Field Notes 1/31/22 – Off the Beaten Path at San Pablo Bay Wildlife Refuge

The San Pablo Wildlife Refuge is out in the boonies, past the “Road Ends” sign on Buchli Station Road. To get there, you must continue past Bouchaine Vineyards, down a washed out gravel road. You will feel like you are trespassing. But then a tiny parking lot appears around a bend, and the grassland blends into salt marsh ponds. The warble of red-winged blackbirds, reminiscent of 1990s dial-up internet, surrounds you as you exit the car. Avocets and yellowlegs poke about in the brackish water while finches and sparrows weave in and out of grasses and reeds. It’s a fairly standard middle-California marsh experience.

Except today is different. Today is unseasonably warm for January, and the bare fruit trees are already showing signs of new life. The pickle weed along the water’s edge sports pink and white flowers half the size of my palm. A male meadowlark is intent on announcing early spring. He seems to be the only one of his kind around, and perched on top of a low scrub tree, he is singing. His song is so loud, it seems to echo off the valley sides, and I think for a minute that he is not alone. Ah, but he is. Alone and utterly confused.

I decided to go looking for the short-eared owls that frequent the grassland adjacent to the marsh. In as many times as I have come out here, I’ve never been out toward the old, graffiti-covered, abandoned building in the middle of the field. Honestly, I thought it was a paintball course! As I passed a small, reedy pond along the path, I saw cinnamon and green-winged teals paddling around with a large group of coots. At least the weird ducks know it’s still winter! Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar call, like a combination between a duck’s quack and a jay’s screech. I turned just in time to see a single Wilson’s snipe waddle-sprinting into a stand of greenery. It moved so quickly, but not gracefully at all, and it’s run had a frantic gait like something out of a Pixar cartoon.

A lesser yellowlegs was foraging with some avocets past the old building, where the tributaries branch toward the river. Lesser yellowlegs are less common in Napa than their greater counterpart, and small greaters are often misidentified as lessers. I watched this bird for a while to be sure, not wanting to be one of the eager birders who misidentify out of sheer desire for a rarity. This bird was dainty, with a thin, sharp bill, but it was hard to tell from afar, and as it finally flew off, its voice clinched the ID. Instead of the repetitive, “tew tew tew” of the greater yellowlegs, this bird sounded out single, “tew,” notes.

As I stood, waiting for owls that would never show and marveling at the large size of the pintail ducks floating by, I caught sight of a falcon’s wings. Excited that I might finally get a good photo of a peregrine, I pulled my binos to my eyes – scattered streaking along the wings culminating in dark armpits, and striking brown tear marks along the pale face – most definitely not a peregrine. I was so in awe of this prairie falcon, a lifer for me, that I watched it through the binos until it was out of sight. I didn’t realize until later that I forgot to take photos of the magnificent bird! What kind of photojournalist am I?!

The best photo opportunities of the outing:

Two white tailed kites perched patiently in a stand of barren trees at the edge of the field. They cooed to each other and preened, just enjoying the sunshine and not worrying about their next meal. Their calls sounded like musical water droplets bouncing out of a leaky sink. Another fantastic find – a striking male harrier, perched on the remains of an old utility pole. While female harriers are brown and hawk-like, the males are a gorgeous steely grey, their yellow eyes piercing into your soul.

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