ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

The Birding Life [photo of Ron LeValley looking through binoculars


KEN IRWIN WAS GETTING TIRED. He'd been out for about seven hours, watching birds. It was early in the afternoon on a day in late August 2001. A group of greater yellowlegs, a type of shorebird, was playing near the mouth of the Mad River. Irwin, an avid birder in his 50s, was thinking it was time to knock off.

He'd looked at thousands of yellowlegs over the years -- they're not rare in the Humboldt Bay region -- and as always he was looking for one thing: a white wedge-shaped patch running from the upper tail to the upper shoulders. Yellowlegs don't have such a patch. That's precisely the point. Irwin was searching for something he'd never seen before.

Three of the birds flew over in his direction and, as Irwin would put it later, practically "landed in my lap." They touched ground not all at once, but one-two-three. Irwin quickly ascertained that the first two were yellowlegs. As the third bird came down, though, Irwin got "just a hint of white" before it folded its wings, concealing its back.

Thinking "wait a minute," Irwin pulled out his binoculars. The legs were green, not yellow. He looked at the bird's bill, in profile, and here was where his obsession, all the reading and all the studying of photographs and illustrations, paid off. He didn't need a field guide. The picture was in his head. And what he was seeing right before him, he was certain, was not the bill of a yellowlegs. It didn't have a smooth arc on both the top and bottom edges; instead, the top edge was at a bit of an angle.

"I was pretty sure at that point," Irwin recalled. But he knew that such a subtle distinction would not be enough; other birders would ask about the white patch. So Irwin did what birders often do: He waited. After 20 minutes, all three birds began to separate their wings and preen, and then Irwin had absolute proof -- the third bird was a bird that wasn't supposed to be there. It should have been in Korea, or somewhere on the other side of the Pacific. Instead, here it was, a -- badly misnamed in this instance -- common greenshank. Never before seen in the continental United States. And it had found Ken Irwin, landed right smack in front of him as if to say, "Look at me."

Seeking the lost

Greenshanks had been seen in Alaska and Canada before, so a sighting in the Lower 48 had "sort of been anticipated," according to another local birder, Tristan McKee. Nonetheless, Irwin's discovery was remarkable, a "first-record," or "mega-rarity," to use the lingo of birders.

Ron HewittJust like collectors of coins and baseball cards, birders prize uncommonness. But the "valuable" birds are usually not rare in the sense that they belong to a thinly populated species, or a species that is on its way out; instead, they are simply birds that are out of place, "vagrants," birders call them. "It's a completely lost individual that are the trophy birds," said Rob Hewitt, one of the founding members of Godwit Days, the local bird festival that takes place this weekend. [in photo at left]

Proof that birders value vagrants came in the days immediately after Irwin's sighting, when hundreds of birders from all over the country came to have a look at the displaced avian milling about the gravel bars of the Mad. "It stayed around for two weeks or more," Irwin said.

How did his greenshank get lost? The most likely explanation is that this Asian bird simply overshot its range and ended up summering in Alaska rather than Siberia. When it came time to fly south for the winter, it joined flocks of North American birds and flew down the Canadian coast and eventually to the Humboldt seashore, where Irwin put it into the record books. A greenshank was spotted last year as well, at the Arcata Marsh. "Although I can't be absolutely certain, I strongly suspect it's the same bird," said Irwin, who went out and looked at it after he heard about the sighting. "It's too much of a coincidence."

Another off-course bird that created a stir not long ago was a black-capped petrel, sighted off the California coast near Santa Barbara. That was surprising because the species normally migrates up the Atlantic seaboard. "It's basically a bird of the Gulf Stream," explained McKee. "It had never been seen in the Pacific before." McKee speculated that a hurricane had blown it west over Central America.

An even more startling find came in February 2001, six months before Irwin spotted the greenshank, when a greater sand-plover was seen around Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County. It's a central Asian bird, so the sighting initially touched off a debate about whether the bird was being confused with something else. Eventually, though, experts with the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory, an internationally recognized science and conservation organization, determined through direct observation and photographs that the bird was what it appeared to be.

"It was a big surprise," said McKee, a member of the California Bird Records Committee, which reviews rare bird sightings for Western Field Ornithologists, a bird society. "It's a bird that doesn't migrate over very long distances, which is the biggest requirement for a vagrant." Noting that the greater sand-plover had never before been seen in North America, McKee said the tiny bird must have landed at Bolinas Lagoon after flying over the Pacific.

Competitive birds

It's feats like that which explain, in part, Hewitt's love for birds. There are, of course, those who feel birders should remain at a skeptical distance from their subject so as to retain scientific objectivity. But to Hewitt that can interfere with appreciating the creatures. "I often say that birds are just little people," said Hewitt, who owns LBJ Enterprises, a Eureka-based consulting firm that does endangered bird surveys for the timber and gravel industries and the U.S. Forest Service. "If you look at it from that perspective, you get a sense for their doggedness. Take hummingbirds. They fly here from Mexico on sugar water. You have to admire the strategies [birds] adopt, their ability to survive."

Godwit Days celebrates the spring migration and attracts birders from around the country. Named for the marbled godwit, a sandpiper with cinnamon-lined wings that is ubiquitous around Humboldt Bay in the spring, the event is in its eighth year and runs from this Friday through Monday. Among the activities: an ocean venture to see pelagic birds such as the black-footed albatross, shearwaters, Cassin's auklet, Sabine's gull and jaegers (gray whales, dolphins and seals are also likely to be seen); a morning visit to Elk Prairie at Prairie Creek Redwoods to see birds that frequent "edge habitat" between meadow and old-growth redwood forest; a workshop on how to recognize birds by ear; tours of local birding hotspots, like the Arcata Marsh and the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge; and much more.

