Big Year #3: Two Month Update

By the end of February, my Big Year bird count had climbed to 142 species. Some Big Years might expect to have seen more birds by this time, but this is not one of those Other Big Years—this is my Thoreauvian Big Year, a count of the birds I encounter in 2018 within a 10 mile journey from home while travelling on foot or by bike (full time work also tends to put a crimp in the birding compared to the most ambitious Big Years). That’s another 26 species since my last update in late January, a solid increase which includes the wrapping up of most of the expected winter birds around the neighborhood, in the woods, and in local ponds and wetlands, as well as a few less common finds. So where have I been spending my local birding time?

Wrapping up the common neighborhood birds

Several species from this chunk are extremely common, but had for one reason or another escaped official recording on my early January lists (my official count presented here includes only the sightings I formally submitted to eBird). From turkeys and downy woodpeckers to fox sparrows and Eurasian collared-dove, their notable absence in review of my first few weeks of listing successfully prompted me to wake up, look around, and note the underappreciated everyday world. Which is always a worthwhile lesson.

The winter waterbirds keep coming in

Even when not yawning, snowy plovers are very cute. Photo by Jason Crotty.

In winter, our local ponds and wetlands likewise fill up with a variety of waterbirds sufficiently large that I didn’t manage to account for all of them in my first few weeks of lists, though most of these birds are not particularly rare or difficult to find. A few repeat visits to the regular hotspots of Bahia and Las Gallinas were steadily productive (greater scaup, western gull, sora, and Ridgeway’s rail—the latter two not easy to see, but dependably present), and were soon followed by a few regular but slightly less abundant species at the Hamilton Wetlands (such as our fifth most common gull, the glaucous-winged gull, and American pipit) and again at Las Gallinas (cackling goose, Wilson’s snipe). Towards the end of the month, I had a particularly fruitful day at Hamilton thanks to my participation in the regular volunteer survey of the wetlands restoration area, giving me access to the deeper water just inside of the levee breach, where a strong showing of grebes completed my collection of the five local species by adding horned, Clark’s, and western grebes at a stroke. I also sighted a single snowy plover that morning, famous as an endangered coastal breeder but also present at Hamilton in low numbers in winter.

I do love the woods: away from the water

Wrentit by Peter E. Hart

All of this talk of waterbirds might make you think that all the birds around here are swimming or running around on the mudflats. It’s not true! And I love trees! It’s just that a big chunk of our winter bird diversity is found around the water and so dominates these lists, while my first early visits to the woods at Rush Creek and Indian Tree gathered a larger portion of the current woodland bird population. I did, however, make some recent forays  to forested preserves that did yield additional species. A January trip to Indian Valley added the first hairy woodpecker of the year (and really the pileated woodpecker flyover I reported from my home nearby likely spends a large portion of his time within the preserve). In early February, I made my trip of the year to Deer Island, which has a modest woodland surrounded with open fields and seasonal wetlands. Here I recorded my first merlin and my first house wren, a bird which will become easier to find as we move into spring, but which is relatively scarce in winter. Finally, I also made a first perfunctory visit to the chaparral on Big Rock Ridge, a habitat of limited bird diversity but with a few specialty species, most notably the loudly vocal wrentit.

Allen’s Hummingbird – Theresa Fisher

Signs of spring

March should bring a notable bunch of species as various spring migrants arrive, but a few early birds do show up in February. The very first Allen’s hummingbirds can appear in late January, but I saw my first on February 15 this year. February is also when violet-green swallows begin to become significantly more numerous, steadily increasing from their very low overwintering population.

The power of eBird

My account of this Big Year so far might suggest that I’m systematically working the hotspots in a pattern guided only by my deep knowledge and careful strategic planning. But I have to admit to having another tool that informs essentially any contemporary Big Year effort: eBird. In my introductory eBird post, I described how you can use this citizen-driven collection of bird sightings to find more birds and better understand our local birdlife. Some recent episodes from my Big Year adventures give good illustrations of how eBird can come into play:

  • A few short-eared owls have been a regular presence at Las Gallinas all winter, regularly visible in the fields to the south of the ponds at dusk and early morning. I first found out they were there by seeing them reported on eBird.
  • A Eurasian wigeon, a relatively uncommon duck that pops up each winter in low numbers mixed in with our abundant American wigeons, was reported in the ponds directly behind our store, Wild Birds Unlimited at Vintage Oaks. I looked out the back door, and there it was! That was easy!
Short-eared Owl – Mick Thompson
Eurasian Wigeon by Becky Matsubara
  • I heard through the grapevine about a rock wren that had taken up residence at McGinnis Park. This was the old, more directly interpersonal way of learning about uncommon birds. But I told someone else, who posted it on eBird, and then posted about it myself. Now several people have seen this locally uncommon bird, which seems to be comfortable and confiding in the populated park. He has his beloved rocks and is at peace.
  • Most exciting of all to me, though the initial species haul has been limited, has been the discovery of a place I did not know existed: the Day Island Wildlife Area, out in Black Point near the mouth of the Petaluma River. Exploring through a web of eBird lists, I noticed several from this location reporting various rails and owls and interesting things. I went there and discovered a small hidden treasure: a bayfront preserve in Novato! While most of our bay shore lies behind a strip of agricultural land or impassable marshes, this wooded hill rises up right by the mouth of the Petaluma River to give great views of the bay and an extensive shoreline. As an initial welcome bonus, the thickets of coyote brush revealed a relatively scarce winter gnatcatcher, my first of the year, and a herald of more exciting discoveries yet to be made.

List as of March 1, 2018: 142 species. See the full list to date with locations.

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. Late January 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?
  3. March Update: I climb to 142 species, wrapping up most of the common winter birds and seeing the first signs of spring as we pass through February. 
  4. April Update: Spring ramps up and I work harder to find some special birds.

Header photo: The Hamilton Wetlands volunteer bird survey vehicle fleet: one internal combustion ATV, one bike. Guess which one is mine. Photo by Luanna Helfman.

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