Barry's account of the Varied Twitchers' Big Day 2004

Here is my writeup of the Varied Twitcher's Big Day. It is different from Mike Roger's post as his emphasizes where and when we saw the most interesting species, which is exactly what birders want, where mine is a writeup of the day's adventures written as a story for non-birders. I sent this to my birdathon sponsors, most of whom aren't birders, but I thought you might enjoy it as well.

The Varied Twitchers' Big Day

A personal account of a 17+ hour birding marathon on April 17, 2004

Birding by Ear

My Saturday began at 3am when my alarm went off, less than an hour after Ginger came to bed. By 3:40am I found myself sitting in my car in a deserted parking at the edge of the San Francisco Bay. I was the only car there and started to wonder if I had the right location, but discovered I had not brought the instructions with me. I got out, looked around, then got back into the car. Well, where else could we possibly meet? It needed to be a parking lot that's open all night (most of the parks close their gates after sunset). It needed to be a place where we can leave the cars all day (most companies patrol their parking lots). And it needed to be close to the birds. So it had to be Terminal Road by Charleston Slough, right?

As I waited for the others, I thought every car might be a police car or a security guard come to ask embarrassing questions about what we were doing in a parking lot alone in the middle of the night. Eventually, the first car came and parked next to mine. To my relief, it was a fellow birder. Then another car pulled up. By 3:50am all six members of the "Varied Twitchers" team had arrived and we piled four cars worth of birding gear into a single van. Irene Beardsley came with her brother Bob; I had met Irene ten years before when doing bird banding research at Coyote Creek Field Station (Irene is still banding there). Also on the team were Bob Nansen, Jean Myers (aka "Birdermom"), and Mike Rogers, our guide.

I was delighted to see that everyone in the group was "into" field guides. I had packed all my birding references into one bag which I kept it in my car for fear of bringing too much stuff, but once I heard that everyone had books I fetched that bag too. Ironically, I only cracked a field guide open twice the entire day, and I don't recall seeing anyone else open theirs even once.

In the parking lot we noted the first birds of the day: a Barn Owl shrieked overhead and flew past, crossing the moonless sky as we called out its location "to the left, over the Big Dipper, past the North Star..." so that everyone had a chance to look up and get a glimpse. We heard Northern Mockingbird singing behind us in the office park, and far out by the marsh the chattering of the Barn Swallows was echoing in the drain pipes by the pump house that regulates the height of the salt ponds. A Mallard quacked, a Marsh Wren trilled. We were all ready to start birding.

Marsh Wren

So we got out the technology: A tape recorder, an amplifier. Flashlights. My iPod. We walked onto a hidden trail to a spot just above a large stand of cattails and rushes. Mike connected the amplifier to the tape recorder and attempted to make Sora Rail calls. Unfortunately, it was all static hiss and squeaky tape noises. He thought it might be the batteries, or the connection. He fidgeted for a few minutes. Eventually a few rail noises came out (they didn't sound much different from the cassette squeaks) and a distant Sora in the marsh obediently called back. Mike muttered about the batteries and I suggested we try my iPod with his amplifier. With that combination we were able to get a Virginia Rail to answer back, but then my iPod locked up and was useless. So much for technology. We hit the road.

First stop: Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, along the top of the coast range. A lovely set of smallish mountains tossed up by the San Andreas Fault, but we couldn't see the view as it was 4:45am and pitch black outside. The Milky Way shone above us. To the west the ever-present coastal fog was rising to swallow the stars. Jupiter was setting. We got out daypacks and binoculars and Mike brought his tape recorder (now with a fresh set of batteries) and amplifier. It was two miles in, he said, to where the elusive Saw-whet Owl lives. Along the way we might hear Western Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl and possibly Northern Pygmy-Owl. That's right: we were out birding, but we weren't actually going to see any birds. Just hear them. To complicate matters, another local birder was ahead of us on the trail. If that birder played a tape of an owl we might mistake him for the real thing.

