The Jack Sparrows Big Day

Saturday 22 April 2006

A journal of Ginger and my first Birdathon as "The Jack Sparrows." Photos of this adventure are at

At 5:00am we woke to the smell of coffee and the faint song of an AMERICAN ROBIN. Donning our tricornes we hurried to Stevens Creek Reservoir, hearing SPOTTED TOWHEE and WESTERN SCRUB-JAY along the way. A brief scan of the lake in the darkness produced MALLARD (first sighting of the day), while a WRENTIT and SONG SPARROW called from the hillside behind us. Then we drove to our planned starting point: Picchetti Ranch's Bear Meadow trailhead starting on Stevens Canyon Road and climbing uphill to the center of the preserve.

As it grew brighter, more birds called; there was no great dawn chorus because of the cloud cover, but in the dim morning the birds were active longer than usual. Conditions were good for birding with no rain and insignificant wind. We heard a BELTED KINGFISHER (later seen at Ed Levin County Park) chattering over the reservoir. A CALIFORNIA THRASHER sang in the chaparral above us, and CALIFORNIA QUAIL clucked and "chi-ca-goed" in the nearby brush. Scanning the reservoir as the light came up, we saw a beautiful OSPREY hunting, as well as two CASPIAN TERNs and a few DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTs.

We hiked all over Picchetti Ranch until nearly 8:30am, seeing multiple BEWICK'S WRENs, WARBLING VIREOs, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETs, GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWs and hearing WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE and a PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER. Then we headed up Stevens Canyon Road to find a pair of AMERICAN DIPPERs flying and hunting along the fast-flowing upper creek. A male HAIRY WOODPECKER made himself obvious by calling from a Sycamore above the creek. Then down to Stevens Creek Park's Canyon Picnic Area where we failed to find a hoped-for Western Tanager, but saw TOWNSEND'S WARBLER.

At the Baytree Picnic Area we saw a singing PURPLE FINCH. At the Villa Maria Picnic Area we spied The Varied Twitchers! We said a brief 'hello', then headed to opposite ends of the picnic area so as not to interfere with each other's Big Day. There we saw WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH and heard WILSON'S WARBLER and COOPER'S HAWK.

We then headed down to McClellan Ranch where we got our hoped-for HOODED and BULLOCK'S ORIOLEs, as well as RED-SHOULDERED HAWK and AMERICAN GOLDFINCH. I briefly saw a swift fly overhead that was a likely Vaux's, but it wasn't a good enough look to count.

Next we headed up 280 (a RED-TAILED HAWK flew over us, one of only three seen the entire day) to Arastradero Preserve, where we saw two flocks of CEDAR WAXWINGs calling as they flew overhead. We hiked up the Redtail Loop Trail planning to scope Felt Lake. Along the way we saw a WHITE-TAILED KITE perched in a tree to the west, and another flying overhead. As we headed up the hill, we were surprised to see a coyote in the grass. It hurried away when it saw us approaching. We hoped to find Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in a batch of chaparral at the trail's summit, but to no avail. As we approached, a passerine landed on a branch in full view, but rather than a gnatcatcher we were quite surprised to see a male LAZULI BUNTING. Along the ridge dividing Arastradero Preserve from Felt Lake we found numerous swallows, including TREE SWALLOWs using the nest boxes. We saw our first WHITE-THROATED SWIFT of the day, numerous WESTERN BLUEBIRDs and two pairs of HOUSE WRENs, also using the nest boxes in the eucalyptus trees. It turned out to be worth hauling the scope on the 1.5 mile loop trail: at least a dozen RING-NECKED DUCKs were visible on Felt Lake. As we hiked out we heard and briefly saw a SELASPHORUS HUMMINGBIRD.

Our next stop was Palo Alto Baylands, where we saw our first WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW feeding on the ground by the duck pond. The pond had both LESSER and GREATER SCAUP (later also seen at Charleston Slough) and a NORTHERN PINTAIL (we later saw more Pintail at Alviso, as well). Displaying beside the lagoon was a RING-NECKED PHEASANT. The restored marsh gave us close looks at DUNLIN as well as WESTERN and LEAST SANDPIPERs and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERs. The GREEN-WINGED TEAL were abundant, and the NORTHERN SHOVELERs also quite common. A CLAPPER RAIL was bathing and preening itself in rail alley by the boardwalk. Many birds were visible far out on the mudflats with a very low tide. There, we saw several BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, more DUNLIN and two WHIMBREL among the many dowitchers and peeps.

