California Birding: A Sentimental Journey Home

Home. The word means different things to different people. For some, it can be as impersonal as a place to return to each night. For others, it is a stressful combination of complicated emotions. For most, though, “Home Sweet Home” and “There’s No Place Like Home” seem to express the feelings of fondness that most people have about the place where they grew up. Often, our senses can trigger a memory of home, like the fragrance of a particular flower that reminds you of your mother’s garden or the lyrical cadence of a bird you heard growing up. For me it is the sight, sound and smell of the Pacific Ocean that brings back memories of my childhood in Northern California, where I spent time exploring beaches up and down the coast, scrambling over the boulders near my Grandmother’s house in Santa Cruz and sailing in the San Francisco Bay.

Going home for the holidays can also be quite challenging for some. For me, it doesn’t happen often enough, so I was thrilled when family invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them in Pacific Grove, California. Not only would it be a joy to catch up with loved ones, but there was the additional excitement of birding in a different location with the possibility of adding new birds to my life list.

Vineyards dominate the agricultural landscape in the Central Valley.
This may have inspired the  “Jack’s Bowls” commercial, but this guy does it way better!

We chose to drive out rather than fight the crowds flying to their Thanksgiving destinations, breaking up the 10+ hour drive from Phoenix into two days. Motoring through Los Angeles is never a joy ride, but through the congestion of Southern California, we enjoyed the green fields and golden hills of California’s agricultural region. The Central Valley is one of the most productive areas in the world, providing more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. It is a flat valley, about 40-60 miles wide, that stretches approximately 450 miles inland from and parallel to the Pacific Ocean coast. We rolled past acres of emerald green fields (don’t you wish they would post signs as to what’s planted?), thick orchards of fruit and nut trees and grapevines planted in neat rows that marched up and down the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The vines were losing their leaves for the winter, creating a lovely patchwork of rich colors that delighted the eye and made me wish, once again, that I could paint.

By the time we reached the Carmel Valley, it was lightly raining, but that didn’t stop us from sitting outside under a covered, heated patio, enjoying the delicious wines of the Georis Winery and catching up with family, our collective dogs at our feet. The air was sweet and moist with the heady scent of wine barrels, rain-soaked soil, fragrant pines and fresh sea air. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs as though I hadn’t taken a real breath in years; I was home.

Pacific Grove sits on a knob of land that juts out into Monterey Bay and is sandwiched between Monterey and Pebble Beach. It is known as the location of the Point Pino Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast, as well as for its charming Victorian homes and historic buildings. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the town is endowed with more historical houses per capita than anywhere else in California. The town also dubbed itself “Butterfly Town U.S.A.” due to the number of monarch butterflies that pass through the area during migration each October. These monarchs migrate 2,000 miles to reach Pacific Grove after their summer in the Rocky Mountains, often soaring as high as 10,000 feet. There’s no doubt in my mind as to why they return to such a beautiful spot each year!

The city of Pacific Grove was founded in 1875 when the Pacific Land Improvement Company donated acreage for a summer retreat formed by a group of Methodists. In the 1890s, during the height of the En Plein Air painting movement, Pacific Grove drew many such artists because of its natural beauty. Asilomar Conference Grounds, opened in 1913 as a YWCA summer retreat, borders the western edge of Pacific Grove and is now owned and managed by the California State Park System. Thirteen buildings on these grounds were designed by the architect Julia Morgan, who also designed Hearst Castle.

The Black Oystercatcher is one of my favorite birds from the trip. With its flaming red-orange bill, bright yellow eyes with red orbital ring, black-brown body and pink legs, it is a recognizable and quite striking bird. It uses its bill for smashing or prying open molluscs, but I have not been able to find any theories as to why it is that color!

Monterey County, of which Pacific Grove is a part, is one of the most important sites for bird life in North America. Over 480 different species of birds have been sighted in the county, so you can imagine my eagerness to get out and explore.

Every morning at first light, I would tiptoe down the stairs with my binoculars and camera and walk out to the water’s edge, soaking up the salty air and the sound of waves breaking against the rocky shore, the gulls screaming overhead, like a soundtrack from my youth. I was home.

Breaking dawn as viewed from the Asilomar Marine Preserve.

Some mornings the air was heavy with mist after rain the night before; other mornings it was light and crisp and clear. I would walk for hours along the paths or down on the beach of the Asilomar State Marine Reserve, straining to identify the shorebirds and hundreds of gulls perched, floating, wheeling and diving around me. Other mornings, I would walk the neighborhood under impossibly tall eucalyptus, pine and oak trees that were filled with Townsend’s Warblers, American Crows, California Scrub-Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bushtits, woodpeckers and more, their tweets and chirps and drumming mingling together in Nature’s ultimate ensemble.

Busy little Bushtits were every where.

Over our five-day visit, I saw an incredible 291 bird species – if you count mounted birds at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History where we spent one rainy afternoon! The museum, which has been in existence since 1883 and was among the first natural history museums in America, includes – in addition to the bird display – fascinating exhibits on animals, minerals and local history. The museum’s mission is to “inspire discovery, wonder and stewardship of our natural world” and they do an excellent job.

My observation of live birds during our trip was far more modest – 58 species, ten of which were new life birds. Not bad since the main purpose of our trip was not birding!

Carmel River Beach. During heavy rains, the river flows into the sea, but for most of the year, it ends in a lagoon.

Yellow-billed Magpie

Sadly, the week ended too soon and a sense of melancholy settled on us as we packed to leave. We took a different route back, driving east through San Bernadino County and the High Desert. We stopped at the Southbound Camp Roberts Rest Area in San Miguel where I was able to locate one Yellow-billed Magpie, a lifer target species for the trip.

Although the Central Coast of California wasn’t exactly the place where I’d grown up, being surrounded by family and sharing time-honored traditions is really what coming home is all about. A gentleman named Kendal Rob said it best: “Home is where you go to find solace from the ever changing chaos, to find love within the confines of a heartless world, and to be reminded that no matter how far you wander, there will always be something waiting when you return.”

Click on an image below to see more images from this coming home adventure.

8 thoughts on “California Birding: A Sentimental Journey Home”

  1. Lyndie,
    As usual, your photos are spectacular, and I enjoyed reading about your journey “home”. I, like you, find birds inspiring. The other day I saw my first blue birds in our woods. I was so thrilled.
    We will be back to AZ on Jan. 4. See you then.

    1. Thank you so much, Barb! What type of Bluebirds were they, do you know? They are SO brilliant. Look forward to seeing you when you get back to the Valley of the Sun!

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