We trudged through the darkness, up and down hills, occasionally shining a flashlight to see if we were about to slide into a gully. We were startled at one point along the path when something large took flight directly above us. We shined a light up, but all we saw were falling bits of lichen from the oak branches. Probably a Great Horned Owl, but we couldn't count it if we neither saw nor heard it. Along the way we caught up to the other birder, so that eliminated the problem of possibly counting a tape recorder on our day list. The other birder, Mike Mammoser, was birding with his friend Chris who was also a serious nature lover (I guess you would have to be to go owling at 4am). Mike M. had heard the screech owl already and thought it might have been our tape, but we hadn't played it yet.

Our destination was a meadow on the Canyon Trail, halfway up a ridge that looked down into a valley filled with Douglas Fir, Oak, Bay, Madrone and probably a few redwoods that hadn't gotten logged in the previous century. It was the home of all our owls, and the only place on the trip we might possibly hear a Pileated Woodpecker. Mike got out the tape recorder and we played owl noises down into the canyon. And owl noises echoed back! We heard Western Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl and Northern Pygmy-owl. The whoots of the owls was something we would hear throughout the day, since imitating them seems to be Mike's preferred method of pestering sparrows into coming out of hiding. But at this moment we were hearing the real thing. The Saw-whet Owl remained quiet, despite multiple attempts. Saw-whets prefer the deep night, and dawn was already starting to glow through the clouds. We would have to forego the Saw-whet.

As the pale light of dawn approached, we had one of the most magical moments of the day. It's called the Pre-dawn Chorus. I had heard it before, but never with a pack of expert birders on the top of a ridge two miles into the wilderness. At the first faint sound someone would call out the species and everyone else would strain to hear. American Robin was the first in the concert. Then Common Poorwill, a life bird for me, called faintly "pooorwill, pooorwill" in the grasslands above and behind us. The Pileated Woodpecker then drummed, much to our delight. Then the birds started coming in faster: Black-headed Grosbeak, Spotted Towhee, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco. The Great Horned Owl added to the symphony. Bewick's Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, California Towhee. They came on faster and faster. By the time it was light enough to see clearly we had 28 species on our day-list, and the only bird we had actually seen was the Barn Owl at the start of our trip.

Dark-eyed Junco

Now that we could actually see the birds, it seemed like our binoculars would be useful. But it was surprising how often we identified birds by call before we ever saw them. We hiked up the ridge, where we had heard the poorwills call, to add Rufous Crowned Sparrow, Wrentit and a few other steep-slope Chaparral-loving birds to the list. We hiked deep down into the Douglas Fir canyon to hear the Pygmy Nuthatches call, the Winter Wren sing and watch the Brown Creeper creep. We hiked deeper still until we got to one of Mike's favorite meadows. A meadow where he had seen Hermit Warbler and Townsend's Warblers the previous year. And practically on cue, the warblers appeared (this was where I got out my field guide for the first time)! And a Hammond's Flycatcher, a flycatcher nearly indistinguishable from eleven other species of flycatcher, appeared at the top of a fir tree, sang, presented its bill shape, waited until all eight of us had seen him through binoculars, and flew away making his diagnostic flight call.

Hiking the three miles back uphill to the car might have been difficult if we weren't already so high from the birds.

Townsend's Warbler

Birding by Car

We piled into the van and dug through our supplies for breakfast as we drove back down off the mountains. I drank coffee and ate a granola bar. Throughout the day food would be an afterthought. We never stopped anywhere for food, or for gas, or for anything except birds. If you wanted to eat, you grabbed something from your cooler while everyone else was storing their gear back in the van and Mike was starting the engine to gently hint that it was "time to go." And for bathroom breaks there were port-a-potties at many of the parks. Or you held it.

