50 years after 'The Birds,' Bodega Bay sites still delight

03/08/2013 1:00 AM

08/28/2014 11:14 PM

Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty to the world

Mrs. Bundy, to Melanie Daniels, in "The Birds"

BODEGA BAY – When last seen – cinematically, that is – this pleasant town on the Sonoma coast had been engulfed in Hitchcockian horror. Birds, birds everywhere. Crows, gulls and sparrows. Angry birds, not of the smart-phone species.

Of course, that was in 1963, when the moviegoing public was macabrely captivated by Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds," filmed in Bodega Bay and its smaller cousin, Bodega, five miles inland.

Now, 50 years later, as the community makes plans for the golden anniversary of this silver-screen classic, an avian invasion once more has taken hold here.

It's the annual winter migration of all kinds of birds, attracted in large numbers to Bodega Bay by the irresistible geographic combination of open shoreline and diverse flora. The National Audubon Society has called this area one of the nation's top birding spots.

On any late-winter or early-spring weekend, you're as liable to see as many folks peering through binoculars as fisherman dropping pots for Dungeness crab. Bird-watching ranks with whale watching, crabbing, camping and hiking as the prime outdoor activities for a Bodega weekend trip.

But, yes, movie buffs still make a pilgrimage to "The Birds" shooting sites, though they may leave disappointed. The inland hamlet of Bodega is a better "Birds"-watching locale, with the movie's schoolhouse intact. Alas, no tours. Private residence.

No such disappointment for real bird-watching.

"It's a top area because it's right on one of the five principle migration routes," said Tom McCuller, a member of the Madrone Audubon Society of Sonoma County. "Both spring and fall, not only seabirds but a lot of land birds use it as a migration route. It's a special place."

About the only species you won't find flitting around Bodega Bay – at the harbor, along the Spud Point mudflats, the rocks overlooking Bodega Head and the shoreline at Doran Beach – are good ol' American crows. Those, along with gulls, were the prime avian villains in "The Birds."

McCuller shook his head, wryly, when asked about crow-spotting.

"I heard (the movie) people went to a dump somewhere to get a bunch of crows and gulls," he said. "They don't really have any here."

Don't they ever stop migrating?

– Annie Hayworth, looking warily to the sky

On an hourlong tour of birding hot spots hosted by McCuller, though, you can see the crow's larger and more majestic kin – the raven. But just one. They aren't plentiful in the Bodega Bay area, perhaps still smarting from all the bad publicity the movie engendered.

Gulls, on the other hand, are ubiquitous, soaring and diving and rising again. Nary a one swooped down and pecked our foreheads, which happened in the film to Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie.

Every month or so, McCuller leads Madrone Audubon tours of the Bodega Bay hot spots – Hole in the Head, Rail Ponds, Doran Beach, Bodega Head and the harbor in general. One place he doesn't take groups, but recommends to birders on their own, is an area of dense foliage, including willows and Japanese maples, below the deck of Diekmann's Store on Highway 1.

"A great secret spot," he said.

Other spots welcome birders, who marvel at the array of avian visitors.

On our quest, we saw scores of yellow-rumped warblers at the marshy area called the Rail Ponds, their telltale dabs of hind-end brightness flashing as they snatched insects.

Birds are so omnipresent here that all we had to do was walk to the other side of the road to catch a group of western grebes, shorebirds with necks similar to the swan's, in repose on the mudflats.

All along the harbor, horned grebes, Brant geese and a variety of loons hang out. The loons are McCuller's favorite.

"Starting in March and into April, they get their breeding plumage, and they become magnificent," he said. "Completely different colors. Their hormones are flowing so they start mating rituals, pairing up, you know."

He pointed excitedly beyond some docked boats.

"Look at that one, diving down!" he said.

The above-the-marquee birds, those the general public will instantly recognize, are slightly more reclusive here.

Two peregrine falcons make Bodega Bay home, McCuller reports, one perching in eucalyptus trees, the other at Doran Beach. Bald eagles perch in Cypress trees near the fire station at Doran Beach. Black-crowned night herons congregate at Hole in the Head, a pond near Bodega Head that resulted after townsfolk stopped construction of a nuclear power plant in the 1960s.

"This is a 'migrant trap,' a place that sticks out into the ocean with trees," McCuller said of Hole in the Head. "Most land birds migrate at night. They see these trees and come down. There are lots of Eastern birds that come from the Arctic and get lost and wind up here."

The town's birds certainly seem to like these digs. They rise up, do something approximating the Harlem shake, then settle down on the water once more. They appear as docile as Hitchcock's creatures were aggressive.

Annie: How do you like our little hamlet?

Melanie: I despise it.

Annie: Well, I don't suppose it offers much to the casual visitor

To fully appreciate the charms of Bodega Bay, you need to slow your pulse rate, stop and linger, let the mellow coastal vibe penetrate your jangly, citified nerves.

Bodega Bay is not a walking town – though there long has been talk of constructing a linked boardwalk between commercial properties. Any walking to be done is at Bodega Head, where a 1.7-mile loop above the rocky outcropping affords wondrous views, or at Pinnacle Gulch, a one-mile trek starting at a housing tract near a golf course but soon getting back to nature before ending at an isolated beach with a view of Pinnacle Rock offshore.

More relaxed is a stroll along the Spud Point Marina on Westshore Road. You can view commercial crabbing boats back with the day's catch and watch amateur crabbers putting squid and chicken into metal traps and hoisting lines. Best of all, you can enjoy clam chowder or a crab-salad sandwich at the Spud Point Crab Co.

To many, the must-do activity is whale-watching at the Head, where you forget the hardships of 30-mph buffeting winds when the gray whales breach and spout.

