Searching for a Stint
On the mudflats along the Jacoby Creek mouth, I wasn't the only one watching the massive flocks of birds. In front of me, crammed against the shoreline were thousands of Western Sandpipers, joined by hundreds of Marbled Godwits, dozens of Dowitchers, scores of Semipalmated Plovers, and loose groups of Least Sandpipers. Suddenly, as if propelled by an invisible force, thousands of shorebirds whirled up into a dark cloud, which gyrated and formed rhythmic oblong shapes as it rolled and swirled over the water. Each twist and turn generated its own noise, almost mechanical in nature- a blend of wingbeats and high-pitched "peeps" forming a collective symphony of alarm calls saying the same thing: Peregrine Falcon.
I heard the raptor before I saw it. Nearly a quarter mile above me was a tiny black dot overhead. Looking through my Maven binoculars, the black dot turned into two bird-like shapes. The trailing dot was a juvenile Peregrine, screaming to be fed. I watched in amazement as the leading bird pulled her wings in a half-folded tuck, and began gliding at an angle down toward the scattering flock of shorebirds below. The younger inexperienced bird followed at half-speed, watching the adult with more interest, than in the avian buffet swirling below. The adult female smoothly turned her long approach into a fully vertical stoop, disappearing momentarily from view as she accelerated and dropped into the flock of scattered shorebirds. She pulled up out of her dive moments later empty-handed, and quickly changed course to tail chase the hundreds of godwits nearby. The juvenile arrived moments later, making several attempts to single out birds from the flock but was unsuccessful. Then, as quickly as the action began, the falcons floated off over the wetlands and the shorebirds settled back into their frenzied feeding along the mudflats. We both resumed the hunt. It was technical, picking through dozens of small shorebirds or "peeps" as birders affectionately call them- small, short-legged sandpipers that run around feeding, bathing, preening, and sleeping on the growing (or shrinking) mudflats depending on the tide. At a distance, a combination of field marks is used to determine the species- plumage, overall structure, bill shape, leg color, wing length, and feeding habit. Some birds "probe" while others "glean"; Dowitchers feed like sowing-machines, sanderlings run around frantically, and pick at invertebrates revealed by the outgoing tide. Toss in not one but two falcons, some ground fog, and you have a pretty difficult set of viewing conditions to find a one-in-a-thousand rarity.
I was searching for a Red-necked Stint, a small shorebird found and reported recently by Rob Fowler in northern California's Humboldt Bay. I put several hours into the search, scanning through thousands of shorebirds with Casey, a birding friend whose sharp set of eyes was super helpful in filtering through the flocks of birds, looking for very subtle characteristics indicating the stint. The key hours were surrounding high tide, so once the tide went out the birds spread out over the fringes of Humboldt Bay, and the heat distortion and ground fog crept in. Not every bird chase ends in success, and we decided our time was better spent searching for other birds. We decided to drive up to Redwoods State Park and look for grouse. The Redwoods were amazing, and we enjoyed a great hike with Stellar's Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pacific Wrens, and other neat birds, but the grouse failed to show. I'll probably end up chasing grouse in November or December, in the cold. That will be fun.
What advice would you share with other birders?
Just keep birding. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Bird with a community. It can be kind of intimidating sometimes, but a lot of more experienced birders that I've met have been really helpful and approachable and not too annoyed by all the questions.
What's your thought about technology and birding?
I use it [technology] all the time. I know people that write everything down. I use the eBird app. I'm pretty much eBirding while I'm out in the field. It's so much easier than going back and doing it later- it's really fast and gets your sightings out there really fast. I feel like technology really brings the birding community together. I'm meeting and birding with people from all over the country who I normally wouldn't get in contact with. Like you, I hadn't really heard of The Birding Project until i started following you're account (on Instagram) and then I started seeing your name everywhere!
It's so many different things. It's a stress-reliever, and it's a way to get outdoors. It's kind of an obsession for me. It's my life- my whole life revolves around birds basically.
I was able to search for the Red-necked stint because of Casey. She gave me a place to stay and drove us up to Eureka to do some birding in the area. It's an amazing testament to the birding community, and a nod to technology to have Instagram bring people together (I've never met anybody from Instagram!) Casey and I were on the same pelagic trip a couple of days earlier, where we both saw some sweet lifers. We tried our luck continuing the streak by visiting Redwoods National Park and Humboldt Bay to search for grouse and a Red-necked Stint, but both birds remained elusive. I enjoyed hearing about Casey's different field jobs working with birds, including her recent field season as a field technician in Florida working with Snail Kites.