The Varied Twitchers Big Day

Saturday, April 21, 2012, 3:50am to 10pm

When I drive on freeways and city streets in my car, or sit in my chair at my work desk in an air-conditioned office building, or go to a grocery store, eat at a restaurant or lounge on the couch at home, I am surrounded by and immersed within a world created by humans for humans. It's familiar, comfortable and (mostly) clean and sometimes it feels like the man-made world is the only world there is to know. Occasionally I might make it to a city park, with soccer fields and tennis courts and maybe some tended trees and grass, but it's surrounded by houses and parking lots and 7-11s and Starbucks and the park is mostly just a hint of the wild world that exists "out there" somewhere.

So, when I describe my birdathon adventure, it might be surprising that all of the Nature that we experienced is right here in the heart of Silicon Valley -- everywhere we went on Saturday is part of Santa Clara County, an easy drive from home and work. And we only touched on a tiny percentage of the vast beautiful natural landscape that our county has to offer. From the deep forests bordering Santa Cruz County to the vast wetlands of the South Bay to the grassy foothills of Mount Hamilton in the East, this story will give you a taste of the wilderness that exists all around our civilized world. By the end of the day, the world of streetlights and buildings and parking lots seemed alien to me, and the world of trees and birds and hills and open water felt like home.

We began by meeting in the pitch black of a parking lot at the edge of the bay at 3:50am, to collect ourselves into two cars and drive up into the hills above Mountain View to look for owls. But the birding actually started the moment we got out of our own cars. Rob Furrow, one of the new members of the "Varied Twitchers" immediately pointed out a singing Mockingbird near a streetlight on the side of the parking lot opposite the bay. Mike Rogers, the leader of our team, called out "Barn Owl!" and shone a bright Q-beam flashlight on the pale bird that flew over our heads. The rest of the team, still transferring spotting scopes, binoculars, flashlights, packed lunches, bird books and other gear into the two cars, paused to watch the owl pass by. Lea Crisp was also new to the Varied Twitchers, but all seven of us were experienced birders, and we all instinctively knew to stop and look when someone called out a bird. The other members of the team were Richard Jeffers, Mike Mammoser, Steve Rottenborn, and, of course, me. I was birding with the best team around -- any list of Top Birders of Santa Clara County would start with the two Mikes and Steve, who are well known for their birding expertise. Rob, Richard, Lea and I also knew our birds well enough to contribute to the team. The Varied Twitchers has won Most Species Sighted every year since they started competing in the Santa Clara County Audubon Society's birdathon. I was excited to be part of the team again this year and full of energy, despite having had only three hours of sleep and despite this being my first birdathon since giving up caffeine.

Driving west across Mountain View we rolled down the car windows to listen. We heard Robins singing uncharacteristically in the dark. On the winding road up to Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, we saw a bobcat cross in front of us. When we reached the trailhead at the top of Page Mill, we parked on the side of the road. Getting out of the car I was amazed by the glowing Milky Way spread out across the sky above us -- the sky was clear and it was a warm calm night. At the entrance to the park, we met up with another birding group, "the DeDUCKtions," who would be owling with us for the first leg of our journey. The DeDUCKtions had brought two Monte Bello docents to escort us into the park; the two teams together comprised about 25 people, so it was a pretty big crowd, which at first seemed detrimental to finding shy woodland birds. But, it turned out that all of us were quiet and considerate and we all traipsed quietly down the steep dirt paths into the wooded valleys where we got a glimpse of our first rarity: a Western Screech-Owl. Down in the city, it's not uncommon to see a Barn Owl, and along the edges of suburbia Great Horned Owls are sometimes heard, but Screech-Owls like the deeper forest. This particular owl was sitting on a branch, looking in wonder at twenty-five humans who were gathering below its tree. We shone a flashlight on its, and someone had a green laser that they used to point out the general area that the owl was sitting (but not actually pointing the laser at the owl).

I was near the back of the group when we collected to see the Screech-Owl. I had with me my new camera: a Canon 5D Mark iii full-frame digital SLR with a 100-400mm lens, all of which was practically useless in the pitch black of the night. However, I realized that the flashlight beam was probably bright enough for me to attempt my first picture of the day and so I worked my way toward the middle of the crowd in an attempt to photograph the owl. I was right about the flashlight light being sufficient for a photograph, but unfortunately the Screech-Owl flew just before my first shot and I got a nice picture of an empty branch. I was briefly dejected, until I reminded myself that I really hadn't expected to get any night shots of owls to begin with, and there would be plenty more opportunities to take pictures of other birds after the sun came up.

The branch where the Screech-Owl had been a moment before

California Newt crossing the trail in the night

We continued hiking into the hills. We were well over a mile in when we stopped along a ridge and listened for the other deep forest owl species. We were rewarded with the calls of a Saw-whet Owl, a Northern Pygmy Owl, a Great Horned Owl and a Barn Owl as well as the haunting call of the Common Poorwill, another nighttime bird species. Later we managed to see a Northern Pygmy Owl fly over our heads, much too swiftly for me to photograph.

