Mendocino Coast Audubon Society logo Mendocino Coast Audubon Society

by Jerry White

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Usal Beach Campground located in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park may turn out to be one of the most productive “vagrant traps” Mendocino County has to offer. Although little explored by local birders, this area has to date produced records for a number of unusual species, including eight of the sixteen vagrant warblers currently on the Mendocino County Checklist. Depending on the time of year it is also a good location to look for a number of the more common residents, migrants and summer visitors. On a trip to this northwestern Mendocino County destination one will experience spectacular views of the ocean, travel through and explore an intriguing number of natural habitats, and come to understand why this area is called the “Lost Coast”.

Directions: On Highway 1 look for MM 90.88 and turn onto Usal Road (County Road 431), a dirt road that ascends a fairly steep hillside. This turnoff is about 30 miles north of Ft. Bragg, or if traveling on Highway 101, about 15 miles west of Leggett. From Highway 1 to the Usal Campground is about a 6-mile drive that will take 25 minutes or more. The complete trip from Ft. Bragg to Usal will take at least 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Usal Road is a narrow, winding, sometimes steep dirt road that was at one time a part of the stage line between San Francisco and Eureka. During the rainy season this road is impassable for most vehicles and is not recommended for trailers or large RV’s anytime of the year.

Usal Campground has pit toilets, picnic tables and a number of primitive camping sites, including a group camping area. There is a year-round fee station; as of 2007, day use fees are $4.00 and overnight camping fees are $15.00. For further information contact: State Parks, Eel River District Office, P.O. Box 245, Whitethorn CA 95589; call (707) 986-7711 for a recorded message or (707) 247-3318 to leave a message for a return call.

On the Usal Road portion of the trip you will pass through Coastal Scrub and moist coniferous forest habitats. Look and listen for Wrentits, towhees, sparrows and goldfinches in the coastal scrub. In the forests Red-breasted Nuthatch, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush and Pileated Woodpecker may be recorded. Many of these species can also be found once you arrive at Usal.

After driving 5.4 miles on Usal Road look for the pullout above the Usal Creek drainage area. From here you will have an excellent view of the ocean, the beach, and the forested area below. Notice the riparian woodlands (alders, willows), the grasslands and marshy area (if there has been enough rainfall), the extensive sandy beach, and across the small valley on the south facing slope a prime example of Coastal Scrub.

Continue on the road (a steep descent at first) and stop to bird or note the following locations: a large meadow, the entrance campground and fee station, and the bridge over Usal Creek. At the intersection right after crossing the bridge (about 0.6 miles from the pullout) turn left (or west) and follow the road for about 0.4 miles to the beach area.

If you decide to scope the ocean first, look for Marbled Murrelets, grebes, loons, and gulls. Next bird the Coastal Scrub and the grasslands and marshy area. Among the many sparrows look for Clay-colored Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow (Fall). A Say’s Phoebe and Willow Flycatcher have been seen in this area. A Palm Warbler was found here as well a Yellow-breasted Chat (Spring).

The rest of the morning can be spent birding the extensive woodlands. If you are here in the fall look for mixed flocks of passerines and pick through them carefully. Try the road and woodlands from south of the bridge to the entrance campground and including the large meadow. The group camping area, 0.10 miles north of the bridge, has been a good area. During the fall you should be able to walk the dry creek bed both east and west of the bridge. All of these areas have produced unusual birds.

A list of the rarities found at Usal include:

  • White-throated Swift
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler (only Mendocino County record)
  • Palm Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Clay-colored Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow

Usal has been birded extensively only in 2006 (mainly in September and October), as of this writing, with only a few other birding visits in prior years. At least 132 species have been recorded here so far and that number will increase significantly as more birders spend time in this unique and beautiful location.