Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018


Growing up as a Californian (especially Southern), you’re taught from a young age that California is all you need. We bleed red, white and green and I’m sure a majority of us have not been told that Grizzlies were extirpated from the state long ago. We don’t refer to our highways as ‘interstates’ because the reference is irrelevant; you have no reason to go to other states, so why would you need to mention them? We’ve got avocados and sunshine on one end, and arguably the best redwoods on the other. Most of us don’t know a life that’s based upon changing seasons, although we sometimes like to pretend we have ‘sweater weather.’ We also have some of the best birding in the country, with over 600 reported bird species, two endemic birds and a wide range of diverse ecosystems. 

Despite this, it took me spending a great deal of time away from my home state to really recognize how much I love it. I spent the last two weeks of December celebrating this rekindled love for a very long state, trying to pick up some birds before the year ended. I started by driving six hours to Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area in Sacramento County after reports came in of a Citrine Wagtail, the first California record and only the third for the ABA. I, along with a significant number of other birders, spent two full days looking for this Wagtail, attempting to turn pipits into gold, but our Citrine friend was nowhere to be found. The bird was first reported during a nice bout of windy weather and allowed for a total of three people (as far as I know) to see it. I arrived with the sunshine, and apparently the good weather caused the Wagtail to depart. 

My time in the Sacramento region was not without slight success. I managed to pick up a Pacific Golden-Plover at the Woodland Wastewater Treatment Plant. I signed in at the “Birder Entrance” and did my VIP strut down to where the Golden-Plover was rumored to hang out. I managed to stumble over my own feet and a huge flock of Black-bellied Plovers took note. The plovers decided I was too close and took off. I tried scanning the flock as they circled over head, hoping one of them would be the Pacific, lacking the black underwings that are obvious on Black-bellieds. As far as I could tell, they all had black armpits. I scanned the rocks below and it was obvious that the last plover standing was the Pacific. By the time I had my camera set up, the Black-bellied Plovers landed again, making the Pacific harder to spot. I thought I lost it but managed to find it again in a search that reminded me of Where’s Waldo.  It was probably my third or fourth time going to a spot where a Pac Go-Plo was reported and I finally got it! Very distant views, but I was satisfied. 

I waved goodbye to the Central Valley and cut across to Monterey to do some sea watching. I needed an Ancient Murrelet and a Short-tailed Shearwater. I got the former but the latter proved to be beyond my skill level. Ancient Murrelets are little floating footballs that have light-colored bills and a distinct pattern, making them easy to distinguish with a spotting scope. Short-tailed Shearwaters look just like Sooty Shearwaters, another common coastal Californian shearwater species. I studied the night before and found that you can distinguish the two all-gray shearwaters by size, underwing coverts and head shape, but that’s only if you can see them well. And every single gray shearwater I saw that day was very, very far away. Every. Single. One. It was unfortunately a beautiful day and the shearwaters had no reason to come closer to land. Good weather failed me again. 

A visit to Point Reyes was next on the list, for no reason other than it felt necessary to pay homage to how far I had come. In February of 2017, I had visited Point Reyes with Adam, hoping with naive optimism and inexperience that we would stumble on a puffin. It was at Point Reyes that I felt that a big year was something I had to do, and it felt like it was something I definitely could do. In February, I felt I had the world. I had a little bit of money, a youthful energy, a partner that would always be there, and my tried-and-true trusty truck. But now it was December. Tired, I parked at the Abbott’s trail head, looking at the chip in my brand new windshield.

The wind brought a nice marine layer along the coastline while the sun shined in the dunes. I walked through the sand and watched the sea for a bit. The cold wind hurt my ears and I was reminded of in February the way Adam had tried so hard to turn Surf Scoters into Tufted Puffins for me. Both Surf Scoters and Tufted Puffins are some degree of black and white with bright orange bills. Without decent binoculars and refined birding skill, you could believe that one is the other, especially if you really wanted to see one thing and not the other. It’s funny to me now, how we try so hard to see what we want to see. Our minds will tell us that it’s there when it should be obvious that it never really was. I stood facing the Pacific as a more experienced birder and an ever-so-slightly wiser person, and I appreciated how much clearer things appear to me now. 

I returned to the dunes and admired a healthy group of Snowy Plovers, most banded, if not all. I kept my distance, but most of the Snowies didn’t seem to even mind. The majority of the group kept napping, and the ones that did feel uncomfortable by my presence hopped lazily on one leg away from me. 

