The Birds: Zmudowski State Beach

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I took advantage of the late summer light last week and squeezed a little more into a day that would have normally ended when I packed up and left my desk at the UCSC Extension in Santa Clara.

I decided to take my life in my hands and head over Hwy 17 into Santa Cruz (Hwy 17 is an insane 4-lane roadway through the mountains with a concrete retaining wall that is reminiscent of a bobsled run) and then down Hwy 1 to Zmudowski State Beach just north of Moss Landing.

I start out on these little adventures with modest expectations and this one was no different. I’ve seen the beaches and dunes along Monterey Bay a dozen times and set out thinking well, let’s go anyway.  I just might find something a little different this trip.  Maybe something for the senses and something for the viewfinder.  And, as always, I walk away better for the effort.

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The pleasure of this trip starts as soon as you pull off Hwy 1 and into, once again, acres and acres of beautiful green agriculture in perfectly straight rows as far as you can see.  If you’ve read any of my other posts you know that the scale of the ag just leaves me astonished every time I get a chance to drive just about anywhere along the central coast of California.  It’s fields like these that produce over half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

I followed the signs to Zmudowski, which takes you through the fields on a road that gets progressively worse.

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Like leave-the-nice-car-at-home worse. There’s also an ominous sign in the parking lot that tells you to ‘hide your valuables and lock your car’, which also might be a good reason to leave the nice car at home.

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Regardless, as soon as you cross the park boundary the neatly cultivated fields give way to marsh ponds behind the dunes, and amazingly, a pretty nice wildflower display.  This is where the fog is most of the summer, so maybe that’s what gives the plants the edge they need to put on this display during arguably one of the worst droughts in modern California history.  I’m off to a good start.

As is often the case, I’m the only car in the parking lot.  I get a chuckle out of how many times my car is the only car in the parking lot in a state with 37 million other people, but in all fairness, it was a Tuesday afternoon, completely overcast with fog, with a fairly stiff (base layer + fleece) breeze.  This would be a winter day in the Carolinas.  On a nice sunny weekend day however, the place could be packed.

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I was the only person there… for a little while anyway. Another car showed up a couple who walked along the beach for awhile, a little more interested in themselves than the scenery. They later retreated to their SUV and steamed the windows up for the hour or so I was out doing my camera thing.  That’s a first.  Ahhh… the romance:  Snuggly overcast day at the beach, quiet solitude, squished into the back of the Kia, parked just feet away from the portolets.

Meanwhile, I crossed the dunes and headed to the north because I wanted to see where the Pajaro River empties out into the bay.

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Like any walk on any beach, you keep one eye out on the ocean and the other on the sand around your feet, just in case the latest tide brought in something interesting.  I saw the usual array of sand dollars, kelp, a small hermit crab and unfortunately, 2 dead seals.  Everyone knows these animals are under stress, but it’s a little startling and sad to actually walk up on two of these beautiful creatures wrapped in the sand of the high water mark of the last tide.  You want to believe this is a just the natural cycle of life for all creatures in Monterey Bay, but I’ve got this sinking feeling it’s just not that simple.  Or that natural.

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I continued walking along the shoreline until I got close to the river.  As it turns out, it doesn’t really empty into the bay, at least not right now.  Like the Salinas River, there’s not enough current to push through the sand into the bay so the water instead gathers into ponds behind the shoreline.

This works out great for the waterfowl, because as I found out, this is where every pelican in Monterey county goes to hang out on Tuesday nights.  Hundreds of them and some of their friends (avocets, Forster’s terns).  It makes for a great scene and if you have enough lens, some pretty exciting photo ops.

I broke out the old 500mm Nikon reflex I have, stuck it on the D7000 with a monopod and just started shooting away.

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The result was nice compression shots of birds and beach, with the Santa Cruz mountains in the background, all under the overcast, and therefore even, lighting.

After a few minutes I moved in a little closer just to see how far I could go without sending the entire rookery into the dark sky.  That would be a great shot, mind you, and it is tempting, but I’ll leave that to someone’s dog to do for me.

I did the math and decided I wanted to work with two shutter speeds.  Something along 1/350 to stop action and get some sharpness out of a jittery 500mm lens and something around 1/30th or 1/60th to blur the background motion of the pelicans gliding by.  The reflex lens is a fixed f/8, so aperture isn’t a variable, and I wanted shutter priority.  So I opted for setting the auto-ISO, spinning the shutter speed dial at will and letting it rip.  I do love digital.  The camera just spun up the ISO I needed from 100 to 1000 on a moment’s notice.  With bracketing to boot.

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I got good results, made better with a little help from Adobe Lightroom. But more importantly I was reminded why I keep lugging around these DSLRs and all these lenses.  I was able to get the shot I wanted because the camera has the capabilities to go beyond point and shoot mode and effortlessly find a technical solution to a less than optimal shooting circumstance.

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So I shot my fill of the pelicans and their friends, headed back down the beach keeping an eye out for just one more photo op.  I crested the dunes above the parking lot with the steamy Kia and spent a few more minutes with the wildflowers along the marsh in the waning light (digital cameras and 1600 iso… life really can’t be this good), and then called it a day.  It’s always a bit of relief to pull off that outer layer, get back in the car, away from the wind and thaw out just a bit.

A really great way to finish off this trip would be to swing by Phil’s in Moss Landing, but I was by myself and that’s no way to eat dinner, so it was another cup of Cherrios and my home brewed iced tea to finish the trip back to the ranch.  I suppose I could have invited the folks in the steamy Kia if they wanted to get a dinner, just being neighborly… but I figured they already had dessert.

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Kid Factor: (+) Beach, ocean, sand everywhere and lots of birds.  You can’t hardly go wrong with kids and beaches.  Have to stay off the dunes.  (-) Water is cold, surf can be rough, no lifeguards and weather might be completely different from where you drive from, so bring jackets.  Just two tired portolets, no other facilities.  Other beaches down the coast in Marina and Monterey have better facilities and lifeguards.

Fitness Factor: You’ll need to slog over the dune access through loose sand, but the beach is flat, the wet sand is packed and there’s plenty of fresh air.  If the fog comes in, it can get pretty cold real quick.

Photo Factor: (+)  If you’re like me and can always find something to shoot, then you’ll do fine here.  Can’t say how long the wildflowers will be around.  If you’ve got a longer lens, like 400mm or more, then the birds will give you something to add to your albums.  Sunset potential too, but it is often foggy. (-) Plenty of salt air blowing around, so wipe your gear off when you get home.

Also:  I always just assume my car will get broken into, not just here but just about any beach I go to, so I only bring what I can carry with me.  Just saying’.

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