The Piratical Flycatchers - Spring 2017 Birdathon

Monday, 24 April 2017

It was a good day for ducks. Not that it rained on us all that much. I mean, it did rain on us, some in the morning and more in the afternoon, and it was cloudy, with rain clearly visible in the distance pretty much all day, but what I mean really is that we saw a great number and variety of ducks that day. And I mean that it's a good day for duck species, because this winter is the wettest winter California has had since scientists started tracking rainfall data in 1895. This was a winter where dams eroded their spillways and rivers broke their banks and houses flooded right here in the South Bay, not to mention the rest of the state. A winter where roads closed due to downed trees and mudslides. A winter where the Sierra snowpack was measured in feet not inches and ski resorts planned to stay open until the Fourth of July. And that after an epic drought—the driest years ever recorded in California—where millions of trees died and reservoirs emptied and rain seemed a distant memory. A drought that the American Geophysical Union thinks was the worst in 1,200 years. What a contrast!

Our first bird on our journey was not a duck though. It was a Northern Mockingbird, singing its head off at 3:30am when our alarms woke us from too little sleep. We gathered our things and piled into our car and drove up Page Mill Road, where we saw our first mammal of the day: a jackrabbit who loped over to the berm to let us pass. Our first destination was Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a park in the Santa Cruz hills where Stevens Creek begins. The creek starts as little seep springs and sag ponds within the park, collecting into a burbling creek that follows the San Andreas Rift Zone south, away from the San Francisco Bay. Then it makes two hard left turns and heads north into the Stevens Creek Reservoir, out the spillway and down through suburbia where it is tamed into a flood-control channel via levees until it eventually empties into the bay. This creek and the half-dozen other creeks and rivers that intersect Silicon Valley is part of the system that fuels most of our bird diversity, as well as mammals, fish, plants, trees, mushrooms...all of nature. The reservoir, when full like it is now, holds enough water to serve over 6,000 families for a year and is home to an array of wildlife including ducks, geese, hawks, cormorants, shorebirds and songbirds.

The first bird on our hike was a frog. Or rather we thought it was a frog, marked "frog" on our list and carried on into the darkness. We were listening for owls. It was only 5am. The sun would rise at 6:21am. Sometime in between the birds would start waking and begin singing what we affectionately call the Dawn Chorus. Since our ears were tuned for owls, we dismissed the possibility of another night-calling species. One that lives in sag ponds in the hills. We'll come back to that bird in a bit.

Trail Closure

Hiking in the dark was made a little more challenging because parts of the Canyon Trail were still quite muddy, even though it hadn't rained in a few days. We heard streams trickling on either side of the trail, in spots we hadn't heard during the drought years. There were downed trees from the winter's storms, but they had all been cut and cleared from the trail. One of the side trails was entirely closed due to winter storm damage. We made our way about a mile in to an open hillside where we could listen down the valley. And there we heard our owls. A pair of Great Horned Owls called to each other in the night, slowly getting closer to one another as they returned from hunting to bed down somewhere in the Redwoods and Douglas-Fir trees. Soon after, birds started waking up: one American Robin, then two, then many. Mourning Doves, Spotted Towhees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Wild Turkeys, Orange-crowned Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncoes, even a Western Tanager called in the valley as the sky began to lighten.

I'm particularly fond of Western Tanagers. The male tanagers are super bright yellow birds with impossibly bright red-orange heads and jet black wings. They are the common tanager west of the Rockies, but you still have to be in the right place at the right time to see one. They like the sunny tops of trees in what are called Cordilleran forests, which are mixed conifer forests on mountain ranges that are generally dry except for the winter rains. Their common cousins east of the Rockies are the Scarlet Tanager, where except for the jet-black wings the males are bright red from beak to tail. Why are the Scarlets common in the east and the Westerns common here? I'm not sure. Most birds are really picky about their habitat, so maybe the habitats are just different enough that the Westerns don't thrive there and the Scarlets don't thrive here, even though both species occasionally cross to the opposite side of the Rockies. Habitat pickiness means that preserving a diversity of habitats is important. It also means that by visiting a large variety of habitats during the Birdathon we can maximize the number of species we can find throughout the day. And that's what we do.