I continued the drive up Highway 1, admiring the views and trying not to think about the potential for landslides. I visited Glass Beach near Fort Bragg. The smooth, sea glass stones are the product of oceanside communities dumping garbage into the ocean many years ago. Although the practice has been long abandoned, the trash remains and is now treasured by the community and illegal for the taking. 

Humboldt County was my next destination. I felt as though I could not end the year without one more visit to the place where I got my start. Even though Los Angeles is where my family resides and is where I grew up, Humboldt is where I learned to be an adult. In the small city of Arcata, I learned how to do things on my own and for myself. I learned the ways that I can rebuild my life from scratch, by myself. It was only appropriate to say hello and goodbye to a place that has grown to mean so much to me. I also needed a Rock Sandpiper, and on the North spit jetty I knew exactly where to find one. Instead of beating myself up over the fact that I didn’t get one when I still lived in the area, I welcomed the good excuse to make the long journey to Humboldt Bay. 

I arrived to the Samoa dunes late in the afternoon. The sea splashed violently over the concrete pylons and I hopped my way down to the end of the jetty, being careful not to slip on the slimy algae. It was the west coast equivalent to the time I spent hopping down the Barnegat Light jetty in New Jersey, looking for the Purple Sandpiper. Like the Purple, I didn’t get the Rock in one try either. 

The next morning, I scraped the frost from my car. It seemed unusually cold and not-so-unusually gloomy. I made my way to the jetty, checking to make sure the group of Black Turnstones wasn’t harboring a certain Calidridine sandpiper. The tide was still out, which made all the difference. Surfbirds, Black Turnstones, Black Oystercatchers and two Rock Sandpipers were all foraging on the exposed rocks in the intertidal zone. I watched as a single Turnstone chased the Rock Sandpipers across the rocks. Although I’m fairly certain the Rock Sandpipers were not happy about being driven away, their downturned bills made them appear even more dejected.  

The rest of time in Humboldt I spent coming to terms with not coming back. I did the drives I used to love to do on the weekends, up to Big Lagoon and Bald Hills, south on Scenic Drive, from Trinidad to Houda Point. I watched the sun go down on Winter Solstice at the Arcata Marsh, the sunset turning the sky behind the power lines into familiar swirls of purple and pink. I visited the credit union I used to work at, and made a contribution to the candy drawer I had helped create. I participated in the Willow Creek Christmas Bird Count with my first roommate ever. And I was very lucky to drink terrible beer and watch terrible TV with some of my very best friends. Even though Humboldt is where I learned to enjoy being alone, I left feeling loved, wanted and happy to have been among friends. 

I did the very familiar six hundred and sixty mile drive home to my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, making good time. The rest of the year I spent celebrating the holidays with family and picking up just a couple more birds. I got two members of the family Motacillidae, the family of wagtails and pipits, as if to make up for missing out on the Citrine Wagtail in the middle of the month.

On the Inland Counties listserv, I had seen reports of a White Wagtail in San Bernardino. It as reported the day after Christmas, but on the 27th, I and a few other birders spent the morning waiting in vain for the Wagtail to show up again in the spillway. On the 28th, I went back out to the park. As I arrived, a handful of other birders were already on it. I met a birder named Bill who was celebrating the Wagtail as his 400th San Bernardino County bird! I watched it as the group left, and stayed until I could hand off the Wagtail watch to another group of birders. 

The next Motacillid was a Red-throated Pipit in San Diego County, a bird that kind enough to be long-staying. I arrived at the dog park to meet another birder who was peering at the pipit parade through the chainlink fence that separated the park from Berry Elementary School grounds. After sifting through the American Pipits, I was finally able to pick out one that looked different. Pink legs, heavier streaking, neatly scalloped wing bars. Bradley, the other birder, confirmed it. Pipit, hooray! We watched the Red-throated Pipit do its familiar pipit bounce across the park’s bermuda grass on New Year’s eve eve.

I tried for a Spotted Dove for the third time this year on the last day of December, hoping to push my number to 644, but 643 is the number that stuck. I spent the night of New Years Eve with my immediate family. As we played games in the backyard by the fire pit, my mind would occasionally drift to that number, 643. Is it bad, just okay, or maybe actually really good? I couldn’t make up my mind. But as I sit now in the year 2018, after all that had happened in 2017, it’s very clear to me now that it is not the number that matters. It actually was never really was about the numbers; it was always about my relationship with birding, with the world, and with myself. In all aspects, I have come out better, more experienced, and stronger. And in this way, I have absolutely won.  

Here’s to looking at birds in 2018.

Reposted from