LAKE CACHUMA, Calif. — After the heavy rains of December and January, spring has arrived early in the Santa Ynez Valley. Last Saturday, when my husband, Paul, and I drove up from Los Angeles on U.S. 101 and turned east into the valley on California 246, the rolling hills were as green as Ireland's, the new leaves of the live oaks beginning to unfurl.
We had made the trip on the chance we might glimpse the bald eagles that winter at Lake Cachuma, a seven-mile-long man-made lake that is a major source of drinking water for the nearby city of Santa Barbara. Having seen intriguing birds on a trip to Costa Rica, I thought it would be a thrill to spot, so close to home, the rare and majestic bird that is our nation's symbol. But when we arrived at Lake Cachuma, we saw nothing but crows--dozens of them exploding from the trees and cawing raucously in what looked like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock's horror film, "The Birds." I remarked to Paul that I doubted a two-hour wildlife cruise on the lake would yield sightings of more exotic and elusive feathered species.
"You just need to know how to look," said a tall, ruggedly handsome man who'd overheard me. "For instance," he said, gazing up at a leafy oak-tree branch, "Can you see that black-crowned night heron snoozing up there?" All I saw was leaves. The man pointed. Sure enough, after some futzing with my binoculars, I could make out a large grayish-white bird with a long bill and a black head.
I was amazed and a little embarrassed. The man introduced himself: Neal Taylor, Santa Barbara County's naturalist for the last 18 years and our guide for today's wildlife cruise. Taylor reassured me that it takes awhile to get the hang of bird-watching--that he'd been practicing since he was a boy and used to come here to fish with his father.
Along with other binocular-armed, nature-loving tourists who'd booked seats in advance, Paul and I proceeded down the dock to the Osprey, a covered 46-passenger pontoon boat that tours the lake Wednesdays through Sundays all year. (The best time to spot eagles is from November through early March.) Taylor fitted us all with life jackets and we settled into the boat's cushioned, revolving seats. As he nosed the pontoon boat out of the marina, the mother of a restless 3-year-old called hopefully to Taylor: "Will we see anything exciting today?"
"We won't know 'til we're out there," he replied. "This isn't Disneyland."
In fact, as Taylor guided the Osprey across the tranquil blue water and into a picturesque bay on the opposite shore (there are 42 miles of shoreline), he pointed out something that we could see at Disneyland: the lichen that hangs from the oaks at Lake Cachuma was exported to Disneyland to be the "Spanish moss" in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Taylor filled us in on the various water birds paddling along the shore: red-headed ruddy ducks and green-headed mallards, white-necked grebes that can dive down 60 feet in search of fish, and black-and-gray mud hens, "the Rodney Dangerfields of the duck family." He pointed out a family of black-tailed deer grazing on a bank, then hushed us so that we could hear a bird's whistle that sounded almost like a baby's cry. We spotted its source high on a bare branch: a big, gray white-headed osprey, one of an estimated 70 to 80 pairs nesting at Lake Cachuma this year. According to Taylor, this "eagle of the sea" has such good eyesight that if it could read a newspaper, it would be able to read it from two miles away. The osprey took off, impressing us with its 60-inch wingspan.
Listening to Taylor's commentary as I scanned the shoreline with my binoculars, I experienced what I suppose is a bird-watcher's thrill of the hunt. I spotted great blue herons (whose feathers, prized for ladies' hats, were more valuable than gold at the turn of the century) and graceful white egrets posing on rocks, several jet-black cormorants skimming over the water, and half a dozen more osprey watching for trout and bass from high in trees.
Taylor pointed to a bluff where during a drought several years ago, he spotted six mountain lions in one week. Suddenly he stopped his story and gazed into the trees: "Folks, here's what we came for. Eagle at 10 o'clock!" After some false starts, I finally targeted it with my binoculars: a brown bird poised on a branch, a bird considerably larger--and more regal looking--than the ospreys we'd seen earlier. Taylor identified it as an immature bald eagle, too young to have grown the white feathers that create its "bald" head. Like the other eagles that have been spotted at Lake Cachuma, Taylor explained, this eagle most likely flew here from the San Juan Islands (the naturalists know this from the eagles' tags). As the eagle took off, Taylor drew our attention to the characteristic white feathers on the forward edges of its wings--wings that will stretch nearly 7 feet in length when it matures.