Louella Pizzuti of Sunnyvale and Charleen Roccucci of Roseville tracked a photogenic gray whale for at least a half-hour just on the crest of breaking waves. They also good-naturedly chided a whale watcher who wore only a single fleece jacket.

"Here's a question for you," Pizzuti asked, rhetorically. "How many kite stores do you see in town? That's the indicator this is not a calm place."

Roccucci: "Layers, layers, layers. I've got three more sweatshirts in the car."

Back at lower elevation, along the shore, fisherman Greg Hartwick, who recently moved to Bodega Bay from Sacramento, was in shirt sleeves but not having much luck hauling in crabs. He showed how the lines encircle the crabs attracted to the bait in the metal boxes.

"You throw it out there," he said, "and when the crabs get in there and you pull it back, then it snares them. You reel it in. You can't stop. If you stop, they get out. Just reel fast as you can."

Not as easy as it seems. Little matter, though. You can get all the crabs you want at the Spud Point Crab Co. On this sunny, brisk day, though, most lunchtime diners chose "Carol's Famous Clam Chowder," which a sign boasted was "voted best (in town) 8 years in a row."

The sign is outdated, said owner Tom Anello. It's now nine years.

Anello, a former firefighter, opened the crab shack, which has only outdoor seating on picnic tables, in 2004.

"I grew up in the city (San Francisco), in North Beach, and I modeled this on all the mom-and-pop stuff I saw there," he said. "We have all our own (crab) boats. We catch our own."

Tourists Erich and Maya Kepner of Sacramento, visiting Bodega Bay for their anniversary, praised the freshness of the chowder.

"Guess there's a reason it won eight years in a row," Erich said.

Make that nine.

Melanie: Daddy, there were hundreds of them. No, I'm not hysterical.

Cinephiles won't find Bodega Bay buildings from "The Birds." The original Tides Wharf and Restaurant, where a key scene was shot, burned down years ago. A new, fancier Tides is in a different location.

At the Brennan House on Bodega Head, at which the birds wreaked havoc, only cedar trees remain.

Five miles inland, in Bodega, the Potter School House, where the kids were chased away by hard-pecking crows, still stands, painted white with green trim.

Any "Birds" lore is to be found a few hundred feet away at the Bodega Country Store, where owner Michael Fahmie has set up a little shrine. Out front is a mannequin of Hitchcock, with a crow perched on its shoulder. Inside is an array of memorabilia for sale, from a Tippi Hedren Barbie doll (in requisite green dress) to a photo of Hitchcock with a bird perched on his cigar, to DVDs of the film, to a $17,690 original autographed movie script.

Last summer, Fahmie organized a "Birds" day in Bodega, highlighted by a parade of bedecked Tippis. Plans are being made for a sequel for this year's 50th anniversary, to be held on Labor Day weekend. And, on March 23, the week the movie was released in 1963, the Bodega Bay Grange will host a charity screening of "The Birds."

Store manager Cliff Buchanan said he cannot count the number of times visitors have stopped to ask, "Where's the schoolhouse?"

He doesn't mind the interruptions.

"The Birds" brings business to the store. In fact, playing on the TV above the cashier's is Hedren's Melanie, fluttering her false eyelashes and sighing at the ordeal to boyfriend Mitch.

It's hard to believe anything at all happened yesterday, isn't it? It's so beautiful and still now.


Directions from Sacramento: Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 in Vallejo. Travel 16 miles, turn right on Lakeview Highway. Travel 11 miles, merge northwest onto Highway 116 and then to Highway 101 and go north. Exit at Railroad Avenue just south of Cotati. Go left on Railroad for about a quarter-mile, right on Stony Point Road about 1 3/4 miles to a left on Roblar Road for just over six miles, and right on Valley Ford Road, which soon becomes Highway 1. Continue on Highway 1 to Bodega Highway and turn right to get to the town of Bodega. For Bodega Bay: continue on Highway 1 an additional five miles.


50th anniversary screening of "The Birds," March 23 at the Bodega Bay Grange, 1370 Bodega Ave., Bodega Bay. $10 adults; kids 12 and under $5. Showtimes: noon, 3 and 7 p.m. Tickets: http://thebirds screening.brownpapertickets.com.

Potter Schoolhouse, 17110 Bodega Lane, Bodega.

Bodega Country Store, 17190 Bodega Highway.

The Tides Wharf and Restaurant, 835 Highway 1, Bodega Bay.


Madrone Audubon Society of Sonoma County: www.audubon.sonoma.net.

Upcoming Bodega Bay bird walk: 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. March 28. From the center of the town of Bodega Bay, drive north on Highway 1; turn left at Eastshore Road (the Bodega Head turnoff), right at Westshore Road and continue 0.3 mile to the unpaved parking lot on the right. Information: Tom McCuller, sisyphus@sonic.net.


Bodega Head Loop: 1.7 miles. From Highway 1, turn west on Eastshore Road (at the sign for Bodega Head), and right on Westshore Road. Go 3.5 miles, going left at the fork to the Bodega Head parking lot. Parking is free. Trailhead is at your left.

Pinnacle Gulch: 2 miles (out and back): From Highway 1 south on Bodega Bay, turn left on South Harbor Way. Turn left on Heron Drive, go about 1 mile to Mockingbird Road. Turn left to the parking lot on the left. Parking is $7.


Bodega Head. Take the same route to the Bodega Head hiking trailhead. Whale-watching viewing spots are on the rocks.


Spud Point Crab Co., 1860 Westshore Road Bodega Bay

The Tides Wharf and Restaurant, 835 Highway 1, Bodega Bay

The Bay View Restaurant, at the Inn at the Tides, 800 Highway 1, Bodega Bay

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


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