Ides of March (March 2006)
The portents weren't good, the weather forecast even worse. Heavy rain. Possible thunderstorms. A fatal pile-up of over two dozen cars on the only freeway crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. The year's coldest temperatures. Snow, hail, nasty cold things happening in remote parts of Marin County. But there were five eager birders from Rockford, Illinois, on their first ever visit to Northern California. Between them they had waited over 250 years for this chance. Thye wreck meant a detour through sleeping Sausalito. I was a couple minutes late. They were ready to go even though the sky at 6:30 AM promised even more bad weather. The sky was as gloomy as the forecast.
Fog, thick and cold, sat just above the housetops. Visibility is the one thing almost any good day of birding requires. If you can't really see, well, you can't really see much. And as we looked onto Tomales Bay from the motel where they'd spent the night we could see the abundant Greater Scaup, a few Bufflehead, a Western Grebe or two. Occasionally a gull would pass out of the fog and cross our view. Surf Scoter were in a thin line across the water. Everywhere else we saw fog.
We headed south and a few landbirds were visible: Crows, Brewer's Blackbirds in a mixed flock with Red-wings and Starlings. California Gulls consorting with Angus cattle. Two Blue Herons flew north from their night roost. But most land birds were still quiet. Not a promising start.
We stopped on the stub of a gravel road that leads to an overlook beside Olema Marsh. Just after we got out of the car, Golden-crowned Sparrows were feeding along the roadside. A Marsh Wren sang from the dense tangle rising from the shallow water. We quietly walked the last fifty feet. The fog had lifted a bit but still no hint of sun.
We quietly stood above the marsh. Red-winged males sang from scattered tule, bending the thin reeds with their weight, then vibrating them with each song. A Marsh Wren responded to our presence, taking a closer look. Not far away a seemingly unworried Brush Rabbit [Sylvilagus bachmani] hopped among the lupine and other low brush, having breakfast. This little rabbit's named for Audubon's friend, Rev. John Bachman of South Carolina. In addition to discovering his warbler namesake, the good reverend gave science many first descriptions of American mammals. Meanwhile the women in his household provided accurate plant depictions found in many of Audubon's bird drawings.
We were losing hope that anything else might show in the marsh, then a Coot flapped and squawked as it flew from the reeds, immediately followed by a second. I wrote it off to spring testosterone and Coot envy. But within a couple more seconds, right where those two Coots had been, appeared two wet, round heads. Large, dark eyes. Downturned mouth with stiff whiskers. It was two river otters swimming across the pool fifty feet in front of us. They got halfway across the pool before they spied our motionless forms and dived from sight. I've birded that same overlook at Olema Marsh more than a hundred times—first time for otter there.
The Illinois visitors seemed at ease birding in the San Andreas rift valley. Its potential for an earthquake of 8 on the Richter scale left them unfazed. Like a native Californian might wander under storm blackened skies during Illinois' tornado season. Along the valley we found Steller's Jay, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe, Spotted and California Towhee, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, a male Allen's hummingbird perched on top of a tree. As he turned his tiny torso, the color of his gorget changed shades of orange to crimson. Turkey Vulture sat on posts and in tree tops, more forlorn than usual. They awaited warmer air and updrafts.
After a necessary stop for supplies at a bakery in Inverness Park we headed out toward the end of the Point Reyes Peninsula. We stopped in an alder choked creek bottom, and flushed a male Hutton's Vireo. More Flickers fluttered across the opposite hillside. The sun now appeared for the first time and that lifted the first airborne vultures. Red-tailed hawks, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows. Our list grew.
Near Johnson's Oyster farm we picked up Wigeon, Gadwall, Greater Yellowlegs. Further west near Chimney Rock a small pond held our only Canvasbacks of the day. By late morning we'd found our first of many Western Bluebirds and huge icterid flocks that yielded nary a Tricolored Blackbird. Kestrel began to appear every mile or so along the road. Northern Harriers coursed the grassy slopes of this elongated sand dune that is Point Reyes. Acrobatic Ravens rode wind and updraft.
We stopped at the first parking load on Chimney Rock road. Just below it are numerous bare rocks rising from the Pacific. One holds at least two hundred Common Murre in their formal-appearing black and white plumage, nearly touching at the shoulders they are so closely packed. One of our group spots a large-nosed bristly face in the water. It's a male elephant seal. Later on the sheltered side of the narrow finger of land we watch dozens of the younger elephant seals. They are lined up, sausages on a grill, in the northwestern elbow of Drake's Bay. On the bay itself we find Common Loon, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead. A small flock of Black Turnstones land on the rocks at the base of the steep slope. Pelagic Cormorant on piers, then a single, larger Brandt's. Western Grebe far out,and a handful of Brant. Then finally we find the Red-throated Loon the group is wanting for their list.
