Godwit Days Part II: Birding with Sibley
Just when you think birding life can’t get any better, you go on a trip with David Sibley.
He is just as awesome as you think. Son of Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began watching and drawing birds at age seven. He’s an author (of my favorite bird guide), illustrator, ornithologist, and a down-to-earth nice guy. His favorite birds to draw are warblers. I tried to keep my inner fan-girl in check. (squeee!)
We birded the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary a.k.a. Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s actually a pretty ingenious system. Part recreation, research, refuge, and part wastewater. Keeping it classy.
The variety of sanctuary habitat is key for birds in this area: freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, ponds, etc. Shorebirds especially love it, but the first bird on this trip that caught our attention was the highly vocal Marsh Wren.
Sibley explained, though currently considered one species, Marsh Wren populations in the western U.S. are probably a separate species from the eastern populations because of the differences in songs (the eastern birds have about 50 “musical” songs, the western up to 200 “harsh” songs), and their slight variation of appearances.
We continued scanning the marsh and saw a White-tailed Kite, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a spring of Green-winged Teal. One teal stood out to Sibley as an “intergrade” with both a vertical white bar of the American subspecies, and the horizontal white bar of the Eurasian subspecies.
In another pond were American Coot, Gadwall, Eared Grebe, and Lesser Scaup. One unusually light-colored scaup was identified as a leucistic female Lesser Scaup. “Leucistic” is partial loss of pigmentation (not to be confused with albinism, a total absence of melanin).
Apparently, odd-ball birds show up when Sibley is around.
He has a profound scientific understanding the natural world around him. We watched the Least Sandpipers at the edge of the pond, while he described how hormones determine the melanin differences between the birds’ feathers.
The bird on the far left has more greyish-whitish edges on its feathers (like winter plumage), and the others have more rufous color and black in the centers of the feathers (closer to breeding plumage), therefore with more breeding hormones. Swoon.
And these birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (not Short-billed) because they are sitting in a freshwater, non-tidal, muddy-bottom lagoon.
After lunch near the end of the trip, we spent some time watching a pair of Red Crossbills before finally moving on to book signing and gushing.