The Jack Sparrows Birdathon - Friday 4 April 2014

Barry & Ginger Langdon-Lassagne
All photos were taken by Barry during the birdathon

The Start - Monte Bello OSP

We were approximately twenty minutes into our hike in the dark on a dirt trail in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve along the ridge tops of the Santa Cruz mountains when the first rains of the day started down on us. It is from this point, or nearby, that many birdathons start, as the location provides lovely habitat for birds that are difficult or impossible to find elsewhere in the county: several owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Pacific Wren, and on clear calm mornings it is one of the best places to hear the dawn chorus as the birds greet the new day. This day was calm, but certainly not clear, and the dawn chorus was meagre, but even as the rain started to seep into our clothes our spirits were anything but damp.

We were on the border of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. Any bird we heard behind us could be out-of-county and wouldn’t count. In addition, the ridge to our right (southeast) marked the border of Santa Cruz County, so if a bird were heard too far off in that direction, it also would not count for the birdathon. Our first bird heard, from this grassy vantage point, was the distant booming of a Great Horned Owl. It was calling from the wooded valley below, safely within our home county. Delighted to have such a majestic bird as our first species, we headed excitedly down the trail to where it dropped into oaks and bay forest, giving us some shelter from the cold drizzle, and met up with the headwaters of Stevens Creek, whose flow is just a trickle this high up, even with the rain feeding it. It would be more than a half hour before we heard our next identifiable bird call.

When planning a birdathon route, we have “target birds” for a given habitat. Pacific Wren was one of our target birds for this location. We had gone scouting here with our daughters the previous week, and had found (and even photographed) two Pacific Wrens on this very trail. This time it was too dark and rainy to attempt any kind of photography. Luckily, the Pacific Wren has a loud, distinctive and delightful song that echoes the tinkling of the stream, and we heard it on several occasions as we hiked along.

Deeper into the preserve the dawn finally started to show through the clouds and we started to see as well as hear the birds around us. The rain had been coming down steadily for over an hour and we were soaked, especially our socks and shoes. My camera was still tucked safely into my daypack; I was waiting for to rain to let up, as well as for the dark to diminish, before beginning the photography part of our expedition.

We reached a stretch of trail where the birds were singing in large numbers; many we could recognize instantly, but many were also eluding us. Ginger’s ear is better than mine and she was eagerly identifying the calls by comparing against recordings we had on our phones. That was when we heard the Pileated Woodpecker. The Great Horned Owl called a few more times as well. And the songbirds were coming out in greater numbers. The rain let up long enough that I felt comfortable leaving my camera out, and I was able to begin taking pictures.

But it was wet out. Wet. Wet. Wet.

Arastradero Preserve 

We drove down out of the Santa Cruz mountains to our next stop: Arastradero Preserve. Our strategy here was to scope Felt Lake from the trail and to get a few grassland birds on the hike. The sky had cleared, it was even sunny! I grabbed my spotting scope out from the trunk and we headed up the hill. A Grasshopper Sparrow surprised us by calling in the grass; we weren’t expecting to get this bird here, and it even flew out long enough for us to get a glimpse (but not a photo) of it. The Savannah Sparrows were much more photogenic.

White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows soared over our heads. Warblers and sparrows abounded. Hummingbirds were guarding the blooming eucalyptus trees, and then we heard the booming of a Great Horned Owl again. We spent quite a bit of time hunting for him, and finally we were rewarded with a view of his lower half well up in the eucalyptus tree.

It started to rain again as we scaled the hill, and to my dismay I dropped my scope in the mud on the trail, twice! But it was none the worse for wear and we were able to identify Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead on Felt Lake, two birds we would not see elsewhere on this day.

After the lake, we tracked down a calling House Wren, and when I started to take its photo, a Lincoln’s Sparrow popped up into the same batch of grass and photobombed the wren! We were delighted to get Lincoln’s Sparrow as that’s another rarity that we would not see again that day.