Next we parked at Charleston Slough. Shoreline Lake produced two SURF SCOTERs and a single YELLOWLEGS (probably GREATER). The low marshy reed-ponds near the parking lot yielded a tussling COMMON YELLOWTHROAT and MARSH WREN, the former of whom posed for us, looking for all the world like the cover of The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. At Charleston Slough we enjoyed the view of 26+ BLACK SKIMMERs resting on "Skimmer Island". While we watched they took off, flew briefly away from the island, then returned to rest. As we were leaving, we saw our first WESTERN KINGBIRD of the day.

In Alviso, we got our BURROWING OWLs at the Jubilee Christian Center. In the flooded fields on the way to the EEC we saw CINNAMON TEAL, more YELLOWLEGS and another NORTHERN PINTAIL. At the EEC we again spotted The Varied Twitchers (confirming our mutual eastward migration) and saw the BARN OWL in its box and a FOX SPARROW flying out of the garden.

At Ed Levin County Park we saw The Varied Twitchers for the last time, but I don't think they saw us. They were headed up the hill for their Grasshopper and Rufous-crowned Sparrows (two birds we never got) while we stayed in the parking areas where we found YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE and WILD TURKEY. The roosting LONG-EARED OWL was a stunning sight, well secreted, but later a flying individual was also seen.

We then drove up to Grant Ranch County Park. We found at least 10 BUFFLEHEAD on Grant Lake and as we were scanning for more birds a pair of COMMON MERGANSERs flew in. We did not find our hoped-for Lawrence's Goldfinch and even more surprising was the lack of any Great Blue Heron for the day, but high spirits prevailed on the team despite our missing birds.

We decided to climb the trail at Twin Gates to watch darkness fall and perhaps get a single additional bird before it was too dim to see. As the sun set and the sky grew darker, we were encouraged by the songs of WESTERN MEADOWLARK calling in the distance. Near the top of the hill, about 2/3 of a mile up we saw shadowy birds flying off the trail. We identified them in the gloom as GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWs, which we'd already seen at many other locations. Then, at the very top of the trail we saw two small birds walking. We put our binoculars to our eyes and we were delighted to see two lovely HORNED LARKs.

We happily bounced down the hill, thinking Horned Lark was a great bird on which to finish. But before we could get to our car, a pair of GREAT HORNED OWLs called to each other in the darkness. Inspired, we drove up to Smith Creek to call for Western Screech-Owls, but only the Great Horned Owls called back.

We thought of listening for rails down at Charleston Slough as a last hurrah, but decided it was more fitting to end on owls, so we called it a day at 125 species.


List of birds found, in order of appearance. For birds heard first and seen later, the first sighting is in parentheses. For some birds I have listed additional places we saw that bird.


h = heard only, never seen

h,v = heard first, seen later

v = seen before hearing, or seen only

Home, 5:00am

h,v American Robin (later at Steven's Creek)

h,v California Towhee (later at Picchetti Ranch)

h,v House Sparrow (later at Palo Alto Baylands)

h,v Anna's Hummingbird (later at Picchetti Ranch)

On the road to Picchetti Ranch, 5:30am

h,v Spotted Towhee (later at Picchetti Ranch)

h,v Western Scrub-Jay (later at Picchetti Ranch)

h,v Northern Mockingbird (later at Charleston Slough)

Stevens Creek Reservoir, 6:00am

h,v Mallard

h,v Song Sparrow (later at Picchetti Ranch)

h,v Wrentit (later at Picchetti Ranch)

