Tule to Al and Back
Speaking of birds with names less alluring than boobies, but equally caring a message beyond the bird itself, it is impossible to wonder, what were they thinking? Of course, the “they” is everyone, but ultimately, it is the AOU Check-list Committee. Names and definitions of words get us into trouble, but sometimes it might be best to let sleeping birds lie. For example, saying “I feel the booby is immature” requires rephrasing to avoid any impropriety or snickers. The statement “I believe the booby is an immature” avoids a possible tactile interpretation. However, just what is a booby. One consulted dictionary stated that booby is probably from Spanish bobo from the Latin balbus, meaning stammering. Etymologically, the name may go back to around 1600 when pooby hit the streets. That word probably originated from “poop, to befool.” The twist in meaning has the earmarks of a zealous Victorians who love turning something good into bad. It gets worse. The source, alas from the internet, added that poop, to befool was now obsolete. Close, but insofar as the avian name, a hands on approach is simple. A booby is a member of the Sulidae, and, I hasten to add, the name of an anatomical heaven, be it one of an new birder or a much older and experience birder with fond memories.
Alan Contreras’s reply about my coastal luck also included some comments about avian taxonomy and got me thinking beyond boobies. What about the meaning of some of the non-bird words and names we birders bandy about.
In his communication, he referred to himself as a layperson. Alan has written several books on birds. He is an editor of Oregon Birds, a state monograph hailed as an example to follow. How could he be a layperson? I replied to him:
“The term lay person often means a civilian, someone not in uniform, such, according to a dictionary, would be a layman. Compounded as layman, the meaning is quickly understandable. On the other hand, if writing about a civilian female, laywoman strongly suggests an altogether different lay than layman. Of course, lay man has the same suggestive meaning as laywoman, but lay man does not appear to be in much use. Now, the phrase lay person. Would not a lay person be either a male or female subject to laying, as is a lay woman or a lay man? Perhaps the phrase should become the compounded term layperson. Naturally, compounding words and pleasing both sexes (now that is suggestive) has much potential in subverting words such sportsmanlike and showmanship. Do lexicons embrace sports-womanlike and showwomanship? Should first year female undergraduates be addressed as freshwomen? Some individuals might so think, depending upon the showwomanship of the fresh student.”
“My conclusion from the artificial and real confusion and abuse of language would be to address what some deem lay persons, as simply lay, or the lay, leaving sex out of it. For example, he or she (maybe it) is a lay student of ornithology.” I emailed back to Alan that “the perception of being lay is elusive and vague,” and that “the difference in the measurement of the amount of knowledge one has compared to someone else is by degrees.” Alan did not make his primary living from ornithology, which leads the confusion of the classist professional vs. lay. I asked Alan “If two people have knowledge of a subject, and one is paid for it and the other person is left empty handed, what really is the meaning? Who is to say an unpaid individual knows less than the one who is paid for knowing?” I will not name names, but I can think of some “professionals” that were real boobies.
How is all this related to bird names? Bird names, the English names that is, are chosen largely from usage. After all, the members of the AOU Check-list Committee are not a bunch of tyrants. Democracy pretty much rules and they are not going to start calling cardinals popes even if it was a promotion. They follow convention, which is set by the paid or unpaid person. In fact, many names were laid down, so to speak, by the common populace.
However, language and the names in it are subject to evolution. For example, somewhere, sometime, someone called a funny looking, chicken-like bird with blue feathers a gallinule. It was ok to say gallinule in North America for our two species until the AOU realized that our Common Gallinule is now called the Common Moorhen in England. Why, we ask, does this North American bird called moorhen? This is not necessarily following common usage on the west side of the Atlantic. Hey, didn’t we win the war a couple hundred years ago?
Saying moorhen actually gets far more snickers than booby. That’s because most of us have gotten over our sophomoric snicker fests having to do with female anatomy. What is funny is moorhen. That’s because it doesn’t seem to belong on this side of the pond, here in moorless North America. Of course, we have the equivalent, more or less, to an English moor, that is, a sort of swampy coast land. More precisely, the habitat is often called moorland, and typical species in European moorlands don’t usually include gallinules, oops, I mean moorhens. We are about as used to identifying moorhens as we are knowing how to find the local North American moorlands. Imagine stopping at one of those gas pumps at a mart store, the establishments with restrooms inside that flush just a few feet from a marinating hotdog that has a hint of green leathery skin. Feeling guilty that you didn’t buy gas there and you passed on the chili that would produce methane gas before you ate it, you buy a bag of chips. It’s small, but cost at least $2.50. Paying, you ask, “How do I get to the moorlands?”
