Two by Sea, Three by the Sea, with an Interior Bonus
Nearly a year and six months to the day since our partially failed and scorching southern boreal journey, Linda and I are backing out the garage in the quest for new birds. It was 8 August 2006. Our destination was a three-hour tour to Charleston, a small sea town south of Coos Bay on the central coast of Oregon. As usual, we announced to each other, just as the garage door was slamming shut, “Road trip.“ We made the same announcement even for single overnight treks. Maybe we should call our journey’s salutary trips, since usually our travels are our medicine. The drive to Coos Bay for a couple of nights did not qualify as a road trip by all definitions. Somewhere, someone wrote that a road trip is when you get in a car but do not necessarily know when and where you are going to be the next or the following days. That does sound tantalizingly adventurous. However, for good birding, there must be a plan; otherwise missing some target species is likely.
Last year, driving our 45-day birding marathon, we had a plan, and generally knew where we would be on any given day. On what we prefer to call the Big Road Trip, sometimes a “given day” was three or four days later than our “plan“ suggested. Mostly, we didn‘t make reservations for motels, but if we did it was usually one or two days in advance. It was necessary to postpone some reservations more than once, even for critical areas such as reserving a bed in southern San Diego for tern watching the next morning. On the other hand, having made motel reservations for each and every night of the Southern Boreal Journey was too rigid, but considering the weather, the timetable worked to our benefit. Only the record heat wave broke the schedule.
9 September 2006
A high and annoying buzz of the alarm clock in the dark Charleston, Oregon, motel signals the beginning of a five-hour pelagic trip. This is our old reliable battery powered hunk of black plastic that keeps on ticking out the digital time and occasionally its unpleasant rousting alarm. It was, however, sometimes necessary to guess the broken numbers on the scarred digital face. That is because last year the trusty clock went plummeting for six feet before smacking to a paved parking lot in Harlingen, Texas. The first digit of 10, 11 and 12 had since gone missing. The batteries could give up anytime, and, maybe we should have asked for a wakeup call, and the clock’s annoying alert at 5:15 am probably woke our neighbors in the thin-walled establishment. It is too much to divine through the early a.m. cobwebs. I prepare a breakfast of sorts and wake Linda. As prevention to motion sickness, I take a single tablet of a prescription called scopace. Linda optimistically is not worried about seasickness. We throw on our blue rain suits over layers of jackets, sweaters and shirts minutes before meeting at the dock in front of the small office of Betty Kay Charters. Dawn accompanies a temperature somewhere close to 60 in damp gray fog. Greg Gillson is the leader of the pack of 24 birding sailors. Some of the group appear anxious, a couple barely awake, and the rest are attentive to the short and important mention of the coming event.
For those frequent floaters, those who are old deck hands at pelagic birding, our little trip a few miles off the Oregon coast might seem a sail into the doldrums. To us land lubbering humans; this is an adventure, as most birding trips should be. In addition, to Linda and me, today is a chance to feast on new birds, and, according to my list, there could be a chance to see six new lifers. Linda might see even more. Boarding Betty Kay, the 50-some foot boat, brings the excitement level up a notch or two and a feeling of relief that our fellow pelagic birders have plenty of room for wandering the decks and extending elbows out to hold binocs. No one will be crowded from viewing birds. Our captain, Kathi Johnson, briefly instructs everyone on locating and putting on a life preserver. Exiting the mouth of Coos Bay, sometimes difficult, is hardly noticeable as the boat churns westward.
Greg, with assistance from Tom Snetsinger and Tim Shelmerdine, kept lookout through a mild fog for anything moving on the calm flat water. In about 10 miles out, where the fog is about 50% less dense, one of the intrepid guides calls out Buller’s Shearwater. The boat stops. The sea does not. My body is not sure what to do. I’m able to see something pale below and dark above but that’s all. It could have been any number of species; I need a better view to count it on my life list. The voyage has seemed calm so far, but now, with the boat idling, the journey is more akin to riding a sluggish roller coaster. Looking from the low troughs, the top of the not so distant swells were a few feet above the deck. Glancing at our guides and the one crewmember, I attempt to read their faces for danger. They all seem happy and worry free.
