Saturday, April 3, 2010

This. Is. Crazy.

Yesterday, April 2nd, I ran a big day (an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in a day) on my bike in Orange County. It was overwhelmingly a success; I shattered my old big bike day by over twenty species.

Evening sunlight streamed into the idyllic meadow, illuminating the lush green grass with a golden glow. A gentle breeze kissed my face as I watched a mixed flock of Blackburnian Warblers, Sandhill Cranes, and Ivory Gulls dining on a nearby bird feeder. Suddenly, one of the gulls turned toward me, opened its bill, and began beeping.

I was so surprised that I opened my eyes. Darkness...I could still hear the Ivory Gull beeping, except that it sounded exactly like my alarm clock. That's because it was my alarm clock. Disentangling myself from the warm wool blanket, my eye fell to my watch glowing in the darkness. Four-thirty.

This. Is. Crazy.

Six hours of sleep really isn't enough for anyone, particularly a teenager. I had a reasonable excuse for waking up so early, however--a big day by bike. As I groggily climbed out of my bed, however, it didn't seem like such a reasonable plan. Slipping back under the enticing cover was much more reasonable...

Any successful big day needs strategy. You can't simply go out to the nearest park and go birding all day; you need to list all the species within striking distance and then plan a route that hits as many of those species as possible. My strategy was fairly simple: begin at the beach at dawn, hit Upper Newport Bay and San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning, and then ride back in the direction of home and spend the afternoon birding several spots in the foothills--Santiago Oaks Regional Park, the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, and Irvine Regional Park.

Beginning at the beach at dawn. Simple enough, except for the little detail about dawn. The beach is twenty-one miles away--that's twenty-one miles of riding in the dark. This didn't seem like such a big deal until I was speeding down Jamboree Road in the dark at five in the morning, the cold night air blasting any remaining sleepiness out of my face.

This. Is. Crazy.

My first bird was neither the hoped-for Great Horned Owl nor the expected Northern Mockingbird. It was a Song Sparrow. As I sped along dark roads and bike trails, other birds started tuning up out of the darkness. Common Yellowthroat...Black Phoebe...Northern Mockingbird...

At this point, I must admit that I simply hate writing plain narratives of birding days. So, I'll spare you the gory details: that I saw a Brant at Little Corona City Beach, Greater Scaups at Upper Newport Bay, Hooded Mergansers in the San Diego Creek, and...

The morning had gone remarkably well, but...Red Knot! Ruddy Turnstone! Loggerhead Shrike! Bonaparte's Gull! Missed, all of them--and too many others as well. Misses plague every big day. No big day, no matter how innocent, can escape the scourge of missed birds. Nothing is guaranteed. I mulled over the missed birds as I began climbing the hills.

Hills, darn them! My detour through Lemon Heights took me over extra hills. I slowed to a crawl. Cranking my bike into lower and lower gear, I inched up the hill, my bike creaking, my thighs screaming. All this extra pain for a Western Tanager and a Rufous Hummingbird.

This. Is. Crazy.

Eventually, I victoriously gained the top of the hill. For a precious few moments I gleefully coasted downhill...until another uphill loomed...and another.

I wearily pulled into my garage at 2:20 p.m. "That's a pretty short big day," you might say. No, I wasn't finished yet--not nearly. After gobbling up a bowl of Wheaties topped with granola, banana slices, and dried cherries (by far the most delicious cereal combination I've ever encountered), I traded my biking shoes for hiking boots and embarked on my mountain bike.

Acorn Woodpecker...Oak Titmouse...Black-chinned Hummingbird...California Thrasher...within minutes of arriving at Santiago Oaks, I added at least half a dozen new species for the day. My momentum quickly petered out, as I ended up wandering the park for half an hour without finding any more new birds. The low point of the day (except perhaps for being awoken by my alarm clock) came when I had backtrack for a couple miles because of a flooded trail. As I made the bothersome detour, I couldn't help but think...

This. Is. Crazy.

As I continued on in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, specialties like Rock Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Wren surrendered themselves to my notebook. My favorite part of the day came, however, when I missed Ring-necked Duck.


Well, the Villa Park Flood Control Basin is a sure-fire spot for this species, or so I thought. I gazed in disbelief at the gently rippling lake at the base of the dam, its surface disturbed only by the occasional coot or shoveler. Only two days before I had seen a dozen Ring-necked Ducks at this very spot.

But they were gone.

Fine, they probably moved to a different part of the basin. Half an hour of poking around, however, failed to produce any. I was running out of time--I needed to get to Irvine Regional Park. I remembered that Peters Canyon Regional Park is another reliable spot for this species; however, it is also a couple of miles from Irvine Regional Park, and I did not have time to go gallivanting all over the place. So, I resignedly pedaled to Irvine Park, my bike caked with mud and my spirits down. One of the first spots I checked was the lake. It's a reliable spot for Wood Ducks.

Sure enough, a dozen or so Wood Ducks graced the ugly man-made abomination. And there, peacefully snoozing on the far side of the lake, was a perfect male Ring-necked Duck shining in the late afternoon sun. A gift, indeed.

The day was finally over. Fifteen hours after that first Song Sparrow sang, I was listening to nestling Barn Owls rasping inside a hollow sycamore. I finally reached home for good, ran upstairs to my room, and began checking off birds on a checklist. Neat black x's festooned the boxes next to bird names, though they grew progressively more sloppy toward the end of the checklist. The boxes next to some bird names remained tortuously empty. I cursed Northern Flickers, Hutton's Vireos, and California Quails as I breathlessly tallied up the numbers. The number seemed high, so I double-checked, but I got the same number:

One sixty-three.

This. Is. Crazy.

1 comment:

Alf said...

What is the current ABA record for a big day?