The North Coast in Winter

redwood-stump-at-humboldt-beach-1-2017-smallOn New Year’s weekend, I journeyed to California’s North Coast. Although I’ve blogged about hiking through the giant redwoods in this region when it’s warm and dry, this was my first trip in the winter. My friend and I stayed on the coast, the seasonal home of wading waterfowl. I often get these look-alike birds mixed up, so it was helpful to travel with expert birder Brian who could identify species.

Layered up in the cold rain with few people around, we spotted wildlife at Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. A peregrine falcon plucked the feathers from her breakfast. A trio of otters watched us before swimming away. I managed to sneak in a few photos between the raindrops.

otter-arcata-marsh-1-2017-smallotter-duo-arcata-march-1-2017-smallmarbled-godwit-and-dunlins-arcata-marsh-1-2017-small
Dunlins with a marbled godwit

snowy-and-great-egrets-arcata-marsh-12-2016-smallSnowy egret (left) and great egret

Visiting a place in a different season is a wonder of discovery. At Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, we encountered dramatic dark clouds and enormous storm waves, miles of beach with no other footprints, bright berries and spongy lichens as the earth thrived on plentiful water after so many years of drought. Waves swirled around giant redwood stumps as the sanderlings skittered between the waves to feed on molluscs in the wet sand.

ground-berries-and-lichen-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallLow-growing berries and lichen

beach-strawberries-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallBeach strawberry

beach-sky-stumps-grass-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-feeding-sanderlings-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-flying-sanderlings-humboldt-nwr-1-2017-smallredwood-stump-and-solo-sanderling-humboldt-bay-nwr-1-2017-small

This may have been my first trip to the North Coast during the winter, but it was so beautiful that I don’t think it will be my last.

Hawks, Cranes, and Pintails

Here are more photos from my recent travels ooo-ing and ahh-ing at wintering birds in California’s Central Valley. On two occasions, I was lucky to get close to red-tailed hawks.

red-tailed-hawk-merced-nwr-12-2016-smallRed-tailed hawk at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

red-tailed-hawk-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallRed-tailed hawk at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

For many years, I’ve traveled to the Llano Seco Unit of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s North Central Valley Wildlife Area. It’s a reliable place to find graceful sandhill cranes. In the past, I’ve visited in the afternoons and have spotted a few cranes in the distance or flying overhead. This time on my solo overnight trip, I decided to bundle up in my warm layers and go early in the morning instead. What a difference that made.

With no people around to spook them, there were more than 100 greater sandhill cranes cooing to each other, and they didn’t seem to mind my presence as long as I was quiet and moved slowly. Visiting Llano Seco is usually a relatively short visit, spotting a few cranes and enjoying the usual crowd of colorful ducks. But this time, the company of so many cranes was mesmerizing as I enjoyed the place without other people there. It wasn’t until I got in my car to leave that I realized I’d been staring in awe for two hours.

For those of you who geek out on species identification, I have to say I’m not good at telling the difference between greater and lesser sandhill cranes. Llano Seco’s website says the place is home to the greater variety, so that’s how I know.

sandhill-crane-portrait-llano-seco-11-2016-smallGreater sandhill crane with ducks and geese at Llano Seco

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sandhill-cranes-llano-seco-3-11-2016-small
Finally, here is a series of images of northern pintails taken on various trips this winter. I find these ducks incredibly beautiful, so I kept snapping away. With their blue and black striped bills, brown heads with a white flourish stretching upward from their chests, extended tail feathers, and streaked profile, they look like artwork that someone sculpted.

pintail-pair-preening-12-2016-small
Pintail pair at Llano Seco

pintail-pair-on-shore-12-2016-smallResting on the bank

pintail-swimming-2-12-2016-small
Cruising along in the sunshine

pintail-group-at-llano-seco-11-2016-smallThese two seemed to be having a dispute

pintail-dabbling-12-2016-smallA common position—butt up while feeding

I stumbled upon this homemade sign on a dirt road through the agricultural fields. Clearly one of the locals appreciates the pintails, too.

pintail-lane-sign-12-2016-small

Wintering Waterfowl and Wading Birds in the Central Valley

rosss-geese-and-pintails-12-2016-smallRoss’s geese and northern pintails

As I’ve shared here before, I follow the migratory waterfowl and other birds—my own personal migration on winter weekends. Here are some portraits from recent trips to California’s Central Valley. These are highlights from this season’s trips to several national wildlife refuges—Colusa, Merced, Sacramento, San Luis—as well as the as well as the Llano Seco Unit of the North Central Valley Wildlife Management Area and various agricultural fields.

