April 18, 1906 is a day that will live in infamy for San Francisco, but the massive slippage of the North American and Pacific plates along the San Andreas Fault (SAF) also had a dire impact on the small towns all along the fault. Mendocino, a small coastal town along the rugged northern California coast, approximately 75 miles north of San Francisco, was one of these. The SAF here is just a couple miles off shore, and many of the small wooden buildings were destroyed. But Mendocino, being a lumber mill town quickly rebuilt and ironically, actually prospered by supplying much of the lumber used for the rebuilding of San Francisco.
Their only dilemma was getting the massive logs sawn to reasonable size, transporting them down the mountain slopes to the mill, and then getting the milled lumber to the waiting ship. The towering bluffs and rocky shore created an additional engineering problem solved by the construction of long booms and trestles lifting the lumber to small barges which in turn ferried it to larger ships anchored offshore. The old photos of this multi-step feat are a testament to remarkable perseverance.
Over 100 years later the old mill and trestles are gone with just a few rotting posts still visible on the bluffs. The town folk have wonderfully let nature reclaim the headlands and adjacent fields, with the old town exuding Victorian charm slightly inland. This May, Mendocino was our favorite stop along the northern California coast. It is no wonder that it was the setting for multiple films such as The Russians Are Coming, Summer of 42, and the television series Murder She Wrote. There is drop-dead scenery, shops, galleries, dining, and countless photography opportunities–and don’t forget the birding.
At sunrise, first morning, I took my spotting scope and tripod to the headlands. I usually don’t take this gear on vacation, (just too much stuff), but this time I squeezed it in the coast to coast flight knowing about these headlands and the off shore birds. The morning light was perfect, slanted and at my back, but the cold wind whipping down from the north was almost unbearable, causing my eyes to water and buffeting the scope, making it almost useless. As advertised the Common Murres colonized the large rocks just off shore by the hundreds or thousands, standing upright in peguin-like groups. They were peppered with fewer cormorants, Double-crested, Brandt’s, and Pelagic, and salted lightly with Western Gulls. The Pelagic Cormorants with their red mouth parts obvious, primarily clung to precarious perches and nests on the cliff faces while the other cormorants perched upright on the flatter and safer surfaces on top the rock.
I finally had enough sense to get to the leeward side of the headlands and was rewarded by seeing two more target birds for the trip, the Pigeon Guillemot and Western Grebe. Also present were countless White-crowned Sparrows, loud Black Oystercatchers, ubiquitous Ravens, and a solitary Pacific Loon.
The coastal birding along the headlands is exilhilirating and fun but yields only those hardy birds accustomed to the ocean spray and wind and adapted to feeding on marine-life. To see additional birds you need to go inland to the more sheltered forests and gardens. My choice was the Mendocino Coastal Botanical Gardens, www.gardenbythesea.org, a few miles north of town on Route 1.
This is a wonderful 47 acre site that makes use of the gentle Mediterranean climate and acidic soils to display a myriad of native and non-native plants including heaths and heathers, roses, rhododendrons, camellias, succulents, etc. Close to the entrance one sees the more manicured lawn and gardens. Following the numerous paths westward one finds progressively less formal plantings and “rooms”, and eventually a canyon and undeveloped flora leading to a seaside meadow and an amazing coastal vista. The birds and birders love these various habitats; the local Audubon club claiming 180+ species seen at the site.
A planned two hour walk through the garden evolved into an almost full day visit, making use of their convenient gift/book/garden store and cafe. As you enter each outdoor natural “room” a few quiet moments rewards you with the room’s birds coming to life. Remember, I’m an easterner with only a few prior trips to California, and as a newcomer to these parts, even the common birds elicit “oos and ahs”. Like that gorgeous Violet-green Swallow and the clown-faced Acorn Woodpecker, or the loud Steller’s Jay or Western Bluebird. Anna’s Hummingbird was flitting everywhere, just daring me to try to get a picture. The Wilson’s Warbler caught feeding down in the canyon was a special treat.
Remembering April 18,1906, Californians and birders must have very different definitions of “The Big Day”. For some of us its a great day spent tracking and photographing our avian fauna, but for others its a reminder of what was, and what is surely coming again.