A Nemesis Vanquished – Joys of a Long Weekend

Hi all,

No worries, I’ll be back to writing about Camp Chiricahua soon enough, but in the meantime, I think my recent three-day weekend deserves some attention.

This weekend, I had the privilege of having a Monday off of school, allowing me to take full advantage of the birding potential in my area without the fears of homework piling up.

For those of you who don’t know, I started the Bay Area chapter of the California Young Birders’ Club, and for a long time, I had been planning a trip on October 29th (last Sunday), to Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes, and the outer point in particular, has alway been one of my favorite spots in Northern California, not even just to bird, but simply to be in. The terrain is unique: open grassland and sparse scrub, occasional patches of Cypress and Pine that serve as migrant traps, and rocky coasts all along the perimeter. Relatively untouched by man, or even cell service, this barren land is nothing short of paradise to me.

In late October, however, the migrant traps are not nearly as bountiful as they were just one month prior, and the specialties divert from warblers and grosbeaks to longspurs and golden-plovers. The longspurs were the primary goal of the CAYBC trip, and I was extremely hopeful.

On Saturday, the 28th, I went out to most of the spots I planned to cover with the club, in order to scout out specific areas for longspurs, and to check on continuing rarities. Driven by my mom, I arrived at Abbott’s Lagoon shortly after 9 am, a late start, but an accurate replica of the day to follow. Walking down the trail to the lagoon produced hundreds of blackbirds, including Brewer’s and Tricolored. We also encountered at least 75 Western Meadowlarks; officially the most I’ve ever seen in one place. The highlight, though, was a flyover Wilson’s Snipe that called and circled around twice, a first for me at this location. Once at the lagoon, I spent hours scouring the sparse grass that grows along the banks, which is where the longspurs had been seen in recent weeks. Initially, we had no longspurs, but a Wilson’s Snipe flew in and landed in the reeds next to the water! Amazing to see this species so often after never encountering it there before.

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Technically, you can see the Snipe if you look really closely in the middle of those reeds.

Continuing on yielded about 350 Sanderling, which flew as one flock, and scared up almost 200 American Wigeon residing in the center of the Lagoon. Nearby where the Sanderlings flew from, about 70 Snowy Plovers sat, each in its own little indentation in the sand. They looked so cute, all huddled up against the cold.

Further down the bank, we found a flock of about 30 American Pipits. These held promise; the Lapland Longspur’s favorite species to associate with. The Pipits flew, calling, and within them, I heard a rattle. Then another! I was elated, and as soon as they landed again I was able to get one of the longspurs in my scope. The Lapland Longspur has been my nemesis bird for years now, and after being in Arizona and Europe, I think I’d begun to appreciate the concept of a life bird less and less. There, the flame was lit again, and I felt myself shivering like a heroine addict, watching these glorious little birds hop around on barren ground, foraging for seeds with a species not even closely related to them.

I was able to get distant scope views, but photos were a bit trickier. The birds flew as soon as one tried to get closer to them, even when I was still hundreds of yards away. They’d land again, but never any closer to me. Luckily, I ran into a friend of mine, Mark Dettling, while watching the longspurs. After letting me know that a Short-eared Owl had flown over my head 20 minutes prior unbeknownst to me, he wandered a little ways away, and I saw him taking out his camera. I walked over to him, and he let me know that one of the longspurs had just landed just 30 or 40 feet away! It took me awhile to get on the bird, as it was incredibly well camouflaged against its tundra-esque habitat, but I will never forget the moment of panning with my binoculars, and it just appearing in front of me. A really magical moment.8T6A1739.jpg8T6A1839 3.jpg

We tried and failed to find both the continuing Pacific Golden-Plovers, and a long-staying Chestnut-sided Warbler, but neither of those were anything as important to me as the Longspurs. A nice bonus at the warbler spot, though, were a couple of active Barn Owls that gave a few clear looks among their roosting trees.8T6A1881.jpg

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The following morning, I was joined by my friend Oscar Moss at 7:30 am. My mom drove us both up to the home of Brian Browne, another club member, who’s mother was kind enough to drive us around Point Reyes for a day. There, we also joined up with Lucas Corneliussen, and, at 8 am, we were off, bound once more for Abbott’s Lagoon. We arrived at the trailhead shortly after 9:30, and within minutes, John Myles pulled up, our final member for the day. Heading down the trail, we found once again a multitude of sparrows, including White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Song, Fox, and Savannah. Once again, the now-iconic Snipe flew over the small pond, and multiple Quail called from the brush.

