Kingpishers: Bird Locally, Think Globally, The Reprise
November 7, 2023
Started many years ago by enthusiastic folks at Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO, now Point Blue Conservation Science), the idea of a ‘birdathon’ (often abbreviated to BAT = finding as many bird species as you can in a 24-hour period) has become a tradition that has morphed into Point Blue’s annual Rich Stallcup Birdathon. This year, 2023, we (Catherine Hickey, Steve Howell; above) reprised our 2022 Birdathon, which was limited to a three-mile radius from home—bird locally, think globally. For those who may be less familiar with birding jargon, the team name ‘Kingpishers’ is a word play on pishing, the art of making various noises to invoke curiosity in birds and encourage them to reveal themselves.
Picking the right day is always a crapshoot, and we opted for 10 October, the same date as last year, which gave us time for a little scouting after a hectic work week for Catherine and after Steve returned from Mexico on 7 October. And what a difference a day makes! The preceding day, 9 October, brought miserable drizzling rain most of the afternoon, whereas the following day, 11 October, was sunny and windy—really poor birding conditions. Fortuitously, our chosen day started calm and clear, although showers were forecast for after 4 pm, but it never got windy. Amazingly, the first precipitation started at 3.57 pm (three minutes early!). Having known rain was possible, we crammed our birding into the morning and early afternoon and overall didn’t do too badly.
As last year, our pre-dawn start around Bolinas Lagoon produced no rails but a saw-whet owl was nice, plus Swainson’s Thrushes calling as they headed south for the winter. We headed on past Stinson Beach for a mile or so and, after what seemed a long time, heard the twangy djew, djew-djew-djew-djew-djew of Rufous-crowned Sparrow, our main goal at this southern extremity of our route. Back to the Stinson Beach parking lot where a few western songbird migrants and a stake-out Great-tailed Grackle got us to 64 species by 8.20 am.
A Peregrine Falcon that flushed swirling clouds of shorebirds in glowing early sunlight on a glassy calm Bolinas Lagoon helped us find (by ear) Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitcher, the latter a good bird on this date. On a normal day we would have stayed to enjoy the birding, but BAT days don’t allow for that luxury. And so on to Stinson Beach itself, where a roosting flock of Snowy Plovers contained single Sanderling and Semipalmated Plover—two more good birds easy to miss at this season, making for 81 species by 9 am.
Stops as we moved north along Bolinas Lagoon added a few more species, notably two Black-throated Gray Warblers and a Tennessee Warbler (our only vagrant of the day) with a roving flock, and a small group of Red Crossbills high in conifers at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Volunteer Canyon—a species we hadn’t expected at all! Wary of the forecast rain (which in the beautiful morning weather seemed so improbable) we cracked the whip and were into Bolinas an hour earlier than in 2022, where a stake-out Northern Mockingbird put us at 100 species by 10.10 am. Not bad at all, but now we’d need to really work, hope for luck, and that some of the birds we found when scouting were still around.
Still, that meant potentially 8+ hours of birding around our local spots, weather permitting. This gave plenty of time for our traditional morning walk around the neighborhoods, which proved rather disappointing in terms of new species—although we did add House Sparrow at a newly found stake-out—yes, this species can be missed easily on our route! After a lunch break on Steve’s deck, checking what we still needed to find, we opted for the Bolinas sewage ponds. A dozen new species were possible there based on recent scouting—we found seven of those, plus a bonus hunkered down Cackling Goose, which kicked us up 119 species by 2 pm. It seemed that our baseline goal of 120 species would be achieved, although now we were well and truly into the world of diminishing returns.
‘Everything’ flushing from Bolinas Lagoon keyed us into a nice adult Bald Eagle—a serendipitous encounter. But now it was our scouting that really paid off, with strategic quick stops to find White-fronted Goose, Pied-billed Grebe, and Blue-winged Teal, all off the beaten path on private property we’d gained permission to access. Finding Oak Titmouse (here at the edge of its range) was hard-going, but we also found (finally!) our only Hutton’s Vireo, as the first spots of rain started to fall…
A stake-out Eared Grebe at another pond was still there, and finally American Kestrel, just one more of too many bird species that are scarcer than in previous years. A wet trudge up a redwood canyon finally produced Golden-crowned Kinglet and Pacific (née Winter) Wren, two local breeders that are much more widespread here in winter (indeed, three days later the first migrants of both species showed up in our yards). By now the rain was steady, with bird activity decidedly muted under gloomy skies. But our total of 133 species was respectable, although surely we could pull out something else? The local flock of Canada Geese remained annoyingly elusive, but while seeking them some Western Meadowlarks added one more species. The rain eased a little and clearer weather looked possible… so we adjourned to Steve’s yard to regroup, where we managed to locate a White-throated Sparrow. But then the rain kicked back in, and Steve was done for the day—exhausted after leading a birding tour in Mexico followed by two intense days of scouting. Catherine kept going, however, literally on a wild goose chase (the Canada Geese were nowhere to be found!), gamely running out to seek Burrowing Owl at a traditional spot (no luck), and staying out till dark for Barn Owl (no luck either), but at least she was rewarded with a spectacular sunset and foraging Great Horned Owls as the rain finally moved on through.
