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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Green Big Day by bicycle - Josiah Clark

(Lightly edited by JS)

From: Josiah Clark <>
Date: May 27, 2011 2:32:56 PM PDT
Subject: Ecology Adventure Article pitch- Marin Green Big Day Report by Josiah Clark

Hi there naturalists and media folks.
Wanted to send out this draft report of a noteworthy Green Big Day by bicycle, a birding competition we participated in earlier this month. At 145 species our team won the Green Big Day Competition with some 20+ teams competing in the US and even more abroad.  As some of you may know this is a growing sport and the next big chapter in birding. Bay Area birders are leading the pack with the three highest scores of the competition. 
 Please let me know if you are interested in featuring this piece.
 Josiah Clark

          2011 Green Big Day Report: Team Marin on 5/4/2011
Transportation: bicycle Observers: 2  Conditions: Heat Wave, east winds   
Bird Species: 145   Mammal Species: 15   Butterfly Species: 16
Report prepared by Josiah Clark  May 2011

      Greetings birders.   On May 4 Andy Kleinhesselink and Josiah Clark did a green Big Day by bicycle in Marin County. This was in fact our second attempt this season after being weathered out on a cold and wetter than predicted April 20 with high winds, which for the first time led us to pull the plug on the effort. May 4 was notably late for the peak diversity window, as many of the wintering species appear to evaporate, but we hatched a new route in hopes of cashing in a late migrant wave and beat the odds.
  We met in Mill Valley and by 4am we had begun to climb Mt. Tamalpais and the 2000+ feet of elevation that we needed to gain before dawn.
Our attempts to hear owls were hampered by strong easterly winds that preceded what was to be the hottest day of a heat wave. As we pedaled up the rocky trail we heard the predawn calls of Spotted Towhee and Dark-eyed Juncos from the chaparral and mixed oak woodlands. Realizing dawn was near we increased our speed, knowing we had to reach the rocky grassland above for our only chance at Common Poorwill, or so we thought. Only 300 feet after we mentioned its name, one flushed one from the trail and we continued to climb. Now at the edge of the grasslands we heard Great-horned Owl and finally a Western Screech Owl in the dawn twilight for an underwhelming owl species count.
We gained our final elevation scouring the skyline in search of a dawn flight. While we managed most of the breeding birds on the mountain, the predicted massive dawn-flight migrant spectacle being experienced by fellow birders to the south at the Golden Gate had apparently all but diffused into the expansive forests by the time they reached us.
Just after 6:30am we began our descent down the western slope. Now on concrete and with an ear to the forest we jammed downhill, picking up Western Tanager, Hermit and Black-throated Grey Warbler. With the sun already starting to beat down we made a stop to drink like camels and top off our water bottles at a water fountain at the local campground to stay provisioned.
We quickly passed through plant communities of manzanita chaparral, serpentine grasslands, redwood and Douglas Fir forests and finally coastal scrub as we approached sea level.
In an effort to capitalize on early morning detections we committed to an out-and-back leg of the journey, usually deemed taboo on Big Days. We gained elevation again, backtracking south up Highway One along the coast to take our first look out at the ocean. We de-bungeed tripods and broke out the scopes before picking our way down an overgrown trail of blackberry and poison oak to a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean and shore. We soon saw Black Oystercatcher, three species of loon, two species of alcids, Caspian Terns, Brown Pelicans and many other seabirds. Less expected was a White-throated Swift and migrant Spotted Sandpiper. From the coastal sage and rocky bluffs above, a Rufous-crowned Sparrow was singing on territory one of the last coastal breeding populations for this species in the entire Bay Area.
     With the stopwatch ticking we worked our way north around the Bolinas Lagoon, which was notably depleted of shorebirds and ducks compared to the preceding weeks. Then out to Agate Beach for our final look at the ocean before heading inland. Another round of scoping produced only a few new birds over the ocean and rocky shorebirds were nowhere to be found. A very late, bedraggled Common Goldeneye in the tide pools was an unexpected score and migrating Grey Whales offshore were a nice consolation prize from the marine front. At Keith Hansen’s Wildlife Gallery we spent precious time waiting at the famous feeders but every last wintering sparrows had apparently rode the migrant wave only the night before. We overrode our need to put down more miles just long enough for quick second look at a favorite flooded farm field, where Andy discovered a Solitary Sandpiper that had not been there before, the rarest bird of the day.
      We worked our way north toward Pt. Reyes Station with hopes of water bird redemption at Tomales Bay. Closer at hand were the land birds however, and we took the trail less traveled to find them. The creek side riparian habitat was rich with the songs of breeding songbirds, but our aspirations for rare migrants or vagrants in the chorus did not come to pass. The trail was in bad shape and we slogged through deep mud, tall grass and around an apparently endless supply of vine-covered fallen trees. There was no efficient way to ride the trail, no two steps were the same and it was beating us down. Muddy and exhausted we bailed out at the one-hour mark, hopping a fence to an unknown ranch road that lead us back to the concrete. We stripped grass from our derailiuers and ticks from our skins before making the road burn to our next stop.