You hear a snicker from the clerk. “A what land?”
“Moorland. It’s a good place to see moorhens.”
“Oh, you go east on the road outside and take a right at the first stop sign. Look to the left. You’ll see more hens at the chicken farm.”
Maybe it’s a matter of time, but when I see those dark chickens with long toes in the moorlands, I’m likely to bark out gallinule. Eventually, perhaps, I’ll learn this new trick of calling out the correct current name. It’s embarrassing to identify a Rufous-sided Towhee or Plain Titmouse. Old bird names die hard. In the meantime, I’ll ask directions for marshes, not moorlands and say I’m looking for gallinules, birds that resemble silly coots and I’ll probably get the directions I need.
11 February 2007
Once again, Linda and I back out of the garage, in unison proclaim “road trip,” and head south. Earlier we had worried if the I-5 crossing over the Siskiyou Mountains would be possible without having to chain up. Weather was with us as we reached the 4300 foot summit. Roadside snow was less than a foot deep. I keep my eyes peeled for Clark’s Nutcrackers, a bird I need for my annual county list. Black-billed Magpies, another coveted county bird might be spotted during the descent toward California.
Around noon, at Turtle Bay in Redding, California, lunch is in order. On menu are snacks such as yogurt, cottage cheese, peanut butter, a fat veggie burger, a jam-packed smorgasbord we hurriedly sample. Bob Yutsey, local Redding bird guru, had earlier provided locations for Nuttall’s Woodpecker, a species Linda needs for her life list. Jumping out of the car, and before my last bite of a peanut butter sandwich slithered down my esophagus, Linda spots a woodpecker foraging just off the trail. Saturday visitors to the park are everywhere. Children are running and squealing, adults are chortling and dogs are barking. The woodpecker doesn’t seem to care. Before I bring get my glasses up, Linda’s voice is smiling “Nuttall’s Woodpecker.”
Several yards away, a trail parallels the Sacramento River. Leaving Linda’s Nuttull’s Woodpecker behind to forage near the weekend throng, we bird the narrow path. More Nuttall’s are expected. Bob’s email had said so, but the quiet woods produces a male Downy Woodpecker, Spotted Towhees, Bewick’s Wrens, the usual suspects for a northern California streamside.
The rolling hills south of Redding, where I added Lawrence’s Goldfinch to the 500+ year list of 2005, disappears while we careen down the valley. The landscape, now flat as a pancake, is boring, the freeway straight as an arrow, with not a bird in sight. The town of Williams, our goal today, put us just north of tomorrow’s target birds.
12 February 2007
Up at a respectable and reasonable hour, 7:30, we nuke our instant oatmeal in the motel microwave, check the weather and are out the door to catch today’s bird. Of course, the weather forecast is immaterial. Predicted rain would not keep us from our target, a wintering subspecies of White-fronted Goose. These particular geese, often called Tule Geese, are the ones S. Dillon Ripley and Jean Delacour named only a relatively few years ago. At that time, the breeding range was not known, but they are now known to do their egg laying in remote Alaska. The geese winter in the Sacramento Valley. It was high time that I see a bird that is so connected to my day job at the museum.
Many goose flights ago, while searching the museum collection, I happened to look several yards down the aisle bordered by three tiers of dozens of pale green museum cases. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of Smithsonian, preferred to be addressed as Mr. Ripley, was also looking at specimens. He did not appear to notice me as he peered into one large drawer of an open case, checking specimens of Anser albifrons, the name my colleagues and me used instead of using sometimes-confusing English names. Looking up once, Mr. Ripley, always a gentleman, smiled my way. Far from aloof, as a few branded him, he was actually an affable man, he also was down to business, dividing his time between research and administration. Heck, he even named a subspecies after me; Tanysiptera galatea browningi, a Common Paradise-Kingfisher from Halmahera in the northern Moluccas. Why? That is another story.
