Mendocino on My Mind

The California village of Mendocino, located along the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco, is among the most beautiful towns in America. Long an artist colony, it has also appeared in numerous Hollywood movies and television shows.

A simple seaside cottage in Mendocino, with the blue Pacific distant

I first heard of Mendocino two years after the Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of hippies to San Francisco. In the spring of 1969 I drove west from Michigan in a bright red Opal; I was heading to California for a summer of fighting forest fires. At a campground in Nevada, a friendly fellow camper came up to me and told me all about how he had “dropped out” of society and was currently part of a small theater troupe in Mendocino–a place I had never heard of. He had a hippie van and long hair, and I asked him if he regretted dropping out. He said “Lord no!” and seemed amazed that I would ask the question.

Two years later, my wife-to-be and I went to see a movie in Ann Arbor, where we were in college. The Summer of ’42, a sad and romantic tale about a young woman who lost her sailor husband in World War II, had a character even more beautiful than the star, Jennifer O’Neill, and that was the lovely village of

Rustic fences and open meadows characterize the bluffs here

Mendocino. Perched on cliffs above the blue Pacific, with flowery meadows, weathered picket fences, and lovely old wooden homes, the town seemed like the perfect American village–the kind of small town we admire in our collective imagination.

During the summer of 1973, my young wife and I went to California, where we spent a five month summer camped under soaring Douglas Firs, with me fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During some days off, we took a trip to Mendocino and had a chance to experience this lovely village first-hand. We didn’t realize it until then, but Mendocino had been something of an artists’ colony since the 1950s, and I remember buying a piece of earthy stoneware that was innovative for the time. There was also a bookstore that had lots of wonderful do-it-yourself manuals inspired by the contents of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was the closest thing to the internet that we had back then. I remember leafing through some books about building your own house, but realizing that I didn’t have any talents for building a house. But plenty of hippies of the time did, and ramshackle houses sprouted along with marijuana crops back among the Redwood groves in the endless ridges and steep valleys of the Klamath Mountains. Those remote wildlands became one of the eminent pot-growing regions of North America, for better or worse. As we drove through the area, I recall singing lyrics from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the footloose wanderers of that era: “If you’re drivin’ east to Reno, or north to Mendocino, I hope you find your rainbow’s end …” (from the 1971 song Cabaret).

I returned to Mendocino while attending college in Utah during 1975. An “Animal Communities” class I was taking, taught by esteemed ecologist Dr. James MacMahon, did transects (straight lines where a biologist records data on plant and animals observed) recording animal life from the shore and out

The beautiful rocks of Mendocino Headlands State Park

into the ocean, so that those of us living in the mountains of Utah could have a sense of the structure of an entirely different kind of animal community. It was fun to see an octopus and sea stars and all the other varied tidepool life. The rocky beaches of Mendocino are incredibly fecund; naturalists can see Gray Whales migrating offshore; Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions basking on rocks; seabirds nesting on the offshore rocks; and all the wonderful invertebrates that occupy the tidepools. I recall driving through town, and it didn’t look like much had changed.

By the late ’80s, established in a career in Upstate New York, I was a long way from Mendocino, but once in a while the little village would show up unexpectedly in the media. Murder, She Wrote was the prime example. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, the mystery series starring Angela Lansbury was actually filmed on the left coast, featuring Mendocino as the fictional Cabot Cove. Since Mendocino was founded by New Englanders, it had that look and feel. Residents of the little town enjoyed the occasional on location filming visits from Ms. Lansbury and Tom Bosley, and sometimes locals were hired as extras for the series. One home that is currently a bed-and-breakfast, Blair House, became Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series.

By the early 1990s, I had switched careers and became a photographer. My photographic travels took me to Mendocino one spring circa 1992, where I was enchanted once again by the early American coastal architecture. By the early

The village is perched on a headland terrace above the Pacific Ocean

1990s, yuppies had displaced hippies, and the town had a different feel. Art galleries were marketing more to people with money, and the gallery scene was big in town. The VW bus I was driving seemed like an anachronism in a place now dominated by Lexus and BMW cars drivien by the tourists. I wandered around town with camera and tripod, thinking again what a lovely place this would be to live if I could afford it, which I couldn’t.

A flowery path and a water tower among the Victorian homes

Nearly 20 years then went by in the blink of an eye, until I next had an opportunity to visit Mendocino. My old VW van had burned in a highway fire years ago, and my hair was grayer and shorter, but I still liked the look of the town–which has remained almost identical through all these years thanks to the officially designated Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which carefully limits what owners can do with their property. In those 20 years, the shops that went from hippie to yuppie had now transformed again. The art galleries were fewer, having been displaced by nail and hair salons, an organic coffee shop, and more higher-end clothing boutiques and jewelry shops–all representing what I’ll call the “California Me” style, in which personal indulgence has become the accepted norm. There are undoubtedly hippies still out in the woods growing pot, and I’m sure that high-tech and banker yuppies

Classic Victorian details and a rustic water tower

who made fortunes during the bubble eras have second homes in the area, but the typical tourist these days is someone with the personal funds to enjoy a lovely bed-and-breakfast, and spend the days visiting wineries and brew-pubs, shopping in boutiques, and enjoying other indulgences. Once again times had changed.

