The Big River Bird Surveys–Laguna Marsh


Thursday morning was my second of three legs of Big River Surveys. This time it was Laguna Marsh. Laguna Marsh is a beautiful place to bird but very few birders get a chance to bird there because it’s a hard place to get to. I haven’t been there in over three years.

Four of us left the main Big River parking lot at 6:00AM and traveled up Comptche-Ukiah Rd. for about 9 miles to a locked logging gate (far right red arrow). Beyond the gate was Conservation Fund property. Down a logging road we went to a second locked gate (left red arrow) behind which was California State Parks property and Laguna Marsh. Another way of getting there is a trail (green arrow) about 7 miles up Comptche-Ukiah Rd. I hear that it’s very steep and you have to cross over an old falling down bridge at the bottom. You can also walk or ride your bike 8.3 miles up the Big River Haul Rd. and ford the river (yellow arrow). There are other logging trails into the marsh but you would need an ATV and a good sense of direction. The blue arrow is the last survey point on the Big River East Haul Rd. survey. It’s 1.83 miles by straight line, 2.2 miles by trail to the marsh from that point. The actual survey points at Laguna Marsh are shown below.

The Mendocino Land Trust has this to say about Laguna Marsh. “60-acre Laguna Marsh, an unusual inland and extensive fresh-emergent wetland representing one of the most productive habitats on earth.” I could not find much else in the literature and study’s available on the Big River area. 

Some of the attractions for birders visiting Laguna Marsh are the Wood Ducks and Purple Martins, a California Bird Species of Special Concern. Wood ducks during the survey route were abundant but unfortunately we could find only two Purple Martins (a pair going in and out of a hole) towards the end of the route. Normally we would find 6 to 8. One of the main snags that we’ve alway found Purple Martin in was quiet. In fact there was almost no swallow action during the whole survey with just a few Violet-green Swallows and one Barn Swallow seen. It seemed strange because the mosquito population was huge. Another California Bird Species of Special Concern is the Olive-sided Flycatcher. They have always been present at the marsh with 3 or 4 present during our surveys. They were very active during our visit. Another California Bird Species of Special Concern that has been found at the marsh is the Vaux’s Swift. None were found during this survey. A review of Ebird records for them shows that they are very rare in Mendocino County this year, especially along the coast.

We made it out alive without too much blood loss and next up will be the Big River–East Haul Rd. survey.

The Return of the Big River Bird Survey.


A week ago Tuesday I was on the west end of the Big River Haul Rd. leading a Spring bird survey. I had been approached by Nicolet Houtz, Trails and Stewardship Coordinator, for Mendocino Land Trust, to see if I would be willing to lead some surveys, something I’ve done in the past. “Since 2003, working in collaboration with Mendocino Coast Audubon Society and Mendocino High School’s SONAR program, as well as trainers from Mad River Biologists, Big River Stewards have pursued a long-term study of bird populations at Big River.” These surveys will establish a baseline from which to monitor changes to the property. I first started doing these surveys probably in 2007 and continued through 2011. Since the death of Matt Coleman in 2011 the surveys have have been infrequent, if not on “hold”. Nicolet’s job is getting them restarted. I’ve written about Big River and Matt Coleman before. You can find that post here. You can find a report on the Big River Bird Surveys on the Mendocino Land Trust’s website.

The surveys are taken on 3 different parts of the Big River watershed, the West Haul Rd., the East Haul Rd., and Laguna Marsh. Each survey route consists of about 10 or 11 fixed survey points about 1/3 of a mile apart. This mostly allows for not recounting birds and since they are fixed you can get a feel for any changes at that point. Below is a map of the points for the West and East Haul Rds.

The surveys at each point is for a 10 minute period. During that time we count every bird seen or heard, trying not to count any birds more that once. This year’s surveys were accompanied by lots of Mosquitos. That not always the case. These surveys remind me just how many Wilson’s Warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Song Sparrows there are along Big River. This year we had 2 Hermit Warblers (more on them later) and a softly singing White-throated Sparrow which is rare here at this time. During these surveys we have the rare privilege of driving the Haul Rd. behind the locked gate.

