The Lookers 2022 Bird-a-Thon Summary, Sept 2022
October 11, 2022
Summary written by Mark Dettling, Banding Supervisor and The Lookers Route Planner and List Keeper.
What a great time of year! Out here in Marin County the weather is nice and the birds are migrating. That means it’s time for Point Blue’s Rich Stallcup Bird-a-thon, the 44th! It’s one of Point Blue’s biggest annual fundraising drives and the folks at Palomarin love to pitch in with our team called “The Lookers”. As well as looking for as many bird species as we can in a 24 hour period, we do it while looking good in some fancy duds. If you haven’t already, please consider donating to our team here and designating your donation to Keystone Datasets.
We chose September 17 as the date of our Bird-a-thon and it turned out to be a great day full of amazing birds and wonderful people. Over the course of the day we had 17 people join us for at least some of the day, all of them with a connection to Palomarin with many current staff/apprentices (note, a couple other members of “The Lookers” team were Palo alumni who counted separately, connecting us virtually to them – a new tradition that started with the pandemic – and whose stories and species are not part of this summary or tally). Our day started in the predawn hours at Pike County Gulch owned by Audubon Canyon Ranch (we got permission to enter) and the former location of Point Blue’s headquarters for many years. There we heard Northern Saw-whet Owl, Great Horned Owl, and a Swainson’s Thrush. Still in the dark, we headed to Stinson Gulch near the south end of Bolinas Lagoon and added species like Acorn Woodpecker, California Quail, American Robin, and Spotted Towhee as they made their first calls of the day as the sky began to lighten.
With the sun now up, we birded the Bolinas Lagoon along Highway 1 seeing lots of new species for the day. If you haven’t been there, Bolinas Lagoon is a beautiful tidal lagoon with an amazing diversity of birds in a relatively small area. We had 8 species of shorebird, 4 heron/egret species, and 3 gull species. In the nearby forest, we were also hearing new songbird species, really bolstering our total. By the time we left the lagoon, we had tallied 54 species. All before 7:30am!
A quick stop at the Bolinas Sewage Ponds garnered another 17 species. More shorebirds, some ducks, and the biggest surprise of the day, 3 Bobolinks. The Bobolink is a grassland loving bird of the eastern half of North America. A few vagrants are usually found each year in Marin County, but having three all together is highly unusual. Everyone in the group was able to enjoy the birds, and it was a lifer (a species they’ve never seen before) for several. Bird-a-thon always produces some surprises!
Alas, three Bobolinks still only count as one species on our bird list, so we headed off to Agate Beach. From there, we turned our gaze to the Pacific Ocean and the ocean loving birds. Highlights were Clark’s Grebe, Parasitic Jaeger, Black Oystercatcher, Elegant Tern, and Pelagic Cormorant. New species were flooding in! Bolinas is such a magical birding location that a leisurely stroll through the nearby neighborhood kept us on quite the roll. Several of us were very excited to see a Mourning Dove, a common species in most places but easy to miss on a fall day in West Marin. We saw neotropical migrants like Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Violet-green Swallow, Yellow Warbler, and Western Tanager that were on their way south. We also had some newly-arrived temperate migrants like Golden-crowned Sparrow and Townsend’s Warbler that may spend their winter right here. Our local knowledge paid off and we racked up 96 species by 10:00am!
We blew past 100 species at Five Brooks Pond in the Point Reyes National Seashore with new species like Wood Duck, Green Heron, Hutton’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, and Red Crossbill. Along Bear Valley Road we heard an Oak Titmouse. At Olema Marsh we heard Sora and Virginia Rail and saw White-tailed Kite. As you might imagine, at this point it was becoming harder to add new species, but we were headed to Abbott’s Lagoon and knew we would find some great birds.
We pulled up to the Abbott’s Lagoon parking lot at 12:15pm and prepared water and snacks for our longest hike of the day. It was just about 3 miles total but that can take a while at birding speed! Our first surprise was a group of 7 Pectoral Sandpipers just 15 feet from where we were standing. Amongst them was a Least Sandpiper, that try as I might I was not able to turn into something much rarer. The team was in high spirits though, so my waste of time was soon forgotten. As we approached the beach we had Long-billed Dowitcher, a pair of Caspian Terns fly over, and on the beach some Snowy Plovers, which are federally threatened. On the lagoon itself we saw a Greater White-fronted Goose that had been reported for the past week and found a White-winged Scoter. Both unexpected for a Bird-a-thon in mid-September. On our walk back a late Barn Swallow was spotted and an early American Pipit was heard flying overhead. The hike took us 3 and a half hours and brought our total species list up to 129!
Now it really starts getting hard to find new species. Point Reyes is known for unusual migrants during the fall, but it’s not guaranteed that you will see anything special. Going out to the “Outer Point” would take the rest of our day, but it’s always fun to try to find a surprise. On the drive out through the ranches, we had flocks of Tricolored Blackbirds, a species that lives almost entirely in California. A stop at Drake’s Beach didn’t net us any new species. Maybe our gamble wouldn’t pay off.
At A Ranch, we were expecting House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon, two common species in more populated areas, but very local in West Marin. We found the House Sparrows, but the Rock Pigeons were nowhere to be seen. At this point we were racing the setting sun, so we had to move quickly to our next stop just a couple minutes away, an overlook on the way to the Fish Docks. In the past, we’ve heard Rock Wren at this spot, and as we got out of the cars, we heard the distinctive call of the Rock Wren. Yes! And wait, what was that sparrow…a Vesper Sparrow! This was the unexpected surprise we were hoping for. Like the Bobolinks we saw earlier, the Vesper Sparrow is a rare but regular migrant through Marin. Scanning the ocean, we found Pigeon Guillemot and Pacific Loon. Then screaming through the sky was a Peregrine Falcon. This 15 minutes stop netted us 5 new species to bring our total to 137.
Our energy was waning, but our spirits were buoyed by the new species we had seen. We made it to the Fish Docks at 5:55pm, giving us a little over an hour of sunlight. Hoping for some new migrant songbirds in the trees, we started scouring each branch. To our dismay, there were only a few birds, and none of them were new species. We turned our attention to Drake’s Bay hoping for something new. Aha! A Common Loon! Species number 138! Anything else…no…what should we do? With the sun setting we decided that we might be able to find a Rock Pigeon in Point Reyes Station, which coincidentally was also where we were going to pick up pizzas. The car ride was mostly quiet as we had used up all of our energy on a very full day of birding.
We pulled into Point Reyes Station after sunset and though we searched, we could not find a Rock Pigeon. With visions of pizza dancing in our heads, we called it a day with 138 species. Bird-a-thon always deals you an interesting hand with unexpected finds and misses! For a complete list of species, you can see an eBird trip report here (note that a Barn Owl some of our team heard, and that contributes to our final tally, isn’t in these lists).
While Bird-a-thon is really fun for us, we also hope it conveys the passion we have for bird conservation. The Palomarin Field Station has been a transformative experience for hundreds of people and led them into a wide variety of careers, often within conservation. Your support of The Lookers helps us continue to teach and inspire the next generation of conservation scientists. Thank you to all of those folks who pledged their support and those that donate after reading about our day!