The Bliss of Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay Overview

Bodega Bay Overview

I went on a short vacation to Bodega Bay, California last week.  I love this little fishing village for many reasons:  authenticity, wildlife, and beauty.  It may look sleepy to the outsider, but this northern California town has been a lively place for a long, long time. 

 

No matter how many times you visit this area you never know what it is going to look like because of the influence of the ocean tides.  You can be there at 10:00 in the morning one week and see the Bay loaded with water, birds, and boats.  Then go back at 10:00 a.m. a few days later and the Bay will be mostly mud.  The Bay is the center of town, the main attraction for recreation and commerce, yet it is nothing but mud for half of every day.  But even when the water is low, there are still boats moving out to the ocean along a narrow channel, and birds and wellie-wearing humans digging in the mud. Sometimes you can’t even see the other side of the Bay, so shrouded with thick, drippy fog.  This is what makes Bodega Bay so authentic. 

 

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher

The wildlife here is awesome.  In the fall and winter the bird migration is at its peak.  There are hundreds of shorebirds, ducks, geese, and pelicans occupying the Bay.  It’s a source of endless attraction to us birders from all over the San Francisco Bay Area.  When I was there last week the migration hadn’t started yet, so the Bay hosted primarily summer residents.  The birds and seals pictured here are just a few of the many visitors we enjoyed. 

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

The world of fish is also a big draw to this area.  Crabs, salmon and other culinary catches are an important source of income for many people.  I had the joy of being here one year on Christmas Eve day and the area was absolutely hopping with residents from all over the San Francisco Bay Area who were here on their annual holiday trek.  Many people come here to collect their holiday feast of local Dungeness crab. 

 

There are crab pots (cages for catching the crabs) stacked wherever you look and happy holiday folks with their coolers collecting the day’s catch to share with their friends and neighbors.  Commercial fishers and many other fishing folks are fervently moving the day’s harvest on the boats and docks.  There’s also a wonderful tiny restaurant called Spud Point Crab Company right across from the small marina.  They advertise that they have the best crab chowder on the coast, and it truly is.  In December it’s often rainy and cold, and sipping a hot cup of their fantastic garlicky crab chowder is pure bliss. 

 

Western Gull

Western Gull

On top of all this local charm, abundance of wildlife, the briny sea smell and the ever-present ebbing tides, is the exquisite beauty of Bodega Bay.  Look at the scenery behind this Western Gull.  That gull was three feet from our picnic table at Bodega Head.  Our view was the glorious Pacific Ocean where we had spotted harbor seals minutes earlier.  On the rocks in the sea:  sea palms bow and undulate with each ocean wave, bright orange starfish peak out when the waves subside, crustaceans mingle with oystercatchers, cormorants, and gulls.  Visitors in the winter watch for migrating whales, watching expectantly for the telltale spouts.    

Harbor Seals

Harbor Seals

 

Lastly, there are many tourists who enjoy this place for its historical significance in the film industry.  Bodega Bay and the neighboring town of Bodega were the primary locations where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.”  Posters, informational brochures and of course the ubiquitous t-shirts remind every visitor that Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette worked here in the early 1960s. 

A few spots still remain, like the famous schoolhouse where the birds descended and terrorized the town’s innocent children; and the view that Tippi Hedren scanned of the quaint town on her arrival, executing her plan to use her dainty figure and high cheek bones to woo the town’s ruggedly handsome bachelor. 

"The Birds" schoolhouse

“The Birds” schoolhouse

 

Alfred Hitchcock filming "The Birds"

Alfred Hitchcock filming “The Birds”

This town is still quaint.  Tourists come and go; thrills from old Hollywood days are embraced, San Franciscans visit during the holidays for their crab fests, and birders are dazzled by the winter arrivals.  The locals embrace these people passing through, but they also protect their environment to keep it a wholesome fishing village.  I am reminded every time I come here of the fierce battle in the late 1950s over a nuclear power plant. 

 

It’s now called Hole in the Head.  It provides good birding and a picturesque vista overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Bodega Bay.  But in 1958 the local power company proposed this spot for a nuclear power plant.  Opposition was spearheaded by rancher Rose Gaffney, who was forced to surrender 64 acres of her property to the power company.  This fight became one of the first anti-nuclear grassroots events in the country…and they won.  Over a half century later, the hole that was dug is filled with rainwater that hosts marsh reeds, trees, brush, and dozens of bird species.   It is a serene spot with bluebirds and sparrows flitting among wild lupine, squawking gulls and barking seals, and the occasional background bellow of a fog horn. 