My first group of birds to curate at the museum were the waterfowl. It took months of pouring over each specimen, rearranging them by genus, species, and subspecies. Specimens were arranged according to their sex as well as when and where they were collected. By placing all those geese, swans, and ducks in their rows, I was certain, even at the great distance between where I stood that Mr. Ripley was at the cases containing White-fronted Geese. He is soon joined by none other than Jean Delacour, waterfowl ornithologist extraordinaire. Curious, I ambled to the middle of the range, pretending to jot some notes but actually to get closer to the action. Delacour, being considerably shorter than Mr. Ripley, appears to be bothered by the difficulty of seeing into the wide drawer of the second tier museum case. A gray stool, about two feet high was just what the doctors ordered. The two suited men, both balding and now somberly were holding a large specimen. A smile formed on the faces of these serious men. Their eyes crinkled seconds before they began laughing, sharing the delight in their discovery of such an obvious bird. Of course, that was part of the fun in working in the collection; there was always something to discover. Later, I congratulated Mr. Ripley. He grinned like a boy eating his favorite ice cream.
The jocularity and, of course seriousness, resulted in a description of a new subspecies of Greater White-fronted Goose. When the name of the new bird was actually printed and distributed, the scientific name became official. Once meeting the criteria of publication, the specimen that Mr. Ripley and Jean Delacour chose to represent the new name, Anser albifrons elgasi, became a holotype, the specimen representing the name of the taxon. Such specimens are extremely important taxonomically and nomenclaturally. Most museums identify holotypes to avoid having them being mixed up with the other specimens. The Division of Birds also maintains museum cases exclusively set aside for type specimens. Before a specimen may lay among the holy, the other holotypes of species and subspecies, it first receives a special label. With steady hand, I carefully printed on a bright red label, with indelible black ink, the newly proposed scientific name and the names of authors of the publication and the name and volume of the publication including the date of issue (when it hit the streets). Also recorded was the date of the holotype was collected and where it was collected. The latter becomes the type locality. The specimen was then put to rest in its special type case among the other critically valuable specimens collected by Audubon, Nuttall, and many others.
Aside from being a distant assistant in the care and feeding of such a new kid on the block, my interest went beyond the holotype of Anser albifrons elgasi. Was the new subspecies really one that people would be able to identify or was the holotype and a few other specimens Ripley and Delacour identified as elgasi simply large and dark birds of an already named population? There is geographic variation and there is individual variation. Inquiring minds want to know. Seventeen years ago, in a 1990 paper of mine on new taxa described for North American birds since 1957, I recommended elgasi be recognized as a good subspecies. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, D.C. The paper was too short to present much data on my conclusions, but others out there were working on the problems of goose taxonomy. For example, unknown to me at the time, Charles Sibley and Burt Monroe published the same year that they believed elgasi might represent not a mere subspecies but a full tilt boogie species. Other information that followed serves to build a strong case supporting their conclusion.
Dick Banks, our offices separated by the very cases holding specimens of geese, was stepping on the throttle to sort out other populations of Greater White-fronted Geese. It seems that ornithologist confused the names of White-fronted Geese, partly because of uncertainty in applying the name gambelli to particular populations. Some of the dilemma was caused from failure to base identification of Anser albifrons gambelli on the name bearing type instead of the rather unsatisfactory published description. To make a long story shorter, Dick is not one to let something so basic slip through the cracks. But what does this have to do with new subspecies of White-fronted Goose in California? Plenty. That’s because some people, including waterfowl managers, have confused the large birds now known as elgasi with the earlier name gambelli, a name that does not apply to the California birds. Not only are the scientific names confused, the unfortunate use of colloquial English names have more than one human flummoxed. It seems that what people are calling Tule Geese, most definitely A. a. elgasi, that breed in the taiga of Alaska. White-fronts breeding in other habitat are a different subspecies.
Besides the mix up in what scientific name to apply to what population, there is a conflict in terms for common English names. If tule is used as it is applied by non-ecologist, maybe tule, meaning somewhere far away from most anything, might be ok. We once lived where mail was delivered only three days a week. It was almost at the edge of the electrical grid. Even though it was smack in the middle of a coniferous forest, with not a cattail or marsh in sight, several people said we lived in the tules. I never did see a goose of any kind there.
