This IBA refers to a 15-mile long strip of coastline just south of the Oregon border that is one of the most ornithologically significant coastal areas in the state. It is anchored on the south by Point St. George and by the Smith River estuary in the north. Just north of Crescent City the pastures give way to a mixed conifer forest on the coastal plan surrounding two large lagoons rimmed with freshwater and brackish marsh vegetation, Lake Earl and the smaller Lake Tolowa, with a 5,000-acre surface area and a combined perimeter of 60 miles comprise the largest coastal lagoon complex on the Pacific coast south of Alaska. North of the lagoons are the Smith River Bottoms, an area of wet pastures, riparian stringers, and patches of coniferous rainforest. Public lands protect about half of the IBA, with state lands (Tolowa Dunes State Park/Lake Earl Wildlife Area) extending from the lagoons south to include some of Point St. George. This headlands of the point, recently acquired by the state and turned over to the county, feature extensive coastal prairies and saltspray meadows atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific. A half-mile offshore lies Castle Rock, protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, at seven acres the smallest of its kind in the state hosts 12 species of breeding seabirds. Much of the Smith River Bottoms are privately owned by dairy and cattle ranchers. Another interesting feature of the IBA is Pacific Shores, a massive phantom subdivision on the north side of Lake Earl, where 1500 half-acre lots were carved out in the mid-1960s but never developed. The area is a wetlands dunes mosaic and its ownership is in flux. In the last few years hundreds of lots have been sold by willing sellers to the state. At least 90% of the federally listed Oregon Silverspot Butterfly occurs there within the sandy lots (along with three other newly described butterfly species).
Updated by Redwood Region Audubon Society, May 2008
This IBA is one of the most frequently-birded sites in northwestern California, with many visitors coming in winter to see Harlequin Duck, Tufted Puffin, Marbled Murrelet, other alcids, Rock Sandpiper and Black-capped Chickadee. Castle Rock NWR supports the second-largest seabird colony in California (and possibly the entire Pacific coast south of Alaska) after the Farallon Islands. Though population numbers have fluctuated in recent years, it has consistently supported the state's largest breeding aggregations of Common Murre (100,000+, fide Carter et al. 1992); Cassin's Auklet (5638, fide Carter er al. 1992), Rhinoceros Auklet (1000 fide Carter et al. 1992); and Tufted Puffin (only 7 birds, fide A. Barron. 2007). It also provides a roosting area for non-breeding Brown Pelican (3,155 birds, D. Jaques 2003) Offshore rocks just north of the Smith River mouth (incl. Hunter Rock, Prince Isl.) also support breeding seabirds (incl. some of California's only breeding Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels and Tufted Puffin at Prince, fide Carter et al. 1992) and a large rookery (c. 100 pr. Roy Lowe, Hatfield Marine Sciences) of Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret (farthest north in the western U.S., fide Harris 1996) and Black-crowned Night-Heron. The coastal pasture lands from of Point St. George north to the Smith River Bottoms are a major spring and fall staging area for Aleutian Cackling Goose, with a few wintering. Nearly the entire global population (40,000+ birds in 2001) pause here during spring to refuel. The birds commute each day between night roosts on Castle Rock and diurnal foraging areas on the mainland. Held each spring since 1999, the Aleutian Goose Festival: A Celebration of Wildness provides a four-day array of bird and nature programs and excursions that showcases the geese and other animals, native plants, and native American culture. Inland, old-growth redwood forests, especially within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, supports strong populations of redwood breeders such as Marbled Murrelet. Exceptional numbers of Murrelet in high density forage off the Crescent City shore (Barron, 2007)
Located on the Pacific Flyway, the Lake Earl/Tolowa Coastal Lagoon and wetland complex is a very important nesting and wintering area for waterfowl and marsh birds (notably breeding American Bittern) and each fall, the lagoons provide an important staging area for thousands of Ruddy duck, American Wigeon, and Canvasback, among others. The broad, sandy beach opposite Lake Tolowa has been a winter concentration area for Snowy Plover (Harris 1996), though breeding has not occurred in several years. It is also an important resting and feeding area for hundreds of pelicans, gulls, terns, and shorebirds. The grasslands support a nesting population of Oregon Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus affinis), a race unknown elsewhere as a breeder in California (D. Fix, pers. comm.), and a large and diverse winter bird community. Finally, the riparian bird community along the Smith River is enhanced by the presence of a traditional Bank Swallow breeding colony, the only consistent one extant in northwestern California.
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The Conservation issues affecting this IBA are complex and not as one might predict. Although much of the Smith River Bottoms/estuary are private, their resources have not changed appreciably over the last hundred years and, if anything, seem to be increasing in their attractiveness to several sensitive bird species (notably Aleutian Cackling Goose, whose recent population increases have resulted in its removal from the Endangered Species list by USFWS in 2001). Goose preservation has been a force in driving much of the conservation and ecotourism in the area; about 230 acres of the wildlife area were recently opened to dairy cattle to provide alternative foraging areas for the bird (Boxall 2000). With delisting, authorized hazing, and spring hunting the large goose population that once staged in Del Norte has expanded its range moving into Humboldt, and southern Oregon coastal counties. The shifting population may have benefited Castle Rock's breeding seabird colonies, which had been at risk both by the surge in goose numbers (their mass night-roosting degraded habitat for nocturnal burrow nesting seabirds) The recent establishment of Double-crested Cormorant as a breeder on the island also displaces other nesters. Most troubling of all, however, has been the situation that has developed at Lake Earl/Lake Tolowa, where a recent surge in illegal OHV riders, motorized vehicles on the beach, and cat colonies (fed by people) has been responsible for frequent disturbances to shorebirds (esp. Snowy Plover, which formerly bred) and Burrowing Owl (nearly extirpated). Another issue here involves the sandbar across the mouth of Lake Tolowa, which for 100 years prior to 1982 (when the state assumed management) had been quietly dug open by locals to drain the lagoon. With the adoption of the Lake Earl Management Plan (1988) DFG manages the lagoon lwater at higher levels leaving the entrance naturally blocked during most of the year. This has encouraged an extensive marsh to develop, greatly increasing its attractiveness to breeding birds and rare fishes (notably Tidewater Goby).
Public lands protect only a portion of the IBA, with state lands (Lake Earl State Park/Lake Earl Wildlife Area) extending from the lagoons south to include some of Point St. George. This headlands of the point, mostly in private ownership, feature extensive pastureland set atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific. A half-mile offshore lies Castle Rock, protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, at seven acres the smallest of its kind in the state.
This IBA refers to a 15-mile long strip of coastline just south of the Oregon border that is one of the most ornithologically significant coastal areas in the state. It is anchored on the south by Point St. George and by the Smith River estuary in the north. Just north of Crescent City the pastures give way to a mixed conifer forest on the coastal plan surrounding two large lagoons rimmed with freshwater marsh vegetation, Lake Earl and the smaller Lake Tolowa, together comprising the largest coastal lagoon complex on the Pacific coast south of Alaska. North of the lagoons are the Smith River Bottoms, an area of wet pastures, riparian stringers, and patches of coniferous rainforest.