Although mostly calm about safety, my stomach begins to wamble, in fact; the unsteady rocking is bringing a feeling of a little nausea creeping into my middle or is it my inner ear, or both? Crackers, from my rain suite pocket, relieve what had happened to one pelagic birder who was leaning over the deck. I should have taken the second seasick pill. Linda looks fine as she enjoys a couple of Black-footed Albatrosses and a dark-phased Northern Fulmar a few yards off starboard or is it port. Both species are new life birds for Linda. Even though Northern Fulmars are seen from the Oregon coast occasionally, I had never had the occasion of seeing one there. The lifer soon makes me forget anything about the rocking boat and rolling water. A new bird has all kinds of power.
Near a huge commercial trawler, about 15 miles at sea, more Black-footed Albatross and life bird number 605, the Northern Fulmars are in all imaginable color phases. Most are dark. Again, the boat stops and Greg tosses chum off the stern. I try not to notice. Fulmars and albatross appear from nowhere to gorge on what I am grateful I cannot smell. The odor would not have gone well with today’s stomach wambles. I should have taken the second scopace. Did I already think that? There are more years than I care to recall smelling chum while on a mostly whale watching trip off Maryland with marine biologist Charlie Potter and other Smithsonian employees. Today, a Sooty Shearwater cruises by, as do Pink-footed Shearwaters and I get a perfect view of a Buller’s Shearwater. That is definitely a countable view, my 606 ABA species. By day’s end, four Buller’s Shearwaters are sighted. I saw three of them. Surprising, 70 Black-footed Albatross and 175 Northern Fulmars were tallied. At least 75% of them came into my view, as did a myriad of cormorants representing three species and Red and Red-necked phalaropes. One Black Turnstone circled the boat as we sailed nearly 10 miles from shore. Before the day’s end, three species of gulls and alcids and two Parasitic Jaegers were identified. No craved for Long-tailed Jeagers.
Linda saw 10 new birds on the pelagic trip. My ABA list went up by only two. I saw only 1/3 of the birds targeted. The woebegone Southern Boreal Journey had a 66% success rate even though plagued by the unseasonably hot weather. Will it be possible to identify the 94 species necessary to reach 700 before I’m unable to steady my binocs? A pelagic cruise seems dependent on luck even more than trips on land. Could the success of these two trips generally predict the success of additional trips? Twelve potential life species hang out in southeastern Arizona in May. Might 66% or just 8 of the targeted species be found in Arizona? Naturally, the success rate depends on planning and communication with other birders, weather, health, funding, and the behavior of the birds that may move from place to place and luck.
I never was great at math. Any of my bird papers employing multivariate statistics were possible only by the help of others. You know, the ones who understood “If Johnny jumps from a moving iceberg to take the 5:30 p.m. train to Chicago traveling 60 mph, what time will he get there, and what the hell was he doing on the iceberg?” Nonetheless, for a statistically long word, except for accidentals and rarest of rare, I calculate there are 165 species out there that will provide the needed 94.
Considering there are 939 or more species to choose from, so to speak, 700 might be possible with a few well-located birding trip. In the meantime, maybe something rare will show up without guzzling gallons of fossil fule and contributing to the motel industry. There are a few rare ones reported from Oregon in the last few months. A Curlew Sandpiper was found a few miles and a day or two after docking the pelagic boat, a few days later a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was ogled by many just north of Portland, and then there was a Long-tailed Jeager seen inland and only a two-hour drive from home.
Padding a life list is not always possible. Somewhere around the age of 50 or 60, depending on the date you were spawned, a person may need to become a caretaker. Parents begin acquiring health problems that, mostly because of their age, are incurable. Birds on the horizon or not, many of us will become the parent. While the snow began to fall in our winter of 06, an aged relative began the last days. There was no available time to drive into California to see the reported mega rarity, a Taiga Flycatcher. Several people saw it, but there were reports of birders making long drives and not finding the Asian waif. Does thinking of chasing birds sound selfish? Of course, but close to my death, I hope that my loved will be there the last few days, but then take the time to chase a Taiga Flycatcher. The spirit of my dead birding bones would be pleased.
