A Meeting with Big Al?

This morning we had hoped to meet up with “Big Al”. I wasn’t terribly optimistic. We’d already failed Monday afternoon. In fact the wind had blasted into my face with such force, I could barely hold on to the fishing pier much less thoroughly scan the Pt. Arena Cove. Didn’t matter if you could or not because the bird simply wasn’t there and hadn’t been seen for several days. A lady from Chicago had been waiting for two days and was disappointed. She was at 699 and wanted it to be her 700th ABA lifer. I felt for her, but the fact was this year “Big Al” has been sporadic. She wasn’t going to see it and we decided to leave for the long drive north to Arcata. Every night we kept tabs on the Mendocino County listserve and no one had reported Big Al at any point during the entire week. So as we drove south from Ft. Bragg this morning, I was already planning how to get to Bodega Bay to try for the Ancient Murrelets reported yesterday.

Still little things were shifting in our favor. Yesterday we had seen but one grouse or quail on Williams Ridge, but it was a lifer. Then driving south to Ft. Bragg, at the last ½ second I swerved wildly to the right to barely catch the Hwy 1 exit to Ft Bragg rather than CA 20 that we had planned. Bingo! This rash and impulsive act allowed us to stumble upon a large covey of California Quail flying across the road at dusk to feed in the front yard of a remote cabin. Year bird. Maybe the cosmic forces were aligning for us?

We arrived at the Pt. Arena cove about 8 AM. We dutifully trudged out to the fishing pier to take a looksy…nothing, though I did add Pelagic Cormorant to my year list. I figured now it’s time to head south; Bodega Bay is a great place to bird! But we still wanted to try the Point Arena Lighthouse as there had been two Pacific Golden Plovers reported wintering behind the lighthouse, so we agreed to give them a try and return to the cove for one final looksy. What happens when we get there? The gate is closed with no access till 10:00 AM and I sure wasn’t going to twiddle my thumbs for another hour. The birds had been loafing behind the dorm buildings so we’re screwed! I backed the SUV to begin a three point turn when 20 feet to my left next to the road is a Pacific Golden Plover! Soon joined by two more. Right next to the road! Little things……

Pacific Golden Plover-Pt. Arena (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

So we drove back to the Pt. Arena Cove a final time for a quick check. After all the weather had improved over the last two days. No strong winds and no rain, but now the fog had moved in and you really couldn’t see diddly. We again trudged out to the pier in a futile attempt to meet “Big Al” and failed. At least we tried. As we walked off the pier, Gary noticed that the door to the Harbor Office was cracked and called in “Is anyone there?” The Harbor Master, Jason Ives, was in. Gary asked “Any news on “Big Al”? Jason answered “He was here yesterday afternoon” I said “What?” Jason politely replied “Sometimes he shows up around 10:00AM, If I were you I’d get a cup of coffee and have something to eat and try again” I immediately smelled a rat, local guy trying to boost the local economy, but what the heck. We ate our second breakfast of the morning along with another cup of coffee at the coffee shop right there at the pier. I’m getting antsy but now I’m not so gung ho to head to Bodega.

For a third time this morning we walked out to the end of the pier. But now it’s less of a trudge and more of a bounce. The fog is still bad, but it’s lifted a bit. 

I scan the cove which really isn’t that big. Nothing.  I broaden the search further out beyond the blue boat to the edge of visibility.  There in the mist I see a white floating object.  I yell to Gary who comes over, but he sees nothing. Now neither do I, but it was there.  Five seconds crawl by. I see it again floating in the mist bigger than a White Pelican.  Big Al, I’m pleased to meet you.

“Big Al” is the Laysan Albatross that’s been wintering in the Point Arena Cove since 1994.  At least that’s when he was first noticed. Albatrosses can live for fifty years, so who knows when he first showed up. He arrives in late November or early December and leaves in March. Some days he plays with surfers.  Sometimes he’s gone for several days. The locals affectionately named him “Big Al” and everyone in town knows of him and seems to enjoy having him spend his winters among them. A frigging Albatross! I find it most remarkable that he repeatedly comes year after year to the same small unremarkable cove.  This has to be a learned behavior doesn’t it?  This little cove is also the only reliable place in North America to see  a Laysan Albatross.  This is a category four bird for me.  A perfect ending to a great California trip.  Thanks, Jason Ives, the Harbor Master, for suggesting we hang around just a tad longer.  These “little things” keep adding up and I may just have a shot at 700 species for my “Big Year”.

Big Al in the mist at Pt. Arena Cove (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

"Big Al" the Laysan Albatross (photo by John Vanderpoel)

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One Response to A Meeting with Big Al?

  1. Gary Matthews says:

    Yes, the Sterling sewer pond strategy pays off again!! And thanks Jason.

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