We hiked the grassy hillsides and the Redwood forest and the Oak-Bay woodlands of Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, through some fog and a little drizzle until we had tallied over 40 species of birds, three mammals (California Vole, Mule Deer and distant calling Coyotes), and more than a dozen species of wildflowers. Then we headed back to the car. On our way back we passed a sag pond (official name: Sag Pond), a small bog filled with cattails and duckweed and a couple Song Sparrows calling. We paused and then something else called. It was the call we had heard earlier in the night. The frog. Only it wasn't a frog and this time we realized that. The gi-dik gi-dik gi-dik we were hearing was the call of the Virginia Rail, a large-but-secretive bird that hangs out in wetlands, especially freshwater marshes. Of course! This was a great bird to get, and it was probably thanks to the wet winter that we did -- the sag pond was fuller, wetter, more alive than it had been in the previous half-dozen drought years.

Song Sparrow at Sag Pond, Monte Bello Open Space Preserve

Our next stop was Arastradero Preserve, specifically the north side which is mostly open grassland, and Felt Lake which is visible from the preserve. Lots of new birds including Bullock’s Oriole, Red-shouldered Hawk, Vaux's Swift, Great Blue Heron, House Wren and Western Bluebirds. We also saw Western Kingbirds, a kind of flycatcher that is only here in the summer months. Felt Lake had Greater Yellowlegs (a shorebird), Killdeer (another shorebird) and Canada Geese. It didn't have much else, because a pair of scientists in a jeep were doing some sort of study along the shoreline.

A Great Blue Heron among the grasses and wildflowers

Next we cut across the urban areas, thankfully after the morning rush, until we hit the bay. Palo Alto Baylands is where we started seeing the ducks. We found Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler. We even found a pair of Canvasback, Ginger’s favorite duck, and a Blue-winged Teal, neither of which we expected. Usually they've left for their northern breeding grounds by now. We found shorebirds and Forster's Terns and only one species of gull: California Gull. We were hoping that the Palo Alto Duck Pond would give us some gull diversity, but alas! California Gull was the only gull species we saw the entire day. It was a good day for ducks, but not gulls I guess.

Then we headed to Charleston Slough and Shoreline Lake. Just east of Shoreline is where Stevens Creek, whose headwaters marked the start of our day, makes its way to the bay, mixing freshwater with salt and providing more habitats for a great diversity of birds. We found a Northern Pintail in Adobe Creek, another duck that we thought might be gone by now. More shorebirds, some sparrows, a Belted Kingfisher and a few American Wigeon (another duck). The biggest surprise was a raccoon, hunting along the edge of Adobe Creek. I had put my binoculars up to identify a pair of Green-winged Teal when I noticed him moving along the edge of the cattails, foraging along the mud and water with his paws. He looked back at me, but seemed unconcerned with our presence.


Next up was Alviso. A street called Disk Drive has open grassland on one side and brand-new construction of multiple warehouse buildings on the other. The buildings will apparently be shipping centers, which is a bad thing, because the grassland side is one of the few locations left in the South Bay where one can find Burrowing Owls. We scanned the grasslands and found one owl, apparently sleeping next to a small grass-covered hillock. As we watched the owl with our spotting scope, a large truck rumbled down the street behind us. The owl perked up, walked to the top of the hill, and flew off. I'm worried that these new buildings are going to so disrupt the owls that they will fly off for good.

The suburban portions of Alviso gave us Common Grackle and Eurasian Collared-Dove, two relative newcomers to the Bay Area. And we found a Hooded Oriole, the less common of our two orioles. In the marsh that was once the Alviso Marina but is now a home for ducks, rails, hawks, swallows and shorebirds we found a Northern Harrier along with many birds we had seen earlier in the day. It was nearly 2PM and it was getting progressively harder to find new species. We went to the Environmental Education Center and New Chicago Marsh, all part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There we found more ducks: two Cinnamon Teal, and in Salt Pond A16 we found our first real rarity: a pair of Redheads. The Redheads were feeding out beyond the first man-made island. We immediately reported this bird on the South-Bay-Birds mailing list and through the week other birders came to see them and confirm our sighting. It's always fun when we see a bird that's unusual enough to get other birders out into the field!

Redhead, through the spotting scope

After the Baylands we headed for the East Hills. We birded all around Ed Levin County Park and got a chance to see the beautiful Western Tanagers that we had only heard in the dawn hours. We also found a selasphorus hummingbird (probably Rufous Hummingbird) and a late-in-the-day Brewer's Blackbird, but the most unexpected sighting here was a Hoary Bat, out in daylight, hunting over Spring Valley Pond in upper Ed Levin park. You know, when we lift our binoculars up to identify a bird, we don't expect to discover that it's actually a large bat swooping and dipping and turning over the water! It stayed long enough for me to get a couple pictures and some good looks with binoculars.

