Contra Costa county big day

Logan Kahle

Hi all,
On Sunday, April 21st, the Contra Costa Calliopes (Bruce Mast and I) made a serious attempt at the Contra Costa big day record of 170. On Saturday, though, we did some last-minute scouting.

On Saturday, we started a little after dawn at inspiration point. From the parking lot, we found many Pine Siskins and Band-tailed Pigeons, along with a Lazuli Bunting and Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches. Riding out Nimitz way, we quickly staked out an Olive-sided Flycatcher. When we neared Chaparral, we could hear singing California Thrashers. As we arrived at the previously reported location, the MacGillivray's Warbler was actively singing. We then turned onto the Conlon trail, where we almost instantly found a Western Tanager. Farther along the trail, we flushed a Lark Sparrow. Farther yet, past the gate, we staked out our target bird, Grasshopper Sparrow. We then left for east county.

Our first stop, Iron House Sanitary District, was very productive. There were Northern Harriers and Swainson's Hawks coursing over the fields, and we heard a Yellow Warbler singing in the willows. Above the marsh, we saw a couple American Bitterns, an American White Pelican, and a Peregrine Falcon. In the reeds, we heard a calling Virginia Rail. On the ponds themselves, we found a flock of Boneparte's Gulls, along with small numbers of Bufflehead, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and Eared Grebes. On our next foray to Big Break, where, with a similar amount of time, we found nothing of interest save a couple Forster's Terns. We decided to cut that site from the route. Swinging by Jersey Island, we found 34 White-faced Ibis (actually on the corner of Jersey Island road and Cypress Road), several Northern Harriers, a Swainson's Hawk and a Nuttall's Woodpecker. We continued on to Bethel Island. At Bethel Island, we found two Bullock's and a Hooded Oriole, a Savannah Sparrow, three Horned Larks, a Loggerhead Shrike, a Belted Kingfisher, a male Black-chinned Hummingbird, a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese (foraging), a Greater Yellowlegs, and heard two Ring-necked Pheasants. We proceeded to the Holland Tract, where a Glaucous-winged Gull was the only bird of interest. Clifton Court Forebay was likewise dead, and a few lingering Bufflehead were the only birds of interest. At Byron Hot Springs, we found several Loggerhead Shrikes and Swainson's Hawks along with a Western Kingbird. We decided to check West county before heading home to get a little rest before the day.

At the end of Canal boulevard (including looking at Brook's Island and Richmond Marina), we found an Osprey, a Black Oystercatcher, a Long-billed Curlew, a Whimbrel a few Marbled Godwits, about a hundred Surf Scoters in a northbound flock, and hundreds of Greater Scaup. In the harbor by Sandpiper Spit, we found a Horned Grebe. At Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline, we pinned down a couple Glaucous-winged Gulls but failed to find a Ruddy Turnstone or a Cackling Goose, two recently-reported rarities on the bayside. On the rip-rap, we saw a single Spotted Sandpiper flyby. We then headed home to get some rest before the day.

We arrived at Tilden at roughly 11:45 and got to the Grasshopper Sparrow spot at midnight. After waiting for a little while, we were dismayed that they weren't calling. This was the first of several nightime disappointments in West county. We left the spot with our first bird (which could not have been more typical), Great Horned Owl. At San Pablo Reservoir, we failed to find the Sora or the Barn or Northern Saw-whet Owls we'd found during scouting. Canada Goose and Mallard had to make up for them. However, a Virginia Rail was calling in our scouted location. Additionally, we heard an interesting squack that we thought might have been a Green Heron, but we couldn't confirm. Darn. We headed to the bayside.

At Meeker Slough, we spent many unsuccessful minutes listening for Clapper Rail. We headed off to Point Isabel for shorebirds. We were pretty successful with shorebirds, and we heard Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Killdeer, Willit, and Marbled Godwit. Additionally, we found a Black-crowned Night-Heron (our only one of the day), and heard a California Towhee and a Northern Mockingbird. We were off to north county.

North county was good and bad. Martinez regional shoreline, our first stop, was amazing. Not long after arriving, we heard at least one and maybe two Black Rails among the very early morning chatter of Barn Swallows, Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows. Walking farther along we found a couple Black-necked Stilts. Then, we heard some distinctive squawks that Bruce recognized as a Short-eared Owl! At Waterbird Park, though, highlights were few. I had an American White Pelican and a couple Green-winged Teal, but nothing else of interest. To my shock, those would be the only Green-winged Teal of the entire day! We then headed to the Diablo Ranges.

As we had come to expect, we got both Western Screech-Owl and Common Poorwill. Then, we went to Mitchell Canyon. Mitchell Canyon was somewhat disappointing. As we expected, we found Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds, all three vireos, Fox Sparrow, and Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Gray Warblers. We found a few other gems, namely Band-tailed Pigeon, Hairy Woodpecker, Lincoln's Sparrow, Purple Finch, and Sharp-shinned Hawk (our only Accipiter of the day). However, we were sobered by misses of Western Tanager, Hammond's Flycatcher and Nashville, Hermit, and Townsend's Warblers, none of which we'd get all day. Driving to Black Diamond Mines, we picked up our first Kestrel and Crows. Along Somersville road on the way out to Black Diamond Mines, our scouting payed off. Both Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Rock Wren were just where they were supposed to be, and we also added Tree Swallow, Western Meadowlark, Belted Kingfisher, and Bullock's Oriole. We then got to Black Diamond Mines. Here, wandering around payed off, and in less than 40 minutes we'd scored Phainopepla, Canyon Wren, White-throated Swift, another Lincoln's Sparrow, and two Lawrence's Goldfinches. On our way out on Somersville road, we pinned down Lark Sparrow (as expected) and Western Kingbird. Driving to big break, we spotted our 100th bird, a House Sparrow. How anticlimactic.

