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Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on January 1st, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 43

Eagle cruises reveal the ecology of Cachuma Lake, home of many flora and fauna

BY JOE PAYNE


LAND OF PLENTY
There is no telling what wildlife an eagle cruise will reveal, like a pack of mule deer.
PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

For someone who finds it hard not to sleep through the morning on a weekend, I was surprised to find myself at the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area marina at 9:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday. But thanks to a cup of coffee and the clear Cachuma air, I was wide awake and ready to board the famous Osprey pontoon boat for an eagle cruise lead by Santa Barbara County Park naturalist Liz Gaspar.

It just so happened that I scored an extra seat on an eagle cruise that was booked for a local chapter of the Audubon Society—a lucky chance, as the enthusiastic birders filled most of the seats in a boat brimming with excitement and knowledge.


EONS ON VIEW
The eagle cruises don’t just provide insight into wildlife, but local geography as well, such as ancient shale formations.
PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

The Osprey is equipped with cushioned chairs that offer a 360-degree swivel so no matter where you are on the boat, you can look in any direction, all the better to view the range of wildlife the cruise offers. The trips are usually called wildlife cruises, but during eagle season the name changes, as sightings of bald eagles are possible.

But as Gaspar could tell you after more than a decade of leading the cruises, the wild offers no guarantees. Though no eagles were spied on our tour, the birders and myself were treated to a wide range of wildlife to view.

Gaspar is a delightful tour guide, stocked with endless knowledge about the local fauna. She offered insights into field markers; markings on animals or movements that will let you know the species almost immediately.


BIRDS AND THE BEES
Common and western grebes were enjoying mating rituals, which include mimicry and even water-skipping on their webbed feet.
PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

Before the Osprey could even leave the dock there were birds perched nearby that were sparking excited conversation. An osprey was preening on a nearby dock, and as the boat was exiting the marina, two white pelicans were perched on a buoy. Gasper related that the pelican had the largest native wingspan in California, right after our famous condor, of course.

The grebes, both western and common, were out in full force that day, their long arching necks and pointed beaks making them unmistakable. Pairs could be seen quite close to the boat swimming beside one another and mimicking each other’s movements.

“That’s flirting behavior,” Gaspar noted.


OUR FEARLESS LEADER
Santa Barbara County Park naturalist Liz Gaspar has been leading eagle and wildlife cruises for more than a decade at Cachuma Lake and brings a vast amount of knowledge, cheerfulness, and wit to the two-hour tour.
PHOTO BY JOE PAYNE

At one point we got a view of the grebes’ famous mating behavior, when the pair would flap their wings, rise out of the water, and skate along the surface of the lake with their webbed feet.

I have to admit, I was keen to view a bald eagle and was busy scouring the distant coast and tree lines with the binoculars available on the boat. I spied, far in the distance, a pack of hoofed mammals, which I rightly assumed was deer.

“I hate to take the attention away from the birds,” I said, “but I think I see a pack of deer on the far coast.”

Gaspar sent the boat motoring toward the group of what ended up being mule deer, including a buck with some healthy antlers. The group was enjoying a leisurely graze on the banks of the lake. The water levels have been low due to the lack of rainfall this season, Gaspar explained, but this makes for more wildlife close to the water.

Take the cruise
Cachuma Lake offers two-hour eagle cruises on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and Fridays and Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. Cost is $15, $7 for kids, and $10 for parking. No kids under 4 allowed on the cruises. More information is available at 688-4515 or sbparks.org. Reservations can be made on weekdays at 686-5050 and on the weekends at 686-5055.

Except for the other boaters on the water, the deer were the only mammals viewed on the trip, but that was just fine with everyone on board, as they had more than enough birds to view. Though no bald eagle made an appearance, Gaspar kept all entertained with fun facts about the habits and biology of the birds, which included red-tailed hawk, a loon, and a kingfisher with awesome head plumage reminiscent of 1980s punk rock.

 

Arts Editor Joe Payne admits to a mammal bias. Contact him at jpayne@santamariasun.com.