WFO 2012: Day Two -- Derailment and Dippage

Well, we thought we knew how we were going to spend the day.

After getting the Fairhaven "patches" out of our system during day one in Humboldt, our intent was to spend day two sampling some other sites that don't get quite as much coverage. We put together an itinerary as we had morning our coffee, ate breakfast with a tad less urgency than the day before, and finally got out the door around 8:45AM.

We commenced the morning at Brackish Pond near the entrance to the Arcata Marsh, where we met up with Diane Pettey, a mutual friend of everyone in our group. Diane was down for a couple of days from Florence, Oregon. Brackish Pond offered expected shorebirds of eight species. The neighboring pond was carpeted with ducks, mostly in cryptic brown plumages that cause most birders to ignore them until they become more recognizable after their annual prebasic molts. Undeterred, we sorted through the swarm, culling out eight species of dabblers, plus two Ruddy Ducks and a Bufflehead.


Sooty Fox Sparrows became conspicuous overnight. This bird was photographed near Eureka, Humboldt County, California on 25 September 2012.

After about 20 minutes, an aging pale tan sedan rolled up with an older gentleman in the passenger seat and a taller, younger man behind the wheel. They emerged from the car with bins around their necks and seemed to recognize Fix and Jude. As they approached, I realized who it was. "Dr. Harris I presume," I said, extending my hand to shake the elderly man's hand. He smiled as I reintroduced myself. We'd met just once previously on 7 October 2003, the day that Arnold Schwarzenegger was first elected Governer of California. I only remember this, because I accompanied Fix when he went to vote that day and the polling place was only  a few blocks from "Doc's" house, so we stopped by afterwards.

Dr. Stanley W. Harris is a retired Dept. of Wildlife professor, who taught at Humboldt State University for 33 years. At 84 years young, Doc, as he is affectionately known to many, still gets out into the field most days with his son Michael at his side. When a good bird shows up, Michael is invariably there to take Doc out to see it. Having recorded approximately 440 species in the county, Doc continues to have the highest life list for Humboldt. In addition, he is the author of Northwestern California Birds. Originally published in 1991, Doc has twice updated this work, with the latest revision completed in 2005. This book is a must have for those interested in the birds of  this sub-region of California. 

We chatted up Doc and Michael a bit and continued to bird the marsh. Then it came...that call that causes all other plans to go by the wayside. Jude 's phone rings. It's Rob Fowler ringing to let us know that Tom Leskiw had just found a Connecticut Warbler in the "entrance patch," where we had found virtually no birds the day before. There were just four previous records for Humboldt County, with three coming in quick succession during the Falls of 1988-89 (California Bird Records Committee 2007). The only recent Connecticut Warbler in the county spent a day in Shay Park on 16 September 2006, where it was seen by virtually all of the county's top listers. All, that is, except for Fix and Jude, whose normally relaxed birding demeanor was suddenly infused with a sense of urgency that I had not seen from her previously. 

After some quick car-pooling logistics, we re-parked Diane's car where it would be safe for the day, then headed west towards Fairhaven. By the time we arrived, several additional birders had already convened and others were en route. Tom had enjoyed two brief encounters with the warbler, but each time it disappeared into the dense tangle of understory in the patch. As we started into the willows we found him, quietly stationed and barely visible, sitting on a small mound about 15 feet into the willows from the northeast corner of the patch. He offered a quick rundown of what he'd seen, which convinced us that indeed a Connecticut Warbler was about.

Over the next two hours or so, the group collectively combed the patch in hopes of catching a glimpse of this skulker. Connecticut Warblers have been recorded in California well over 100 times, but more than half of all records–47 of 93 accepted by the California Bird Records Committee through 2003 (California Bird Records Committee 2007)–have come from the research station on Southeast Farallon Island 18 miles off San Francisco. Even when they do show up on the mainland, these secretive ground dwellers are exceedingly difficult to lay eyes on. This factor, combined their relative scarcity compared to the more commonly encountered eastern vagrants, helps Connecticut Warbler maintain it's status as a top shelf rarity.


When you spend an overcast day buried in a willow patch, photo opportunities are few, so I couldn't pass up the chance to capture this immature Red-shouldered Hawk in the warm afternoon light near the Arcata Marsh on 25 September 2012.

We had no doubt that the warbler was still in the patch, but despite much searching none of us had been able to re-find it. We opted to take a break and go hit some of the spots on our original itinerary for the day, plus we were hungry.

We drove into Eureka, picked up some provisions at the local co-op grocery and then went to a nice bayside patch at the end of Hilfiker St. towards the south end of Eureka. Jude got another call from Rob Fowler letting us know that the Connecticut Warbler had been seen again, so back to Fairhaven we went. We would spend most of the remainder of the day there.

Rob Hewitt got creative with a pie tin, some string, and a gallon plastic jug of water (who has all of these things in their car?). He hung the water jug from a tree, put a pin hole in it, and then put the pie tin on the ground underneath. The dripping water finally attracted a couple of chickadees and reinforced what we already knew, there weren't many birds in the patch. We hoped that this impromptu water feature would draw in the warbler or perhaps some other interesting birds, but no luck.

Not a bad idea though.

There was one additional sighting of the Connecticut Warbler about 5PM, but ultimately only four people saw it...we were not among them. Late in the afternoon Fix and I drove into Arcata, where he dropped off Jude for an appointment and I retrieved Diane's car. Before heading back to Fairhaven, Fix and I made a brief detour to the Marsh, where I readily pished up the Northern Waterthrush that seems to be settling in there for the winter. This new county bird and a Palm Warbler that was lurking in the middle of the patch with the Connecticut Warbler were my only consolation for a long day and a big "dip." It was fun getting to know some of the most active Humboldt County birders. There is a certain camaraderie that develops when one is sharing the pain of a missed rarity.

Literature cited:

California Bird Records Committee (Robert A. Hamilton, Michael A. Patten, and Richard A. Erickson editors). 2007. Rare Birds of California. Western Field Ornithologists, Camarillo, CA.


Two things:I awalys carry a miniature tripod (about 7 inches long) in my backpack. Occasionally I need it to stabilize my Canon 40D, even for self-portraits. It’s not awalys great but it’s tiny and it’s with me.Secondly, you can buy a special screw at your hardware store that has a 1/4 inch thread at one end, and a wood screw at the other. The whole thing is about 1 1/2 inches long, and weighs nothing. You can screw the pointy end into a stick and voila instant monopod. My regular walking stick has one of the permanently embedded in the top.On longer trips by plane i put my regular tripod in my [hard] suitcase.E


Great story: thanks for sharing! Sorry that you and crew dipped. I, too, missed out on the previous HumCo Connecticut Warbler, a story too long & tortured to be recounted here other than to say I was at (far end of) Shay Park when it was being videotaped by Sean McAllister. If one doesn’t count Arctic, Dusky, Fan-tailed or Golden-crowned, COWA was my last regularly-occuring warbler to be seen in lower-48. And, of course, quite satisfying to place in “found” column.

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