Big Break was very productive. We quickly nailed Swainson's Hawk and, a little later, Northern Harrier. Our scouted Yellow Warbler was MIA, much to our disapointment. However, a female Black-chinned Hummingbird took it's place. The ponds held a Greater Scaup (try as we might, it wasn't a Lesser), Norhtern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, a couple Forster's Terns, many Bonaparte's Gulls, and, the real surprise, a third-cycle Herring Gull. Over the marsh, we had seven American Bitterns and a flock of White-faced Ibises, saving a stop. We then blasted off to Bethel Island. Bethel hosted Ring-necked Pheasant, Greater White-fronted Goose, Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Black-chinned and Rufous Hummingbirds, Loggerhead Shrike, and Hooded Oriole. Our stake-out Savannah Sparrow and Horned Lark were nowhere to be seen (or heard). Off to Waterbird.

At Waterbird some more contemporary scouting would've been helpful: it was dead. Really dead. After two trips, I'd gotten used to seeing tons of ducks here. This time, there were scarcely more than a dozen. However, I did find a Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, along with Northern Harrier, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Greater Yellowlegs. Then as I was about to leave, I saw a male Great-tailed Grackle. Phew. Additionally, one flew over the freeway a little while down. So, we headed for west county. While driving to Richmond, an Osprey flew over the car.

At Canal Street, we found some of the continuing Brant. An American Wigeon by the dilapidated piers, we found our only American Wigeon of the day. I found the fact that we didn't see more quite remarkable. Additionally, we saw Long-billed Curlew and Willit on Brook's Island, an Osprey overhead, Horned Grebes, Greater Scaup, and Surf Scoters in the Marina, and a Glaucous-winged Gull offshore. Miller Knox was pretty productive. Bruce pulled out two great birds from the bay, a Brown Pelican roosting on Brook's Island and a Common Loon offshore. The really good birds, though, were two Common Murres. They came flying in from the south, and then landed and allowed a nice study. Then we went to Point Isabel. The seawatching part was decent, producing a Common Goldeneye and a Pelagic Cormorant. The rip-rap yielded two Spotted Sandpipers. On the mudflats, we added Semipalmated Plover. To our horror, there were no Black-bellied Plovers! Well, we had to move on. Off to tilden.

Driving along and pulling off along Wildcat Canyon road, we nailed Brown Creeper and Pine Siskin. At Inspiration Point, we quickly added Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches. At the parking lot, I saw a White-tailed Kite. At the staked-out spot, we found the MacGillivray's Warbler singing away. We then decided to gun it for the Grasshopper Sparrow. At the Conlon trail, we did find the Grasshopper Sparrow, along with a singing Lark Sparrow. We then road back, listening intently for Olive-sided Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, and Pacific Wren. No luck. As we arrived at the parking lot, we decided to head to the Orinda Connector Trail. After a while birding along the trail, we added Wood Duck, but nothing else new. Despite Hairy Woodpecker's less common status, we found another one here, and no Downys. Off to east county.

It was now that we made the greatest fluke of the day. We had heard a report on eBird of Common Gallinule at the Dow Wetlands Marina, and went to a spot we thought was the location. We then didn't find hardly any birds there, and were nearing the actual park when we noticed there wasn't a second marina, so we continued. This process cost us 30 minutes. This fluke likely cost us the record. Anyway, since time was running short, we decided to skip Holland Tract, and with it all hopes of Cattle Egret, Ring-billed Gull or Blue Grosbeak. We arrived at Byron Airport shortly after. We soon found shrike and kingbird, but our three targets were nowhere to be seen. A little further along, though, Bruce spotted a Burrowing Owl on a post. Further yet, we saw a Savannah Sparrow and a singing Horned Lark. We headed on to our last daylight stop. Arriving at Camino Diablo Road, we were hoping to have a crack at Lesser NIghthawk. After half an hour, our hopes began to fade. Then, though, a Wilson's Snipe came blasting overhead. Shortly after, I heard a call that I am 90% sure was a Lesser Nighthawk. However, big days have no tolorance for uncertainty, so I let it go. With the sun down, we decided to try for gallinule at a spot we'd found a nest at last weekend. Had we gone to this spot and picked up Gallinule and Say's Phoebe during our 30-minute waste of time, we would've been better off. Oh well. Anyway, we were unable to make a bird call back. When we were out on Somersville Road earlier in the day, Bruce noticed that that area looked like great Barn Owl habitat. So, we went our there just to find a gate in our way. So we listened mostly from that point. After playing the call a couple times, and not hearing anyting, we were about to give up. Then, though, we spotted a whitish owl circling overhead. Bingo. Little did we know, but that would be the last new bird of the day. An owling effort along Pinehurst road was unsuccessful, as we were only able to hear Great Horned and Western Screech-Owl. After counting up our total, I was pleased to find we had a decent 169. However, our list of misses is encouraging. There were several species that we missed that, with more extensive scouting, going out on a better migration day, and had a more refined route, we could've found:
Common Gallinule
Cattle Egret
Ring-billed Gull
Black-bellied Plover
Downy Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee
Hammond's Flycatcher
Yellow-billed Magpie
Yellow Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Hermit Warbler
Sage Sparrow
Blue Grosbeak

Compare that to our list of unexpecteds:
Wilson's Snipe
Herring Gull
Common Murre
Short-eared Owl

I'm not saying that 183 will be easy (as you are sure to miss some common stuff), but certainly the mid 170s is possible.

We'll see next year...
Good birding,

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