Global Big Day 2019

Northern Shovelers
Northern Shovelers

Global Big Day 2018 is still happening but we are done. For months I’ve been trying to figure out where to bird for the annual global census. I knew we wouldn’t be in Baja and it made me sad. For three years we’ve done our best to get the Baja birds and our neighborhoods represented on the annual event. This year it just wasn’t meant to be. For the last week Burt and I looked at maps and did some side excursions and as we steadily headed to our job in Montana. It’s intimidating trying to bird a new area. New species, unfamiliar terrain, logistics with the trailer were all conspiring against us.

Two days ago we were at the Nelson Morley Birds of Prey National Wildlife Refuge in central Idaho. This seemed like a good spot.  After birding it Thursday evening we realized it was just too difficult to sort out the raptors and we felt hemmed in by the canyon walls and the narrow riparian area. I looked at the map and decided we should bail and head for the Camas National Wildlife Refuge. Camas NWR is famous for its waterfowl and waterfowl are pretty easy to key out if you come across a mysterious bird. Despite this feeling of inadequacy at the Nelson Morley NWR we landed 6 new life birds. Or at least eBird says they were new birds. Since I’ve only been listing for a few years it’s still easy to land a new bird that I might have seen many times in the past.

We arrived at Camas yesterday around 4:30 PM. I was hoping there would be signs of life and some kind of official participation in the Global Big Day. No and no. A sad state of affairs for one of birding’s most important citizen science events. The place was empty and there was no camping allowed. Burt and I did an afternoon reconnaissance of the birds and liked what we saw. There was a lot going on. Owls and kestrels and blackbirds everywhere. Since we were happy to spend the day at Camas NWR and likely would be the only people officially birding it was worth a short drive off to a rest area to spend the night. I was relieved to know we’d finally found a place to spend the day.

It all worked out just great. We saw 52 species of birds and did 12 checklists over 5 hours. Camas NWR is a sprawling wetland and every time we got in the car we had to start a new list. That’s how it goes doing science. Delightful short-eared owls kept popping up out of the reeds while northern harriers did sky acrobatics. The waterfowl were not so many that we couldn’t count but diverse enough that we had to study the water surfaces each time we left the car. We found a pair of great horned owls and a bald eagle nest with two fledglings. Burt’s favorite bird today was the harrier. I likes the owls. And the porcupine.

Now we are resting in a rest area. Tomorrow it’s time to work.

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier putting on a spectacular flight show.
Black-crowned night heron
Black-crowned night heron over the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana.
White-faced ibis
White-faced ibis
Porcupine.
Porcupine.
Great horned owl
Great horned owl
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Global Big (bird) Day

This burro wanted to go home with us.
This burro wanted to go home with us. This is me looking from the back of the Exploder to Burt.

Saturday, May 14th, was Global Big Day. Birders of a certain style have goals of big days, big years, big trips…The goal is to find as many species of birds as you can in a certain time limit. There’s a funny-ish movie about the phenomenon called The Big Year. People make great personal, physical, and financial sacrifices for a big year. Tapping into this idea bird conservation organizations, specifically, Audubon and Cornell University, organized a Global Big Day to get people the world over out and counting birds. With global coverage we get a snapshot of where birds are on that particular day. You can check out the results HERE. Data is still streaming in, but it looks like a lot of people did a lot of work. Burt and I are not extreme birders keeping meticulous track of our observations but we saw a hole in the data and aimed to fill it. Last year only one person birded the entire state of Baja California Sur.  That’s one person in over 28,000 square miles. That area figure doesn’t account for the vast surrounding bodies of water, either. Back in Portal, Arizona last year there were scores of people covering a few hundered square miles.  At the very least we thought we could increase the coverage. Maybe, we could find a bird or two that would only be found in our area.

