Life in Eden

Hello everyone,

Waaaay, back in October, I promised I’d be sharing walks with you, and that hasn’t happened.  It’s not that the walks have not.  There was one early this year with three-fourths of the family that included some delightful discoveries.  There was a classic Chevrolet Impala entombed near a creek that invited conjecture about its history.  And the same creek yielded a very heavy specimen of mudstone packed with fossils, a reminder that just a few million years ago, much of San Benito County was an inland sea.  It found its way home, along with a beautifully preserved ram’s skull.

As we cartwheel toward spring, I’m thinking about the things I anticipate that have not yet come, and the things I treasure that have come already.  Monday, I joined other birders for a census in Moss Landing.  This time it was remarkable for the lively debate that was launched.  Is that distant, small, relatively nondescript bird a Black-bellied Plover (common) or a Pacific Golden Plover (not so)?  The discussion included a friend’s foray into the marsh to try to get the bird to fly, in order to get a better look.  That was unsuccessful, but his photos later revealed our optimism for the uncommon to be misplaced.  The bird appears to have been a workaday Black-bellied Plover.

For the record, it’s beyond bad form to harass wildlife, and most of us are careful not to do so, so my friend’s attempt at flushing the bird was an exception, and one done in the name of science.

As we stood at the edge of Jetty Road in Moss Landing, I looked at our group.  Some of these people have been friends for more than 20 years, and we share much in common.  We’re an undistinguished flock:  clothed in muted colors, built more for comfort than style; lots of facial hair on the male specimens, and an uncommonly expensive collection of binoculars and textbooks to be found.  We also tend toward middle age or older.

But the banter belied the age of us, and the opportunity to contribute a shred of science, and to learn from one another, was a rich banquet.

It wasn’t long after the outing that errands took me to Salinas.  The Central Coast city perplexes me as no other ever has.  I pride myself on knowing my bearings.  Like many of my gender, I resist asking for directions.  But Salinas is my Waterloo.  There was the time, utterly lost on my bicycle, that I found myself in a neighborhood that seemed inhospitable to middle-aged men on expensive bikes wearing tight, day-glo garments, but I managed to survive.  There are uncountable occasions when I have driven the city, randomly searching for a freeway onramp.

Salinas befuddles my inner compass, and it always will.

But I left Salinas along a similar, and much-loved, route.  The San Juan-Salinas Grade is the last public stretch of the original Golden State Highway, the precursor to Highway 101. When it was first paved in slabs of concrete during the dawning years of the 20th Century, it was the state of the engineers’ art.  Today, its narrow, winding route reveals a California that I’d guess few in the Bay Area believes still exists.

As I rolled slowly (there’s no other choice) over that lane, I had to brake, and then wait, while a Golden Eagle finished dining on a bit of shredded flesh in the middle of the road.

It was just long enough of a pause to think about why we trouble ourselves to live in a place that’s too expensive and too prone to wrong-headed schemes for get-rich-quick development.

And I think Congressman Sam Farr summed it up best during a celebration for the creation of Pinnacles National Park in January:  We live in a place where it’s possible to gaze out at the sea to see the whales — the largest mammals that ever lived — and at the same time to look up to watch California Condors — the largest birds in North America — soaring overhead.

Truly, there’s no place else on earth that compares to the Monterey Bay area.

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A Grand Day Out

Last Saturday, I met 16 strangers at Watsonville City Hall just as the eastern horizon was beginning to glow with light.  We were about to accompany one another on a Grand Day Out.

It was Day 3 of the Monterey Bay Birding Festival, an annual event that draws people from across the nation to this region.  They drive or fly – of course – to the area, fill local lodgings and restaurants and chase birds.  This year’s was the ninth for the festival, and dozens of trips exposed visitors to some of the region’s most beautiful spots.

“Beautiful” should be qualified, because destinations included a large dairy and a sewer treatment plant, but both are beautiful in their own broad-shouldered way.

It fell to me to lead a trip that took in much of the landscape in northern San Benito County.  To say that San Benito gets less than its fair share of attention is to say too little.  We live in the Rodney Dangerfield of counties – no respect, no respect at all.

I was even asked at one point if we were in San Bernardino County.  That would be a “no,” by about 350 miles or so.  But to a person, they loved the place we call home.

As we stood at the edge of  a shallow pond just over the county line near Gilroy, they marveled at thousands of ducks and shorebirds.  Then a Peregrine Falcon streaked by and all of those birds rose as one to flee from the threat.

A hatch year Golden Eagle circled the group in Santa Ana Valley.  At the Paicines Reservoir, a lively debate was conducted over the identity of some small shorebirds perhaps half a mile distant, until a Bald Eagle created a new distraction.

Only one other member of the group calls San Benito County home.  For the rest of those out on a beautiful fall day, the landscape was a revelation.  They ended the day tired, a little sunburned and pledging to return.

It’s about much more than birds.  They wanted to know the names of the mountains that surround us, what it was growing in the verdant fields of produce, and all about our earthquake sculpted geology.

Do yourself a favor.  Look out the window and behold the treasure that we call home.