My dad and stepmom visited (way back) in early November, and we spent several days toodling around with them, going to the beach, the redwood forest, and Arcata’s world-famous marsh. The marsh is part of the city’s wastewater treatment plant—it’s a series of ponds and, well, marshes at the edge of the Humboldt Bay. It’s a great place to bird watch, and my parents like birds, so we always like to take them there to watch the widgeons and coots doing their thing.
I haven’t yet learned the names of all the landmarks at the marsh, though our neighbor Glen, a bonafide birder, refers to them as if I have. There are various different ponds, there’s “Mount Trashmore,” which is a former landfill, and there’s Jolly Giant Creek. Just past Klopp Lake, where the serious shorebirds tend to hang out, there’s a big patch of cat tails (and possibly a puddle in the middle), with a sign that says:
NO NAME POND
“If that’s No Name Pond,” my dad said, “then who’s Stanley Harris?” We didn’t know the answer, and we didn’t see any otters as we walked along the creek next to the pond. That’s the stretch where we went for a walk on December 25, 2013—during that gruesome stretch of time when I was working the 4 am pastry shift and Heal was working the closing shift at the Co-op coffee counter, and we only had two days off together the whole month, one of them being the 25th—anyway, we were celebrating Solstice on the 25th since I had to work on actual Solstice, and we were on a walk under a beautiful sunny sky and happened upon four river otters swimming in the creek. We followed them along to the bridge, where we stood above and watched while they dove and swam. One stopped directly under us and stared back for a few minutes, just its head poking out of the water and that adorable face gazing up at us. Ever since, we always look for them.
Later that day, we were doing some yard work when Glen, the neighbor, stepped out in his driveway. He and I chatted a bit, and I pointed out a bird in his tree that I didn’t recognize, asking if he knew what it was. The sun was behind it, so we couldn’t see it all that well, but he didn’t know either. We watched it fly back and forth between the maple trees in both our yards. The more I looked at it, the more I wondered what it was. It had an orange-ish breast like a robin, but a distinct line halfway down and a white belly below the line. It was about the size of a house sparrow, and it had some variegated colors on its wings and back—some orange, some brown, some black. The thing that had initially caught my eye was that it seemed to be occasionally raising the feathers on its head, which at first looked to me like some sort of crest.
Glen went in to get a bird book, and I got back to work. When he brought out the book suggesting it could possibly be a brambling—a bird I’d never heard of—I wasn’t convinced by the illustration. Then it was time to go in and make dinner, though the bird lingered on my mind.
I’ve always had an interest birds, but never been an avid birder—an amateur one at best. But moving from the land of Big Ag to the land of Big Land has piqued all three of our interest in learning more about birds. So that night after T-Bone went to bed, I got out the bird books and pored through their pages. (Yes, even as an amateur-at-best birder, I have no fewer than six field guides to birds.) Finally, I decided that Glen had been right; when I compared the illustrations in various books, the brambling seemed to be the best match. Neat—it was a “rare visitor” to the US, the books said.
Around 9pm, there was a knock at the door. It was Glen, bird book in hand. “I got some pictures of that bird, and it is a brambling,” he said. “I sent them to Rob Fowler, and he confirmed it! So you might see some birders here tomorrow.”
By the next morning, I’d forgotten about the brambling. Until I stepped into the living room, at 7am, and saw a dozen people lining Buttermilk Lane in front of our house. By 9am, there were thirty. They had obscenely large camera lenses. They seemed very excited.
These are some of the ones without obscene lenses–I was too embarrassed to photograph them.
My parents were leaving that morning, so we tried to focus on eating breakfast, despite having an audience. We said hello to the birders as we loaded duffel bags into the car. An older gentleman came over to say hi, and my dad told him I’d been the one to spot the bird. He asked me my name, and told his friend to remember it. Later that morning, after my parents had left, the same man returned and sat on our porch swing to chat a bit. He was very kind, and asked T-Bone her name. She told him, and I asked him what his name was. “Stan Harris,” he said. No Name Pond! “Oh yeah, I think I’ve seen your name on a sign somewhere,” I said. “Well,” he replied, “if you make enough fuss, they put your name on a sign.”