 

It’s a place on this planet of pride, pristine beauty, and all the natural rhythms of the mighty Pacific Ocean. 

Bodega Bay aerial view

Bodega Bay aerial view

 

 

Dolphin Delight

One of the greatest life lessons I have learned from wildlife is to be ready for anything that comes along.  Wild creatures have their agendas, and you have to be alert and available to witness their splendor.  This is why we had an incredible dance with wild dolphins.  

 

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

Honaunau Bay, Big Island of Hawaii

On the Kona Coast of Hawaii is Honaunau Bay, or The Place of Refuge.  We like to snorkel here because it is peaceful and magnificent.  We’ve been to this site many times in the past two decades, a favorite vacation spot.  It’s called “Two Step” because there are only two steps where you can safely enter the water; and it’s not so much steps as it is a rock shelf.  Waves surge up against the rocks and can knock you around if you’re not fast enough. 

 

It’s definitely different.  There isn’t a beach here, it’s hard-as-rock black lava.  It isn’t smooth or cool to the bare feet, it’s searing hot and dangerously uneven.  A mile away across from the “beach” is a sacred park, a National Historical Site that once brought peace to troubled criminals.  The sacredness and peace still exist. 

 

Colorful coral reef hugs the coastline, and in the center of the Bay is deeper water, 50 or so feet deep.  There in the deep section are few people, no coral reef or fish, and only sand at the sea bottom.  One day while swimming through the deep part, I heard something underwater.  It was squeaking.  “Eeee, Eeee” in piercingly high shrieks.  I am aware that I hear differently than many other adults.  I wish I could say I’m a superhero, but apparently I just have very narrow ear canals that tune me in to high-pitched sounds. 

 

Underwater with snorkel mask, I looked around, trying to find the source, but all I saw was cloudy water.  I was certain it was a mammal (and not a human) as I’ve heard whales underwater before.  I swam to my partner and said there were mammals somewhere nearby, and they were getting closer.  “Let’s wait, they’ll be here soon.”  While we tread water, I frequently dipped under, listening.  Then it happened. 

 

Spinner Dolphins

Spinner Dolphins

A pod of dolphins came blasting through, blew around us as if we were little specks of seaweed.  We submerged and saw there were 15 or 20 of them.  They were coming up from the depths.  A few of them shot out of the water and spun high into the air, then slapped back down again.  They continued swimming on their path, then they were gone. 

 

We popped up, exhilarated with our sighting, sputtering and laughing, giving each other high-fives.  There were no humans near us; and looking around, we could tell  no one else had seen a thing. 

 

We are wildlife lovers, and know only too well how delicate creatures can be, and we knew to keep a safe distance and be respectful.  We swam in the direction they had sped off to and saw them two or three more times, each time as delightful as the next.  They were so animated with acrobatics, noisy squeaking, clicking, and then slapping back into the water after twirling through the air. 

 

Jet snorkeling

Jet snorkeling

We realized they were swimming along the sea floor in search of food.  After a few minutes they would race to the surface to get air, to breathe.  Both of us had our faces under the water, watching, when we saw the ultimate:  two dolphins mating!  The ol’ boink-boink as they swam right in front of us…and in front of their young ones too!  

 

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

The next day we came back, but they never showed.  This is how it is with wildlife.  This is what I love.  You are forced to embrace the moment, fully knowing that it may only last a few seconds and never happen again.  That second day we had the pleasure of watching hundreds of brilliantly-colored fish instead:  butterfly fish, tangs, and parrot fish feeding amidst the coral.  We also snorkeled among several sea turtles. 

 

The third day, our final on the island, we decided to go back to the Bay for one last try at the dolphins.  There were plenty of other things we had originally planned to do, but nothing was more inviting or purely delightful as those energetic dolphins.  While heading for the entry shelf this time we saw a sign that said spinner dolphins were sleeping in the area.  “So that’s what they are” we murmured as we donned our snorkels, fins and masks. 

