The Varied Twitchers Big Day 2005

Saturday, 23 April 2005

Pictures from this birdathon are at

Naturally, bedtime went all the way to midnight, and my alarm was set for 3am to make it to the meeting-place by four. Still, anticipation led me to wake before the alarm and start my day as refreshed as one could on so little sleep. Ginger came to bed as I arose and wished me well as she settled into sleep.

Last year, I had been the first one to the parking lot, wondering if I had the day or the location wrong. It turned out I was just early. This year, I was practically the last one there. This passel of birders was serious about the quest! We rearranged our belongings into the three cars: the first belonging to Mike Rogers, our guide, another filled with the Rock Wrens, a competing birdathon team that joined the Varied Twitchers this time around, and the third by Bob Nansen, Pat Kenny, and Roland Kenner with me as driver.

Before we drove off into the hills, we needed to check the local marsh for Rails: Sora, Virginia, Clapper. So we hiked into the forebay and got out the tape recorder. Mike quickly got the tape playing rail calls, but the rails in the marsh, if there were any, were too stubborn to respond. We heard Barn Swallows, California Gulls, American Avocets and a Mallard, so we didn't start of the morning entirely empty-handed. But Rails are very difficult to get in the daytime, so this might be our only chance, and everything we heard was practically guaranteed later in the day (in fact, we saw all of them later as well).

Somewhat disheartened, we piled into our cars and headed across town and uphill to Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. We put on our jackets and got out our binoculars and flashlights. And our rain gear: it was dripping already, and threatening to come down stronger. On a hunch, I put my rain pants on in addition to my raincoat.

I offerred the extra space in my backpack to the group, and one teammember gave me a spare large flashlight to carry. These are the flashlights that are all bulb and no body: floodlights really. Designed to light up an owl like it's on stage. If someone shined one at you you wouldn't be able to see in the dark for a long time. Q-Beam.

When it comes to birding, I find that I'm the non-intrusive type. I am ambivalent even about 'pishing', and quite reluctant to use tapes to call them in or flashlights to identify them. I prefer birds to come to me, in the light, of their own accord. Still, that's mostly just my ideal, and when it comes down to it, I find my self whispering and pishing at bushes a lot more than my conscience says I should.

But it's a Big Day: using flashlights, tapes and pishing are perfectly within the rules, and no one else seems to have these personal taboos. We actually use these aids very conservatively, and once a year is probably not enough to seriously disrupt any birds' routine. So I put my inner voice on hold, and carry on.

Then off we went down the trail, smatterings of rain, puddles in the dirt. Everyone anticipating the first bird. Someone said to Mike "I predict it'll be Song Sparrow." A few minutes later we found a woody spot to call for Screech Owls and, sure enough, a Song Sparrow woke to scold us for disturbing his slumber.

We trekked on, stopping briefly under the trees to call for the owls. Increasingly, under the trees was the only place water wasn't dropping on us from the sky, so these stops were appreciated for that if nothing else. Mike saw movement once after a long bout of owl-calling, but never did a screech owl return our hail. We made it to the fork in the road near the meadow where last year I was dazzled by the dawn chorus. We went down into the depths of the valley to try calling for the Saw-whet Owl. No luck there either. The rain increased, and we headed back uphill to see what the dawn chorus would bring this year. The best bird so far was a Great Horned Owl that was calling down in the valley.

Last year the Dawn Chorus was awe-inspiring. This year, there was no dawn chorus to speak of. Just birds occasionally calling out in the rain. Juncos and Robins and Spotted Towhees calling out periodically while the Great Horned Owl replied from the valley below. No Poorwills. No gathering crescendo as all the birds awoke to the brightening sky. Just the slow realization that now we might actually see what before we only heard. A Band-tailed Pigeon flew overhead, my first sighting of the day. A Wrentit called up the hill where the Poorwills were remaining stubbornly silent. The hill, I later learned, is the other side of Black Mountain, where I have hiked before - starting at Rancho San Antonio. It's a strange feeling to realize that what you thought were two very different places are just the opposite side of the same mountain. I had the same feeling when I looked down into the deep valley where the Saw-whet Owls don't call and realizing that it is the headwaters of Stevens Creek. And of course, the cleft also marks the path of the San Andreas Fault zone. I am reminded almost every time I step outside how many amazing things there are so close to my house in humble suburban Sunnyvale.

