Friday, January 1, 2010

The Bigby To End All Bigbys

Well, I ended my 2009 Bigby list with two hundred and eighty-three species. As satisfied as I am with this total, I can’t help but feel a bit sad. The year is over, and I doubt I will ever eclipse this total for a Bigby list. This year, I’m moving to college in the fall, cutting short the Bigby year. After that, who knows what will happen.

I suppose I should back up and review exactly what Bigbying is. Simply put, “Bigby” stands for “Big Green Bird Year.” Basically, it is a list of birds seen while birding under your own power. Walking, biking, snowshoeing, canoeing, sailing, and crabwalking are all acceptable forms of transportation for a Bigby list. Cars, planes, motorized boats, and motorcycles are not. Some birders count birds seen via public transportation for their Bigby lists, but I do not. Cheaters.

The traditional thing to do at the end of the year is to reflect on the villainous birds that you missed all year. Remarkably, I missed relatively few possible birds for my Bigby list. However, a few always get away. I’ll describe my ten biggest misses below.

1. Olive-sided Flycatcher—an uncommon migrant in both the spring and fall. I struck out during both migrations. It also breeds in Upper Silverado Canyon, which I biked to in December, but not over the summer. Lastly, and most frustrating, I found a wintering bird in Lemon Heights the one day I scouted for the Christmas Bird Count by car. I could not find it despite several intensive (and extensive) searches.
2. Wood Stork—an extremely rare bird in the county. The one that showed up in early December at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary was the first to be seen in the county since the seventies, I believe. I very stupidly decided not to skip my morning geology class at the community college to chase it. By the time I rolled into San Joaquin in the early afternoon, it was long gone.
3. Pacific Golden-Plover—this species is a sparse migrant and wintering bird in Orange County. It is possible at Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay…and a couple were even seen the same day I visited Bolsa Chica in September, but I dipped.
4. Blackpoll Warbler—this is quickly becoming a big nemesis. Regarded as one of the most common eastern warblers to turn up in California, I really should have bumped into at least one after three falls of birding in Orange County. But no!
5. Stilt Sandpiper—a victim of laziness. One showed up at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary for a couple days in August, but the one afternoon I could have chased it, it was awfully hot and I opted out of riding down there. The next day, when I rode down, it was gone.
6. Red Phalarope—this species is at least irregularly visible from shore during migration and winter…I just never got lucky.
7. Gull-billed Tern—a species showing up in Orange County with increasing frequency, several were spotted in different locations this summer: Upper Newport Bay, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and Bolsa Chica. One at Upper Newport Bay in May stuck around for awhile—I just never got around to chasing it.
8. Clay-colored Sparrow—like Blackpoll, this is one of the more common eastern vagrants in southern California. However, this fall was a poor season for them in Orange County; only one was discovered, and it was well outside my Bigbying range.
9. Common Ground-Dove—far from being common in the county, this species is actually declining alarmingly. It could formerly be found at San Joaquin (indeed, that’s where I saw the only one I’ve seen in the county.) A small population is holding out near Rattlesnake Reservoir, which is off limits. I made one expedition and searched the surrounding areas but came up empty.
10. Calliope Hummingbird—a long-time nemesis bird for me. I finally got my lifer in Yosemite, but obviously I didn’t bike there. Apparently it is a fairly common spring migrant in the county, but after two springs of living in California I still have not seen one in Orange County.

Because that was so depressing to write, I’ll describe my favorite ten Bigby birds of the year.

1. Bar-tailed Godwit—how could this not take the top position? In addition to being a first county record, I was the one who originally found it…while I was Bigbying! I am still incredibly thankful that I turned around to take a second look at that weird pale godwit.
2. Great Crested Flycatcher—the godwit barely edges this bird out in rarity. I was lucky enough to see it, the third county record found by my friend Doug Willick along the Upper Santa Ana River. I was birding in Huntington Beach, a good twenty miles away, when Doug called to notify me of the flycatcher. So, I abandoned my birding there and pedaled like a maniac to look for the bird. Fortunately, the bird stuck around the rest of the day (and for a few more days afterward.)
3. Lark Bunting—another self-found bird, and particularly special because I was the only one to see it. Apparently a one-day wonder in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, a mere two miles from my house. I had no idea exactly how rare it was in the county until I chatted with Doug Willick and found out that it was only about the sixth for the county.
4. Virginia’s Warbler—though an annual vagrant in the county, this bird was the only life bird I found while Bigbying this year. Found by Doug Willick along the upper Santa Ana River (where else?), it stuck around long enough for me to chase it the next day.
5. Sage Thrasher—though not nearly as rare as some of the other birds on this list (thirty or so records for the county), it was one of the most unexpected birds I found this year. I was innocently biking through the neighborhood when I flushed it from the side of the road…when I stopped to check what it was, I sure got a shock when I found a Sage Thrasher looking back out at me from the bush.
6. Baird’s Sandpiper—I’m including this bird on this list simply because it was a bad nemesis I finally managed to defeat. I somehow managed to miss this species the previous two summers, so I was delighted to find one at Peters Canyon in August. As Murphy’s Law dictates, after finding the first one, I ended up seeing nearly ten more over the rest of the fall.
7. Blackburnian Warbler—a fairly regular vagrant in the county, but this one was another special self-found bird found while poaching Doug’s local patch, the Upper Santa Ana River. Amazingly, later I saw a second bird found by Doug…also along the Upper Santa Ana River.
8. Dusky-capped Flycatcher—I definitely deserved this bird. One has wintered in La Mirada for the last three winters, so I decided to make the trek up there to see it. It’s only a twenty-five mile ride, but its entirely through urban areas. Oh, and it rained for most of the ride as well. Not a fun day…except for the few minutes I was watching the bird.
9. Zone-tailed Hawk—an incredibly lucky, needle-in-the-haystack find. One was found on the Christmas Bird Count near Rattlesnake Reservoir. Unfortunately, this place is off-limits. I decided to ride around some nearby roads and take a look around. Nothing…and then I got a flat tire. After replacing the inner tube, I looked up, and the hawk was right overhead!
10. Townsend’s Solitaire—possibly the least rare bird on this list, though one I had to work hard for. It’s an annual visitor high in the mountains. I had to bike up Silverado Canyon (with an elevation gain of around 2500 feet) and then hike three more miles up. A very rewarding experience.

I biked at least a couple thousand miles. According to my odometer, I’ve biked about 1,100 miles since late August. Add maybe another thousand miles to that from earlier in the year, and then a couple hundred more from my mountain bike. Just think of all those burned calories…

I’m keeping a Bigby list again this year, but it’s half-hearted. I’ll probably keep a separate one when I go to college, but neither that nor the one I keep for the rest of the year at home will be nearly as high as this year’s.


Alf said...

Congratulations! Since I have a very limited transportation situation with and without fossil fuels bigbying is just so... so... so inconvenient. And Irvine isn't a prime location for access to the entire county.

I WILL find the Zone-tail... And that is so like you to have it just drop by, with no effort...

Jim Royer said...

Great BIGBY number and you found some incredible birds over the year! Your number gives me a goal to chase when I do my BIGBY year this year - 2010. Your blog inspired me to do my own - at Thanks for the inspiration! Let me know if you are ever birding in San Luis Obispo County.