Taking the Long View: An inside look at the goings-on at the longest running avian ecology field station west of the Mississippi.

Birds in Orange Juice Cans

Hello Blog Subscribers! We have a special guest post for you to enjoy and share. This post comes from Point Blue supporter, Susan Wider, who visited with her husband several years back. Susan’s story is somewhat timeless and we hope that we can keep inspiring visitors like her and her husband for years to come. Enjoy!

We knew it was there. We had seen it marked on the Point Reyes National Seashore map from the National Park Service, about as far away as possible from the places we usually visit in this part of California. It’s Point Blue’s Palomarin Field Station and this time we’re going.


Point Blue Palomarin Field Station Welcome Sign. Photo: Duperron Photography.
Point Blue Palomarin Field Station Welcome Sign. Photo: Duperron Photography.

My husband Bill and I are backyard birders, but we do this from our home in New Mexico so we’re iffy with shorebirds. Right now we’re on a breakfast high after our morning bun and blueberry muffin from the Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station. We stop at the Park’s Bear Valley Visitor Center and inquire about visiting Palomarin. The ranger scribbles out the phone number and suggests we call first before we make our way out there, just in case the staff are out doing field work. But we don’t call. We just get on Route 1 and follow the map to Horseshoe Hill Road. Then we wiggle and wind until Bill sees a sky full of radio antennas. He’s an amateur radio operator and can pick antenna assemblies out of any landscape. So at least if our Palomarin exploration is a bust, he will have seen these antennas as a highlight instead. As it turns out, they are part of a Coast Guard installation and I’m relieved that there are no signs about guided tours. I’d like to get to the birds.

The road continues to wind and then becomes a bouncy dirt track. We persevere for a while longer and find ourselves in the Palomarin parking area. There’s a cluster of low buildings peeking out through bushy green and brown vegetation—like tall, thick hedges—that I also can’t identify. Everything has that eaten-by-the-sea-spray look and there’s a fishy, low-tide smell. We passed spooky signs on the way here telling us we were in a tsunami zone. Now I can’t stop thinking about how isolated we are if the earthquake and tsunami really do hit. It’s not clear how many buildings there are here, but the nearest one has a porch that suggests an entry, so we head there, passing office windows that reveal serious-looking people dressed in drab-colored fleece pullovers, staring at computer screens. It’s quiet inside. There is no greeter or receptionist, just two or three interpretive panels and some brochure racks. And Erik and Zach, who we later found out were biologists in training in Point Blue’s internship program. They’re in an adjoining room. One is tall, blond, and white tee-shirted, and busy entering data in a log book. He greets us with, “Here, come have a look at what Zach’s got.” The Zach in question is shorter, with dark hair, and wearing a navy-blue fleece jacket.

Oregon Junco in photogrpaher's grip during banding process
Oregon Junco in photogrpaher’s grip during banding process. Photo: Duperron Photography.

I approach the high counter that is their work space and I instantly want their jobs. Sign me up; I’ll move here and volunteer. Zach is holding a very small, dark bird and he’s blowing on its skull. When he sees how interested we are, he describes everything he’s doing. It’s a Sooty Fox Sparrow. He found it on his latest net check. He weighs it (head first in an empty orange juice can), measures it, and bands it around one of its tiny legs. I notice other cans, tubes, and containers next to the scale and Zach explains that they use them to weigh the birds and the varying sizes fit all sorts of bird dimensions. He blows on the bird’s head to reveal the skull so that he can try to determine the bird’s approximate age by looking at the extent of bone growth. I’m particularly struck by Zach’s steady, practiced hands as he maneuvers the bird with a firm yet delicate touch. While Zach works, Erik shows us a poster taped to the counter that shows skull development in birds based on age and size “We’re doing our next net check in ten minutes. Want to join us?” asks Erik. No, I’ll just stand here and wait for the tsunami. Of course I’ll join you. I’m thrilled.

Weighing a bird during the banding process.  Photo: Duperron Photography.
Weighing a bird during the banding process. Photo: Duperron Photography.

While Bill waits for me, I scurry to the car to grab camera, notepad, and binos, reminding myself that life’s best adventures always happen this way, unexpected. Zach and Erik lead us along a network of paths behind the building we were just in, and we visit several large stationary mist nets, a bit like volleyball nets without the court. Erik patiently shows us how they can be raised and lowered and how the birds are “caught” in the pockets of the fine-mesh nets without being harmed. We don’t discover any birds on this particular check but who cares. We’re seeing how it’s done, and we’re hearing about Erik and Zach’s experiences as Palomarin interns. Like the time an angry hawk accidentally tangled with one of the nets and had to be carefully extracted and set free. And how the wasps’ nest that hangs between us and one of the other nets has to be negotiated on every net check, but avoided on tours like ours. We even hear about the uncertainties of what to do post-internship.

Back inside the building we pick up a Point Blue newsletter and other handouts about conservation science, safe bird feeding, and shore habitats. I sign the guestbook. I already know I will send them a donation after we return home. Before we leave, Erik shares his favorite spots nearby for watching shorebirds. One is the Bob Stewart Trail to the Bolinas Lagoon. We’re to look for the pullout just past the vegetable stand on Olema-Bolinas Road. His other favorite is Abbotts Lagoon off Pierce Point Road in the Park. We leave with a plan for the rest of the day and the sense of having discovered a wonderful secret.



Susan Wider lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with an assortment of hawks, woodpeckers, coyotes, rabbits, snakes, bobcats, and a husband. These critters all find their way into her writing. Her articles, reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in Orion, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Tennis View Magazine, Lighthouse Digest, Kiki Magazine, and THE Magazine among others. In addition to her on-going magazine writing, she is also working on several art-based and nature-based book projects. She is represented by Stimola Literary Studio.