When Linda and I left Williams, we are, vernacularly, in the tules. Not far south is Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Williams, the refuge, and the whole of the northern end of the 400-mile Central Valley are in a 5-million acre flood plain. The 600-foot Shasta Lake Dam that we had passed far to the north put a stop to the flooding, opening up a vast agricultural haven and immeasurably reducing a colossal wetland. Some of the region is wet enough to grow rice and the fields attract waterfowl. At the appeal of rice farmers, a system of refuges were founded, not out of alarm that waterfowl require protection, but to lure the pesky web-footers away from the farmer’s crops. Six refuges were established, the first in 1937. For a while, refuge staff also became rice farmers, planting thousands of acres of the grain to lure hungry birds from the commercial crops. Eventually, the farmers planted a short, stiff stemmed rice that stays erect and has a shorter growing season. The wind cannot blow over the plants thereby not revealing water-to-water loving fowl and the rice can be harvested before most of the southward migration. Some farms even left unharvested rice in sections of their vast rice estates. By 1990, rice growing in the refuge was no longer necessary.
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, the first in the group of established refuges was followed by Colusa and Sutter in 1945 and others, with the last, refuge in 1989. The six refuges protect only 38,500 acres, with another 59,000 acres of private land designated as conservation easements. Collectively the Central Valley National Wildlife Refuges includes Sacramento NWR as the hub. It is the second largest, with 10,783 acres compared Sacramento River NWR 14,096 acres. About 40% of the Pacific Flyway waterfowl use the refuges, with peaks of 585,000 birds at Sacramento NWR. Remarkably, the smallest refuge, Butte Sink, with only 733 acres reportedly once had peak of 577,000 birds. In contrast with Sacramento, Butte Sink does not have tours, trails, or allow hunting.
Steve Emmons at the headquarters of Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge meets us with a freshly marked refuge map showing the locations of Tule Geese seen earlier in the morning. He and a colleague talk about geese nomenclature, including some consternation about the A.O.U.’s choice of English names for the Cackling Goose and problems with lumping, with the small geese, the northern leucoparia, the Alaskan birds identified with a narrow while ring around the blackish neck. I sympathize, but think that subspecies of any kind of bird are best left with only their scientific moniker. Game managers, more often than not, use English names, which, in some instances, might be helpful. In the case of “Canada” Geese, the nomenclature, whether pressing 1 for English or 2 for Greek or Latin, is as unsettled as is the taxonomy. Steve also relates that the Tule Goose in winter is often found near bushes in the refuge whereas the smaller White-fronted Geese are more likely to be out in the open fields and water.
With map in hand, we drive from headquarters, slowly on a refuge road. Soon, we are even further in the tules. The thick low clouds keep the thermometer on the cool side and the light subdued and gray. Not far from the first bend we encounter a flock of geese in a field near a little grove of bushes. Most of the birds are sleeping while a few others graze. A few look our toward us, revealing their dark color and smooth, barely speckled breasts. At first, their size, larger than other subspecies of White-fronts, could not be appreciated until I notice a nearby group of geese. The flock of darker birds, the Tule Geese, are clearly different the other white-fronts.
Continuing on the one-way refuge road, Linda points out a Great Horned Owl hunkering down on a nest on a solitary leafless vestige of a barely six-foot tree surrounded by the winter stubble of the vast marsh. Geese, thousands of them, fly in the distance in almost every direction of the compass. The flocks contain Snows, white-fronts and Canada Geese. Very likely, a few Ross’s, Tule and Cackling Geese peddle the surrounding sky. Another rare tree, safely from the nesting Great Horned Owl, holds the interest of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. At a sharp bend in the dike road, we park and stretch our legs. Geese and ducks are everywhere, some loafing on small islands poking above the shallow impoundments, some sleeping in rafts and refueling for the future. If you are a duck or goose, you probably aren’t sure when or where your next meal will be. It’s like being in the cafeteria at boot camp: you eat as much and as fast as you possibly can.
