It was 3:45 PM on 25 September 1996, when a Peregrine came blowing in on the north wind from the sea. What had been a peaceful afternoon at Abbotts Lagoon became one of wild panic. Shorebirds in flocking flight were twisting and winding, going white, then dark, then white so quickly it must have been done by magic. Gulls and terns were dashing about the sky like swirling white flakes in a snowdome. Godwits and Willets were screaming, and the Horned Larks crouched so low they seemed to sink in the sand.... Let the Bird-A-Thon begin!
And so began my letter to sponsors in a past PRBO Bird-a-Thon. First held in 1977, PRBO's is the oldest Bird-a-Thon in the United States (colleagues in Canada did one at Long Point, Ontario, in 1976.) It's a 24-hour birding marathon--less formal than an official "Big Day" and great fun for counters. Pledges from friends and family help make this PRBO's biggest annual fundraiser.
How it works
|Rich Stallcup (with tripod) helps the "Indicators" team--looking every which way for bird species to count! PRBO photo.|
Each team of counters generally names itself creatively. I have been a member of the Modoc MODOs (abbreviation for Mourning Dove), the Mono Maniacs, the Semipulverized Plovers, and, for the past twelve years, the Ninja Kinglets.
As Ninja Kinglets we restrict our 24-hour hunt to Marin County, and our species totals have varied from a dismal 144 to a whopping 186!
Weather is the factor that most dictates the ornithological outcome. If the sky is clear and the northwest wind howls, we have to slug it out for every new find, and the species total will be low. If there is high overcast, and gentle breezes blow from southerly directions, many kinds of migrant birds amass on outer Point Reyes for easy pickin's.
Given the conditions, what are our crucial stops and how many minutes does each habitat require? Where will we find owls and rails at night? Where should we be at first light for the dawn chorus? We check tide charts to maximize shorebirding and always (at least when it is light) watch the sky for swallows, swifts, and raptors.
Whereas most teams do their PRBO Bird-A-Thon in California or other western states, some have been as far-flung as Botswana, Ecuador, and Tasmania. While most counters travel by car, some have used exclusively canoe, horseback, bicycle, or foot travel.
On one amazing Bird-A-Thon, on outer Point Reyes we found a Painted Redstart, a Scarlet Tanager, and a Painted Bunting, all mega rarities here. On another, a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-green Vireo were in the same tree!
On one Ninja Kinglet Bird-A-Thon in Marin County, we found 17 species of native mammals; on another, 20 sorts of dragonflies and damselflies.
This year, on a Big Day with few fall migrants present, the Ninja Kinglets rolled the dice and chose to begin our count in a new place, on Carson Ridge in Marin County's interior. We could easily have come up empty there, but within 15 minutes we encountered a California Thrasher; Rufous-crowned, Lark, Chipping and Golden-crowned sparrows; a Black-headed Grosbeak; and an exceptionally high-soaring Golden Eagle. Any or all of these could be missed on our normal route at this time of year.
At the first stop down the road, a grub-seeking Pileated Woodpecker was busily reducing a fallen Douglas fir to toothpicks. And so went the day. With few exceptions, the expected birds fell onto the list, and we counted 166 species.
Wherever we are, whatever the weather conditions, no matter how many birds we tally, Bird-a-Thons are exhilarating--and PRBO gains in a big way.
There's not much better than Birding to Benefit Birds.