Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren, Virginia Rail, Sora and Lincoln's Sparrow are regular here. White-faced Ibis are among the rarities that have used this spot. In the winter Tricolored Blackbird often roost in the dense rushes and cattails. During the day they can be found feeding in freshly cultivated fields in the vicinity of the nearby airport.
The willow thickets, known locally as the Princeton Willows, are difficult to bird since the trails entering them are narrow and often over-grown. Additionally, the area features abundant Poison Oak and Stinging Nettles. Despite these warnings, it is worth persisting, especially in fall. The dense vegetation here - rich in insects, weeds and cover - attracts migrant songbirds, and many vagrant species (most notably "eastern" warblers) have been observed, mainly in September and October. A Common Poorwill once startled a birder in here, and a Least Flycatcher was observed in 2008. The Princeton Willows can be accessed in two ways. If you have parked in the West Shoreline Access parking lot, walk back along West Point Road and look for trail openings at the point where the road curves. You can also walk up the hill and travel north (away from the radar facility); the trail road at the summit has numerous pathways that enter the willows from above. Many of these makeshift trails are steep and treacherous, though, so take care.
Head south from the marsh and the parking lot and follow the dirt trail below the cliffs and toward the jetties. Scan the harbor for loons, grebes, cormorants, and sea ducks. Long-tailed Duck, Brant, and Red-necked Grebe are regular. The very rare Yellow-billed Loon has been observed here and should be looked for in the winter. During late summer and fall schools of fish often concentrate in the harbor and provide feeding grounds for large numbers of Brown Pelican, Elegant Terns and Heermann's Gull. During this season one or two Parasitic Jaegers may be spotted near the jetties, keeping a watchful eye out for fish-carrying terns. Common Murre and Pigeon Guillemot often are present near the harbor entrance or in the bay beyond, and a few Marbled Murrelets are often found further out on the bay. Of irregular occurrence, small numbers of Ancient Murrelets have been seen here in some winters as well. Other species of alcids such as Rhinoceros Auklet and Tufted Puffin occur offshore, and should be looked for with a spotting scope when weather conditions and visibility are suitable. Also be on the lookout for a sea otter in the kelp beds.
Where the dirt trail reaches the first jetty you will see Pillar Point Reef to the west. Low tides will expose a flat rocky reef north of the jetty. This reef is rich and diverse in intertidal marine life, and consequently is quite popular with fishermen, beachcombers and marine biology students. Several Harbor Seals are usually loafing about on the higher rocks. The exposed reef may be teeming with foraging shorebirds, including Black Oystercatcher, Black and Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattler, Whimbrel, and Surfbird. Look among the Surfbirds at the rockiest and most tide-washed portion of the reef for Rock Sandpiper -- one overwintered for a number of years. A Ruff overwintered in 2007-2008. When the tide is high these shorebirds seek refuge on isolated jetties within the harbor and are often difficult to find. If your timing is perfect you can usually find these shorebirds on the flat rocks inside the harbor just where the jetty begins in the northwest corner. Timing is critical. These rocks are covered at high tide and are productive only for the first half hour after the outgoing tide exposes them. Scan the sheer rock cliffs below the radar station for nesting Pelagic Cormorant, Belted Kingfisher, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows (spring and summer).
After you return to the parking lot, you may wish to take a short hike up the hill north of the radar station to a bluff above the beach. This can be a good vantage point for observing sea birds. Sooty Shearwater may be seen by the thousands in summer and early fall, often quite close to shore. Northern Fulmar are regular during the winter months, and in some years Black-vented Shearwater occur in fall and winter. A good spotting scope, cooperative weather conditions and patience are necessary to spot them. The grassy and scrub areas in the vicinity of Pillar Point have turned up a number of rare songbirds in recent years. Tropical Kingbirds, Palm Warblers and Clay-colored Sparrows occur in small numbers nearly every fall (October-December). Once you are at the bluff, you can walk north and dip into the willows, as noted above.
As you work your way back to Coast Highway One, check out the riparian area behind the Mezza Luna Italian restaurant, located at the corner of Capistrano and Prospect. This area has attracted good migrant warblers, and has hosted over-wintering Northern Waterthrush more than once. If you stop in the morning, there is no problem using Mezza Luna's parking lot, but please park on the street at any time when the restaurant is open. Crossing Prospect, you can walk above Deniston Creek to its mouth in the harbor.
