Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Young Birders Reach New List Number Heights

Written by Lisa Hug

This year has been challenging for all of us on many levels. Covid-19 was forcing us to be creative about how we participate in social events. And, the Bird-a-thon is a social event, and I have always made it a priority to emphasize teamwork on the Young Ancient Murrelets (YAMS) bird-a-thon days. The YAMS are composed mostly of teenage birders between the ages of 13 and 17 and have participated in the Point Blue Bird-A-Thon for many years, growing up with this wonderful tradition. In the spirit of teamwork, I invited the YAMS to a Zoom meeting a few days before. We decided on a small, socially-distanced Marin team and another one in Sonoma that would go out and bird on Saturday, October 10th. In the spirit of teamwork, we would have another ZOOM meeting in the evening of the Bird-a-thon and add up our totals and see how many birds we could see cumulatively. We were all set. We had a plan.

Here is how my day went with the Sonoma County team. I started the day in the dark, and picked up teenager Bea Pezzolo on the eastern side of Santa Rosa. We normally start the day in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, but we wanted to get started right away, so we had an early morning hike around Spring Lake. It was very foggy, and our first bird was Mute Swan because it was large and bright enough to see in the misty darkness. There were many birds in the area, with the most common bird being Cedar Waxwings. They were in the treetops and in quick flights over our heads all morning. Then Bea spotted a grosbeak sneak around behind us. Mid-October is a late date for a grosbeak and I wondered if it couldn’t be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Eventually Bea was able to show me the bird and we both got a great look at a Black-headed Grosbeak. This was a nice surprise for the late date! We left Spring Lake with 50 species of birds on our day list. This was a good start, but we weren’t even halfway there yet.

We then drove to the west side of the county. We stopped at Bodega Farm Pond, where we picked up Long-billed Dowitchers, Northern Pintail and American Pipits. As we left the pond, it started to rain. We stopped in on Salmon Creek Road to try and pick up a few birds that weren’t at Spring Lake. It was foggy and raining. We couldn’t find any flocks, and started to get behind schedule. We picked up Pine Siskin and Pygmy Nuthatch, but given the time and the conditions, we decided that it was best to cut our losses and move on to Bodega Bay.

Young Ancient Murrelets (L to R) Clayton Rucker, Lisa Hug, and Beatrice Pezzolo scanning for birds at Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility in Petaluma. Photo taken by Brandy Rucker (Clayton’s Mom).

The fog and light rain were a blessing at Bodega Bay. We arrived at Doran Regional Park with ideal tidal conditions for the shorebirds to be spaced out perfectly on the mudflats, and there weren’t crowds of people scaring off the birds. Bea was looking forward to seeing Snowy Plover and I told her that I could not find them the previous day. But, we found a few anyway, and the day was looking up again.

While Bea and I were having a lunch break on a wet picnic table, we met up with the rest of our Sonoma team – teenager Clayton Rucker and his mom, Brandy. They birded Ragle Ranch Regional Park that morning. They picked up Great-horned Owl, California Quail and Downy Woodpecker that Bea and I missed earlier. Three nice contributions!

Now it was time to seek out the rarities of Owl Canyon – Green-tailed Towhee and Clay -colored Sparrow. They were there the day before, but would they be there for us when we got there? And how much time would we need to find them if they were there? Luckily, both birds are seed-eaters and there was bird seed on the ground in front of the willows. We found both birds within a few minutes! This gave us plenty of time to enjoy these rare coastal visitors that were life birds for my teammates.

We then drove up to Bodega Head. The fog was extremely thick. We could barely see the cormorants that were right in front of us. We managed to find a small flock of surfbirds, but it took quite a long time to find Black Oystercatcher. Finally, Clayton spotted one sitting very quietly with its head tucked in on a rock. There was no hope of finding anything further out than the rocks in front of us.

We stopped along the north shore to pick up some ducks and grebes. The fog was so thick that the birds would appear briefly and then disappear behind a shroud of gray mist. We managed to pick up Greater Scaup, Eared Grebe, Clark’s Grebe and Ruddy Duck before they faded away completely. The fog hid all three species of loon from us.

We then went up the coast to find Tricolored Blackbird – a bird in precipitous decline. When we arrived at Chanslor Ranch, Clayton found a Hairy Woodpecker in a bare parking lot – a very unexpected place. Bea found the Tricolored Blackbirds for us. This is usually a reliable place for Tricolored Blackbirds in the fall, but how many more years will we be able to rely on this, with its rapid population decline?

