WFO 2012: Day One in Humboldt

As is nearly always the case during a birding road trip, I was awake before dawn in anticipation of birding away my home patches, and Humboldt County, California is a special treat on multiple levels. Not only do I look forward to exploring the local vagrant traps, pasturelands, and mudflats teeming with shorebirds, but any opportunity to spend time with my long-time friend and birding cohort David Fix is joyous.

"Fix" is a man of insatiable curiosity. Here he sets out to disprove the notion that "a watched pot never boils." This photo was taken during a camping trip to Oregon's Odell Lake in 2007.

Fix and I met on an Audubon Society field trip just outside of Portland, Oregon more than 35 years ago. I should point out that since we share a first name, we, and everyone who knows us both, refers to us by our last names when we are together. To my mom, my children, and the various partners that I've had during the course of our friendship, he has simply been "Fix." Over recent years, our e-mails to one another have been addressed to and signed with "Sur" (Fix) and "Norte" (Irons) in reference to the direction one must travel to visit the other.

Early on in our friendship, there were long stretches when we birded together on a weekly, if not daily basis, including, a two-year stretch (1984-85) when we were housemates in Eugene, Oregon. Since then, the distance between our respective homes has been measured in at least hundreds of miles. During an eight-year period when I lived in the Midwest, Fix left Oregon in the rear view mirror and moved to Humboldt County, essentially sight unseen.

He very quickly found his niche in the vibrant Humboldt birding scene and found work with Mad River Biologists. Over the past 20 years, nearly all of his birding has been done in Humboldt and neighboring Del Norte County to the north. His knowledge of the status and distribution of the birds in these two northwesternmost California counties borders on encyclopedic, and he can tell you the common and scientific names for virtually any tree or shrub that you encounter along the way. My appreciation of the relationships between bird populations and plant communities has come from birding with Fix for all these years. If you want someone to show you around the Humboldt landscape, I can't imagine that there is anyone better. Any time that Shawneen and I make it to Humboldt, Fix and Jude Power offer to go anywhere we want, only occasionally pushing an agenda designed to yield optimal birding experiences.


In the latter days of September, immature Yellow Warblers are a staple species in outer coastal willow/alder patches. This bird was photographed near Fairhaven, Humboldt Co., California on 24 September 2012.

Since our primary focus was looking for vagrant passerines, we started the day at the "cypress grove" near the end of the north spit. There was a decent mix of warblers, kinglets, and sparrows, but nothing out of the ordinary. A flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers was a harbinger of the "mass Yumpage" (a Fixism) that will dominate outer coastal woodlands by mid-October. Trying to cull other species from the perpetual motion created by hundreds of pivoting and sallying Yellow-rumps is the bane of those who endeavor to find vagrants.

After circumnavigating the semi-circle of large Monterey cypress, our group fanned out to outlying patches of low willows. Fix kicked up a Northern Mockingbird and as we leap-frogged by foot and car back down the road Shawneen found a Palm Warbler. Both of these species are barely one-star rarities, but they were an upgrade from the Yellow-rumps and Yellow Warblers we'd found in the cypresses and willows.

We checked several small satellite patches of willows and then headed for the "entrance patch" just n. of the entrance to the U.S. Coast Guard station on the spit. We ran into Ken Irwin who had just gone through this patch, which has yielded more than 30 species of warblers and various other top drawer eastern vagrants during its illustrious history. Ken agreed with Fix's conclusion that today was "slow" in terms of new arrivals. At the beginning each fall vagrant season, local birders re-open the network of paths that allow access to the interiors of these dense willow tangles. You can stand on the perimeter and pish until the end of time and see very little or you can make your way inside the patches and on some days also see very little. When the magic does happen, it is rarely on the exterior of a patch. The good birds are generally found from the inside.


This Townsend's Warbler was one of six species of western warblers encountered in Arcata's Shay Park on 24 September 2012.

Our experience in this patch and a couple of others convinced us that finding a shocker might not be in the cards on this day. We were already planning to check a newer beachside wetland near Centerville in the afternoon, so we drove back into town, grabbed some lunch and headed for Shay Park in the middle of Arcata. At first glance this park doesn't really look like a magnet for vagrants, but it consistently yields vagrants, including a Connecticut Warbler a few years back. If you look at aerial photos of this area, it becomes a bit more apparent why Shay collects migrants. There is essentially nothing but about three miles of pastureland between the ocean and the stand of tall eucalyptus along the edge of the park. In addition to the eucalyptus, a mix of alders, cedars, and various other trees shade the brush-lined stream that runs through the park. There is also a good-looking boggy area at one end of the park. We found a predictable array of migrants in the park, but unfortunately all of them were of western origin.


This image captures the essence of Centerville Wetlands. Several ponds and some partially flooded scrapes make this a great spot for mid-sized waders and other sparrows and pipits that one might expect in a short-grass coastal wetland.

After Shay, we spent about an hour birding the string of trees along the entrance road to the Salmon Creek Unit of Humboldt Bay NWR. Several chickadee flocks included a few more western warblers,  but nothing remotely unusual. We continued on to the Centerville Wetlands, which is at the base of the bluff at the end of Centerville Rd. It's about a half-mile walk out to the best shorebird ponds. The total number of waders was nothing to shout about,  but included ten species and some great photo opportunities as the birds seemed to quickly acclimate to our presence.


The juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper above was one of several at Centerville Wetlands on 24 September 2012. The Pecs and other shorebirds seemed relatively unbothered by our presence, but the arrival of the adult Peregrine Falcon below was another matter.


There were several Black-bellied Plovers and Pectoral Sandpipers present, along with a mixed flock of dowitchers (both species), peeps, and an assortment of dabbling ducks. We had low flyby group of six Whimbrel and a brief strafing by an adult Peregrine Falcon created some additional excitement.

We finished the day birding until near dark along Port Kenyon Road in the Ferndale Bottoms. Our best bird was a Cassin's Vireo. This is good area for raptors and sparrows and there are sometimes Whimbrel flocks in the pastures. After that, it was home for the evening, dinner and then rest up for another full day of birding on Tuesday. We had no idea of the excitement that lay in store for us the next morning.


I like the RU radar because I can dwoalond it really easilyIt has the counties outlinedI can dwoalond it really easilyI like the NCAR site becauseIt has better colorationThe menus are more intuitive and work in the Firefox browserYou can switch between base reflectivity and velocity by simply clicking the imageYou can display regional and nationwide composites AWESOMECheersDavid


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