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You'd never guess it from the road, but Elkhorn Slough offers great bird-watching.

You'd never guess it from the road, but Elkhorn Slough offers great bird-watching

Nearby in Moss Landing, you'll find antiques, the fishing fleet, seafood

Motorists skirting Monterey Bay seldom give Elkhorn Slough a second glance. Next time you cross the new State Highway 1 bridge at Moss Landing, don't let the two skyscraping stacks of the PG&E power plant put you off. From a distance the slough may look uninviting, but it's a welcome refuge for tens of thousands of birds. Experts rank it one of the best bird-watching spots on the Pacific Flyway.

Until recently, access has been limited. Now a new visitor center and nearly 5 miles of hiking trails introduce you to the 1,240-acre Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Sanctuary. You might extend an outing by including Moss Landing, with its hardworking harbor, antique shops, and seafood restaurants.

Stretching 7 miles inland, Elkhorn Slough hosts some 260 different species of birds annually. This month, you'll see overwintering waterfowl and shorebirds, which use the estuary for feeding and roosting. Best viewing comes at low tide, when large concentrations of birds feed on the exposed mud flats; we saw swooping clouds of sandpipers on recent visits.

Established in 1980, the sanctuary is a joint federal-state effort to protect and study these wetlands. One experiment is an attempt to restore 200 acres of tidal marsh that had been drained as pasture for the old Elkhorn Farm Dairy.

The center houses temporary exhibits on the natural and human history of Elkhorn Slough. Among the photographs on view are stunning color close-ups of birds. Another exhibit shows how archeologists excavated an ancient Ohlone Indian village here and some artifacts they unearthed. Pick up a trail map and check list of birds. You may be surprised at the diverse habitats, from coast live oak woodland to salt marsh carpeted by pickleweed.

At an overlook on the 1.1-mile Five Fingers Loop Trail, a wooden bench marks the site of a North American birding record: most species (116) sighted in a single day from one spot. Binoculars are a must. At the nearby wildlife blind, you might try telephoto photography; for a 35mm camera, carry a 200mm or longer lens. Keep watch for soaring raptors, including red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Summer brings thousands of California brown pelicans.

The juxtaposition of nature and man is disconcerting: power lines and a railroad track cross the sanctuary, which is bordered by a noisy scrap-metal yard and a dairy with a feedlot. Last year, biologists found mussels contaminated with high levels of pesticides, presumably from agricultural run-off; the problem is under study. Health officials warn against eating shellfish from the slough.

The sanctuary grounds and center are open 9 to 5 Thursdays through Sundays; admission is free. Docent-led walks start at 10 and 1 on weekends. For a schedule of other activities, including birding trips, write to Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Box 267, Moss Landing 95039.

Moss Landing: fishing fleet, seafood dining, antiquing

This harbor town dates back to about 1865, when Captain Charles Moss established a whaling station and wharf. You won't find boutiques on this waterfront, where marine supply stores cater to commercial fishermen, fish-packing plants are still active, and sharp-eyed gulls keep watch for scraps. In winter most boats stay in port, as crews get them shipshape for salmon fishing in spring.

Numerous antique shops are sprinkled around town. Bibliophiles enjoy browsing in Yesterday's Books, which has a good collection of sea lore (open 11 to 4 weekdays, 10 to 5 weekends).

For a seafood meal, you might stop at Moss Landing Oyster Bar and Company, just west of State 1 (open 11:30 to 9:30 Tuesdays through Saturdays; 3:30 to 9 Sundays for dinner only). Next door, its deli (open 10 to 7 daily) serves such fare as fried squid sandwiches. Other choices include the Harbor Inn and Skipper's Cafe on the water, and, for Mexican food, the Whole Enchilada on State 1.

Flanking the harbor, two rock jetties are popular fishing spots for perch and starry flounder. You can buy supplies at Joe's Bait and Tackle, open 6 A.M. to 8 P.M. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Photo: Birders stalk off from visitor center, built to resemble an old dairy barn

Photo: Great blue heron, here with neck tucked in, is one of the bigger wading birds you're likely to see at Elkhorn Slough; adults reach height of 4 feet

Photo: At low tide, mud flats attract shorebirds--and bird-watchers. Power plant stacks on the western horizon mark mouth of slough at Moss Landing

Photo: Moss Landing is about 20 miles from Monterey and Santa Cruz. From State 1, Salinas and Dolan roads lead to Elkhorn Road and visitor center of Elkhorn Slough sanctuary. Moss Landing and Salinas River state beaches invite strolling, surf-fishing

Photo: Clapboard jumble: half of town's dozen antique shops cluster along Moss Landing Road
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Feb 1, 1986
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