The town where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his masterpiece of pecking horror is in fact a draw for avian visitors and the bird-watchers who follow them
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Mar 24, 2013
"Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty to the world."
— Mrs. Bundy, to Melanie Daniels, in "The Birds"
BODEGA BAY, Calif. » When last seen — cinematically, that is — this pleasant town on the Sonoma County coast had been engulfed in Hitchcockian horror. Birds, birds everywhere. Crows, gulls and sparrows. Angry birds, and not of the smartphone species.
Of course, that was in 1963, when the moviegoing public was macabrely captivated by Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "The Birds," filmed in Bodega Bay and its smaller cousin, Bodega, five miles inland.
Now, 50 years later, as the community celebrates the golden anniversary of this silver-screen classic, an avian invasion once more has taken hold here.
BODEGA BAY, CALIF.
"THE BIRDS"-RELATED SITES
» Potter School House, 17110 Bodega Lane, Bodega
» Bodega Country Store, 17190 Bodega Highway
» The Tides Wharf and Restaurant, 835 Highway 1, Bodega Bay
» Bodega Head Loop: 1.7 miles. From Highway 1, turn west on Eastshore Road (at the sign for Bodega Head) and right on Westshore Road. Go 3.5 miles, going left at the fork to the Bodega Head parking lot. Parking is free. Trail head is at your left.
» Pinnacle Gulch: Two miles (out and back): From Highway 1 south on Bodega Bay, turn left on South Harbor Way. Turn left on Heron Drive, go about a mile to Mockingbird Road. Turn left into the parking lot on the left. Parking is $7.
» Bodega Head. Take the same route to the Bodega Head hiking trail head. Whale-watching viewing spots are on the rocks.
» Spud Point Crab Co., 1860 Westshore Road, Bodega Bay
» The Tides Wharf and Restaurant, 835 Highway 1, Bodega Bay
» The Bay View Restaurant, at the Inn at the Tides, 800 Highway 1, Bodega Bay
It's the annual winter migration of all kinds of birds, attracted in large numbers to Bodega Bay by the irresistible geographic combination of open shoreline and diverse flora. The National Audubon Society has called this area one of the nation's top birding spots.
On any late-winter or early-spring weekend, you're as liable to see as many folks peering through binoculars as fisherman dropping pots for Dungeness crab. Bird-watching ranks with whale-watching, crabbing, camping and hiking as the prime outdoor activities for a Bodega weekend trip.
But, yes, movie buffs still make a pilgrimage to "The Birds" shooting sites, though they might leave disappointed. The inland hamlet of Bodega is a better "Birds"-watching locale, with the movie's schoolhouse intact. Alas, no tours. It's a private residence.
No such disappointment for real bird-watching.
"It's a top area because it's right on one of the five principle migration routes," said Tom McCuller, a member of the Madrone Audubon Society of Sonoma County. "Both spring and fall, not only seabirds, but a lot of land birds use it as a migration route. It's a special place."
About the only species you won't find flitting around Bodega Bay — at the harbor, along the Spud Point mud flats, the rocks overlooking Bodega Head and the shoreline at Doran Beach — are good ol' American crows. Those, along with gulls, were the prime avian villains in "The Birds."
McCuller shook his head, wryly, when asked about crow-spotting.
"I heard (the movie) people went to a dump somewhere to get a bunch of crows and gulls," he said. "They don't really have any here."
"Don't they ever stop migrating?"
— Annie Hayworth, looking warily to the sky
On an hourlong tour of birding hot spots hosted by McCuller, though, you can see the crow's larger and more impressive kin: the raven. But just one. They aren't plentiful in the Bodega Bay area, perhaps still smarting from all the bad publicity the movie engendered.
Gulls, on the other hand, are ubiquitous, soaring and diving and rising again. Nary a one swooped down and pecked our foreheads, which happened in the film to Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie.
Every month or so, McCuller leads Madrone Audubon tours of the Bodega Bay hot spots — Hole in the Head, Rail Ponds, Doran Beach, Bodega Head and the harbor in general. One place he doesn't take groups, but recommends to birders on their own, is an area of dense foliage, including willows and Japanese maples, below the deck of Diekmann's Store on Highway 1.
"A great secret spot," he said.
Other spots welcome birders, who marvel at the array of avian visitors.
On our quest we saw scores of yellow-rumped warblers at the marshy area called the Rail Ponds, their telltale dabs of hind-end brightness flashing as they snatched insects.
Birds are so prevalent here that all we had to do was walk to the other side of the road to catch a group of western grebes, shorebirds with necks similar to the swan's, in repose on the mudflats.
All along the harbor, horned grebes, Brant geese and a variety of loons hang out. The loons are McCuller's favorite.
"Starting in March and into April, they get their breeding plumage and they become magnificent," he said. "Completely different colors. Their hormones are flowing so they start mating rituals, pairing up, you know."
He pointed excitedly beyond some docked boats.
"Look at that one, diving down!" he said.
The above-the-marquee birds, those the general public will instantly recognize, are slightly more reclusive here.