We then traveled down to the south end of the county. We still had to cover Shollenberger Park and Ellis Creek. Whoops. I forgot that Shollenberger Park was closed due to dredging operations. But, we still managed to pick up Black-necked Stilt from the Point Blue parking lot.

We always end the day with a walk around Ellis Creek ponds. The sky was amazing! The various patterns of cumulus clouds in the setting sun were spectacular. One of our last birds of the day was a White-tailed Kite hovering against the colorful west sky. As usual, we ended the day with smiles. Our draft total was 118 species.

We usually end the day with pizza, but this year was different – we had to get home to attend a ZOOM meeting with our Marin County partners.

I was excited to find out how our Marin partners did and went straight home, took a quick shower and turned on my computer for the ZOOM meeting. Oh no. Being an older person with an ancient computer, of course I had technical difficulties getting this meeting started. The 7:30 meeting started at 7:45. I was surprised to find twice as many participants in the meeting than I expected. They had 3 small teams in West Marin and one of these teams (Lucas Corneliussen with Connor and Collin Cochraine) also covered eastern Marin. These 3 teams were combined as one at Pine Gulch Creek. There they had a phenomenal flock of migrants that included twelve species of warblers and a few other late migrants. Lucas Corneliussen was beaming with the news that his team clocked up 182 species for the day!

I was literally speechless. I was staring at this myriad of teenage faces on my computer screen, not knowing what to say. Was I proud? Was I mad? Was I shocked? Was I happy? Was I exhausted? I was all of the above. Oh my God, did we cheat? How am I going to report this? Then Lucas Stephensen logged into the meeting from his phone in a moving car. He was returning from a pelagic trip off Half Moon Bay. It was phenomenal pelagic, adding Nazca Booby to our total!

At this point, it just seemed too ridiculous. I ended the meeting in a state of shock. I had beer and chocolate ice cream for dinner and slept all day Sunday.

Monday I added up all of the teams totals for a Super Team total of 204 species. Our Sonoma team actually had 120 species of birds. After a couple days of letting my thoughts and feelings settle, I knew I was very proud of these teenagers. They were outside. They were learning about their environment. They were having fun. These are young people that know what a precious gift this planet is! And I know that they will contribute to our future knowledge and conservation of this amazing planet.


Here is the breakdown of the subteams that participated:

Sonoma County:
Lisa Hug and Bea Pezzolo
Clayton and Brandy Rucker
The 2 teams combined in the afternoon.

Marin County:
Car 1: Joseph Zeno, Jason Zeno (adult) and John King
Car 2: Mark Schulist and Mike Schulist (adult)
Car 3: Connor Cochraine, Collin Cochraine (adult) and lLucas Corneliussen

Car 1 covered several areas in West Marin, including Pine Gulch Creek
Car 2 covered Muir Beach and met up with the others at Pine Gulch Creek
Car 3 covered several areas in West Marin, including Pine Gulch Creek, and then moved on to Hamilton Wetlands in East Marin

San Mateo County:
Lucas Stephenson , Mark Stephenson (adult) and Brian Browne – pelagic trip off half Moon Bay and some miscellaneous birding afterwards.

The YAMS Final, Combined List:

Greater White-fronted Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
American Wigeon
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Black Scoter
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
California Quail
Wild Turkey
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Clark’s Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Band-tailed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Vaux’s Swift
Anna’s Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Ridgway’s Rail
Virginia Rail
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Black Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Snowy Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Black Turnstone
Least Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson’s Snipe
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Red Phalarope
Common Murre
Pigeon Guillemot
Rhinocerous Auklet
Bonaparte’s Gull
Heermann’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Western Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Caspian Tern
Forster’s Tern
Elegant Tern
Red-throated Loon
Pacific Loon
Common Loon
Sooty Shearwater
Brandt’s Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
Brown Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-heron
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Barn Owl
Western Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Acorn Woodpecker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-pewee
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Hutton’s Vireo
Cassin’s Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Steller’s Jay
California Scrub-jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Oak Titmouse
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Rock Wren
House Wren
Pacific Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
European Starling
Northern Mockingbird
Western Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
House Sparrow
American Pipit
House Finch
Purple Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
Clay-colored Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
California Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Green-tailed Towhee
Western Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Tricolored Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Orange-crowned Warbler
MacGillavray’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Hermit Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black Storm-petrel
Northern Fulmar
South Polar Skua
Parasitic Jaeger
Cassin’s Auklet
Sabine’s Gull
Pink-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater
Nazca Booby
Pomarine Jaeger