I feel such joy being around these birds, who bring so much life during the cold, dark months of the year. More photos to come.

geese-flying-above-sutter-buttes-12-2016-smallGeese silhouetted against the Sutter Buttes

white-faced-ibis-merced-nwr-12-2016-smallWhite-faced ibis

gadwalls-sacramento-nwr-11-2106-smallGadwalls

northern-shoveler-12-2016-smallNorthern shoveler

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-1-12-2016-small
Black-necked stilt

black-necked-stilt-san-luis-nwr-2-12-2016-smallAnother view of the black-necked stilt

snow-and-white-fronted-geese-12-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese (foreground) and snow geese

snow-geese-at-sunset-sac-nwr-11-2016-smallSnow geese

white-fronted-geese-11-2016-smallGreater white-fronted geese

turtle-and-cinnamon-teal-11-2016-smallThe odd couple – western pond turtle and cinnamon teal

pintail-swimming-1-12-2016-smallNorthern pintail

wigeon-pair-11-2016-smallAmerican wigeons

tundra-swans-11-2016-smallTundra swans

egret-and-mallards-12-2016-smallGreat egret and mallards

great-blue-heron-silhouette-sac-nwr-11-2016-small
Great blue heron

Seabirds and 100 Years of National Parks


100 years ago today, the Organic Act became law: 

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there is hereby created … the National Park Service… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I’ve written on this blog about many of my adventures in national parks, the well-known iconic wilderness areas and historic sites. Recently, I’ve been appreciating the national recreation areas created to provide access to nature and history in urban areas, specifically my local Golden Gate National Recreation Area established in 1972.

In the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area hosts more than a million visitors a year who come to tour its infamous old prison. What is less known is that Alcatraz is an important sanctuary for nesting seabirds, egrets and herons. I find it unappealing to tour a prison that’s much like the inhumane places we still have, but it’s a treat to visit the island and find nature thriving in a place filled with broken structures and mobs of people.

Snowy egret adult and chick Alcatraz 6-2016 smallerSnowy egret chick and parent

Nesting bird count sign Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
The census of nesting residents

Pigeon guillemot Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Pigeon guillemot, with just a tiny bit of her bright orange legs showing

Western gull with chicks Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Attentive western gull parent with chicks

Brandts cormorants Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller
Brandt’s cormorants

Egret feather in concrete crack Alcatraz 6-2016 smaller

Western gull and SF skyline 6-2016 smaller

On this 100th anniversary of the national parks, my wish for everyone is to have an experience in a park or historic site that is the heritage of all of us. Find your local treasures here.

 

Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller
Canvasback

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Wind and Wings


Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.


Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.

 

Gray and Blue Day

It is the season of gray sky and the sound of wings, quacks and cackles. I journey to California’s wetlands as I do each winter to observe migratory waterfowl, and on this day I am treated to the company of three kinds of teals—green-winged, blue-winged, cinnamon—and mallards, gadwalls, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, grebes. Binoculars in hand, I fall in love with the birds over again as I watch them swimming, preening, diving into the water.

Striding along the water’s edge, I am moved by so much beauty and aware of each solitary footstep as the ghosts of lost loves walk beside me. To live with an open heart is to allow the whole spectrum, to catch my breath observing the light on iridescent green feathers and to not reject the tears in my eyes.

At a recent retreat, Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt read this quote by C. S. Lewis: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

Today during this season of reflection, I recommit myself to the path of vulnerability.