Clellie Lynch: Hummers, hawks and heavenly feasts

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — As we circumnavigate Mt Tamilpais in Marin County, driving south, hairpin by hairpin, car windows shut, and head towards the Golden Gate, the smoky haze of those devastating fires becomes apparent. The fires are contained, but are still scorching the landscape north of San Francisco. Smoke creeps along down across the bay and even as far south as Santa Cruz.

The wind shifts and our first morning in San Francisco is brilliantly clear, dazzling blue sky and not a cloud in sight. Off we go to Golden Gate Park, this city being perfect for birding by day and feasting by night.

As usual, we start at the Botanical Gardens with its enormous collection of plants, shrubs and trees from around the world, many still covered in a rainbow of blooms. Gold, white, purple, pink and red. A dashing and dipping black phoebe works the pond near the entrance, hopping from rock to branch and back again. Sparrows — song, fox and the ubiquitous white-crowned — and yellow-rumped warblers (Audubon's) flit through the nearby bushes of the California Native Plant Garden.

Hummers at work

Stiit, Stiit, jika jika jika — Anna's hummingbirds are everywhere. At tubular purple blossoms of an exotic bush, on leafless branches heads swiveling back and forth as they tease one another, or hovering near bright red nasturtium blossoms of the vine that wends its way up and over an oak tree. I look in vain for a late lingering, orange-y, Allen's hummer. At one point I count nine hummers working the bush in front of us.

Nearby, skittering along the thick bark of a Monterey pine, a pair of tiny — almost as small as the hummingbirds but much chunkier — pygmy nuthatches search for minuscule bugs and larva. A solitary wild turkey stops in the middle of the path, looks us over, turns tail and trots back into the brush.

A flock of pine siskins peck and poke at pine cones at a towering treetop. A Hutton's vireo looks almost like a kinglet until you notice that bill. The Townsend's warbler is still very flashy, black and yellow against a body of gray and white.

The familiar red-shouldered hawks shriek from a picturesque Monterey pine, the exact place where we observed them in previous years. A Cooper's hawk joins the crew of predators this year. Gulls glut the small lakes — all except one are western gulls. The Thayer's gull stands out among this crew. But where are the promised glaucous-winged, supposedly common during this season?

Flickers flash red, not yellow; inky dark crows and ravens caw and croak, Steller's jays glide across and into the trees, jets of black and blue. Brewer's blackbirds beg the moment you sit on a bench. We tick off 45 species during this leisurely walk through the park.

After clocking six miles we are ravenous and join Dylan and Emily, our son and daughter-in-law, for dinner at Ardianna, one of their favorite restaurants in this city of wonderful restaurants and bistros, cafes and tearooms, steakhouses and grills. No matter vegetarian or carnivore, menus are filled with exquisite offerings.

Dylan knows this place and we start with the whole shebang, a quintet of the starters. Imagine pickled beets with orange blossom yogurt, pistachios and mint (another use for that mint that's creeping and crawling all around our patio) or carrot hummus with a bit of black tahini, watermelon radish and sumac (Hmmm...Can one just pick and process the staghorn sumac in the backyard?). And if you have a wealth of cauliflower in the garden, picture those florets with whipped feta and caper-currant salsa. Just delicious!

Danny explains the etymology of "shebang." During the Civil War when the Louisiana Cajuns were recruited into the confederacy, the soldiers lived near the battle fields in cabins where equipment, clothing and gear were stored. No matter whether they won or lost, each soldier would have to pack up the entire "cabin" to set up in another area. The French speakers pronounced the word as their own "chabane," their word for a temporary shelter which entered the vernacular as "she-bain" which devolved into "shebang." Who knew? Well, Danny did!

A duet of salads continues the taste sensations. Choose from combinations of exotic lettuce or radicchio, with beets, goat gorgonzola, burrata, walnuts, plums, grapefruit, topped with a tangy dressing.

Yummy combination

So far the vegetarians are winning. But then the mains and there are only four: Chicken, halibut (a popular menu choice in SF), short ribs or lamb shoulder. This restaurant neither gives a riot of selections nor overfills the plates. The roasted lamb shoulder with gremolata, carmelized onion puree is served with Meyer lemon-apricot sauce. I wonder who is this Meyer or why a lemon is named after him? The coffee brown sugar rubbed beef short ribs combine really well with the plum chutney glaze. Absolutely yummy!

Small pizzas are also a common San Francisco treat, ordered as a stand alone dinner or as a side at a feast. Who would have thought of serving pizza with thin sliced of potatoes and smoked bacon, preserved lemon and aged Italian provolone — sort of Italo-celtic? — or the fungi choice with trumpet mushrooms, thyme, fontina and Moltinero truffled pecorino? Wonderful!

Any room left for a sweet? Try the tiramisu or the olive oil cake with whipped mascarpone — and then walk home. Time to work off some of those pesky calories.

By the time we are off to Santa Cruz to see yet more family, friends and birds, our San Francisco bird list has reached 65, the restaurant list, six. Note: California does attempt to take care of its own. All restaurants have a special small fee added to offset the cost of the waiter or waitress's health care costs.

No longer is it `California Dreamin' for us, but lovely days of California Birding alternating with California Cuisine!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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