Wood Sandpiper, Teale Fristoe honored with Humboldt County Bird of 2018

Teale Fristoe. Photo by Tom Leskiw

Sue Leskiw
Special to the Union

HUMBOLDT –  “Sometimes you pick the bird, and sometimes the bird picks you,” philosophizes Teale Fristoe, founder of Nothing Sacred, a small board game company in Oakland. In this instance, the bird that appeared in Teale’s binoculars last September happened to be only the third of its species ever seen in California: a Wood Sandpiper. 

This shorebird – which is a very common freshwater species in Europe and Asia – was the unanimous choice of the selection committee to be Humboldt County Bird of 2018. The award was presented to Teale April 20 at the 24th annual Godwit Days festival in Arcata.

Wood Sandpiper. Photo by Teale Fristoe.

The award is intended to honor the rare species that seem to home in on Humboldt as a nice place to visit 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. 

Teale describes the circumstances under which he found, identified, and reported the Wood Sandpiper thusly: “I stopped by the Russ Ranch Wetlands [formerly known as Centerville Wetlands] last September to look for Pectoral Sandpipers on the way back from a camping trip to the Redwood National Park area. Little did I know a Wood Sandpiper, which is rarely seen in the Americas, was waiting for me. In fact, I didn’t even know what a Wood Sandpiper was when I set out! But I noticed the subtly unusual bird with its bobbing tail, its striking white eyebrow (known as the supercilium), and its speckled back. Thankfully, the bird was calm enough to allow me to take a bunch of photos, staying put even when the rest of the sandpipers were flushed by a Peregrine Falcon. After much consultation on site with my handy copy of Sibley’s Guide to Western Birds, then more review back home, I was able to confirm that the bird was, in fact, a Wood Sandpiper.”

“I reported the bird through eBird [a self-reporting online data collection program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology] as soon as I was able. I knew it was rare, as Sibley doesn’t even include a map for the species in his field guide. But I didn’t realize how rare it was until I got a message from [Humboldt County eBird reviewer] Rob Fowler the next day. Wood Sandpipers had only been reported in California two times previously!”

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to return to see it again, since I live in the Bay Area. But I was able to watch reports from the dozens of other folks that made it out to see the bird before it left, many traveling great distances to witness it. Some of my favorite comments include “Continuing rarity seen with many fellow birders. Lifer for all!” and “WOOD FREAKIN’ SANDPIPER.” Though I didn’t even know it existed before I found one, the Wood Sandpiper will always have a special place in my heart.”

The Wood Sandpiper stuck around for nine days, long enough that 67 observers filed eBird reports that included it. [Additional people who don’t eBird viewed the Wood Sandpiper as well.] Besides being a first Humboldt record and third State record, it represented a Life[time] Bird for many local birders.

The 2018 Runner-ups 

On October 5, Mario Balitbit and Lizzie Feucht were birding those same Russ Ranch Wetlands outside Ferndale--where over 200 species have been reported on eBird--when they spotted a sandpiper that at first glance appeared to be a larger Western Sandpiper. Mario, a third-year wildlife student at Humboldt State, describes the process by which he and Lizzie finally determined that the bird was, in fact, a White-rumped Sandpiper. A first confirmed record for Humboldt, the species breeds in extreme northern Canada. This sighting garners second place for Bird of the Year.

White-rumped Sandpiper. Photo by Mario Balitbit

But the wings weren’t right to be a Western, so the two next considered whether the shorebird could be a Pectoral Sandpiper. “The breast resembled a Pectoral, but with less uniform markings than expected. Posture and lack of tawny plumage to the overall bird did not suggest Pectoral.”

Mario and Lizzie then narrowed the choices down to Baird’s Sandpiper or White-rumped Sandpiper. They didn’t see any distinct brown scaling to the upper wing and back under limited light. The bill was clearly longer and slightly more curved than a typical Baird’s. Photos also revealed red coloration at the base of the lower bill, which would not be seen in a Baird’s. The shorebird also appeared higher off the ground than the nearby Baird’s but closer to the ground than a Pectoral.

“It was a fairly active falcon day, which pushed many of the shorebirds to move around, allowing clear views of the white rump (hint, hint). It was noticeably larger when flying with Least Sandpipers: similar in size and build to a Dunlin. Dunlin in flight look similar to a White-rumped Sandpiper due to their white outer tail feathers and flanks. This turned us in a loop when they would intermingle in flying flocks. After coming to this conclusion and bantering back and forth among different species, I just fell back onto the wetland with satisfaction and disbelief! The bird was a first County record for Humboldt and a Life Bird for both Lizzie and myself! Russ Ranch Wetlands are the bomb!”

The White-rumped Sandpiper was seen for the next week, garnering 27 eBird checklists.

