Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trip Report for the "Hawk Riders" Birdathon

Hawk Riders Team : Beth Hamel , Harjeet Singh
Species Count submitted: 97

Link to photos here:

  The Spring Birdathon is the major fund raising event for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society(SCVAS) and provides funding for very significant education and conservation projects here in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The "photographic birdathon" is a new category this year for the Spring Birdathon and came in 2  flavors, 0-4 hours and 5-24 hours.  I found the idea of a bird photography marathon event intriguing and challenging, and when I asked fellow bird photographer Harjeet Singh if he would also be interested in this challenge, he immediately said that he "was in". Bird photographers are no strangers to challenge.

  We decided to keep the team small so that we could make quick easy decisions on when to move on and where to go next.  A photographic birdathon requires pre-event planning and real time strategy.  We also decided to split our 24 hours between two calendar days, starting and stopping at noon for our 24 hours.  I think that these were both good decisions, but I could imagine that an additional person acting as a spotter might be very helpful.  One spends many weeks planning for such an event, thinking through which birding hot spots will yield the best results given the time of year, the time of day, where the sun will be, and so on.  One monitors online bird forums to see who is spotting which birds and where.  One travels to many of these places on scouting trips, finding birds and thinking through the path that might be optimal.  I was surprised at how much planning it takes. We had multiple cross referenced lists and made a goal of finding 100 bird species.  We expected that the bulk of the birds found would be from our "easy" list.  As it turned out, we missed finding many of the typical birds expected and had to rely on finding more birds that are tougher to find and/or tougher to shoot.

 Our event started at noon on April 9th at Mountain View Shoreline Park.  We were immediately greeted by a very friendly and cooperative Bewick's Wren singing in the bushes off the parking area.  When we say that a bird is cooperative, it means that it gave us plenty of opportunity and time to take photographs. We walked from there over to the lake area, stopping along the way to shoot a Calfornia Towhee, a Bushtit, and struggled against the light to get a decent photo of one of the many Cedar Waxwings in the trees at the northwest corner of the lake.

 At the lake we found Horned Grebes, Pied-billed Grebes, a Greater Yellowlegs perching on the dock, many Surf Scoters, Canada Geese, Eared Grebes, and Mallards.  A few Willets were patrolling the lake shoreline lake area.   We also found American Goldfinch, Black Phoebe, and White-crowned Sparrows. The most exciting find in this area was an Osprey that Harjeet spotted hovering over the lake near the boat house.  The light was still against us, but he stuck around to let us take a few shots anyway.   Wandering back along the bayside and along Charleston Slough we picked up Cinnamon Teal, Western Sandpipers, Snowy Egret, California Gulls, Black-necked Stilt, Savannah Sparrows, one single Gadwall female preening on a sandbar, Common Moorhen, and Golden-crowned Sparrows.  On a typical scouting trip I was finding 50-60 species at Shoreline, so we were very surprised to miss so many expected birds at this location, but it was very windy and the tide was out.  We ended on a very high note here though, when Harjeet spotted and captured a Peregrine Falcon that was disturbing the birds in the forebay area.

 At the next stop just to the north at the Palo Alto Baylands we picked up Rock Pigeon (better known as a common pigeon), European Starling, Avocet, a few Least Sandpipers among the many Western Sandpipers, Green-winged Teal, a few Scaup, Northern Shovelers, a Clark's Grebe, and a Ruddy Duck.  Avocets and Black-necked Stilts were nesting there as they normally do, but we did not see any youngsters out yet. It is a real treat to see these birds parade around at this site with their young.

 Moving south to Alviso, we found an Anna's Hummingbird in the butterfly garden and also picked up a Mourning Dove, a Marsh Wren, and a Northern Mockingbird.  We pished (this means playing a recorded bird sound to try to attract reluctant birds out into the open) for both Virginia Rails and Common Yellowthroats at this location but with no success.  We also tried to find the Burrowing Owls at Disk Drive near Alviso but this was again a miss.

