Heart of Water

Expert and amateur birders spotted black-crowned herons, California gulls, Hutton’s vireo, downy woodpeckers, and hawks fighting over a rodent.

It’s 7:07am on a Saturday in January at Upper Carr Lake in Salinas. The sun hasn’t yet breached the horizon and the sky is a dazzling pink. It’s cold out, but a group of 24 people have gathered and are listening to Laura Lee Lienk.

She’s director of Return of the Natives (RON), the student and community outreach arm of the Watershed Institute at CSU Monterey Bay, where she teaches applied environmental science.

“This used to be a dumping ground for car engines and mattresses!” Lienk yells and points. “Right here!”

She’s working to reshape Carr Lake into an oasis of nature in the urban and agricultural landscape of Salinas, an ecosystem that cleans the water, a sanctuary for migrating birds. She calls it a “little lake in the shape of a heart.”

It is fed by three arteries – Gabilan, Natividad and Alisal creeks – that originate in the Gabilan Mountains. Upper Carr Lake is surrounded by agricultural fields, First Tee golf links and Veterans Park. A homeless shelter is coming. When it rains, debris and waste wash into the lake. Excess water flows under East Laurel Drive into a reclamation ditch that snakes across ag fields, past the Housing Authority, under North Davis and Boronda roads, along Castroville, under Highway 156 and Highway 1, to the ocean at Moss Landing Harbor.

RON has brought binoculars, bagels and cream cheese, oranges, and water for the attendees. Geese fly overhead, honking as Lienk talks about the morning ahead. First comes their biannual bird count, to show that Carr is not just a flood basin or a reservoir for drainage, but a healthy lake.

“This used to be a dumping ground for car engines and mattresses!”

“The way you know a place is healthy is if you have birds,” Lienk says. They invite bird experts and biologists to validate sightings, and invite community members to adopt the cause. Over the years they’ve identified 165 species there, including bald eagles and avocets.

“This is also habitat for people [who live here],” Lienk says. “Don’t wake them. Tell them to come have a bagel.”

After the bird count comes a cleanup – for which RON provides trash bags, trash pickers and gloves – then plantings of native starts and tree saplings.

Three bird experts lead parts of the group to different areas for the count: Mike Stake of the Ventana Wildlife Society heads north with his group toward Natividad Park; biologist Sean Wagoner and company go to an adjoining ag field; Alisal High teacher Steve Rovell’s group circle Carr Lake.

Rovell’s group comprises a mother and her two little girls in pink coats, four middle-schoolers, RON employee Ellie Rivera, and CSUMB student Jesse Reyes.

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The sun’s rays begin shooting through the treetops. It’s trashy along the banks. Among brambles and stick-bare poison oak are a McDonald’s french fries box, clothes, a Big Gulp cup, plastic bags, a Smart Water bottle, a cigarette lighter. Then, Rovell calls out that he’s spotted yellow-rumped warblers. Rivera writes it down on a checklist published by the Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society.

Later, Rovell uses his binoculars to identify double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, American coots, pied-billed grebes, American crows. In nearby eucalyptus trees, he counts 51 bushtits.

Silence is a virtue when bird spotting. When Rovell speaks, it’s nearly inaudible. But when he raises his binoculars to his eyes, the others copy him.

Jose Mendoza, 25, lives in Seaside. He was invited to come by his friend Eessa Vanderspeck, who is a RON worker. “I love nature so I’m loving this,” he says. “I’ve never been here. I pass by a lot.”

Leslie, Arely, Dannadedy and Jatzire are 12 and 13 years old, friends who go to a nearby middle school. They’re here to fulfill their community service credits, but they’re also activated about environmental issues. “There’s too much trash,” Arely says. “We’re thinking about how to fix it.”

About 20 more people, including lots more middle school kids, show up and join the cleanup and planting portion. They pair up and spread out.

After a few minutes of trash pick-up, Vanderspek explains how to plant the 275 starters from the Watershed Institute. Lienk points to young oak trees dotting the area where they will be planting. “These oak trees were our first plantings, 16 years ago,” she says.

The group fans out across a bushy hillside. A teen boy’s jeans are stained with dirt, and he’s shoveling with gusto. A teen girl has found something. She carries it, palm up, to her friends. It’s an earthworm. They are gleeful, then bury it in the dark soil with a plant.

Behind all this activity, across a lumpy meadow, rising up on the horizon, is the Gabilan Mountain Range, from which Carr Lake’s waters originate.

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