We head east toward the Drake's Beach visitors' center and lunch. We pass a herd of juvenile tule elk. That goes with the three species of deer we see during the day though only the black-tailed are natives. An American Pipit is first to greet us in the parking lot. It flies off, whistling "pip-it, pip-it." A pair of Ravens are working clean-up duty at the picnic tables. Flicker and Yellow-rumps in the willows. Townsend's Warbler. More Kinglets. On the beach: Sanderlings. Gulls, scoter, loons out beyond the surfers.
We stop at abandoned Ranch F after lunch. We fail to find any goldfinches but there are a score of bright Western Bluebirds. We flush what is likely a slumbering Great Horned Owl. Sparrows and towhee feed in the short grass where a home and barn once stood. Only the windbreak trees and a corral remain.
From there we head straight to the parking lot at the Bear Valley Visitors' Center. We are just out of the car. Back in the deep shade beneath the towering Douglas fir we see feeding birds. No people at the picnic tables in this cool wind. Besides the forecast said it was not a day for picnics, or even for good birding. On the ground—Juncos, Robins. Then one, then a second—Varied Thrush. One woman in the group is especially tickled.
"That's the one bird I really wanted to see," she whispered.
They continue to feed about sixty feet from us as I set up the scope. Then there are clear, magnified views of their burnt orange, the seeming powdery black, their robin-like behavior. Something spooks them after a couple minutes. They fly up to the lower branches, one disappears. Another thinks he is invisible and goes into the expected Varied Thrush "freeze." Here we also find a Hermit Thrush feeding with House Finches in a bare tree, two Whie-tailed Kites feeding over the open grassland, more Red-tailed Hawks. Acorn Woodpeckers laugh high in their usual trees. More icterids in the parking lots, no Trics here either.
South to Five Brooks where a California Quail covey of at least sixty birds weaves back and forth across the trail next to the pond. It is almost enough to take the imagination back to the 19th Century when visitors to San Francisco told of coveys of hundreds running about the brush of the Mexican Presidio near the Golden Gate. These quail barely stir themselves to avoid the hooves when a group of horses are ridden past. The male quail are in their showy plumage this time of year. The finely patterned females would be remarkable in most other species, but their mates have much more feathery finery. There are a couple of males who utter lackadaisical "Chi-ca-go" calls. This gives me a cheap joke for my Illinois friends. How can the California state bird keep asking about "Chi-c a-go?"
On the pond: Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, more Coots, pond turtles, the omnipresent Mallards and Wigeon. In the brush are House Finches, sparrows, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, more kinglets. Wrentit remain unseen. We get Wood Pigeon sighing but no sighting.
As the afternoon wanes, we head south to Bolinas Lagoon for the densest collecton of birds of the day. Nothing unusual, nothing unexpected. A large beached raft of harbor seals near the lagoon mouth. The tide is quite low and there is much more mudflat than water. American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew including one walking along the roadside, Willet, Marbled Godwit. In the narrow channels are Mallard, Pintail, Wigeon, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe. On the mud are Blue Heron and the smaller cousins: Great and Snowy Egret. We see two Blue Heron fly into Audubon Canyon Preserve where they nest in treetops alongside the Great Egrets. We see two Belted Kingfisher perched on wires along the lagoon. Far overhead our only Osprey of the day moves overhead on long, limber wings.
Racing sunset we drive south toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Near Muir Beach a last Red-tailed Hawk rises up the cliff face above the ocean. He hovers just above the highway, hanging in the stiff wind. He rides the currents with adept tail and wing control. Curving this part of a wing, ruddering with ruddy tail.
The Illinois group is headed to Muir Woods in the morning, then south for a week of birding in Monterey. There I hope they'll get their Nuttall's Woodpecker, California Thrasher, Oak Titmouse, Wrentit, Dipper, Snowy Plover, Surfbirds and a Wandering Tattler, Yellow-billed Magpie, perhaps some more alcids and a Thayer's Gull or two. They'll surely to see some California sealions and sea otters. And at least they should have a chance to see those roosting California Condors down at Big Sur. All young, pen-raised adult birds.
Day list for March 11:
Canada Goose (heard)