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Adventure of the week: Witness the rituals of herons and egrets

Getting to Audubon Canyon Ranch is part of the adventure: driving Highway 1's twists and curves, seeing vistas of the Pacific sweep into view and then dipping down to Stinson Beach.

From there, travel north three more miles and you reach the ranch's 1,000-acre Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, where great blue herons and great egrets are in the thick of mating season.

The birds return each spring to nest atop Picher Canyon's tall redwoods. Courtship includes plumage displays, broken branches presented to the female for nest-building, elaborate movements -- and mating calls.

"If you hear what sounds like a wolf in the top of a redwood tree, it's probably a great blue heron early in the mating season," said Maurice A. "Skip" Schwartz, executive director at the ranch.

You can hear and see the season unfold from courtship through the fledglings' first flights at this private preserve every weekend until July 16.

Check in at the ranch center, then take a half-mile hillside hike that leads to Henderson Overlook. It's higher than the nesting area and has spotting scopes for viewing the birds without disturbing them. Volunteer naturalists such as Leslie Flint are on hand.

"During mating, egrets look like ballerinas," she said while helping a visitor focus the telescope on a recent visit.

She explained that some aspects of nesting behavior are common to egrets and herons. Initially, one adult stays with the nest at all times. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Eight miles of trails, varying in difficulty from easy strolls to challenging hikes, wend through the preserve. One includes the Clem Miller Lookout that peers over Bolinas Lagoon, where shorebirds forage at its reedy edge.

A marbled godwit danced around, digging for food next to a long-billed curlew. An American avocet on stilt-like legs grazed nearby.

"The length of the bill determines what a bird can look for," Flint said, adding that many species of shorebirds search the same area together.

Glance up and you'll see an occasional osprey flying overhead with a fish in its talons. Stay tuned and you'll hear a symphony of songbirds drifting through stands of Douglas fir, California bay trees and coastal redwoods.

Herons and egrets are the stars of this spring show, but diverse attractions abound. A pond brims with newts and skittering aquatic life. A bird blind beside a brook invites a quiet pause. Picnic tables in a clearing surrounded by forested hills offer a spot to refuel between hikes, while the display hall and bookstore satisfy quests for detailed knowledge.

During weekdays, schoolchildren swarm the preserve, getting a hands-on education that helps cure what some have termed a "nature deficit disorder."

"Hiking into the hills, reaching into a pond -- it's not something you can do at your computer," Schwartz said.


Audubon Canyon Ranch

Where: 4900 Highway 1, three miles north of Stinson Beach

What: Bird viewing, especially nesting colonies of great blue herons and great egrets; hiking; picnic area; information available along self-guided tours

Hiking: Eight miles of trails, half-mile to three miles long

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until July 16, rain or shine; weekday visits possible by calling ahead

Pets, etc.: No pets allowed, except for service animals such as guide dogs; no smoking

What to wear: Dress in layers for coastal weather; wear sturdy hiking shoes; hats advised

What to bring: Water, camera, binoculars, picnic lunch

Cost: No fee, but donations are appreciated

Information: (415) 868-9244; www.egret.org

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