A man, driving his mother drives up about the time we are ready to complete the last leg of the self-guided tour. They ask if we had seen the whitish duck in a pond near refuge headquarters. They tell us it is not in Sibley. Linda asks for a description of the bill, which they are not sure. A Smew had been seen by several birders but not in this immediate neck of the tules. Who knows though, and Linda and I hurry along, leaving the couple at the corner leg-stretching site. We pass more and more geese until we arrive at a pond near headquarters. We walk around most of it and peer in the emergent vegetation for anything whitish. The same birders arrive in the area and walk to a different pond, one across the road. We follow, eventually joining forces. The bird had been with Hooded Mergansers, which are now rafting in and out bays and inlets of the pond. Most of the time the mergansers are hidden in the tules. The intermittent rain is becoming uncomfortably cold and regular. By pairs, we circle the pond, two of us on one side, two on the opposite shore. It, whatever it was, does not flush; make a brief appearance, nothing. Eight eyes and it is a no.
13 February 2007
By the end of yesterday’s wild duck chase, we learned that the mystery bird’s head is allegedly white and the back is brown. People calling me at Smithsonian often described birds that simply did not exist. Was the description of the mystery duck accurate? It was kind of close to a first spring Smew but once again, who knows. Nevertheless, the pond near headquarters is on our way to the next destination, and resisting a stop to try again could not, well, be stopped. No one from headquarters had heard about any white-headed and brown-backed duck, but someone has to be first. Linda, being less enthused about any positive outcome, waited in the birdmobile while I carefully avoid squishing any of the multitude of goose and duck droppings pasted on the drenched grasses encircling the pond. Multitasking not stepping on bird poop and looking for the mystery duck, I tip toed through the tules near the low end of the pond then back to drive away, smewless or whateverless.
Not too disappointed, we hurry a little more south before cutting west through the Coast Range, and pass by towns named Glenhaven and Nice before meandering through beautifully superb Navarro River Redwood State Park. South on California State Highway 1 brings us to the coastal hamlet of Point Arena, about two-dozen short of 500 people. It is one of the smallest incorporated cities in California, even counting tourist this February day probably keeps the populace below 499. Named for Point Arena, a small landform replete with lighthouse, the town of Point Arena appears almost desperate for tourist dollars as we drive down the highway doubling as the main street. It is winter and the number of quiet shops suggests summer brings welcome green to float the town. A small harbor, with its one pier is about a mile and a half west of our midtown motel. It is early afternoon, and we rush to the pier.
We drive the short distance down a small stream, the same one splashing immediately below our motel room that ends at Arena Cove, a large inn and the pier. Vehicles, parked haphazardly, take up a large fraction of the area between the inn and boulders piled high above the tiny sand beach beyond. A few inclined steps west transport us to the pier where a hand-painted sign, perhaps 6 X 6 feet, told the story of why we are standing there reading it. The sign explains that a Laysan Albatross had been coming to the cove every winter since 1993. Over the years, this bird, named Al, actually Al B. Tross, has become a kind of town mascot. People worry when he, if that is the correct sex, disappears, celebrates his annual return in the fall, and praises his beauty and strength. Having your cove chosen as a winter home by such a magnificent creature is cathartic. The cove is also known for providing some good waves for surfers, and the surfers and Al have become watery companions, with Al even flying up to surfers and kayakers who call him closer by splashing on the water. He even allows them to touch his beak and caress his breast. Hmm, maybe Al is really Allison.
Linda and I continue onward, but only a few feet when we spot our first Laysan Albatross. The marvelous bird appears unconcerned with our and others proximity. A couple, leaving the pier, looked up. They had binoculars and huge smiles. So did we, in addition to a tear welling up to momentarily blur the seascape. It was a wonderful moment, yet, was this somehow cheating? I might as well go back in my records and count that Flammulated Owl freshly caught at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1962. No, the Laysan Albatross was definitely not held captive. Al or Allison, came and went at his or her will. Why should there be guilt seeing such a sure thing? Quickly brushing away such nonproductive musings, I thought how lucky for me, for us, and so many others to witness such a bird that could travel over the oceans blue. No GPS, compass, even a clock or calendar, this bird makes the journey annually and, according to local residents, arrives at Arena Cove within four days of 20 November. In order that Linda and I could join the probably hundreds of satisfied birders who have observed this punctual albatross, I consulted a clock, calendar, road maps, used a computer for background and precise directions to the pier, had to wear glasses to drive and binoculars to look into the eyes of an animal that does it the old fashion way.