 

These long-nosed dolphins inhabit tropical waters feeding on small fish and shrimp especially in coastal waters.  Though we had never experienced them here before, in the past few years they have become more popular in this part of the Big Island where they forage at night and sleep during the day.  They were definitely not sleeping when we saw them, but our exposure to them was less than a half hour. 

 

As we snorkeled through these sparkling waters, I continuously kept a look-out for the spinners.  We asked other snorkelers but no one had seen them.  Soon enough I could hear them advancing.  We returned to the deep part, positioned ourselves and waited.  Then into our space they burst again:  spinning, undulating, shooting through the water. 

 

What a blast of refreshing energy flying by us, above and below the water, surrounding us. A flash and a splash and soon they were gone again.  A nearby woman and her small son saw it too, and we four reveled in it after the dolphins had moved on.  The utter joy of a dolphin party. 

 

 

Baby Birds Abound

California Quail family

California Quail family

Right now North America is bursting with baby birds.  Just about all of us on this continent live where young birds are starting their lives.  Soon the chicks will be strong and they will fly to a warm winter place.  But for now they are usually close by their parents, near to where they were born, and learning how to survive.  There are many ways to identify an immature bird; you don’t have to be an expert, you just need to look around. 

 

Pictured here are two examples of a juvenile and adult species:  the California Quail and the Western Scrub-Jay.  The quail chick (far left) is fluffy with new feathers, streaked, and small compared to the parents (male with black throat, female in foreground).  The jay is naturally a lankier type of bird so this species will not be plump and fluffy like the quail; they’re scrawny, however, and have slightly different markings than their parents. 

Western Scrub-Jay, immature

Western Scrub-Jay, immature

 

In many bird species the juvenile is smaller than the adult, at least for a short time, and the feathering is often scruffy until all the feathers unfold.  Each individual species varies of course, but if you take a look at a bird and see that it has scruffy or sometimes super fluffy feathering, you’re probably on the track of a juvenile.  Watching the bird for just a few minutes more usually reveals juvenile behavior. 

Western Scrub-Jay, adult

Western Scrub-Jay, adult

 

When they’re first off the nest they are usually with their parents and two common activities are a giveaway that it’s a youth:  either they are incessantly squawking in a rather weak voice, or they are conspicuously quivering their wings.  Both of these actions are the bird demanding one thing:  feed me. 

 

Although a lot of people discover and enjoy these scenes in their backyard, it is prevalent in urban settings as well.  I have been in busy cities in a parking lot observing harried adult house sparrows in shrubs feeding their chicks, or blackbirds in trees lining the courthouse dive-bombing passers-by to protect their nesting young. 

 

We are lucky to have so many new birds being born here.  I have been in countries that have been so denatured over the centuries that few birds live and breed there anymore.  It’s a sad thing to see, and makes you want to notice and encourage the life force of birds. 

 

California Quail chicks

California Quail chicks, siblings

Juvenile bird behavior can also be very entertaining.  In our yard the California quail chicks are learning to take a dust bath.  We see it around our dinner time when they are with their parents, heading for their nighttime roost.  One of the coveys has teenagers.  Following their parents’ example, the teens go to a dusty hollow in the trail and plop into the dust.  They frantically shake about fluttering their wings, rocking around, creating a dust cloud.  If you don’t know what they’re doing, it looks like they’re in trouble.  They do it to bathe, especially during the hot and arid times of year here in California where it doesn’t rain from June to November.  Even though we provide water which they also indulge in, the dust absorbs excess oil and mites.  The funny part is that they are learning, so they are not very good at it yet.  The dust doesn’t always hit their backs, or the teenager accidentally rolls over into another bird. 

 

Another entertaining sight is watching the juvenile hummingbirds.  It is common to see adult hummingbirds zoom around.  But when they are youthful they zoom around everything including inanimate objects, wasting precious energy on anything they fancy.  They have an abundance of energy and a deficit of experience, so they explore parked car lights and the deck umbrella as earnestly as a nectar-filled flower. 

 

If you take a few minutes each day to look at the birds flying around you, you may have the pleasure of watching a gawky inexperienced bird learning to fly, or feed.  It’s always a good reminder for any human, no matter what stage of life, that we’re all just learning something new about how to be in this wonderful world.