McGrath State Beach and Wildlife at the Lake on Mother’s Day

(Click on the top photo to expand the view of mother and daughter on colorful dunes with  McGrath Lake behind)

A surprise of rose petals spelling “Happy Mother’s Day”and more around her mother’s place mat on black-speckled granite island prepared by her daughter, and an avocado/onion/zucchini/cheese-omelette, initiated an astonishing day. Planning a hike to highly-rated McGrath State Beach to bathe naked feet into wet sand and proceed to McGrath Lake where more than 200 bird species lived, many endangered, planted visions of a day in nature to savor. With a picnic lunch of fresh salad greens, left-over baked chicken with much more packed in a cooler bag in the trunk, and three bottles of water, we departed.

In thirty minutes we arrived at McGrath State Beach in a low hanging fog that reduced the temperature to 68 where a “Tuna” sign sent signals for what might be our evening meal. Parking at the closest street to the beach in Oxnard Shores, famous for high tide heavy surf clobbering, three eager hikers, with water and a few back packs, set off where blue ocean, barely visible, met wet sand sloshing a magnetic attraction.

Soon our feet carried us leaving deep marks in the sand past a few fishermen whose baited lines were beyond mellow waves searching for a meal to take home. Strutting further on the endless shoreline we observed dead sea gulls, other water fowl, and a seal carcass. Brown pelicans flying north in lines of five or more joined many more sea gulls on a similar path towards McGrath Lake and beyond. A congregation of more than fifty white-breasted sea gulls with yellow beaks, scurried away and flew off one-by-one, as we approached.

An officer from the California Department of Parks and Recreation drove by in his black uniform and stopped near a fisherman trying to haul in a fish tugging on his line out beyond the first waves. Thinking he was going to make the man show a fishing license, I walked toward them. His silver badge above a patch identified him as officer Pace, a lifeguard. “What do they catch here?” I asked.

“Perch, corbina, and bass,” he said.

“How far is McGrath Lake?”

"My wife and daughter joined me as he responded, “It’s a good hike. Are you here for bird-watching?”


“Why are there so many dead birds and a seal lion here?” my daughter asked.

“They are Channel Island debris in nature’s ever-changing process of death, birth, and survival. Scavengers depend on it.”

(Snowy Plover)

“To get to McGrath Lake, go north until you see a power station. There is an entrance that will lead you past dunes where you can view hundreds of species. Just north here is fenced to protect nesting areas for two endangered birds: the least terns and the snowy plover.”

“Thanks officer. You have an awesome job patrolling such a natural wonderland,” I said.

“I’m not complaining.”

North with great anticipation we departed. Two least terns skittered around in front of us outside their protective fencing. White and gray, they moved quickly with bursts of energy. They were no larger than mice. Bubbles from little holes in the sand after ocean water receded indicated sand crabs were underneath. Their tiny shells littered the beach as evidence they were bird meal or used for bait by fishermen.

(Brown pelican and least terns)

Further ahead an estuary, about thirty feet wide, rushed from the east beneath the sand dunes and a natural bridge to the ocean just north of Mandalay Generating Station. Walking south of the swift moving “river’ with some foam in it, sea gulls flitted around looking for food floating. After we passed the power plant we walked back to the ocean on the other side and hiked a half mile north.

The noise of a truck startled us until we noticed Officer Pace who said, “Guess I didn’t make it clear where the Lake is. Jump in and I’ll take you there.” To make room he pulled a large black bag including a billy stick out of the right side of the rear seat and threw it into the back of the truck. I squeezed in fenced off from the driver seat with a security screen, while my wife and daughter doubled up in front. “If you knew where the Lake was you could have walked over those dunes past the protected areas,” he said pointing at a series of multi-shaped dunes covered with colorful wild plants and flowers, “but I would never drive this truck over them.”


(click on photo to the right to expand the view and see McGrath Lake in the semi-fog)

Driving back south and turning at an opening we had overlooked, he took us to the power plant where a sand road made by his tires carved a path to the dunes leading to McGrath Lake. He stopped at a vantage point where the entire vista of the Lake spread before us in a spectacle that was mesmerizing. He left us waving goodbye having rescued us from wandering from our goal that lay before us. Moving to the highest dune with a smooth surface, we sat motionless and gazed into a divine wilderness. Each perched above the green and yellow marshes on sand that contained a wide array of colorful wild flowers and plants that flourished in sand! Yellow primrose, white, purple, red, and even orange trumpet-shaped small wildflowers all attached somehow to green or brown foliage and vegetation in a vast amount of color where one expected nothing but sand.