Time marched on while we recuperating from our job of shepherding the last days of another aging relative. The Oregon internet bird reports began listing Emperor Goose, Baikel Teal, Tufted and Falcated ducks, and Common Redpoll. Even a Parakeet Auklet was seen swimming 200 yards off the central Oregon shore in mid-Nov. A Tropical kingbird report raised a brow, but it was not new, thanks to some past Texas birding. What might be new depends largely on where you’ve been, and there are plenty of places to visit someday. Even so, hopes do not always spring new birds. My only winter visit to Maine never produced a Common Redpoll. That is just one example of being at the right place but not at the right time. The lament goes on to the present as seven new species are reported to be perching within a day’s drive. They clamored for attention, but timing can sometimes be almost everything. Maybe later.
Being the original person finding one of those rare birds has its advantages and disadvantages. For me, there is a certain dread in finding a rare species. First, the rarity may disappear and never be seen again. “You saw a Lineated Woodpecker near Mt. Rainier? Yeah, sure.“ Finding a rarity sometimes offers a slice of notoriety, but it can also hurt a reputation. What if that strange plumage actually belongs to a species different from the one the observer announced. I have looked at enough specimens to know that even a bird in the hand is not always better than two in a bush. Of course, a specimen may be examined repeatedly until someone gets it right. Collecting these days is not in favor, but we all owe gratitude to collectors of specimens and those who study them. Without specimens, proof of pudding rests on a photo, a illustration and or good notes. At least make sure other people see the rarity. The possibility of documentation by photographs is greatly enhanced by digital cameras. I recall then teenage Jon Alquist, the person who worked with pioneering Charles Sibley on avian genetics, running home for his 35mm to document our 1962 find of a Rufous-necked Stint in Ohio. Over the years, there were a few more rarities under my slightly lengthening belt, and luckily, someone was there to snap a picture. Not everyone has a camera for always obtaining proof of an observation. I do carry a cell phone in case I need to spread the word. In the event I’m not exactly sure of my location, I usually have topo maps and a GPS. Usually the maps suffice. More and more people have GPS devices but few report observations using latitude and longitude. All these digital devices, including cell phones, are expensive to buy and operate, with batteries galore now adding to growing landfills. Assuming unlimited funds in the gadget column of a birder budget, there is the problem of digit incompatibility. What does that mean? Translated, it means the buttons and switches on most digital devices are simply manufactured for fingers that most adult humans lost when they exceed age three. Add to digit incompatibility is the waning ability to see things close-up. That’s when the ratio of arm length can no longer exceed focal length. This unfair ratio or disarming focus disorder (DFD) causes us to wear glasses. DFD may never strike a lucky few, but it hits most of us somewhere in our late 40 or a few years later. If you don’t have surgery, which really eats into the ability to buy more field guides and digital gadgets, then there’s the problem of lenses fogging or rain spattering. This intolerable situation allows intermittent glances at the itsy bitsy digital buttons under grown-up fingers. Maybe there will even be some time left to gaze through the binocs at a bird or two.
Too long ago, Joseph Jehl and I found ourselves strolling down a sidewalk in Montreal, Quebec. I had long admired Joe’s publications on shorebirds, especially his work on patterns of downy young and later, research on oystercatchers, and other topics that inspired my youthful beginnings. Today, Joe smilingly gave a title to himself, yours truly and a couple others trekking the walkway to rally with other meeting attendees at a local pub. The epithet was “Old Fart.“ Joe was correct, I was at the cusp of old fartadom. It was not a declaration of being stubborn or lacking any lust for new and exciting research. It was an affirmation that the old guard was getting older. That day was about the time when digital devisors were plotting to make their wares not just with miniscule buttons but with so many bells and whistles that using any one of them would scare Edison. Great, besides optics, cameras, a GPS, a passel of variously sized batteries, we will need a sturdy magnifying glass. Most of these digital tools are difficult to learn, at least for someone who has difficulty solving story problems concerning icebergs and Chicago trains and who likes their cell phone to ring like a telephone, not the opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth. Consequently, if I find a rare species, I make damn sure I know what I’m looking at, and then I hope the batteries are up for a call to a couple of contacts. Maybe I’ll have a better camera, but will the bird be close enough for an identifiable frame? Time, technology and money will decide.
