Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is located on Humboldt Bay, on the coast of northwestern California. The refuge exists primarily to protect and enhance wetland habitats for migratory water birds using the bay area, including tens of thousands of shorebirds, ducks, geese, swans, and black brant1.

This is the second of a two part post on this California wildlife refuge as we complete the loop trail back to the visitor center, then head over to Hookton Slough and the South Spit. Approaching the barn as we headed back to the visitor center, I  noticed significant bird activity around the barn. As we got closer I could tell that they were  swallows but I wasn’t certain as to the species. Finally spotting the white forehead patch I realized that they were Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and they were building nests under the eaves (click on photos for full sized images).

Cliff Swallows Building Nests

There were also Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) hanging around the adjacent building…

Barn Swallow

where they had apparently been nesting previously and were preparing to nest again.

Barn Swallow Nest

In the shrubbery and trees around these buildings were several songbirds including Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia)…

Song Sparrowand White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). Several species of warbler can also be found in the trees that line the road in to the visitor center and surrounding the parking lot (see the Humboldt Bay NWR Watchable Wildlife brochure for a complete list including their abundance).

White-crowned Sparrow

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is designated as a globally Important Bird Area or IBA. To learn more about these IBAs watch this video.

South of the visitor center, near the refuge entrance, turn west on Hookton Road to visit the Hookton Slough Unit of the refuge. Open daily from sunrise to sunset, the Hookton Slough Unit offers a 1.5 mile trail (one way) starting in the parking area and following the south bank of Hookton Slough (see map). Visitors pass along grasslands, marsh, freshwater, saltwater, and mudflat habitats. The trail is level, graveled, and has interpretive panels.

Hookton Slough

There is a Great Egret rookery on the west side of Hookton Road visible from the trail and the road. Since I was there at low tide I didn’t take the time to walk the trail, rather I kept driving west to the coast and the South Spit where I knew the birds would be gathering.

On the way, Hookton Slough Road turns into Table Bluff Road and takes you to Table Bluff which terminates above the ocean in a dramatic, 165-foot high cliff with spectacular views of the Eel River delta, the South Spit of Humboldt Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

Table Bluff

Table Bluff Road then becomes South Jetty Road which takes you along the South Spit. On the bay side of the road we saw huge flocks of Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans). More than 50% of all the Brant in the Pacific Flyway stop to refuel on the eelgrass in Humboldt Bay between November and May2.

Brant Flock

I did get a decent shot of one of these Black Brants earlier on the bay.

Black Brant

There were also hundreds of shorebirds and wading birds like this Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)…

Semipalmated Plover

and the much larger Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)…

Black-bellied Plover

as well as Dunlin (Calidris alpina) in breeding plumage.

Dunlin in Breeding Plumage

Large flocks of these shorebirds, sometimes thousands of birds strong, often put on spectacular aerial displays as they alternately show their bright underbellies and dark backs.

The other two units of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex are the Lanphere and Ma’lel Dunes Units. The Lanphere and Ma-le’l Dunes Units are located at the upper end of the North Spit of Humboldt Bay, west of Mad River Slough (see map). The most pristine remaining dune system in the Pacific Northwest, this is the site of one of the most successful dune restoration projects on the west coast, accomplished through the ongoing removal of invasive, non-native vegetation.

Ma-le’l Dunes

Ma-le’l Dunes photo courtesy of Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Ma-le’l Dunes Unit is accessible to the public 7 days a week from sunrise to 1 hour after sunset but the Lanphere Dunes Unit is accessible only by permit or guided tours. The tours are given by Friends of the Dunes, an organization dedicated to conserving the natural diversity of coastal environments through community supported education and stewardship programs3. For a guided tour schedule of Lanphere Dunes, call Friends of the Dunes at (707) 444-1397. You can also download a fantastic map they have created of the Humboldt Bay Beaches, Dunes and Wetlands!

References: 1US Fish & Wildlife Service, 2Humboldt Bay NWR Brochure, 3Friends of the Dunes

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