Stonetta Ranch near
Pt. Arena Lighthouse an annual haven for migrating waterfowl*
narrow Mendocino County peninsula that juts into the Pacific
Ocean, residents mark each winter's arrival and departure by
the flight of the tundra swans.
them fly by the house every night," said Larry Stornetta, a
third-generation rancher whose pastures near Point Arena
attract scores of swans by day. "We look forward
to seeing them come, and when they rally up and get ready to
leave, it's just like spring is here."
migrations, to and from the frozen plains of Canada and
Alaska for which tundra swans are named, have made the
Garcia River estuary a magnet for bird-watchers and other
1917, "the Stornettas have been incredible stewards of the
land," said Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers' managing
director Jeff Gales, a neighbor to the 1,860-acre Stornetta
Brothers Ranch. "They've created a perfect habitat for
these...swans to nest and feed."
Conservationists are negotiating with the Stornetta family
to preserve most of its coastal property, a former dairy
where beef cattle, potatoes and row crops are raised.
In June, the state Coastal Conservancy voted to move ahead
with the $7.8 million deal, which is pending agreement
between the Stornetta co-owners and state and federal
trying to balance public use with Larry (and his partners)
being able to farm and with conservation use," said Rich
Burns, field manager in Ukiah for the federal Bureau of Land
Management. "But nothing has been signed yet."
annual count last month, Audubon Society volunteers counted
277 tundra swans in a 15-mile diameter area that includes
the Stornetta ranch. They -- and the Stornettas'
neighbors -- said the swans are among the most highly
visible creatures that make preserving this rugged coastal
and people traveling Highway 1 often stop and look at them,"
said Jim Thompson, a Manchester birder who lives beside the
Stornetta ranch. "They're a beautiful bird in flight."
swans are North America's most common swans, and they
annually migrate into the United States along Eastern and
Western corridors. But their wintering grounds between
Manchester and Point Arena -- 86 miles northwest of Santa
Rosa -- represent the southernmost point on the California
coast where large numbers consistently can be found,
waterfowl experts agreed.
swans are widely spotted in the San Joaquin Valley's
wetlands and rice fields, "there's no regular wintering spot
in Sonoma or Marin counties," said Benjamin "Mike" Parmeter,
co-author of the gazetteer "Birds of Sonoma County."
as whistling swans, they frequently feed in shallow water --
on leaves, stems and tubers of aquatic and marsh plants.
December to late February and March, the coastal fields and
lagoons between the Garcia River and Brush Creek provide
bountiful grazing opportunities, wildlife biologist Scott
of the prime birding locations in Mendocino County for
multiple bird species," said Koller, who works in Mendocino
and Lake counties for the California Department of Fish and
least 80 years, residents have told of tundra swans'
wintering along the mud flats of the Garcia River, where it
drains into the Pacific.
first being recorded on Humboldt Bay at eh mouth of the Eel
River in the late 1880s," said Ft. Bragg resident Art
Morley, a longtime birder and former park ranger. "I
wouldn't be surprised if they were occurring down here at
that time, also."
decades have reinforced a protective bond between the swans
and coastal dwellers. Thompson recalled on winter,
almost 20 years ago, when a game warden rescued a
water-logged tundra swan and nursed it back to health in
front of the Thompsons' fireplace.
Aficionados predict the familiar waterfowl will continue to
winter there, so long as predators and habitat changes don't
swans are very traditional," said wildlife biologist Melanie
Weaver of the state Department of Fish and Game.
"They're going to do what works for them until they get
*The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa,
California. Monday, January 26, 2004.
You can reach Staff Writer Katy Hillenmeyer at 521.5274 or