Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Binge Birding: Part 1

I had Monday and Tuesday off so I went north to pick up a few species I need for my life list as well as a bunch of year birds.  I birded pretty much non-stop sunrise to sunset both days, finding a lot of good year birds including two lifers, but also striking out on several birds that would have been great to see.
Townsend's Warbler, Bolinas, CA. 01/08/2012. [Photo by Lukas Musher]
I started my trip off right in Point Reyes, Sunday afternoon after banding.  Cory, Dan Lipp and I went looking on Overlook Drive to see if we could relocate the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that had been seen several times over the past two weeks or so.  No luck there, but we my trip list started racking up birds nonetheless.  Townsend's Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Merlin, American Kestrel, and lots of other common birds.

I then drove straight up Route 1 to Bodega Bay where my main target birds were Marbled and Ancient Murrelets and Black-legged Kittiwake among other target year birds.  I camped the night at the Westside campground, and froze my butt off because I forgot my sleeping bag - all too typical for me I'm afraid.  I attempted to do some owling but ended up on some road that appeared to be private in the middle of nowhere and kind of spooked myself out so I left within twenty minutes.  Northern Pygmy and Spotted Owls will have to wait for another time (I was actually pretty sure I heard some Northern Pygmy-Owls way off in the distance, but I couldn't rule out that I was just imagining it).

Monday morning I woke up before sunrise and got out to Bodega Head by about 7:45.  I spent an hour scanning for my target species, but visibility was relatively poor, and I didn't have time to sea-watch all day, so I missed the murrelets and kittiwake (not all that likely anyway).  I did manage to get Western, Clark's, Horned, Eared and Red-necked Grebe (got the grebe sweep!), six species of gulls (no positive Thayer's IDs), three loons, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Brant, poth pelicans, and most of the expected waterfowl in Bodega Harbor.
Western Meadowlark, Bodega Bay, CA. 01/09/2012. [Photo by Lukas Musher]
 At the Diekman's Store in Bodega Bay, I added Yellow Warbler (has been present there for a while now, but a good year and state bird for me) and Orange-crowned Warbler.  Anna's Hummingbirds were by far the most common bird at this site, but Townsend's Warblers seemed to be everywhere as well.
Anna's Hummingbird, Bodega Bay, CA. 01/09/2012. [Photo by Lukas Musher]
Anna's Hummingbird, Bodega Bay, CA. 01/09/2012. [Photo by Lukas Musher]
Yellow Warbler (terrible documentation photo), Bodega Bay, CA. 01/09/2012. [Photo by Lukas Musher]
From Bodega Bay I drove five hours north on 101 to Humboldt county to look for Tropical Kingbird, Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, Gray Jay, and Rock Sandpiper to name a few.  My first stop was on a back road along the coast outside a small town called Ferndale.  It was getting late though, and I knew I didn't have much time at this spot.  I was looking for Northern Shrike, but found nothing save a few Townsend's Warblers, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, some White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows and a lone American Kestrel.  

I then went to the small town of Loleta, CA where a Tropical Kingbird had been staying all winter.  I drove around the area it had been seen but could not locate the bird.  On my way out, I saw a flash of yellow sally out from a wire across the road.  I pulled over and saw that the TRKI was actively catching bumblebees very successfully.  I was able to get a lot of photos.  Here are a few:
Tropical Kingbird, Loleta, CA. 01/09/2012. [Photos by Lukas Musher]
I then continued north to Humboldt Bay.  I stopped at King Salmon to scope the southern part of the Bay.  Sitting on the water were no less than seven adult Black-legged Kittiwake, all possible Loons and Grebes, White-winged and Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Merganser, and six other species of gulls among other birds.  These were my second through eighth kittiwakes ever, my first being a distant view of an immature bird in Delaware waters.

By this point it was fairly late, and I was planning on trying to find Rock Sandpiper before dark, and then trying to get up to Crescent City, another two hours away, to spend the next day.  Well I got to the jetty, and it was foggy and getting dark fast.  I started walking along the jetty, but I quickly realized there was no way I was getting out there in time.  I headed into the city of Eureka and stayed at a motel for the night.  I decided to skip Crescent City in order to spend more time birding the Humboldt bay area.

