Monday, March 13, 2017

Humboldting: Rarities From Far and Near (?)

In birding, one of the few certainties we can cling to is that little is certain. I will now provide you with one of these rare certainties...

Every winter, an extremely rare bird will show up in Humboldt County.

Don't believe me? Since 2013...

Little Bunting (2013)
Gyrfalcon (2013-2014)
King Eider (2014)
Brambring (2014-2015)
Snowy Owl (2016)
Great Gray Owl (2015-2016, 2016-2017)

Oh, and these were just the chaseable winter. Never mind the rest of the year. Oh wait, I forgot one...

Common Pochard (2016-2017)

Common fucking Pochard. Until this bird was found, this was one of the biggest blockers in California...there has only been one chaseable bird in the state ever...oh, and other than Alaska, there has also never been one in any other states or provinces. Talk about a MEGUHHH!!! Sweet, sweet, Siberian doesn't get much better than this bird, and I am still trying to get out the stains in my pants from when I first learned about this bird.

Of course, not only would this bird be a lifer for me, it is a totally bizarre bird in some respects, something good to look at and ponder...a bird that seems to perfectly fit in the center of the Canvasback-Redhead spectrum. Since the Old World has neither Canvasbacks or Redheads, this somehow makes sense.

However, Billy was about to have a baby, in when the pochard news initially broke, I did not actually think I would see the bird. Going to Humboldt at this time would be absurd. But Billy knew my severe gripoff pain and we went north, and we got the bird at a most frigid dawn at the Redwood Creek Oxbow without difficulty. Though I spotted the bird before she did, it is safe to say that I owe Billy a luxurious HJ.

Distant but good looks at this lifer with Redheads and Ring-necked Ducks were had, and after chatting with Officer Fowler of Fowlerope Birding Tours, we took a walk through the facemelting old growth at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. No Gray Jays or Pileated Woodpeckers appeared, but the forest was as ridiculous and grandiose as ever.

I couldn't help but give a Steller's Jay a mild crushing on our way out. Sure they are abundant and eat Marbled Murrelet eggs, but think back on the first one you laid your squinty nerd eyes on...crippling, eh?

There was plenty of daylight left, so we lurked down to Arcata Marsh, since that is always the default place to bird if you have nothing to do. This time it was hosting a couple rarities to provide extra motivation for a visit.

Billy came up with a nice group of Redheads feeding close to the trail. It's hard to see these birds up close in California, so I was chuffed. Not pochard chuffed, but chuffed nonetheless.

Ahh, sweet, succulent and locally uncommon Redhead, it is much better to observe you up close. Remember, if you meet any pochards in your travels, try to convince them to stay on this continent. It is the flyway less travelled...if you are a pochard.

Those Redheads will probably never meet a pochard, but they were acquainted with another Sibe. While I was staring at the Redheads, Billy got on the most popular bird at the marsh, a totally incognito female Tufted Duck. I've seen a handful of female Tufteds before, and this was by far the most indistinct individual I have seen, though she had the classic small, dusky white spot at the base of the bill. She really looked quite scaup-like though, and would not be eye-grabbing at all from a distance.

I'm no Tom Johnson when it comes to flight shots (in fact only Tom Johnson is Tom Johnson in that regard) but I was pleased to collect this girl's soul as she took wing on her way to Allen Marsh. I did not expect her to have the head shape of a Rhinoceros Auklet, but there it is.

Most of you know I lived in Humboldt for a long time...a long time. It has a special place in my heart, so much so that I am all about county listing there. Some years ago, while getting things up to speed in eBird, I actually had to reconstruct my Humboldt list using actual checklists, which is just about as novel as it can fucking get. Amazingly to me, I could never find any record of seeing Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the county...which was finally rectified when some rando birders got me on the one wintering at the marsh. Local rarity! County bird! Victory!

A life Humboldt County...and another Humboldt County bird in the same day...with a bonus Tufted Duck. What a fucking day! But we weren't finished yet...

Next to Arcata Marsh is the infamous V Street Loop, a classic car-birding site. Short-eared Owl used to be a gimme here, but with much of the former grassland now converted to tidal wetland, they aren't nearly as dependable. Northern Harriers are still abundant though.

This hell of gray Savannah Sparrow caught my eye next to the road; I don't see birds like this very often. I wonder where it's from...any ideas? It was accompanied by 1-2 similar individuals.

Almost no color in the lores. So plain, but so striking. So Economy of Style. This bird gives credence to the argument against that old adage, "Life is Savannah Sparrows".

Finally, it was time to look for yet another absurd bird...a Great Gray Owl on the edge of town. Unbelievably, this was the second in Humboldt County of 2016 (and no, I do not think it is the same bird from Prairie Creek). The closest source population for these birds is not in the Sierra Nevada, it is in southern Oregon (i.e. the Ashland area, a mere 115 miles northeast as the owl flies), but obviously there is no way of knowing where Humboldt's birds originated. I presume Great Grays occur more often than we think in Humboldt, Del Norte (no records in eBird) and especially Siskiyou (no records in eBird) counties, which all have vast areas of potentially suitable habitat that get no coverage by birders. There are quite a few records in Oregon within 20 miles of the Siskyou County line. Interestingly, there are no coastal records of this species in Oregon, where there are considerably more Great Grays than there are in California...Humboldt County alone has what, four individuals now? Only in Humboldt...

More important than speculating about the One Bird Theory and source populations is seeing a Great Gray Owl. It is a spectacular bird. Photos do not do them justice, it is a bird to be seen to be truly believed.

The weather deteriorated after this ridiculously good day of birding, though we did make it out to get better looks at the owl again. On the way back south on 101, we were greeted by a fully legit snowstorm. Unfuckingbelievable. Those of you who are familiar with the San Francisco-Arcata drive can appreciate this...I have never seen anything like it. We pulled over along the Eel to take it all in, and were treated to a real fallout...of robins. Hundreds were falling out of the sky, pouring into the roadside vegetation from upslope. Too much snow for [good] photos, but it was nothing like I've ever seen.

Another great Humboldt visit in the bag. Life bird! County bird! Great Gray Owl! Bonus Sibe! Snow! Billy didn't go into labor! I couldn't ask for much more.


  1. Hey just FYI that, due to the molt limits in the wings and tail, this Great Gray is almost certainly 100% the same bird as Prairie Creek. Peter P is pretty convinced and I agree. It is also a female as the landowners son got a recording of it calling, giving a female contact call. Pretty cool!

    1. Almost certainly 100%???

      Did not know the Prairie Creek bird was sexed.

      Today is the third time I've been shat on in a week. How did this not happen to you? Surely you are blocking it out.

  2. Replies
    1. These birds are not consistent with how nevadensis is portrayed/described in the Rising book (1996 version with plates), though Pyle's description is more fitting. The brooksi subspecies is another possibility.

  3. Good job all around! Winning at everything, that's the way to do it.

    I weirdly do remember my first Steller's Jay. We were driving across Oregon on our move from Boston and one was on the side of the road. I called my mom to tell her the blue jays here have black heads. I think it took 8 years before I noticed one again.

    1. Wow good memory. I do not remember was probably in Sequoia NP or Yosemite when I was hell of young and not birding. The only species I remember from that Sequoia trip was my first White-headed Woodpeckers.

      It's hell of hard to remember some lifers now. Memory ain't what it used to be...another good reason to crush I suppose.