Spring Birdathon 2010

The Jack Sparrows

Monday 19 April 2010

We're writing this on a rainy, windy Tuesday. Exactly the kind of day you don't want to be on a birdathon. The rain makes you miserable, and the wind keeps the birds from being out, and it makes it hard to hear them singing. Which is why we went birding yesterday!

We love supporting the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, and we enjoy the challenge and learning opportunity that the birdathon provides us with, every year. We also enjoy the time together, working as a team.

You can find photographs we took on our Big Day at: http://www.pbase.com/wilmot/birdathon_2010

We woke up at 4am and were on the road to Mt. Hamilton well before 5am, planning on working our way along the eastern foothills and down to the bay, ending the day in the western hills. This plan had worked well for us our last time out. We got our first bird, a Northern Mockingbird, by song in the residential streets of the east hills. We had planned to pre-dawn hike along the Smith Creek trail, in Joseph D. Grant County Park, but the first dawnlight was already pinking the sky so we pulled over near Grant Lake and rolled down the windows. To our delight, we heard a Common Poorwill calling up the slope. This unmistakeable song was then drowned out by two Great Horned Owls booming out their homing calls, back and forth to each other across the valley. This pair of exciting species convinced us: we needed to get out of the car --  immediately.

So we grabbed our gear and put on warmer layers and headed up the hill in the dark. The poorwill stopped calling before we were even 100 yards from the car; we were really lucky to have caught it before it bedded down for the day. With binoculars we were able to make out the dark silhouette of the Great Horned Owl against the starry sky. The weather was calm and the sky was clear. Our birding adventure was off to a wonderful start!

Hiking up one hill and down another, we arrived at McCreery Lake (a tiny pond, really) in hopes of nabbing a Wood Duck. Birds began singing for the day and we were wishing our birding-by-ear identification powers were a little more practiced. We had no trouble with common birds like Mallard and Pied-billed Grebe, but the sparrows were eluding us. There were probably several species that we missed because we were unable to identify their call. The layer of fog over the McCreery started to dissipate as the sky lightened from charcoal to palest gold. We scanned the lake but found no Wood Ducks, though coyotes yapped in the distance and Turkeys gobbled in response. A pair of Canada Geese, honking at deafening volume, dropped from the sky and landed on the lake, and we decided it was time to move on. As we hiked back over the hill we heard a Cooper's Hawk calling from the trees and soon we saw it take off and fly out over the hills.

At Grant Lake, we scoped for unusual ducks while standing beneath a pair of ancient white oak trees that were swarming with birdlife. We witnessed (and amazingly, photographed) a pair of Tree Swallows mating on a branch, and saw House Wrens taking food into a nest hole above us. In the parking lot for Grant Lake we found a Lincoln's Sparrow sitting in a small, scrubby live oak. In the parking area below the campground we found our first Western Kingbird and Western Bluebird, and up the road towards the campground we spotted the Ash-throated Flycatchers, paired off for mating season. We were delighted to discover a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on a nest high in another oak tree. Driving further up the hill, we stopped at a pullout above Bass Lake and there we got our Wood Ducks (two pair).

After Grant Ranch, we drove down the hill and saw both a Merlin and an American Kestrel on the drive -- two lovely falcons, each distinctive. We drove toward Sierra Road, which winds its way up the northern rim of Alum Rock Canyon, offering spectacular views of the Bay Area and at its summit a gorgeous grassland with stunning wildflowers. It is perfect habitat for the Horned Lark and a few other open-prairie species. We weren't disappointed; as soon as we opened our windows we heard the larks calling, and as we searched for a spot to park we came upon a flock of at least twenty (and possibly close to 50) American Pipits. Normally we see only one or two pipits at a time, usually down by the bay, so to see a large flock of them together was amazing. The Pipits posed quite nicely for Barry to photograph them from the car. Then we found a pair of Lark Sparrows sitting on the barbed wire fence, adjacent to the cattle-watering ponds.

We next went to Ed R. Levin County Park, which was a bit of a disappointment. There had been a Calliope Hummingbird spotted there as recently as a few days ago, but it was nowhere to be seen. Also absent were any selasphorus hummingbirds, try as we might to find them by their distinctive wing sounds, for far-too-many precious, ticking minutes. We did manage to pick up Black-headed Grosbeak, but we were otherwise frustrated in our pursuit of additional birds. Usually this park produces much more of a 'bang for the buck' in the species count. We decided that attempting the hike up the hillside for Rufous-crowned and Grasshopper Sparrows was likely to take too much time for too few additions, and we didn't want to sacrifice our favorite locations in the western hills, so we abandoned the eastern hills and headed for the baylands habitat.