Time in the car was not wasted. All of us peered out looking for hawks on the wires or in the air, for House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons in the urban areas, and for swifts and swallows at every underpass or overpass. From the car we saw many species that we did not see at any other time of day. I commented to Mike that it was really nice to drive with a group of people who were actually happy to stop in the middle of the road for a sparrow!

The drive from Monte Bello down to Stevens Creek Park took about 20 minutes. We added Brown-headed Cowbird, White-throated Swift and three other birds to the day's total on that jaunt. As he drove, Mike would talk about the birds we had seen, and start listing things we might see out the window: Vaux's Swift, American Kestrel, Red-shouldered Hawk. He was especially insistent about the birds of prey because he knew that they could elude us. But they are "easy" car birds if you keep a lookout.

On the way to the Stevens Creek it started raining lightly. We started thinking about whether we would have to get out the rain gear, and whether that would ruin our chances for seeing the other forest birds. At the park the drizzling rain stopped and we had no rain for the half-hour hike. The second rare bird of the day was spotted by Jean, a Swainson's Hawk flying high above us on its migration north. Mike was really excited. This was one of very few sighting in the county ever. We followed it until it become a tiny black speck in the distance and disappeared behind the hills. Amazingly, we saw a second Swainson's Hawk fly over in the same direction forty-five minutes later in the lower parking lot.

Just as we were getting back into the van the rain started again. We drove to a third parking area and saw a group of birders we recognized standing under the oaks and looking up at the storm clouds. But the rain grew harder, which we decided to take as an omen, and drove to another parking area (also, it's apparently a rule that you're not supposed to ask for help during a "Big Day" and we didn't want the other birders to let slip any useful bird sightings). At the third spot, the rain was gone again and we all jumped out to see Belted Kingfisher and Green Heron. Then, another rainless spot where we saw the American Dipper - one of the more sought-after birds in the county. Dippers are the only aquatic songbirds - they actually "fly" underwater and prefer fast-flowing rocky streams for their hunting grounds.

The rain, as luck would have it, only fell when we were in transit. We felt blessed. And after many failed attempts, the Kestrel and the Red-shouldered Hawk finally made their appearance mid-afternoon. Both were found as we drove from park to park. Other "car birds" were Bufflehead, Loggerhead Shrike and Wild Turkey - including a male turkey doing its display to two females who seemed wholly disinterested.

Birding by Knowing Where the Birds Are

On the drive down from Stevens Creek, we stopped in on a suburban road called Palm Avenue. Unlike most streets named after a tree, Palm Avenue was actually lined with Palm trees. And Palm trees are where orioles hang out. Mike had been down Palm Avenue just a couple days before and found Hooded Oriole, so we had expectations of seeing another one there. We turned down the street and rolled down the windows. Mike got out and walked across the street where he thought he heard something. Yup. Oriole. We all poured out and looked up at the palms where a female Hooded Oriole called. It flew into a Pepper tree in front of one of the houses, then back up to another palm. We all got our views and hustled back into the van. As we left someone noticed that two little girls were hiding underneath the pepper tree watching the weird people with binoculars drive away. Maybe we were spies, on some secret mission, in their neighborhood!

On the way back to Charleston Slough Mike told us this was the only time on our trip we would be near our cars, so if we need anything from them, now's our chance. There were shrugs and mutterings in the van as we all relayed that there was nothing we had forgotten; we were ready to bird the entire day with what we had on hand. I munched a drumstick for lunch and we wondered whether we had hit 100 species before noon. I wiped the grease off my fingers and got out my list. A rough count, but it looked like we were at 88. Oh, but I had "Great Horned Owl" and a few others listed twice. But I had forgotten Common Bushtit, Rock Pigeon and hadn't written Hooded Oriole down yet. So 88 was probably about right. Pretty good for only doing "forest birding." Now it was time to get the waterbirds. Waterbirds should provide a quick boost to our day's count.