Hoary Bat

Now we were near the end of the day. The sky was still gray and the rain clouds looked like they were low enough that the hilltops were embedded in them. We headed up toward those hilltops. Along the way we found an American Kestrel, several Yellow-billed Magpies and a Loggerhead Shrike. All great birds to get, especially the Shrike, which is another one of those birds that's here in the winter in fairly small numbers and leaves usually well before we do our Birdathon.

Sure enough, Sierra Road and the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve were solidly inside the rainclouds. We had rain and wind and cold and only two birds: Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark. Horned Lark was new for the day though, so we were happy.

Horned Lark

Rainclouds, a pond and the Baylands, seen from Sierra Road

We drove down into the valley. We were losing light as the sun was close to setting. We stopped at Ulistac Natural Area, which is nestled along the edge of the Guadalupe River in Santa Clara and we hunted as long as the remaining daylight would let us. The sun shone briefly between the clouds and the western hills just before setting as we hiked. The curving marshes in Ulistac used to be bends of the Guadalupe River, where a native tribe now known as the Ohlone once had a small village; the river currently runs straight along the edge of the park, on the other side of a tall levee. In these reed-filled horseshoe ponds as our daylight disappeared we found our last bird of the day. A Common Gallinule who called, only twice, from within the reeds. Although he is a close cousin to the Virginia Rail, we did not mistake his call for another frog! This was a good bird on which to end our adventure.

Sunset at Ulistac Natural Area, from the levee

All in all we drove 170 miles all within Santa Clara County, hiked 12 miles, birded for 15 1/2 hours from before dark to after sunset and saw 115 species total, including 12 species of ducks.


You can find all our photos on my pbase site.

And here's the writeup we did for the South-Bay-Birds Mailing list. This version is much more about the birds, written for birders.

Here's the list of what we saw and when we saw it:


Woke up 3:30am. Out the door at 4:25am. Cloudy, little wind (under 5mph). 55°F.
√ Northern Mockingbird	 04:12 AM

Driving to Monte Bello OSP	 04:28 AM
 (1	Jackrabbit)	 04:40 AM

At ridge top- 46°F, light wind, cloudy	 05:01 AM
     Not foggy! Well maybe a little foggy
 (1, Rail!)	 05:09 AM

Made it to dawn chorus spot on Canyon Trail- no birds calling yet	 05:26 AM
√ Great Horned Owl	 05:35 AM
√ American Robin	 05:44 AM
√ Mourning Dove	 05:51 AM
√ Western Tanager	 05:53 AM
	In the dawn chorus. Photographed at Ed Levin
√ Spotted Towhee	 05:55 AM
√ Wild Turkey	 05:56 AM
√ Song Sparrow	 05:57 AM
√ Orange-crowned Warbler	 05:59 AM
√ Bewick's Wren	 06:01 AM
√ American Crow	 06:02 AM
√ California Quail	 06:02 AM
√ Steller's Jay	 06:04 AM
√ Wrentit	 06:04 AM
√ California Towhee	 06:05 AM
 (1	Mule Deer)	 06:14 AM
√ Oak Titmouse	 06:16 AM
√ Black-headed Grosbeak	 06:19 AM
 (1	Coyote)	 06:20 AM
√ Nuttall's Woodpecker	 06:32 AM
√ Chestnut-backed Chickadee	 06:34 AM
√ Band-tailed Pigeon	 06:34 AM
√ Northern Flicker	 06:35 AM
√ Dark-eyed Junco	 06:38 AM
√ Acorn Woodpecker	 06:41 AM
√ Hermit Thrush	 06:43 AM
√ Pileated Woodpecker	 06:53 AM
	Two different directions. One followed by loud drumming.
√ Anna's Hummingbird	 06:55 AM
√ Black-throated Gray Warbler	 07:02 AM
√ Bushtit	 07:14 AM
√ Yellow-rumped Warbler	 07:32 AM
√ Blue-gray Gnatcatcher	 07:38 AM
√ Common Raven	 07:41 AM
√ Golden Eagle	 07:45 AM
√ California Scrub-Jay	 07:46 AM
√ Ash-throated Flycatcher	 07:48 AM
 (1	California Vole)	 07:56 AM
√ Golden-crowned Sparrow	 08:01 AM
√ White-crowned Sparrow	 08:01 AM
√ Virginia Rail	 08:14 AM
√ Western Bluebird	 08:21 AM
√ European Starling	 08:25 AM
√ Red-tailed Hawk	 08:35 AM
√ Red-shouldered Hawk	 08:45 AM

