Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Dropped Anchovies and Hawks Soaring on the Wind

Written by Meredith Elliott

Our Bird-A-Thon team is Krill It Up and is composed of Point Blue staff, interns, and volunteers that work out of our marine lab at our Point Blue headquarters. This year the team was composed of myself, interns Olivia Boisen and Rebecca Forney, and volunteer Laura Lee Miller.  Originally we planned to do our birding on Friday, 10/2/2020, but given the heat and smoke warnings for the day, we rescheduled to Tuesday, 10/6/2020. As we met on Hawk Hill to start our day, we were immediately thankful for rescheduling, as the air quality was good and fog started and dominated our day, making for a comfortable day of birding at the Marin Headlands.

Marine lab interns Olivia Boisen (L) and Rebecca Forney.

Before driving downhill, we picked up Bewick’s wren, California scrub jay, and wrentit we saw and heard mulling around in the coastal scrub habitat. We then drove down to the Visitor Center parking lot, adding Brewer’s blackbird, red-shouldered hawk, and corvids (American crow and common raven). Walking to the east side of Rodeo Lagoon, we had a weird lab moment as we found a couple of northern anchovy on the ground! While finding dropped fish on the ground in a least tern colony and processing those samples in the lab is part of our lab responsibilities, this is an unexpected find on a Bird-A-Thon. Our working theory is that a bird (egret or heron) dropped their food while flying away. Alternate theory: someone lost their anchovies from their pizza.

dropped anchovy

In the lagoon, double-crested cormorants foraged as a group of three river otters swam and played around to our delight. We saw great egrets and pied-billed grebes, and a great blue heron stood quietly in the reeds (almost undetected). As we continued on, we heard calls from the vegetation at the water’s edge, and to our surprise, we saw a sora and a Virginia’s rail step out into the open to have a few words with each other. A consultation with the Sibley guide confirmed that the rails were too small to be Ridgway’s rails (darn it), but we agreed that seeing ANY rails was a win! Common yellowthroats flitted about on the reeds, a marsh wren buzzed away, and a group of California quails foraged in an open area as we pushed on. Not long after that, a couple of people noticed us with our binoculars and spotting scope, and they pulled their car over to ask what we had seen so far that morning—after telling them about the rails, they asked where we spotted them and sped off. Hope they got to see those beautiful birds!

Heading over to the trees and Park buildings north of the lagoon, both of the towhee species (California and spotted) were perched in close proximity to each other in a coyote bush. At the very top of one tree, a finch kindly sat long enough for us to get the scope on it and discuss the color and song differences between purple and house finches. We concluded it was a purple finch, and as we moved west, we saw yellow-rumped warblers and a Townsend’s warbler. Warblers are challenging, and craning our necks to see them jump around high in the trees prompted us to leave the “forest”.

Sights at Rodeo Lagoon

Bathroom break at the Rodeo Beach parking lot, and then on to Rodeo Beach, where surfers were plentiful. Laura (who also surfs) kept gazing at the waves and promising that she must come to this beach sometime. A western gull stretched its legs on the beach, and we scoped out a pelagic cormorant on the water. Turning around to look at the lagoon again, we observed ruddy duck, eared and horned grebes, and a greater or lesser scaup (not confident in identifying these two species!). Olivia noticed a different species amongst some mallards, and our spotting scope helped us confirm they were ring-necked ducks. Brown pelicans splashed about, and snowy egrets shuffled along the shoreline.

Before heading south to catch the trail along the south side of the lagoon, Rebecca’s eagle eyes spotted a peregrine falcon perched on a fence post. We stayed a while and admired this beautiful bird, pointing it out to people nearby. Northern flickers called and flew from bush to bush while Laura dropped some fun facts about flickers being the only woodpecker species specializing in eating ants. Who knew? Laura did!

Lunchtime at the Visitor’s Center picnic tables, then up the dreaded hill. Thankfully, the weather was still foggy and cool, and not hot and uncomfortable as it has been in some years. The constant groan of the fog horn all day reminds us that the fog was not lifting (despite Laura’s predictions).

We heard  chestnut-backed chickadees in the trees, and while we searched the trees along the trailside for the great-horned owl we saw last year, it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Bummer. Plenty of western bluebirds, European starlings, and the occasional purple finch dotted the power lines. We all grumble about the terrible lighting, but also realizing that we were detecting some species (e.g. white- and golden-crowned sparrows, northern flicker, purple and house finches) by song or call despite the bad lighting.

The hillside up to Hawk Hill gave us glimpses of Black Sands Beach below (when the fog allows), where we saw Brandt’s cormorants in the water. And what does Rebecca spot on the beach? Two Heermann’s gulls! Sweet! But wait, what’s that sound? The undeniable call of a black oystercatcher! Scanning over to the left, we saw what can only be black oystercatchers (those red bills give them away) probing into the sand. Up the hill we went, passing two unmasked people who yell “howdy” at us as we kept our distance and our masks on. Not from around here, clearly.

Then up the 296 steps to reach the top of Hawk Hill! We sat and enjoyed the view, wondering where the raptors were. One red-tailed hawk circled over the ocean. Just the day before, I received the awful news that my good friend and former lab volunteer, Chris Durham, had passed away. I thought about past Bird-A-Thons when she would ask about what we saw, tell me about what she was seeing in her backyard, and the ways in which wildlife delighted us. I hold her memory with me as I watched that hawk soar in the wind.

It was a great day for team Krill It Up.

Team Krill It Up – masked and ready to bird!

Sara Acosta, Chris Durham, and Meredith Elliott at Crown Beach, Alameda in October 2018

Rest in peace, Chris.