We hiked back down to the parking lot. The rain had let up again, so we decided to risk changing into our spare sets of dry shoes and clothes before heading out to the baylands.

The Baylands

The nice thing about the baylands is that the birds are active all day, weather and tides permitting. Forest birds are active in the morning and evenings for the most part, so we time our route such that we are along the bay for the middle chunk of the day. We take whatever tide we can get though, as our busy schedules often don’t let us optimize for that. We were fortunate that this time we had a nice low tide, which meant that the shorebirds were out hunting in the mud, within easy binocular view.

We went counter-clockwise along the bottom of the bay, stopping at Palo Alto Baylands, Charleston Slough and Sunnyvale Baylands. We saw many great birds. Some highlights were White Pelicans soaring over the bay, a distant Golden Eagle (our second of the day), Black Skimmers with their ridiculous “Kandy Korn” bills, an elusive Fox Sparrow lurking in the grass under a bush, and glimmering Anna’s Hummingbirds feeding on the planted flowers near the ranger house.

The Town of Alviso

Our last stop along the bottom of the bay was the town of Alviso. We were somewhat disappointed at how easy it was to find a Eurasian Collared Dove. This bird is a fairly new invader to the Bay Area, starting as captive birds that had escaped or were released into the wild. The first ones were discovered here around 2001; in 2007 they were still considered extreme rarities in the county. Now they are common in Alviso and spreading rapidly into surrounding areas. This is unfortunate, because this alien species may drive out native species as its population grows, potentially reducing the bird diversity in the area.

At the Alviso Marina (now a county park and prime bird habitat) we found Horned Grebes and two species of falcon: American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon. By the day’s end we saw a total of three Peregrines, much to our delight.

In Alviso, we found a parking spot near “Disk Drive” where we found a Nuttall’s Woodpecker and an unexpected Western Kingbird, but our target bird for this area was the Burrowing Owl. This little diurnal owl is very specific in the habitat it prefers, and the open fields here are one of the fairly reliable places to find them. Unfortunately, we were not able to find any, despite walking two miles around the field and spotting dozens of ground squirrels, many of which were doing their best “burrowing owl” impression. We did get some great views of Long-billed Curlews and their cousins the Whimbrel though. And there was a big old Raven watching us from the top of a cattle gate.

The East Hills

After the baylands we headed to the East Hills, starting with a stop at Ed Levin County Park where we found turkeys and more hawks, and we watched a Great Blue Heron very patiently waiting for a gopher to appear from its den. We were not patient enough to see the outcome of his waiting, as we wanted to get deeper into the hills before we lost our light.

Ed Levin Park is another spot where we were near the border of two counties. To our north, still in the park boundaries, was Alameda County. We were in no danger of spotting birds out of county here though, as the boundary was more than a mile north of us. It is interesting that our travels brought us so close to three other counties, and yet we still managed to visit only a tiny percentage of Santa Clara County. We would not be traveling to the back side of Mount Hamilton (bordering Stanislaus County) or south to Gilroy (which borders San Benito as well as Santa Cruz Counties and is not far from Merced County), despite many excellent rarities to be found in those locations, as there just aren’t enough daylight hours to cover the full range of our large, diverse home county.

On Marsh Road, just south of the Calaveras Reservoir, we hoped for Lark Sparrows and Horned Larks, but never found them. Nor could we find the Bald Eagle that is supposed to be nesting near the reservoir. We did get amazing looks at a Peregrine Falcon, saw Red-tailed Hawks hunting, found our Yellow-billed Magpies and picked up a Cassin’s Vireo, so we called it a win. Also, this is one of the most beautiful wild places in the county — it’s hard to believe you’re in the Bay Area when winding along the lonely backroads of the east hills. It was getting late now, the weather started getting cold and wet again, and the birds were fewer and farther between. We spotted a cat and a goat, but they didn’t count for our totals :-). It was time to start wrapping up the day.

