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A Plover From Another Continental Coast

When I read the report of an extremely rare plover on a Santa Cruz County beach, I knew that I had to head down with GrassHopper Sparrow, to add this find to my county list! (This was a mega lifer for Grasshopper.)

This plover had only been seen in California on twenty occasions. And when it was first seen on the morning of September 17 by Simon Thornhill, he posted on a birding list serve: “Strange Plover at Laguna Beach”. He noted that the plover was slightly larger than the snowy plovers it was loosely associating with. He included a photo and it was identified by the birding community as a lesser sand plover (Charadrius mongolus).

I had first seen a Lesser Sand Plover in California on October 22, 2016 on Pt. Reyes Beach on the Outer Point of Marin County’s Pt. Reyes. This small plover is usually found in Asia (it was formally know as the Mongolian plover), the east coast of Africa, India, and Australia. So when one wanders into California is would have most likely crossed over from Siberia and headed south through Alaska, Canada, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

A rare plover in Santa Cruz County was a bird too good to pass up so Grasshopper and I headed to the coast on a Sunday afternoon. The weekend pumpkin patch traffic was surprisingly light and we make good time down Highway One into Santa Cruz County.

We parked in the dirt lot, crossed the highway, and started down the trail towards Laguna Beach. As we headed down the trail, we met three other birders coming up the trail. They where smiling and this is always a good sign! The rare plover was still present.

The birders gave us directions to where the sand plover was being seen and they predicted that we would find it in less than five minutes! Let’s hope this prediction comes true.

The wind off the ocean was whipping up the sand and I assumed the plovers would be hunkered down in the dunes about 40 yards from the waterline.

We first observed three snowy plovers in the dunes and we knew the sand plover must be close by. To distinguish a snowy from a sand is not a very tough identification. The sand is larger and uniformly a darker grey with a distinct white supercillium (eyebrow). And also most of the snowies on Laguna Beach were sporting jewelry, colored leg bands to help researchers identify individuals.

While I did not keep track of time, we did find a darker, slightly larger plover that was loosely associating with the snowies, within about five minutes! County lifer 262!!

A not-so-sharply-focused photo of the lesser sand plover on the sands of Laguna Beach.

We had the sand plover all to ourselves for about 15 minutes. Over the last couple of days the plover had attracted many birders to this almost forgotten beach on this Santa Cruz County beach.

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Santa Cruz County Birding

I’ve never been a huge county birder. County birding is keeping track of how many species seen within the boundaries of a single county.

County lines are a purely human made boundary that birds fly over but it is a fun challenge to try to see as many species in a chosen county. The three counties that I focus on are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. I set the modest goal of seeing 200 species in each of the three county. Over the past year and a half I have tallied over 200 in each county.

But for Santa Cruz I wanted to see if I could become a member of the Santa Cruz Bird Club’s “300 Club”. To reach 200 took awhile and I knew to reach 300 species in Santa Cruz County would take time, persistence, patience, and luck. On the Martin Luther King Jr. three day weekend I thought I would attempt to add few birds to my Santa Cruz County list.

Now these birds were not especially rare nor were any of these lifer birds for me but they had somehow evaded my binoculars in the 831 area code. There are: snowy plover, snow goose, blue-winged teal, and American dipper.

I started my search at the very southern edge of Santa Cruz County at Pajaro Dunes. Pajaro Dunes is a private resort housing development. When I was growing up my family used to rent a house for a holiday so I have been familiar with the area from a early age. The development is gracious enough to allow access to birders.

Once I passed through the security gate I headed to the end of the road near the Pajaro river mouth after first checking the slough near the fire station for the rare long-tailed duck but the bird had flown a few days earlier and had not been seen again.

I wandered across the dunes toward the ocean looking for the small cryptic dune-plover. There were plenty of sanderlings running up and back with the tide. I checked all the flocks but no snowy plovers. I wondered how far down the beach I’d have to walk before I spotted the snowies.

I briefly checked out the backlit gull flock at the river mouth, just south of the river was Monterey County. I turned back and started walking north along the beach in Santa Cruz County. That’s when I spotted ten roosting snowy plovers which I must have walked right past.

This snowy plover is sporting jewelry. These are colored bands which helps researchers identify each individual plover. Snowy plovers are a threatened species because of habitat destruction and intensive use of their nesting grounds. Snowy ploverspopulations are declining with a recent survey estimating the total population of the Pacific Coast as 2,900.

My next stop was Struve Slough, just north of Highway One. This slough in Watsonville is a great winter hotspot for waterfowl. The waters were full of ducks, geese, and herons, but I was looking for five white snow geese. In the Central Valley, it is possible to see thousands and thousands of snow, Ross’s, and greater white-fronted geese in places like Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. But on the Santa Cruz County Coast, snow geese are a relatively rare find.

The snow geese stood out like five shining stars among the surrounding Canada geese and ducks. Another county bird was mind! Now it was time to head east to an birding hotspot: Pinto Lake.

My main target at Pinto Lake was a duck I had overlooked on previous visits. This is the blue-winged teal. Without too much of an effort I found a drake and duck.

Male and female blue-winged teal at Pinto Lake. The much larger male gadwall provides an interesting size comparison.

The final bird on my county wish list was turning into a nemesis bird for me. I had seen this bird many years ago flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River but it is has not seen on this river a while. So I headed up the San Lorenzo Valley. (I had not added this bird to my list because I have no record of the time I saw the dipper).

I was headed towards Ferndell Falls at the confluence of Zayante and Bean Creeks. This has been the American dipper hotspot in Santa Cruz County for the past ten years or so. But as hard as I tried, looking up Zayante and Bean Creeks, on over three visits, I was not able locate a single dipper. Nobody said county birding would be easy, in fact it can be a form of madness!! It just makes me even more determined to add this nemesis bird to my county list!

A nice consolation on my dipper search of Zayante Creek was seeing the world’s most beautiful duck in morning light. A wood duck pair.
I have searched for American dipper on about ten separate occasions since last summer. Maybe the 11th time’s a charm. This spread was about my July expedition up the San Lorenzo River in search of former dipper sites. The dipper is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because they prefer clear, clean streams and rivers. This is a sign that San Lorenzo is not so pure.