Science for a Blue Planet

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The Kingpishers 2020 Bird-A-Thon

Marin County, CA
25/26 September= Total 156 species

One minute to our noon kick-off!

There’s still time to support our Bird-A-Thon – please consider making a donation to help us reach our $10,000 team goal!

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, 2020, with limited opportunities for any travel and birding thanks to a global pandemic, we (Catherine Hickey, Steve Howell; above) decided to try a serious BAT in Marin County, California. We’d taken part in numerous birdathons in years past, but not done a really focused one for 10 years or so, and never just the two of us. While our team/pod of only two people would mean fewer eyes it would also mean fewer mouths (less ambient noise to distract from listening), and fewer butts to corral into vehicles = in theory a quicker and more efficient effort. For those who may be less familiar with birding jargon, the team name “Kingpishers” is a play on pishing, the art of making various noises to invoke curiosity in birds and make them reveal themselves.

With daily birding for the preceding month, including some site-specific scouting, we picked a date and took the plunge for the 2020 King pisher BAT. It’s hard, impossible really, to know the weather in advance (weather forecast being one of those oxymorons like popular culture and politically correct) and work commitments for one of us limited the options, but hey, from midday 25 September to midday 26 September seemed like a good bet for a BAT, perhaps a little on the early side (vs. even 20 years ago) given changing bird migration schedules thanks to global warming, but it was what we had to work with.

The good news is it wasn’t foggy either day. We started Day 1 at noon on the shore of Abbotts Lagoon in the Point Reyes National Seashore, where we found a number of species that can be missed easily on BAT, such as White-faced Ibis, Red-necked Phalarope, Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Palm Warbler, and thankfully also came across the iconic and threatened Snowy Plover (below = not really time on BAT for photos, so here’s a bird at Abbotts Lagoon from a previous visit). We were away from Abbotts in 2 hours and checked some nearby ranches (successfully) for Brown-headed Cowbirds (hey, every species counts and it’s not the cowbird’s fault if we humans have irreparably messed up the landscape) and the imperiled Tricolored Blackbird, a victim of other landscape changes and the subject of intensive and much-needed conservation action.

The outer reaches of Point Reyes, such as the lighthouse and fish docks, which are some of the better spots to check on BAT, were closed to the public thanks to road construction, so a chunk of potential species were off limits to us. Nonetheless, we elected to risk hold-ups at roadworks and head out to Drakes Beach. The new road looked good for a while, but then a paving crew brought us to a halt. One great thing about birding is you can do it anywhere, so we leapt out and looked for birds! Two Violet-green Swallows (easy to miss on BAT in West Marin, but more on that later) were nice, plus a Northern Flicker, but the only Golden Eagle of the day was even better, and then we were waved on through after adding three species we could have missed.

Drakes Beach was sunny and WINDY, although a Tropical Kingbird in the lee of some trees was a bonus (below, the actual bird, a documentary snap), and a couple of roosting Great Horned Owls (one of them below) are always nice to see. The ocean, however, was almost devoid of birds—not a single loon, for example—and a howling northwest wind made it hard to see what hadn’t been blown away. Luckily we got back through the roadworks quickly and made a few short stops on our way over to East Marin. Stafford Lake was a great stop, with good lighting and less wind, and we added about 15 species there in fairly short order, including Common Merganser, Lesser Yellowlegs, American Pipit (remarkably absent at Abbotts Lagoon), and a couple of quintessentially “eastern” (for Marin County) species—Oak Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch. Our last stop for the day was the Las Gallinas sewage treatment plant, where we were greeted by a veritable blizzard (well over 1000 birds!) of swallows (4 species, mainly Violet-green, so the roadworks birds were less significant) and hundreds of Vaux’s Swifts (one opposite). Our late afternoon arrival was timed to end at the tidal marsh in hopes of hearing Ridgway’s Rail and Black Rail after sunset, and we succeeded on the former.

