Special to the Union
HUMBOLDT – On Halloween morning, on his way to work at the Lanphere Dunes, Alex Benn spotted an unusual-looking bird in the Mad River Slough.
“This was not any of the avifauna I’m used to seeing. It had a tall, flamingo-like body; dull pink coloring on its backside; and a long, duck-like bill,” he says. “Admittedly, I’m not an expert birder when it comes to species outside of Northern California, so I decided to take a 30-second video on my phone and identify it after I got home from work.”
That evening, Alex identified the bird as a juvenile Roseate Spoonbill, which has a white head and mostly pale pink body. The range map in his bird book [the west coast of “mainland” Mexico –not Baja – the Gulf Coast between Mexico and Florida, and several Caribbean islands] raised questions about why it was here. Alex emailed his former HSU ornithology professor Mark Colwell to ask why the spoonbill was so far out of its normal range. Mark contacted eBird reviewer Rob Fowler and confirmed it was indeed a Roseate Spoonbill.
“I had no idea that what I was looking at was a rare bird at the time, but thanks to Humboldt wildlife professors like Mark Colwell and Dan Barton, I’ve learned to bring my binoculars with me whenever possible. Unfortunately, despite the many times I crossed over the bridge that day, I saw the spoonbill only once, at 9 a.m.”
The Roseate Spoonbill – a first County record – was chosen by the selection committee as the Humboldt County Bird of 2020. The award is intended to honor the rare species that find favorable habitat here for periods ranging from a single day to several months and the dedicated birders that “pound the patches” to dig them out for others to enjoy.
Sometimes, the birds attract people from out of the county or even out of state to come spend their ecotourism dollars here.
Because the April 2021 Godwit Days Bird Festival was held virtually, the award was given during the “Birds & Beers Social Zoom,” where panelists shot the breeze about the past, present, and future of Humboldt birding.
The closest previous record for Roseate Spoonbill was in Monterey County in 1978. Many birders all around the county were on the lookout to re-spot the bird, but it was seen only one other time, on Nov. 8 at Fernbridge.
“I suspect that the spoonbill thought better of its adventure and headed back to warmer climes [its usual range being], pronto!,” Alex comments.
The 2020 Runner-ups
The species garnering second place was Masked Booby, seen on Nov. 22 by Charlie Giannini while he was picking up crab pots with his grandparents, Chuck Giannini and Gene Callahan.
Their boat was just north of the entrance to Humboldt Bay, less than a half-mile from shore.
“We were almost to the first crab pot when a massive white bird lifted off the water. I got very excited because while I do not do much birding offshore, I knew enough to realize that this was not a regular visitor to Humboldt County. The bird circled our boat multiple times and I was able to record a few short videos on an iPhone. It flew within 40 feet of the boat and we noted the yellow bill, dark face, black flight feathers, and a black wedge-shaped tail,” explains Charlie.
His was the first Humboldt sighting of this species, whose usual range is along Baja California and the Gulf Coast between Mexico and Florida.
“There are not many birds that fit this description and it was fairly easy to find in the Sibley field guide. It was one of those moments where you feel so lucky just to be in the right place at the right time. I will definitely be bringing a real camera next time I go crabbing!”
Third place for 2020 went to Northern Wheatear, which was spotted perched on a fencepost in the McKinleyville Bottoms by Keith Slauson on Sept. 18. “As I drove toward the Hammond Bridge, I spotted a bright bird whose color, size, and shape suggested that it was something interesting. I raised my binoculars to get a good look and was stunned to see the facial pattern, coloring, and bold white-and-black tail pattern that matched a Northern Wheatear,” states Keith. The bird is the second confirmed Humboldt record, the first being in Shelter Cove in 1977!
Keith immediately pulled over and took a few photos to document the bird, just in case it took off quickly. He then grabbed his phone to get the word out to the birding community. The wheatear stuck around for two days, foraging mainly from the same fence line, which allowed an estimated 100 birders to observe it (39 eBird checklists filed).
“Northern Wheatears have a holarctic breeding distribution, nesting in rocky outcrops on tundra, and arrive in North America from their wintering grounds in the Middle East and northern Africa by migrating across Europe and Asia and then crossing the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for the many of us who got to see this bird, it did not fly back across the Pacific to Asia, instead heading down the Pacific Coast to Humboldt County!” exclaims Keith.
Just six days later, on Sept. 24, Keith Slauson took a lunch break at Crab Park at the mouth of the Eel River. On his drive back, he saw a number of American Pipits flying around a pasture on the southeastern end of Cannibal Island Road in Loleta.
Keith pulled over to scan through the field for potential longspurs, a rarer group of species that often occur in the same habitat. While scanning the ground, he spotted a gray-and-white bird slightly larger than the nearby pipits that had the shape, tail-wagging behavior, masked facial pattern, and coloration of a wagtail.
“It had been more than a decade since I’d seen wagtails in Asia,” says Keith, “but their shape and behavior are quite distinctive. I quickly grabbed my camera. Luckily, the bird stopped foraging and sat atop of clump of tall grass, allowing me to get a few photos. The bird then took flight, giving a sharp tszeer! call as it flew to another area of the pasture. I got the word out that I had found a wagtail and took a few minutes to review the photos before making the identification. After consulting my field guide and listening to some calls on Xeno-canto (a website that hosts sound recordings of birds from around the world), I felt confident that the bird was a first fall (hatched this year) Eastern Yellow Wagtail.”
Keith’s sighting was the second confirmed record (with up to four prior records, three of them not submitted for official review to the California Bird Review Committee) of Eastern Yellow Wagtail for Humboldt County and the first one seen in over a decade. “Its location on private pasture land was only visible from the road. Combined with the frequent presence of predators such as a Peregrine Falcon, re-finding the bird was challenging for others. I’d estimate that 20 people saw or heard the bird over the next few days.”
Like the Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtails have a holarctic breeding distribution, from Russia to Alaska, and migrate from wintering grounds in Asia and Oceania to Alaska by crossing the Pacific Ocean from eastern Russia. They breed on the tundra near willow thickets and marshy areas in Alaska and typically fly back across the Pacific to Asia in fall migration. “Luckily, this individual came down the Pacific Coast to Humboldt instead and was seen by a good number of folks,” remarks Keith.
On Oct. 21, Greg Gray was driving by the dairy on Moxon Lane in Arcata, slowly scanning both the wetland and the blackbird flock.
“I immediately picked out a very large ‘blackbird’ just off the side of the road. I immediately knew that it was a grackle and naively assumed it was a Great-tailed Grackle, given the multiple reports of this species in the nearby vicinity (hanging out at the Arcata Safeway parking lot!).” The bird had a multihued iridescence, a yellow eye, and a longer bill and tail than the nearby Brewer’s Blackbirds.
“Later that evening, as I was downloading my photos, I noticed that the bird did not seem to have the same coloring or shape as the Great-tailed Grackle that I had seen a few days prior. With a growing sense of both excitement and embarrassment, I pulled up the Sibley app on my phone and scanned the Common Grackle page, quickly realizing my identification error. The bronze hue of the back and wings, as well as the proportionally shorter tail, definitely did not fit a Great-tailed Grackle,” Greg admits.
“Sheepishly, I put the word out that the bird I had found was a Common Grackle.” This was the third Humboldt record for a species whose western range map line runs between Iowa and Texas. “Luckily, it was re-found on Oct. 24 and others reported the bird through Nov. 5 (26 eBird checklists submitted). Phew! And lesson learned – don’t assume anything when identifying rare birds!”