Godwit Days Spring Festival

marbled godwit bird
Marbled Godwit. Click to view images from our coast trip.

The City of Arcata started the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival twenty years ago to promote the diversity of bird species at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary while creating an eco-tourism niche. The Arcata Marsh system was developed as a way to reclaim lost wetlands and to treat Arcata’s sewage using tertiary treatment. It now provides a resting spot and home to over 300 bird species, including migratory visitors.

The name of the festival, “Godwit Days”, originated from the simple fact that the Marbled Godwit, a large shorebird with a long, slightly upturned bill, returns annually to the area. During Godwit Days, they are in Humboldt Bay by the thousands before heading off to their nesting grounds in the central U.S. and Canadian prairies.

Our visit began a day earlier as we wanted to scout possible venues for our reunion with our Hungarian family in August. In order to accommodate 7 persons we selected the Curly Lodge as it is on the coast (Crescent City, CA), close to the Howland Road into Redwoods State/National Park, and for the shear amusement of lodging in a building constructed from a single Redwood tree.

After a night in pouring rain (another reason for happily checking into Curly), we connected with Marty & Terry the following afternoon at the Big Lagoon County Park campground where they scored the perfect spot (#25). We camped right on the lagoon, a short distance to the facilities, and assessable to a lengthy sandy spit where we spotted a life bird, the Snowy Plover. They breed there under minimal protection during its nesting and are monitored by by local resource staff.

owl pellets.
Owl pellets. Indigestible material left in the gizzard is compacted and regurgitated all over the grandstand.

As beautiful as Big Lagoon is for its isolation and access to the water, our scheduled activities prompted us to select our second night’s campsite closer to the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Loleta, CA. We had an early morning appointment to walk the expansive refuge with the head biologist and chose to camp at the Ferndale Fairground (racetrack) RV facility. While at the track, we were permitted to enter the raceway and view the resident Barn Owl resting in the rafters above the grandstands. There will be plenty of clean-up required to remove hundreds of owl pellets scattered all over the box seats.

With all our planning done, we packed it up for our inaugural activity driving through Ferndale Bottoms & Salt River area to several local birding hotspots (all located with close proximity to the local dairy industry). Overcast weather notwithstanding, we pretty much carpooled from one location to the next, culminating at Ferndale’s water treatment plant and a wonderful visit with red-winged black birds (male & female). Ferndale is a cute little town and brightened an otherwise overcast afternoon.

Marsh Wren observed in the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Marsh Wren observed in the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

After a forgettable night at the fairground (a noisy tour group used the parking lot as a gathering place—at 4am!), we packed it up and headed to the massive Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge and spent several hours wandering all over the place. The early morning light was perfect and we experienced many sightings. Particularly memorable were a lingering visit with a chattery Marsh Wren and searching for particularly vocal (and hidden) Virginia Rails.

double-crested cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant. Click for more.

Our activities for Thursday thru Saturday were centered around the Arcata Community Center, so we chose to camp at the Samoa Boat Ramp, a dry-camping RV park on the North Spit of Arcata Bay and not far from the North Jetty. The following morning, we drove the short distance to Woodley Island and moseyed around the marina looking for birds. Moored boats far out-numbered our feathery friends but there were highlights: a Double-breasted Cormorant swooped out of nowhere, plucked a juicy fish from just beneath the surface, and took a painfully long time to put enough air under its wings to escape other lurking Cormorants not nearly as successful.

A sweet little Wrentit. Click for more.

We continued to the North Jetty and spent the rest of the morning maneuvering around concrete pilings reminiscent of years past. Among our group was Noah Strycker, a writer, photographer, and adventurer. In 2015, he embarked on an international Big Year, and blogged all about it at Audubon.org/features/birding-without-borders. Fascinating guy, very friendly, and he will be in Ashland this fall for a KBO event. (He was able to pick out a single Clark’s Grebe floating among hundreds of Western Grebes.) So we felt exonerated for not attending his keynote later that night. Another author, Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, also presented at one of the festival’s evening events. After fun-packed days we chose to miss the evening activities back in town and opted for cocktails, dinner with Marty & Terry, and late afternoon photographing at the ‘Ramp. Maybe a subsequent visit to the Festival will find us billeted downtown where we can walk to restaurants and attend the evening presentations.

Terry & Marty were former residents of Trinidad, a small community up the coast from Arcata, and we joined them at the Seascape restaurant on the pier. After lunch, we worked it off on the Flatiron Rock trail for a couple miles. The coastal Trinidad rocks support one of the most diverse seabird colonies in California with twelve species and over 100,000 breeding individuals. The two most important rocks for seabirds are Green Rock and Flatiron Rock that host seven species of birds and 66,000 breeding individuals. These enormous rocks lie offshore and the density of the bird life is staggering. Acres of birds! Each night we returned to our Samoa campsite and enjoyed perfect weather shutting down Arcata Bay.

blue heron detail
Great Blue Heron (detail). What a stud!

Our final excursions took up most of Saturday. The four of us began at the Arcata Marsh parking lot, where Terry & Sooney joined the weekly Audubon Saturday walks. Marty & Nick made plans to join Leslie Scopes Anderson, a local nature photographer and author, and ended up returning to the marsh based on our observations of the many varieties of birdlife we’d seen earlier. Hundreds of photographs later, everybody rendezvoused for a quick bite and a neat visit with live birds of prey on display from the Humboldt Wildlife Care Center.

Our Saturday afternoon event (and festival finale) was to a research station that’s part of the Green Diamond Resource Company (a sustainable logging operation). We joined a staff biologist for a walk through the expansive canopied forest, all on their property and potentially suitable for logging. In order to meet endangered wildlife standards, company scientists are monitoring the breeding and migration of Spotted Owls to determine what tracts may be cleared and, perhaps more importantly, how the arrival of Barred Owls is impacting the Spotted Owls’ survival.

mouse offering to spotted owl
Offering the sacrificial mouse.

With the possibility of striking out a strong reality, we were extremely fortunate to spend an hour in that pristine forest, watching an owl called in and taking a sacrificial mouse—4 times! Sooney and Terry were each permitted to hold sticks on which the mice were offered. It as all they could do to hold the sticks steady while these little rodents attempted to scurry down to safety. Tough luck, mice, for the Spotted Owl put an abrupt end to their getaway plans. Each prize was cached away somewhere in the canopy and the owl returned to barely 15’ above our small group for more. Try as I could, it was practically impossible to identify these birds bearing bands on BOTH legs. Our experienced scientist was pleased with information she gathered, however, and assured us the data would be entered into a massive database shared throughout their staff. Interestingly, I came across an article where, with wildlife agency approval, one biologist is actually shooting Barred Owls in an attempt to create more habitat for their spotted cousins.  We didn’t see that part of the project, and it sheds light on just how much timber companies are doing to protect their investments (and garner federal approval).

Our six days on the coast, 4 of them connected with the Godwit Days festival, were supremely entertaining and having friends and fellow-birders to share it with was icing on the cake. Sunday was a travel day, and we made the best of it considering inclement weather was forecast.