One of the programs, the Humboldt "Big Day" Field Trip, reveals something about birders that does not fit with the popular stereotype of dottering nature lovers: they are -- some of them at any rate -- competitive as hell.

Men with binocolars, standing in marsh area
Birders Ron LeValley, Sean McAllister and David Fix.

The whole point of the trip, an all-day bus tour of Humboldt's most popular birding spots, is to identify as many different kinds of birds as possible. David Fix and his wife, Jude Power, also a birder, are leading Saturday's expedition. The record, Fix said, is 118, set a couple of years ago.

Seems like a lot. But not compared to what Fix and three other birders achieved on May 4, 1996, a "big day" competition for Humboldt's most accomplished birders. Actually, "day" is a bit of a misnomer, as Fix, Power and two other local birders went on a midnight-to-midnight dash up and down the county in search of as many different species as they could find. The goal was simple: surpass renowned local birder Ron LeValley's 24-hour record of 176 species, which had stood for 13 years.

They were out on the North Jetty at sunset when they tied the record, and they soon broke it when, in the failing light, they saw a barn owl flushed off a fence post in the Arcata Bottoms. They racked up two more later on, when they heard the hoot of another type of owl and the call of a Virginia rail.

There is no "big day" scheduled for the expert birders this year, which is fine with Fix. "I'm just puffing cigars. If someone breaks my record I'll just take it right back."

While noting that there are a number of accomplished female birders in Humboldt, like Power and Brooke MacDonald, Hewitt admitted that the "hard-core element is dominated by Type A males." Is Hewitt in that category? Well, let's just say that he doesn't waste much time telling you that he was one of the first people to see a ruby-throated hummingbird in Humboldt County; or that he's got 502 species on his "California list;" or that in England, where he hails from, he saw a rare (for the British Isles) western sandpiper, which he spotted as a young man in a mudflat in Essex. Actually, Hewitt is more modest than he seems. It took some questioning to elicit one of his major accomplishments: the first sighting of a yellow wagtail in Humboldt, a songbird that is normally found in Asia.


Left: Ron LeValley. Photo by Bob Doran
Right: Peregrine Falcon - Photo by Ron LeValley

Hewitt didn't say how many are on his "life list," the list of how many birds he's seen in his lifetime, but then we forgot to ask. Even though he's only 38, the chances that he could break the all-time record -- somewhere in the 6,000 to 7,000 range (there are about 10,000 known species in the world) are slim. Still, Hewitt is not likely to quit trying. "If you become a serious birder," he said, "you want to die with your binoculars in your hands."

Another dimension

But there's more to birding than simply racking up new species. As an example, consider how Hewitt spent his time last Friday morning. He showed up at the Humboldt Bay Wildlife Refuge south of Eureka 15 minutes early for a rendezvous with some Irish birders as well as a couple of members of the media. Parked at a pull-out not far from Highway 101, he could have sat in his Nissan Pathfinder and listened to music, or the latest BBC broadcast on the Iraq war. Instead, he opened his door and looked out at a blackberry bush, where some blackbirds -- Brewer's blackbirds, to be precise -- were going about their business. He observed one bird, obviously a male, puffing himself up to get the attention of females. "I observed courtship behavior," he explained doing a little bird dance to demonstrate.

Bald Eagle perched on pole   Chickadee perched on branch   Egret standing in water

Left to right: Bald Eagle, Black-capped Chickadee, Great Egret.

Photos by Ron LeValley

"So that's the dichotomy" of birdwatching, Hewitt went on. "There's the pleasurable experience of enjoying something beautiful and interesting compared to getting your name in lights" by identifying as many bird species as possible.

In other words, while birders are a compulsive, competitive lot, they are also attuned to a dimension that most people are unaware of. The world, to put it another way, is enriched for them because of their knowledge of birds.

Here's another example. When McKee hikes through the woods in Humboldt, he is often struck by the fact that, though distinctive, they are essentially an overlap of forests far to the north and far to the south. Why does he perceive them that way? Because he hears the rising zu-wee and descending zoe zoo of Hutton's vireo, a bird found in the Sierra Madre range of central and western Mexico; and, on the same walk, hears the whistle and chuck of a gray jay, a bird of the boreal forests of northern Canada.

Birdsong deepens things for Fix as well. On a spring morning, he takes pleasure in attending to the multiple bird voices. "I parse the morning chorus," is how he put it, explaining that the music "is different almost everywhere you go" because of variations in the mix of birds.

Given all this, it shouldn't be surprising that most birders have a strong conservation ethic. If the scale of logging and development in an area is extensive enough, there is, in Fix's words, "a general trend toward degradation and simplification of native habitat and vegetation." That, in turn, has an impact on birds. "If you degrade and simplify habitat, you degrade and simplify the suite of birds" in a given location. "You lose the diversity."

Put another way, "If you swap a forest for a Kmart parking lot, you're swapping screech owls for Brewer's blackbirds."

Godwit in flight   Two hummingbirds in flight

Left: Marbled Godwit. Right: Selasphorus Hummingbirds.

Photos by Ron LeValley




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