Few things soothe me when I’m busy or anxious as well as time spent by the ocean. That’s why, mid-semester in this crazy world of Zoom teaching, Dick and I had arranged a different kind of oceanside getaway—one that involved a whole lotta birds.
If you spend time at the California coast, you’re gonna see birds—lots of gulls, some cormorants, maybe in the distance some pelicans—but in October we headed to a place that’s literally Bird Central, staying just down the road from Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve.
As a native Californian, I can’t imagine that I haven’t visited what has been called “the crown jewel of the state park system,” but this visit felt like a kind of discovery for me. Not for Dick—he knows Pt. Lobos well from visits over the decades to Carmel, including one to visit photographer Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia six weeks before Ansel Adams died in 1984.
According to the state park website, Pt. Lobos gets its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland.
A more recent visit brought Dick and his longtime friend Connie Raub to Pt. Lobos in 2014 to quietly scatter some of the cremains of Connie’s late husband Richard. They were tickled to find Gibson Beach (in the photo above) since Connie’s original name was Gibson. They enjoyed their time there, taking in sea lions barking on offshore rocks, otters in Whaler’s Cove and the many pelicans at Bird Rock. But that’s just the beginning: more than 250 types of animals and birds call Pt. Lobos home.
The birds with the gigantic 9-foot wingspan captured our hearts, especially when we walked the Bird Island trail. Scores of pelicans soared overhead, and a brief walk took us to a place on the trail where we could one of the pelican rookeries. There, mamas (we guessed) tended the chicks of various sizes.
Everywhere you look, it’s Pec-i-lan (as Dick likes to say) City, such quiet birds, preening and tidying up next to their brethren. Such a tight group in close quarters and no fussing between them. What surprised me was the elasticity of their heads and necks, how they accordion’d themselves into compact feather bundles and swiveled their heads Exorcist-style backward to lay their long beaks on their backs.
Those beaks, incidentally, are long, scissored things (from 11 to 14 inches long) that made me realize, as we watched them, that Big Bird must be part pelican. And breeding adults have white heads with a golden wash, a pale version of that 8-foot-2-inch famous bird.
And despite the awkward, rocky terrain, some particularly well-balanced pelicans manage to find purchase in places only experienced rock-climbing humans could.
Once hunted for their feathers and devastated by the use of DDT and other pesticides, pelicans made a comeback between 1970 and 2009, though it’s still listed as an endangered species on the California coast. They’re an indicator species, and because of the decline in sardine populations—one of their staple foods—due to overfishing and climate change, their numbers are in decline.
Fortunately, the number of pelicans at Pt. Lobos makes the species appear to be thriving. In another part of the reserve we walked the Cypress Grove trail through the ubiquitous trees for which this part of the coastline is famous. We rounded a curve in the trail to see this vista before us:
Dozens of pelicans roosting in cypress trees—as birds do, of course—but how funny to see these sizable birds decorating the greenery. Though many of us imagine that they use their voluminous pouches to carry fish, they don’t. They cruise 60 to 70 feet over the ocean, spot schools of fish, then dive-bomb the water, scoop up their fish, and let the water drain out of their porous pouches before they swallow. If they’re caring for young ones, like other birds, after they return from hunting, they regurgitate part of their meal for the babies.
“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best, and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.”
We had good days walking Pt. Lobos and getting closer to pelicans than ever before. So close, in fact, that one bird, well, christened Dick and his Canon. Perhaps it’s like the tradition of tossing one’s lei in the sea in Hawaii: If a pelican, um, gets you, you’re meant to return.
We certainly plan to.