EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
The day dawns as every other here on Twin Peaks in San Francisco, fog creeping and crawling in over the hill from the ocean and down into Noe Valley. An hour or so after sunrise, the mist slips down towards the bay and evanesces. The sky is a glorious blue, not a cloud to be seen, as Danny, Dylan, our son, and I pack up the car to spend a few days in central California.
We speed down the highway seeing the occasional red-tailed hawk perched on a pole above the hillsides dotted with dark green Monterey pines and live oaks. Roadsides abound with yellow and white, pink and purple wildflowers. The persistent drought is noticeable only in the slightly browner hillsides, the long, silky grass rippling in the wind.
At the motel in Salinas, John Steinbeck’s hometown, we reorganize. After washing up, it’s back in the car to head over to Moss Landing on the coast. Although there is a serious drought, agriculture is booming; California provides an amazing 60 percent or more of the produce consumed in the United States.
This area is a crazy quilt of perfectly-planted fields, not a weed to be seen between the meticulous rows. Giant squares of grayish-green brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), abut spiky, even paler green patches of artichokes. Miles of dark green, strawberry fields are alive with workers, bending and picking giant red berries, so large they are visible from the road as we speed by.
At Moss Landing, the lagoon off Monterey Bay is home to an absolute circus of sea otters. Pairs twist and roll together. Others turn somersaults over and over. A few are quite white-faced. Most of the otter gang, though, is utterly relaxed lallygagging in the water, floating on their backs, hands aloft cleaning whiskers and face while watching their wiggling toes and tagged tails. They ignore the kayakers and paddle boarders who cut through the water not 10 feet away.
On the flats at the other end of the lagoon, a few shorebirds have tracked down from the north including my favorite -- the long-billed curlew. That bill looks so unwieldy, but they are agile and can probe and drill into the sand from all directions. The bird bows his head and slips the entire bill into the sand, once, twice and then again, an impossible- looking maneuver. The marbled godwits look small and the willets even smaller compared to these giants.
On the exposed flats, sleek-looking Herrmann’s gulls sit in a mass of velvet gray, all with white heads and bright red bills. A flock of Caspian terns dwarfs the five Forster’s terns sitting nearby. Across the way at the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough, we pick up avocets and stilts. White pelicans join the ranks of brown pelicans.
After a leisurely walk at the main portion of the Elkhorn National Estuarine Research Reserve, seeing flocks of house and goldfinches, Cali-
fornia and spotted towhees, many herons and egrets, we head another section of the reserve near the Moonglow Dairy. Following the ranger’s directions, Dylan turns onto a dirt road. We pass fallow fields filled with stalky weeds and wildflowers (orange poppies and yellow mustard) looking for the smaller road to the eucalyptus grove.
White-fenced fields on both sides house black-and-white cattle: Jersey cows in one field, young Jersey heifers in another. The left turn brings us through a dirt field of long mounds of drying manure. A bulldozer is working, moving one lengthy pile a few feet over creating a new, now-steaming ridge. Even with the windows closed, our eyes water.
At the end, we park facing the slough and walk to where we see other birders. It is incredibly loud with squawks, grunts and even some melodious wails. Noting the white wash on the ground beneath our feet, we quickly walk to the open levee and turn around to face the grove. The eucalyptus are all pale, pale gray so covered with bird guano. The noisy nursery of three different species is filled with hundreds of birds, sitting, perching, squawking.
A great egret nest has two gawky young’uns already standing tall; a great blue baby hunkers down in the next nest. Betwixt and between are hundreds of double-crested cormorant nests, some with hatchlings, others with parent sitting on eggs. There is no rhyme or reason to the placement. Each tree is an apartment house of nests -- cormorant, cormorant, great blue, great egret, cormorant, egret, egret, egret, cormorant, cormorant, great blue. This cacophonous chorus ignore the turkey vultures slowly gliding over.
As the sun lowers in the sky, we travel back along one of the side road towards Salinas. We zoom past picture-perfect vineyards, miles of green, grape vines lining one field after another. Hmmm -- perhaps it’s time for a wine tasting. Google directs us to a couple of executive offices and actual vineyards before we stumble across the Odonata wine tasting room.
The proprietor is busy with customers as we walk into the cool barn-like building. A fortress of casks line the wall opposite the bar. Soon, after Dennis completes a sale, he is talking to us as he pours. This is his second day here, although he has spent many years in Santa Cruz and has a tasting room there as well. Not only does he own the vineyards, he is the vintner.
Three excellent whites, three even better reds -- all blends and each with a complicated recipe, if one can compare cooking to blending. Wine-making is a science with a language of its own. I may be able to tell a tanager from a titmouse, but distinguishing a "dense, mouth-coating tannin’’ from a "crisp mineral backbone?" No! Maybe it’s time to go back to school!
All six Odonata wines were delicious. Alas, Dennis Hoey makes only 1,000 cases a year and does not ship to the Berkshires.
Time for dinner back in Salinas! At the Growers’ Pub and Steakhouse, where the walls are covered with old farming photos paying homage to the surrounding agricultural industry, we feast on locally grown meat, fish and vegetables. An excellent meal to end a perfect California day!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.