And times will continue to change. I’ll probably return to Mendocino in a decade or so, if I am lucky. What changes in American and Californian society can I expect to see on that next visit? More gray-haired people? Undoubtedly; after all, that is the trajectory of my baby boom cohort. A new dominance of electric cars? A sudden influx of craft whiskey and vodka distillers?  Vast lavender farms to equal those of Provence? State sales of the headlands to developers in order to raise money for California’s beleaguered government? Hopefully not the latter …

Times change; fashions come and go; and some of these changes are reflected in this remote, offbeat village. Fortunately, the look and feel of Mendocino has remained relatively unchanged in the whirlwind of bigger changes that blow through American life. The unchanged look of this charming little village perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is an anchor in the storm of change sweeping America.

Calla Lilies along a picket fence in this quaint village

Main Street in Mendocino is a collection of cute shops

A beautiful home, undoubtedly occupied for over a century

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!

Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, and Common Murres are among the nesting seabirds on Round Island in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

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The goal for our July 2009 trip to Round Island, located in Bristol Bay off the Alaskan mainland, was primarily to see hundreds of Pacific Walruses.  But Round Island has rocky headlands that are the nest sites of a quarter-million seabirds, so we enjoyed five days of wonderful birding at close range and with a soundtrack that always included the lyrical cries of Black-legged Kittiwakes and the beautiful notes of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes.  The only ducks we observed were nine Harlequin Ducks in the surf; we are more accustomed to seeing Harlequin Ducks on the fast rivers near our Olympic Peninsula home.

For this weblog entry, I will show you some of my favorite photographs of birds on the island.  I didn’t spend as much time photographing birds as I would have liked, because of several days of windy conditions and the constant distraction of photographing Walruses; however, I was thrilled with the photography I was able to do.

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Tufted Puffin at burrow entrance

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Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) in breeding plumage perched at the entrance to its burrow, located among tundra grasses on a cliff face within the Round Island State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The Tufted Puffins were secretive around their burrow entrances, and seemed to wait until we were looking away before silently entering the opening.

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Savannah Sparrow atop dried umbel

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Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) surveying its territory from atop a dried umbel of a Cow Parsnip or Angelica.  Savannah Sparrows were the most common songbird on the island; wherever we walked, they were constantly chipping from atop plants or rocks, and were gathering insects with which to feed their young.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin (Fratercula corniculata) in breeding plumage perched at edge of breeding colony.  The Horned Puffins perched on exposed rocks on the cliff faces, often several together.  This puffin was sitting about 100 feet from where we pitched our tent, so whenever lighting conditions were good, we would quietly approach the cliff to see if birds were present.  The puffins allowed us to sit on an overlook and photograph, perhaps 35 feet from them.

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Horned Puffins motion picture

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Horned Puffins in flight, heading back to their burrows after a fishing trip off Round Island.  At this point the puffins did not appear to have young, because we never observed any carrying fish.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage stretching and fluffing its wings while perched at the edge of a cliff on Round Island.

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Horned Puffin in breeding plumage

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Bright reddish-orange feet and wonderful faces characterize this species.

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Landscape of Round Island

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The grassy headlands and rocky cliffs of Round Island provide good habitat for a variety of songbirds and seabirds. There are no bears or wolves on the island, which is located some 40 miles from the mainland.  Here the major predators on nesting birds are Red Foxes and Common Ravens.

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.Pelagic Cormorants in breeding plumage

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Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax urile) in breeding plumage resting, showing metallic iridescence when the sun was coming from directly behind us.

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Pelagic Cormorants with chicks

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Pelagic Cormorants on nests with young, perched on the vertical cliff faces of Round Island.

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Common Murre (Uria aalge) with blue eggs on seaside cliff.  During the half-hour or so that we observed this ledge, the adult left the ledge and both eggs were snatched by a marauding Common Raven.  Staff member Stephanie Sell mentioned that this location had been particularly susceptible to Raven raids, and that many eggs had been lost to predation.

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Common Raven Panting

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Common Raven (Corvus corax) panting to reduce heat stress on a hot day, when temperatures rose to about 80°F (and the temperature inside our tent at 10:00 p.m. was about 110°! ).  Ravens nested on Round Island, and we watched a cliffside nest with four young that were nearly ready to fledge.

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.Egg raided by Common Raven

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A seabird egg probably taken by a Common Raven (we’re not sure of the egg species).  We also observed a Raven carrying a bloody carcass of a small bird, probably a nestling, that it subsequently buried by piling pebbles and wildflowers atop it, creating a cache for later use.

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.Common Raven feather

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Closeup of a molted Common Raven feather.

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Parakeet Auklet (Aethia psittacula) perched on a rock just above the sea.  Often, half-a-dozen auklets gathered on the same rock and chattered noisily.

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Headlands and treeless tundra on Round Island, Alaska

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Tundra grasses on steep hillsides were a better habitat for humans than birds, but we did see Savannah Sparrows there.  In a willow thicket, Hermit Thrushes sang and nested.

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Round Island headquarters building

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Atop the sanctuary office building, Golden-crowned Sparrows sang their sorrowful descending notes that reminded me of “Three Blind Mice.”  This is as close as I got (the sparrow is on the roofline on the right side).  Note the steel cables that hold down the building during hurricane-force winds.

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You can read other descriptions of our Round Island adventures at:

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Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska

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I am the Walrus

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4th of July in an Eskimo Village

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website