Silicon Valley Birding: Shoreline Park
It’s the thing I’ve always wanted to do: Drag my husband back to the place where I spent my twenties and, while holding his hand, lead him around to all my old stomping grounds like an excited kid.
It was after college when I moved to the Bay Area where I then spent nine of my most formative years—from age 21 right up to the day I turned 30. It was the assault on my senses I was craving after spending the last four years at a very conservative religous university, and my mind exploded with all that the Bay Area had to offer: The diversity of people who are unafraid of what people think of them, the laissez-faire attitude of wearing shorts to work (I couldn’t even wear shorts in the testing center where I went to college) and the sheer volume of art, theatre and music scene that opened up a new world to me.
I had worked and lived on what is known as the Peninsula—the halfway mark between San Jose and San Francisco. This was, and still is, Silicon Valley, where nerds in jeans and t-shirts flourished, figuring things out and making shiny electronic toys for the rest of us. I didn’t work for any software or hardware company, and I would have rather worked and lived in San Francisco, but my job at a textbook publishing company was on the Peninsula.
I couldn’t afford to do most of the things I wanted to do in the Bay Area when I lived there, but there was always something free or cheap to do if you just peeled back the layers. This was before Google and Facebook. It was back during the first heyday of Apple Computer and before there was such a thing as a Dot Com. And while people certainly were making a great deal of money, I wasn’t one of them. I was dirt poor, shared an apartment with roommates and looked for activities that cost next to nothing. Often, a Friday night would be my friends and me buying giant Diet Cokes from a fast food drive-through in Mountain View and then by the time we drove an hour through traffic on 101 to San Francisco we’d eventually make it to the McDonald’s on Van Ness where we’d run in to use their bathroom to empty our bladders, then buy more Diet Cokes and just hang out and people watch. Trust me, that McDonald’s was the best place to people watch.
It’s a shame I hadn’t discovered birding back then. You don’t need a lot of money to look at birds.
Because I only started birding in my early forties—when I first met Steve—it’s not a surprise when I say that I never noticed a single bird the whole time I lived in the Bay Area back in the late ’80s and early 90s. Birds were just not on my radar as I was chasing the excentricities that circled me rather than stopping to pay attention to the quiet world of birds around me. I was completely clueless.
I still can’t believe Steve married me.
Steve and I were visiting the Bay Area because we were going on a Debi Shearwater Pelagic Tour out of Monterey (which I’ll post about later) and since we were in the area, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to educate Steve on the place that has made the biggest impression on his wife’s life. Because every husband wants to know that, right?
Looking back 30 years, I realized it was my friend, Shari, who introduced me to Shoreline Park. She grew up in the area and she was instrumental in introducing me to a lot of the places I frequented during my time in Northern California. She also had a Mustang convertible, which I rode shotgun, not caring that the California breezes were tearing through my curly hair. Riding around in a convertible with messy hair helped in making me not feel so destitute as a young adult right out of college living in one of the most expensive areas in the country.
After work, Shari would swing by my apartment, pick me up and take me to Shoreline, which was about a mile from where I lived. Shoreline Park was new to the area in the late 1980s and before the City of Mountain View decided to turn it into a recreational park, it consisted of over 500 acres of junkyard, a hog farm, a landfill, a sewage treatment plant and was troubled with low lying flood plains. By the time Shari introduced it to me, the land had been raised by fifteen feet and the now 750-acre park was a beautiful area of walking paths and a man-made, 50 acre, salt water lake. As we’d walk the paths in the evening after work, we’d pass by people walking their dogs and we’d watch the windsurfers ride on the water. What I didn’t see was that it was (and still is) a hotspot for endangered and protected wildlife species. Totally missed that.
When I lived in Mountain View there was only the park and Shoreline Amphitheater. The amphitheater was where we went to see outdoor concerts if I could afford it. It’s where I saw Depeche Mode, The Cure, Fine Young Cannibles, Tom Tom Club and the Shoreline Jazz Festival where I saw a new up-and-comer, Harry Connick, Jr. who was just an opening act back then. But now, as Steve and I drove up the long road from highway 101 to the park, the once open fields were lined with office buildings, most of which had Google signs out front. I was so disoriented that I nearly couldn’t find the right road to turn into to get to the park.
I eventually found the entrance and we parked, gathered our gear and made our way to the open fields. My main target for the day was the Burrowing Owl. After all my years in Utah and our proximity to Antelope Island where Burrowning Owls are found, I never once was able to find one. So I was on a mission to find one here at Shoreline where the grasslands are short, making a perfect habitat for the owls. The trouble is, these protected and declining birds are difficult to find through no help from the park’s neighbors: Google employees.
Turns out the well-meaning and ill-educated Google employees are actively feeding the ferel cats in the area, and this act is perpetuating the cat population that is stalking and killing the owls. You can read more about this in the New York Times article here.
We peered through our binoculars out toward the grasslands for any signs of a burrowing owl, scanning up and down over the tan and brown slope, looking for a bump that might be an owl or for one of the owl nest boxes where there might be one standing nearby. We just couldn’t find any, but were decidedly happy with a few song birds hanging around.
We started to head back toward the lake area to look at shorebirds and Steve was still stopping to look through his binoculars in areas we already checked out minutes ago when he spotted something in the distance. “There!” he exclaimed and it took me awhile to get my eyes on it–it was really far out. And once I found it I took over 30 snaps of it with my camera. None of them, I’m sorry to say, turned out very well at all. The owl was just too far out, even for my big 600mm lens. But I was over the moon to finally see the owl.
Once we left the hilly grasslands area and crossed the parking lot Steve and I were on the same walking path that Shari and I used to walk after work—a path that meanders around the salt water lake full of birds I never noticed. If I were to guess what Shari and I were talking about back then it was probably about guys. Shari always had a full dance card, so there was always much to talk about. But me? I was the wallflower, so those conversations were empty of any romantic surety for me. I had loved everything about where I lived, but I was not focused on finding a mate, just as I was not focused on looking at all the birds around me. Yet, here I was, over 30 years later, walking this same path with the mate I eventually found, and quite happy that I waited as long as I did.
This was a new Shoreline Park for me. It was not the same place I had visited during my twenties on those strolls with Shari. This park was full of life I had not seen before. Squirrels were popping in and out of holes in the ground. Herons would gently take off from the water, into the sky and flap their large wings slow and steady before landing further away to a safer spot away from the traffic of people. Canada Geese lounged around the lawn near the club house like old men who were regulars who came to sip coffee out of a mug and read the newspaper. This was their hangout and they were not at all bothered by people.
There were snowy egrets, willets, comorants, burrowing owls, gulls, kildeer, warblers, sparrows—all right here!
How did I not all see this before? I kept asking myself.
The park is dotted with benches along the pathway and so we stopped to watch the pelicans scoot along the water. I had run out of space on my camera’s memory card so there was no more snapping of photos for me. But I was okay with that. I discovered a new place, and had it not been for the guy that was sitting right next to me I would have never seen it. I thought I was leading him around to show him all the places I’d been, but it looks like he’s the one leading me.