By now we had run through our water and it seemed like days since any real food. I rolled the dice, drinking some untreated spring water and within an hour was feeling pretty sick. Not letting the onset of weakness stop us, we were soon at Pt. Reyes Station where we took our only break of the day. Just long enough to tank up on water, order up and scarf down super burritos, fueling a much-needed second wind. At the very nearby and newly restored Giacomini wetlands we were firing blanks at our stake-out birds, striking out on American Bittern, Black-bellied Plover, Marbled Godwit and even American Coot!  (There is nothing like a Big Day-inspired search to prove the recent scarcity of this under-loved, recently common breeding species.)
      It was 5:30pm and time for us to make our way (toward) the eastern transect across the county to the bayshore. Just then we discovered multiple screws had shaken loose from one of the bike racks, and the gear was barely hanging on. We used a Leatherman and clipped bits of wire from a downed fence and made haste on the necessary repair, just long enough for a Common Moorhen to emerge from the reeds in a nearby stock pond.
Now even more behind schedule, we raced through the rolling grasslands and scanned fence posts until we turned up our only Western Meadowlark, which are becoming as  rare as a roadside silent moment. At Nicasio reservoir, we ticked a ride-by Yellow Warbler in song. Hearts pumping and wind at our backs we made good time to the summit of Lucas Valley Road where we scored on Lark Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow and Lazuli Bunting. We pushed up a small fire road and waded into a sea of  rippling tall grass but could not turn up the Grasshopper Sparrows or Horned Larks we observed only days earlier.
     With the sun setting we made our final descent eastward, down toward the bay, picking up the last chance-calls of Pileated Woodpecker and a lucky flyover White-breasted Nuthatch en route. We traversed the underpass of the first 8-lane freeway crossing of the day and wasted no time reaching the Las Gallinas Sanitation District- Thank goodness for sewage ponds…. Here we picked up our final suite of species including Green-winged Teal, Barn Owl and calling Clapper Rails as suburban lights reflected in the Bay's meandering tidal channels. With no light left we began the 15 mile or so trip back to our starting place at the base of Mt. Tamalpais. Northern Mockingbird was our final bird of the day, mimicking sirens under a streetlight in a gated neighborhood.
      We completed our loop at 11:30 pm, 19.5 hours and over 80 miles by bicycle. We compiled our list for a total of 145 species, a far cry from our record set back on April 20, 2009, of 156 species. Andy and I have done Big Days by bicycle for several years now, both for Bird-a-thons and just for our own records. We have gone by many team names, The Peeps, The Blackhole Warblers but this time The Last Ditch Ducks might be the most appropriate.
Despite a good route, fast pace, and lots of stake-out birds the previous week, we could not turn up the migrants to overcome the late date and fact that many essential common wintering birds had already moved on. This biathlon-like event is as grueling as the chosen route. The birding can be as bountiful or unforgiving as nature itself. As always, Nature bats last and can play the ultimate wildcard at a moment’s notice. For us it has become the ultimate test a growing dimension of Ecology Adventure and Nature Sports.
      It is so inspiring to see so many people pioneering this next chapter in birding. We are already strategizing a new route for the next Green Big Day season in an effort to keep our hard fought title!
  Thanks to all the participants for the reports and a huge shout out to the Green Big Day organizer Scott Smithson for putting this all together.
Until next time- good luck and good birding.
Why Marin County?
The many plant communities and compression of habitats makes Marin County the best place we have found to observe the maximum number of species by bicycle.

What we learned:
The quest for the biggest list possible has led us to a more intimate knowledge of our area.  We have forced ourselves to dive deeper into the many aspects of bird habitat, migration and distribution in this area. While the birds are the focus this form of natural emersion informs our understanding of the entire ecosystem.

Mammal List:                               
Harbor Porpoise
Grey Whale
California Sealion
Harbor Seal
River Otter
Black-tailed Deer
California Meadow Vole
Valley pocket gopher
Sonoma Chipmunk
Western Grey Squirrel
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Brush Rabbit
California Myotis (bat)

Butterfly List:  Monarch, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, Veined White, Great Marble, Cabbage white, California Ringlet, Satyr Anglewing, West Coast Lady, American Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Lorquin’s Admiral, Buckeye, Spring Azure, Field Crescent, Mylitta Crescent

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