SF Big Day 4/18/21
On Sunday, April 18th, Emmett Iverson and I scrapped together a last-minute attempt at a San Francisco County big day. We managed to find 150 species on the dot thanks to good lingering water birds, cooperative stakeouts, just enough migrant passerines, and a half-decent night’s rest (thank you, SF, for having so few owls). There were easily ten ‘bonus’ birds, including stakeouts like Northern Waterthrush, Swamp Sparrow, and Sabine’s Gull. Misses included Cliff Swallow, Great Egret, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Western Kingbird – all of which I had while scouting on Saturday – as well as Peregrine Falcon. Augie Kramer joined us for the entire morning, but per big day rules he didn’t make any decisions about the route, call out any new birds, or do anything else “sketchy” (we just enjoyed his company and watching his lifer Sabine’s Gull together!). Thank you to everyone who answered our barrage of last-minute SF questions the day before, including Logan Kahle, Jonah Benningfield, Augie, and Eddie Monson. It wouldn’t have been possible without their help. A full account of our big day is included below.
Adrian Hinkle (Berkeley, CA)
We decide to leave Barn Owl til the second night, allowing us to sleep in until 4:30. Singing robins and juncos greet us in the city when we arrive at our first owling spot at 5:20. Owls are a success! It was supposed to be calm overnight, but the eucs sway ever so slightly. We continue to the Presidio bluffs and tumble out of the car to a whiff of westerly winds and the damp tickle of fog on our cheeks. Not good! Fog cloaks the entire channel west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Land’s End pokes above like a distant peak. Nevertheless, we rack up singing WRENTITS, BEWICK’S WRENS, and SPOTTED TOWHEES. BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS eerily shout “wee. wee. wee” at each other in the fog below us. We watch nervously as the fog line drifts closer to the battery, but it stays at bay, and we found ourselves at Battery Godfrey until 7:30 picking up several only-of-day birds including HERMIT WARBLER, a couple LAZULI BUNTINGS, and a single flock of BAND-TAILED PIGEONS.
We bomb to Logan “Savannah Sparrow” Kahle’s house and immediately track down two WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS. An AMERICAN CROW cruises by saying "car. car. car" in a Boston accent. Maybe it was suspicious that the car parked in front of Logan's house had a bumper and four functioning tires on it. Then we arrive at Fort Mason to a disappointing sight: another White-throated Sparrow and very few migrants. At least we pick up our only WESTERN BLUEBIRD. Shaking off that lackluster visit, we cruise southward to Lafayette Park (CASSIN’S VIREO, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, ACORN WOODPECKER) and Buena Vista Hill (OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER) plus an ill-advised jaunt up Corona Heights hill, but let’s pretend that didn’t happen. Onward to an increasingly busy Golden Gate Park. A male HOODED MERGANSER and two WESTERN TANAGERS (maybe still wintering!?) grace the east corner of Stow Lake and a HOUSE WREN cooperates nicely at Elk Glen Lake, but we are dismayed to kick up another White-throated Sparrow. At North Lake we luck onto the SWAMP SPARROW – picked out by Emmett “Swamp King” Iverson as it drops down to the seed we had spread the day before – plus a pair of LESSER SCAUP and a COOPER’S HAWK.
Suddenly it is approaching noon and we have hardly seen a waterbird. Our anxiety grows as we approached Cliff House. “Good luck with this one” grins Augie as we peer over the edge into the fog. But the fog-colored Surfbirds and rock-colored Black Turnstones are still visible. At Ocean Beach the dapper SABINE’S GULL is chilling with a RING-BILLED GULL and a group of Western, California, and MEWS. The oily Bonaparte’s seems to have left. We dip on Snowy Plover west of Judah Street for the first of two times today but pick up a few shorebirds further south on the beach like LONG-BILLED CURLEW and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS. I had successfully scouted the Northern Waterthrush at Lake Merced the day before, and it seemed fitting to try for a bird that had first been found by Emmett back in December. But first we decide to stretch our luck and try for the wintering Yellow Warblers at the boathouse…and we succeed! One YELLOW WARBLER skulks around in the same bush that it wintered in, and a bonus BONAPARTE’S GULL floats on the lake. Thrilled, we continue to the Wooden Bridge and hear the wintering NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH calling as we walk up to its favored corner. On to the Concrete Bridge for a nice trio of additions: SORA, BAAAALD EAGLE, and a single female CINNAMON TEAL. GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES are in abundance.
