The courtship begins with an exchange of suggestive looks across the trees. Next comes an offering, a choice twig. If reciprocated, the courtship ritual proceeds and the cycle of life begins anew for great egrets and herons. The ballet atop the redwoods has already begun and tickets are available for nest building, rearing and send-off at Audubon Canyon Ranch.
Located on Highway One, between the coastal towns of Stinson Beach and Bolinas, Audubon Ranch serves as a haven for native wildlife. Founded in 1 962 to save the heronry from development, this non-profit organization serves to preserve breeding habitat, educate both young and old on the importance of our natural environment and to support research and conservation. A vital undertaking is being carr ied out in admirable fashion by staff, science professionals and hundreds of volunteers.
A tapestry of natural communities and their inhabitants awaits visitors to this 1,000-acre sanctuary: dense forests of coastal redwood, Douglas fir and California b ay; coastal scrub and chaparral; grassland; freshwater pond, stream and marsh; and the ever-important Bolinas Lagoon, a critical factor in the yearly return of these magnificent birds.
Each spring, up to 100 pairs of great egrets and great blue herons re turn to nest and raise their young in the giant coastal redwoods in Pilcher Canyon. The great egret is a vision in white, with long plumes fanning out over its body, and an orange beak, thin and tall—like a supermodel. The great blue heron is a remnant from the past with beautiful blue-gray plumage and an impressive seven-foot wingspan that’s impossible to miss. Both are perfectly adapted for wading in shallow waters and can be seen stalking food in Bolinas Lagoon.
Timing is important in most things in life, as well as scheduling a visit to the ranch, open from spring through early summer. Several visits are required to observe the full nesting cycle. Luckily my recent trip corresponded with a variety of activities in the trees and I marveled at my luck!
Entering the ranch from Highway One is like revisiting an old country friend. Wooded grounds fronting the lagoon, a burbling creek, the sound of birds, a white clapboard house and a warm welcome from volunteers all insure that your visit will be a memo rable one.
After being filled in on current statistics—I learned there were seventy-three great egret nests, nine great blue heron nests and forty-three eggs—I headed up the short, but steep, Ranch Trail to the overlooks, all staffed with spotting scope s and ranch guides.
The Clem Miller Overlook faces Bolinas Lagoon with scopes trained on foraging birds. Besides the ranch residents, I watched an osprey and Canada goose as the lagoon waters shimmered in the sunlight and ocean waves crashed beyond. I l earned that the lagoon’s abundant food sources are crucial to the yearly return of the birds, providing small fish, a variety of crustaceans and small frogs for their consumption.
Entering the forest I was surrounded by a cornucopia of life: lofty oaks c lose enough for their curved branches to almost intertwine, decorated with garlands of gray-green lichen; emerald carpets of grasses and wood fern; the tans and browns of a shelf fungus on a fallen log, spread out like the tail of a wild turkey; and the c olors of spring in apricot monkey flowers, cream, lavender and blue Douglas iris, pink vetch and white milk maids. The leaf-littered trail was soft beneath my boots and the startled quail protested loudly as they quickly moved away. The wind rustled the leaves and the birds sang. All combined to slow my pace so that I could enjoy the moment, as well as catch my breath.
The main event, without question, is at the Henderson Overlook, at 200-feet almost eye level with the huge nests built near the tops of the redwoods. Shaded bleachers, multiple scopes, information sheets and enthusiastic ranch guides create an atmosphere that encourages you to linger and watch. And there’s a lot to see.
Most dramatic is the stark contrast of the egrets’ feathered white p lumes draped across the nests. I watched a pair of herons nest building, alternately bringing long twigs and carefully arranging them in exactly the right spot, their huge wingspan able to perch so gracefully on a treetop branch. Egrets performed a greeti ng display, like a courtly dance. As one flew off the other judiciously turned the Easter-turquoise egg within the nest.
