WFO 2012: A Long Overdue Visit to Point Reyes

Prior to 27 September 2012,  I had ventured out Sir Francis Drake Highway to outer Point Reyes only once in my life, and that was in June 1983. The 1983 visit merely whetted my appetite, but if one is serious about finding vagrant passerines, Fall is the season to visit this iconic birding site. We didn't exactly bound out of bed at the crack of dawn, thus it was well after 10AM by the time we reached the "Lunny Ranch," which is the first in a series of historic ranches once you leave the heavily-wooded inner section of the Point Reyes National Seashore. It was overcast and cool, but we were encouraged when we found seven Yellow Warblers and a Wilson's Warbler at our first stop. Unlike the more famed ranches farther out on the point, the Lunny Ranch lacks any large trees and has no stand of Monterey cypress, so it has a rather paltry history when it comes to producing rarities. We didn't linger.

Our next stop, the "Mendoza Ranch" (historic Ranch B), features a beautiful line of tall cypress trees right along the road. Stands of cypress serve as beacons to arboreal passerines as they look for trees in the sea of grassland that is Point Reyes. Once found, dense clumps of willow understory and patches of fennel provide both cover and food sources that can hold stray songbirds for days. Almost immediately after getting out of the car at the Mendoza Ranch, I heard a warbler chip that did not strike me as being one of the expected "western" species that I know well. I spotted the bird  in flight and watched it land on a utility wire. It was pumping its tail, which helped me recognize that it was a Palm Warbler. Nothing special as vagrants go, but an encouraging start. 

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Presumably, this Philadelphia Vireo was the "warbler with yellow below and an eyeline" that was seen other birders just before we arrived at the Mendoza Ranch on 27 September 2012. (Photo by Dave Irons)

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We found migrant Red-breasted Nuthatches nearly everywhere we stopped on Point Reyes 27 September 2012. (Photo by Dave Irons)

As we worked our way along the upper third of the patch, we ran into another group of birders, who told us about seeing a Black-throated Gray Warbler and another unidentified warbler with yellow underparts and a noticeable eye stripe. After sharing this tidbit, they piled into their car and drove off. Intrigued by their brief description, I collected Shawneen and we walked down the road to the lower section of trees. After a minute or so of pishing, a yellowish bird with an eyeline popped into view. Shawneen didn't get on it right away, but I got solid look and realized that it was a Philadelphia Vireo. The bird was really active and it was yielding only occasional brief glimpses in between extended periods when it was buried in the cypresses. Eventually, Shawneen got some extended looks at the bird and concurred with my initial assessment. It moved down out of the canopy and was feeding in the lower vegetation, which allowed me to get some marginal, but diagnostic photos. 

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Running into Rich Stallcup and his field trip group at the Mendoza Ranch was truly an unexpected pleasure. (Photo sourced online at: http://baynature.org)

Shortly after we eliminated all doubt about the identity of the vireo, a field trip group from the Western Field Ornithologists arrived. I did not recognize the leader and neither did Shawneen until she heard him start talking to the group. It was Rich Stallcup, who remains legendary in these parts. Stallcup has spent nearly his entire birding life living on or in close proximity to Point Reyes and he has surely spent more days and hours birding the point's vagrant traps than anyone alive or dead. His life list for Marin County borders on unbelievable. According to Joe Morlan's website, Stallcup had seen 96% of all of the species ever recorded in the county–467 of 485–when the tally was last updated in 2009 (http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/jmorlan/mrn.htm). 

When I first heard of Rich back in 1977, he had already cemented his status as one of North America's top birders. Over the past three decades his birding efforts have rarely taken him away from central California, thus he isn't the birding celebrity that he once was. After meeting him, he struck me as  one who neither wants or needs to be in the limelight. Over recent decades he has quietly focused his energies in support of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO), which he founded in 1965 (http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/CAwhoRS.html). After a quick round of introductions, we helped Rich and those in his charge relocate the vireo, which honored us with even better views than we'd had earlier. We hung with Rich and his group until all of us were ready move on to the next ranch. 

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This hatch-year (note yellow gape flange) Hutton's Vireo was at the Nunes Ranch on 27 September 2012 (Photo by Dave Irons)

We forged on, making stops at the Nunes Ranch, the Fish Docks, and Drake's Beach before it was time to head back for a welcoming reception at the PRBO offices Petaluma. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw a stakeout Chestnut-sided Warbler at Drakes Beach and found two more Palm Warblers. We were a bit surprised to a find a somewhat scruffy hatch-year Hutton's Vireo at the Nunes Ranch. Drakes Beach still had quite a few Elegant Terns and we watched as a Parasitic Jaeger chased terns offshore. 

Before leaving home in Portland, it had become apparent that a major flight of Red-breasted Nuthatches was moving down the West Coast. Reports of up to 50 birds had come from Cascade Head in southern Tillamook County, Oregon. Nearly every place we stopped on Point Reyes, we encountered  nuthatches in the cypresses. At least a dozen enlivened both the Mendoza and Nunes ranches, and smaller numbers were at Drakes Beach and the Fish Docks.

The day ended with a fine reception at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory offices in Petaluma. Shawneen enjoyed seeing many of her old California birding friends and after hearing Guy McCaskie stories for decades and exchanging several emails with him over the past few years, I finally got to meet him in person. 

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