As it got lighter, we headed up the hill in search of Rufous-crowned Sparrows and other hillside chaparral species. We did not see the Rufous-crowned, but we did get a Nashville Warbler, which for a while was the best bird of the day. Also, we found the first of several California Newts crossing the trail. I took the role of newt-protector until the rest of the team caught on and joined me in making sure none of these beautiful creatures were trod upon. We did, unfortunately, find a young alligator lizard that had died on the trail probably from an unwatched foot.

As the sun came up, the relative lightness of the sky didn't change much due to the thick rain clouds above us. The inside of my daypack got soaked and I rearranged its contents in an attempt to minimize the damage. We hiked deep down into the valley, looking for Pygmy Nuthatch, Winter Wren, Brown Creeper and other known residents of those parts. The nuthatches eluded us, despite multiple attempts to call them: Mike's tape recorder died from excessive moisture, and my iPod became unusable because the controls wouldn't respond to wet fingers, but we still managed several minutes of imitation electronic nuthatch. The Brown Creepers were found and we even got the Winter Wren on the hike out, a delight to the upper registers of our ears.

We were running a bit late as we headed out of Monte Bello, and were somewhat disappointed at missing many of the birds we'd hoped to see there: in addition to the no-show owls and poorwills, we also failed to see Hermit Warbler, Townsend's Warbler and any kind of empidonax flycatcher.

Then, just a quarter mile from being back in the cars we passed a lovely patch of coyotebush and other scrub, with a small grove of short willows, all bordered by grass and further out by tall oaks. David McIntyre and Bob Hirt called to the others that they had a possible Lincoln's Sparrow and at the same time Mike heard an empid call. We split our time between the two trying to get a glimpse or a song and through long waits and much bushwacking managed several brief looks at a Dusky Flycatcher, and a couple members of the team were able to determine the Lincoln's more certainly. While there, the Pileated Woodpecker called clearly from the valley below, a Hermit Thrush flew into a thicket, a Cooper's Hawk perched on a tree atop a nearby hill and our first Ash-throated Flycatcher greeted us.

We were now over a half hour late. That half hour would later cost us Whimbrel and possibly a few other shorebirds, as we later missed the tide at Palo Alto Baylands.

Back at the cars, we shed our soaking outer layers, found bits of breakfast and drove down the hill. Near the bottom, Mike stopped his van and we immediately followed suit. We got out to see a small cloud of swallows, including Violet-green and Cliff, and higher up both White-throated and Vaux's Swifts. Further on, under highway 280, we watched Rough-winged Swallows fly in and out of their crevice nests.

Next was Stevens Creek Park, Villa Maria Picnic Area where we hoped to pick up many forest species, most especially the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Once again a target bird eluded us, but we did get Olive-sided Flycatcher and a lovely pair of flyby Wood Ducks among the other local species. On one side of the picnic area we heard a disturbance among the birds and watched as a Great Horned Owl flew away beneath the trees to escape the taunting from the smaller birds.

Then Stevens Creek Reservoir where we failed to see or hear Belted Kingfisher, and Stevens Canyon Road where the Dippers remained undiscovered. McClellan Ranch did however give us both Orioles and a Barn Owl.

On the drive down to Palo Alto Baylands for our first daylight look at wetlands, we tallied up our birds so far and were happy to note that we had just over eighty species. At this time last year, we had approximately 90, so we weren't actually doing too bad.

Driving into the baylands we saw a flock of Pelicans and lower down a mixed flock of shorebirds including Long-billed Curlew. There may have been Whimbrel there, but we never saw them. The tide was almost fully in, but both Long and Short-billed Dowitchers were feeding on an inlet by the duck pond. Mike described in detail the best ways to distinguish these two very-similar species. As is often the case, the best field mark is their call: a single 'kek' for the Long-billed, and paired 'kew-tew's for the Short-billed. The duck pond itself yielded up all its expected gulls and both scaup. A pair of Western Kingbirds on the far shore was a surprise though.