Two peregrine falcons make Bodega Bay home, McCuller reports, one perching in eucalyptus trees, the other at Doran Beach. Bald eagles perch in cypress trees near the fire station at Doran Beach. Black-crowned night herons congregate at Hole in the Head, a pond near Bodega Head that resulted after townsfolk stopped construction of a nuclear-power plant in the 1960s.
"This is a ‘migrant trap,' a place that sticks out into the ocean with trees," McCuller said of Hole in the Head. "Most land birds migrate at night. They see these trees and come down. There are lots of Eastern birds that come from the Arctic and get lost and wind up here."
The town's birds certainly seem to like these digs. They rise up, do something approximating the Harlem shake, then settle down on the water once more. They appear as docile as Hitchcock's creatures were aggressive.
Annie: "How do you like our little hamlet?"
Melanie: "I despise it."
Annie: "Well, I don't suppose it offers much to the casual visitor."
To fully appreciate the charms of Bodega Bay, you need to slow your pulse rate, stop and linger, let the mellow coastal vibe penetrate your jangly, citified nerves.
Bodega Bay is not a walking town — though there long has been talk of constructing a linked boardwalk between commercial properties. Any walking to be done is at Bodega Head, where a 1.7-mile loop above the rocky outcropping affords wondrous views, or at Pinnacle Gulch, a 1-mile trek starting at a housing tract near a golf course but soon getting back to nature before ending at an isolated beach with a view of Pinnacle Rock offshore.
More relaxed is a stroll along the Spud Point Marina on Westshore Road. You can view commercial crabbing boats back with the day's catch and watch amateur crabbers putting squid and chicken into metal traps and hoisting lines. Best of all, you can enjoy clam chowder or a crab salad sandwich at the Spud Point Crab Co.
To many the must-do activity is whale-watching at the Head, where you forget the hardships of 30 mph buffeting winds when the gray whales breach and spout.
LOUELLA Pizzuti of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Charleen Roccucci of Roseville, Calif., tracked a photogenic gray whale for at least a half-hour just on the crest of breaking waves. They also good-naturedly chided a whale-watcher who wore only a single fleece jacket.
"Here's a question for you," Pizzuti asked, rhetorically. "How many kite stores do you see in town? That's the indicator this is not a calm place."
Roccucci: "Layers, layers, layers. I've got three more sweatshirts in the car."
Back at lower elevation, along the shore, fisherman Greg Hartwick, who recently moved to Bodega Bay from Sacramento, Calif., was in shirt sleeves but not having much luck hauling in crabs. He showed how the lines encircle the crabs attracted to the bait in the metal boxes.
"You throw it out there," he said, "and when the crabs get in there and you pull it back, then it snares them. You reel it in. You can't stop. If you stop, they get out. Just reel fast as you can."
Not as easy as it seems. Little matter, though. You can get all the crabs you want at the Spud Point Crab Co. On this sunny, brisk day, though, most lunchtime diners chose Carol's Famous Clam Chowder, which a sign boasted was "voted best (in town) 8 years in a row."
The sign is outdated, said owner Tom Anello. It's now nine years.
ANELLO, a former firefighter, opened the crab shack, which has only outdoor seating on picnic tables, in 2004.
"I grew up in the city (San Francisco), in North Beach, and I modeled this on all the mom-and-pop stuff I saw there," he said. "We have all our own (crab) boats. We catch our own."
Tourists Erich and Maya Kepner of Sacramento, visiting Bodega Bay for their wedding anniversary, praised the freshness of the chowder.
"Guess there's a reason it won eight years in a row," Erich said.
Make that nine.
Melanie: "Daddy, there were hundreds of them. … No, I'm not hysterical."
Cinephiles won't find Bodega Bay buildings from "The Birds." The original Tides Wharf and Restaurant, where a key scene was shot, burned down years ago. A new, fancier Tides is in a different location.
At the Brennan House on Bodega Head, at which the birds wreaked havoc, only cedar trees remain.
Five miles inland, in Bodega, the Potter School House, where the kids were chased away by hard-pecking crows, still stands, painted white with green trim.
Any "Birds" lore is to be found a few hundred feet away at the Bodega Country Store, where owner Michael Fahmie has set up a little shrine. Out front is a mannequin of Hitchcock, with a crow perched on its shoulder.
Inside is an array of memorabilia for sale, from a Tippi Hedren Barbie doll (in requisite green dress) to a photo of Hitchcock with a bird perched on his cigar, to DVDs of the film, to a $17,690 original autographed movie script.
Last summer, Fahmie organized a "Birds" Day in Bodega, highlighted by a parade of bedecked Tippis. Plans are being made for a sequel for this year's 50th anniversary, to be held Labor Day weekend.
Store manager Cliff Buchanan said he cannot count the number of times visitors have stopped to ask, "Where's the schoolhouse?"
He doesn't mind the interruptions.
"The Birds" brings business to the store. In fact, playing on the TV above the cashier's is Hedren's Melanie, fluttering her false eyelashes and sighing about the ordeal to boyfriend Mitch.
"It's hard to believe anything at all happened yesterday, isn't it? It's so beautiful and still now."
--Sam McManis / Sacramento Bee