Santa Maria Valley’s unique birdwatching potential The Santa Maria Valley is a largely unknown destination for birding enthusiasts. The valley’s unique geographic location provides extensive opportunity for bird watching. Santa Maria Valley rests in the middle of two of the best birding spots in the nation, Santa Barbara and Morro Bay. Because of its closeness to both the Pacific Ocean and oak woodland habitats, birdwatchers have access to two unique birding locales. Bird Watcher’s Digest recently published a feature on Santa Maria Valley, saying that the Santa Maria Valley is “an incredible birding area.” Bird Watcher’s Digest named a few of the best locations to spot birds throughout the valley, including the Rancho Guadalupe County Park and Dunes, the Barka Slough, Jim May Park, Colson Canyon and Oso Flaco Lake. Many birdwatchers also know that one of the best places to find birds is the Santa Maria Water treatment plant, which is one of few water treatment plants in the United States that still offers public access for birdwatching, as long as you follow basic safety guidelines. “Non-birders laugh, but birders know that these facilities attract many species of ducks and sandpipers (and predators such as peregrine falcons and burrowing owls).” Some birdwatchers refer to the Santa Maria Valley as “the frontier,” because although the valley is rich with birds, few local birdwatchers actively work the area. However, those who do bird watch in the valley are dedicated to their hobby. Each December and January, birdwatchers gather together for the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Birders in Santa Maria Valley have been counting birds in the annual count for nearly 40 years, heading out each December to hunt for as many bird species as possible within the Santa Maria Valley count circle, which spans 15 square miles, running along the coast from the San Antonio River Estuary to the Santa Maria River Estuary. The counters have 24 hours to scour their count circle for birds. Alex Abela organizes the annual Santa Maria Valley-Guadalupe bird count, which took place on December 23, 2018. The count had eight participants who counted roughly 135 species of birds in a 24-hour period. The Pacific Ocean takes up much of the Santa Maria Valley count circle, which limits counting potential, but also provides opportunities to see rare birds along the coastline. Some species make surprise appearances in each count. “Over the years, we’ve seen a few birds that are very unique to the area,” Abela said. “This year, one bird that was a nice surprise was a Mountain Bluebird.” Abela said that birders of all levels are welcome to join next year’s count. “Everybody starts birdwatching at some point, and anyone who wants to participate can,” Ablea said. “We pair less experienced birders with more experienced hobbyists to ensure everyone has a good time. We want to cultivate the next wave of people who can help us with the yearly Christmas counts.” This year’s Christmas Bird Count will be held on Dec. 23. More information about the Santa Maria-Guadalupe bird count and all other locations will be posted on the National Audubon Society website, including information about the date, time and contact for each count. *** In the Santa Maria Valley, there’s so much to do from here. Hit the road and explore all you can do. The Santa Maria Valley boasts 24 hiking trails, 34 tasting rooms, 6 unique AVAs, 15 beaches, and a growing selection of local breweries, all within a beautiful 30-minute drive. There is no need to venture far if you are looking for sand dunes, cycling and authentic Santa Maria Style dining. You’ll find it’s the perfect home base, where you can eat, drink and do more for less.