Monday, November 2, 2015

Sora! Sora! Sora! (Birdspotting @ Tennessee Valley)

Tennessee Valley, being one of the Seven Wonders of Bay Area Wild, is a super-popular destination in the Marin Headlands, attracting large crowds day in and day out, no matter the weather, owing to stunning coastal hill scenery, sublime littoral wonders, and an extensive network of trails connecting easy to moderate to difficult routes, through healthy forest and lovely meadow and up steep rocky trails to attain 360 degree lookouts of nonpareil beauty.

The hike to the slice of pebbly brown beach - make that stroll - is an easy 1.8 miles, first along a paved thoroughfare of humanity, where stroller-pushing, jogging Marin Moms and gabbing groups of social hikers abound, mixing it up with equestrians, bladers, families, nature lovers, and, not yet banned ?, drone enthusiasts. (I encounter a kid with his family looking for his downed drone in a thicket.) Every and anyone is able to enjoy Tennessee Valley, owing to its proximity and accessibility - both a blessing and curse.

Veering off the main fire road, a single track trail is routed through sensitive terrain rife with wildlife - bumblebees bumbling, butterflies fluttering by, birds in paradise, the occasional skippin' coyote, and, if timed right or lucky enough, a lazy ol' bobcat. (One day we met a woman who told us with a straight-face of her nine recent mountain lion encounters.) This precious living meadow shelters alder and willow trees lining a secretive stream bank and restored and protected wetlands habitat. I love stopping at the small bridge, peering over the railing dropping my gaze into a small sky blue pool reflecting fractile fern patterns. I'm in no hurry for the "main attraction" - the beach, for now, can wait.

By-passed by most passers-by (in a hurry to get to the main attraction), I revel in the silence and solitude found in this small place where, undisturbed, I can engage in my time-honored activity of do-absolutely-nothingness. Dissipating unrecorded moments observing simple things in nature, watching for birds in the riparian edges, nothing more calming, nothing more rewarding, even if not a single bird appears. Once, long ago, I spotted my very first hummingbird nest, constructed in the branches above the bridge, long deserted, a remnant art installation of interwoven grass, moss and bits of discarded string.

Like the legions of visitors, birds naturally gravitate to and love Tennessee Valley. Birds of all kinds: raptors, shorebirds, songbirds, and secretive birds not otherwise easily spotted, such as the Sora and Northern Harrier. On a good day, up to 40 species might be observed, as Napa-Solano Audubon Society trip leader David Takeuchi racked up in 2010, including a sighting of the elusive Sora. Of course, I never come close to "bagging" that many birds in a single day, but over the years, I've seen my share of species in the avian-rich habitat of Tennessee Valley, including brilliantly plumed Turkeys, Quail and Hummingbirds.

On the doorstep of the great ocean a pretty lagoon commands attention, especially for birders. Here at the brackish lagoon, the ocean roaring a hundred yards away, I always stop for a lengthy pause to watch ducks, geese, cormorants, coots, flycatchers and other special visitors. Wolf Ridge looms high, an impressive backdrop to the valley gem.

Not too much cookin' today, but I continue looking for something I've not yet seen, and, voila, a Sora appears, or what appears to be a Sora!

Although in the moment, I don't even know it's a Sora! I'm too far away to ID it reliably, and I can't get closer as access is restricted along the shoreline of the lagoon. I can only watch from the trail, in itchy excitement, snapping a couple of distant, blurry, but ID-able photos, wondering which bird it is flirting among the reeds and stabbing at the water lapping up bugs and algae.

Later on, I scratch my head over descriptions of the Sora being one of the more common and widely distributed of North American Rails. Must be why, just the other day, I read my first-ever eBird report of a Sora sighting. I'm sure many people have spotted a Sora, but today marks a First Sighting for me of the common and widely distributed (quote unquote) bird. Perhaps I'm lucky to add the Sora to my Life List, because All About Birds admits that "actually seeing the little marsh-walker is much more difficult" than one would suspect!

Moments after spotting the Sora, I catch a teaser sighting of a heretofore unknown warbler darting in and among the reeds, but never alighting long enough to positively ID him, before - off he goes, alas - fluttering forever and ever away.

Still, I'm able to get one or two-second glimpses of the flighty fellow, enough to eliminate Townsend's, Wilson's, and Yellow (-rumped) as candidates. But while I fail to snap a photo, I remain wishful I saw a Tennessee (Valley) Warbler!

At the fabulous curve of beach, where a January 2013 landslide brought down the iconic 100 ft. archway (caught on film by California Institute of Technology graduate student Robert Wills) many shorebirds fly the skies and ply the water, with gulls soaring overhead or landing on the beach for crumbs with the crow bums. Pelicans fly by in formation, occasionally plunge diving for fishy morsels. Seals bob up and down in the surf. Terns skirt the breakers. Depending on tidal conditions, you can inspect the remains of the wreck of the SS Tennessee whose fate was sealed in the treacherous surf off the cove one stormy night in 1853. Stop to take it all in, ignore the crowds, have a picnic, soak it up, it's always a special feeling at Tennessee Valley, always a day to cherish and feel blessed by.

On the return, back through the pretty meadow, I hear a barrage of screeching and look up to witness an aerial battle between two Northern Harriers over a snake dangling from steely talons. One of the handsome, elegant hawks suddenly swoops in to snatch the prize from the clutches of the other, victoriously flying off to a distant snag to gloat and pick the snake apart in peace. Always something amazing at Tennessee Valley, something unexpected that will change the way you see your world.