It's just a dirt road, with a grassy meadow at each end and a good stretch of woods in between. This road is officially Harris Lane, a half-mile path that parallels the coastline about a mile inland from the Pacific in a tiny town in northern California. My house and a few others are along Harris Lane, but most of this road is bordered by a forest of pines and cypresses, with some tanbark oak and Douglas fir mixed in. At its northern end, the road crosses a meadow that’s slowly being taken over by French broom and wild raspberries, then gets lost in a dense wall of redwood trees.

Of course I didn't know any of this natural history when a friend and I pooled our resources to buy the house on the lane. The facts about geology, soils, and scarce tree species come from an assortment of scientific articles and doctoral theses that I've begun to wrestle with since Harris Lane took up residence inside my head.

    What I knew when I first got to this area was that I'd always wanted land in the country, and here was a nice, newish house with an acre of trees around it. The wild rhododendrons on that first visit didn't hurt, either—from every window we could see their subtle pink blossoms, which seemed to float in a sea of green leaves.

    Harris Lane was a bonus, a perfect avenue for birding and hunting huckleberries for my morning cereal. Gradually, this dirt road became a magnet, pulling me around its curves and past its two flimsy gates. Over the past dozen years I've logged a few hundred rambling miles in its woods and meadows, mostly with my senses tuned to the hundred or so birds that live or visit here.

    Because the birds are inseparable from their habitat—and they were my reason for getting to know it—I usually think of this place in terms of its avian residents. For example, the lane begins in an open meadow, where white-crowned sparrows congregate all year and golden-crowned ones join them in winter.

Northern flickers often perch atop the few widely spaced cypress trees in this meadow, offering a noisy contrast to two tiny top-perchers, the year-round Anna's and the summer Allen's hummingbirds.

In summer, families of barn swallows line up on the power lines that cross part of the meadow; the young ones take turns swooping off, making a few banks and turns, then perching again. Most years a black phoebe has also nested nearby, using the meadow as insect-catching territory and a training ground for fledglings.

This meadow is also prime territory for predators. A red-shouldered hawk and a kestrel often hang out on a treetop or a wire in the vicinity, and a young northern harrier grabbed a mole a few yards from me one summer afternoon. The local cats patrol this grassy terrain as well, taking a path beside my house to get there.

    Forest feeders

    Perhaps 150 yards along, the forest takes over. This area is dominated by large bishop pines, with an understory of shrubs and smaller trees that include huckleberries, manzanita, rhododendron, and salal, all acid-soil-loving members of the heath family.

    Here the tree-feeding birds move through in waves, regardless of the season or the weather. The warblers are way up on top: in spring and summer, I've occasionally glimpsed a pair of hermit warblers (gray and white body, yellow head, black throat) and frequently seen Wilson's warblers (bright yellow underside, black cap). In winter, the warblers change to Townsend's (with distinctive black-and-yellow head markings) and small fleets of yellow-rumped warblers (mostly gray and white), "chip"-ing continuously.

    Flocks of chestnut-backed chickadees always announce their arrival ("chick-a-dee-dee"), and their dangling antics on pine boughs look like small-scale gymnastics. In winter, the tiny, elegant golden-crowned kinglets often mix with the chickadees, but the kinglets have a higher-pitched call and a more flitting style of feeding, which makes them hard to see even with binoculars.

    Though kinglets and chickadees generally favor the higher branches of pines and pygmy cypresses (which grow to 30 or 40 feet tall along much of the lane), in autumn chickadees often harvest the rhododendron seeds just a few feet off the ground. Another flock traveler, the bushtit, feeds low in trees or shrubs and moves from branch to branch with a tittering sound that's worthy of its name. Also at lower levels in winter is the ruby-crowned kinglet, which feeds solo and has a chip note that sounds like a Geiger counter in slow motion.

    On noisy spring mornings and into mid-summer, the avian activity can be furious, with so many overlapping songs and fledgling peeps that I can't decide where to look. But I can easily spot a newly fledged bird, because it’s shivering. It shudders and peeps in apparent discomfort as it waits on a low branch for a parent to bring food. I've seen this numerous times with flycatchers, chickadees, and robins.

    One startling event I've seen in two different years is a seven-inch cowbird fledgling, shaking and crying plaintively, being fed by a six-inch Pacific slope flycatcher parent. Cowbirds are "brood parasites"; they lay their eggs in the nests of other, smaller species. When the eggs hatch, the parent birds instinctively give food to the most prominent open mouth, which tends to be the cowbird in a nest of flycatchers or warblers. The result is often that the cowbird gets adequate food, while one or more of the parents' real offspring may die for lack of nourishment. (Cowbirds' parasitism has seriously diminished populations of some warblers; yellow warblers have been hit hard in California. In Michigan, rangers trap cowbirds in the skimpy habitat of the endangered Kirtland's warbler, whose total population of a few hundred pairs can't stand any such assaults on normal reproduction.)

    The lower growth in these woods also has its share of birds. In summer, hermit and Swainson's thrushes rake the leaf litter with their feet in search of bugs; in winter, fox sparrows do the same. Seeing this behavior—a bird hopping backward with both feet, sweeping away the loose vegetation—always makes me think of grade-school kids doing the bunny-hop.

