Marin, CA

2011 Green Big Day Report: Team Marin on 5/4/2011

  • Transportation: bicycle
  • Observers: 2
  • Conditions: Heat Wave, east winds
  • Bird Species: 145
  • Mammal Species: 15
  • Butterfly Species: 16

Report prepared by Josiah Clark

Greetings birders. On May 4 Andy Kleinhesselink and Josiah Clark did a
green Big Day by bicycle in Marin County. This was in fact our second
attempt this season after being weathered out on a cold and wetter than
predicted April 20 with high winds, which for the first time led us to
pull the plug on the effort. May 4 was notably late for the peak
diversity window, as many of the wintering species appear to evaporate,
but we hatched a new route in hopes of cashing in a late migrant wave
and beat the odds.

We met in Mill Valley and by 4am we had begun to climb Mt. Tamalpais and
the 2000+ feet of elevation that we needed to gain before dawn.

Our attempts to hear owls were hampered by strong easterly winds that
preceded what was to be the hottest day of a heat wave. As we pedaled up
the rocky trail we heard the predawn calls of Spotted Towhee and
Dark-eyed Juncos from the chaparral and mixed oak woodlands. Realizing
dawn was near we increased our speed, knowing we had to reach the rocky
grassland above for our only chance at Common Poorwill, or so we
thought. Only 300 feet after we mentioned its name, one flushed one from
the trail and we continued to climb. Now at the edge of the grasslands
we heard Great-horned Owl and finally a Western Screech Owl in the dawn
twilight for an underwhelming owl species count.

We gained our final elevation scouring the skyline in search of a dawn
flight. While we managed most of the breeding birds on the mountain, the
predicted massive dawn-flight migrant spectacle being experienced by
fellow birders to the south at the Golden Gate had apparently all but
diffused into the expansive forests by the time they reached us.

Just after 6:30am we began our decent down the western slope. Now on
concrete and with an ear to the forest we jammed downhill, picking up
Western Tanager, Hermit and Black-throated Grey Warbler. With the sun
already starting to beat down we made a stop to drink like camels and
top off our water bottles at a water fountain at the local campground to
stay provisioned.

We quickly passed through plant communities of manzanita chaparral,
serpentine grasslands, redwood and Douglas Fir forests and finally
coastal scrub as we approached sea level.

In an effort to capitalize on early morning detections we committed to
an out-and-back leg of the journey, a practice usually deemed taboo on
Big Days. We gained elevation again, backtracking south up highway one
along the coast to take our first looks out at the ocean. We de-bungeed
tripods and broke out the scopes before picking our way down an
overgrown trail of blackberry and poison oak to a rocky cliff
overlooking the ocean and shore. We soon saw Black Oystercatcher, three
species of loon, two species of alcids, Caspian Terns, Brown Pelicans
and many other seabirds. Less expected was a White-throated Swift and
migrant Spotted Sandpiper. From the coastal sage and rocky bluffs above,
a Rufous-crowned Sparrow was singing on territory one of the last
coastal breeding populations for this species in the entire Bay Area.

With the stopwatch ticking we worked our way north around the Bolinas
Lagoon, which was notably depleted of shorebirds and ducks compared to
the preceding weeks. Then out to Agate Beach for our final look at the
ocean before heading inland. Another round of scoping produced only a
few new birds over the ocean and rocky shorebirds were nowhere to be
found. A very late, bedraggled Common Goldeneye in the tide pools was an
unexpected score and migrating Grey Whales offshore were a nice
consolation prize from the marine front. At Keith Hansen’s Wildlife
Gallery we spent precious time waiting at the famous feeders but every
last wintering sparrows had apparently rode the migrant wave only the
night before. We overrode our need to put down more miles just long
enough for quick second look at a favorite flooded farm field, where
Andy discovered a Solitary Sandpiper that had not been there before, the
rarest bird of the day.

We worked our way north toward Pt. Reyes Station with hopes of water
bird redemption at Tomales Bay. Closer at hand were the land birds
however, and we took the trail less traveled to find them. The creek
side riparian habitat was rich with the songs of breeding songbirds, but
our aspirations for rare migrants or vagrants in the chorus did not come
to pass. The trail was in bad shape and we slogged through deep mud,
tall grass and around an apparently endless supply of vine covered
fallen trees. There was no efficient way to ride the trail, no two steps
were the same and it was beating us down. Muddy and exhausted we bailed
out at the one-hour mark, hopping a fence to an unknown ranch road that
lead us back to the concrete. We stripped grass from our derailiuers and
ticks from our skins before making the road burn to our next stop.

