Transport to Nature


Retired computer scientist Bob Gurfield paddles his kayak smoothly through the early morning fog, his gaze alternating among rock formations, the water surface and the sky as he searches for interesting birds.

When he spots one, he quietly pulls his paddle onto the deck of the boat, and reaches for a pair of binoculars. Gurfield will sometimes stay almost motionless, gazing at the birds for several minutes at a time, just observing.

This is the retirement he wanted, one that allows him to combine two hobbies he holds dear--kayaking and birding--to get close to nature.

But Gurfield's serene, morning outing does not take place on a mountain lake or along an isolated, rugged coast.

He is paddling through the waters of the largest man-made marina in the world, Marina del Rey, just offshore the hardly secluded Westside of Los Angeles and a only bit north of bustling LAX.

The spot where he launched his kayak into the water is walking distance from condos, restaurants and chain coffee shops.

Gurfield, 58, is living proof that a kayak can provide quick transport between urban and natural worlds.

"It's so different out here, even this close to shore," he says in hushed tones while paddling toward the marina's breakwater, a favorite resting spot for pelicans and California sea lions.

"You don't have to go to Africa or some other far off place," he says, "to see wild game."

Gurfield is more than willing to share the experience. This summer, he will lead several birdwatching-by-kayak tours organized by UCLA's Marina Aquatic Center. Participants--aboard stable, sit-on-top kayaks--will be on the Marina's waters and paddle up Ballona Creek, a channel leading to a wetlands.

It isn't absolutely necessary to use a kayak to see the approximately 100 different bird species common to the area.

"You can stand on shore and see all the birds we are going to see today," says Gurfield, who leads the UCLA tours on a volunteer basis. "But in a kayak, you can see them better, closer, longer. For someone interested in birds, it's just wonderful."

The kayak he uses is a traditional, enclosed type that takes more skill to keep upright, but provides a faster, smoother ride. His lanky frame protected by a wetsuit and life jacket in case of capsize, he moves along the breakwater so quietly that the dozens of Brown Pelicans on the rocks hardly pay any attention.

"This is their territory," Gurfield says. "We are just visitors. We get to see them as they actually live."

Unfortunately, the ability to get this close also means that the smell of the long-time pelican habitat is somewhat overwhelming.

"It does get a bit strong," says Gurfield, but then he suddenly lifts his binoculars to his eyes and points to a small, black bird with a long bill hopping on rocks near the water.

"That's a Black Oystercatcher," he says, a note of excitement in his voice. "It's a kind of unusual bird for here. Usually, they are found further to the north." Their flat, long bills are used to pry open oysters, he explains, thus the name.

Gurfield watches a bit longer, nodding in satisfaction at his find. He says that he is not, however, one of those birders whose interest in the activity mostly involves spotting as many species as possible in a year.

"If a report goes out on the Internet that something really rare has been spotted," he says, "there are birders who will fly into LAX and drive up here, just so they get a chance to add it to their lists."

He moves away from the breakwater and heads for the Ballona Creak channel where birds often found in lagoons and wetlands reside. A flock of Elegant Terns fly up from the shore, the black feathers of their heads contrasting with the white feathers of their bodies, making them appear as if they are wearing masks for a costume ball.

Two jet-black, Double-crested Cormorants sit on a rock next to a third, brown one. "The black ones are the adults and the brown one is younger, not fully matured," Gurfield said.

A Great Egret, with a snow-white body, unfolds its wings and flies low across the water, ending the morning's outing on a majestic note.

During his hour-and-a-half on the water, Gurfield has spotted 28 birds, a total he says is, "a little low."

But as he said before, it's not the numbers that count.

"We hardly notice the change in seasons here in Los Angeles," Gurfield says. "The temperature is uniform for much of the year and with our electric lighting and modern conveniences, we don't have to pay so much attention to the shortening and lengthening of days.

"But when I go out on a kayak or even for a walk and see what birds are new in town, I get a sense of seasons changing, nature going through its phases.

"It's a nice way to spend the time."

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