(yellow primrose)

Egrets, brown pelicans, blue herons, sea gulls, glided down to the Lake surrounded by marshes. Croaking of frogs, quacking of ducks added to the diving pelicans and other water fowl who performed gradual rather than the steep ocean plunges they are famous for, because McGrath Lake is shallow in many places.  A never ending landing zone, like at a busy airport, lay before us as birds of prey with the wind behind them entered a glide path that allowed them to coast over the lake looking for a flash of silver. After a bird's first splash they often have a meal.  Many pelicans glided in one after the other, aiming for food on the surface at a low angle of approach, more like a football player tackling another as they hit the water. They spin around with a shallow splash turn that throws water fifteen or more feet.


(two dancing egrets)

A white and blue heron stood peacefully resting on one leg, while dark egrets concentrated in one area that looked like water trees until a head, beak, or long neck moved, or one flew away revealing their camouflage. However, surrounding the marshes was a large area of yellowish green algae that hinted not all was as one would like. An oil spill from a ruptured pipeline in1993 was discovered not far away, but after a clean-up the land is adjusting. Only a strong willed populace prevented the area from being scrubbed as a wildlife habitat.

   McGrath State Beach and Wildlife at the Lake on Mother’s Day  

(McGrath Lake salt grass and pickleweed)               (Photo that expands if you click on it of algae in marsh at McGrath Lake)

Black shouldered kites, northern harriers, ospreys, black skimmers, and peregrine falcon shared the sky and Lake. Weasels, skunks, jackrabbits, opossum, squirrels, tortoises, and gopher snakes call this home. As each water fowl approached the Lake from various locations they added to the wildlife panorama unfolding every moment. We were spellbound by the repetitious and unique flight patterns of thousands of birds near the lush lakeside mass of vegetation including willow, silverweed, saltgrass, pickleweed, and yerba mansa.

(Brown Pelican after fog cleared at McGrath State Beach)

Our hike back seemed extremely short. The fog had lifted. A lonely tall blue heron stood in the effluence of the estuary “river" facing the Pacific Ocean only ten feet away making us wonder what thoughts ran through his mind at such a pivotal spot: probably thinking he had the best place to find any food before it went out to sea. My wife and daughter took off their shoes and walked in the cool sand near the water’s edge with water and sand in, and about, their toes. Soon we were near crowds that gathered with umbrellas and blankets, looking for picnic spots or were moving up and down the beach. In thirty minutes we were back at our car.

We drove to a place Officer Pace suggested, called Surfer’s Cove. There were restrooms and a concession nearby with a grassy field and picnic tables near a boat harbor where thousands of pleasure craft sparkled in the sun. Boats entered and left, pets romped with children, and we enjoyed our lunch discussing the beauty we had just observed, so foreign to our cities. We drove to buy some tuna but by the time we arrived the choice filets were gone. Near home at Sprouts we selected a pound and a half of corbina sea bass, took it home, added butter, lemon juice, caramelized onions, broccoli, zucchini, orange pepper, olive tampanade, wrapped them in parchment paper, and cooked them for a mouth-watering feast of tender wild fish celebrating an unforgettable Mother’s Day.


(Sunset at the Santa Clara River just north of McGrath Lake) a href=""> Trust

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This entry was posted in Non-Fiction, Short Story, Writings and tagged , , , , , , by Daniel C. Lavery. Bookmark the permalink.

About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

2 thoughts on “McGrath State Beach and Wildlife at the Lake on Mother’s Day

  1. You have done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of one of my favorite beaches! I am the executive director of the nonprofit that partners with the State Park district that calls McGrath home.

    I would love it if you would allow us to welcome you as a guest blogger for our website, and maybe feature excerpts from this blog posting with some of your photographs (and a link back to your full blog posting here). I’ve left my email address – please contact me if you are interested!

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