Clellie Lynch: Acrobatic otters, surfing egrets

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EAST, CHATHAM, N.Y. — Car packed once again and Danny and I are off down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Cruz for a few days in that sunny city nestled on Monterey Bay. Soon we are gliding through Pacifica and then inching through the stop-and-go traffic around Half Moon Bay. Perhaps a Saturday filled with village pumpkinfests and promised pipelines (good surf) is not a day to travel this road. But the day is glorious and we are in no hurry.

Just past Half Moon Bay is Wavecrest, a recommended birding area on the cliffs above the ocean. A right turn brings us to parking lots and ball fields Saturday — full of young aspiring Jeters and A-Rods. Beyond the ball fields is a wide open grassy/shrubby area, lined on one side with dark green Monterey pines and cypresses. Beyond the conservation sign, the weedy walkways that meander across the field look more like abandoned roads and deer paths.

Here, a few Californians are running, walking, biking, dog walking high above the ocean, careful to avoid those places that are quite obviously eroded. The ubiquitous white-crowned sparrow sings only to be interrupted by an insistent song sparrow. Brewer's blackbirds abound. Western gulls shriek, crows caw.

Swoop! a shadow passes overhead. A hawk glides low in front of us, the flash of her white rear indicating the species: marsh hawk. A small hoverer, a sparrow hawk, drops into the grass only to rise up empty-taloned. A pair of red tails so much darker than their east coast relatives soars together, separates and then lands atop a tall tree, heads and eyes swiveling on the lookout for a mouse or bird.

There are not too many birds about in this predatorville, but the setting is spectacular. As we amble back, I see a bird on a bare branch buffeted about by the lovely ocean breeze. A white-tailed kite! a hawk-like, black-and-white predator with fierce red eyes. Eventually he flies up and circles about, crosses over the ball fields and is joined by a mate. 20

Dylan and Emily arrive at our cottage in Santa Cruz at the same time we do. After settling in, they, wet-suitted and sun-blocked, walk the few blocks to the beach carrying their surfboards on their heads. Surf's up! Danny and I wander along the cliff walk trying to find odd gulls and possible alcids. Alas, no new species.

For the next couple of days while they're surfing, we're birding. We find a Pacific loon or two, black and surf scoters, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, elegant terns, western grebes, Herrmann's gulls and, on the rocks, black turnstones and black oystercatcher. One morning, high in a tall pine tree, I see a large bird. Even without binoculars I can tell it is a late lingering osprey, or maybe, since it is sunny and warm, they remain here all winter. I check and they do.

Walking on water

Scanning the ocean I pick out what looks like a distant great egret standing on the water. It's quite far. Danny thinks it's a crabpot marker bobbing up and down, a large white cylinder with a long stick-like protuberance for grabbing and hauling, not unlike the colorful lobster pots of Maine, though all white. We continue along and I scan and see a couple more of these markers. While looking through the binoculars, I observe one spread its wings, fly a few yards away and land again on the water. Definitely egrets!

Egrets in the middle of the ocean! These should be the birds that represent Christ in culture and myth, pure white and walking on water. Or I should say, appear to be walking on water. Maybe they should be designated protectors of surfers. When we find a couple of these crabpot birds closer to shore, it is apparent they are standing on kelp and snagging insects from the surface of the blades. Amazing to watch as the birds rise and fall with the swells. Never saw one try to actually surf though.

The next day it's off to that wonderful lagoon at Moss Landing where the acrobatic sea otters splash-splash around with each other, taking no notice of birds, boat wakes or kayakers. Sea otters — sleek, brown, long-tailed swimmers — look much the same as our river otters, but are larger: 36" long versus 28" and not in the least bit shy of humans.

Occasionally a sea lion pops his head up here in the lagoon, but they are easily told apart from the smaller otter even though both have very obvious whiskers. The otter's head is quite light. Otters love to float on their backs and jump atop or over one another as if they are small children trying to imitate Cirque du Soleil yet can't quite stand upright. Sea lions are more content swimming together and racing and leaping o'er the waves.

Off the highway by a nearby working farm, we turn onto a dirt road and bounce over the pot holes and ruts along carefully fenced fields. A flock of birds flies up and disappears as they land in taller grass, but not before flashing those outer white tail feathers: western meadowlarks. One lands on the fencepost and shows off his brilliant yellow breast with the black chevron. Another white-tailed kite makes an appearance. Noisy red-wing blackbirds mingle with Brewer's. Here too white-crowned sparrows abound mixed in with secretive savannah sparrows.

A map shows another walkway on the other side of the river. We park near an abandoned-looking pair of boathouses to discover a gravel pathway that meanders along the water and around small ponds. Whimbrels and willets pick in and around the reeds. Western sandpipers race along the shore with sanderlings. Killdeer and yellowlegs work the marsh. And then I see a solitary avocet in one small pond and a trio of black-necked stilts in another.

Shorebirds are everywhere we could spend hours birding. But it is unbearably hot — 103 degrees — in the shade and there is no shade. Time to head back to Santa Cruz.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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