Picchetti Ranch, 6:00am

h,v Belted Kingfisher (later at Ed Levin County Park)

h,v California Thrasher (later at Picchetti Ranch)

h California Quail (heard many places, never seen)

h,v Dark-eyed Junco (later at Picchetti Ranch)

v Double-crested Cormorant

h,v Oak Titmouse

h,v Chestnut-backed Chickadee

h Pacific-slope Flycatcher

h,v Bewick's Wren

v Osprey

v Caspian Tern

h,v House Finch

h,v Northern Flicker

h,v Steller's Jay (later seen at Stevens Canyon Road, Picchetti Ranch parking area)

h,v Mourning Dove

h,v Canada Goose

v American Crow

v Golden-crowned Sparrow

h,v Black Phoebe

h,v Warbling Vireo

h,v Orange-crowned Warbler

h,v Nuttall's Woodpecker

h Western Wood-Pewee

v Band-tailed Pigeon

h,v Lesser Goldfinch

v Yellow-rumped Warbler

h,v selasphorus hummingbird (later at Arastradero Preserve)

v Ruby-crowned Kinglet

h,v Downy Woodpecker

v Violet-green Swallow (also at Arastradero, other sites)

v Black-headed Grosbeak

v Barn Swallow (also at Arastradero, other sites)

h,v European Starling

v American Kestrel

Stevens Canyon Road, 8:45am

v Hairy Woodpecker

v American Dipper

v Townsend's Warbler

h,v Acorn Woodpecker

Picchetti Ranch parking lot, 9:15am

v Brewer's Blackbird

Baytree Picnic Area, 9:45am

h,v Purple Finch

Villa Maria Picnic Area, 10:00am

v White-breasted Nuthatch

h Cooper's Hawk

h Wilson's Warbler

McClellan Ranch, 10:30am

v American Goldfinch

h,v Red-shouldered Hawk (later at Arastradero Preserve)

v Bullock's Oriole (also many at Ed Levin)

v Hooded Oriole

Driving to Arastradero, 10:40am

v Common Raven

v Rock Pigeon

v Red-tailed Hawk

v Bushtit

Arastradero Preserve, 11:00am

h,v Red-winged Blackbird

h,v Cedar Waxwing

v White-tailed Kite (also at Grant Lake)

v Tree Swallow

h,v Western Meadowlark (later at Grant Ranch)

v Lazuli Bunting

v White-throated Swift

v Western Bluebird

v House Wren

Felt Lake, Arastradero, 12:00pm

v American Coot

v Great Egret

v Pied-billed Grebe

v Ring-necked Duck

v Snowy Egret

v Ruddy Duck

v Killdeer

v Gadwall

v Northern Rough-winged Swallow

v Brown-headed Cowbird

Palo Alto Baylands, 12:45am

v White-crowned Sparrow

v Ring-billed Gull

v Black-crowned Night-Heron

v American Avocet

v Black-necked Stilt

h,v Ring-necked Pheasant

v Greater Scaup

v Lesser Scaup

v Northern Pintail (later at Alviso)

Restored wetlands, Palo Alto Baylands

v Marbled Godwit

v Western Sandpiper

v Least Sandpiper

v Semipalmated Plover

v Northern Shoveler

v Green-winged Teal

v California Gull

v Willet

Boardwalk, Palo Alto Baylands, 1:20pm

h,v Common Yellowthroat (later at Charleston Slough)

v Long-billed Dowitcher

v Forster's Tern

v Clapper Rail

h,v Marsh Wren (later at Charleston Slough)

h,v Savannah Sparrow

v Cliff Swallow

v Turkey Vulture

v Black-bellied Plover

v Whimbrel

v Dunlin

Charleston Slough, Shoreline Lake, 2:40pm

v Surf Scoter

v Yellowlegs (also Greater Yellowlegs at Alviso)

v Common Moorhen

v Black Skimmer

v Western Kingbird

Alviso, 3:30pm

v Burrowing Owl

v Cinnamon Teal

v Short-billed Dowitcher

v Barn Owl (also heard at Twin Gates, Grant Ranch)

v Fox Sparrow

Ed Levin County Park, 4:30pm

v Long-eared Owl

v Wild Turkey

v Yellow-billed Magpie

Grant Ranch, 5:30pm

v Bufflehead

v Common Merganser

Twin Gates, Grant Ranch, 8:00pm

v Horned Lark

h Great Horned Owl

125 species total

- Barry & Ginger Langdon-Lassagne -

aka The [Captain] Jack Sparrows