This past spring I decided to visit Arcata California a week after their annual Godwit Festival in April since I could not make the sanctuary festival.. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the City of Arcata’s innovative wastewater treatment facility. The sanctuary is 307 acres, including freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, approximately 5 miles of walking and biking paths and an Interpretive Center. Located at the north end of Humboldt Bay, the sanctuary is situated along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route for thousands of birds that breed in the far north and winter in California, Mexico and Central and South America. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is touted as the highest bird populated coastal site between Bodega Harbor and Washington. While I had visions of masses of migrating birds the reality was somewhat more quiet. I did find a collection of Godwits, and some local ducks, egrets and shorebirds.
The Arcata Marsh
The marsh is exceptionally green, not surprising given the morning mists, frequent rain and the fact that it is after all a marsh.
One bird in plentiful supply were the tiny, loud and secretive Marsh Wrens. The Marsh Wren is native to Canada, Mexico, and the United States. They are 3.9–5.5 in (10–14 cm) long and weigh 0.3–0.5 oz (9–14 gm). Their breeding habitat is marshes with tall vegetation such as cattails across North America. In the western United States, some birds are permanent residents. Other birds migrate to marshes and salt marshes in the southern United States and Mexico. Marsh Wrens are boisterous songsters that sing not only at dawn and dusk, but sometimes throughout the night. These birds forage actively in vegetation, sometimes flying up to catch insects in flight. They mainly eat insects, also spiders and snails.
The Marbled Godwit is the largest of the 4 species of godwit. The length is 16–20 in (40–50 cm) and weight 8.5–18.0 oz (240–510 gm). They breed in the northern prairies of western Canada and the north central Great Plains near marshes or ponds. In autumn, they migrate in flocks to the coasts of California, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico and South America. Obviously, they have a resident population in Arcata, since these were in Arcata in spring.
Despite the abundance of dowitchers over much of the continent, it was not until the 1930s that scientists began to understand that there were two species of dowitchers in North America. Dowitchers are notoriously difficult to tell apart. Short-billeds are found mainly in salt-water wetlands and forage on open mud flats. Long-billeds are more often found in freshwater wetlands; when they do visit marine habitats, they are most common in small pools and in salt-marsh vegetation. Another diagnostic trait is spotting on the side of the breast of Short-billeds and barring on the side of Long-billeds. The Short-Billed Dowitcher is 9.1–12.6 in (23–32 cm) in length and weighs 2.6–5.5 oz (73–155 gm). They breed in the arctic and migrate to the coastal United States and as far south as Brazil.
The greater yellowlegs and lesser yellowlegs are another of the confusing pairs of shorebirds. The Greater Yellowlegs is significantly larger than its lesser cousin, as well as having a wider wingspan and bulkier build. The greater yellowlegs’ bill is roughly 1.5 times the length of its head, while the lesser yellowlegs’ bill is barely longer than its head length. The greater yellowlegs’ bill also has a very slight upturn and is thicker, particularly at the base, while the lesser yellowlegs’ bill is straight and thinner. It ranges in length from 11 to 16 in (29–40 cm) and in weight from 3.9 to 8.8 oz (111–250 gm). Their breeding habitat is bogs and marshes in the boreal forest region of Canada and Alaska. They migrate to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States and south to South America.
Dabbling and Diving Ducks
Dabbling ducks are so named because they “dabble” as they eat. They will either put their head under water or abruptly tip upside down with their bottoms in the air to get food. These ducks are infrequent divers and are usually found in small ponds, rivers, and other shallow waterways, or else they may stay near the shallow, slower edges of larger waterways and swamps. These ducks eat a wide range of foods, including vegetation, insects and larvae. The placement of the legs and feet are what allow the dabbling ducks to tip up into the water to eat. Most of the dabbling ducks are placed in the genus Anus, which includes the pintails, most teals, the mallard and its close relatives. The diving ducks, commonly called pochards or scaups, are a category of duck which feed by diving beneath the surface of the water. They are part of Anatidae, the diverse and very large family that includes ducks, geese, and swans.
The Lesser Scaup is a small North American diving duck that migrates south as far as Central America in winter. Adults are 15–19 in (38–48 cm) long, 16.4–16.9 in (41.7–43 cm) on average. The species can weigh 1.001–2.401 lb (454–1,089 gm); males weigh 1.81 lb (820 gm) on average and weigh noticeably less, at 1.61 lb (730 gm) on average. Note the flattened back of head and the purple sheen from the male’s head. Also note the crosshatching on flanks of the male, making it look “dirty”.
The Greater Scaup, also a diving duck, spends the summer months breeding in Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, and the northernmost reaches of Europe. During the winter, it migrates south to the coasts of North America, Europe, and Japan. It is 15–22 in (39–56 cm) long and weighs 1.601–2.998 lb (726–1,360 gm). The greater scaup has a more rounded head and nape, with the highest point of the head closer to the forehead. Also note the green sheen from the male’s head. The greater scaup has a larger, broader bill, and the black tip is more prominent and wider. As you can see, the female Greater Scaup is darker than the Lesser Scaup.
