With fresh coffee in the thermos, dog in car and the GPS pointing toward Arcata Marsh, California, we headed out. This marsh was one of the best places to bird on the west coast, and you can very well bet I was ready to see a lot of birds and a lot of strange things I’ve never seen before…
Arcata Marsh is just north of Eureka, and luckily for me, just 15 minutes from my kabin. I arrived at 8:23 a.m. and proceeded to get my equipment together. This was to be the first time I field tested my new heavy-duty tripod. So, with backpack on the back, digital camera with 200mm lens around my neck, 20×80 binoculars securely on the new tripod and the tripod resting on my shoulder, small binos in my pocket (dog in car, sorry Joey), and coffee cup in the remaining free hand, I headed for the trail. If you are new to birding – remember, NEVER leave any equipment behind that may cost you a bird! When in doubt, bring it! This includes food, because if you’re hungry, you’ll be impatient, and you can never be in a hurry when birding.
The clouds were high, so the light was good, at least from one direction (which is all I really ever hope for). The temperature was a cool yet pleasant 48 degrees and there was no wind to speak of. This was prime birding weather. Maybe it looked like I needed an assistant to help haul all my gear, but I’m sure I was smiling as I slowly got on the trial, not unlike a wounded duck. I didn’t look at the trail map because that wouldn’t be very adventurous, but at least I was managing my food for the day. You’d think one would just go out and look at birds and perhaps oogle and ahhh then write the ones they remember down in a notebook. Oh, there is so much more to it. The logistics can be mind-boggling. Food management is essential especially if you really plan to make a day of it. Unless you want to look at Starlings in dumpsters and pigeons on the lawns, you’re going to be in the wild and in the wild, there isn’t any civilized food. Pack a lunch. Bring more water than you think you’ll need. And if you can, bring someone along that will haul all your essential equipment for you, what I like to call a “birding caddie.”
To the left is the path I took, roughly. I made the red line for you so you can follow along if you’d like. You may notice that it’s a circle, I notice that too now, which puzzles me, because I got rather lost on the way back. Regardless, it was about a 54 mile walk around the entire marsh. If you didn’t walk with the 40 pounds I was carrying, it would be more like 2 miles. But because I was carrying what felt like a small car on my back, I’m just rounding it up to 54 miles because that’s what it felt like. In retrospect, perhaps getting a larger dog to carry things is a good idea. Joey is good for about two biscuits because he is a chihuahua. A german shepard would be a good choice next time. Sorry Joey.
So on to the birding. I saw my first Purple Finch of the year here and managed to take a picture of him. Please note that I didn’t say a “good” picture. Sometimes I’m just happy the bird is in focus, regardless of what part I’m missing of the bird. It was cool to have him suddenly appear and look at me. He may have shook his head in disbelief of my luggage, but I’m not sure. Because I had my camera at the ready and the settings correct (always make sure your settings are right, or you’ll be taking 345 night-time photos during the day and you’ll be really angry when you discover this when you get back after your trip, not that I’ve ever done that or anything).
There had to have been close to a million egrets in this marsh. I saw one somewhere nearly every step of the way. It was crazy. When I say a million though, perhaps it was close to 50 – but it seemed like a million with 50 pounds of equipment on ones back and the car just 30 yards away.
I decided I’d better scan the marsh with the binoculars – this is very important to do every now and then. So with my coffee carefully placed on the ground (which made me proud of how I balanced the tripod, backpack and camera), I set up the tripod for the first time. The astronomical binoculars weigh about seven pounds – they are for looking at planets more than birds – but hey, they work really well for birdwatching. I’m actually rather shocked I’ve never in my 40 years of birding seen anyone use them for this purpose. I started scanning the marsh but slowly the binoculars began leaning, then I had to catch them before everything toppled over. To my horror, I saw my “whole once in a life time birding adventure in Northern California” come crashing to a stop – my brand new tripod was defective. The one leg clamp would not tighten. I’m not an expert on tripods, but I know a two-legged tripod doesn’t serve much of a purpose. But, all was not lost! Remember that 60 pound backpack I was carrying? Yeah, there was duct tape in there! Black, even to match the broken leg! Ahhh, see? That is why you carry everything you need always – and even stuff you may not need, and some stuff that may be useful in case there is a zombie apocalypse.
I just love Great Egrets – pure white plumage, they just hate getting dirty. Their eyes are a little freakish and that dagger bill would surely put an eye out if they got upset with you, but how sleek and graceful they are. I took many pictures of them – after a while, it seemed like they were posing for me.
Funny birds, aren’t they? Actually Mia McPherson took this one – and it’s of a Reddish Egret, not a Great Egret. Visit her page at Onethewingphotography.com It’s a shameless plug, but I liked the photo.
If you look at the list I posted at the top of the page here, you’ll notice that I listed a Snowy Egret as well. No photograph of that bird, sorry. This was, in fact, the second Snowy Egret I’ve seen this year – the other was on Interstate 5 going north to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge going roughly 65 miles an hour. How did I identify this white, 3 foot tall bird in a fraction of a second? You would know if you knew how to tell a Snowy from a Great. I will, by the end of this Big Year, get a photo of the Snowy Egret…where, I don’t know.
I saw the usual ducks. It shames me to say this because I truly love all birds and I’d gaze and appreciate a robin all day long. But, one has to remember the purpose of the task. It’s a Big Year for Bob. I’ve seen most all of the usual ducks west of the Mississippi already…and it was only the beginning of February. So, for the record, I treasure all species of birds, and all individual birds – but for this year, while not dismissing a Mallard, I won’t oogle at one.
Among the stars at the marsh that I gazed upon with my astronomical binoculars was a rookery of Black-crowned Night Herons! There were over 20 of them all perched in the tall bushes – I don’t think they could be considered trees, but I could be wrong. They weren’t in the most strategic place to be photographed using all of my 200mm’s, but I tried. I snuck up on them as best I could – but if you don’t know heron’s, they can be a rather grouchy bird. They even look grouchy all hunched over and everything.
After a couple of hours at the Arcata Marsh, it was time to move along to the much anticipated Humboldt National Wildlife Refuge to the south. The Arcata Marsh produced 35 species for me, five of which were new to the Big Year count. Humboldt was surely going to give the year list a nice boost!
I arrived at 11:23 a.m. The temperature rose to a nice 56 degrees. Still no wind – and I knew I was approaching the top of the day, which also usually means the bottom of the birding activity. Birds eat and sing in the morning and evening. In the middle of the day, they hide, nap, or do whatever in dire secrecy. All the birds, except for the ducks and the hawks. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to hide?
I started this next chapter of the day with a lovely yet angry little Wrentit. Why are they always so angry? Cute birds though. I could look at them all day. But, you know I could not do that today so off I went to find more birds. Among the stars of the day was a hummingbird. I’ll never know what kind. Birders must have a thick skin and not let little things like this little stupid bird tease them and put a burr under their saddle. It was probably something exotic…and rare, I’m sure.
Here are a few of the shots I took while walking the loop of the refuge:
So I wrapped up the refuge with 39 species, four of which were Big Year birds (White-winged Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, White-tailed Kite and the Wrentit). It was an amazing day that I won’t soon forget.
As I made my way home to Scappoose, Oregon the next day, I took some photos of interest. The elk are just everywhere in this area – and were quite cooperative in front of the camera. Well, except for the mama elk that photo bombed dad and junior (see photo below).
My next trip will be to Texas where I catch the spring migration – but I’ll have more local posts coming before then. Thank you for reading and good birding!
Big Year Specie Count To Date: 135
Lattes Needed: 8
Bird. Bird. Bird.