At the Alviso Environmental Education Center we got the standard common gulls and some shorebirds. We identified a yellowlegs as a Greater Yellowlegs when it flew away calling "Tew-ew-ew-ew-ew-ew." The intersection of State & Spreckels streets didn't have anything new to show us, possibly because it was too flooded? A Burrowing Owl cooperated by showing itself atop an orange-flagged marker-stick in the fields behind Jubilee Christian Center -- a fairly reliable locale to find that species.

We then drove to Charleston Slough in Mountain View, where we found a Common Goldeneye and two breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes on Shoreline Lake as well as the usual incongruous set of confused Surf Scoters. At the slough we found a huge flock of "peeps." Our scoping the flock rewarded us with three Dunlin mixed in the group, and a few Willets nearby. No Skimmers on "Skimmer Island," unfortunately. Dozens of Anna's hummingbirds - and again, not a single selasphorous.

Next up: Palo Alto Baylands, where we got Marbled Godwit, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Greater Scaup. We hunted for but did not find the Clapper Rail. Then we drove through the city to get to the western hills.

We birded the forested side of Arastradero Preserve where we found, after much patience, a California Thrasher quietly shuffling through the underbrush. While we crouched there, pishing, a Wrentit came within inches of us and scolded us soundly. Very shortly therafter, another thrasher came out and ostentatiously sang in a bush ten feet from us! A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher emerged from the willows by the creek and gave us a lovely view. We also found our Rough-winged Swallow here, as well as several great views of the White-tailed Kite.

It was getting late, and exhaustion was becoming a factor in our ability to keep alert and focused. There were still a few important locations to visit on our hoped-for list. We stopped in at McClellan Ranch where we happened to catch Bob Power just as he was leaving for the day. He wished us well (yet gave us no hints) and we headed out to the creekside to look for Hooded Oriole and Dark-eyed Junco. How can anyone bird from 5am to 6pm and NOT see a Dark-eyed Junco in the Bay Area!?!! We managed to obtain both, but we could not lay eyes upon the Barn Owl in the barn's nest box. Frustrated, we turned to Stevens Creek Reservoir, but failed to find any Caspian Terns or Osprey or Mergansers, the last of these being a real long shot, this late in the day. We finally spotted our first White-throated Swift, high above the reservoir.

After the reservoir, we looked at the sky and tried to determine whether we should head up Stevens Canyon for the Dipper next, or go to (our belovéd) Picchetti. Sentiment won out -- we decided on Picchetti as it's our favorite place to bird. As we walked its trails, we reminisced about all the times we'd been there before, and all the memories of past birding trips and nature hikes, seeing the pond empty or full, hiking with friends or alone. The light was fading from "dim" to "useless"; we stopped rushing and just enjoyed the sounds of nature. We found a Hairy Woodpecker and were content. The Olive-sided Flycatcher did not make an appearance, nor did it call out its signature: "quick-THREE-beers."

We got in the car in the last of the cloud-covered light, thinking we were done for the day, but impulsively determined we ought to "just check" the Dipper spot. We parked and sat quietly by the rushing waters of Stevens Creek; sure enough, an American Dipper called and flew within a few feet of us, before full-dark. It was a wonderful bird to end on.

We were tired and achy and hungry. It was time to stop in at the Duke of Edinburgh and enjoy a quick-TWO-beers and tasty pub food before heading home to collapse in exhaustion. Despite our species count not being the highest it's ever been, we consider this birdathon adventure to be our most successful one ever. 

At least until next time...

Our final tally was 119 species. Here's the full list:


Bird Name




Northern Mockingbird

5:04 AM

First bird!


Common Poorwill

5:22 AM



Great Horned Owl

5:25 AM

Pond oak tree


Canada Goose

5:26 AM

Calling; Later landed in McCreery Lake


Red-winged Blackbird

5:30 AM


American Coot

5:33 AM

Also bats flying over Grant Lake


Pied-billed Grebe

5:34 AM


Song Sparrow

5:35 AM



5:42 AM


Spotted Towhee

5:45 AM

Grant Ranch near campground


Steller's Jay

5:46 AM

McCreery Lake


Wild Turkey

5:48 AM


California Towhee

5:49 AM


Orange-crowned Warbler

5:58 AM


Golden-crowned Sparrow

5:58 AM


Bullock's Oriole

5:59 AM


California Quail

5:59 AM


Northern Flicker

6:03 AM


Acorn Woodpecker

6:05 AM


Cooper's Hawk

6:09 AM


Lesser Goldfinch

6:09 AM


Pacific-slope Flycatcher

6:13 AM

Horned Lark

6:15 AM

Flying flock over Grant Lake - Ginger. Also many at Sierra Road


6:16 AM


Nuttall's Woodpecker

6:19 AM

Heard several places, seen at Arastradero


Red-tailed Hawk

6:19 AM

Nest at Grant Ranch!