Brush Rabbit in the dawn light

As we all stood there listening to the owls calling, the other birds began to wake up. There were Black-headed Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Orange-crowned Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Band-tailed Pigeons and many others all adding their voice to the Dawn Chorus. The Dawn Chorus really is an amazing thing as I've said in past birdathon reports. Even if you can't identify the birds, it's still incredible to hear all the different melodies coming up from the valley below. This year's dawn chorus wasn't quite as teeming as my first time birding with the Varied Twitchers back in 2004, but it was still beautiful. The DeDUCKtions left us at this point, although we would cross paths with them and other birdathon teams now and again on our journeying around the county throughout the day.

The DeDUCKtions in the valley below us

Before dawn I managed to photograph a brush rabbit and a California newt. My first photographs of actual birds were after the sun lightened the sky enough to see clearly. Scrub Jay and Violet-Green Swallow were followed by Anna's Hummingbird and Purple Finch. After that, I was getting bird photographs pretty quickly. I was initially worried about slowing the team by attempting to photograph species and I wasn't sure if the sound of the shutter would be an annoyance. But my teammates, rather than being irritated, were actually excited about me getting as many species as I could, and would often point out a bird that had come out to pose on the top of a redwood tree, under the chaparral or on the trail in front of us. With their help, I was able to capture images of many of the birds that I had missed on the first sighting. When Mike Rogers did his writeup of our trip, he referred to me as "team photographer" which made me happy.

Western Scrub-Jay on poison oak

We hiked for several miles along the trails of Monte Bello, accumulating bird sightings and photographs and the sun was well up and our jackets were shed before we made it back to the cars. We got many of our "target" species for this habitat, and were in high spirits despite having exerted ourselves with hilly hiking for nearly four miles well before breakfast. I had photos of Lazuli Bunting, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Lincoln's Sparrow, Ash-throated Flycatcher and other birds that we would likely not see anywhere else during the day.

The Varied Twitchers hiking at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve

Lupines in the morning light

More hiking Twitchers

Lincoln's Sparrow

We rested and nibbled our breakfast snacks in the cars as we wound our way down out of the western hills. Out the window I took a picture of the entire south bay and joked that if I had high enough pixel resolution I could find all the bird species in a single image. At the bottom of Page Mill Road we were jarred by a line of stopped cars and bicycles. It was a glimpse of City Life that had already become foreign to us after our hours in the wilderness. While waiting for the construction equipment to clear out of the roadway, we made the best of our time by watching the swallows fly overhead, adding American Crow to our day list, and planning out where we would be stopping next. Once clear of that little traffic jam, we were back in the swing of birding, pulling over a bit further down the road to get half a dozen additional species.

Our next stops were near Stevens Creek Reservoir, where we had to work around an athletic group called Team in Training who was doing a triathlon there. Despite the swimmers in the reservoir and the bikers and runners on the shore we found Spotted Sandpiper, Western Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Merganser, Belted Kingfisher and several other lake-loving species. We drove further up Stevens Creek Canyon to find the coveted American Dipper. Dippers only like to hang out in rushing creeks and rivers, not a habitat one associates with the Bay Area. But Stevens Creek, running its way down the San Andreas rift zone, is sufficiently turbulent for this eclectic bird. The Dipper is about the size of a Robin, but all gray and fatter, and it feeds by swimming along the bottom of the rushing creek, occasionally surfacing to pose on a boulder for birders to admire. Unfortunately, it didn't pose long enough for me to photograph, to my regret.

The gorgeous rushing creek where the American Dipper had just been sighted

After the hills around Stevens Creek and a brief stop at McClellan Ranch (the headquarters of the Santa Clara County Audubon Society), we headed down to the baylands. Being in the car was a time to catch our breath, to get a drink of water, to nibble on half a sandwich, to check our day list of birds, to discuss strategies for the next stops, and to reminisce about other times we've gone birding. It never felt like there was a wasted moment. The trip from the hills to the bay only took about fifteen minutes.

Our plan was to time our arrival coincident with the incoming tide and we couldn't have timed it more perfectly. The tide had risen enough that the shorebirds were concentrated along the narrowing mudflats, well within spotting scope, binocular and camera range. The sheer number of birds at the shoreline parks is incredible -- there were thousands of birds on the mudflats, consisting of dozens of species. When a Northern Harrier (a kind of hawk) swooped overhead, the shorebirds all took to flight at once and filled the sky fleeing and calling, before settling back down onto the mud as if nothing at all had happened. We hiked around Palo Alto Baylands, the duck pond, the trails around the sloughs and at the boat launch with a view of the vast open bay until we had seen all we could see there. Then we went to Charleston Slough and Shoreline Lake for even more birds. Our species count was growing rapidly, as it tends to do in the rich wetland habitats.

