Monday, September 17, 2007

Points North (Part 1)

We finally got around to taking a real summer vacation: we took advantage of a longstanding open invitation to visit my sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco, and turned the trip into three days of Central Coast birding broken up by two days of wine, food, and scintillating conversation in the Bay Area. (They know us all too well—their longstanding bribe to get us to visit: "We've got a lot of weird birds in our yard!")

We planned to break up the 7-hour drive to San Francisco by stopping overnight both coming and going, and birding along the way. Before leaving, I e-mailed the Morro Coast Audubon Society to ask about good mid-September birding spots on our route, and was pointed to Oso Flaco Lake and Oceano Lagoon—both lovely spots we probably wouldn't have found on our own.

Oso Flaco Lake in particular is an undiscovered gem. To get to it, one has to travel several miles along a nearly unused portion of Highway 1, though a tiny farming town whose buildings apparently haven't been painted or altered since Steinbeck's time. From this isolated stretch of highway, you then have to drive three miles along a 'street' that's basically a service road cut through the center of a field.

Just when you conclude that both Mapquest and Morro Coast Audubon have totally screwed up, there it is: a tiny parking lot manned by friendly rangers, and a narrow path leading to the treasures within.

The first part of the path cuts through a shady wooded area loud with the squeaks and twitters of birds. A Black-and-white Warbler had been spotted there the week before, but I couldn't find it. A lot of the calls and songs I heard were unfamiliar, so I knew the area was filled with potential lifers—but the foliage was so thick it was difficult to find any of the birds that were so obviously nearby. The only birds we managed to nail down definitively were a Downy Woodpecker, a Song Sparrow, and a Townsend's Warbler.

Further along, the woods gave way to a large lagoon, and the path became a boardwalk crossing the widest part of the lake. No sooner had we taken our first steps onto the boardwalk than we heard a commotion underfoot: a Sora and a Virginia Rail dashing out from under the boardwalk into some nearby reeds.

To add to the fun, a pair of young raccoons was also lurking in the area.

On the other side of the lake, the path wound through sand dunes and sage scrub, and ended at a prisine, viritually unpopulated beach that housed (yet another) Least Tern and Snowy Plover breeding area. Dozens of pelicans swooped along the shore in straight lines, and gulls and sandpipers preened attractively in front of Glenn's camera.

This was all very nice, but I had yet to see anything I couldn't see back home. Driving four hours to gaze at Willets feels a little like landing in Paris and finding out the only restaurant open is McDonald's.

But this was about to change. About 10 miles up the coast was Oceano Lagoon, our second spot of the day. There, we followed a tree-shaded path lined with prodigious quantities of poison ivy, and encountered dozens of warblers: Common Yellowthroats, Wilson's, Townsend's, and a Nashville Warbler were all darting through the trees and bushes.

Even better, we found our first not-available-in-Orange-County bird: a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, or rather, several of them, mingling with the local Bushtits.

We were soon to find that Chestnut-backed Chickadees were almost as common as Bushtits up there, but no matter. They were novelties to us, and cool-looking little buggers too.

We ended the day in Paso Robles, where dinner and a room in a historic hotel awaited us. This left us with the dilemma of what to hunt for in the morning: Cabernet, chickadees, or an ungodly mixture of both?

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