An Excursion Near Home

Low-grade illness and a heavy schedule has kept me from fulfilling my own assignment to students: get outdoors, pay attention, write. Yesterday morning’s cool weather and dramatic light got me going. The Sierra Club’s outings web page promised a kayak trip up the Morro Bay Estuary to spot birds, but when I phoned the leader he said it had been cancelled because of uncertainty about wind and rain. The Morro Bay Natural History Association offered a talk about “Living on tectonic plate borders” which sounded appealing since I’ll have to lecture on Cal Poly Land’s geology next quarter. I took my down vest, windbreaker and packsack loaded with camera, binoculars, bird book, a loaf of sunflower seed bread and an avocado, and told Jan I’d be back in the late afternoon.

I arrived at the Marina early and walked to the point to gaze at birds, clouds and the distant dunes.

Rounding the lion rock, I came across two white egrets. I was transfixed by their yellow eyes and graceful head plumes but they werent interested in my company. They slowly flapped their huge wings, lifted their legs and flew across the flat water.

I sat down and four black geese cruised by in stately posture and formation. I noticed the white necklaces around their throats and their white bellies. I remembered the picture on the goose-shaped sign I had carried a few months ago to a hearing of the Fish and Game Commission at the County building. These were the Brant, the Black Brant.

They’re still being hunted on the estuary during their annual winter migration. The Sierra Club, along with the mayor and city counsellors of Morro Bay were petitioning to limit the days of the hunt to slow their decline in numbers, but to no avail. The commission, headed by a chair who looked and acted like a Dick Tracy villain, voted to extend the hours.

Next I noticed ducks with white chests and bellies, black backs, bright white patches wrapped like a doctor’s mask around their dark heads, accompanied by grayish brown ones with smaller white patches behind their eyes.

The Audubon field guide told me these were Buffleheads, male and female, Bucephalia albeola. The charming name was apt for these childlike looking creatures with small bills, large heads and graceful compact bodies. They are the smallest of sea ducks, brilliant divers and fliers who breed in Canada and winter anywhere south of the border. The guide stated that their heads were iridescent, but even through the binoculars I only saw black. When I downloaded and enlarged the pictures, I found the green and red colors that the bright daylight had obscured.

Despite being bundled up, I was getting cold sitting there, so I went up to the Museum early and joined excited kids from L.A. and tourists from Fresno in marvelling at the hands-on exhibits, the birds outside the huge windows, and the stuffed varieties on display. The geology lecture turned out to be in an auditorium rather than the field. After warming up fully, I crept out and returned to the marina to rent a kayak. The short stubby one they had available was light, comfortable, stable and maneuverable.

I had an hour and a quarter of incoming tide to take me up the flats. There was no wind. Bright cumulus clouds dappled the deep blue sky one minute, the next it was covered with lowering gray. Hollister and Cabrillo peaks were mosaics of shadow and light.

Morro Rock glowed as if lit from within.

Tidal current pulled me up the estuary. I wanted to hug the shore to visit egrets and curlews and sandpipers and a group of harbor seals sunning themselves in the mud. I got far enough for a good look at some shy American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana.

But feeling the onshore wind pick up, I beat a retreat, paddling for half a mile in two or three inches of water, willing to fight the still incoming tide before it turned and left me stranded.

Safe in the deeper part of the bay, I ate lunch afloat and watched the sky to the north grow stranger and more beautiful. I returned the kayak and drove to the Rock, where a longboard surfing contest was taking place in brilliant sunshine against a gloomy backdrop.

Someone on a cell phone reported that it was snowing heavily in Cayucos.

Most of the surfers had gray hair. The festive holiday-weekend atmosphere made me wistful. I wished I could surf, or just jump into the water here without a wetsuit and swim for half an hour as I had used to before worrying about chronic colds. But my mood soon reversed and the continuing solitude felt delicious.

Seeing Bishops Peak in the distance on my way home, I decided to prolong the enjoment and give myself a workout. From Highland Drive I huffed to the top of the trail in thirty minutes, keeping eyes on the path and proudly passing several hikers. At the memorial bench below the first summit, the late afternoon light was as spectacular as at the coast. I pushed through the poison-0ak laden scrub to the second summit and probed the caves and crazily balanced blocks of granite looking for a way to the top. The topmost block was too exposed but I found a secondary vantage where to sit and and watch the show.

Toward the east in front of Cuesta Ridge, I observed young people mounting the first summit, where not long ago a Cal Poly student took a step backward and plunged to his death.

Toward the South, the ridge of Point Sal framed the Bay from Avila to the Nipomo dunes.

Toward the north, the snowstorm that had hit Cayucos was moving along Highway 41.

To the West, through apertures in swirling cloud, the sun dropped a column of light that ignited soft green banks of grassy swales.

And overhead, a Rough-legged hawk, Buteo lagopus, hovered motionless, clasping the chill wind with fully extended wingtips and tailfeathers.

When the sun went down, I descended.

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