1 December 2006
The rotation of earth has not yet allowed the sun’s rays to beam past the snow crested Cascades. It is pitch dark when the alarm sounds. Sliding out of a warm bed before sunrise is not a recently practiced behavior, but I manage to find the bathroom, stumble downstairs and make a morning cup of tea. Caffeine from the old coffee bean, a staple during the museum days, has been replaced with tea, mostly herbal, and mostly decaffeinated styles. This dark a.m. calls for a little caffeine to get me going for the bird de jour, a Falcated Duck. Last year Linda and I were thoroughly skunked by the big webfoot. This year, according to the good authority of local birder Peter Patricelli, the Falcated Duck, potentially number 607, has been hanging out at the same small pond north of Eugene, Oregon, the very same location Linda and I visited last year. It was the same location where birders from across the country had seen the Falcated Duck since 2004. Just how many more years would this bird keep on coming back? It had to migrate from its eastern Siberia range, and instead of winging south to Japan or perhaps to Vietnam, it flew to the small circular pond at the end of an RV park in the upper Willamette River Valley in Oregon. Falcated Ducks have occurred only casually on islands off Alaska, and, according the latest AOU Check-list, reports from British Columbia, Washington and California are of uncertain origin. Then again, the Oregonian powers to be, officially the Oregon Bird Record Committee, regard the sightings and hundreds of photos of the prized duck as a naturally occurring species. That makes it a kind of organic species since it apparently got to the RV pond on its own, without artificial sweeteners or steroids.
A partly cloudy sky and morning shadows arrive before I am ready to leave. In a few minutes, I pack a lunch, kiss my lovely bride and back out of the garage. Traffic is light as I rush north on I-5. Fortunately, the passes are clear of snow; last year our return from our failed Falcating was almost impossible as we barely cleared the snow coating the passes. Common Ravens are dining along the road. They had learned that the night traffic would leave them morning feasts. One bloody roadside deer attracts about a dozen birds. Amazingly, no rain falls, but fog, sun and mostly clouds veil the journey through the mountains. Roughly 40 miles south of Eugene, I begin to wonder, not quit panic, but worry, what if the bird has ducked out, moved on and could not be found today. Fear is a four-letter word. Would the result of driving nearly the 400 mile round-trip going to be another skunking? From last year’s attempt, I knew the pond the bird frequented would be visible from the freeway shoulder just before the off-ramp. I had better take a look, just in case by the time I turn into the RV park, the duck decides to bolt. Checking for police that might ticket me for stopping on the shoulder, I ease to the gravel edge of I-5. Mumbling, I blurt, “Oh, Falcated Duck“ or something as profanely expressive. Last year, Linda and I dubbed it the F Duck. Today, patience and a half tank of gas provide life bird 607.
Stretching my legs on the way home, I decide to extend a rest by checking out Valley of the Rogue State Park, a small park on the Rogue River and just inside the boundary of my home county. All the usual suspects are there. A couple of goldfinches catch my attention. Much to my surprise, the male’s unmistakable plumage reveals it as a Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Spending too much time looking at the male, I do not see enough of the female, but the brief view does not match a Lesser or American. I hate it when that happens, when something rare shows up and there is no one else to see it or there is no camera to help prove it. Sure of the male, I reluctantly report the sighting on a local web site when I arrive home. Would the bird be seen again? Would I be vindicated? Maybe. Maybe not. I was just happy that the Falcated Duck was where it was supposed to be, in the field of my binocs.
