Sunday, April 26, 2009


The car rolled to a stop on the narrow road up Silverado Canyon, and through rolled-down windows I and my teammates for the 2009 Sea & Sage Audubon Birdathon, Leigh Johnson and Vic Leipzig, heard the faint whooping of a Spotted Owl drifting down the canyon. We whooped with excitement ourselves. This was to be a common theme of the day: finding uncommon species, but missing expected ones.

Birdathon is a spring day when teams of birders go out and find as many species of birds as possible in an attempt to raise funds for Sea & Sage Audubon Society. Many teams spend all day, and most of the night, in search of birds on Birdathon. Vic and Leigh picked me up at three thirty in the morning and we headed up into the mountains to listen for owls. The Spotted Owl was the first bird of the day, as good a start to the day as I've ever had. It was a good night (actually morning) for owling; we also heard Great Horned and Long-eared Owls, plus Common Poorwill. As dawn began to break, a Purple Finch burst into song, an unexpected voice in the dark. It was our only one of the day. We also heard a Green-tailed Towhee, a very difficult bird to find in Orange County, while it was still mostly dark.

We were already behind schedule by six thirty in the morning, but by deleting a couple stops on our route we made up time. The coast was next on the agenda. We hit a number of spots between Newport and Laguna Beach, finding species such as Pacific Loon, Black Oystercatcher, Parasitic Jaeger, and Wandering Tattler.

After spending too much time seawatching, we cut inland. We picked up Costa's Hummingbird, Phainopepla, Cactus Wren, Green Heron, and Western Meadowlark at a few quick stops along Laguna Canyon Road. Peters Canyon, Santiago Oaks, and Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, all local patches of mine, produced a bunch of new species for us, including Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Wood Duck. Unfortunately, it became clear to us at this point that it was definitely an "off" day for migration, as we struggled to find even some basic migrants.

We breezed out to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Mojeska Canyon around midday. It's a long drive out there, but it has some "must-have" species. In the brief time we spent there, we found a number of new species such as Band-tailed Pigeon, American Robin, and Northern Flicker. We cruised out of the mountains and whirled through San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Mason Regional Park in Irvine. The Green-winged Teal, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American White Pelican, and Sora that we found at San Joaquin were the only ones we got all day of these species. We had less luck at Mason, finding only one new species: an American Redstart. However, this species is rare in California, making a nice bonus.

It took only five minutes to tick off Grasshopper Sparrow and Horned Lark near UCI in Irvine. These two species can often pose problems on big days. From here we headed to Huntington Central Park. As I said before, we were having very little luck with migrants. We were hoping to get some at here, but the wind kicked up and the park was rather desolate. After much hard work, we managed to dig out a handful of new species - Western Tanager, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Bolsa Chica was next. We were counting on finding a bunch of new species here, and we did. We had seen very few ducks and shorebirds all day, and within minutes of arriving at Bolsa Chica had spotted over a dozen new birds. Some of the more interesting ones included Brant, Glaucous-winged Gull, Snowy Plover, and Horned Grebe.

We still had a decent amount of daylight left, so we cruised around Upper Newport Bay and were rewarded with some species we had missed all day: Osprey, Northern Harrier, Clapper Rail, and Virginia Rail. As sunset loomed on the western horizon, we madly raced through a couple parking lots in Irvine and finally managed to get Brewer's Blackbird. We also made a very quick stop at San Joaquin and immediately found our target Common Moorhen in the creek along the entrance road.

We sped up to Irvine Regional Park as day faded into night. We arrived just in time to see an American Kestrel as it was going to bed. Kestrels are becoming alarmingly difficult to find in Orange County, and we hadn't seen one all day. A Lesser Nighthawk zoomed by, almost hitting Vic in the face, but he didn't see it until it was almost a quarter-mile away. It was another new species.

In the morning we had found three species of owls; now that it was dark we were looking for three more. Two of these, Western Screech and Barn, can be found at Irvine Regional Park. The Screech-Owls were uncharacteristically silent. It took several minutes of whistling for one to give a few chirring calls. The Barn Owls, on the other hand, were calling loudly and flying around conspicuously.

The last possible owl, Northern Saw-Whet, required more work. This species, along with Spotted and Long-eared, is very uncommon in Orange County and can only be found up in the mountains. We cruised back up Silverado Canyon and after a short search heard one whistling. It was our last species of the day, and a good cap to the day; the owls began and ended our day, like bookends.

This is the paragraph where I say "Oh, it was an amazing day!" Well, it was an amazing day. We were on our feet (or rather, on our rear ends in Leigh's car) for nineteen hours. Our final tally came to 168 species. That's not crummy for a big day in Orange County, especially considering we did very little scouting. As with any big day, we missed a number of "easy" species, including Long-billed Curlew, Rufous Hummingbird, White-crowned Sparrow, and Peregrine Falcon. Migration was also very slow, which didn't help matters one bit. With a better migration day, and more scouting, we could have easily knocked off another dozen species. However, it was still a very fun day, and I got four county birds: Spotted Owl, Long-eared Owl, Saw-whet Owl, and Green-tailed Towhee. It doesn't get much better than that folks.

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