By now we had run through our water and it seemed like days since any
real food. I rolled the dice, drinking some untreated spring water and
within an hour was feeling kinda sick. The on-setting weakness did not
stop us, we were soon we were Pt. Reyes station where we took our only
break of the day. Just long enough to tank up on water, order up and
scarf down super burritos, fueling a much-needed second wind. At the
very nearby and newly restored Giacamini wetlands we were firing blanks
at our stake-out birds, striking out on American Bittern, Black-bellied
Plover, Marbled Godwit and even American Coot!(There is nothing like a
Big Day inspired search to prove the recent scarcity of this
under-loved, recently common breeding species.)

It was 5:30pm and time for us to make our way eastern transect across
the county to the bayshore. Just then we discovered multiple screws had
shaken loose from one of the bike racks, and the gear was barely hanging
on. We used a Leatherman and clipped bits of wire from a downed fence
and made haste on the necessary repair, just long enough for a Common
Moorehen to emerge from the reeds in a nearby stock pond.

Now even more behind schedule we raced through the rolling grasslands
and scanned fence posts until we turned up our only Western Meadowlark,
which are becoming asrare as a roadside silent moment. At Nicasio
reservoir, we ticked a ride-by Yellow Warbler in song. Hearts pumping
and wind at our backs we made good time to the summit of Lucas Valley
Road where we scored on Lark Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and Lazuli
Bunting. We pushed up a small fire road and waded into a sea ofrippling
tall grass but could not turn up the Grasshopper Sparrows or Horned
Larks we observed only days earlier.

With the sun setting we made our final decent eastward, down toward the
bay, picking up a the last chance calls of Pileated Woodpecker and a
lucky flyover White-breasted Nuthatch en route. We traversed the
underpass of the first 8 lane freeway crossing of the day and wasted no
time reaching the Las Gallinas Sanitation District- Thank goodness for
sewage ponds…. Here we picked up our final suite of species including
Green-winged Teal, Barn Owl and calling Clapper Rails as suburban lights
reflected in the bays meandering tidal channels. With no light left we
began the 15 mile or so trip back to our starting place at the base of
Mt. Tamalpais. Northern Mockingbird was our final bird of the day,
mimicking sirens under a streetlight in a gated neighborhood.

We completed our loop at 11:30 pm, 19.5 hours and over 80 miles by
bicycle. We compiled our list for a total of 145 species, a far cry from
our record set back on April 20, 2009, of 156 species. Andy and I have
done Big Days by bicycle for several years now, both for Bird-a-thons
and just for our own records. We have gone by many team names, The
Peeps, The Blackhole Warblers but this time The Last Ditch Ducks might
be the most appropriate.

Despite a good route, fast pace and lots of stake out birds the previous
week, we could not turn up the migrants to overcome the late date and
fact that many essential common wintering birds had already moved on.
This biathlon like event is as grueling as the chosen route. The birding
can be as bountiful or unforgiving as nature itself. As always, Nature
bats last and can play the ultimate wildcard at a moment’s notice. For
us it has become the ultimate test a growing dimension of Ecology
Adventure and Nature Sports.

It is so inspiring to see so many people pioneering this next chapter in
birding. We are already strategizing a new route for the next Green Big
Day season in an effort to keep our hard fought title!

Thanks to all the participants for the reports and a huge shout out to
the Green Big Day organizer Scott Smithson for putting this all together.

Until next time- good luck and good birding.

Why Marin County?

The many plant communities and compression of habitats makes Marin
county the best place we have found to observe the maximum number of
species by bicycle.

What we learned:

The quest for the biggest list possible has led us to a more intimate
knowledge of our area.We have forced ourselves to dive deeper into the
many aspects of bird habitat, migration and distribution in this area.
While the birds are the focus, this form of natural immersion informs our
understanding of the entire ecosystem.

Mammal List:

Harbor Porpoise
Grey Whale
California Sealion
Harbor Seal
River Otter
Black-tailed Deer
California Meadow Vole
Valley pocket gopher
Sonoma Chipmunk
Western Grey Squirrel
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Brush Rabbit
California Myotis (bat)

Butterfly List:

Monarch, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail,
Veined White, Great Marble, Cabbage white, California Ringlet, Satyr
Anglewing, West Coast Lady, American Painted Lady, Red Admiral,
Lorquin’s Admiral, Buckeye, Spring Azure, Field Crescent, Mylitta Crescent

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