Toad in the Hole

August 06, 2004

Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes

Wednesday, Joe and I jaunted over to Abbott's Lagoon, mostly because Stallcup had reported three black skimmers hanging out with the Caspian tern flock there. This is as far north as we've seen them so far, as they progress into new territory, moving up from Baja. They're one of my favorite birds, even when I don't get to see them feed with that graceful barely-touching plow motion over the water. (They like dawn and dusk for that, mostly. I'm rarely that ambitious myself.)

We saw at least two of them: one resting with terns, another chasing one -- which I thought odd; I've never heard that they did that, and they certainly don't look adapted for highway robbery. The terns themselves were a hoot. There were lots of them -- I forgot to count, but a couple hundred scattered over the beach on the west side of the lagoon, and chasing around in the air in half-dozens and tens, playing Catch-the-guy-with-the-fish, skritching loudly, "GimMEthat! GimMEthat!" Some youngsters were still begging successfully, waddling forward when a parent landed, focusing intently with brilliant-orange gapes wide open -- you'd think they'd trip over their own lower bills.

Unusual in that we had both white and brown pelicans on that same beach in good numbers, and Heermann's gulls among the outnumbered (for a change) gulls hanging around. Also, the year's first phalaropes for us, red-neckeds. A few marbled godwits, willets. The coastal migration is on, folks.

And there was this one bird. A smallish calidrid shorebird, associating with a couple others, but with a rufous wash over its head and neck that they didn't have. "Um, look at this one," said Joe, and turned the scope over to me.

So. Not much bigger than the least and the western sandpipers with it, but a bit huskier in build -- not longer; smaller than the nearest phalarope and the snowy plover that showed up after a few minutes. Black legs, smallish bill, folded wings extending very little or not at all past the tail, that reddish wash like a very short bib just a little way down the breast, clean underneath; indistinct white-over-dark eyelines; no snipe-stripes on the back, no more-rufous scapulars... I could spend two more grafs describing it, but anyway from both size/proportions (especially length) and behavior -- it was feeding in the water and wettest mud along with the least and western, never even ventured up into the higher gravel or grass -- it was not the Baird's that we'd first thought it was, until that little Waitaminnit went off in Joe's head. It seems to have been a red-necked stint. Not only a lifer, but a great honkin rarity, though certainly not the first reported on this coast.

We spent the next two days poring over photos and paintings in books and magazines and on the Web. (Anyone who's been to our place and wondered why the hell we have such great drifts and piles and shelves and heaps of books and periodicals: this is why. Sometimes you really have to work for your goodies, and you never know what you'll need.) The more pix I see, the more it looks like red-necked stint, particularly after reading that the adults of this species migrate first, which isn't true of a lot of shorebirds. What we saw looked like a plumage in transition from adult-breeding to "winter."

Woo hoo.

We also made a side trip to Limantour -- that road, from Drake to Limantour Estero, has to be one of the prettiest drives in California -- and saw more phalaropes.

When phalaropes are feeding, they swim in tight little circles, stirring up li'l bugs and water inhabitants to snatch up. That must be hardwired indeed: I watched one walking on the sand... in tight little circles, looking at the ground for bugs.

Posted at August 6, 2004 08:33 PM