For a while when telling friends of our plans I was calling this Big Bird Day. Finally, Aldo and Burt pointed out that Big Bird lives on Sesame Street and isn’t really a bird. But I like that big yellow guy so in my heart I’m still saying Big Bird Day while my mouth says Big Day. So Burt came up with a plan and I signed off. His idea was to go high up in the mountains the night before and camp out so we could make a dawn start at the upper elevations. Past trips into the backcountry we had seen some of birds harder to find in our regular lower elevation neighborhoods. Acorn woodpeckers, yellow-eyed juncos, and the San Lucas robin were the goals. So Friday night team Mittelstadt (Burt, Susan, Elvis, and Olive) headed up the mountains. Our campsite was a vacated rancho at the end of the road. Vacated by humans that is. A burro, two dogs, and a flock of chickens still lived there. It was hard to tell if somebody swung in to feed regularly. One dog looked pretty good but the other was scraggly. A newish car was parked nearby. Perhaps this was a bad idea? Perhaps the owners would come home and be upset to find us in their driveway? Could we sleep worrying about the dogs getting into it with our dogs? Would the burro stop rubbing its head on the Exploder? Burt wondered if we should leave. I was ambivalent. I told Burt I’d expected discomfort both mental and physical. We’d driven an hour and a half and I knew we were coming to an empty rancho. Starving animals and weird scenes are an everyday occurrence in Mexico. Should we stay or should we go? My metal ambivalence prevailed. The ranch dogs disappeared into the bushes even after we fed them a package of tortillas. Many Baja dogs are wary of humans. These two were happy enough to meet us and then go off away from us.

So the four of us piled into the back of the Exploder. For a few minutes Elvis and Olive lolled about in the sleeping bags and pads and made out like they were going to share the space with us. It was a no-go. Wheel well in the small of the back and Olive at the nape of the neck and Elvis behind the knees was not going to work. They got the boot to the luxurious empty front seats. I still had a wheel well in my back but it was better. We passed the night. Not much sleep was found. The car listed a little and Burt was uphill of me. It was cramped and warm. For obvious reasons we were fully attired.

The alarm sounded at 5:30 AM. It was still dark. Elf owls hooted. First bird of the day. We ate some bananas and cereal. The milk was sour so only two bites of cereal. No sign of the dogs. The roosters crowed. The mule was still rubbing its head on the car. As light broke we headed uphill. Burt had the dogs on leashes and a backpack with food and water and binoculars. I had the phone and the iBird app, my notebook, and new binoculars. Orioles, towhees, gnatcatchers….

The Sierra de la Laguna mountains are not supremely tall but they are lung crushingly steep. Covered in thick thorn forest and loose ground these mountains demand serious exertion to traverse. The place is riddled with cow paths. A person might think cows could clear ample passage for a human to easily follow. It’s a reasonable conclusion. After much study I can say if the cows were organized and used the same path over and over again they might eventually make a nice route from point A to point B. Cow paths are short in height and full of loose gravel and sand. They meander with no rhyme or reason. They are unsuitable for humans but it was all we had. We clawed and stumbled up for a couple of hours. We got to a palm oasis high in the mountain’s skirts with water. Cactus wrens, Xantu’s hummingbirds, Cassin’s vireo, Cedar waxwing…Eventually it was clear I could not continue to go up if I expected to get down. It was simply too steep and demanding. Two hours up was enough. Burt went a little further hoping to find the acorn woodpecker.  I sat and counted birds from a ridge top. It was glorious.

Our mountain birds did not materialize but we did hit the Xantu’s hummingbird and that’s only found in Baja California Sur. As it would turn out this was the only time we’d see them the rest of the day. All winter these birds are regular visitors to feeders in our yard. As soon as the native flowers bloom they fly and away and live in the mountains. Burt returned and we headed downhill. We arrived at the car at 10:30 AM and drove to the coast. We stopped twice to bird. Road runner, red tailed hawk, western scrub jay… Our plans were to bird Elias Calles, Pescadero, the Las Palmas beach oasis, and Pescadero’s La Poza (the freshwater artesian spring in town). We quickly birded Elia Calles and picked up a white crowned sparrow among others. Hooded orioles and white-winged doves were becoming major annoyances. They are noisy and show up everywhere.

At 2:00 PM we had come birria tacos. Birria is a kind of marinated, sauteed, brisket. Then we went home for a nap. At 4:30 we headed into our very own Pescadero and birded the beejesus out of it. Towns are very good birding. Our twon is specifically good because agricultural fields bump up against home and mango trees and palms. There is a lot of diverse habitat. California quail, great egret, mockingbird, house sparrow, house finch, ruddy ground dove (new for us), grey thrasher. The grey thrasher is another bird only found in Baja California. Go team Mittelstadt! The ruddy ground doves were hilarious. I’d been mumbling about them for months. My research indicated they should be all around yet we had never seen them. Over the winter and this particular day we’d spotted the common ground dove, the mourning dove, the Eurasian collared dove, and the white-winged dove. Finally, here in our town we found ourselves staring at doves we couldn’t identify.  One good thing about birding this time of year is most of the harder to identify birds have migrated north. The reason Burt and I can competently participate is the really confusing warblers and vireos and what not are gone. Or at least hiding from us. So far that day only the Cassin’s vireo required research to identify. The cedar waxwing took research to verify that they are found here. That one caught me by surprise but I had a clear sight of it. It’s a distinct bird. The doves were a hilarious annoyance. You’d of thought we’d have seen it before and made the ID before the stress of the Big (bird) Day. Scapular marks confirmed it as the ruddy ground dove I had been trying to find. Our only excuse for not noticing it sooner: Doves are easy to ignore. This will prove to be a great lesson later in the day.