Other good access points to Princeton Harbor are as follows:
The Main Pier is the best place for close-up studies of loons and grebes. May be extremely busy, but worth a brief investigation. A Brown Booby was visible here along the jetty in the winter of 2002-2003.
The Pillar Point Recreational Vehicle Parking Lot: A good place to scope the inner jetties for roosting gulls, pelicans and shorebirds. From the jetty here you can scope a good portion of the harbor. This has been one of the better spots to search for Long-tailed Duck.
Brown Pelican, Pelagic Cormorant, Brandt's Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black Oystercatcher, Western Gull, California Gull, Common Murre, Cooper's Hawk, Merlin, Great Horned Owl, Black Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat, White-crowned Sparrow (nuttalli race), Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer's Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Belted Kingfisher.
Brant, Snowy Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope (look in the pond, especially after fall storms), Parasitic Jaeger, Bonaparte's Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Short-eared Owl
Sooty Shearwater, Heermann's Gull, Caspian Tern, Elegant Tern, Pigeon Guillemot, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Prairie warbler.
Common Goldeneye (uncommon here), Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Pacific Loon, Eared Grebe, Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark's Grebe, Northern Fulmar, Black-vented Shearwater (irruptive), Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Virginia Rail, Sora, Wandering Tattler, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Glaucous-winged Gull, Short-billed Gull, Marbled Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, Say's Phoebe, Marsh Wren, Lincoln's Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Tricolored Blackbird
Uncommon Year-round Visitors
Green Heron, American Avocet, Black Skimmer, California Thrasher
In this guide, "rarities" are defined as those species given an County Abundance Code of 4, 5, or 6.
Greater White-fronted Goose (2017, 2019, 2020), Cackling Goose (2009, 2020), Ross's Goose (2009, 2010), Snow Goose (2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2020), Manx Shearwater (2016, in the harbor with massive numbers of Sooty Shearwaters), Wedge-tailed Shearwater (2017, seen on a pelagic but visible from shore at Surfer's Beach), Pink-footed Shearwater (2022), Blue-winged Teal (2013, 2019), White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck (2019), Long-tailed Duck (most winters), Yellow-billed Loon (1973, 1977), Red-necked Grebe (winter), Wedge-tailed Shearwater (2017, close to shore), Northern Gannet (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022), Brown Booby (2014 CBC, 2015), Red-footed Booby (2017), Cattle Egret, White-faced Ibis (2013, 2015, 2022), Peregrine Falcon (winter), Common Gallinule (2017), American Golden-Plover (2016), Pacific Golden-Plover (2010, 2011, 2014), Rock Sandpiper (rare), Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (2015), Baird's Sandpiper (2012, 2018), Pectoral Sandpiper (2013, 2014), Semipalmated Sandpiper (2010, 2012, 2014, 2015), Red Knot (2013, 2021), Wilson's Phalarope (2011), Black-legged Kittiwake (2014, near offshore boat trip, 2016, 2017, 2018), Ross's Gull (2017), Black-tailed Gull (2008), Laughing Gull (1998, 2017, 2022), Iceland Gull kumlieni (2017), Lesser Black-backed Gull (2011, 2017), Glaucous Gull (2017), Slaty-backed Gull (2011, 2017), Sabine's Gull (2020), Franklin's Gull (Deniston Creek Mouth, 2010), Royal Tern (2019), Common Tern (2015, 2017, 2018, 2021), Least Tern (2011, 2015), Black Skimmer (2018, 2019, 2022), Cassin's Auklet (seen in the harbor 2013), Scripps's Murrelet (2018, 2022), Tufted Puffin (2015), White-winged Dove (2016), Black-chinned Hummingbird (2016), Black Swift (2013), Loggerhead Shrike (2014), Willow Flycatcher (2016, 2018), Eastern Kingbird (2021), Western Kingbird (2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018), Tropical Kingbird (2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (2017, 2022), Least Flycatcher (2008, 2019), Vermilion Flycatcher (2020), Philadelphia Vireo (1995), Purple Martin (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), Bank Swallow (2013, 2017), American Redstart (2009, 2010), Tennessee Warbler (2011, 2016), Nashvile Warbler (2014), Blackpoll Warbler (2011, 2018), Black-and-White Warbler (2010, 2012, 2016, 2022), Northern Waterthrush (Deniston Creek Mouth, many years), Palm Warbler (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2020, 2021, 2022), Magnolia Warbler (2012), Chestnut-sided Warbler (2011, 2013, 2017, 2019), Ovenbird (2014), Clay-colored Sparrow (2012, 2018), Lark Sparrow (2012, 2022), White-throated Sparrow (Deniston Creek Mouth 2011, 2012; Mavericks Parking area 2016), Dickcissel, Yellow-headed Blackbird (2020), Bobolink (2015), Great-tailed Grackle (2015, 2016), Orange Bishop (B. Kossy, ca. 2003)
The harbor is located just west of Coast Highway One, 18 miles south of San Francisco and 4 miles north of Half Moon Bay. From Coast Highway One, turn west at the stoplight at Capistrano Road and continue along the north side of the harbor to Prospect Way. Turn left onto Prospect, then a brief jog right on Broadway, to an immediate left on Harvard Avenue. Proceed through the boat yards to the end of Harvard Avenue, then turn right onto West Point Avenue, which curves around a marshy area and heads uphill to an Air Force Radar Facility. You will find the "West Shoreline Access" parking lot below the radar station. To access the inner harbor area and the pier, turn left at the well-marked entrance off of Capistrano immediately after the turn off of Coastal Highway One.