Almost daily, perhaps almost insanely and probably inanely, I check a computer site that reports daily sightings of birds in Oregon. That was how I found out about the Falcated Duck. A few days post duck, an immature and adult female Brown Booby and an Emperor Goose was reported from Humboldt County in northern coastal California. These two species represented boreal meeting tropical, and both represented two potentially new ABA life birds. Checking maps, I calculated about a three-hour drive. The next Monday and Tuesday looked possible, but those days were not open. The rest of the week didn’t look as good as the weekend. Generally, birding on weekends, since retirement, is less preferred to weekdays. Fewer people are clogging the roads then. Just how long would the Brown Booby hang around? The Emperor Goose eventually disappeared. Weather, the inclement kind, was on the way, and I wondered if the weekend storm would push the boobies out of the area. As it turned out, the weekend was more than perfect.
9-10 December 2006
Driving to the northern California coast meant familiar territory. The route is the same taken numerous times when my parents visited the Pacific shore. Linda and I had taken the trip this spring to show our daughter’s daughter Sabine the ocean. We meandered around sharp curves, some down to 25 mph, while negotiating narrow sections of U.S. 199 along the rocky Smith River canyon. The giant redwoods inspired our guests and provided Sabine the amazement we hoped when saw added the Pacific to her life list of oceans.
Before reaching famed U.S. 101, the coastal highway, redwoods loom high into today’s fog. Collected tears of the wet clouds sporadically fall 250 or more feet with an explosive splat on the windshield. It is a memorable sound, a liquid bullet that had collected on small needles of colossal trees mostly 500 to 700 years old. Essentially a forest late and a habitat short, 96% of the old growth redwoods are logged, gone forever. Those people bragging about their redwood decks, other redwood structures they built and redwood trims that they took from nature will never know the extent of what once covered parts of the coastal range from southern Oregon and coastal California to Santa Cruz. Gone are many of the oldest trees, some of which reached the 2,000-year mark. Gone is what was once the tallest redwood. It was inches short of 368 feet, until logging subjected it to drier and windier conditions by “harvesting“ nearby trees. The tallest redwood crashed to the ground, dead forever. These trees have shallow root systems; their strength is in their numbers. Fortunately, California state parks saved several groves in the 1920s. Eventually, to the demise of some deck owners and wooden lobbyists, Redwoods National Park was finally established. That lucky year was 1968. Since then, the park has gradually expanded and now protects about 106,000 acres. Although twice as large as Acadia National Park in Maine, the redwood park is about 80,000 acres smaller than relatively nearby Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Compared to late nineteenth century formed Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, both of which also preserve unique trees, Redwood National Park pales in size. Of course, Redwood National Park was founded after the lobbying lumber barrens had mechanized their means of leaving the slopes into fields of stubble. Unlike most national parks that encompass contiguous acres, often seen on maps as huge rectangles or squares, Redwood National Park area consists of scattered broken bits and pieces of forest ecosystems, with privately owned acres peppered among the parks land. Where the park comes to the ocean, its boundary extends seaward about one quarter of a mile. One southern section of Redwood National Park is large enough to befit contiguous redwood habitat. Partnership with the older state parks offers a combined chainsaw ban of almost 132,000 acres.
Each time taking the route down the Smith River, I am reminded of first seeing the redwoods. Even then, as a barely pubescent prebirder, I remember a feeling of humility. For a couple of years my father routed us through what we called the shortcut, a narrow route from the main interior U.S. 199 to coastal U.S. 101. An almost single lane of pavement took us through a never land of hulking redwoods, each gathering their shadows over the ribbon of our route. Whoever engineered the road must have respected each tree as the sharp turns took us around towering trunks of these thick-barked giants. Then, one year, on our pilgrimage, the shortcut became a nightmare. The entire redwood forest had vanished, leaving only sickening stumps, frail limbs cut from their parent trunks and brown needles rotting in the cemetery.
