The name Arcata comes from “oket’oh”, Yurok for “where there is a lagoon”, referring to Humboldt Bay, which is a barrier lagoon. Arcata Bay, aka North Bay, is the northerly portion of Humboldt Bay, at the top of which is the city of Arcata, once a village of the local Wiyot people. In the before time, the Humboldt Bay region was a vast mix of tidal estuaries (the Eel and Mad rivers, plus countless creeks, sloughs and tributaries), saltwater marshes, seasonal freshwater wetlands, low lying prairies, all surrounded by forested hills. Most of those natural features are changed or built over since Euro-American settlement, and the region is the poorer now in many ways including the loss of much wildlife. Restoring habitat, even in small ways, brings wildlife back, and that’s what Arcata Marsh has done.
Some background on the site:
Arcata is primarily known today for being the home of Cal Poly Humboldt University, but for a century after Euro-American settlement in 1850, the city was the site of explosive development by industrial, agricultural and other commercial interests, which drastically changed its natural environment. Triggered by the California Gold Rush, newly arrived mining, redwood logging, shipping, and railroad companies diked and filled most of the wetlands around Humboldt Bay. Farming and urban development came with this economic growth. By 1960, 90% of the original wetland habitat was gone (as were most of the original residents, the Wiyot people — massacred, killed by disease and relocation).
As the shoreline railroads, mills and wharf had become defunct by then — easy local resource extraction run dry or the bay bypassed — the city of Arcata chose to use the core of the old industrial area for a garbage landfill and primary sewage treatment.
However the 1960s and 70s was the era when people began waking up to environmental destruction in California as elsewhere. The Clean Water Act of 1972 required the city to deal with the leaching landfill as well as legacy effects from the industrial era. Thanks to the advocacy of a team of local scientists and activists, they were presented with an opportunity to turn an ugly polluted mess into a wildlife-friendly site. The landfill was capped (now called Mount Trashmore by the locals) and a state-of-the-art biological sewage treatment facility was built with a series of ingenious treatment steps including managed ponds and marshes. The area of these ponds, marshes and Mount Trashmore next to the main wastewater treatment facility became Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.
We visited Arcata Marsh and Bay a few weeks ago on our road trip down to Sonoma. I knew that fellow Bucketeer and Dawn Choruster KenBee lived in nearby Eureka, and kosmailed him about a meetup. By good chance he was around the afternoon we came through and graciously offered to be our native guide at a nice nature site. And what a great destination Arcata Marsh turned out to be! As a local, he was also able to tell us stories about the area. We parked by the interpretive center, met KenBee, and ambled down the path toward the bay. By “amble” I mean we walked a mile and a half in two hours :) I was especially thrilled to see some birds we don’t have at home. It is a wonderfully birdy site. And it was a lot of fun meeting up with KB after all these years too. Come along on our walk….
Where the slough opened out to the bay itself, more shorebirds and other waders lined the edges of the waterway.
I see Long-billed Dowitchers on occasion on the Skagit River delta on the mainland up here, and I always thought of them as fairly big shorebirds, which they are in comparison to Dunlin, who are very common in winter. But it’s all relative. Dowitchers look small compared to godwits! (ABINSUH…”another bird I never see up here”) There were hundreds of Marbled Godwits, mostly snoozing. I think there were a few dunlin in the mix of shorebirds we saw, along with some peeps.
But my biggest thrill was seeing avocets! Life bird, and one of the most exquisite and graceful creatures I’ve ever seen. I had to sit down. If my creaky body and the daylight had lasted longer I could have watched them indefinitely. I did take a ton of pictures and some video to remember them by.
Here are a couple of videos at this spot that show how all these birds are feeding. Love the scything style of the avocets.
At this point we turned the corner and walked along the dike facing the bay itself.
I enjoyed the tracks of the birds across the wet mud.
Klopp Lake was formed by excavating the bay mud where the landfill had leached, using that mud to cap the landfill. It is a tidally influenced artificial lake that many birds occupy. We saw pelicans and gulls on the water, and in one corner, quite a few Night-herons roosting in the shrubbery.
From the lake we returned to the parking lot via Allen Marsh. The trail closest to the marsh was closed for work so we didn’t get great looks at the this freshwater habitat, but there were some nice ducks to see.
Especially exciting for me — another life bird — was Cinnamon teal! What a gorgeous color on that drake.
By the time we crossed the slough again, the tide had come up and it was getting toward dark. The mudflat feeding birds had moved elsewhere. Tidal changes mean everything to shorebirds.
One last cool sighting for me on an old piling:
Near the parking lot we ran into a guy who said he’d seen some very rare duck. If we didn’t still have lots of miles to travel I wouldn’t have minded sticking around Humboldt Bay longer to maybe check that out. The birding and other nature sightings are rich there, as we found in other parts of California too, even the fraction that remains in our current era (and largely in public protected sites like this one). I can only imagine what it must have been like a couple of centuries ago.
But we said goodbye to KenBee and headed off. While the Salish Sea will always be our home, I do envy Californians all the richness and variety of wildlife they can visit whenever they want, like the redwood forests, the oak woodlands, the Sacramento valley wetlands. Definitely worth a visit for the rest of us!
Here are a few resources with info on Arcata Marsh:
A Brief Land Use History of the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary
Arcata Marsh history of the land
Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary Bird Checklist
Arcata Marsh History: Union Wharf, Mad River Canal, Reclamation, Lumber Mills, City Designs (has lots of historical photos from industrial era)
HUMBOLDT BAY Shoreline Inventory, Mapping and Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment (has a great map showing pre-contact vs current shorelines)
How Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment System Works (step by step, with a diagram)
What’s up in your birdy world this week?