Big Year #2: Three Week Update

Big Year #2: Three Week Update

Earlier this month, I introduced my undertaking of a “Thoreauvian Big Year,” an attempt to see as many bird species as possible this year within a ~10 mile radius of my home in southern Novato, while transporting myself only by feet and bike rather than big gas-powered machines. On January 1st, I visited the Bahia Lagoon and environs, starting the year off with 56 species, including a few specialties of this location such as Barrow’s goldeneye and red-breasted merganser. It’s been a few weeks since then and the world is clamoring, clamoring to hear the latest news from the self-propelled birding circuits. Today, I’ll tell you about where I went and what I found en route to the first 115 species, which might give you some ideas about the best winter sites to visit in the Novato area if you want to see some new birds.

Progress Report

1/11/18 Hamilton Wetlands: +22 species = 78 year-to-date

Semipalmated Plover by Mick Thompson on Flickr

For my next major outing, I took the bike out to the Hamilton Wetlands, the premier birding-by-bike site in our area. A nice, wide, well-maintained, off-street section of the Bay Trail borders the wetlands for 2.5 miles, allowing one to relaxedly pedal between the best viewing sites. Hamilton added a few ducks to those already found at Bahia, as well as most of the common shorebirds, with the large tidal areas welcoming avocets, stilts, godwits, dunlins, sandpipers, and more. The wetlands here is undoubtedly the best local place for spotting plovers in particular: killdeers, semipalmated plovers, and black-bellied plovers were all abundant, although on this trip I missed out on the snowy plovers which are often lurking out there somewhere in winter. A few basic songbirds also continued to trickle in among the neighboring trees and fields. See the list.

1/12/18 Indian Tree Open Space: + 16 species = 94 year-to-date

My first real trip to the woods – and indeed the forest, with Indian Tree Open Space Preserve hosting Novato’s only real conifer forest of redwood and Douglas-fir – was another opportunity to pick up lots of new species. At this stage in the year, there were still lots of ultra-basics to add to the list: chickadees and titmice and such. Then there were also several less ubiquitous birds that are still not uncommon if you go to the right kind of habitat, such as purple finches, varied thrush, and golden-crowned kinglet. Right at the trailhead, before plunging into the woods, an American kestrel perched on the wire and a white-throated sparrow lurked in the blackberries to make themselves the first of their kind to be elevated to List Status. 

But the big find was undoubtedly a red-naped sapsucker, a woodpecker of the Rockies and Great Basin which appears in low numbers in coastal California each year. This was a very handsome adult male, the first I had ever seen, and will undoubtedly feature in the highlights of the year. That’s how big years are intended to work: you spend more time looking for birds, and then you find them! See the list. 

Varied Thrush - Eugene Beckes
Red-naped Sapsucker - Peter E Hart

1/14/18 Bahia Lagoon + Rush Creek Field Trip: +7 = 101 year-to-date

Eared Grebe by Frank Lospalluto on Flickr

Back at Bahia again to co-lead a Wild Birds Unlimited group bird walk, I picked up a few birds that weren’t present on my first visit two weeks earlier, including an eared grebe and a fortuitous flyover of greater white-fronted geese, part of a large movement of waterfowl that many birders noticed throughout the Bay Area. The group then briefly investigated the Bahia Dr. trailhead at Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, where woods and water meet to provide a quick burst of species, including the whinnying cry of the year’s first sora. (Birds that are only heard “count,” but I intend to make an effort to visually see as many of them as possible over the course of the year as well.) See the bird list from the Bahia Lagoon and from Rush Creek

1/19/18 Las Gallinas Ponds: +9 = 110 year-to-date

Virginia Rail by budgora on Flickr

My first trip of the year to this local hotspot was always likely to provide a solid contribution of new birds – probably the last major one-day haul as the ranks of the uncounted “easy” birds dwindle. While previous trips at Bahia and Rush Creek visited saltwater marshes and wetlands, these managed water treatment settling ponds with nice vegetated islands host additional species of waterbirds, including some like common mergansers (a good sized group of 18 of them), common gallinules, and virginia rails (often “heard only,” but providing good views on this occasion) that prefer freshwater habitats. A few other ducks that had previously slipped under the radar helped to boost the numbers: cinnamon teal, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup. Bubbly marsh wrens sang exuberantly when the sun came out after a string of overcast days, a striking kingfisher flew over the ponds, and a pair of peregrine falcons circled low overhead for a while before continuing about their business. See the list.

Incidental Sightings as of 1/20/18: +5 = 115 year-to-date

House Sparrow – parking lot specialty – by John Benson on Flickr

Of course, not all observations fit neatly into designated birding expeditions. Like most people, I see birds around my home, some at work, and some as I move around town. I haven’t gotten 100% of these incidental sightings into my eBird record holding the official count, so at this point a few common birds have eluded official notation and my overall total is undercounted a little, but I have input a few lists from home and at work at Wild Birds Unlimited’s feeding stations, contributing a further five species so far. If you go out birding in the forest or the wetlands, you might not see many house sparrows, but there are plenty of them at Vintage Oaks! And althought I haven’t made any special owling trips yet, I’m fortunate enough to have both great horned owls and western screech-owls present and calling at home, so they made it onto the list rather effortlessly.


The first weeks of a Big Year are, of course, the time of rapid accumulation: everywhere you go, you pick up a few more common species as “firsts” for the year. But although I have some common birds that have so far escaped official registration within the low-travel parameters of the count (no fox sparrow, wrentit, hairy woodpecker, Eurasian collared dove, or Clark’s and western grebes, for instance), the initial cascade of additional species will now be reduced to a trickle until the mass of spring migrants appear in March and April to rejuvenate proceedings. Then, once they are established, the trickle will dwindle further into a slow drip, requiring planning, patience, and persistence to push me over the target: 200+ species, within ten miles of home, using my own two feet to get me there.

Next time, I’ll doubtless be sharing a smaller haul of new species, but I’ll also share some of the tools and resources that can help you to discover more local birds. Where did I get this 200 species target from? How can you find new places to investigate? How do you know when a new migrant or unusual sighting is in town? All of this next time.

The Thoreauvian Big Year

  1. Introduction: How many birds can I find in a year within 10 miles of my Novato home, without using a car? I kick off the Thoreauvian Big Year.
  2. The Three Week Update: The easy resident and wintering birds pour in – along with a few surprises – among the highlights of the first 115 species. What local sites should you visit in January if you want to see more birds?