The Masked Night-Bird

“I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay”

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding (written on a houseboat in Waldo Point, Sausalito)

It somehow seems appropriate that a masked night-heron was seen on the week of Halloween. It was found among the house boats in Sausalito and it took me two attempts to add this to my Marin County list. I first had this bird as a lifer in Florida.

The common black-crowned night-heron is easy to find on the west coast but the yellow-headed night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) has only been seen two other times in Marin County.

When I heard that the bird had been reported, I made my first attempt after work with only about an hour and a half of daylight to try to find this heron. It was very problematic because they were many places amongst the houseboats which the heron could hide and were privately owned in a lot of places I could not explore. I had to depend on the heron choosing to perch out in the open on a wooden pylon, like have been previously reported. Sometimes you go to where with the bird was seen last, but after all, birds have wings, and may not be where they were last seen. Such was the case on Tuesday and I looked for a good hour and a half without any success.

On Wednesday it has of been seen earlier and I tried to leave a little early to give myself more daylight for a longer search. This proved to be very frustrating because I went to all the places that the heron had been seen, a few hours before, as I did the day before but without success. It was very frustrating to know that the bird was somewhere but just in some location where it could not be seen clearly.

I kept researching the same areas, willing the bird into existence. I walked out on a public path, between the marina and the northern most row of houseboats. I check and recheck every wooden pylon between each houseboat, again.

On my way back I spotted a bird, perched on a pylon, tucking in between two houseboats. Black mask, white cheeks, and yellow crown. This was the bird I was looking for! Yellow-crowned night-heron!

The heron flew out to a pylon in the open as if announcing itself to the world. Now I was looking at the bird is superb light. It appeared that the heron would be there for a little while, warming itself before its nocturnal forage. So I pulled out my sketch book and did two field studies.

Field sketch in my Delta Series Stillman & Birn softcover journal.

The heron stayed in view for about 15 minutes before flying off to the west to another pylon at the edge of the mud flats. It was time for dinner, for both of us.



The Renewal of Life

Marin Headlands-Sunday March 24, 2019

This morning I spent a few hours in one of my favorites places in the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands. For 14 seasons I spent each fall as a volunteer hawk bander for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) but now I was here in the early spring.

The signs of spring were all around. Especially with the avian fauna of this open space, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I pulled in to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, a quarter of a hour after eight, I heard the call of a northern flicker, followed by rapid drumming on metal. This was a sign of a male proclaiming his place in the breeding world and he was using a roof vent  on one of the old military buildings to help amplify his announcement. Shortly afterwards I saw a pair flying from tree to tree. This was followed by an American crow flying overhead with a twig in it’s beak, a sure sign of nest building.

Spotted towhee at the Marin Headland Visitor’s Center.

Another sign of spring was the shear depth of bird song. Spotted towhees were calling from the coyote brush and a hidden purple finch was letting loose his fluid song from the top of a eucalyptus. Juncos trilled from the roof and as I walked west along the eastern shore of Rodeo lagoon with Dickcissel, a first of season (FOS) song made me dig into the depths of the catalog of bird songs in my head to identify a singing male Wilson’s warbler, recently arrived from the south.

A FOS singing Wilson’s warbler.

Along the trail, bushtits, normally found in large groups, were now only found in pairs as they foraged and prepared for nesting season. Orange-crowned and Wilsons’s warblers sang from the upper branches of trees. Ravens playful harassed a red-tailed hawk (ravens seem to do this all year long, to the annoyance of red-tails).

We came upon a chestnut-backed chickadee excavating a nesting cavity in a tree, prepared for a future brood of birds. The chickadee would disappear into the tree cavity and reappear with tiny bits of wood in it’s beak. Time for some spring cleaning!

A spring cleaning chestnut-backed chickadee.

Spring was certainly here and the biological clock proclaimed the hour. This is the time of growth and renewal!