When I had the chance to check in with Glen, he told me more about the brambling, which was still in the ‘hood. It had been seen again in our yards, and also in our neighbor Cindy’s yard, about six houses down. Bramblings are usually found in northern Europe and Asia, and prior to now, had only been recorded in California a total of five times, the last of which was over 20 years ago. And by the way, he noticed Stan Harris had been sitting on our porch swing! I admitted that I didn’t really know who Stan Harris was except that he had something to do with the marsh, and Glen told me he was only the preeminent birder of Humboldt County, a retired HSU ornithology professor, and author of several of the best books on the birds of northern California. (The mystery of No Name Pond remains.)
Here he is, in all his glory.
Over the course of the ensuing days—then weeks—then months—we got an education about birders, birding, and especially what happens when a rare bird surfaces. People came from all over the state to see the brambling. And beyond—we had birders from Wisconsin, Vermont, British Columbia, and Arizona. The brambling was very obliging and showed up a lot, splitting its time between our yard, Glen’s and Cindy’s. I made sure to put millet out for it every day, which I called “feeding the birders.” With all the binoculars pointed at our house (whose street-side windows have no curtains), we began to wonder if there would soon be an illustrated guide to the McKnights and their behavior.
The birders, for their part, were very obliging as well. Everyone was friendly, and they always either apologized for staring at our house, or thanked us. They seemed respectful of the fact that having multiple pairs of binoculars trained on our front yard every day is a bit of an invasion. That is, until the scoter showed up.
It was toward the end of January, when the brambling had already broken the previous record of the longest-time-a-brambling-has-visited-California-of-the-five-other-times-it-has. We were feeling pretty special, though Glen and I were a bit grumpy over the fact that the brambling seemed to be spending more time at Cindy’s yard than ours. Then, up in Crescent City, 75 miles and one county to the north, a common scoter arrived. Scoters are sea ducks, and there are several who are native to northern California. But this was the first time a common scoter had ever been recorded anywhere in North America! It was big news in the birding community. (I, of course, rely on Glen for all the good bird gossip.)
Apparently this scoter was just pretty much sitting around for everyone to see. The brambling, on the other hand, had become more and more elusive over the months. When birders started to come through who had just been to Crescent City for the scoter, they were usually mighty disappointed if the brambling wasn’t present to be checked off their list.
One afternoon, Bony and I were in the back yard and Heal was working at the desk in the back room when she heard a knock at the door. She kept working, considered ignoring the door entirely, but then got up to answer it. Several people were unloading their down vests and camera bags onto our porch swing. “We’re here for the brambling?” one of them said, as if perhaps Heal would go back in and bring the brambling to the door. Heal explained that she wasn’t really sure where it was, that it wasn’t necessarily always handy. “Where should we sit?” they asked, eyeing our porch swing. “Ummm, well, most people just stand out there on the road,” she said, pointing across the street, not mentioning that a shy bird seems unlikely to alight on a branch five feet from a bunch of swinging people. They left our yard, seeming disappointed.
The scoter-viewers also displayed less patience for our chicken, Peri, who has a penchant for escaping the chicken fence and running to the front yard to eat the birder food. “Get rid of that chicken!” one of the scoter-viewers yelled at me one afternoon when I stepped out to send Peri back to the back yard. We were growing weary of being on display.
Luckily for us, the brambling more or less disappeared by the end of January, though I saw it twice—very briefly each time—in our yard in February. The birders gradually petered off. I stopped putting out their millet (though continued to fill the sunflower seed feeder, where we get about a million pine siskins visiting each day, some of whom we’ve named even though they all look identical). We began to reclaim our front yard, having lunch out there on many a sunny, 60-degree February day (ahhhh, California). We all suspect the brambling has returned to Eurasia for breeding season.
A local artist reclaims the front yard sidewalk for painting birds rather than watching them.
For the most part, the brambling’s visit was a sweet chapter in our life here on Buttermilk Lane. It was a beautiful bird, and we felt excited each time we saw it. Now the brambling has become a measure of rareness in our household. If I tell T-Bone something is unusual, she’ll say “rarer than a brambling?!” As it turns out, it looks like we may have a few more minutes in the glow of the rare bird spotlight: our neighbor Glen and I were recently notified that we are finalists in the Humboldt County Bird of the Year Award (HCBOYA) for our discovery of the brambling. The winner will be announced at Godwit Days, a migratory bird festival in mid-April, and I don’t want to overly confident, but we kind of feel like we have it in the bag. Just so long as Mr. Common Scoter doesn’t decide to drop by Humboldt County.
The brambling inspired a number of art projects in our house.