 We then moved east to Ed Levin Park.  Harjeet had done some extensive scouting at this location, and it paid off in many found species.  At the Spring Valley Area, despite a very well attended event in progress that appeared to be a Renaissance Festival, in the tall still blossoming Eucalyptus trees we found Acorn Woodpeckers and  Selasphorous Hummingbirds that may have all been Allen's Hummingbirds but some certainly looked like they could be Rufous Hummingbirds, so we have submitted multiple photos for these.(for the uninitiated these can be VERY tricky to tell apart)  We also found Western Kingbirds, Bullock's Orioles, and with a little pishing two very sweet and talkative House Wrens.  At the lower picnic area of the main park we added a sleepy Barn Owl, Western Bluebirds, a Yellow-rumped Warbler that refused to hold still, and a Great Egret that sailed by in the sky.  The highlight of this area was a family of White-tailed Kites that were clearly preparing to do some food sharing in flight.  We captured photos of the kite with the food, but they slipped out of view before the food was shared.

Moving on to the lake we picked up a Scrub Jay, an American Robin, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and a Tree Swallow.  Finishing at the dog park area, while searching for Hooded Orioles (which we did not find) we captured an Oak Titmouse, an American Kestrel, a Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey Vultures, a Golden Eagle very high overhead, and finished the day with a Cooper's Hawk.

 We met the next morning at 6:30 to watch the sun come up over Coyote Valley, at the western end of  West Palm Ave. The dawn was greeted by Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-billed Magpies, and a Loggerhead Shrike.  We pished for and captured a lovely little Rock Wren.  We pished for and could not capture a Wrentit.  The Wrentit talked plenty but refused to come out and play.  Again we found Bullock's Oriole, along with Lincoln's Sparrow, and many Western Meadowlarks.  Such a wonderful singer, that meadowlark.

 We were amazed at who did not show up in Coyote Valley - no Great Blue Herons, no Harriers, no Say's Phoebe...I could go on and on.  Very quiet morning, along several streets in this location that we checked out.  So we moved south to Morgan Hill which is of course my "patch".  I was interested to match up my knowledge of the area with Harjeet's superior eyes and ears. Just before arriving at the Coyote Creek Trail we saw some California Quail wandering around someone's garden, so we went back to get a photo.  Very near the parking lot off Malaguerra we were exceedingly lucky to catch a Wood Duck pair on the creek and they did not fly off, they swam off - giving us a chance to get a decent id shot.  We continued along the trail, staying close to the creek for about 3/4 mile out and then back, picking up Wild Turkey, Steller's Jay, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Hermit Thrush, Nuttal's Woodpecker, House Finch, and White-breasted Nuthatch.   This was the first time I had ever seen the Hermit Thrush on this path, after 15 years of walking there, and he showed up while I was pishing the Spotted Towhee - a very fun surprise for me!

 While in Morgan Hill we drove to the San Pedro ponds where we picked up the Bufflehead along with two geese that we will not get credit for because they are of the domestic/introduced species category - the Roman Tufted Goose and the China Goose.  Newbie mistake by me...  We drove through my neighborhood looking for some of the easy birds that we kept missing but only picked up a Red-shouldered Hawk and an American Crow.  It was Sunday morning and there was a lot of lawn mowing in progress, which meant my feeders were completely empty.  (naturally there was a full complement of common birds there to greet me later on when I came back home!)

 We finished our birdathon mission at the Lake Cummingham Park in San Jose.  We were lucky that the Solitary Sandpiper was in residence in a grassy pool, along with Killdeer, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Dowitchers.  To my eye I think we had a combination of Long-billed Dowitchers and Short-Billed Dowitchers also in these pools, but that is a tough call I will leave to the judges of the photos.  On the lake we found a Forster's Tern, an American Coot, and a Double-crested Cormorant.  On a little island in the lake we caught several Black-crowned Night Herons and scared away a Green Heron, but still grabbed him in flight and at a distance when he landed.  Further out in the water we were lucky enough to have a few American Pelicans with the wonderful growths on their bills as part of their breeding plumage.  And finally , as we departed from the park and called it quits, we cruised the picnic areas looking for common birds that might be looking for picnic crumbs.  I found a juvenile gull that I am hoping might be identifiable by an expert as a Ring-billed Gull, and Harjeet found a Dark-eyed Junco.

 All in all this was a terrific learning experience for me, and I think that it was a great chance for the two of us to share areas that we had scouted with each other.  But the very most important thing is OUR DONOR/SPONSORS!!!  We thank you very much for your generosity in sponsoring our team and therefore contributing to an excellent cause!

Link to photos, including a full species list, is found here: