Thursday, August 28, 2008

Marin: Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District Ponds

Sunset magazine keeps following us. That's been our little joke for several years, since an issue featured several places we'd been, including a shot of the very table San Francisco restaurant where we'd eaten the week before. It's nice to have your perceptions validated.

I've also enjoyed a book by John Muir Laws on Sierra Birds. It's just the size to tuck into your backpack or guide bag, and organized by color of bird, perfect for us novices. So when the newest Sunset featured a column by the estimable Mr. Laws, and his top recommendation for local birdwatching was Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District facility in Marin, I was doubly pleased.

We first heard of LGVSD from James' parents, the veteran birdwatchers. It's a place where a short walk bringing great dividends. The ponds and wetlands occupy over 300 acres, but hiking trails along the levees are compact, with benches spread conveniently along the way. Great swaths of marshland border a placid San Francisco Bay. It's a stopping point for shorebirds, egrets, and trees full surly night herons, who appear in the late afternoon to need their first cup of joe.

The ponds are a side benefit of the Marin water treatment plant. The treated water becomes a life source for whatever the birds feed on. A potential ecological minus becomes a plus, as a place for birds is created amid all the encroachments of "civilization."

James is greatly amused by the sludge tanks, where large arms move slowly about the circular tank. The birds--mostly gulls--use the revolving arm as a sort of merry-go-round. They perch on the arm, ride around, and slowly flutter up and back down as it approaches an overhanging beam. They seem to think it's a special ride just for their enjoyment.

Las Gallinas led to our exploration of sewage treatment ponds as sites for drive-by birding. Not all facilities are so easily accessible, or turned into such a beautiful haven for wildlife. Unfortunately, many others cover their sludge vats, depriving the gulls and their watchers of harmless entertainment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Away Game: Reno-Tahoe

We've been birding on vacation, on a Reno-Tahoe expedition where we traced the great blue waters from Pyramid Lake, 35 miles north of Sparks, back up the Truckee River, to beautiful Lake Tahoe.

We found lots of help online from the Lahontan Audubon Society based in Reno. They also publish this information in book form, which is more convenient than riffling through printouts. Two caveats: many of the roads involved were dirt--not good for our low-slung Prius, and the birds were running about two weeks earlier than advertised in the book published 10 years ago. By the end of July, most of the white pelicans had cleared out of Pyramid Lake, as far as we could tell. Apparently our paths crossed as they were heading to the Bay Area.

There may have been more birds around the corner, we simply didn't see them. We can vouch for a one exemplary drive-by birding site in downtown Reno: Virginia Lake, a few blocks west of the Peppermill Casino. It's a large urban lake, with a paved path and trees planted around its one mile perimeter. At that size, it contains a large island filled with nesting egrets and cormorants and gulls. There were also many ducks and those Canada geese that show no sign of migrating north. The black cormorants and the white egrets alternated along the edge of the island like so many cake decorations.

We also spotted a mystery bird that looked like nothing in our Sibley. It was determined to stay in the middle of the lake but I was able to zoom in on it, and include a nearby goose for size. It reminded me of a swan that had falled afoul (afowl?) of a wet Mondrian canvas -- white with color blockings. Something Chinese fleeing the Olympic flurry?

We also visited Swan Lake near Reno, and Spooner Lake near Tahoe and Highway 50. They are excellent sites but require moderate walks to get within viewing distance of all but the most random birds.