Santa Cruz County Beach Birding

A towhee had taken up winter quarters on Laguna Creek Beach. This beach is close to Davenport on Highway One and 10.2 miles from my cabin (I checked).

Two towhees, a large, sparrow-type bird, are common on the California Coast. The appropriately named California towhee and the spotted towhee. Neither of these two species were the reason I headed north on Highway One on a Saturday morning.

I was here, hiking into a headwind on a sunny but blustery winter’s morning, to see a rare towhee on the coast. It is said that every bird is rare somewhere and the green-tailed towhee is rare here on the California coast. I have seen many green-tailed towhees at elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains but I was going to attempt to add this species to my Santa Cruz County list. I wanted a green-tailed towhee at sea level!

Who knows how long this wayward towhee had been on the Santa Cruz Coast but on January 12, 2021, two birders happened to be birding this beach and also happened to know that this towhee was out of place in this location. They reported it and other birders searched for it, some getting momentary looks of this sulky towhee. There where even less quality photos of this ever-moving and scrub-loving bird.

So the bar was low for a quality sighting and capturing great photos was an even lower bar. That’s if I didn’t whiff on this towhee altogether, for any sighting is never guaranteed. As one birder noted, “Ducked into a bush and never reappeared.”

The bird was seen on the northern part of the beach, north of the creek and just left of an “AREA CLOSED” sign. The sight was described as being where the sand meets a six foot high cliff. So here I was, peering into the bushes. Flanked by two nude male sunbathers.

The first bird I saw was a blue-grey gnatcatcher as is foraged and called at eye level in the coyote brush.

I turned on my bluetooth speaker and selected a recording of the towhee’s “cat-like ‘mew'” call. I hit play and after a single call, the green-tailed towhee shot out of a bush in front of me and stood before me on the sand. Sometimes birding is just this easy.

I had amazing views of the towhee as it foraged on the sand and I was able to get great photos in amazing light. The towhee stayed out in the open for about two minutes before disappearing into the coastal brush.

This photo proves just how elusive the green-tailed towhee can be! Now you see it, now you don’t. You have to be quick to photograph this bird.
The green-tailed towhee with it’s rufous crest, white throat, and greenish wings. This bird almost seems to be posing for me.
The profile view would have made Roger Tory Peterson proud. Here you can see the greenish tail.

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