    Bogs and berries

    About 200 yards further along Harris Lane the woods change somewhat. First there’s a low-lying boggy area, where a number of large bishop pines have died, probably from the constant wetness here in most winters. Some pines have been uprooted; during the rainy months the root holes beside these fallen trees fill up and become little ponds. A few dead pines are still standing; the biggest of them provides nest holes for pygmy nuthatches, violet-green swallows, and acorn woodpeckers, as well as perches for ever-scolding Steller's jays.

    Much of this boggy section is covered with a deep thatch of wild blackberries and thimbleberries. These bushes, plus the nearby huckleberries and wax myrtle shrubs with their berries, make this part of the woods ideal bird territory most of the year. The crop of blackberries lasts for five or six weeks because shaded portions of the thicket bloom and fruit late, and huckleberries and wax myrtle berries last from early fall until Christmas in some years.

    Resident birds that frequent this area include the spotted towhee, whose evening song reminds me of a very old washing machine, and the winter wren, who sends out an endless, bubbling song that seems to me what birds were made for.

    The area has a year-round singer in the wrentit, whose ringing, one-note song starts slowly and accelerates into a trill. Although a singing wrentit is hard to locate because the song carries a long way, this bird's chip note—a repeated click that sounds like someone winding an old-fashioned alarm clock—is a cinch to follow.

    Two elusive winter birds also favor this locale. The varied thrush dines on wax myrtle berries and other fruits but disappears into well-shaded upper branches before I can get close. The Lincoln's sparrow mainly sticks to the ground and is similarly shy, fleeing at the slightest sound or movement from me.

    Past the boggy area the forest changes again. Douglas firs and tanbark oaks mix with the bishop pines, and the cypresses disappear. The same forest-feeding birds inhabit these mixed woods, though the acorn-gathering jays and woodpeckers
    are especially evident here.

    Out of the woods

    Harris Lane turns west for a couple hundred yards, emerging from the forest into a transitional zone of small pines and big French broom. A young red alder tree, about six feet tall, seems to be holding its own at the edge of the broom.

    Invariably I flush a family of California quail as I walk between the thick hedges of broom, and invariably I jump at the explosive whirring ("p-d-d-d-d") of their wings. Quail are stocky and terrestrial, so when they fly, their stubby wings have to work overtime to propel them off the ground and through the foliage. They seem to fly in short hops, lighting on a sturdy branch for a few moments, then thundering off to the next branch like overloaded commuter planes.

    The dirt road ends its westward jog and resumes a northerly course where the broom gives way to grass. This is the most expansive part of my small wilderness, with a broad sweep of open sky and a view of the ocean a mile off. I've often seen deer in this meadow and more often come upon the matted grass where they recently bedded down.

    Most of the bird activity here is overhead: ravens chase and tumble above the treetops; gulls stream by silently; and an osprey pierces the day with its whining whistle. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures also soar above this field, while a white-crowned sparrow's song brings my focus back to level ground.

    I head across the wide meadow, noticing the growing number of blackberry tendrils that cross the path. If these stubborn vines keep coming, in a few years I’ll have some good eating and some hard walking.

    The lane is barely discernible where it enters the redwood forest above Jug Handle canyon. I have to stoop down to get under a tangle of overlapping branches, but then a path opens again in this lush, dark woodland. The ground here is spongy, and the air is quiet. I bet I couldn't hear the osprey if it was shrieking right above my head.

    Strolling on a relic

    Now I have a thousand snapshots—mental notes and images—that keep Harris Lane with me wherever I am. And I've begun to investigate all the details.

    Through research, I found out that I've been strolling on a relic, surrounded by a million years of evolution and an ecosystem, according to botanists and soil scientists, that's been at climax for 200,000 years or more. And some of the trees on this woodland lane are unique to a 20-mile zone of the Mendocino coast; the two rarest are the pygmy cypress and Bolander pine. Because the soil around this lane is highly acidic and has a hardpan layer near the surface, many of the trees are stunted.

    At the local college library I also discovered that the botanists and the soil scientists don't agree on the reasons why the forest has evolved from timber trees like redwood to noncommercial species and pygmy forest. Botanists blamed the soil, with its diminished nutrients and hardpan layer; soil scientists blamed the plants, especially the acid-tolerant rhododendron, huckleberries, and manzanita, which accelerate the soil's loss of nutrients.

    One scientist, the late Hans Jenny of the University of California at Berkeley, cited the botanists' and soil scientists' conflicting interpretations as evidence for his own explanation—that soil changes and vegetation effects combined to create this ancient ecosystem of hardpan soil and pygmy trees. The younger areas—forest and grasses closer to the ocean—are undergoing the same slow evolution in the laboratory called earth.

    When I look at Harris Lane with Dr. Jenny's long view, the notion of thinking globally and acting locally comes into immediate focus. This dirt road, with the canyon at its far end, has global significance because it's the only place that encompasses a million years of a particular landscape. Yet I act locally here; I walk every inch and every year of that landscape, and I will be its witness.

    For me, global and local have come together in a reciprocal agreement: Harris Lane nourishes me (even with its lousy soil), puzzles me, entertains me, embraces me. In return, I'm getting to know it—curiously, carefully, respectfully. And maybe, in a way befitting this unpretentious yet unique place, I can tell about it too.

Copyright © 1997 by Jeremy Joan Hewes. All rights reserved.

Jeremy Joan Hewes is a northern California writer who divides her time between woodlands and computers.

Photos: © Jeremy Joan Hewes

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