I mentioned last week that I was on my way to Point Reyes. There’s a birding festival headquartered in Point Reyes Station, a small, unincorporated town set next to the park.
Bird festivals are everywhere, literally. Every state, country, and continent. A Google search of “Bird Festival” turns up 3,180,000 hits. (San Diego Bird Festival is number 3.) I’ve only been to a few, but all of them have followed the same script. Every bird festival has a festival headquarters, this one is the Point Reyes Station Dance Palace (community center). There will be name tags, carpools, a gala dinner, and keynote address. I have yet to attend a gala dinner that measures up to the all-you-can-eat buffet at the old Mizpath Hotel & Casino in Tonopah, Nevada, but then, no one goes to a bird festival for the food. Speakers can be good.
I’ve signed on for “Spring Migration at Limantour Estero,” “Egrets of Pitcher Canyon,” “Spring Migrations at Bodega Bay,” and the not to be missed, “Banquet with Keynote Address.”
As I said, festival base camp is the Dance Palace, and early Friday afternoon, 15 birders, whose median age I’d put at 66, are in the Main Hall, standing in a circle like happy penguins. We are listening to our guide, a man on the long side of 50 — I’ll call him Tommy — check off our names.
It’s a 25-minute drive from the Busy Bee Bakery in Point Reyes Station to the crest of Inverness Ridge and first glimpse of the Pacific and Limantour Beach. We gather in the parking lot, count heads, and then walk down to a pedestrian bridge that spans a small marsh.
Limantour Beach is a spit, with a wide, sandy beach and Pacific Ocean on your left (walking upcountry), and the mudflats of Limantour Estero on your right. Dunes, marsh, mudflats, fresh water ponds, all placed in a temperate zone located on the Pacific Flyway. The park service says 45 percent of all the bird species in North America can be found here.
We stop on the bridge, maybe one hundred yards in. This is standard bird world. Walk a little bit, stop and gawk a little bit, the guide points out several birds, birders gaze at pointed-out birds. And repeat. But not this time. This time, Tommy immediately begins his chant, “We’ve got to move along in order to get back by 4:30.”
I never did find out why it was critically important to get back by 4:30, but it was, and so, almost immediately, within minutes, which counts as very immediately in birder world, Tommy tramps forward on a narrow pathway. “I’d like to make it to the pine trees before we stop,” Tommy says, pointing to three pine trees oddly placed on the top of a dune way, way in the distance.
Tommy did stop along the way to look at Western Grebes out yonder on the mud flats. A few minutes pass, then, “We have to get moving.” At the pine trees Tommy tells us, “You have to earn your birds here.”
We make our way down to Limantour Estero; unnamed shorebirds are seen in the distance. Whoa, here’s something, 18 American White Pelicans are resting on a sandbar. Close enough to get a good look this time. Stunning. Beautiful animals.
We’re a couple miles out. Doubt if we’ve spent 20 minutes actually looking at birds. Tommy says, “I know we are going faster than some of you like, but we’ve got to keep moving.”
I take off my daypack and sit cross-legged on the moss, drink some water, scoop a handful of trail mix out of a Ziploc bag, and soak up the gorgeous day.
The gang moves on. Not me. Instead, I turn to David Sibley’s birding method, to wit: find a spot, stay there. All around me spring is exploding. Sunshine. Silence. Solitude. Ocean and mud flats. After a long while, I get up and begin to amble back, deeply satisfied with how the afternoon has turned out, if not the birding. No rush now, no pressure.
In due time I am back at the three-pine-trees-on-top-of-the-dune landmark. Here, the trail doglegs left and as I make the turn — boom — no more than six feet away, perched on a scrub bush, is a male American Goldfinch. He’s in full breeding plumage — bright, bright lemon yellow feathers and a coal black cap (skull). Let me hasten to add, this is a common bird. What is uncommon is that the bird didn’t move.
I notice no other birds. No other animals. No people. Just me, and six feet away, a sunlight yellow bird that just stays there. And stays there. And stays there.
So do I.