Red Markers: Parking Area or Trail Head
Hover mouse pointer over marker, or click marker, for identification.
There are currently no fees associated with this area. There are parking meters at various points in the active harbor area; observe these fastidiously, as the area is patrolled regularly.
This area can be accessed at all hours. The main pier and inner harbor can be quite active during the early morning hours, because this is an active fisherman's harbor.
When walking out to Pillar Point and the outer jetty, beware of time and tide. It is possible to get trapped on the far north side of Pillar Point if the tides turn against you. As always near ocean rocks, beware of slippery surfaces. There are ticks along the grassland trails on the bluff top and in the Princeton Willows. The Willows area also has poison oak and stinging nettles.
Pillar Point Harbor is the home base for the wildly popular surfing phenomenon, the Mavericks. This annual competition brings the most skilled surfers from around the world, and their adoring public. The date of the competition is decided based on wave height, and so one simply needs to stay tuned to local media for information on whether or not, and when it is impending. When it is called, abandon all hope of birding Pillar Point for those days! Parking is impossible, and simply getting into the neighborhood of Half Moon Bay is daunting.
Restrooms are available at the public parking areas. Restaurants, fish markets, convenience stores and a few hotels are in the harbor area. The fish restaurants in this neighborhood inspire deep loyalty among their long-returning customers: time your visit to avoid long lines!
There are enough different jurisdictions for this area that giving a single contact point is difficult. To contact the harbormaster, call 650-726-5727. Rocks off of the northwest side of the point, and the coastline visible from the bluff, are part of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (see listing in this guide); the Reserve's number is 650-728-3584.
The situation in eBird for Princeton Harbor and Pillar Point is confusing: there are six distinct hotspots listed. These are Pillar Point, Pillar Point Harbor, Pillar Point--Willows, Deniston Creek Mouth, Princeton, and Princeton Harbor. When all six are considered together, there is data from all but two calendar quadrants, accounting for over 175 species. When you enter data for these areas, please try to determine which site is best by using the "Find It on a Map" function in eBird
Pillar Point Harbor, Reefs and Bluff was the site of a BioBlitz in 2014; view the results here.
There are two iNaturalist place markers for this area. The harbor proper, and the trail from West End Avenue, are covered under Pillar Point Harbor and the reef under Pillar Point Bluffs, Beach and Reef. These two sites are chock-full of information, since extensive coverage of this area has been one of the most important ongoing projects for the California Academy of Sciences.
San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory is conducting a long-range study of gull movements in the Bay Area. California Gulls have been leg-banded with plastic colored bands. If you see any of these gulls, please note the leg and the color of the band; if it is possible to read the number on the band, record that also. This information can be shared directly with Carly at SFBBO (firstname.lastname@example.org). If the birds also have a metal band, and you can read that number, too, please report that to the National Bird Banding Lab.
Visiting Pillar Point Harbor has been a staple of Sequoia Audubon Society since the 1950s; over 65 scheduled field trips have been held here through 2019!
Author: Peter J. Metropulos, Uploaded: March 24th, 2009 Last Update: October 6th, 2022, 10:43am. Updated by: Jennifer Rycenga
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