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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.