Our final total was still more species that we figured we’d find in 12+ hours of birding within a three-mile radius of home, helped greatly by our scouting, by an awareness of possible late afternoon rain, and by the assistance and hospitality of the communities of Bolinas and Stinson Beach. In particular, we thank the following for their logistical support, access to certain sites, and information on species that were (and weren’t) where we sought them: Steve Trivelpiece and Audubon Canyon Ranch; Kristine Johnson and the Seadrift Association; the Bolinas Community Public Utility District; Mark Dettling and Point Blue Conservation Science; the Matson household and other Paradise Valley friends; Annabelle Lenderink and the University of San Francisco’s Star Route Farms; Janet Visick; Ethan Okamura; Keith Hansen; and Mindy Marin. Our BAT 2023 was most definitely a fun-filled birding adventure—and staying so local, we spent more time connected to the outside world than than inside the car. Best birds? Always a personal choice, but Snowy Plover (who doesn’t love them?), Tennessee Warbler, and surprise Red Crossbills are up there, plus Bobcat and Minke Whale—OK, so they’re not birds!
There’s till time to pledge support for our BAT if you haven’t yet done so! Please consider contributing at https://pointblue.securesweet.com/kingpishers (and please leave the ‘Gift Designation’ field empty, which means that funds will go to support the Palomarin Field Station in Bolinas).
P.S. People often ask: What were the ‘worst’ misses? Well, Canada Goose and Merlin (both seen the day before) come to mind; adding insult to injury, we saw the geese and a Merlin around town ‘as usual’ in the following days. Pectoral Sandpiper, Tropical Kingbird, Palm Warbler, and Tricolored Blackbird were all seen on our scouting days, and other hoped-for species included Pacific Loon, Horned Grebe, Wilson’s Snipe, Cedar Waxwing (which we saw the very next morning!), and possibly even Brown-headed Cowbird or Pileated Woodpecker… the list could go on. But of course, it’s the unpredictability of birding that makes it both incredibly rewarding and frustrating at the same time—there’s always a challenge and you never know what you might see around the next corner! Of our total, not quite half were year-round residents in the area, highlighting the contribution that migrant birds play in our world and that protecting habitats everywhere is important for long-term conservation.
Happy birding, and thanks again so much for your support!
The Kingpishers : Our Species List (135), 2023 Birdathon, Marin County, Ca
Swimming (18 species)
(Greater) White-fronted Goose—2 imms. Bolinas
Cackling Goose—single Aleutian, Bolinas, but couldn’t find ‘stake-out’ Canada Geese from 2 days earlier!
Blue-winged Teal—4 on a Bolinas farm pond
Pied-billed Grebe—1 on a Bolinas farm pond
Eared Grebe—1 on a Bolinas farm pond
Clark’s Grebe—at least 1 off Stinson Beach among many Westerns
Flying (9 species)
Brown Pelican—still lots around
Heermann’s Gull—still 1000+ around
Glaucous-winged Gull—single adults at Stinson and Duxbury
Herring Gull—single first-cycle flying over Bolinas
Elegant Tern—small numbers still around
Walking (23 species)
Black Oystercatcher—south of Stinson and Duxbury
American Avocet—only 8, Bolinas Lagoon
Snowy Plover—small flock roosting on Stinson Beach
Semipalmated Plover—1 with Snowy Plover flock
Spotted Sandpiper—singles BSP and a farm pond
Black Turnstone—small flock, Duxbury on falling tide
Sanderling—1 with Snowy Plover roost flock, lucky!
Short-billed Dowitcher—Bolinas Lagoon, good bird this late
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Gamebirds (2 species)
Wild Turkey—staked out by Catherine the week before!
Raptors and Owls (11 species)
Bald Eagle—one adult, Lagoon
White-tailed Kite—Kent Island
Peregrine—one adult, Lagoon
Great Horned Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Larger Landbirds (10 species)
Eurasian Collared Dove
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)
Aerial Landbirds (1 species)
Songbirds (61 species)
Western Flycatcher—only 1, Bolinas, getting late
California Scrub Jay
Northern (Common) Raven
Oak Titmouse—one, finally, Olema–Bolinas Road
Red-breasted Nuthatch—plenty around this year
House Wren (Northern)
Pacific (née Winter) Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher—late migrant, Bolinas
Golden-crowned Kinglet—Palo only
Northern Mockingbird—Bolinas stake-out
Tennessee Warbler—only vagrant of the day, with flock in Stinson
Yellow Warbler—a few singles, mostly gone now
Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warbler
Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warbler—most of the world treats this and Audubon’s as two species
Black-throated Gray Warbler—two in the Tennessee flock at Stinson
Wilson’s Warbler—Bolinas, late migrant
Rufous-crowned Sparrow—south of Stinson
Savannah Sparrow—only one!
White-throated Sparrow—one in Bolinas, stake-out
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
Western Tanager—Bolinas, only one, getting late
Red-winged Blackbird (Bicolored)
Great-tailed Grackle—continuing bird in Stinson, stake-out and molting!
Red Crossbill—bonus birds! Along Bolinas Lagoon in a side canyon
Lesser Goldfinch—only one, Bolinas
House Sparrow —only one, Bolinas
MAMMALS (11 species)
Western Gray Squirrel
Pacific Tree (Chorus) Frog