We got out scopes this time, because the sloughs and the bay are where you really need them. The good ducks have a habit of sitting half a mile away, even when it isn't hunting season. We hiked by the forebay and quickly got Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, American White Pelican and a few other birds. Then Shoreline Lake had Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, American Coot and its predictable Surf Scoter population. The Surf Scoters, it turns out, stay there all year because every one of them is an injured bird. Most have broken wings and can't fly away, but these oceanic birds make a fine living in Shoreline Lake - the only deep freshwater lake in the baylands. Sometimes their presence attracts unusual birds such as Black Scoter, but this time it was just the regulars.

The salt ponds are one of the best places to bird in the Bay Area. In fact, the ponds attract birders from all over the world because of the amazing numbers and variety of birds that winter there (and their proximity to three international airports). They were first laid down about a hundred years ago to harvest salt, and if it wasn't for the salt ponds, there might not be any wetland habitat left in the south bay. The county is now buying the land to turn back into native habitat, and with that comes some difficult decisions. If they drain the ponds and return them all to the original habitat (rush-filled marshes), then many of the waterbirds that winter here will be left homeless (especially the ducks, which the hunters love). But you can't leave them all as saltwater ponds, otherwise where would the marsh birds live? The answer is a compromise: drain some, leave others as ponds. A varied habitat. Not what was here originally, but good in its own way.

Scaup duck

At Salt Pond A1 we got Lesser Scaup, Eared Grebe and Western Grebe but not Clark's Grebe. Like several other reasonably common birds, the Clark's Grebe would elude us the entire day. We got Black Skimmer, a bird that first came to the Bay Area a few years ago and is now regularly breeding. This was once strictly an Atlantic and Caribbean bird, but has been making its way further north in recent years. We thought about hiking out towards a little island where an injured Black-bellied Plover was known to be roosting, but decided against it as the wind was kicking up and we were running behind schedule, and because Mike thought we would have several opportunies to see that bird later.

Every stop was similar in that there were several birds that we knew to expect, and a few that we hoped for, and if we were really lucky a real surprise (like the Swainson's Hawks and the Hammond's Flycatcher earlier). If we had seen enough of the species of a given habitat, we might skip a similar scheduled stop in favor of another habitat with a likelihood of different birds. Birds are quite picky about where they live, and the more you know about the slope, plants, elevation, etc., that a bird preferred, the more likely you are to find it. In learning about birds we are all becoming experts in Nature.

Ed Levin Park was particularly good. Mike knew where the Allen's Hummingbirds had staked out their territories (by the Eucalyptus, whose profuse flowers provided plenty of nectar); he knew that Golden Eagles were likely to be flying on the same updrafts that attracted hang gliders; he knew the Yellow-billed Magpies would steal from picnickers there; he knew the small man-made lake might attract late migrant ducks; and he knew it was one of the few places with steep sloping grasslands, the preferred habitat of the Grasshopper Sparrow. Grasshopper Sparrow would be another life bird for me, so I was especially excited as we hiked a mile straight uphill. Bob N. stayed behind to watch the Western Kingbirds and look for Golden Eagles. The rest of us followed cow-paths and listened for the faint trill that sounded, well, like a grasshopper (hence the name). Along the way I found a pair of Lawrence's Goldfinches, another uncommon bird that preferred the same habitat. Mike heard the Grasshopper Sparrow first and we ran to catch up (he was perpetually ahead of us). He flushed it and I tried to get it in binoculars but only got the briefest glimpse. So we hiked to where it had landed and it flushed again. I got a better view, but still not very satisfying for a lifer. Then it flew into one of the ruts made by cattle who grazed here, and we followed the bird as it walked along the rut, giving us wonderfully satisfying views before it flew again around the side of the hill. Mike turned around and headed for a stand of Sycamores that might have some late migrants, and in my haste to catch back up I slipped down the hill and scraped my wrist. It was the only injury of the trip. I briefly stopped to put a bandaid on it and ran to join the group again.

