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County Birding in the New Year

It was a good omen to see a large raptor perched on a snag just after I crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

I was not sure what the raptor was (hard to identify at 70 miles per hour) but it certainly was not a red-tailed hawk, it was much bigger. I was thinking more eagle-like.

I passed Waddell Beach and turned around at the soonest point. I headed back and pulled into the dirt parking lot at Waddell State Beach. Once I got bins on the bird, I had no doubt that I was looking at an eagle. Not a golden but a juvenile bald eagle. Perhaps a second or third year bird. Welcome to Santa Cruz County! What a great afterwork bird!

That large yellow bill screams: bald eagle!! This is a juvenile bird and the first I have seen at Waddell Beach.

The next morning, Saturday, I headed to Tryrrell Park, just behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to look for a wayward warbler that had recently been spending the winter among the oaks and willows. Within about ten minutes I had the small, grey warbler, foraging in the willows with a Townsend’s warbler. A Lucy’s warbler. What a rarity and what a great county bird!

I then headed across town to the Natural Brides Overlook just off Westcliff Drive, to looked for a reported ruddy turnstone. It was not there but a local fellow Santa Cruz Bird Club member was there looking for the same bird with a scope. Together we found some nice birds: whimbrel, black turnstone, black oystercatcher, back-bellied plover, Heerman’s gull, and a close female white-winged scoter on the water.

We met a man with a large lens from Sacramento, our state capital, and he was photographing some birds on the rock. He was excited at adding Brandt’s cormorant and Heerman’s gull to his life list (these birds are not seen in the Central Valley). A father and son from the east coast walked up, telling use there was a hawk perched on a light post on Westcliff. What follows is the conversation:

Son: I think it’s a rough-legged hawk.

Me: Now that would be a great bird to see here. (I put the raptor in my bins) Peregrine.

Father: It’s too big to be a peregrine.

In the meantime my club member compatriot has put his scope on the bird in question. And he asks me to take a look. I looked.

Me: Peregrine.

Dad: They are smaller on the east coast.

Size is not a great measure for field identification because birds can often seem larger when they fluff up their feathers and in raptors occurs reverse sexual dimorphism, which simply means that females are larger than males.

A rough-legged hawk, no err, a peregrine, no, too big to be a peregrine. . . okay a peregrine! A nickname for this bird on Hawk Hill is “Elvis” because of it’s dark head and “sideburns”.

I got some beta from the club member about a bird in the county that I needed to add to my lifelist. I had lackadaisically searched for the Santa Cruz County resident with no luck. Why? First I was searching in the wrong place and secondly, the bird was an exotic species which had been introduced to California.

Exotic species are an odd one when it comes to listing. They could be escapees and normally you cannot count them but if they have a established and sustained breeding population, such as the European starling or the Himalayan snowcock, then they can be counted. With the ABA’s approval of course.

So I headed down Highway One towards Watsonville. My destination: Pinto Lake City Park. The bird in question, according to my beta, was to be found in the reeds near the picnic area, just to the right of the dock.

At the moment the dock was inundated with the Devil’s Bird: great-tailed grackle. There must have been about 30. I searched the reeds and got a brief view of my quarry before a flock flew to the other side of the dock.

I walked over and followed the sounds of the flock moving through the reeds. I final got great views of lifebird # 1,666 (a global pandemic really spoils a world life list). Here was a flock of 12 scale-breasted munias. This small sparrow-like birds are native to Asia and India. How they got here, no one really knows.

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Albatross

At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough the fog it came; 
As if it had been a Christian soul, 
We hailed it in God’s name.
 

~The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots

Albatross.

Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!