We push on towards Bernal Hill, hoping for diurnal migrants despite the slightly cooler than hoped for temperatures. Somehow TURKEY VULTURES and NORTHERN FLICKER are our first and last ones of the day. Only one of the five LINCOLN’S SPARROWS I had seen yesterday is around, but hey, all you need is one. McLaren Park is a bit windy and slow, but PACIFIC-SLOPED FLYCATCHER and HUTTON’S VIREO are enough to keep our hopes alive. Next, we breeze through Candlestick Point and Yosemite Slough, picking up expected bayside birds like DUNLIN, GREATER YELLOWLEGS, HORNED GREBE, FORSTER’S TERN, and OSPREY. Several silent dowitchers sit lazily next to the pond. At Heron’s Head Park we luck upon a nice group of ducks: a Cinnamon Teal and a pair each of GADWALL and GREEN-WINGED TEAL. SPOTTED SANDPIPER is a consolation for no Rock Sandpiper, but the paucity of Great Egret is concerning. At Pier 94 we score a vocal LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER but no pipit and still no egret.
Daylight is waning, so we make a mad dash to Palace of the Fine Arts. Several BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS swivel their heads as Emmett yells “there it is!” The ongoing GREATER-WHITE FRONTED GOOSE is paddling past our feet. Crissy Field lets us down for Great Egret, and Cliff Swallows are nowhere to be found. The Red-necked Grebe is absent. Yet we add some new seabirds like COMMON MURRE and PIGEON GUILLEMOT, and several ELEGANT TERNS cruise past Alcatraz. We push on to Ocean Beach and run down for Snowy Plover again – still no luck – but seawatching from the tallest dunes yields PELAGIC CORMORANT (finally) and a nice PACIFIC LOON along with about 100 Red-throateds. We try again from the south end of the Great Highway. Pelicans? Tubenoses? Red-breasted Merg? Bank Swallow? Nothing.
Lake Merced greets us in the dwindling daylight. We sift through swallows, and sure enough, one BANK SWALLOW persistently cruises back and forth off the Gun Club Marsh. A VIRGINA RAIL grunts at us, and then at the Concrete Bridge we score a spectacular GREEN HERON. We linger to the final minutes of light hoping for a new addition to no avail. Preparing to buckle down and grind it out for a Barn Owl, we swing by the Gun Club Marsh again to listen for bittern and eat a snack…and suddenly we have a BARN OWL right overhead! After briefly considering a trip to Ocean Beach for a nighttime Snowy Plover (dipping twice was enough for us) or a Lands End for Wandering Tattler (surely they’re around, but it is pretty windy now) we instead agree to try for a nighttime Peregrine Falcon. Just kidding! We look for Wilson’s Snipe and dip. The westerly winds are howling and we’re low on options, and Emmett needs to be at Putah Creek by dawn, so we call it a day.
We were carried by a combination of many lingering winter birds, good luck with waterfowl and some shorebirds, and a decent push of migrants, which allowed us to set what is possibly a new SF record of 150. The previous record was 149 set by Josiah, Hugh, Alan, and Paul on a similar date in 2007. I’m still pretty new to the Bay Area but I believe a lot has changed in the city since 2007 – including the expansion of several species (like Nuttall’s Woodpecker, grackle), disappearance of one or two (California Quail, maybe screech-owl?), and presumably the addition of one introduced bird (Eurasian Collared-Dove; we didn’t have turkey). Logan tells us that battery watches have also become more mainstream since the 2007 big day record was set, so it stands to reason that a future strong east-wind day in mid-April could be a game changer and push the SF record into the 160s. Thanks again to everyone who directly or indirectly helped us out, including the OG big day crews who pioneered big days in the city. We look forward to our record being broken sometime soon!
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Congrats to you and Emmett on your day. Glad to see the number creeping upwards.
Just shows that for SF you need whole of luck to get a decent day,
On Tue, Apr 20, 2021 at 2:53 AM Adrian Hinkle <adrian.hinkle@...> wrote: