The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 42 & 43: A Wild Bird Chase

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Experts at a bird watching festival give me a taste for the thrill of pursuing the sight of an endangered species. This week on The WildeBeat; A Wild Bird Chase.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the WildeBeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is a combined edition of programs number forty two and forty three

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: When you get into the wilderness, you're bound to see birds. But if you want to learn about birds, a bird watching festival can kick-start your experience. I went to one of the largest birding festivals in California, the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival in Arcata. Rob Hewitt is the festival's chairman.

ROB HEWITT: It's been going 11 years now, and it was started by city of Arcata. They wanted to promote bird tourism as a way to build economic development into the future that's going to be sustainable. And so the city itself put some funding towards it. We had 16 attendees at the high point. We've grown every year since. [RobHewitt-1.aif; 0:19.7]

STEVE: These festival attendees are really fanatic about getting out to see birds. They make lists of birds, and check off the ones they've seen.

ROB HEWITT: I really have kind of determined that, boy, I'm just going to try to see as many birds as I can, and I don't have to stop 'till I drop. It's amazing. And you see a lot of these very elderly folks they're traveling around the world to try an come and see these birds, and what happens is, I think it's intellectually stimulating, together with outdoor activity, together with something that's quite appealing and visually attractive... I can't get to see live birds at all any more very easily. I've got to travel to Africa or somewhere like that to see a new bird. So I'm kind of like, "Oh my fix!" I'm not getting my fix for new birds. However, if I just go out with some people who just started, their energy and enthusiasm, because you hear under their breath, "wow!" And you actually feed off that energy yourself. Because you remember what it was like when you were starting out, and how much fun you had with the activity.

STEVE: I see you have sort of a festival-wide checklist out there of what people have seen and haven't seen. Are there any real unexpected excitements or real disappointments so far on that list?

ROB HEWITT: For the first time we didn't get marbled murrelets on a marbled murrelet walk. And that's a threatened and endangered species, and we're all kind of like, 'what's going on?' Every spring they come flying in to the old growth forest, and we had people standing there today for two hours, and they didn't hear a peep. We're a little worried. [1:19.4]

[Fade up ShowFloor]

STEVE: The festival headquarters is in the city's community center. In the main hall, about two dozen vendor booths line the walls. Some of them are selling birding tools like optics and guide books. Others are selling bird-inspired art. Then in the middle of the hall, some live birds are leashed down to sawhorse sized perches. Nichole Monty is showing off an owl.

NICHOLE MONTY: This is Chihuly, and she is a western screech owl. Chihuly was hit by a F Ford 150 out on the 299, and the owner found her in the back bed of the truck with the dogs, and the owner called us up and so we took her in. And we rehabilitated her as best as we could. But her eyesight and her hearing was so badly damaged that she couldn't be released back in the wild.

STEVE: She looks pretty small compared to most of the owls I've seen. She's maybe about the size of two fists. Can you describe her coloration?

NICHOLE MONTY: She looks like the color of bark. Like a tree. And that's the whole purpose of her camoflage, her coloring. During the day time her predators can't see her and she can sit in the tree and be hidden and so no one can bother her and she's protected by those natural coverings. She only weighs about four ounces, and she's got little tufts on her head, a lot of people think she's a baby great horned owl, but she's not, she's an adult. [0:59.5]

[Fade out ShowFloor.]

STEVE: I thought a bit more about Rob's comment that nobody had seen a marbled murrelet. Several people said that the Headwaters Forest Reserve was a good place see them. I signed up for a guided hike to try my luck.

[Fade up woods background]

We're hiking on a trail along the South fork of the Elk River. The trailhead is about a half-hour drive from the festival headquarters. We aren't in old growth forest yet, that would be over three miles down the trail. David Anthon, a wildlife biologist from the Bureau of Land Management, co-led the hike.

DAVID ANTHON: The murrelet is the only sea bird that nests in the forest. Most other sea birds are in the family of alcids. And most other sea birds nest on offshore islands on the ground. While the marbeled murrelet is the only one who nests in the trees. They've evolved that habit, and I guess in the past it worked for them. So as we've logged out the larger trees which have larger limbs, which they need for nest platforms, they've lost that nesting habitat. And the marbeled murrelet is one of the reasons headwaters was purchased as habitat. I do surveys for murrelets in the old growth. They're actually quite active flying around in there. So they don't actually build a nest, they'll simply find a nest, or a tree limb that's wide enough to support their chick. And then they simply find a clump of moss to lay the egg in. And it forms a depression. And then once the egg is hatched then both adults take turns bringing back fish from the ocean. So they're on a constant food run back and forth to — usually the bays or just the off shore waters — feeding the chick. They just have one chick per breeding season. And then later in the summer — late July or early August — the chick will fledge and fly out to the ocean and learn what it's like to be a sea bird at that point.

STEVE: What's it like surveying them? I know that the bird watchers at the festival here consider it an amazing thing if they actually get to see one.

DAVID ANTHON: Yeah it is. They're most active right around dawn, so the official survey begins 45 minutes before sunrise. And it's a two-hour survey... It's a very active area, so you get quite a show in the morning. And then soon after sunrise, usually within that two hour survey period, the activity totally dies down. Not to say the bird isn't active during the day, because they make feeding runs out to the ocean to catch fish and return to the chick. So they have to be somewhat active during the day, but those early morning hours tend to be extremely active. And you get quite a bit of behavior — quite a bit of variety of calls. [1:20.0]

STEVE: As we hike up the trail, we look and listen for any birds at all. But we really want to get lucky, and see one of those marbled murrelets.

DAVID ANTHON: You'll probably hear more calls than actually see the birds. [0:04.2]

STEVE: We're hiking in the Headwaters Forest Reserve near Eureka, California. This is a birding hike sponsored by the City of Arcata, California, as part of the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival. We stopped in a grove of lodgepole pines between the trail and the South fork of the Elk River. Julie Clark, the park ranger for the Headwaters Forest Reserve, and David Anthon, a wildlife biologist, are co-leading the hike.

STEVE: We've detoured off the trail into a dark grove of lodgepole pines.

JULIE CLARK: So do you guys have guess what those large clumps of needles and things like that are in the trees?

WOMAN: A nest?

JULIE CLARK: Yes, it's a nest. Do you know who might live there?

WOMAN: Wood rat.

JULIE CLARK: Yes, a wood rat's. And the wood rats are actually food for the spotted owls. And so there's been sightings of spotted owls throughout here. And David has been doing spotted owl surveys lately.

DAVID ANTHON: Yeah, we've got several pairs of spotted owls in the reserve, and part of my job is to monitor them every year, and get their status on reproduction... We usually start around dusk to start the calling. And then if we get a response we try to get in early in the morning to mouse them. By mousing them we try to get the response again in the morning, and then we feed them live mice to determine if they're nesting or not. An owl that isn't nesting will simply continue to eat the mice. Whereas an owl that's nesting that may have young or a mate on the nest, would possibly take the mice back to the nest. And so we follow the owl in the mousing effort, and hopefully it takes us back to the nest, or the young... We immitate their four-note call. And it goes something like this. Hoot hoot-hoot, hoooooo! [1:42.2]

STEVE: It's been a nice 7 mile hike in a beautiful forest. We heard lots of birds, like David said we would. But we only saw a few really common ones, like stellars jays and ravens, but no marbled murrelets. So now, I'm on a mission. I'm going to see one of these marbled murrelets.

[Fade out forest.]

I didn't see them in the forest, but maybe I could see them in the ocean. So back at the community center, I signed up for a sea kayak tour of Trinidad Bay. Now, I'd never been sea kayaking before. I'm kind of a confirmed land lubber. But Marta Powell of Kayak Zax, from Eureka, put me at ease right away. She supplied me with a wet suit and taught me some kayaking basics.

