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West Coast “Snow Day”

PG & E gave me a gift by cutting off power in the Highlands neighborhood because of high winds and dry conditions. I found out late Sunday afternoon that we would be without power and school was cancelled. Call it a Bay Area “snow day”.

The Kincade Fire in Sonoma County was making San Francisco smell like a camp fire so I planned to get out of Dodge and head south, on Highway One, and bird some of my favorite places in San Mateo County: Devil’s Slide (it was closed), Fitzgerald Marine Preserve, Pillar Point, Tunitas Creek Beach, Pigeon Point, Pescadero Beach, Ano Nuevo, and Gazos Creek Road. I have birded some of these locations for almost 20 years and they are always points of solace and repose. And some amazing birds and wildlife!

I started the morning with breaking the fast at Java Beach, across from the San Francisco Zoo on Sloat Boulevard. My first planned stop was Devil’s Slide. The gates to the parking lot were closed. Driving through Pacifica told me why. The power was out and all hands where helping to direct traffic at intersections where traffic lights where down, which meant all of them.

I drove on to Pillar Point and walked out to the point. Highlights where common loon (I just saw this species on Squam Lake in New Hampshire), red-breasted nuthatch, spotted sandpiper (which I’m always surprised to see, not sure why), and brown pelican. Brown pelican is such a common bird on the west coast but we should never forget how close to extinction this species was (because of DDT). This is such an amazing bird to see in flight. Let’s not forget the power of the commonplace.

I sat back against the rocky levy and did a loose sketch of the hills (the Coast Range as I teach my students).

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The view from Pillar Point, looking northeast.

My next stop was Tunitas Creek Beach, where a week ago I have seen the Bar-tailed godwit. This rarity had flown but was now replaced by the Hudsonian godwit that was associating with a group of marbled godwits. I was joined by four other birders from the Sierra Nevada who were out on the coast to see a west coast rarity. And I was happy to point it out to them.

IMG_6882The Hudsonian godwit (left) and two larger marbled godwits on Tunitas Creek Beach.

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Pen brush field sketch of a snowy plover on Tunitas Creek Beach.

I headed further south and my main focus on the open plains of the San Mateo Coast was raptors. I found red-tailed hawks, American kestrel, northern harrier, white-tailed kite, but no ferruginous or rough-legged hawks. I  had seen a roughie  on October 18 at this location.

IMG_6315I found this rough-legged hawk as I was driving south to my cabin in Santa Cruz. This is an infrequent bird for San Mateo County and I’m glad some birders got to add it to their county list. On my return visit, I did not see the hawk.

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The Godwit Trifecta

It’s not every day that you see three species of godwit on the west coast in one day. But Monday October 21, 2019 was the day and I was going to try for them after work.

I had seen all three godwits before but not all at the the same place. Marbled godwit is a common bird this time of year on the coast or bay. Hudsonian was rare on the coast. The last time I’d seen one was in Alviso in September of 2003. And I had just seen a bar-tailed godwit in the spring. It’s a common bird, if your in Europe, which I was, but rare in Coastal California. I had picked one up as a lifer in the Ebro Delta in Spain.

My first stop was Pescadero State Beach, where the previous week, all three godwits were present. Now only the Hudsonian and marbled remained. It was just a mater of finding it.

Along the long narrow beach that stretched out to the north I could see nothing but gulls, lots and lots of gulls. What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

After I passed the large gull roost I found what I was looking for, a small group of shorebirds. I could make out a few whimbrels, long-billed curlews, and yes, some marbled godwits. It took all of my effort not to raise my bins to my eyes but I resisted the urge. I needed to get closer and head a little to the west to get the low sun at my back to help me find that one godwit that looked a little different.

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One of these birds does not look like the others.

Most of the godwits were roosting, balanced on one leg with bills tucked under their back feather. Once I put bins on the group I immediately saw a smaller, over all gray and not rufous godwit with a dark cap and a defined bold supercilium or eyebrow. I was looking at a Hudsonian godwit for the first time in almost 20 years!

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A field sketch of the resting Hudsonian in a Stillman & Birn Delta Series softcover sketchbook.

I guess I would just have to be satisfied with a two Godwit Day when Dickcissel texted me that the bar-tailed godwit had just been refound 10 miles to the north at Tunitas Creek Beach! So I rushed back, as fast as I could with a scope and in sand, to the parking lot.

Off I headed on Highway One and pulled off on Tunitas Creek Road (one of the most haunted roads in the United States) and parked. Then it was down the hill, along the path, up the steep hill, through bramble, along the hedge cave, past the creek and concrete wall to the expanding views of Tunitas Creek Beach.

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Tunitas Creek and the beach, looking southwest.

I scanned the long and narrow beach from the north and to the south. Nothing but gulls. Déjà vu.

What I needed to find was a group of godwits. I couldn’t see any from here so a little leg work was called for. So I took a sandy step off to the north.

All gulls and no godwits.

I was stopped by some friendly locals with their pooch and they asked what I was looking for. I expanded and they asked if I’d seen the heron by the creek. I told them that I had and that birding is an affliction and I had to find the godwit before I lost light. And off I went to the south. Not sure they understood, it is an affliction after all.

About halfway down the beach I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. All marbleds.

I looked to the south and moved on. In a sandy depression in the beach, I saw the silhouetted forms of shorebirds. I had to head southwest of their position to get the sun at my back to identify them. A group of godwits. I scanned the flock. I found marbled godwits and one bird that looked like no other. A bird foraging with the flock but was a little apart from the rest. Bar-tailed godwit!

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Bar-tailed godwit at Tunitus Creek Beach,

Now after attaining the Godwit Trifecta I could head back north towards home, reveling in a very satisfying Monday afterwork Birding adventure.

I would sleep well tonight!