The Gadwall breeds in the northern areas of Europe and Asia, and central North America. In North America, its breeding range lies along the Saint Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Dakotas, south to Kansas, west to California, and along coastal Pacific Canada and southern coastal Alaska. The range of this bird appears to be expanding into eastern North America. This dabbling duck is strongly migratory, and winters farther south than its breeding range, from coastal Alaska, south into Central America, and east into Idaho, Kansas, Ohio, Virginia, and then south all the way into Central America. It is is 18–22 in (46–56 cm) long and weighs on average 990 g (35 oz) for the male and 850 g (30 oz) for the female.
Perhaps the most familiar of all ducks, Mallards occur throughout North America and Eurasia in ponds and parks as well as wilder wetlands and estuaries. Since they are in the Genus Anas, they are dabbling ducks. The mallard is 20–26 in (50–65 cm) long, weighing 1.6–3.5 lb (0.72–1.58 kg). The mallard is omnivorous and very flexible in its choice of food. The majority of the mallard’s diet seems to be made up of insects, crustaceans, worms, many varieties of seeds and plant matter and roots and tubers.
The diving Bufflehead ducks are migratory and most of them winter in protected coastal waters, or open inland waters, on the east and west coasts of North America and the southern United States. Their breeding habitat is wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely included in the boreal forest or taiga habitat. They are 13–16 in (32–40 cm) long and weigh 9.5–19.4 oz (270–550 gm), with the drakes larger than the females. Averaging 14.0 in (35.5 cm) and 13 oz (370 gm), it rivals the Green-Winged Teal as the smallest American duck.
The Northern Cinnamon Teal breeds from British Columbia to northwestern New Mexico and winters in northwestern South America. Some winter in California and southwestern Arizona. It is one of four subspecies, two subspecies of cinnamon teal reside within the Andes of South America. They are 16 in (41 cm) long and weigh 14 oz (400 g). These birds feed by dabbling. They mainly eat plants; their diet may include molluscs and aquatic insects.
Green-winged teal have an extensive wintering range, having been recorded as far north as Alaska and Newfoundland and as far south as northern South America. They are most abundant along the Mississippi and Central Flyways, where the coastal marshes and rice fields of Louisiana and Texas provide ideal habitat. It can be seen in vast numbers in the Marismas Nacionales of western Mexico, a main wintering area. Green-winged teal feed on seeds of sedges, smartweeds, pondweeds, grasses, aquatic insects, mollusks, crustaceans and tadpoles found while foraging in and adjacent to mudflats or while dabbling in shallow water. This is the smallest North American dabbling duck.
The scientific and common names for the Great Egret have changed over time. The genus, especially, has changed and the bird, which was known as Casmerodius alba or Egretta alba, is now known as Ardea alba. The Great Egret is a large, widely distributed egret, with four subspecies found in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and southern Europe. Distributed across most of the tropical and warmer temperate regions of the world. After the fall molt (losing and replacing their feathers) both male and female egrets grow long, flowing plumes, known as “aigrettes,” from their shoulder areas that trail from the back, extending beyond the tail. When the birds are feeding the plumes are flattened and compressed, so they show as bone-like extensions at the end of the tail as seen above. There were actually only a few Great Egret in the Arcata Marsh, there were many more on the southern end of Humboldt Bay where they had a rookery. For this post I thought I would keep the waterbirds together.
I added this this picture of Canadian Geese more as a note to mention that I looked for Cackling Geese around Humboldt Bay. Large numbers (>30,000) of Aleutian Cackling Geese roost and forage on Refuge pastures and over 60,000 can be found in the Humboldt Bay area at their peak in the spring. This species was one of the first animals designated as endangered in 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Despite looking for a photo opportunity, I was unable to find them, probably I was looking in the wrong places.
Great Blue Heron
Widespread and familiar, the Great Blue Heron is the largest North American heron and, among all extant herons, it is surpassed only by the Goliath heron (Ardea goliath) and the White-Bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). It has head-to-tail length of 36–54 in (91–137 cm), in Oregon, both sexes averaged 4.6 lb (2.09 kg). Thus, great blue herons are roughly twice as heavy as Great Egrets (Ardea alba), although only slightly taller than them The feathers on the lower neck are long and plume-like; it also has plumes on the lower back at the start of the breeding season.
As always I hope you enjoyed the post, you are welcome to leave comments or questions.
Wildflowers around Arcata California
Godwit Days in Arcata California
Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers
Greater Yellowlegs or Lesser Yellowlegs?
Is It a Greater Scaup or Lesser Scaup?
The Upside Down Life of Dabbling Ducks
Cackling Goose vs Canadian Goose