July 9th, 2006

Today's Field Trip: Palo Alto Baylands Preserve

Today's Field Trip: Palo Alto Baylands Preserve

Because I just can't get enough of those amazing baylands, today D. and I went to the Palo Alto Baylands Preserve, just up the bay from the Sunnyvale Baylands Park we visited yesterday.

The Palo Alto Baylands Preserve is the largest tract of undisturbed marshland remaining in San Francisco Bay. It has long boardwalks going out over the marshes and tidal flats with observation stations here and there so the landscape and wildlife can be viewed without disturbing any creatures or trampling the habitat.

This area is considered one of the best bird-watching spots on the West Coast, and we were not disappointed. In a very short span of time we saw black-necked stilts, avocets, terns, swallows, killdeer, Savannah sparrows (a first for me), dowitchers (another first for me), long-billed curlews, some sandpipers too far away for me to identify, and a whimbrel (yet another first).

In another section of the preserve we saw a roosting area for herons and egrets. Everywhere we looked there were white egrets and black-crowned night herons attending to their next generation. They had taken over several trees with their nests, complete with screaming babies. Well, mom and pop were doing a lot of gutteral screaming too (probably saying to Junior, "Gimme a break already! You want another fish, go get one yourself!"). All together they made quite a racket.

Back at the interpretive center we saw the eaves were loaded with swallow nests, with lots of baby swallow faces poking out awaiting mom and dad's return with the next installment of bugs. The decks and benches circling the building under the eaves were lousy with bird droppings; visitors do not linger long outside the center during nesting season!

It was a joy to go out on a raised boardwalk trail into the marsh above the pickleweed and cordgrass in the bright sun and strong breeze to watch the light sparkle on the turning tide at the vague yet vibrant boundary between water and earth. Water inundates the realm of the grasses twice a day as the tides flush out the accumulated silt and detritus of aquatic life and death. It is often hard to tell where bay, estuary, slough, marsh and mud all begin and end, because in this zone they intertwine intimately like the DNA molecule's own double helix. One could not be isolated from the other without destroying the entire habitat, and on this all the creatures there depend.

Even though the whole Bay is stunningly beautiful, the Palo Alto Baylands Preserve yet stands out like a jewel. I wish all the Bay marshes were still like this.


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