Day's End

After Ed Levin Park, It was getting late. The sun was now about a hand's breadth above the western horizon; time was running out. Since we were high up the eastern foothills, you could see the entire bay below and the far hills where our birding had started before dawn. There weren't many birds left that we could easily get. We had to be smart about where and when we stopped or we might see nothing else new for the day. A stop above Calaveras Reservoir only added Ring-billed Duck and White-breasted Nuthatch. There was one spot on Sierra Road we wanted to stop because it might have Horned Lark, but there really wasn't much else in the eastern foothills we were likely to get.

I had never been on Sierra Road. It's one of those quiet rural roads that probably get as many birders as locals, and pretty much no one else. It's narrow, not very well maintained, one way in sections, and runs along the side of steep hills (above Alum Rock Park) with no guardrails. It didn't get you anywhere fast, so most traffic went along more convenient routes. To me it was one of the most gorgeous spots in the Bay Area.

We stopped at the top - hilltop grassland, close-cropped by grazing cattle. A habitat we hadn't been to, and the habitat preferred by the Horned Lark. The park district had fenced off most of the grassland there to prepare it for a future Open Space Preserve. That could be good, or it could be bad. Good because it means the spot won't sprout more ugly million-dollar mansions. Bad because it'll bring more traffic. And if they take away the cattle, the grass will grow taller and the Horned Larks won't like it as much. But taller grass might bring other rare birds. It's all a balance, like the salt ponds down by the bay.

Standing on the top of the hill, with the sun turning red in the west, but still glowing on the mountains to the east, it all looked beautiful. I got out my camera and took a couple pictures of the vista. Even the city sprawled below was beautiful: you could see almost every place we had birded, laid out below like a map. And the empty hills behind us stretched out for miles. There was a small, muddy stock pond by the roadside with a couple Killdeer. We had already seen Killdeer so we concentrated on the grasslands. In a small dell I heard a faint "chip chip" that sounded different from anything we had heard previously (by the end of the day, we had practically memorized all the birdcalls) and Mike came to investigate. Two Horned Larks were sitting not ten feet from the road! They both flushed when Mike called to the others, but we all got a chance to see them. Then Mike headed up the road a bit to see what else might be around. I wandered back to the stock pond and ran my binoculars around the edge. On the fence was a bird that I couldn't identify and there was so much color and pattern in my binocular view that I was overwhelmed. I turned back and called to the others that there was some sort of bird and I didn't know what it was and was it a Lark Sparrow and it had black and white and chestnut. The others came rushing up to see what I was blabbing about. Mike was last and said "Where? What is it?" On the fence wires, no now it's down by the water. Mike gasped and said "it's a longspur! It's a Lapland Longspur! In full alternate plumate. I can't believe it! Lapland Longspur!" The longspur, tired of all the attention, took flight, headed west over the hills, then turned back east and disappeared over the ridgeline. Mike kept muttering about it. "That's probably only the tenth or twelfth sighting in the county and never this late. And never in breeding plumage.This is the latest it's ever been seen. What a beautiful bird." I practically beamed, because I had found it. Before I knew it, everyone was back in the car and Mike had to call for me to join them as I stood by the pond with my binoculars, waiting for another impossible rarity to drop out of the sky.

Later that week: birders looking for the Longspur

The exhaustion from hiking, and from driving all day with no bathroom breaks and only peanuts, grapes, coffee and Pepsi for fuel was completely erased by the elation of having seen a once-in-a-decade bird. We were all bouncy, recounting the day's events as we drove down the hill. I got out the bird book for the second time that day to pass around so everyone could see a picture of the bird we had just discovered.

We thought there might be time for a last hopeful stop at the Coyote Creek Field Station for some of the birds we had missed that day. It was getting late for passerines, but maybe the pond had something. As it turned out, we got no new birds and we watched the light disappear as we stared out at the silhouettes of American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts and other birds feeding in the low tide at the edge of the bay. It was a beautiful sunset anyway, and we were in a spot I had never seen before: the point where Coyote Creek winds its way through the brackish sloughs and empties itself into the San Francisco bay.

