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California Fall Wedding

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Standard disclaimer: This is the second of three blogs featuring nature adventures incidental to wedding weekends this year. As my wife is keen to remind me: Remember, Matt, this isn’t a birding trip; we’re here for the wedding. I wholeheartedly agree. But when people get married in particularly special places, I tend to use my spare time exploring the natural world. That’s what this blog will cover.

 

On with the story: We flew across the country for a two-night trip featuring my cousin-in-law’s wedding in Calistoga. Three themes: wedding, wildlife, and driving. The wedding is beyond the scope of this blog, and the wildlife is described further below. The driving warrants a quick introduction: I’ve been using Turo for the past several years to rent cars while traveling. You can can get premium third-party rentals for about the same price as the crappiest airport car. On this trip, we rented a convertible roadster BMW Z4 (more specifically, the sDrive 35i trim, a faster-than-normal version of this car) and spent a considerable amount of time zipping up and down the Coastal Highway north of San Fran.

 


Friday

 

We flew out of RDU early Friday morning—so early that I was the last person to board the plane (my wife saved me a seat). The flight was more fun than most. I’m captivated by patterns in nature, and it’s hard to beat the fractal topography and hydrology of the West, viewed from thousands of feet above. Some of the Nevada landscapes were truly mind-blowing. Unsurprisingly, I was unable to capture the otherworldly scenes very well from my window seat.

 


After touching down, we made our way north from San Francisco to Sausalito, where we had lunch and walked around, greeted by a Harbor Seal and some birds. Then we headed north along the Coastal Highway, top-down under sunny skies. After arriving in Calistoga and settling into our yurt, we spent the evening enjoying family time.

 

Saturday


Saturday was my one “free day” (free half-day?) to explore and experience local wildlife, so it gets the lion’s share of this blog post. The day began with an uneventful pre-dawn drive, headed south through Napa.

 

I arrived at San Pablo Bay NWR just before sunrise. At least I think I did; I’m not sure when the sun technically rose, as it was shrouded by an intense fog that blanketed the area until about 8:30. I’d love to kayak this area sometime, but dike trails provided easy access between natural saltmarsh and recently rehabilitated mudflats. It’s a special place—a small remnant of the habitat that once surrounded the San Francisco Bay.

 


The fog forced me to bird primarily by ear. This worked well for my main target: the elusive Ridgway’s Rail, an endangered marsh chicken endemic to this area. I heard at least 5 making all sorts of noises, which was enough to add this one to my list of heard-only lifers. Other good birds included many Long-billed Curlews and Long-billed Dowitchers, a covey of California Quail, and songbirds like Marsh Wren (15+), American Pipit, and tons of White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows. I saw a bunch of other cool west-coast species, but I won’t list them here. Favoritism is inherently subjective, and not everyone gets a blog spot. The only non-bird present was a California Ground-Squirrel atop a haystack.

 


After the marsh birding, I headed west to the coast and did a repeat of the previous day’s northbound Coastal Highway drive. With one notable exception, of course: I was alone in the car, greatly increasing the speed at which I was able to navigate this idyllic, undulating racetrack.

 

I occasionally stopped to soak in the sights. First, I followed up on a hunch from Friday: on the previous day’s drive past Stinson Beach the day, I thought I saw a huge flock of dark gulls roosting on the beach. They were out of sight as I approached on Saturday, but a short hike on the beach paid off. I found over 200 Heermann’s Gulls (another lifer) and had a great time admiring and photographing these handsome West Coast gulls.

 


The beach birding featured other interesting birds, including Long-billed Curlew, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit (three of my all-time favorite large shorebirds), Surf Scoter, California Gull, and Western Gull. This was my main photo sesh of the trip, as you can see.

 


My next quick stop was at Bolinas Lagoon, which held lots of ducks and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. After that, I checked out Bodega Bay, where I encountered an extremely tame Columbian Black-tailed Deer buck. Then, I took a short walk to the supposed outflow of Salmon Creek. Puzzlingly, the rather large creek ends in a lagoon, just short of the Pacific. Perhaps its waters flow through the sand, underground, to reach the sea? I didn’t see any rare birds there, but I grabbed a few portraits of Least Sandpipers and some gulls. The last animal of the drive was a Western Gray Squirrel near Rio Nido, as I made my way back up the Russian River.

 


The afternoon and evening in Calistoga were wedding-focused, with a beautiful ceremony under towering Coastal Redwoods. The reception featured a surprise avian guest: a confused Anna’s Hummingbird, who fortunately escaped the tent late in the evening.

 

Sunday

 

Sunday morning began with a slow-paced bird survey around the family estate in Calistoga. Of the 31 species I encountered, my favorite three were California Quail, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Acorn Woodpecker. Again, favoritism is inherently subjective, and I’m not going to explain myself.

 

Deconstructing the yurt turned dangerous when I sprained my ankle jumping on a rock. My foot continued swelling for a week and hasn’t fully healed a month later. I guess I’m getting old. Anyway, after saying our goodbyes, we hit the road for a third and final drive down the Coastal Highway. We took the southbound route a bit slower than days prior, and we made a few stops for scenery and food. At one stop near Duncan’s Landing, we saw a couple Sea Otters and Pelagic Cormorants. Another stop at Tomales Bay yielded Harbor Seals.

 


We rendezvoused with family for a nice afternoon and evening in Sausalito. While relaxing on the waterfront, I saw about 10 Elegant Terns (lifers) and a couple more Harbor Seals. I also saw a handful of Umber Skippers (lifer butterfly) and Wooly Beach Aphids (lifer bugs) around town. 

 


We made it to the airport after dinner and took the red-eye home. Maybe that makes this a three-night trip, but it sure felt like two. Too short, in any case! Our power move was upgrading to the front row of economy for extra legroom on the way home. That, and taking a half-day off work.

 

Summary by the Numbers

 

We covered 4800 miles by airplane, 470 by roadster, and 6 on foot.

 

I observed 78 bird species, 3 of which were lifers (bringing me to 563), and 9 of which were new to my modest California list (now at 142). I don’t actively try for “big years,” but I can’t help but note that 17 of these birds were new for my 2023 list, bringing me to 415 species for the year (324 in America). That’s a good indicator of how much I’ve traveled (and the year isn’t over yet, so stay tuned…).

 

Other than birds, mammals were the main attraction; I saw 5 different species. I didn’t spend much time looking for invertebrates, but 2 of the 3 species I noticed were lifers.  

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