As usual, I had done some homework about Al, Laysan Albatrosses and albatrosses in general. Laysan and Black-footed Albatross are the more frequently seen species off western North America. According to the Geographic field guide, eight species have occurred in North American water. Worldwide, the total number of species seems to be in flux, not because albatross are so busy evolving or going extinct, it is just that all the taxonomic wrinkles have not been settled. These seafarers are definitely going extinct faster than they can evolve and positively faster than man is evolving any measures to insure their survival. According to a 2000 report by the ICUN, aka International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, there were 16 species threatened by extinction. That is compared to only three species threatened with extinction in 1996, and, that is ignoring whether there are 16 or 21 species.
Al keeps on surviving, but why does Al, the Laysan Albatross, spend the winter at Arena Cove? Laysan Albatross are breeding in Hawaii then, with 90% of the population nesting on Midway Island about 1,000 miles northwest of Oahu. Midway is the place where John Aldrich, in 13 pages of pictures and text authored “ The Gooney Birds of Midway” published in the National Geographic Magazine in June 1964 that I read in the Clark’s Nutcracker days working at Crater Lake National Park. Much of the story on gooney birds at Midway concerned the problem of the albatross, Black-footed and mostly Laysan having pricey collisions with military planes using the Midway Naval Station. Solving the damage to planes and to the albatross was the problem of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service starting in 1954 and headed by John Aldrich. Years later, John occupied an office on one side of the collection at the museum. All the bird collisions on Midway and elsewhere had been keeping Roxie Laybourne busy identifying feather remains found on planes, sometimes ill-fated jet engines stuffed with tiny fragments of starlings. Sometimes known as the feather lady, Roxie’s office and John’s were not far from mine. I saw them daily. Conversations with them would overstuff a large book. None of the talks included albatross. Too bad. Some in-between-the-lines information was probably missed. A few months before I retired in 1996, the Navy’s claim to Midway was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Roxie, hard at work in the museum since 1944, may have felt a lump in her throat for the memory of John. Usually talkative, she didn’t say.
According to studies, Laysan Albatross parents nesting in Hawaii forage near the nesting sites during two months of incubation, but once the hungry young hatch until 160 days to fledging, the adults widen their foraging range, sometimes traveling half-way across the Pacific to the Bonin Islands off Japan and offshore North American from Alaska to California. How do the adults do it? Many of those thousands of nonstop miles sailing the open sea is accomplished by a shoulder-locking tendon that maintains their open outstretched wings in a likewise position without expending precious energy. Many birds have a tendon functioning similarly that locks them to their roosting perch. Otherwise, during the night one would hear hapless sparrows and warblers intermittently plummeting to the ground like ripened apples falling from a tree.
Since Laysan Albatross are breeding when Al is wintering at Arena Cove, one wonders what Al is doing during May to October. No one is sure. Just how old is Al? That is another difficult question to answer. Laysan Albatross acquire their breeding plumage around 7-8 years, and Al was in adult plumage when he first began wintering at Arena Cove 13 years ago. He or she must be at least 20 years old. That seems old for a bird dodging fishing nets, accidentally eating indigestible bits of plastic we throw into the sea, weather, and many other calamities that could end life. It is not. Chan Robbins banded an adult Laysan Albatross tending a chick in Midway in the 1950s and recaptured the same bird 51 years later. That might make the bird as old as me. Would Al survive to become one of the old farts of the Laysan Albatross population? The chances are slim. This winter, someone noticed that Al’s right leg was injured. It may be broken. Al could be captured and possibly taken to bird ER, but stress to the bird and possible failure to restore the leg to normalcy decided Al’s fate. He was on his own. Perhaps the tale of Al the albatross and stories of peg-legged seamen will have a commonality.
Linda and I watch the Laysan Albatross floating high on the peaceful cove. We look him in the eye, and he or she looks back, then the magnificent bird flies a few yards and lands on the dark water. The shocking wingspan, probably six and one-half feet, takes ones breath. During the brief flight, we notice the bum foot dangling, grayish and lifeless. There are an estimated 2.5 million Laysan Albatross. We wish this one would be around to reach its half-century mark.
