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September 26th has now come and gone 53 times during my life. With the passage of time, my birthday no longer holds the significance that it once did, but this year was different. Betty would have been 90 years old on 26 September 2012, but she didn't quite make it. Shortly after Shawneen and I got together in 2009, I learned that her mom (Betty) and I were birthday buddies. This year we had planned a celebration for her 90th birthday on 22 September, the day before we were scheduled to leave for the WFO conference. Friends and family from up and down the West Coast were going to be on hand to share in this milestone event, but we lost Betty on 5 June 2012. What was to have been a birthday party, was instead a celebration of her life. We threw the party anyway, and although the guest of honor could not be with us, she was certainly in our hearts and there in spirit. I thought of her often as I celebrated my 53rd birthday, not in any grand fashion, but simply embracing the opportunity to spend the day doing what I love with people whom I hold most dear.
At Fix's suggestion, before starting south for Petaluma we would spend the early morning hours at the mouth of Jacoby Creek near the northeast corner of Humboldt Bay, where the incoming tide pushes thousands of shorebirds onto some of the last exposed mudflats on the bay before high tide. The tide would peak about 10AM, so Fix recommended that we try to get out there by 8:30 at the latest. Shawneen and I both are fiends when presented with the opportunity to scour through droves of shorebirds, so getting an early start was not an issue.
Fix told us where to pull off Hwy 101 and park and we found him already out on the flats when we arrived. We walked out through the ankle-deep salicornia and set up our scopes at his side.
Over the next hour or so we were treated to the type of spectacle that was once commonplace, but no longer occurs at Bayocean Spit on Oregon's Tillamook Bay, where I cut my shorebirding teeth in the 1970s and 80s. Clouds of shorebirds swirled about the bay and landed on the bare mud in front of us. At first they fed frenetically, but as they were pushed ever closer to the edge of the salicornia, they began to settle down, with most eventually tucking their bills under their wings and dozing off.
As I've done on many occasions, I gradually worked my way out towards the actively feeding flocks. I've learned that if you move slowly with lots of stopping and standing still along the way, your human form seems to become part of the landscape in the birds' eyes and after a while they will pay very little attention to you unless you make a sudden or jerky move. Over the course of about 15 minutes I inched my way right up to the edge of the flock and then started taking photos.
Fix and Shawneen continued scoping the flocks from farther back, while I snapped off hundreds of shots of several species of shorebirds, which included, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitcher. The 3500+ Western Sandpipers present far outnumbered the collective total of all other species and they were in various stages of molt. In Oregon we rarely see much preformative molt happening with the hatch-year Westerns, but here on Humboldt Bay, many of the hatch-year birds were already transitioning into plumages that resemble winter adults.
After an hour of squatting down in the cool, damp, overcast conditions, my 53-year-old knees and back were feeling at least their age, so I finally pulled myself away from the intimate company of several hundred Western Sandpipers. I was one very happy camper, having started my day in a manner that I would happily replicate every day for the rest of my life, and being in the company of perhaps the only two people on Earth who could fully appreciate my joy. After lingering for a few more minutes and sharing thoughts about the fabulous experience that we'd just shared, we bid Fix adieu and headed south.
Fix had gone home the night before and sent Shawneen and I an e-mail, which described a number of landmarks, geologic formations, and trees that we might look for as we made our way south towards Petaluma. We pulled it up on my iPhone and made a point of searching out everything on his list as we drove along. Though not with us in the car, he served as our virtual tour guide. It's roughly a four-hour drive from Eureka to Petaluma, but we made a few stops along the way, which stretched the trip out to about seven hours. We spent about an hour in the park adjacent to the rodeo grounds in Willits, where Shawneen birded while Bjorn Hinrichs (who was at home in Portland) and I did a three-way phone interview with Diana Doyle (who was in Baltimore, Maryland). Diana has written multiple articles about online birding resources for Birding magazine and she wanted to talk to us in order to learn more about BirdFellow's online "Social Field Guide," which we believe to be the first of its kind. After a lively discussion with Diana, Shawneen and I continued on to Ukiah, where we savored a delicious lunch/dinner at Lalo's Mexican Food.
As indicated in the title of this article, there was a birthday lifer for me. I've traveled north and south through California on many occasions, but for whatever reason never stopped and made an effort to find a Nuttall's Woodpecker, thus this fairly common California species was a bird that I'd never seen.
After driving a few miles out of Ukiah, we got off of Hwy 101 at Geyserville. We explored a couple of promising looking spots along River Rd., which parallels the Russian River, but struck out at those. Once again, my new iPhone (a birthday gift from Shawneen) came in handy, as it allowed us to access the Internet and dig into the eBird reports for this species. We found a site back towards the highway where Nuttall's had been reported several times. From bridge over the river just northeast of Geyserville on Hwy 128, we heard a Nuttall's Woodpecker call. A few owl calls and a little pishing later and it was in the tree right over our heads.
I can't remember the last time that I actually got a life bird on my birthday, but I'm all for making it an annual tradition. It was getting late in the day, and we needed to get to Petaluma before 6:30 in order to pick up our packets for the conference, and we still had more than an hour of driving ahead of us. We made it to the Sheraton Hotel in Petaluma with about 30 minutes to spare, picked up our conference packets, briefly chatted with various folks that we recognized, and then got back in the car for the 30-minute drive to Mill Valley, where were staying with a friend for the weekend.