Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Coastside: Pillar Point, Princeton

Pillar Point, just north of Half Moon Bay, is not the best spot for drive-by birding. There's no parking on the narrow road in, when you might spy an egret or great blue heron in the marsh. Once you reach the parking lot, walking is involved, albeit on a smooth, level trail with plenty of benches. But it's an easy, engaging stroll of less than a mile from the parking lot, past the marsh, along the scenic harbor and cliffs, to the open beach.

At any point there are spectacular vistas to contemplate from the benches. Although development keeps creeping along, the coastside retains its secluded fishing-village charm. On Saturday afternoon, the winds were unusually still. There was time to search for birds in the marsh -- we could hear but not spot them. Several large grebes were cavorting in the harbor, diving like aquacade swimmers. Once we reached the beach, there were pelicans galore.

Brown pelicans have a special place in our heart. We had given them up for lost years ago, when their eggs were collapsing due to DDT in the food chain. Now, every time I see them, I feel like Moses and the rainbow. They are a gift of hope, that we can choose to change our behavior, andsave other creatures from extinction.

Dozens of brown pelicans were flying overhead, rarely diving to feed. They would fly up to the top of the cliff--"Party at the giant golf ball" exclaimed James, alluding to the strange research dome on the research facility. Then they'd catch a thermal and glide out over the open sea.

The low tide revealed rock outcroppings offshore, with cormorants and pelicans perched on the crest, and two dozen somnolent sea lions basking on a ledge. Nothing spectacular. Just a quiet, restorative afternoon in a beautiful place.

Afterwards we cruised the fishing pier, and found another clutch of pelicans happily bobbing in the shallows near the kayak rental stand, as placid and unafraid as a bevy of mallards.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Salt Marshes Reclaimed: The Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge

The Don Edwards National Reserve encompasses 30,000 acres in three different sections of the southern end of San Francisco Bay. We went to the main nature center, at the Fremont end of the Dumbarton Bridge.

Driving up, we were greeted by the sight of six egrets poised in a pond -- a good omen for drive-by birders. We found the afternoon wind very strong, and opted to drive several miles alongside the bridge approaches, to a fishing pier on the piers of the old bridge.

If you've driven across the Dumbarton Bridge, you've probably noticed the salt evaporator ponds in their various stages, turning red with brine shrimp, or drying out with great chunks of salt blowing like in the wind. Now the ponds are being slowly reclaimed, left to leach out in the rains. And the birds are happy. We saw the usual gulls, a chorus line of red-legged stilts, all facing the same direction and turning with Rockette precision, then a flurry of tiny black and white birds scudding around the surface of the ponds.

The tiny birds sailed around like kids in bumper cars, dipping down for food from time to time. "Phalaropes!" I cried. They were described as swimming in circles, to stir up the brine shrimp, and the nature center said they were coming into season. We did not know how tiny they were, much smaller than the gulls.

So at last we saw pharalopes swimming in circles. James invented a new word game, "Shorebird or Musical Instrument." (Phalarope? Calliope? Whimbrel?) And I got some fine shots of the artistically weathered structures around the salt ponds.

While we were in Fremont, James wanted to check out what he calls the "Fake Lake", in a subdivision near Ardenwood. I had low expectations of seeing anything beyond the hordes of Canada geese that never leave Fremont for Montreal. But something large and white caught his eye. He stopped the car, and darned if there weren't two white pelicans joining the omnipresent geese.