WFO 2012: Making Our Way to Humboldt

Over many years my friends who are members of the Western Field Ornithologists had told me how much fun I would have at a WFO (pronounced "wuhfoe") annual conference. After nearly going to the 2011 meeting in Sierra Vista, Arizona, this year I finally made it. Shawneen and I took the whole week and wrapped lots of extra birding and visiting of friends around the 27-30 September 2012 conference in Petaluma, California. I will endeavor to capture the flavor of the trip in several installments over the next couple of weeks.

Our departure from Portland on the 23rd of September did not come quite as early as we'd hoped as we were pretty wiped out following a memorial gathering for Shawneen's mother (Betty) on Saturday. Betty, who would have turned 90 on 26 September this year, passed away on 5 June this year. Originally, we'd set aside Saturday 22 September as the date for a grand 90th birthday party. Sadly, the guest of honor did not make it, but we held a glorious celebration in her honor nevertheless. Shawneen and her older sister Kristin (Betty's only two children) put together a wonderful event.

We finally hit the road about 9:30 on Sunday morning with the intent of driving directly to northwest California, where were would spend two days birding with David Fix and Jude Power, who live in Bayside, Humboldt County, California. As is often the case as we drive south on I-5, we couldn't resist a quick birding stop at Ankeny NWR just south of Salem, Oregon. When Shawneen and I first got together three years ago, I was living in Eugene and she was living in Portland. Ankeny is right about the halfway point, so any time Shawneen would make the drive to Eugene she would invariably stop to bird Ankeny. Old habits die hard.


Plat I Reservoir at full pool. On the day of our visit the water level was much lower, which provided lots of exposed mudflats for migrant shorebirds. (Image sourced online at:

Pressing on towards Humboldt, we managed to avoid any additional birding stops over the next two hours. However, as we approached Sutherlin, Oregon, it occurred to me that we should check out Plat I Res., which I used to bird quite often during 1986, when I was living in nearby Roseburg. This modest-sized body of water is often quite good for shorebirds in Fall. We had a nice a variety of small and mid-sized waders, including a few Pectoral Sandpipers and a lateish juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. By the time we left Plat I it was well into the afternoon and our hopes of reaching northern California with sufficient light and time to look for the Smith River Crested Caracara were clearly slipping away. No worries, we were enjoying the warm sunshine and a drive that had thus far been more leisurely than intended. 


This Long-billed Dowitcher (foreground) and the Marbled Godwit (background) were part of a modest flock of shorebirds at the edge of Crescent City harbor on 23 September 2012

Driving through the Siskiyou Mountains on Hwy 199 we enjoyed a mix of trees (live oaks and redwoods) that we don't see nearly as often as we'd like. It always strikes me as a bit strange to pop out of the dense and dark forest into the late-afternoon glare and comparatively treeless coastal plain just north of Crescent City. This abrupt transition in landscapes is like no other that immediately comes to mind.

We made a quick stop at the harbor in Crescent City, where we enjoyed to raucous calls of several dozen Elegant Terns and took advantage of some nice light to photograph a small group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Marbled Godwits by the creek mouth at the northeast corner of the harbor.

As to not keep our hosts waiting too long for dinner, we pulled ourselves away from the relaxing bayfront scene at Crescent City and pushed southward through the heart of coast redwood country. We eschewed a twilight cruise through Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in favor of the slightly more direct and less winding Hwy 101 route towards Arcata. On most trips, I take the Drury and if I am not pressed for time (don't be when in the redwoods), a quick stop and walk in to "Big Tree" is essential. On this day, it would have been too dark to fully enjoy the Big Tree and we'd already made more stops than we'd planned on. We arrived "Los Arboles" (Jude Power's home in Bayside) shortly after 8PM. David and Jude greeted us with warm hugs, a hearty meal and our lodging for the next three nights. Over dinner, we set about planning our birding activities for the following day. Hopefully, Humboldt vagrants awaited.


If I’m looking at the photo of Plat I Reservoir as I think I am, the Douglas-fir and willow stand across the water no longer exists—ODF&W left the water too high for fishermen one spring and the trees all drowned. I know because I went into their Roseburg office and screamed and the head guy told me and apologized for it. The Great Blue Herons then nested elsewhere. This happened about 1990. However, in subsequent years, the resultant big snag patch supported Purple Martins, and this colony was enhanced (I am supposing) by lots of nest-gourds. Now even the snags are gone and the whole cycle seems like some sort of dream.


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