I was fortunate to do a ten day trip to San Diego County in February 2017 - with 100% of my time dedicated to bird photography (maybe 95%). I was surprised at the relatively sparse information online regarding bird photography hotspots, so I wanted to put a few quick posts (based on my limited experiences) to hopefully aid others who visit SDC in the future. This post details my time at the Cabrillo National Monument!
My understanding of the site is - it's an incredibly beautiful park/monument, and not one you'd immediately think of as a bird photography destination. I was lucky to get some inside tips on this site, and capitalized on a select few species. Be sure to check up on entry/exit times for the park, as you could be left high and dry (outside the gate) if you're trying to arrive for dawn... My first visit was a mid-day scouting expedition, as I was told there were tame California Thrashers that hung out in the parking lot. During the scout, I quickly realized that two pairs of tame California Scrub-Jays and California Towhee's were hanging around the visitors centre - so the stage was set for this explosion of California-themed birds!
Due to the abundance of morning-suitable destinations and the unfavourable morning hours, I arrived early afternoon & was ready to shoot as soon as the light was good. The California Towhee's were the most reliable - and the biggest challenge was simply trying to get a shot of them on something other than the walkway... Some creative ideas + time eventually resulted in some opportunities.
Before long, the California Scrub Jays returned. Similar to the CalTow's - they were so relaxed that getting eye-contact was one of the bigger challenges... Another challenge was the wind direction - directly the same as the position of the sun, so the birds were facing directly towards me when perched in many images (such as the intro image!). Here's a different look at one of the Jays:
With CalTows and CalJays covered reasonably well, the only Cal left was the CalThras! (Calthrashies?). I would sporadically hear their songs, and when one started from the bushes in the parkinglot - I ran over to check it out. I could clearly see the bird from a backlit angle, but couldn't locate the darn thing from the proper side! Pushing the light-angle to the extreme, I was finally able to get a tiny window to shoot through the branches. The image isn't an award winner, but I was really happy to get SOMETHING presentable of this super-cool species.
Beyond these three species, my opportunities were extremely limited... During a brief 10 minute period, a small wandering pocket of birds arrived and I somehow managed to make a few "keepers" (Orange-crowned Warbler and Golden-crowned Sparrow) despite the fact they were pretty wary.
By 5pm, the site was closing - and I was genuinely worried about drawing the ire of park staff - so I quickly shuffled down the road to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery to watch the sunset. I'm not a fan of doing bird photography in a cemetery, but I couldn't resist a few tame Western Bluebirds. You can be sure that - if I were a San Diegoian - this peninsula would be a favourite birding haunt of mine - but that's not the purpose of this post!
So: here's the standard summary:
The Good: Tame passerines are a real treat to photograph. This site had the specialties I was after (CalTow, CalJay, CalThrashes). You could practically rename it Calbrillo! I was very happy with the shots I came away with after only a few hours of shooting.
The Bad: The diversity & shooting options were pretty limited - however it's hard for me to truly judge with only a single afternoon of proper shooting in February...
The Ugly: Cabrillo does not cater to birders. Or bird photographers. The hours are not ideal (afternoon may be best for photography, but it's hard for me to really say). I think it would be great to keep the "over-the-top" photographers at bay, but then the tables are turned when you suddenly feel like someone might question (or scold) you for whatever techniques you're trying to get the shot. It's very minor - as my experience was 100% positive - but I couldn't help but get a vibe I typically try to avoid at all costs.