The next morning I woke up at 7 before the sun rose, and headed out to Arcata marsh.  Here I had a lot of good birds (although nothing too rare), but missed American Bittern, Cinnamon Teal, and some of the other species I had hoped to find.  The marsh was amazing, though, and some of the most fun birding I've ever experienced.  The shorebirding easily rivaled that of Brigantine back east (although obviously less diversity than during migration).  As I approached the mudflats on the bay, I was staring at somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 shorebirds (I didn't count), Dunlin being the most abundant.  Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Avocet, and Greater Yellowlegs were all present as well.  I also added Black-capped Chickadee to my state and year list (sounds mundane to all you easterners, but out here they barely make it into CA).

I spent some time in the farmland north of the bay searching for some of the rarer birds that show up in winter.  Despite my efforts, no Pacific Golden-Plover, Rough-legged Hawk, or Northern Shrike.  I did have hundreds of Killdeer, a dozen or so Wilson's Snipe, and a Prarie Falcon, though.  I also had a Dunlin in a field filled with Killdeer that I REALLY wanted to turn into a Curlew Sandpiper, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't.  I met a birder from the area who was nice enough to give me a tip about a Clay-colored Sparrow visiting a feeder twenty minutes away, and told me the Rock Sandpipers at the jetty were usually pretty reliable, but that he wouldn't suggest trying for them at high tide.

Well, I got to the jetty, and low and behold, it was high tide!  In front of me was a degenerated quarter-mile long breakwater, covered in muck and algae.  The surf was washing almost constantly over the walkable part, sweeping away everything in its path.  Along the side there was a wall that had collapsed into the ocean in parts.  At the end beyond the fog lay my Rock Sandpipers.  I knew this much.  The only thing holding me back was the dangerous surf and the birder's words echoing in the back of my head, "I wouldn't suggest trying at high tide."  Well I had come this far, and I didn't have time to wait around four six hours for the tide to drop.  I had to band the next day and drive 6 hours back to Point Reyes!  I looked around, nobody was around.  Nobody would know if I fell in, but more importantly nobody would steal my scope if I left on the beach (couldn't carry it and risk losing balance, plummeting into the ocean, breaking bones and so on).  But my camera was a different story.  I didn't know how to protect it from the spraying sea, but it needed to accompany me on my Rock Sandpiper quest.
Black Turnstone were the commonest shorebird on the jetty. Humboldt Bay, North Spit Jetty, CA. 11/10/2012.
[Photo by Lukas Musher]
As wave after wave crashed into the jetty, pressure built up in the water underneath and shot up in small geyser-like fountains from cracks in the middle of the cement base spraying everything within a ten-meter radius with salty mist.  This wouldn't be easy, but it had to be done, and I had to bring my camera.  So I headed out.  I hopped up on the wall, shielding my camera from the spray, and walked slowly on the slippery rock, feet sliding as I flailed with arms spread  to keep from falling.  Turning to check on my scope, I couldn't see through the fog.  My foot slipped more.  Frightened of falling into the jagged rocks on the outskirts of the jetty, I leaped down onto the lower section of the jetty.  But as I looked out to the ocean, a series of large swells ominously approached.

To be continued...

By Luke Musher

Stay tuned for the second part of Binge Birding, tomorrow.


  1. Nice ending Luke. Now you've got everyone waiting on the edge of our seats for what happens next. You better not disappoint!

    I also have to say that those are some of my favorite ANHU pictures yet. Great angle to be at...

  2. Haha, you're just going to have to read more tomorrow! Except you already know the story so there's probably no reason for you to read it. FYI everyone else, it's a goodie.

  3. Luke,
    Pleasure to meet you and glad you enjoyed some of the birds in Humboldt. I see you didn't take my advice on the jetty situation at high tide. In all seriousness, a birder died on one of our local CBCs a couple of years ago and it's serious business up here walking on jetties during high tides...especially in the winter. With all that seriousness aside, I really enjoyed your photos of the Tropical Kingbird and others that's some great writing. Good work and good birding.

    Rob Fowler

    1. Rob! Pleasure to meet you as well, and thanks for the tip. Sorry I forgot your name in this post. I was looking on NWCal listserv and saw your name so I put it in part 2. I didn't realize how serious it could have been until I was halfway out there. Thankfully nothing happened, and some hyperbole was involved for the sake of the story, but I don't think I'll be trying anything like that again...probably. Thanks again, and I'm glad you found my blog!

  4. Lucas, no problem. Glad I could help. That sounded like a pretty ridiculous experience out on the jetty and you are LUCKY. Life birds aren't worth anything if you die to get them. In 2008 a birder died on a jetty up on the Del Norte CBC doing the same thing you were doing, though the weather was a bit worse. you got your lifer ROSAs so you won't have to do that again, I hope! Take care.