Third time lucky for a food place that was open (it’s Friday night, really) and then owling on our drive back over Mount Tamalpais. As Mark Twain might have said “Owling is a good sleep spoiled,” and 2.5 hours of slog and one Northern Saw-whet Owl heard but not seen supported this aphorism. But still, it was one more bird for the day, which closed out at 124 species—but with a lot of common landbirds still to find. Asleep by midnight…

Day 2 started with a pre-dawn Swainson’s Thrush calling and continued with a beautiful pre-dawn of shorebird sounds and silhouettes along Bolinas Lagoon—magical, but sadly no time to linger and appreciate it! The coastal scrub slopes and rocky coast south of Stinson Beach produced Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Black Oystercatcher, followed by a selection of migrants in the early morning Stinson Beach parking lot (including a lucky Lark Sparrow, above center), before the swarming hordes of beachgoers arrived. If you think East Marin and traffic on a Friday afternoon is bad, it was much nicer than Saturday morning in sunny West Marin! Back north along the lagoon we headed to Five Brooks, where a calm morning seemed ideal for birds, but not even a Wood Duck (at the one nearly sure-fire local spot for this species). And then the wind picked up, and up, and our last 1.5 hours were spent in dazzling sun and a howling gale, trying to eek out any new landbirds. Our local knowledge added Western Tanager (above right), but three local House Sparrow hotspots all failed us (what a species to miss!) and our last new BAT species was a migrating Sharp-shinned Hawk a few minutes before noon. Twenty-four hours and a lot of work had produced 156 species, followed by much needed SLEEP!

We thank the following for their logistical support, not only in scouting where to find species but in finding where species were NOT hanging out, equally important when the clock is ticking: Patricia Briceño P., Renée Cormier, Mark Dettling, Megan Elrod, Keith Hansen, Diana Humple, Kristine Johnson, Ron Mallory, Ethan Okamura, Alex Merritt, Dan Singer, Steve Trivelpiece, Jim White, and especially Ryan DiGaudio for his help on the first afternoon of what was most definitely a fun-filled birding adventure, a great antidote to the mass media blitz that seems to fill our lives these days.

Depending on where you live, 156 species in 24 hours may seem like a lot (or if you live in eastern Peru it may sound pitiful!); however, given our location and route it wasn’t the best possible showing and averaged 10 fewer species than numerous comparable birdathons we did in the 1990s and even early 2000s (OK, so we’re older and our eyes and ears aren’t as sharp, but hopefully that is balanced by some experience). Sure, the weather (sunny and windy is the worst possible birding combination), the weekend, and Point Reyes being closed off didn’t help, but the bottom line is that there are simply far fewer birds on Earth than there used to be. Still, it’s sad to see first hand, and it should be a sobering wake-up call that the work Point Blue does is even more vital than ever. Thanks to all for your support and we wish you the best of birding and life for this year and many more to come.

PS. People often ask: What were the “worst” misses? Well, missing House Sparrow was certainly a lesson (usually we see it at the outer ranches on Point Reyes, closed off this year). Western Meadowlark was seen 15 minutes before we started, and none during BAT hours—that hurt! One of the Peregrine Falcons at Abbotts was chasing a high-flying songbird that really looked like a longspur (presumably Lapland Longspur); a fleeting sparrow that got away at Stafford Lake was almost certainly a Vesper Sparrow; and a dashing Merlin seen from the car where there was no place to stop safely and confirm the identification also eluded our list. OK, we should be stringy (it’s for a good cause, after all). (Stringing in the bird world, for those unfamiliar with the term, is being loose or even simply creative with your birding = reporting species not really seen or heard well enough to be certain of their identity). So, while the Kingpishers list was 156 species, the “Stringfishers” list would easily have been in excess of 160 species—but we opted for credibility, even if it meant less money raised!
Other somewhat annoying misses were White-fronted Goose (flocks totaling 90 birds flew over us in Bolinas the very next morning!), Hermit Thrush (two in Steve’s yard the next morning!), Horned Lark, Cooper’s Hawk, Pacific Loon, … the list goes on. But of course it’s the unpredictability of birding that makes it fun; there’s always a challenge and you never know what you might see around the next corner—perhaps even a House Sparrow!

Happy birding and keep caring!

Got those Snowy Plovers! Catherine with Point Blue biologist Ryan DiGaudio at Abbotts Lagoon

(locations noted when species found at only a single site)
Swimming Waterbirds (21 species)
Canada Goose
Mute Swan—Las Gallinas
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Surf Scoter—Drakes Beach
Common Merganser—Stafford Lake
Pied-billed Grebe
Eared Grebe—a few at Abbotts Lagoon
Western Grebe
Clark’s Grebe—at least 1 off Stinson Beach among many Westerns
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon—Abbotts Lagoon
Brandt’s Cormorant—Stinson Beach area
Pelagic Cormorant—1 roosting on cliffs south of Stinson Beach
Double-crested Cormorant
Common Murre—Stinson Beach area

Flying Waterbirds (9 species)
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
Heermann’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Western Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull—one 2nd-cycle flying south along the beach at Abbotts Lagoon
Caspian Tern—2 lingering birds at Nicasio Reservoir
Elegant Tern