Arastradero Preserve	 08:45 AM
√ House Wren	 08:50 AM
√ Turkey Vulture	 08:55 AM
√ Violet-green Swallow	 08:56 AM
√ Red-winged Blackbird	 09:02 AM
√ Barn Swallow	 09:07 AM
√ Vaux's Swift	 09:07 AM
√ Brown-headed Cowbird	 09:09 AM
√ Bullock's Oriole	 09:09 AM
√ Great Blue Heron	 09:12 AM
√ Rock Pigeon	 09:12 AM
√ House Finch	 09:14 AM
√ Purple Finch	 09:18 AM
√ Cedar Waxwing	 09:20 AM
√ Lesser Goldfinch	 09:21 AM
√ Cooper's Hawk	 09:26 AM
√ Greater Yellowlegs	 09:34 AM
	Identified by voice
√ Killdeer	 09:35 AM
√ Canada Goose	 09:35 AM
√ Cliff Swallow	 09:37 AM
 (California Ground Squirrel)	 09:40 AM
√ White-tailed Kite	 09:45 AM
√ Western Kingbird	 09:49 AM
√ Mallard	 10:08 AM
√ Tree Swallow	 10:11 AM
√ Northern Rough-winged Swallow	 10:19 AM
√ White-throated Swift	 10:22 AM

Headed to Palo Alto Baylands	 10:28 AM
√ Snowy Egret	 10:35 AM
√ Forster's Tern	 10:35 AM
√ Double-crested Cormorant	 10:35 AM
√ Black-crowned Night-Heron	 10:36 AM
√ Ruddy Duck	 10:36 AM
√ American Coot	 10:39 AM
√ California Gull	 10:40 AM
√ Northern Shoveler	 10:41 AM
√ Green-winged Teal	 10:41 AM
√ Willet	 10:43 AM
√ Canvasback	 10:49 AM
√ Blue-winged Teal	 10:51 AM
√ Whimbrel	 10:53 AM
√ Dunlin	 10:59 AM
√ Western Sandpiper	 10:59 AM
√ American Avocet	 11:01 AM
√ Black Phoebe	 11:14 AM

Headed to Coast Casey Forebay	 11:15 AM
√ Common Yellowthroat	 11:26 AM
√ Green Heron	 11:26 AM
√ Marsh Wren	 11:29 AM
√ Surf Scoter	 11:34 AM
√ Great Egret	 11:34 AM
√ Marbled Godwit	 11:38 AM
√ Savannah Sparrow	 11:46 AM
√ Gadwall	 11:56 AM
√ Northern Pintail	 12:00 PM
√ American Wigeon	 12:00 PM
√ Semipalmated Plover	 12:08 PM
√ Black-necked Stilt	 12:08 PM
√ Long-billed Dowitcher	 12:14 PM
 (1	Raccoon)	 12:15 PM
√ Belted Kingfisher	 12:31 PM
√ Pied-billed Grebe	 01:08 PM
√ American White Pelican	 01:21 PM
√ Great-tailed Grackle	 01:22 PM
√ Eurasian Collared-Dove	 01:26 PM
√ House Sparrow	 01:27 PM
√ Hooded Oriole	 01:38 PM
√ Northern Harrier	 01:41 PM
√ Western Meadowlark	 02:11 PM
√ Burrowing Owl	 02:23 PM
	Resting at the side of a ground Squirrel mound. A truck came by and he woke up, ran to the top of the mound, and then flew away.
√ Cinnamon Teal	 02:42 PM
√ Redhead	 03:01 PM
	Submitted notes to eBird.

Leaving Alviso; headed to Ed Levin	 03:21 PM
	67°F, only a little windy. Some light rain	 03:36 PM
√ Selasphorus Hummingbird sp.	 04:06 PM
√ Brewer's Blackbird	 04:44 PM
 (Hoary Bat!	 05:01 PM Feeding over Spring Valley Pond at upper Ed Levin)
√ American Kestrel	 05:28 PM

On Marsh Road (off Felter Road)  05:41 PM
√ Yellow-billed Magpie	 05:47 PM
√ Loggerhead Shrike	 05:59 PM

Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve
	Colder, drizzly and windy
√ Horned Lark	 06:40 PM

Ulistac Natural Area
√ Common Gallinule	 07:55 PM

Home again
Listened for Barn Owls, no luck
Finished around 9pm