Shorebirds taking to the air

Scoping at Palo Alto Baylands

Scoping the wetlands

Canada Geese flying

Swallowtail on a thistle

Forster's Terns

Savannah Sparrow shading under a bench

Scoping Shoreline Lake

A Willet, with Forster's Terns frolicking in the background

At Alviso we saw our final owl of the day, a diurnal species called Burrowing Owl that likes to live in holes made by ground squirrels. We saw plenty of ground squirrels too. We also saw a beautiful Peregrine Falcon fly overhead. At the Alviso Environmental Education Center I got to see the construction at Salt Pond A16, which is being turned into prime shorebird nesting habitat as part of a Bay-Area wide effort to restore the baylands to a state more accommodating for wildlife. Many years ago most of the marshes had been drained and leveed to create giant evaporation ponds for the harvesting of salt. Now those salt ponds are being turned into tidal marshes and sloughs and reed-filled ponds in an effort to restore the bay to a more natural state. That will be great for future birdathons!

Burrowing Owls at Alviso

Snowy Egret at the Alviso Environmental Education Center

Red-tailed Hawk. No Trespassing!

Leaving the bay in the early afternoon, we drove up to Ed Levin County Park, where we started to gather birds that are either only found in the east hills, or are at least much more common than in the western hills. Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike and others were all there. I got great photographs of western fence lizards sunning themselves on the tops of wooden fenceposts. We also found a Great-tailed Grackle, which is an all black bird about the size of a crow, but with a very long tail. Grackles are recent immigrants to the Bay Area, having extended their range north from the southwest in the past several years. They were once very rare in the county, but we ended up seeing several on our Big Day, along with another bird fairly new to the county: Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Grasshopper Sparrow on a fence at Ed Levin County Park

Hiking up the hill at Ed Levin

Western Fence Lizard on a western fence

Red-tailed Hawk soaring over us

Hiking down the hill at Ed Levin

Scoping for Bald Eagles at Calaveras Reservoir

The Bald Eagle nest

Great Blue Heron in flight

Lark Sparrow on barbed wire

Wild Turkeys by the side of the road

Peaceful Calaveras backroad

After Ed Levin we drove further up into the hills, out of sight of the cities behind us, to Calaveras Reservoir where we saw one of the only Bald Eagle nests in the county, along with two Bald Eagles tending it. We used our spotting scopes to see the ducks in the distant lake down in the valley. Around the hills we also found Golden Eagles and I was happily able to photograph one that soared above the car. We saw deer grazing on the hillside. We also saw Yellow-billed Magpies, which are only in the East hills, and Lark Sparrow and heard the lovely song of the Western Meadowlark. It was still well before sunset when we got Horned Lark up on Sierra Road. I found and photographed a young gopher snake that was getting ready to slither into a hole for the evening. Sierra Road, by the way, has the most beautiful view of the South Bay that I know of. You can see the sun reflecting off the bay and the city spread out to the south and the western hills further out. It's a great place to watch a sunset, but we were there earlier than usual, and we needed that sunlight for additional birding, so we weren't going to linger. However, we had run out of planned bird stops.

Gopher Snake on Sierra Road

This is one of the many times that strategizing kicked into high gear. We would often discuss which birds we had missed and what we were likely to see at the next stop, but this was the first time we had to also think of where we might want that next stop to be. All the previous locations were planned. Now our choices were wide open. So we thought about what birds we had missed, how much time was left, which wild areas were easily reachable from here and what we remembered had been seen where by birding groups in the past week. Mike Rogers remembered that Cackling Goose and Snow Goose had been reported at Lake Cunningham the previous weekend, but we were somewhat skeptical that they would still be there, as the weather had turned nice and these birds were likely to migrate away. Happily we were wrong. We got to Lake Cunningham and the Snow Goose was standing proudly out in the grassy field, and the Cackling Geese were grazing nearby alongside the much larger Canada Geese. Cackling Goose was a new species for me! It had been granted separate-species status from Canada Goose in 2004, but I had never managed to identify one before this adventure.

Snow Goose at Lake Cunningham

We were starting to run out of light after Lake Cunningham. We decided to take a chance at Thompson Creek, which was near the lake, to see if we could get a Snipe. Amazingly, we found both a Wilson's Snipe and a Sora in the cattails along the creek, just as it was getting too dark to see. I took several pictures of the Sora, but the Snipe flew away much too quickly.

Sora in the cattails -- last bird of the day

Now it was getting late. We wanted more, but our options were much more limited with the dark having set in. We decided to drive south to some ponds where we thought we might find an Osprey, but we had no luck there. Our last plan was to try listening for Clapper Rails at Byxbee Park back in Palo Alto. We hiked a mile in the dark to an island known for its robust population of this endangered bird, but none of them called out to us. We speculate that they were quietly sitting on nests and didn't want to give away their location. On the hike back we saw Venus setting into the west. We were tired, but elated as we had tallied our birds for the day and our total was a record-setting 170 species, beating the previous birdathon high of 165 from several years ago. I was also excited, because I had estimated that I had decent photos of at least 113 birds; well over the 98 I had gotten the previous year. When I reviewed the photos the next day, I discovered that I had 125 recognizeable species, which was an incredible number to get in a single day.

We finished our birding in that same dark parking lot at the edge of the bay, at 10pm. We had been out in the wilderness that is Santa Clara County for eighteen hours straight, and it was time to head back to our comfortable and (mostly) clean, but now unfamiliar, civilized world.

Total: 170 species

Total photographed: 125 species

Barry Langdon-Lassagne