Once at the Lagoon, we picked through about a thousand ducks, turning up Wigeon, Mallards, Green-winged Teal, and Shoveler. We tried sea-watching, pulling up nothing, but the 70 or so Snowy Plovers on the beach kept us awake. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that these birds are actually endangered.8T6A1897.jpg

By this point, we had a different angle on the ducks, and sifting through them once more turned out to be very worthwhile. Within seconds of looking at the flock, we had eyes on a drake Eurasian Wigeon, a rare but regular winter duck to Northern California.

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The Eurasian Wigeon is the one with a white shoulder patch

My scouting on Saturday proved to be very beneficial to our success on Sunday; within minutes of looking at the area where I’d had Lapland Longspurs before, we had a large pipit flock, with about three Lappies mixed in. The Longspurs were a lifer for John, and although they were extremely distant, I was psyched to have success with the main target bird of this entire trip.

We decided to work on getting closer to the Longspurs, but although the Longspurs themselves are actually really chill, Pipits are wound tight as a drum, and we knew that if they flushed, the Longspurs would flush with them. Creeping closer to a pipit flock is a long and painful process, but in the midst of it all, John murmured, “what the hell is that”. A really strange streaky sparrow-type bird was hopping around in some of the short reeds with an American Pipit. After about 10 minutes of utter confusion, we came to the conclusion that it was a “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow, a rare but annual subspecies, and a lifer subspecies for me!

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“Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow, with an American Pipit for comparison
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It was honestly a really weird looking bird in the field

After enjoying this unexpected highlight, we turned our attention back on the Longspurs. Although we weren’t able to get quite as close as I had been on Saturday, we got some decent photos of about three of them, mixed in with the pipits, and crushing scope views. All in all, an epic success!8T6A2049.jpg

We enjoyed the Longspurs for quite some time, along with a few other birders that showed up from over the dunes rather suddenly, like Jaws coming to trade.

On our way back, we tried and failed to find Horned Lark, but a confiding Wrentit at the start of the trail was a nice surprise, given how skittish they usually can be.8T6A2074.jpg

When we’d almost gotten all the way back to the parking lot, I spotted a distant Ferruginous Hawk, that later flew a bit closer, providing “good-enough” views.8T6A2095.jpg

At this point, we still had a few more spots to cover, but because our car was full, and John’s mom had left, I sat in the trunk on the way to the Oyster farm; giving the continuing Pacific Golden-Plovers another try despite my utter failure with them on Saturday. Once at the Oyster Farms, we soon came to the realization that I had only scoped a tiny portion of the entire tidal marsh, and, after walking through about half a mile of pickle weed cut by small streams that act as hard-to-see traps of mud, we were able to locate three Pacific Golden-Plovers, a shock to me, considering that only two had been seen previously. I hadn’t bothered to bring my camera, but Oscar had, considering that these were his lifer birds, and he was able to get some nice shots, both of perched birds, and of the pale underwing that undeniably proves them to be Pacific Golden-Plovers.

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Photo credit: Oscar Moss
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Note the lack of a black underwing spot. Photo credit: Oscar Moss

We made a quick stop by Drake’s Beach, just to get a few new birds for the day, which included Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Barn Owl, Horned Grebe, Heermann’s Gull, and Virginia Rail. And with that, we were forced by time constraints to head back south, to city and suburbia once more. We ended our day with over 80 species and life birds for many, a very successful trip by my standards. I arrived home fully contented.

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Monday was my final day off before school started back up, and I spent it birding causally around Half Moon Bay. There had been reports of a LeConte’s Sparrow, as well as a possible Red-footed Booby, both of which I dipped on, but I had a fun time nonetheless. I just barely missed the sparrow though, by no more than 15 minutes!

At the Sparrow spot, I had nice looks at Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrows, as well as a pair of White-tailed Kites that got rather aggressive with a female Northern Harrier. The Lincoln’s Sparrows were giving their short buzzy calls to, allowing me to spend a little time getting more familiar with them. 8T6A2110.jpg8T6A2214.jpg

We left the Sparrow spot to see if we could re-find that possible Red-footed Booby, but we never did find it, nor did anyone else throughout the day. To add insult to injury, we later found that we missed the sparrow by about 15 minutes, but that’s just the way it goes…

All in all, I had a really great three-day weekend, with one lifer, and many scarce and local species. I don’t even regret going down to San Mateo to dip on everything; it was great just to be down there, in an open field, with a sea breeze and wispy clouds overhead.

until next time,

MOBL

 

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