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Birds flock to Morro Bay, and watchers follow

Birds flock to Morro Bay, and watchers follow
A pelican floats on Morro Bay. The area is popular with birders during migration season and the January Winter Bird Festival. (Kenneth R. Weiss / LAT)
For as long as I can remember, I've thought of Morro Bay as a place to escape from Los Angeles. At the age of 10, I visited former neighbors who had moved here after selling their house in suburban Los Angeles to pursue a slower, simpler life. I cherish the boyhood memory of careening around the streets in this seaside town on a bicycle, awestruck by how empty they were of cars.

So when my girlfriend, Nancy, suggested we drive up to Morro Bay to get away from it all, I pounced on the idea — even if it meant a couple of days of pursuing her passion: bird-watching.

Morro Bay is a major winter refuge for non-L.A. escapees. It teems with migrants this time of year. Noisy flocks of black brant geese fly down from summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. Enormous white pelicans with yellow bills come from the prairies of Canada. American avocets, formal in their black and white winter plumage, and handsome pintail ducks arrive en masse from inland lakes now locked in ice.

I quickly learned that Morro Bay is one of the hottest birding spots in the Western United States, with more than 250 species of birds seen between November and February.

Birders flock here for the annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, Friday to Jan. 17 this year, which enables birders to strut their species-spotting skills, among other activities. It's a my-list-is-bigger-than-your-list sort of competition.

Fortunately, we came a few weeks earlier. The place was packed with birds but not the birders. The streets remained as quiet as I remembered them.

Our getaway began in earnest as we exited U.S. 101 about 200 miles from L.A. and headed north on Highway 1 toward Morro Bay. The city of San Luis Obispo quickly gave way to green hills, and a string of ancient volcanoes called the Nine Sisters marked the route like giant stepping stones. The last of the sisters is Morro Rock. At 576 feet, it lords over the town and the bay from its place in the surf zone.

(Morro Rock is challenged at the edge of the harbor by three smokestacks from a poorly placed power plant, which may have inadvertently protected this place from becoming another coastal boomtown.)

We hustled to the waterfront embarcadero to rent a two-person kayak as a squall was gathering. I had a new pair of 10-power binoculars that Nancy had given me as part of her plot to get me hooked on birding. Now, she was telling me, one of the best ways to spot the birds in Morro Bay's expansive estuary was to get on the water and sneak up on them.

First, we had to fight our way upwind and against the tide to get deep into the 2,300 acres of protected bird sanctuary. Once there, we were able to glide close to a seething mass of western sandpipers on an exposed sandbar. They were in a feeding frenzy, stitching the mud like erratic sewing machines with their needle-like beaks.

Easily spooked into flight, these small shorebirds would rise aloft like clouds of tossed confetti before settling softly back to Earth. Even I, the most reluctant of birders, was fascinated by this aerial ballet. It was almost as interesting as the herd of 75 harbor seals, lounging on another sandbar like giant slugs with wide eyes and whiskers.

Chilled from the outing, we retreated to our room at the Inn of Morro Bay just as the skies unleashed the first torrent of rain that persisted through our stay.

The inn is on the bay at the entrance to Morro Bay State Park. We had reserved a standard room, which, after a AAA discount, cost about $89 a night, plus tax. It was a clean but unremarkable accommodation in the middle of the complex of clapboard buildings with red-brick driveways.

We asked for an upgrade the second night to a room that overlooked the water and had a gas fireplace and hot tub. We were glad we did.

The weather wasn't cooperating. More kayaking was out. Every time we ventured out of the vehicle to get closer to the shorebirds and waterfowl, sheets of wind-driven rain quickly chilled us right through our rain gear.

"I have water running down my leg," Nancy said, pointing out the weak link between her waterproof pants and her calf-high rubber boots.

We spent a fair amount of time bird-watching from the hotel, much of it peering through my new binoculars from the private hot tub on our balcony. This was my style of birding.

We also did some drive-by bird-watching around the estuary and spent just about every meal at a waterfront window. One morning at the inn's Orchid restaurant, we ate eggs Benedict and a Mediterranean omelet next to a pair of birders from San Francisco with their pair of binoculars.

We ate lunch — twice, as it turned out — at the Bayside Cafe, munching on a huge pile of nachos and crab-cake sandwiches. As we waited briefly for a table at this popular cafe one afternoon, another couple from Los Angeles came in the door, dripping wet and poring over a bird book to try to identify their latest find.

"The birds drop out of the storm like a gift from the heavens," said the woman in a beret.

Our favorite meal was at Hoppe's Garden Bistro, a renowned restaurant a few minutes north on Highway 1 in the town of Cayucos. We were careful to make dinner reservations well in advance.

The place didn't disappoint. The meal began with pheasant breast ravioli with wild mushrooms, which could have been a meal in itself, followed by a salad topped with warm goat cheese. I had a Pacific-style bouillabaisse packed with wild salmon and shellfish, and Nancy had the crispy duck with wasabi mashed potatoes.

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No crowds

Maybe it was the series of storms, but we felt as if we had Morro Bay nearly to ourselves. We never had trouble finding a parking spot, and we never had to wait in line. The crowds seemed to be only of the avian type.

We meandered around Embarcadero Road and found ourselves shelling out $2 apiece to enter a funky, family-owned aquarium behind a gift shop. The part that was the aquarium had a collection of sad-looking rockfish and other critters from the kelp forest in old, algae-tinged tanks.

A brighter point was the exhibit of sea lions that barked, slapped flippers and performed tricks in exchange for treats. A sign was posted to answer the nagging question: Why are the seals and sea lions being held in these tanks rather than swimming freely in the bay? "Feed the Performing Seals, They're all Rehabilitated Animals."

We amused ourselves by tossing bits of chopped anchovies to the boisterous encouragement of these animals. We even went back for more food — an extra $1 for three small bags of diced fish.

During one brief break in the rain, we scampered up the half-mile trail to the top of Black Hill in Morro Bay State Park. It was a great place to look down on the town, the rock and the estuary all bearing the same name. It also was a fine vantage point for storm-watching. As thunderheads and lightning dominated the skies to the south, a rainbow arched above Morro Rock. Soggy but elated, we decided to continue our bird-watch-turned-storm-watch weekend from our hot tub.

Later, as we headed out of town, Morro Bay's quiet streets still looked as perfect for bicycling as they did to the eyes of a 10-year-old. The Inn at Morro Bay had bikes available for guests, but the rain made cycling out of the question — and left something for next time.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Budget for two

Expenses for this trip:

Lodging

Inn at Morro Bay,

two nights with tax $196.02

Kayak rental $34.32

Breakfast

Orchid restaurant $25.45

Lunches

Bayside Cafe, two days $52.43

Dinner

Hoppe's Garden Bistro $88.64

Aquarium fees $5.00

Other meal $51.13

Gas $40.00

Final tab $492.99

CONTACT:

Inn at Morro Bay, 60 State Park Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442; (805) 772-5651 or (800) 321-9566, http://www.innatmorrobay.com .

Kayak Horizons, 551 Embarcadero Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442; (805) 772-6444, http://www.kayakhorizons.com .

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Kenneth R. Weiss is an environmental writer for The Times.

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