Sunday, May 17, 2009

Close Encounter

I hiked Torrey Pines State Reserve, yesterday. I've hiked it once before, when I was interviewing in San Diego, but didn't go as far as I did yesterday. San Diego County is a surprisingly green desert. Dr. Seuss lived here, and it's obvious that the bizarre trees and plants in his books were heavily influenced by the native flora. The leaves of many plants have an orange "color cast," similar to the tint on unfiltered photos taken with analog cameras on sunny days. Many of the trees stretch upward in unnatural curves, naked almost all the way to the top. Their leaves are clustered in round puffs, and these puffs are powdered with the colors of dusk, a surreal color scheme that I've seen only in children's books!

Torrey Pines, named after a very rare, bonsai-like pine tree species that grows here, is one of the most spectacular natural parks I've ever experienced. Amidst a Mediterranean climate, a collision of chaparral and coastal sage scrub ecosystems, spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean (watch for dolphins surfing near the shore, or for whales in the distance) and grizzled species of flora and fauna that you would expect to see in much harsher climates, it leaves you desperately trying to encapsulate it all in a way your hyperstimulated brain can understand.

I hiked along the mesas of the park, which reflect to each other their precipitous, grooved, and pocketed sandstone cliffs dropping away into green ravines. I startled Audubon cottontail rabbits near the trail as I approached them. At one point, I encountered a scaly lizard of the desert, probably a western fence lizard, in the middle of my path. It didn't budge, so I viewed it from about seven feet away with 10-power binoculars. In an anthropomorphic gesture, it cocked its left eye up and looked me directly in the eyes. After a few moments, I let it win the staring contest and continued onward.

I reached an overlook at the edge of the cliff that was fenced in with large, squared logs, to prevent people from tipping over to their demise 600 feet below, and as I looked for dolphins in the Pacific Ocean and watched brown pelicans skimming the water, their wingtips almost touching the waves, I heard a sharp note that probably came from a towhee or finch somewhere in the ravine behind me. I turned around, and I saw a common raven flying up the ravine. It turned sharply towards me and landed on a wooden post just three feet away!

The raven didn't make any aggressive gestures; just watched me with curiosity, croaking every few seconds. It impressed me with a shaggy "beard" of feathers and a heavy-looking bill. Its eyes were a dull milky-black, the color of death; its intentions impenetrable. I didn't know if I should turn around or keep staring -- I feared being attacked because I didn't want to have to hurt the bird. Suddenly, it hopped off the post and coasted down the sandstone cliff facing the sea. It disappeared into the cliffside, several yards below, and I figured it's nesting there.

I turned around to leave, spoke to some hikers nearby about the experience, and the raven flew back up to several yards over our heads, flying in small haloes. We disbanded, but I kept watching the bird. Another raven, this one with a partly-unfeathered head, flew onto a torrey pine cast almost into a frieze in the valley below, its trunk providing a horizontal perch for the bird, its five-needled branches seemingly sprouting from the valley itself. The first raven joined it; their playful behavior suggested they were mates.

Later on, during the hike, I saw a raven fly into one of the many pockets in the sandstone cliffs; I brought my binoculars up and saw a portion of what was probably its nest. Other interesting sights included the large, smooth, and shiny stink beetles encountered on the trail, and a wren singing remarkable songs and that I've not yet identified. I also saw a spotted towhee and several California towhees.

On a lagoon near the shore, I spotted a bird species that seemed to be a cross between a tern and a black skimmer. At first I thought these birds were skimmers, but when they flew (one-by-one, towards the ocean) they seemed like very large terns with gull-like wingspans. I hoped I was seeing tropicbirds, but googling last night trampled this hope: they were Caspian terns, the largest tern species in the world.

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