Sunday, March 1, 2015

Winter Birding In Humboldt: Pipers of Rock to Suckers of Sap

Winter birding in Humboldt County is always rewarding, with a little effort.  Even on days when you want to bash your own skull in with a rock because you did not see BRAMBRING, the birding is solid.  One of the spots worth checking is the North Jetty of Humboldt Bay, which is where everyone goes for seawatching and rockpipers.  The South Jetty is equally as good, but it takes a hell of a long time to get out there in comparison.  One of my favorite non-BRAMBRINGs species we saw was Rock Sandpiper, which are hella localized in California.

Even though there are always, without exception, Rock Sandpipers at the mouth of Humboldt Bay in the winter, that doesn't mean you will actually see one.  They are fickle birds...go at the wrong tide and you have a good chance of dipping.  I maintain that low tides are best, but I suspect not everyone is in agreement about that.  At any rate, not only did we see Rock Sandpipers, we saw fearless Rock Sandpipers, which were valiantly trying to take the notion of "confiding" birds to a whole new level.

I've never had such good looks at one, even in the Aleutian Islands where they are common. Confiding rockpipers are not unusual on the jetty....along with Rock Sandpipers, Surfbirds and Black Turnstones are common in winter, and a few Black Oystercatchers are often around as well.  In migration, Ruddy Turnstones and Wandering Tattlers join the party.

Here is a second individual, with more white above the eye, enjoying some salt spray.

Although not a pelagic bird, Rock Sandpipers likely go for months at a time without ever having fresh water available to drink.  While this bird looks like it is experiencing a catastrophic, possibly lethal sneeze, it's actually just expelling salt water filtered out by the salt glands in its head.

The humble Surfbird is always popular with birders who don't get to the west coast very often.  It is a basic, utilitarian bird, lacking any bells and whistles.  Birds in alternate plumage are very striking, but for much of the year Surfbirds are fiercely loyal devotees to The Economy of Style.

This sculpin is not stoked, which you can probably deduce by its horrible facial expression and the fact that it is on land...something it likely has not suffered through before.  It is experiencing a long, painful, drawn out death at the hands of this interestingly marked gull.

While much of this gull leaves the impression that it came out of the Western Gull factory (black primaries, yellow orbital ring, dark back), the amount of duskiness on the head, back, and side of the neck seems excessive for a Western...on the back, it looks like there is some horizontal barring.  I think this Western Gull has some Glaucous-winged Gull components.

For those of you distressed about the doom of the sculpin, I offer you some comfort: we will all end up this way.  That is the way of things.  The way of the sculpin.

Unlike the sculpin-gobbling beast above, this Olympic Gull is not disguising itself as a Western.

Black-legged Kittiwakes are reliable from North Jetty in the winter, and they are not unusual to see inside Humboldt Bay either.  This is a very tough bird to get from shore south of Humboldt County, so go to the jetty and enjoy scope required.  There were also a handful of Ancient Murrelets further out this day, and all three species of scoter.  Not bad.  Don't go out there when the surf is big though, as you can be swept off and drown.  Not joking.

We did ok with some other local rarities, relocating a Tricolored Blackbird and Loggerhead Shrike, but the highlight for me was this Red-naped Sapsucker at College of the Redwoods.  This was a sight for sore eyes, as besides dipping on BRAMBRING we had also dipped on the 2 Red-naped Sapsuckers that were living in the same neighborhood.

This bird was easy to find and hella cooperative.  Interesting to me was how the throat pattern on the left side of the bird was classic for Red-naped (muddled black and red border), while the right side of bird featured a typical Yellow-bellied pattern...which is not suggestive of anything, I think, except that sapsuckers are variable.

It's a striking bird, no?  Even in the daze of a catastrophic dip, birding in Humboldt can always lift the spirits.  


  1. Nice crushes man. I had a similar sort of experience with a couple of Purple Sandpipers in New Jersey in July a few years back. It was odd, and awesome.

    This post is awesome, and Sapsuckers are definitely the best suckers to be, but it's also just bloggerish. Really sharp photos and all, but no big rarities, hot gossip, or words of wisdom? Are you getting domesticated, Seagull?


    1. My wisdom of the day; when pooping in a public restroom, remember to lock the door. If you fail to do this, someone will open the door and watch you poop.

  2. The way of the sculpin. I like it.

    Laurence is right, there is a hint of domestication here. Watch yourself. You're dangerously close to hanging a bird feeder and showing us your goldfinches.

    1. Rock Sandpiper in salt spray is the new cardinal in the snow.