14 February 2007
Following a morning of leisure, I drive back to the Arena Cove pier for another look at handsome Al or is it beautiful Allison. It didn’t matter, it, whatever the sex, this Laysan Albatross is my ABA life bird number 612. Unfortunately, Al is apparently out at sea. Beside the missing albatross, the entire cove is birdless except for a few milling Western Gulls. I sit on the pier and recall the National Geographic article and realize Chan Robbins was behind some of those camera shots. Once, while checking a small bird collection at Patuxent Research Center outside Laurel, Maryland, I mentioned to Chan that the article on albatross was kindling to youthful interest in birds. Always a mentor, a grin, larger than his usual happy self, appeared. Sitting on the rock at the edge of Port Arena, I remember once telling Chan I preferred his Field Guide to North America to the Peterson guides. Again, a huge grin. We both worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service, but my 25 years of service pales to his 60 energetic and productive years. I hope that Al was one of the individuals that he and John Aldrich reported from Midway.
With so little activity other than nostalgic reminisces, a short drive north to Point Arena is in order. The point and lighthouse are windy and by late afternoon, I am back at the pier. This time, the cove hosts tattlers and willets, turnstones, oystercatchers and Horned and Eared Grebes, but no Al. Minutes before dawn and back to the lighthouse, we spot distant flocks of large white birds. They turn out to be Great Egrets in one group and, another group in a meadow, 40 to 50 Tundra Swans.
15-17 February 2007
Before heading up the coast, we make a quick visit to the cove for one possible last look at Al. Another couple was disappointed that the Laysan Albatross was not around.
On the way up the narrow ribbon of highway 1, we pass the same two flocks of white birds we saw yesterday evening. Must be good foraging. We visit MacKerricher State Park, north of Fort Bragg, to follow up on a tip that Pygmy Nuthatches sometime hang out there. We miss the nuthatches, but not a disgruntled maintenance worker, who essentially reams me for stopping at the side of a park road. Except for the over fanatical gone postal park staffer, no one is breaking any rules, not even impeding traffic, but the bird we stopped for is long gone. We decide to move on. In Humboldt Redwoods State Park north of Orick stand some of the tallest redwoods. We hike in to see the Founder Tree, a mammoth 346 foot tall tree, around 2,000 years old. It is 192 feet to the first limb. We arrive in Arcata by dark.
The next morning I drive to the south jetty of Humboldt Bay south of Eureka. Thousands of Black Brant cover the southern bay. Waves are coming in over the spit about 400 yards out. Western and Least Sandpipers are sleeping out of the wind near a large rain pool at the edge of the road. A few fishermen weather what appears a fishless effort. Back in Arcata, I stop to check the marsh for shorebirds, but the tide is out, way out, so far that water is nearly out of sight. A few Green-winged Teal explore some of the standing water marooned by the outgoing tide. In the afternoon, we check a nearby road traversing a small agricultural area next to the lower part of Arcata Marsh. A Short-eared Owl shows us all of its field marks.
On 17 February, we depart Arcata, stopping to climb Trinidad Head where, in December last year, I had such phenomenal luck by seeing my first Brown Booby and three other life birds, all in two day. Today is my day for a reversal of fortune. A thick white fog shrouds Flat Iron Rock where the booby had posed. The veil, whisked away by sea breezes left a view of the rock and a vista empty of even the most common species. Before heading inland and home, a detour to a couple of birding sites around Crescent City is good to Linda. We are surprised to see Jim Livaudias on the beach at Point St. George north of town. He tells us about a couple of gulls on the Crescent City shore. It is cold and getting late, and we have over two hours of driving ahead. However, the two species of gulls would be new to Linda. We race the sun, drive south into town, park in the right spot and wait. The tide was out but a scattered flock of Mew Gulls are in sight. Now, it was really time to depart, but we check one more site that would, we think, get us closer to the Mew Gulls. Instead, in a parking lot, we nearly run over a first year Glaucous Gull. It was a good day. It was a good trip.
Al returned to Port Arena and continues to puzzle and entertain. After contacting California State Parks, I was told the officious employee had been told to cease and desist. Maybe, someday, Al will once again look us in the eye and the park employ will be calmer. He should visit Al.