The waves rolled onto the beach at Crystal Cove State Park just south of Corona del Mar on the Southern California coast. Visiting communities along the Pacific Ocean always transports me mentally back to my Santa Monica childhood. As my long-time friend Penny and I sat on the outside dining area of the Beachcomber Café, adjacent to the beach, I could feel myself slowly relax.
The afternoon was tentatively warm, with a slight off-shore breeze. My binoculars rested on my lap ready to watch a strutting Willet or scavenging gull.
It was a reprieve from the fierce winds that buffeted us the prior day on the Newport peninsula. Lured by the swirling gulls at the end of the jetty, we walked to the end of the park, braced ourselves against the gusts and fought off sand grit in our eyes and teeth. We started to focus our binoculars on the gulls; instead we watched in horror as a sail boat was hurled against the rocks.
After our lunch, we walked along the beach. A Black Phoebe perched on a piling near the stream that trickled into the ocean, catching an occasional insect. A Marbled Godwit and a Whimbrel unearthed crustaceans with their long bills from the wet sand. It was interesting to observe their differing techniques – the godwit using a prying motion with its slightly up-turned bill, and the whimbrel’s jabbing action with its inward-curving bill.
Tilted rock formations were scattered across the sand, many in the shape of disks, remnants from the prehistoric upheavals that formed the coastline.
Groups of Western Sandpipers raced in and out with the tide.
On the way back to the shuttle that would carry us to the parking area east of the Pacific Coast Highway, I heard the melodic trill of a Beldings Savannah Sparrow. It was perched on the top of a native shrub along the creek. As it sang, I could see its throat pulse.
Before we headed to Crystal Cove, we meandered along the one-way road through the Newport Back Bay, an important estuary for coastal birds. The tide was in and Coots were swimming lazily. There was an occasional Western Grebe. Snowy and Great Egrets waited patiently for fish to swim by.
We stopped at the pull-out where terns regularly gather. Today was no exception. Three types of terns rested on the sandbar. Caspian Terns, the largest, were easily identifiable from their thick red bills. We studied the mid-size terns with shaggy ‘hair-dos’ and long orange bills, before deciding they were Elegants, since their thin bills were slightly droopy. The Forster’s Terns were the smallest, with a narrow, black-tipped bill and forked tail. All were in breeding plumage.
Early arrival Avocets stepped gingerly in the shallow water. When they stopped to feed, they swished their long, slightly up-turned black bills from side to side, just under the surface of the water. Their heads and necks glistened with their light cinnamon summer plumage.
Turkey Vultures wafted on the thermals and Northern Harriers made surveillance flights low over the marsh. A Common Yellow-throat poked its black-masked face out of the hillside bushes, sang its wichity-wichity-wichity song, and then flew down near the water.
Spring was dawning on the California coast.