Next was Charleston Slough, where our day's adventure started. One of the points of stopping back at Charleston Slough was to give people access to their cars. Last year nobody needed anything from their vehicles; this year a few went for bits of dry clothes or shoes to make the rest of the day more comfortable. I changed socks which made a huge difference in my comfort level.

At Charleston Slough, in the Coast Casey Forebay to be precise, we saw a Virginia Rail, the only rail that would make an appearance all day, and quite unexpected at the noon hour.

By now we had logged well over 100 birds, and it was progressively harder to get the new ones. Sure there were a few that we expected to pick up in the east hills such as Yellow-billed Magpie and Wild Turkey, but even those were by no means guaranteed. Each bird from here on would be hard-won. Still, we had paced ourselves well, and despite the disappontments and weather of the morning, everyone was in good spirits and had the energy to see this through.

At Alviso Marina we were delighted by an unexpected Fox Sparrow, and managed to see both the Sanderlings and Snowy Plovers that had been sighted earlier in the week. I had not seen a Snowy Plover in years, so even as a dot in a spotting scope they were exciting birds for me. Plus, there were Red-necked Phalarope. All four of these birds were species we had not seen the previous year, so this was a big boost for the Varied Twitchers.

Then we hit the EEC (Alviso's Environmental Education Center, in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge -- a mouthful of a name; which is why we just say 'EEC') where we tried hard for American Pipit and were again disappointed. We did manage the Loggerhead Shrike, and Mike spotted a Blue-winged Teal flying by. The Peregrine Falcon on the power tower was also a delight. There were no Yellow-headed Blackbirds at Arzino Ranch, but we knew they were a long shot anyway.

At Ed Levin we got our hoped-for Allen's Hummingbird: very nicely poised at the top of a branch and waiting patiently for everyone to look through Mike's spotting scope. Next was a Long-eared Owl hiding in a pine tree where it had been seen in years past but had not been reported in a long time. This was my second ever Long-eared Owl, and much better than my first look twenty-odd years ago.

The Grasshopper Sparrows were notoriously difficult, but eventually showed themselves to two people on the team. Mike first, since he was the one traipsing up the hill trying to flush them. The Rufous-crowned Sparrows however were practically tame, popping up on fence posts to call before our eyes. When we left Ed Levin without spotting our expected Golden Eagle though, we were a bit worried about our final tally.

On the drive up to Calaveras Reservoir the car carrying the Rock Wrens stopped to get for us a Rock Wren: another excellent bird that wasn't seen the previous year. Several of us hiked down the hill and got second glimpses at the Wren. Then, on the winding road to the reservoir our only Caspian Tern flew over the caravan and our day's tally was looking better. Wild Turkeys and Yellow-billed Magpies were quite cooperative as well.

Then we got out scopes and scanned every microsopic speck we could find on Calaveras Reservoir, but none of them materialized into Ring-necked Ducks. Most were Western Grebes, which we already had. None could be resolved to be even a Clark's Grebe which would have been nice. So we drove on to our sunset destination: Sierra Road, and on the way we got our Golden Eagle.

Sierra Road is that magical place where I found a Lapland Longspur last year. This year, however, all it gave us was Horned Lark. A good bird, of course. A beautiful bird. And as it turned out, our last bird of the day.

We wended our way back down to Palo Alto Baylands for a last try at the Whimbrel, but the tide was out, the birds were gone and the light was fading. We talked about taping for Rails, but the feeling all around was that although we could probably go another hour, without light our chances were very slim of getting anything new. We taped for rails again at the Coast Casey Forebay but it was as silent as it had been at day's beginning.

Even with the seemingly long list of "missing" birds, everyone was in great spirits and we spent a few minutes recounting what a good day it had been. Our final total was 157 which is a great tally, even if it was "only" the same as last year.

Still, we can't help imagining: what if we had heard those owls, or gotten to the bay in time for a Whimbrel, or seen a Kingfisher or Osprey fly over Stevens Creek Reservoir? 160 is just a number, but it is such a good number. It's such a good number that we are all visualizing how next year is going to be just that much better.