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Californians don’t pay much attention to fall as a season of the year. In the south, it’s the time when the heat abates–the palm trees don’t change color. In the Bay Area, a bit more fog comes in, but there’s not a seasonal shift to speak of.

As in many things, northern California is different. The leaves on cottonwoods and aspens turn yellow, pale orange, and silvery beige, blinking in the breeze. At first, while bird watching, we mistook the occasional falling leaf for a bird, starting, and turning our binoculars on the spot. A week later, so many leaves are falling that we aren’t so easily fooled.

Autumn in Northern California

I’ve been enjoying the changing leaves because they remind me of fall colors in the Eastern US where I grew up. Out for a walk on a recent sunny day, the breeze ruffled some leaves while others crunched underfoot releasing their woodsy scent. There are few more pleasurable moments at this time of year. I know the coming months will bring fog and rain, but for now this is an idyllic time of sounds and smells that remind me of autumn days gone by.

The fires have died down in the northern part of California. As soon as the air quality improved, everyone stopped monitoring the fires. There may still be fires, but they are out of sight and out of mind. When there is a sunny day on the weekend, every park fills with cars, as everyone who was cooped up by the pandemic and the smoke emerges to soak up some sun and breeze before winter sets in.

We are in the right place to see fall migrating birds, especially the warblers that are making their way south for the winter. As the leaves fall and the thickets become transparent, we can see tiny birds hopping from branch to branch once again. We spotted warblers in the spring, and all summer we’ve been tantalized by their tiny chirps, though they’ve been impossible to see. It’s fun to have them back.

One tree after another

Northern California has many environments. The famous Redwood National and State Parks harbor what is left of redwood forests. Redwood groves are dark even during the day, the trees so tall that sunlight rarely hits the ground. The trees lend a solemnity to the woods, blanketing everything in broad branches. The immensity of a mature redwood is difficult to appreciate. We’ve seen the stumps of trees cut down in the 1890s that are enormous. Again, it’s difficult to envision how such huge trunks could be hauled from the forest and moved to a sawmill. How could sawmills handle such giant logs?

The primeval-seeming redwood forests are not far from the coast, and make a dramatic contrast with the sandy beaches and rocky headlands. The coast provides wind, sun, and dunes, a sharp counterpoint to the dark green shaded stillness of the redwood forest. Our bird watching thickets are a bit of transition between the two.

There is another surprising environment here, coastal marshland. We are very near the Arcata Marsh. We knew there would be birds from what we read and our experiences in this kind of wetland. We were not prepared for Arcata, where we have seen hundreds and hundreds of shorebirds that normally we see in ones and twos. This has been a wonderful experience, getting to see species that are unusual for us in large numbers, having a chance to look at birds for as long as we want rather than getting a brief glimpse before they fly off. There are long-billed curlews, marbled godwits, long billed dowitchers, sanderlings, and various sandpipers. We took part in October Big Day, a bird counting day, and spent some time counting and recording birds at the marsh. We plan to go back now that it is one of our favorite places.