Near survey point 5 we stopped to check out the Double-crested Cormorant Rookery. This is the only “known” DCCO rookery in Mendocino County and with binoculars we could see 5 or 6 active nests. Will have to take my scope next time to observe them better. This rookery was discovered after a Spring Big River Bird Survey in 2011. We had noticed cormorants carrying what we thought was nesting material. I went back later and found the rookery.


On the way back we stopped to check out the Great Blue Heron Rookery which can be seen directly south from Matt’s Memorial Bench. We could only find 2 active nests. That’s Nicolet in back and Linda Perkins of the Sierra Club in front.

I have not been birding as much this year as I did last year. Still catching up with things around the house and my reading. I have continued my weekly Saturday birding at the Little River Airport and have moved to Thursdays for my “off” season SOS Shorebird Surveys at Virgin Creek Beach. Still using the MTA and my bike to get there. In fact I had a 88 day period between gas fill ups for my truck which is a new record. Some of that was caused by rain but it seems the less birding I do the more gas I save. How sad!

At the airport I have found that most of the migrating birds have arrived early this year, some as much as much as 12 days early (Allen’s Hummingbird). Only Wilson’s Warbler and Pacific-slope Flycatcher were on time. I found my first “Spring” Hermit Warbler “airport” record this morning during a bike ride around the airport. With the two we found on Big River (in a place where I’ve never seen them) and the two I heard singing Monday while walking around the “Wood’s” where I live, Hermit Warblers seem plentiful this year.

At Virgin Creek Beach the shorebird surveys during late Winter and early Spring have been the worst I’ve ever seen since I been surveying. Surfbirds, Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plovers were all in short supply. It picked up a little this last month and last Thursday (during some rain) I found 3 Ruddy Turnstones on the rocks.

Looking forward to the start of the regular SOS Shorebird Surveys in July.


Some Local Birding and my First Flat Tire

Got up on Thursday and didn’t feel like doing a big day of birding so I decided to do some local birding and bike riding. I have plenty of places in my area where I can do that. As stated before one of those places is a favorite of mine, Big River. I 


decided to ride up Big River in the morning and then Little River in the early afternoon. Little River is part of Van Damme State Park. It’s amazing that I can do “two” rivers in one day.

As alway Big River was a beautiful bike ride without too many people about. I rode as far as Dry Dock Gulch where there’s a little marsh. The marsh is the eastern most part of my section of the Fort Bragg Christmas Bird Count. Along the way I got this picture of “New Boom” part of the old logging infrastructure that still remains. It was used to corral logs coming down the River.

Birding was OK with the usual Big River birds seen. Currently there are not many ducks and water birds using the river. I hope that changes. The big news is that on the way back I discovered that my back tire was going flat. This is a first for my “green” year. Spokes have been broken but no flat tires. I haven’t been carrying any flat fixing supplies with me. Lucky for me I was close to the parking lot when it happened so I just walked it back to my truck. Also lucky for me “Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, Too!” was just across the River.

I explained to Jason that many years ago I had learned to fix flat tires on bikes in a class and was interested in relearning. He wasn’t busy so he walked me through the process. After removing the tire, old tube, and inflating the new one he handed me the tire and said, “put it back on”. After some effort I was able to do it. The picture below is my new flat fixing equipment. I hope I don’t have to use it.

After thanking Jason I went to Van Damme SP and continued my birding and bike riding. Below are some pictures from that ride. I decided to use some photo effects so let me know what you think.

This is bridge number 7. I love these bridges.

Back in the “primitive” campground.

Mushrooms on log in river.

No new birds and no truck miles saved. Just a great day (except for the flat) on the coast.

Birding and New Totals

So how did this last weeks birding go? The weather was nice but unusually muggy. Thursday I once again birded Ten Mile Beach. The fog line was right on the beach so at time visibility was limited. Shorebirds were at a minimum with no large flocks, not even Sanderlings. There did seem to be a flow of Baird’s Sandpipers. I found at least 3 of them.

I say at least three because I saw a pair several times while walking the beach. They would fly north and then sometime later while I was walking south I would find a pair of them again. I assumed that they were the same birds. I later found a single bird. There were a high of 25 returning Snowy Plovers this day.