Black-necked Stilt

On the drive back toward Charleston Slough where our cars were, we were still at it: what could we possibly see (or hear) after dark? The sparrows were all asleep. Anyone want to hike two miles in to try for the Saw-whet Owl again? We hadn't gotten Clapper Rail yet. We never saw the Black-bellied Plover. Mike got a look of epiphany on his face as he remembered the injured plover stuck on the island, but we decided it would be too cruel to shine his "Q-beam" high-powered flashlight on the poor bird. We decided to hunt for the rail.

It was 8:30pm. The time that the Varied Twitchers team had quit the previous year. Mike had quickly counted our birds just after sunset and by our count we thought we had 159 species (it turned out we only had 157 at that moment). We wanted one more. Just, you know, so it would be even. Actually, we wanted one more because we wanted one more. Birding, it turns out, is quite addictive.

Palo Alto Baylands - the gate was still open, but it was 8:35pm and the sign said the gates close at 8:30pm. We didn't want to be trapped inside. The next parking lot was also posted "no parking after sunset," but we stepped out and tried to hear rails in the mudflats anyway. No luck. Byxbee Park also had "Gates close at 8:30pm" posted, but there was one spot outside the gates that didn't technically say "no parking" so we parked and hiked in. There's an island far down the trail where the Clapper Rails breed. Perhaps if we played a tape we could hear them call back. None of us but Mike knew that it was a mile hike in to get close enough to the island to hear rails call back, and Mike was already 100 yards ahead of us down the trail. I pulled out my cell phone and called home to say I would be "a little late," and ran to catch up.

Along the way Mike shone the Q-beam into some of the sloughs. It was still low tide. There were not a lot of birds out. You could hear birds calling, but none of them were new. Then Mike heard a Black-bellied Plover. Listen. There it is again. Mike lit up a muddy slough with the Q-beam and I got a brief look at a bird that was probably, but not certainly, a plover. We called back to the others (Mike and I were by this time well ahead of the rest), but it was gone by the time they arrived. We continued on out to "Clapper Island".

The clappers were completely uncooperative at "Clapper Island". Perhaps it was because there was a vast gulf of seawater between us and them and Mike's tape wasn't loud enough. Perhaps it was because they were all sitting on eggs and didn't want to call out their location. Perhaps they were all on the other side of the island. Whatever the reason, we didn't get Clapper Rail. But on the shore of the island everyone finally got to see the Black-bellied Plover. Bird number 158 and a great long day of birding. And only a mile to hike back to the van.

On the way back we could see a patrol car scanning the parking lots. It was across the water at Palo Alto Baylands and swept its beam over us at least three times but apparently didn't notice us. Then we watched from half a mile off as the patrol car came into Byxbee Park's parking lot and swept the beam there. Would they ticket us? We continued our fast-paced walk, a little nervous. Then we stopped to glance at a large bird that flew overhead. Night-heron? No, Barn Owl. Mike shone the light on it and everyone got to watch as it passed over the marsh. Our first bird was also our last. Perhaps even the same Barn Owl we had seen before. How fitting.

Back at the van there was no ticket, to our relief. The gates to Byxbee Park were still open even though it was 9:35pm. The security guard was gone. We were done birding for the day. We drove to Charleston Slough, said our thanks and goodbyes and headed home to collapse. Our birding adventure was over.

I knew my legs would be tired after all that hiking. I knew my face would be sunburned and my lips would be chapped from being out all day. I knew I would be weak from lack of sleep. I didn't realize, though, that my arms would be tired and that my hands would be cramped from from holding binoculars up to my face all day. I also didn't realize how much I would enjoy birding as an "extreme" sporting event.

I can't wait to do it again.