SF Big Day 5/1

Keith Maley

We undertook a rewarding San Francisco Big Day on Saturday, May 1. Best birds: Red-necked Phalaropes at 3 different locations including North Lake (1), Palace of Fine Arts (1), and Heron’s Head (2), Green Heron at Lake Merced / gun club marsh, and Wandering Tattlers on the rocks around Cliff House. 


Nina Bai, Sarah Burton, Whitney Grover, Keith Maley 


The details, long-form:  


Inspired by the new record and great subsequent write-up of exciting birds by Adrian Hinkle and Emmett Iverson on this listserv, the 4 of us carefully planned our first-ever SF Big Day for Saturday, May 1. As the date approached, we watched in horror as the wind forecast steadily increased, and the rarity, migrant, and winter bird reports steadily decreased. We decided to stick to the date and plan because our excitement was too great, despite some good advice from more experienced SF birders. The wind and fog was real, and our pre-decided Weekend Warblers team name quickly became ironic as we observed only one more species of warbler (2) than phalarope (1) the entire day.  


Before dawn, we arrived at Battery Godfrey to the aforementioned wind and fog. A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls greeted us, followed by a Western Bluebird, active in a fruit tree under a streetlight singing a dawn song none of us recognized. A quick jaunt down the hillside revealed singing Bewick’s Wren, Spotted Towhee and SF’s only (?) Wrentits, and more than a thousand Brandt’s Cormorants streaming out the gate. At the Battery post-sunrise, we were joined by Dan Scali who offered moral support, but under ABA Big Day rules, was forbidden from pointing out to us the myriad migrants adorning the cypress trees like ornaments. (Narrator: there were none.) 


We booked it to Lake Merced, where we picked up many of the usual suspects, as well as a female Cinnamon Teal south of the concrete bridge and the Green Heron at the gun club Marsh. The oaks and stream between the road and the golf course yielded few passerines in the foggy and wet conditions, except a trio of woodpeckers: Northern Flicker, Hairy, and Downy. Sarah was able to get on a Bank Swallow, that the rest of us were unable to pick up. A pair of Clark’s Grebes conducted a synchronized run across the water, a performance worthy of a David Attenborough voiceover. For some in our group, this was the first time witnessing this rushing behavior- exciting! 


A stop at Ocean Beach near Lawton continued the excitement with hundreds of shorebirds present in the low tide, and only about a half dozen or so off-leash dogs. Upon careful inspection, we only picked up Whimbrels and Sanderlings, as well as a pair of Snowy Plovers, which we were encouraged to find. A pit stop at the North end of Ocean Beach revealed a Long-billed Curlew among some more Whimbrels, and a late adult Mew Gull among the Western Gulls. Two recently-arrived Brown Pelicans were seen soaring quickly past the Cliff House.


Then, onto the Cliff House overlook itself, we witnessed a feeding frenzy of cormorants, gulls,  and many Common Murres just beyond the rocks. On the rocks, a bobbing Wandering Tattler, and then another, as well as at least one Surfbird and two Black Turnstones. The day’s only Red-throated Loon, and our only sighting of Pigeon Guillemots—all fly-bys. A Red-tailed Hawk kited motionless next to the former Louis’ Diner. 


A couple of stops at Golden Gate Park got us a few specialties, including a pair of Lesser Scaup at North Lake, the old male Hooded Merganser at Stow Lake, and 3 White-throated Swifts foraging on the less-windy side of Strawberry Hill. The peak GGP moment occurred when we were discussing the identity of an odd-looking Mew Gull when a beautiful Red-necked Phalarope came in spinning close by. Was she blown inland by the strong Westerlies? 


We were living life with no egrets, but that changed at India Basin where we finally saw our first Snowy. We were thrilled to find the continuing pair of Gadwalls, accompanied by some Western Sandpipers, in the shallow pond as we made our way down the Heron’s Head peninsula. Also present, swimming and then foraging along the shore, a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes! The wind was ruffling their feathers and knocking them on their sides as they emerged from the water. The wind at the point so fierce we almost mistook a pair of hunching, neckless Greater Yellowlegs for Willets, and almost missed a beautiful alternate-plumaged Common Loon fighting the waves. Not a wigeon to be found there, or at Pier 94. 


A quick stop by Hillpoint Park for the nesting pair of Osprey, and Mission Creek where we picked up a kestrel and our first Hooded Oriole. Back to Lafayette Park for more Hooded Orioles and SF’s only (?) Acorn Woodpeckers. 


We then went on a wild goose chase. The Greater White-fronted Goose appeared and flew directly over the restroom while Sarah was inside, proving the timeless adage: never take a bathroom break on a Big Day. We went chasing for it across the street at the Palace of Fine Arts, where there was no goose, but there was yet another Red-necked Phalarope! Tennessee Hollow, coming alive in its transformation to an ecologically-valuable spot, hosted a Killdeer and at least 18 Semipalmated Plovers, as well as many Canada Goose goslings and Mallard ducklings. A pair of Ring-billed Gulls in the lagoon ended up being our last species of the day. 


We trekked across Crissy Field to check out a Canada Goose Flock which contained the Greater White-fronted Goose to Sarah’s relief, and then we noticed a second in the flock. A post-sunset stop-by at Presidio held no Barn Owls. 


The day ended with 108 species observed by everyone in the group, with 18 stops and 12 miles of walking over 15 hours. This total does not include 6 species not observed by all (Northern Mockingbird, Red-throated Loon, Pigeon Guillemot, Brown Pelican, Turkey Vulture, and Bank Swallow), the Mute Swan, and a Lesser Goldfinch heard during our official lunch break. Stops that yielded no additional species included an extremely windy Fort Mason in late afternoon, and Pier 94. Besides the weather, we were hurt by the expected reduction in numbers of winter birds, the lack of migrants, and the apparent departure of well-seen individual birds like the overwintering Yellow Warbler, Sabine’s Gull, and Swamp Sparrow. We were helped by a lot of good snacks, caffeine, and great company. The four of us met in the San Francisco Master Birding Course with the California Academy of Science and Golden Gate Audubon Society—we highly recommend it. 


Thanks to those who offered tips and tricks, and we welcome thoughts on our day or advice for the future. Well worth the effort!