Walking Waterbirds(31 species)
Black Oystercatcher—Stinson Beach area
Black-necked Stilt—Las Gallinas
American Avocet—Bolinas Lagoon
Black-bellied Plover—Bolinas Lagoon
Snowy Plover—Abbotts Lagoon, a small group roosting on the beach
Semipalmated Plover—Abbotts Lagoon
Spotted Sandpiper—Stafford Lake
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs—Stafford Lake, alongside several Greater Yellowlegs
Willet—Bolinas Lagoon
Whimbrel—Bolinas Lagoon
Long-billed Curlew—Bolinas Lagoon
Marbled Godwit
Sanderling—Abbotts Lagoon
Dunlin—Abbotts Lagoon
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper—Abbotts Lagoon
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Red-necked Phalarope—Abbotts Lagoon, more than usual staying late this year
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron—Las Gallinas
White-faced Ibis—1 immature at Abbotts Lagoon, a good bird for West Marin
Ridgway’s Rail—Las Gallinas, calling at dusk from the tidal marsh, but no Black Rail!
Virginia Rail
Sora—Drakes Beach
Common Gallinule—Las Gallinas
American Coot

Gamebirds (2 species)
California Quail
Wild Turkey—missed in Point Reyes Station, but a group near Stafford Lake saved the day!

Raptors and Owls (13 species)
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite—10+ hunting the fields and marshes at Las Gallinas along with several harriers was quite the show!
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk—Bolinas, the last new bird of the BAT!
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Golden Eagle—a juvenile circling over fields at Point Reyes, thanks to the roadworks!!
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon—Abbotts Lagoon
Barn Owl—Drakes Beach
Great Horned Owl—Drakes Beach
Northern Saw-whet Owl—Bolinas area, our only bird in 2.5 hours of owling!

Larger Landbirds (12 species)
Feral Pigeon—Point Reyes Station in passing, and glad we did as none seen later!
Band-tailed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared Dove
Mourning Dove—Las Gallinas
Belted Kingfisher
Acorn Woodpecker—Five Brooks
Red-breasted Sapsucker—Bolinas
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker—Stinson Beach area
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)
Pileated Woodpecker—Five Brooks

Aerial Landbirds (6 species)
Anna’s Hummingbird
Vaux’s Swift—Las Gallinas, 100s, great views and lots calling
Tree Swallow—at least 1 at Las Gallinas
Violet-green Swallow—2 at Point Reyes, then 1000+ at Las Gallinas!
Barn Swallow—1 at Nicasio Reservoir, at least 1 at Las Gallinas
Northern Rough-winged Swallow—1 at Point Reyes, several Las Gallinas

Songbirds (62 species)
Western Wood-Pewee—Five Brooks
Willow Flycatcher—Las Gallinas
“Western” Flycatcher (presumed Pacific-slope)
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Tropical Kingbird—Drakes Beach. Heard when we were “inside” the trees, but up on the wires when we emerged, nice! A northward-dispersing vagrant from West Mexico.
Hutton’s Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Steller’s Jay
California (née Western) Scrub Jay
American Crow
Northern (Common) Raven
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Oak (née Plain) Titmouse—Stafford Lake
White-breasted Nuthatch—Stafford Lake, by the skin of our teeth as we were leaving!
Red-breasted Nuthatch—Bolinas
Pygmy Nuthatch—Five Brooks
Brown Creeper—Five Brooks
House Wren (Northern)
Pacific (née Winter) Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher—Stinson Beach area
Ruby-crowned Kinglet—Five Brooks, first of the season
Western Bluebird
Swainson’s Thrush
American Robin—Stinson Beach area
Northern Mockingbird—Las Gallinas
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing—Stinson Beach area
Orange-crowned Warbler—Stinson Beach area
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Palm Warbler—singles at Abbotts Lagoon and Las Gallinas were nice
Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warbler—not many, and couldn’t find a Myrtle Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler—Stinson Beach area, just the one, a nice male
Townsend’s Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler—Stinson Beach area
Spotted Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow—Stinson Beach area
California Towhee
Lark Sparrow—Stinson Beach area
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow (Sooty)—just arrived back in West Marin last week
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow—just arrived back in West Marin last week
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)—Five Brooks
Western Tanager—Bolinas, the penultimate bird species of the BAT
Red-winged Blackbird (Bicolored)
Tricolored Blackbird—Point Reyes
Brewer’s Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird—Point Reyes, with the cows, where else…
House Finch
Purple Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch—lots of places, a BIG year for them in West Marin
American Goldfinch