My viewing pleasure was supplemented by the wealth of information just waiting to be shared. The early bird gets the worm and the ea rly viewer gets a jump on everyone else! My early arrival, a point I always recommend, granted me almost sole occupancy at the scopes and the undivided attention of the guides. Learning about the need to rebuild and waterproof nests every year, the sharin g in the incubation, foraging and feeding the young, the timing of the various stages of life, as well as the danger of the red-tailed hawk circling above, made me want to learn more and return again.
From the Henderson Overlook hikers can continue on to the three-mile Griffin Loop Trail for a broader exploration of the preserve or return to the canyon floor. I descended to the picnic area, passing a third manned observation site, the Kent Trail Platform, where scopes provide a lower view into the trees.
Additional scopes were positioned at the far end of the picnic area, a lovely place to enjoy a meal while birds fly overhead. With comfortable picnic tables and benches arranged on a grassy expanse and Pilcher Canyon Creek adding its sounds to those of the birds, this is just the spot to relish the day.
Don’t leave the picnic area before you’ve had a chance to visit the bird hide. This small rustic building with rough bark walls, a sod roof and screened windows overlooking the creek and numerous bird feeding stations blends in perfectly with the lush canyon. Inside you’ll find three rooms, each with a different outlook, well equipped with bird identification sheets illustrating the humming birds, juncos, towhees, jays and chickadees you can see outsid e. Listen to the sounds of nature and you might hear the call of an orange crowned warbler!
Inside the exhibit hall the story of Audubon Canyon Ranch continues. Displays on the heronry, Bolinas Lagoon, canyon animal life, geology and the coastal Miwoks may sound overwhelming, but this airy white barn with its lovely egret stained glass window is visitor friendly, with many photographs outnumbering written text. It’s an excellent place to get a preview of the coming movements in the cycle of life ballet. I loved the photo of four young, fuzzy-headed egrets in the nest, all with anxious expressions, facing the same direction, as if wondering when mom would return with their lunch! The redwood display cases containing Miwok basketry, tools and weapons are a tasteful tribute to the people who may also have awaited the yearly return of these great birds.
The book shop carries a wide variety of themed merchandise: identification guides, bird books with eye-catching photos, north coast travel guides and lots o f books for kids. The Audubon t-shirts and sweatshirts in subtle earth tones of green and brown will camouflage you on your next outing and the hand painted flower earrings will bring a smile to a favorite mom in May.
Kids won’t let you leave without a visit to the Aileen Pearson Marsh. A wooden boardwalk carries you through the tall jungle of reeds to get your hands wet and get up close and personal with some intriguing pond “critters.” Using the nets, underwater viewers and illustrated guides provided, look below the thick covering of duckweed for California newts, diving beetles or whirligigs. Listen for a Pacific tree frog or the call of a redwing blackbird clinging to a swaying reed.
As the hours passed I realized that there was a lot to do and learn at Audubon Canyon Ranch. The sun shone, the breeze was gentle and the atmosphere was welcoming and relaxed, so I was in no hurry to leave. Watching wildlife takes time to be rewarding. The fanning of white plumage, the exchange of a twig, the call of a warbler, a newt rising to the surface for air, the cries of a red tailed hawk—all part of the soothing beauty of nature.
The ballet of life is well worth the trip. I hope to return in May when the eggs hatch, to watch the young stretch their legs and m aybe catch a glimpse of the final send off in June, when parents either kick those kids out or abandon their own nest—maybe we all could learn a lesson from these wise birds.
Getting there: From Interstate 101 North take Sir Francis Drake all the way to Highway 1 in Olema. Turn south (left) on Hwy 1 and follow for about 10 miles to Bolinas Lagoon. Preserve will be on the left approximately 1 mile further.
Audubon Canyon Ranch: 4900 Hwy 1, Stinson Beach, (415) 868-9244, www.egret.org.
Open weekends and holidays until July 17, 10–4 p.m. Entrance free but contributions requested—$15/family. Trail map and brochure available.
Mother’s Day BBQ Sun.day, May 8.?v