Friday I was picked up by Chuck Vaughn again to do my SOS Survey. Chuck came over from Ukiah to work on his year list. While doing the survey he said that there were many more shorebirds than two weeks ago. Chuck left the coast a happy birder, he added 5 birds to his list. The five were Snowy Egret, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Marbled Godwit, and a calling Short-billed Dowitcher. I wasn’t as happy as Chuck because I’d already added those birds earlier in the year but it was a good day of birding. The Lesser Yellowlegs is pictured below.

Saturday during my Little River Airport birding I had Western Tanagers. WETA’s are not common at the airport and I don’t see them every year. This was the earliest I’ve seen them beating the old record by 12 days.

After finding out that I had no drives scheduled at the Lodge today I decided to bike Big River this morning. I’ve written about Big River before. You should checkout the link to find out it’s history. Every time I bike Big River I ask myself why don’t I do it more often?  

One of the first birds I found there was a Willow Flycatcher at the locked gate. It was a year bird for me. I had been planning on going over to the Ukiah Waste Treatment Plant next week to get one. They are more common there. I checked on the Double-crested Cormorant Rookery across the river from the quarry. While it is late in the season there was still at least one active nest. Without a scope I couldn’t see even how many nests are still there. This rookery was found, I think, three years ago and is the only known DCCO nesting area in Mendocino County. The most unusual bird I found was a calling Grasshopper  Sparrow in the quarry. This is late for them and they are rare on the coast. GRSP’s are not on the Big River Checklist. I’m sure that the Ebird filters will question this sighting. Will see what Chuck Vaughn, our Ebird Reviewer, thinks about it. GRSP’s are not a year bird for me.

New totals are 227 bird species seen with over 1800 truck miles saved.


Big River

Another of my favorite places to bird is Big River located just South of Mendocino. I’ve spent many hours surveying birds here during the Spring and Fall seasons and during the new Fort Bragg Christmas Bird Count. A bike ride along it’s over 8 miles of mostly level Haul Rd. is a very enjoyable ride. Big River was “saved” in 2002, a few years before I arrived in Mendocino County. I’m glad they saved it. Once again the Mendocino Land Trust was involved. Read about it on their site

“The property’s unique natural resources include:

  • 1,500 acres of wetlands, including brackish, freshwater, saltwater, and fresh emergent marshes, the 8.3-mile long estuary, and associated riparian habitats.
  • 27 endangered, threatened, or species of concern.
  • 60,000 acres of connected wildlife habitat between this and adjacent public land, and over 100 miles of joined trails.
  • 50 miles of Big River and its tributaries, home to Dungeness and shore crab, freshwater mussels, ghost shrimp, river otter, beaver, harbor seals, and over 22 fish species including coho and steelhead salmon, bocaccio, starry flounder, Pacific halibut, Pacific herring, eulachon, buffalo and prickly sculpin, and 7 species of surfperch.”
    I ripped that last section from their website because they can say it better then me. They have over 130 bird species on their bird list and I believe that I just added a new one.

Last Thursday I took the bike ride. Only rode 4 miles in but enjoyed every moment. Basically mirrored my CBC route. Bird wise not much new was happening until I started back. I spotted a couple of dots down the river. They turned out to be a Pied-billed Grebe and an American Wigeon well over 2 miles up river. Not a great picture. While riding back I realized that I had never seen an AMWI on big River. Returning home I checked the Big River Bird list and did not find it listed. I checked Ebird and all of the records for Big River that I had, no AMWI’s. Will continue checking but it appears to be the first “reported” record for Big River and a year bird for me.

I can’t write about Big River without mentioning a certain amount of sadness that I feel when I’m there. I first started doing Big River Bird Surveys shortly after I moved here. At first I was just an observer but was convinced that I could lead these surveys by one person. That person was Matt Coleman. Matt was an employee of the Mendocino Land Trust who did about everything for them. He coordinated the surveys, provided transportation, had tons of keys to get us through locked gates, he did the recording. All we had to do was show up. He also coordinated beach clean ups, monitored salmon, removed invasive plants, etc. When you’re out in the early morning surveying birds you get to know a person very well. Matt Coleman was my friend. On August 11, 2011, Matt was murdered by a mentally ill young man while he was working on another Mendocino Land Trust property. The Land Trust’s, Autumn 2011, Newletter was published in Matt’s memory. It can be downloaded here. Matt would have been thrilled to learn about the American Wigeon. Matt has a memorial bench over looking Big River.