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DOWN & DIRTY

Sand and sandpipers

These and hundreds of other birds are the star attraction at McGrath State Beach, an Oxnard campground that's also family-friendly.

June 17, 2007|Scott Doggett | Special to The Times

IF you head to McGrath State Beach expecting to find a long swath of lovely tan sand and an endless succession of surfable breaks, you won't be disappointed.

But the two-mile beach on the outskirts of Oxnard that stretches south from the Santa Clara River to just beyond a small rib-shaped lake isn't McGrath's claim to fame.

That would be the 245 recorded bird species that spend at least part of the year here.

And except for the Hitchcock gulls and Poe ravens that terrorize all who camp at McGrath, the birds are harmless. OK -- a slight exaggeration; those species exist only in tales told when you're huddled around a fire ring at one of the state beach's 174 campsites.

All sites are flat and fairly spacious, equipped with fire rings and picnic tables and within a short walk of bathrooms with showers (make sure you have a quarter for hot water).

McGrath's campsites are arranged in six clusters; you'll want one closest to the beach -- and farthest from Harbor Boulevard road noise. It will be immediately clear which are which when you arrive.

Within the three most desirable clusters, campsites 102 to 107, 35 to 37 and 41 to 44 are tops because they place you closest to and facing the beach.

Next best are sites 161 to 163, 167 to 169, 59 to 97 for their proximity to sand and lawn, and for their views.

Although they might look good from a car window, sites 150 to 153 and 156 to 160 are often saturated with irrigation runoff from farmland miles away that gets trapped between grass and clay. When you pick a site, be sure to walk on the grass to test it for sogginess before setting up camp.

Within a clam toss of most of the campsites are small grassy fields that lend themselves to picnics and playing catch. And the ocean is within 500 yards.

These sites are popular with families, particularly on weekends, so be sure to reserve a site.

McGrath is not a place to bring kites or canines. Dogs must be on a 6-foot leash at all times and are not allowed to leave the campground. If a ranger sees you on sand with a dog, you will receive a hefty fine, leash or no leash.

That's because the endangered Western snowy plover nests on the beach, and the sparrow-size shorebird with bandit-mask markings around its eyes will abandon its nest at the sight of a dog -- even if it's more than 100 yards away.

As for flying kites, one of the plover's neighbors, the least tern, mistakes them for predators. But instead of fleeing like plovers, the white birds with the yellow beaks and black caps instantly succumb to air rage.

If there's a kite above, the least terns bolt from their nests and repeatedly attack, not realizing that they are leaving their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predators.

For straight bird talk, stop by campsite No. 34 where park host Bill Adams parks his RV for free in exchange for monitoring plovers and leading McGrath bird-watching tours.

If you drop by in the morning, there's a good chance he will be in and will offer to take you birding. Just look for the RV with his name on the hood; he's there through July.

At McGrath's northern end is the Santa Clara Estuary Natural Preserve, which includes eight ecosystems and a boardwalk flanked by tall grasses.

A sign at the beginning of the boardwalk announces, "You are about to enter one of the rarest places in California." But it's actually difficult to see much because of the grasses.

The limited access no doubt explains its popularity with the winged creatures -- but that doesn't make for particularly good exploring.

It does, however, lend itself to campfire tales about swamp things that live in the estuary and roam McGrath in the middle of the night when campers are sleeping.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Setting up camp

BASICS

McGrath State Beach has sites for car, RV and hike-bike campers. There's a dump station and water for RVs but no campsite hookups. Day use costs $8 daily per vehicle. Overnight is $25 per site, maximum eight people; one vehicle is included in the fee, but a second or third costs $8 each. For reservations, call (800) 444-7275, or go to www.reserveamerica.com.

DRIVE TIME

The beach is five miles south of Ventura off U.S. 101 by way of Harbor Boulevard. From downtown L.A., take U.S. 101 north to the Victoria Avenue exit toward Channel Island Harbor, turn left on Victoria Avenue, then right onto Olivas Park Drive and left onto Harbor Boulevard.

INFO

For more information on the state beach, contact (805) 968-1033, www.parks.ca.gov.

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