Warbling Vireo

6:19 AM

Western Grebe

6:21 AM


Belted Kingfisher

6:21 AM

European Starling

6:21 AM


American Crow

6:22 AM


6:24 AM

Green Heron

6:28 AM


6:28 AM

Violet-green Swallow

6:29 AM


Black Phoebe

6:30 AM

Ruddy Duck

6:33 AM

First scope bird

Black-crowned Night-Heron

6:36 AM

Immature, later saw an adult

Western Scrub-Jay

6:37 AM

Tree Swallow

6:39 AM

Western Bluebird

6:42 AM

Yellow-rumped Warbler

6:43 AM

Brown-headed Cowbird

6:45 AM


House Wren

6:47 AM

Northern Shoveler

6:49 AM

Double-crested Cormorant

6:49 AM

Northern Pintail

6:56 AM

Ginger; Barry saw at Alviso Marina

Great Blue Heron

7:01 AM


American Goldfinch

7:03 AM

White-crowned Sparrow

7:05 AM

American Robin

7:09 AM

Turkey Vulture

7:12 AM

Wood Duck

7:21 AM

Bass Lake

Band-tailed Pigeon

7:23 AM



White-breasted Nuthatch

7:25 AM

Also Arastradero


Mourning Dove

7:28 AM


Chestnut-backed Chickadee

7:39 AM



7:44 AM


Western Kingbird

7:56 AM

Anna's Hummingbird

8:04 AM


Ash-throated Flycatcher

8:28 AM

Lincoln's Sparrow

9:06 AM

Parking area for grant lake. Buffy eye ring Buffy wash didn’t go far down. Slate gray straight sided bill Streaks on chest, no obvious central spot

Rock Pigeon

9:18 AM


9:21 AM

Flew over, streaky underside, banded tail

American Kestrel

9:21 AM

House Finch

9:26 AM


House Sparrow

9:37 AM

At the 7-11

Brewer's Blackbird

9:40 AM

Sierra Road

Yellow-billed Magpie

9:44 AM

Flew over!

Lark Sparrow

9:55 AM

Sierra road -- mating!

American Pipit

10:06 AM

Sierra road

Barn Swallow

10:06 AM


Western Meadowlark

10:07 AM

On telephone pole

Savannah Sparrow

10:10 AM

At "Lapland" pond

Bald Eagle

10:51 AM

On nest, feeding chicks


Oak Titmouse

10:52 AM

Ginger heard. Later Barry saw at Arastradero

Black-headed Grosbeak

11:01 AM

Ed Levin upper park

Cedar Waxwing

11:04 AM


Common Raven

11:09 AM

Later saw at Palo Alto Baylands


Bewick's Wren

12:21 PM

Roadside down from Ed Levin

Red-shouldered Hawk

12:22 PM


Great Egret

12:22 PM


Black-necked Stilt

12:42 PM


American Avocet

12:43 PM


Marsh Wren

12:49 PM

Snowy Egret

12:50 PM


Greater Yellowlegs

12:51 PM

Tew-ew-ew-ew-ew-ew call

Cinnamon Teal

12:53 PM


12:54 PM

Long-billed or Short-billed

Western Sandpiper

12:55 PM

Least Sandpiper

12:56 PM

Forster's Tern

1:04 PM


California Gull

1:09 PM

Ring-billed Gull

1:09 PM

Herring Gull

1:15 PM


Common Yellowthroat

1:20 PM

Burrowing Owl

1:40 PM

On post with orange stripe, behind Jubilee

Surf Scoter

2:14 PM

Shoreline lake

Horned Grebe

2:17 PM

Shoreline Lake, in breeding plumage

Common Goldeneye

2:17 PM

At Shoreline Lake


Ring-necked Pheasant

2:32 PM


2:47 PM

Amid a zillion peeps, near skimmer island


2:53 PM

2 behind “skimmer island” on Charleston Slough

Cliff Swallow

2:57 PM

Common Moorhen

2:57 PM


Greater Scaup

3:20 PM

Palo Alto Baylands duck pond, and at end of boardwalk

Marbled Godwit

3:23 PM

Green-winged Teal

3:32 PM

American Wigeon

4:02 PM

On the bay



4:24 PM

Heard at "rock wren" spot much earlier. Saw in underbrush at Arastradero.

White-tailed Kite

4:37 PM


Nor. Rough-winged Swallow

4:48 PM


California Thrasher

5:26 PM

Saw at Arastradero and later at Picchetti Ranch

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

5:31 PM


Dark-eyed Junco

6:12 PM

McClellan Ranch

Hooded Oriole

6:20 PM

White-throated Swift

6:32 PM

Above Stevens Creek reservoir

Hairy Woodpecker

6:50 PM

Picchetti Ranch


American Dipper

7:54 PM

Stevens Creek



heard only



heard first, seen later

Barry & Ginger

aka The Jack Sparrows