The mariner warily approached the coast, scanning the horizon with a hand-held telescope. He first saw the promontory rising 422 feet above sea level and the brown sandstone cliffs extending to the north. As the 200 ton galleon, San Salvador, drew closer to land he could make out the low sandspit and island to the south and the tempting narrow channel between the two. Proceeding carefully he could make out the waves crashing onto the base of the cliffs forming countless tidal pools teeming with seabirds and gulls. The sandy beaches to the south were also populated with shorebirds. Once through the narrows the esturary opened into a glorious protected harbor with a narrow plain at waters edge, but with hills and low mountains visible a short distance inland to the east. The year was 1542 and the mariner was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer on a mission for Spain to explore the coast north of Mexico. He was the first European to see what would later be named California. The promontory would be named Point Loma and years later would display his statue near its peak. The low sandy island would be called Coronado, and the harbor would become San Diego.
Almost 300 years later another sailor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., made a similar landing at Point Loma in 1835 aboard the Pilgrim, out of Boston, Massachusetts. He chronicled his adventures in the classic memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Their mission was to retrieve the cattle hides accumulated by sailors who were previously left encamped on the beach and sustained by hunting in the hills. At the time San Diego was still a small Mexican town.
Fast forward to 2015. Another mariner approached these same shores as the fog suddenly rolled in, making the passage something more than routine. They started sounding their fog horn, primarily to warn the day sailors that crowded the narrow channel. This ship was the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), a 684 foot amphibious transport dock, capable of delivering 800 marines and their equipment wherever they are called. This mariner and Officer of the Deck was my son.
Our cross-country trip was to see him and the return of his ship to the home port after several weeks at sea, reenacting an age-old tradition of anxiously and expectantly watching for the return of a loved one from the sea. We arrived at the peak of Pt. Loma hours before the ship entered the channel giving me a chance to practice exposure settings and sun angles on several other ships departing the harbor. I even had the telephoto lens available in case the Lieutenant JG was visible on the bridge. It was a glorious clear day giving breath-taking views of San Diego and the waterfront. But a birder is always birding and on the lookout for new species, especially on a first trip to a new part of the world, as this was for me. With everything ready my wife took the time to visit the old lighthouse and visitor’s center, while I headed down the seaside sandstone cliff trails looking for birds.
The soft sandstone of the west-facing cliffs is being eroded by continuous wind and wave action, revealing dinosaur fossils from the Late Cretaceous Period 75 million years ago. Near the base of the cliffs around the tidal pools I found Brown Pelicans, Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, Heermann’s Gull, and the ubiquitous Western Gull. I finally learned the reason for the “double-crested” modifier for the cormorant. The western sub-species has paired white head tufts in breeding season, lacking on the eastern variety familiar to me. The Heermann’s Gull is a beautiful red-billed, black-legged west coast bird, breeding in Mexico but seen northward along the California coast in non-breeding season.
Near the top of the cliffs there are dense aromatic sages, low-growing succulent shrubs, flowers, and grasses, giving refuge to numerous passerines. It was difficult to get a good look or photo of these, but with some patience I was rewarded with a beautiful Orange-crowned Warbler, Rock Wren, and California Towhee, all life birds. White-crowned Sparrows and Western Scrub Jays were also abundant.
Enough birding. It was time to return to the Cabrillo Monument and stake out the perfect position to see the return of the USS Anchorage. Do you believe in Murphy’s Law? Fifteen minutes before the anticipated arrival, a dense fog bank rolled over us obscuring the channel and all of Pt. Loma. Visibility zero. Right on cue we heard the Anchorage’s deep fog horns but could barely see to the edge of the cliff.
Disappointment. Plan B: Run to the car and make haste to downtown San Diego and public dock at the USS Midway museum, without getting a speeding ticket. Only 20 minutes to spare, but with a little luck it was still possible to see the ship underway. We arrived at the park just as the Anchorage was clearing the bend in the river and passing by. The sun was wrong, the lighting was poor, and the photos borderline, but that did not keep a lump from my throat and some understandable parental pride and patriotism as that great ship passed by, under the Coronado Bridge and into its berth.
While in home port our son lives in an apartment attached to a charming neo-Victorian home on Golden Hill, recently and carefully renovated by its owners. Fortunately for me it is located on the southern border of Balboa Park, a 1200 acre urban park, one of our country’s oldest, established in 1835. This greenway is quite different than the well known Central Park and Boston Common of the east coast. This is a “California style” park bisected by a canyon, two freeways and crisscrossed by walking paths. It also features museums, gardens, several theaters, a golf course and the famous San Diego Zoo. For me the attraction was the birds. An early morning walk here gave up 14 species including a life bird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker. It seemed like Anna’s Hummingbirds were everywhere. I was initially confused by the warblers, but finally decided they were all Yellow-rumped with varying intensities of plumage.
A later tour of the coastline including San Diego Harbor, Coronado Island and a northern trek to La Jolla Shores revealed many more birds among the coconut-oiled sunbathers, surfers, and seaside mansions. These included a Pacific Loon (a life bird), Royal Terns, Willets, Surf Scoters, Greater Scaup, and mucho gulls.
However, the highlight of the weekend was a personal tour of the USS Anchorage by our son, who proudly showed us the warship, his home-away-from-home and workplace since last July.
The 4-day weekend was much too short. As the plane took off for home and circled over Pt. Loma and San Diego Harbor I was treated to one last panoramic view of the Pacific Fleet, lined up at their docks. I was once again reminded of the daily dedication and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, witnessed first hand, each doing their small part to project strength and keep us safe. The rows of white gravestones, visible even by plane, at Rosecrans National Cemetery again reminded me that for some the sacrifice was ultimate. It was a good birding weekend, but also so much more.