It is hard to think of that wonderful forest, now hauled away, milled and standing as a deck in some sterile backyard. Now, certain recycled plastics, such as beverage containers, are formed into benches and deck planking. Once again, it was a day late and conservation dollar short. Too many redwood forests have gone down and more will continue to fall. Such thoughts, some hopeful and most sad, occupy me while motoring to my quest. Too bad Linda was not along. She knew the story of the shortcut and remembered the dead forest through tears. We probably would have talked about it today, but our collective thoughts would have condensed the lament. We would have enjoyed the standing trees and the drops resounding on the windshield. Then, suddenly, highway 101 appears, breaking memory to present. I am on my way south to see my first Brown Booby.
I drive through Crescent City, a nearly sea level California town that was nearly washed away by a 1964 tsunami created from an earthquake in Alaska. Southward, in mountains and more redwoods, highway signs warn trucks not to exceed 30 mph. It is slow going, but I am thinking booby and recall Linda’s smile when I earlier announced that this would be my first booby, unless of course you count gannets. About an hour later, I steer into tiny Trinidad, a seacoast hamlet of about 400 people. More importantly, this is the place to see the booby.
Wasting no time, I park at the edge of town just behind a fore dune, set up the scope on the tripod and take a seat on my three-legged campstool. Aiming at Flat Iron Rock, about ¾ a miles due west, I scan and rescan the east side of the small, barely 50 foot, island. Cormorants, pelicans and a few gulls dot the surface. Birder David Fix, former Oregonian and now a mover and shaker of booby land had emailed me that a vantage point could be had from the trail on Trinidad Head. A trail adjacent to the parking lot led up the smallish 358 foot brush covered promontory and over a tenth of a mile closer to Flat Iron Rock. Whether it was the angle, including the approximately 160 or so feet rise in elevation, or the light, I finally see the white belly and dark upper parts of an adult female Brown Booby. The sun, shinning from the south is not the best, but a hint of a yellow bill is a bonus. Finding a Brown Booby north of Baja is not unprecedented but today is a moment for celebration. Back in 1775, Trinidad Head and adjoining land was claimed for Spain. I wonder if Bruno de Hezeta, the same sailor whose name, but as spelled as Heceta for a central Oregon coast headland, had seen a Brown Booby or two on his way north from Mexico. Today, he would have felt at home.
Further up the trail a short and steep spur ends at a rock outcrop around 300 feet above the pounding waves directly below. The site offers a more southerly view of Flat Iron Rock, but either the booby moved or the viewing angle is wrong. One of the many Brown Pelicans may be standing in front of the diminutive booby. I alternate scanning the rock, the ocean and eating a fake hamburger I brought from home. Cold, the vegetable based patty tastes much better than any cold hamburger, but I nearly choke on a morsel as a shearwater wheels gracefully from sea, circles twice just below and suddenly departs, heading southwest. The bird is, without a doubt, a Black-vented Shearwater, number 609 on my ABA list.
The sun is dipping even more to the southwest, making it harder to scan out to sea, and the thick clouds dim the whole sky. Descending Trinidad Head, I check in to the motel just outside of town. It is cheap. All I need is a bed and the cheapest is their only smoking room. A couple of days ago on the phone, I said I ‘ll take it.” Today, I wish otherwise. First, the room number was a foreboding “0” tacked to an aging door, it is short yards away from speeding tires noisily splashing through the rain on 101, and there is that tell-tell smell of a full ashtray even though none is present. Although the bedding is quite clean, the rest of the room is marginal at best, and it really reeks of spent tobacco. I used to smoke. What had I done to my friends, relatives, insides of vehicles, homes, even my office at Smithsonian? Back in the nicotine days, most of my friends and relatives also smoked and no one seemed to mind that my car was yellow inside from cartons of cigarettes puffed during commutes in Washington, D.C. traffic. Alexander Wetmore, former Secretary of Smithsonian and a fond stalwart who was working on his magnum opus on birds of Panama, had promptly quite smoking when the National Science Foundation announced the dangers of smoking in the middle of the 20th Century. That’s about when I started. The days of getting off the weed were days when Phil Angle, long-time museum friend, and I almost came to blows. He was quitting but didn’t tell anyone. Stopping cigarettes can make for an ugly personality. It can also be humorous, such as the day I realized Dick had metal wires stapled to his out ears. It was not a fashion statement, in his case did not work, but he nonetheless eventually beat me to fresher air. I managed to quite, with the help of patches, about a dozen years ago. I hope that that will be soon enough. My sincere apologies to everyone who breathed my secondary smoke, who smelled my clothes and hair, my home, my car, and everywhere I puffed. The air of the Trinidad motel room soaks into my pores and saturates my clothes. I am embarrassed and disgusted, and conversely sorry for the smokers, knowing how hard it is to quite. Chocking, I decide my room should be monetarily free.