McCown’s Longspur comes in third for 2018. This discovery again involved Mario Balitbit, who tells the tale in this fashion: “On October 16, my day started out chasing a Chestnut-collared Longspur within a fairly large flock of Lapland Longspurs on the V Street loop in the Arcata Bottoms. After finding the longspurs, I quickly returned to my classes at HSU. Later that day, I went back to do another loop around V Street. I relocated the Longspur flock and took some photos of a what I believed to be the same Chestnut-collared Longspur.”

McGown's Longspur. Photo by Mario Balitbit

“After I started sifting through my photos, I came to the realization that I actually had photographed a McCown’s Longspur!” Markings on the head resembled that of a juvenile House Sparrow: light pink bill, broad supercilium, no streaking, plus very faint, dull red on the wing, which were not seen well (if at all) in the field but showed up well in the photos. The most obvious indicator was a flight shot of black “T” trim on a primarily white tail.

Many people were able to observe the bird over the next few days, making it the first chase-able Humboldt record.

Gyrfalcon. Photo by Jeff Todoroff

In fourth place is Gyrfalcon. It was glimpsed in the Arcata Bottom in the waning light of New Year’s Eve by Todd Easterla, a birder well known for his ability to travel to Humboldt and elsewhere and find birds of note. This large bird of prey stuck around for exactly 3 months, being last reported on March 31. 

And the fifth place bird is Yellow-green Vireo, found by birding guide and eBird reviewer Rob Fowler. Here is how Rob describes his experience: “On October 4, I was on my usual dog walk around the Arcata Marsh Log Pond--which I was doing two to three times a week in 2018 – starting around 8:45 a.m.”

“As I walked up the path to the Interpretive Center, the second bird I saw in a big wax myrtle just north of the start of the path from the parking lot. I put my binoculars on it and was floored when I realized it was a long-billed vireo with bright yellow sides, green wings and back, and a light gray crown. It only took me a second to realize that it was a YELLOW-GREEN VIREO, the first one ever reported at the Arcata Marsh!”

Yellow-green Vireo. Photo by Rob Fowler

“I quickly notified birders via Facebook Messenger and the Birdbox. I stayed with the bird for a couple of hours. I think more than 20 people saw the bird during the morning and a few more in the afternoon before losing track of it. Intensive searching the next day didn’t turn it up. The vireo was Humboldt County’s fifth record (maybe the first photo-documented one?) and the Arcata Marsh’s 335th bird species.”

[Note from selection committee member Tom Leskiw: The top two Humboldt birds in 2018 were shorebirds. Non-birders may wonder why birders would go to such great lengths to discover or see these birds, which in nonbreeding plumage may be drab and only subtly different. In his book, “Living on the Wind,” wildlife biologist/writer Scott Weidensaul captures well the excitement that birders feel when encountering these long-distance migrants: “Of course migration fascinates birders and ornithologists, but why would others be interested? Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.”].

place to visit 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.

 Teale describes the circumstances under which he found, identified, and reported the Wood Sandpiper thusly: “I stopped by the Russ Ranch Wetlands [formerly known as Centerville Wetlands] last September to look for Pectoral Sandpipers on the way back from a camping trip to the Redwood National Park area. Little did I know a Wood Sandpiper, which is rarely seen in the Americas, was waiting for me. In fact, I didn’t even know what a Wood Sandpiper was when I set out! But I noticed the subtly unusual bird with its bobbing tail, its striking white eyebrow (known as the supercilium), and its speckled back. Thankfully, the bird was calm enough to allow me to take a bunch of photos, staying put even when the rest of the sandpipers were flushed by a Peregrine Falcon. After much consultation on site with my handy copy of Sibley’s Guide to Western Birds, then more review back home, I was able to confirm that the bird was, in fact, a Wood Sandpiper.”

“I reported the bird through eBird [a self-reporting online data collection program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology] as soon as I was able. I knew it was rare, as Sibley doesn’t even include a map for the species in his field guide. But I didn’t realize how rare it was until I got a message from [Humboldt County eBird reviewer] Rob Fowler the next day. Wood Sandpipers had only been reported in California two times previously!”

 “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to return to see it again, since I live in the Bay Area. But I was able to watch reports from the dozens of other folks that made it out to see the bird before it left, many traveling great distances to witness it. Some of my favorite comments include “Continuing rarity seen with many fellow birders. Lifer for all!” and “WOOD FREAKIN’ SANDPIPER.” Though I didn’t even know it existed before I found one, the Wood Sandpiper will always have a special place in my heart.”

 The Wood Sandpiper stuck around for nine days, long enough that 67 observers filed eBird reports that included it. [Additional people who don’t eBird viewed the Wood Sandpiper as well.] Besides being a first Humboldt record and third State record, it represented a Life[time] Bird for many local birders.