MARNA POWELL: Humbolt country is always beautiful, no matter what. It's usually, this time of year, very windy, and if we look out here we've got fabulous calm water. It just really couldn't be better conditions for this time of year. It's sunny, we're all baking. And it's a water sport. Also, we're really lucky to have Michael Morris be our lead guide today. I'd like to think I'm an excellent kayak guide and I've got some credentials to say I am, he's the very best kayak guide that I know, and not only that, he also leads bird trips for the Arcata Marsh, so he's also an official bird guide in addition. So, let's all thank Michael. Just a few things because I want to launch. I know you guys are anxious to get on the water and look at some wildlife. Marine mammals; I just want to say you can see some seals sitting over there, those are harbor seals. There's lots of marine mammals we might see here today. River otters, harbor porpoises, gray whales are always possible this time of year — and I'm supposed to be quiet about that, and not jinx it — California sea lions... We're not allowed to harass them. And in different waters there's a different distance, but here it's one hundred yards. They, however, can harass us. So if they swim up to us and say hello that's just fine and they often do. The main reason is if there's babies on the rocks we want to leave them there. They need to conserve their heat and their energy, and they're doing that by staying warm on the rocks. When they hit the water they're spending energy, and they're tiny little things that don't have a lot of energy to spend... Quickly, you want to hold your paddle more or less so if you hold it above your head your elbows are at 80 or 90 degrees. The main thing is you don't want your hands too close. That would be kind of unwieldy, and out too far would be kind of uncomfortable... So when I take a stroke I'm just going to plant the paddle here and try and push with my feet and turn my torso, rather than bicycle with my arms... If you need to turn, when you plant a stroke here and paddle on the right, it will turn your boat slightly to the left. So if you want to turn more you can take a longer stroke, or take some extra strokes. If you want to stop plant the paddle in the water and push backwards. You keep doing that you will go backwards. And that's really about it for paddling today. This isn't any kind of a class — it's more of a, "let's enjoy the tour and look at birds." ... For getting-in, we're going to float these in the water a little bit, and all you're going to do is turn your butt, sit down, and pick your feet up... Any questions? OK. I don't hear anything from the peanut gallery. What we're going to do to launch, we're going to send Michael out first and he'll be waiting for you. [3:03.6]

[Fade up KayakTour.]

STEVE: Getting into the water and out onto the bay was easier that I expected. I've seen the pictures of kayakers on extreme sports videos having to right themselves after turning upside down in the water. But I don't think I'll have to do that. The boat feels totally stable.

MICHAEL MORRIS: OK. Hold up here just a sec. Straight ahead of us, kinda behind a little flow right now, is a little bird on the water that just dove under. We'll just wait for it here. It's a marbled murrelet. One of our famous birds out here. I know it's a marbled murrelet because I believe so. One, it's so tiny. It's really tiny, its all kinda brown. If we get a decent look at it or you can see the silhouette it'll have it's bill pointing up in the air — kinda angled up. But it's just a little brown ball of fluff.

STEVE: I see a vaguely bird-shaped spec bobbing on the waves. It's got to be at least 150 feet away. It could be anything.

MICHAEL MORRIS: Off to our left there's a couple of birds on the water. That are marbled — that I believe may be marbled murrelets. They kinda sounded like it. Little pair of birds on the water just about nine o'clock.

STEVE: Two specs. They could be rubber duckies for all I know. But it doesn't matter any more. I beat the odds, and saw the marbled murrelet. I can check this endangered species off my, still small, bird list. I'm getting a sense of the addiction of birding. And the kayaking is a blast as well. We paddle back along the rocky cliff of Trinidad Head.

MICHAEL MORRIS: We didn't see nearly as much as I was hoping to see. But we did see some of the little birds that hang out on the in-shore, near-shore rocks here. Oyster catchers, a bird that breeds around here locally and is actually here year-round. Black turnstones was another nice little bird that's a shore bird that pokes around and feeds on the rocks here, and will move on and move north to breed but they're where right now feeding on they're way north... Gulls are out there nesting right now. Oddly enough there's canada geese nesting on some of the off shore rocks. In fact we saw one that already raised a brood and was swimming out in the open ocean with goslings. That's sort of an anomaly, but what the heck! They're birds. We did catch some pairs of marbled murrelets out there in Trinidad Harbor; actually I ended up seeing quite a few pairs of them. There are pretty good numbers out there. Maybe a dozen pairs I got eyes on. And that's one of our featured birds on the north coast, of course. What else? A couple loons in the water — common loons. [1:08.2]

[Boat coming ashore.]

STEVE: How would you rate the difficulty of this trip?

MICHAEL MORRIS: I would say this was an easy trip. On a one to ten scale — two or a three. We had perfect conditions, there was virtually no wind, which is probably the toughest thing to deal with, what little swell there is is coming out of the north west, and where we were paddling is almost completely shielded by Trinidad Head. It's just a lake out here off of Trinidad right now, and that's ideal conditions for beginners to get out into and enjoy, and we're able to literally tide-pool right next to the rocks and stuff in these boats. And it was perfect. This is just about ideal for a trip like this. [0:40.9]

STEVE: You can find out more about the Godwit Days Bird Festival, the Headwaters Forest Reserve, Kayak Zax guide service, and download a consolidated high fidelity stereo version of both parts of this show, on our web site.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Next time — Silicon Valley's nearby unknown wilderness.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, combined programs number forty two and forty three. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

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