By now there is just enough light to make it a dozen miles south to the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary to witness the shorebirds coming to roost on three small islands’ brackish lakes. Crowds of Marbled Godwits, and fewer Avocets, Red Knots and Willets vie for space for the night. Each, it seems, protest the nearness of their neighbor as the godwits hoarse calls overpower the twittering mass. The islands are cinnamon orange, with splashes of black and white and smatterings of gray feathers in the darkening sky. A local birder also enjoying the shorebirds, tells me this is a daily event from fall to spring. How lucky that the sanctuary exists. It is 154 acres of marsh and open water, a preserve evolved as part of Arcata’s wastewater treatment using natural filtering and as a realized habitat important not only to wildlife living within the marsh but also to people who visit it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the preserve is helping avoid the birds going the way of the cut redwoods.
Darkness falls, and the last vehicle exits the parking lot overlooking the roosting shorebirds. Scrounging in the small icebox pays off. I munch in the cold as the pattering of heavy rain dominates gentle lapping water of the bay on one side and muffled calls of godwits and friends tucking their bills under their wings for the night.
The drive north to my smoky Trinidad motel room requires my full attention as the rain gathers deeper on the highway, falling much faster than it can possibly drain away. Resonating crashes of huge waves pounding onshore about a half mile west interrupt settling to bed. It sounds like thunder, but is rhythmic. I slip on my shoes and step out to hear the rumbling crescendo roar with thumping booms hammering the shore. I imagine the white frothy waves barely visible as they crash violently in an otherwise muted darkness. To safely witness the crashing waves meant a drive into the rainy night dark as a cave, and my map doesn’t show a road. The sight is left rambling in my tired brain. The sight must have been something of fierce beauty, as the western wind blew in the water, and hurled the sound up and over a 200 foot rise separating the shore and the nicotinated motel room.
Up at 6 a.m., I wait for sunlight, which must shine through thick rain clouds. By the time some semblance of a solar glow appears, I am at the shore in Trinidad, with rain pants and coat, a sandwich in my pocket, water, scope, stool, binocs, a field guide, and with much anticipation for weather that would not drip. At the same vantage yesterday, I see old Flat Iron Rock, its cormorants, pelicans and waves crashing. It seems strange that the waves were not any larger than yesterday. It is almost disappointing that the giants last night had succumbed to the mundane. Not finding the booby, I hike to the upper site of the west side of Trinidad Head. Maybe there was a chance at another shearwater or a better angle at the rock for finding the booby. By now the blue band of sky once far at sea travels up and behind me, allowing precious minutes of warming sun. I cannot find the booby, but a couple of Western Grebes and a Pacific Loon are swimming below. Yesterday, the water was barren. Looking to the right of the grebe, I spot another bird, almost grebe like in plumage pattern, but smaller and with white scapulars. By now, the sunlight wanes, but the closeness of the bird and my scope reveal an alcid. The back of its neck is dark. The front of the neck and chin are white. A few yards to the bird’s left are six Marbled Murrelets, and the solo alcid is a, I can’t believe it, a Long-billed Murrelet. A rarely reported species once regarded as conspecific with Marbled Murrelet is clearly different from its relative. Decades ago, Dick Banks and I marveled at the specimens of the strange long-billed subspecies of Marbled Murrelet. There must be some mistake. There was. Now, with its rightful specific rank, Long-billed Murrelets are being reported, although rarely.