After Pesy-town was done we headed out to the Oasis Las Palmas. This is my favorite local place to bird. Freshwater and salt, desert and palms. Lost of diversity. We’d done two intense evening efforts previously so we knew what to look for. This time my goal was the critically endangered Belding’s yellowthroat. This bird is only found in wetlands and only in Baja California Sur. Like the world over, wetlands are rapidly disappearing and so is this sweet little bird. The males are very flashy. Check it out HERE. My Portal friend Narca Craig-Moore had written about finding this bird in the Estero San Jose. Because of her blog I knew what to look for. I had high hopes. So far this winter this bird had evaded us. It seemed like a remote chance but a girl’s gotta have hope. So we hiked some more. It was wearying work. Look, take notes, watch your step. More orioles and white-winged doves. I was so tired of looking down and making a hashmark for every white-winged dove we saw. Burt brow beat me to keep at it. He scanned the trees. More doves, more orioles, more doves. Then the big payoff. I believe one of the most important aspects of birding is that it enhances your powers of ‘seeing’. Force yourself to pay attention and keep a list and you will learn so much more than just the names of birds. You’ll see things you’d never see by only taking a walk. This seeing is hard work. The brain is engaged. You can’t move fast. Your feet hurt.

Burt spotted a baby Great Horned Owl. It was so freaking adorable. A fluffy mass of down with enormous eyes gazed at us from high in a palm tree. All because he didn’t stop looking for the doves. What a great spot, Burt!! We watched for a while. I tried the app to call in the parent but it didn’t work. It was getting late. We were very tired and hungry. Burt suggested I hit the estuary and he’d cover the desert to the ocean. He told me to go find my little bird.

I crept quietly over the mud flats down a horse trail (horses make passable trails). I saw a common galinulle. I stood about. My feet hurt. I was in full sun. I listened. I peered around a corner. I scanned the reeds with my new binoculars. I heard a sharp and regular cheep from deep in the reeds. I couldn’t remember what the Beldings’ yellowthroat sounded like. I figured it was near impossible to see this mysterious cheeping bird. Then I remembered Narca’s blog and the picture of this bird in exactly this type of vegetation. Other birders had seen this rare species at this location. I decided to make the generic push push pushing sound that my friend Peg employs. It’s a kind of generic bird noise used to draw birds closer. It works well for certain species. Would it work on Belding’s yellowthroat? I tried. My push push pushing isn’t as good as my friend Peg’s but I had been having success this winter. This time I hit the jackpot. My Belding’s yellowthroat came right to the edge of the reeds and looked me in the eye. OMG OMG OMG. There. That’s a good day.

I watched this masked marvel for a few minutes and went to get Burt. We couldn’t draw it out again. Sad faces. At 7 PM we gave up and went to dinner. We abandoned our plans to bird Pescadero’s poza because we’d seen the bird we hoped to find there. At dinner at Hierba Buena we spotted the common poorwill and the lesser nighthawk.

That’s a big day. Burt and I found 46 species of birds in 11 locations over 14 hours and 70 miles. We hiked 8 miles.

I am so grateful to all our Portal birding friends that took as out and showed us how last spring, summer, and fall. Peg, Pat, Rolf, Bonnie, Rose Ann, Richard, Dave….We were blessed to be able to hang with some of the best in the business.

Olvis loves camping. Snuggles for everyone.
Olvis loves camping. Snuggles for everyone.
Tight quarters with all bodies in the bed.
Tight quarters with all bodies in the bed.
The dawn in the Sierra de la Laguna
The dawn in the Sierra de la Laguna
Titi mountain
Titi mountain
The Pacific Ocean is out there.
The Pacific Ocean is out there.
Elvis and Olive in the palm oasis. Some might say that we'd see more without them. They'd be right.
Elvis and Olive in the palm oasis. Some might say that we’d see more without them. They’d be right.
Great horned owlet
Great horned owlet. The only time all day I regretted not carrying my SLR camera.
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