Sunday 13 January 2013

Sutro Baths, San Francisco, December 2012

Apologies if you are following this in real time. I will get to 2013 as soon as I can catch up. The trip to Point Lobos (Also known as Lincoln Point, Lands End or Sutro Baths)was planned to add a few late ticks to the 2012 Year List, but ended up as an Otter love-in. It is seldom that one is privileged to share in the intimate moments in the life of a shy creature such as a River Otter, but Sutro Sam has quickly become acclimatised to people since his arrival at the baths in late September and appears almost oblivious to his many admirers.

But first things first, the year list would close at 11.30 SFO time (I had started my year in Delhi, GMT -4.5), so I still had a couple of hours left to add to the total. From the terrace of the Cliff Restaurant, I could see some Black Turnstones on the shoreline rocks. The dumpier, lighter birds, I hoped were Surfbirds. The tide was coming in and each wave crashed further up the rocks, encroaching onto the birds feeding area. Short flights to avoid the spray revealed their respective distinct flight patterns. Eventually, they abandoned the shoreline in favour of the leeside of one of the bigger rocks slightly off shore.

Black Oystercatchers could also be seen on the big rocks and the southern chunk hosted a large roost of Brown Pelicans.
I wanted to get a better look at the Surfbirds and Black Turnstones roosting on a vertical rock-face and made my way down into Sutro Baths and the concrete wall that runs along the shoreline. 

Halfway down the steep slope, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a River Otter that had come up onto the bank of the pool. It marked its territory with ‘spraint’ before slipping back into the water to start fishing. 

There was a wide bank on the inland side of the pool so I moved quickly and found an unobtrusive spot back from the edge.  

There were other people around the pool, but the animal seemed to ignore them and it soon became clear that he was used to the attention. I moved to sit on a rock closer to the water’s edge and was stunned when the otter came up out of the water onto a floating plank less than 4 meters away from me.

It preened, scent-marked and inspected the remains of a previous meal before returning to the water.

There was a Great Blue Heron at the baths too. After a while, I noticed that the heron was following the otter. I didn’t see the heron catching any fish, nor did it even look very alert, but my best guess is that it was hoping that the otter activity would push small fish closer to the bank. 

The bird had also developed a very casual manner towards human visitors at the baths. On one occasion a gentleman with a dog had to step down from the seaward wall to go around the heron as it showed no intention of moving aside.

The otter however did not appear comfortable with dogs. It kept a very wary eye on one as the dog moved along the bank and it was the barking of a second dog that eventually made it seek cover in a drain.

During the two hours that I spent there, I met other otter watchers who knew the animal and had given him the name Sutro Sam. They surmised that he had probably swum across the entrance to the bay from the Marin Headlands. 

Otters there have been seen preying on large birds such as Brown Pelicans, so it was not surprising that the Ring-necked Ducks and Buffleheads on the pool were maintaining a respectful flight distance. They would have had good reason to be wary as what looked like the remains of a duck lay on the otter’s plank and were probably a previous meal.

Time was pressing and I reluctantly had to leave, but on looking back, saw Sam climbing up onto the concrete and over into the smaller adjacent pool. I couldn’t resist one more shot. Sam’s fish supply could soon be running out according to the Sutro otter watchers. 

It is only a small pool and he had already caught all the larger fish, leaving just small ones. He caught about a dozen during my stop and I wonder how long his supply will last at that rate. 

To maintain my credibility as a bird watcher, I should also make mention of the Yellow-rumped Warblers that were seen on the offshore and the shoreline rocks. An Anna’s Hummingbird was showing off his display flight with a series of steep ‘J’ shapes, before taking a rest on the steep slopes above the baths.

Birds seen; 18

Ring-necked Duck 10, Surf Scoter 150, Bufflehead 8, Western Grebe 15, Brandt’s Cormorant 10, Brown Pelican 120, Great Blue Heron 1, American Coot 8, Black Oystercatcher 2, Willet 6, Black Turnstone 6, Surfbird 25, Anna’s Hummingbird 3, Black Phoebe 2, Common Raven 4, Yellow-rumped Warbler 4, White-crowned Sparrow 2, Brewer’s Blackbird 4.

To reach Sutro Baths, Take the bus number 38 from anywhere on Geary, heading west. The bus sometimes stops a few blocks short at the hospital. Look for the bus headed for Lands End. It terminates on the slope above the baths.

A previous visit to Sutro Baths did not feature otters, but can be seen nonetheless at the link below;

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