Looking down on my first Long-billed Murrelet bobbing on the cold waves, my gray matter reminds me that the bird I see is a repeat performance. Somewhere, sometime, beyond the cobwebs, a Long-billed Murrelet had floated past my binocs, probably when it was a subspecies. Today, I can positively check Long-billed Murrelet as a new bird. It put the ABA list at 610. The bird occasionally dives out of sight and after each time it springs back at almost the same place it had disappeared. On a dive, as we each hold our breath, I scan westward. Occasional flashes of white too far to identify taunt my eyes to labor. Perhaps the flashes were albatrosses. Black-footed is behind me, but an elusive Laysan or a Short-tailed would be nice. Wishes for the best shouldn’t be shy, but the white bellied birds are smaller than albatrosses. Maybe some kind or kinds of shearwaters, even more Black-vented Shearwaters are joining the one seen yesterday. It is impossible to tell. Maybe a good fast boat would help, but all I see beyond the shoreline is a red Coast Guard helicopter hurrying northward. While laboring over those white spots, a roundish, fat looking bird appears closer inshore, taking up most of the space in the scope’s 30X lens. Its white belly and dark back, with whitish cheeks behind a largish bill are unmistakable. It is 611, a Horned Puffin flapping its little wings as fast as it could, earnestly aimed south as if hoping by nightfall to make it to Tijuana. Gasping for air, I swing the scope to the murrelet. It’s gone; perhaps it was too close to the cliff to see. I am not about to hang over the edge to check. I wait about 20 minutes, but the Long-bill Murrelet does not reappear.
Time was clicking by when I take a try at the Emperor Goose sighted just west of Arcata. Too late. No luck. The rain shuttles on and off during the drive up the coast. Stone Lagoon closely bordering U.S. 101 south of Orick, a hamlet smaller than Trinidad, harbored rafts of Aythya ducks, the diving ones. Maybe a Tufted Duck or, rarer, a Common Pochard, is hiding among them. My lucky streak is gone, leaving behind the usual suspects, the Canvasbacks, scaups and the prospects of another time. How could I possibly be disappointed?
Sending a hearty thank you message upon returning home to David Fix for the information for finding the Brown Booby, I included in my email the northern California sightings of the three additional bonus life birds. He replied. “You are too stupidly lucky. You must have had some celery-eating rope head [sic] on a skateboard pawn some of the local herbal product off on you. That’s just fantastic!” It is not true; my sightings were drug free, if you excuse the Lipitor. Naturally, I had to brag to Alan Contreras up in Falcated Duck territory, aka Eugene, Oregon, about my birding south of the border. Alan was equally enthusiastic. He emailed “Holy shit, Ralph, that’s quite a day! I have carefully missed Horned Puffin in Oregon several times. I am one of the designated sea watchers at the Florence CBC Saturday – I am now filled with hope and lust. By the way, I had a probable Long-billed Murrelet fly past the Siuslaw jetties a couple of weeks back.”
My visit to California was somewhat of a religious experience as David suggested. He asked me to provide details of my observation of the murrelet but asked nothing about the other species. Gathering my notes, I felt better about my alcid since a Long-billed Murrelet had been found dead not far north of mine, and that Alan, the best birder in Oregon, thought he saw one fly by in Oregon. After the Christmas Bird Counts, I read at least one Black-vented Shearwater was spotted from northern coastal California. Naturally, it would have been great if the shearwater was one of the less observed shearwaters with dark under tail coverts such as a Flesh-footed or Wedge-tailed Shearwater. If I saw either, would I, sans camera, be believed? I would not have believed me. So, sometimes it is best to keep the profile low, especially when you are alone and cannot prove the fleeting sight of certain species such as shearwaters and others. The Horned Puffin I saw, although especially exciting since it was a life bird, was not apparently a big flag raiser among birder monitors. Finding birds unusual for a region is planning and luck. It mostly comes down to being in the right spot at the right time. Sometimes even a ho-hum region may produce surprises. In my recent case, my birding cup would not have been so full had it not been for lure of the female booby.