 The 2018 Runner-ups

 On October 5, Mario Balitbit and Lizzie Feucht were birding those same Russ Ranch Wetlands outside Ferndale – where over 200 species have been reported on eBird – when they spotted a sandpiper that at first glance appeared to be a larger Western Sandpiper. Mario, a third-year wildlife student at Humboldt State, describes the process by which he and Lizzie finally determined that the bird was, in fact, a White-rumped Sandpiper. A first confirmed record for Humboldt, the species breeds in extreme northern Canada. This sighting garners second place for Bird of the Year.

 But the wings weren’t right to be a Western, so the two next considered whether the shorebird could be a Pectoral Sandpiper. “The breast resembled a Pectoral, but with less uniform markings than expected. Posture and lack of tawny plumage to the overall bird did not suggest Pectoral.”

 Mario and Lizzie then narrowed the choices down to Baird’s Sandpiper or White-rumped Sandpiper. They didn’t see any distinct brown scaling to the upper wing and back under limited light. The bill was clearly longer and slightly more curved than a typical Baird’s. Photos also revealed red coloration at the base of the lower bill, which would not be seen in a Baird’s. The shorebird also appeared higher off the ground than the nearby Baird’s but closer to the ground than a Pectoral.

 “It was a fairly active falcon day, which pushed many of the shorebirds to move around, allowing clear views of the white rump (hint, hint). It was noticeably larger when flying with Least Sandpipers: similar in size and build to a Dunlin. Dunlin in flight look similar to a White-rumped Sandpiper due to their white outer tail feathers and flanks. This turned us in a loop when they would intermingle in flying flocks. After coming to this conclusion and bantering back and forth among different species, I just fell back onto the wetland with satisfaction and disbelief! The bird was a first County record for Humboldt and a Life Bird for both Lizzie and myself! Russ Ranch Wetlands are the bomb!”

The White-rumped Sandpiper was seen for the next week, garnering 27 eBird checklists.

 McCown’s Longspur comes in third for 2018. This discovery again involved Mario Balitbit, who tells the tale in this fashion: “On October 16, my day started out chasing a Chestnut-collared Longspur within a fairly large flock of Lapland Longspurs on the V Street loop in the Arcata Bottoms. After finding the longspurs, I quickly returned to my classes at HSU. Later that day, I went back to do another loop around V Street. I relocated the Longspur flock and took some photos of a what I believed to be the same Chestnut-collared Longspur.”

 “After I started sifting through my photos, I came to the realization that I actually had photographed a McCown’s Longspur!” Markings on the head resembled that of a juvenile House Sparrow: light pink bill, broad supercilium, no streaking, plus very faint, dull red on the wing, which were not seen well (if at all) in the field but showed up well in the photos. The most obvious indicator was a flight shot of black “T” trim on a primarily white tail.

Many people were able to observe the bird over the next few days, making it the first chase-able Humboldt record.

 In fourth place is Gyrfalcon. It was glimpsed in the Arcata Bottom in the waning light of New Year’s Eve by Todd Easterla, a birder well known for his ability to travel to Humboldt and elsewhere and find birds of note. This large bird of prey stuck around for exactly three months, being last reported on March 31.

 And the fifth place bird is Yellow-green Vireo, found by birding guide and eBird reviewer Rob Fowler. Here is how Rob describes his experience: “On October 4, I was on my usual dog walk around the Arcata Marsh Log Pond – which I was doing two to three times a week in 2018 – starting around 8:45 a.m.”

 “As I walked up the path to the Interpretive Center, the second bird I saw in a big wax myrtle just north of the start of the path from the parking lot. I put my binoculars on it and was floored when I realized it was a long-billed vireo with bright yellow sides, green wings and back, and a light gray crown. It only took me a second to realize that it was a YELLOW-GREEN VIREO, the first one ever reported at the Arcata Marsh!”

“I quickly notified birders via Facebook Messenger and the Birdbox. I stayed with the bird for a couple of hours. I think more than 20 people saw the bird during the morning and a few more in the afternoon before losing track of it. Intensive searching the next day didn’t turn it up. The vireo was Humboldt County’s fifth record (maybe the first photo-documented one?) and the Arcata Marsh’s 335th bird species.”

[Note from selection committee member Tom Leskiw: The top two Humboldt birds in 2018 were shorebirds. Non-birders may wonder why birders would go to such great lengths to discover or see these birds, which in nonbreeding plumage may be drab and only subtly different. In his book, Living on the Wind, wildlife biologist/writer Scott Weidensaul captures well the excitement that birders feel when encountering these long-distance migrants: “Of course migration fascinates birders and ornithologists, but why would others be interested? Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.”]

 







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