Our last stop in the hills was Sierra Road. This is a favorite spot not just for the grassland species that are rare elsewhere, but because its position on the top of the hill makes it a place where migrant songbirds and hawks pass by and sometimes stop to rest. This is where, on my first birdathon in 2004, I found the rarest bird of the year: Lapland Longspur in full breeding plumage, a very long way from Lapland :-). Today was not a day for rarities, as the wind and the rain had whipped up again, making it a dismal spot to find any birds. We got no new species on the hilltop; almost no birds at all, just a family of four Ravens dancing across the gray skies.

End of Day Strategy

On the way down the hill we strategized: What hadn’t we seen? What could we hope for? We decided to hike the Sunnyvale Water Pollution Control Plant and neighboring salt ponds in hopes of a Brown-headed Cowbird, a Green Heron, a Bittern or a Rail. All we got for our two and a half mile hike was a great look at a young skunk, who ran away on the trail and desperately tried to scale a water pipe to escape from us.

One Last Stop

Our last hope was the Lucky’s parking lot in Sunnyvale, where we knew Brown-headed Cowbirds frequent, and Herring and other Gulls sometimes hang out on the lampposts. But, apparently, they only do so in the daytime, and it was after 9pm. And we were tired, achy, wet and cold. It was time to call it a night.

When we got home, we noticed that our legs were unusually sore. I thought that we had only hiked about five miles total, but Ginger calculated up the totals: 3 miles at Monte Bello, 3 more miles at Palo Alto Baylands and Charleston Slough. Over a mile at Sunnyvale Baylands. Over two miles in Alviso, etc. By the time we totaled it all up, we discovered that we had hiked over thirteen miles for the day.

Our daughters welcomed us home. We ate a late dinner. And we went to bed.

Places We Birded

Our writeup for the South-Bay-Birds email list


Jack Sparrows Bird List in AOU Order

Canada Goose


American Wigeon


Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Green-winged Teal


Ring-necked Duck

Greater Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Surf Scoter


Ruddy Duck


California Quail


Wild Turkey

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

American White Pelican

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

White-tailed Kite

Northern Harrier

Cooper's Hawk


Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Golden Eagle

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Common Gallinule

American Coot



Black-necked Stilt

American Avocet

Greater Yellowlegs



Long-billed Curlew

Marbled Godwit

Western Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper


Long-billed Dowitcher(or Short-billed)

Ring-billed Gull

Western Gull

California Gull


Forster's Tern

Black Skimmer

Rock Pigeon


Band-tailed Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove


Great Horned Owl

White-throated Swift

Anna's Hummingbird


Allen's Hummingbird?(or Rufous)


Acorn Woodpecker


Nuttall's Woodpecker


Hairy Woodpecker


Northern Flicker


Pileated Woodpecker


Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe


Ash-throated Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Cassin's Vireo


Steller's Jay


Western Scrub-Jay


Yellow-billed Magpie


American Crow


Common Raven

Violet-green Swallow

Nor. Rough-winged Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow


Chestnut-backed Chickadee


Oak Titmouse




Red-breasted Nuthatch


Brown Creeper


Rock Wren


Bewick's Wren


House Wren


Pacific Wren


Marsh Wren


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Western Bluebird


Hermit Thrush (or Swainson's)

American Robin


Northern Mockingbird


California Thrasher

European Starling


Orange-crowned Warbler


Yellow-rumped Warbler


Townsend's Warbler


Common Yellowthroat

Wilson's Warbler


Spotted Towhee


California Towhee

Savannah Sparrow


Grasshopper Sparrow

Fox Sparrow


Song Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow


White-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow


Dark-eyed Junco

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird


Western Meadowlark

Brewer's Blackbird

Bullock's Oriole


Purple Finch

House Finch


Lesser Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Original welcome letter

√ = seen

h = heard

h,√ = heard first, later seen