Big Finish for a BGBY Year

I had New Year’s Eve off so I decided to see if I could add a few final birds to my BGBY list. I could have tried for the Northern Waterthrush at San Joaquin or a possible Yellow-throated Vireo at Mason Park. However, those sites are just too familiar. I’ve been to each of them many, many times over the last year; and they hold few surprises any more. Instead I decided to get on my bike and head down to the beach; more specifically to Robert E. Badham, where a lot of the rocky shorebirds and pelagic birds hang out. I hadn’t yet been out to the shore on my Bigby travels this year, and thus there were at least two guaranteed new BGBY birds on almost any trip–Heermann’s Gull and Brandt’s Cormorant–and another dozen or so were possible. so I pumped up my bike tires, packed my scope and a lunch in my backpack, and took off down the Mountains to Sea trail.

The morning was incredibly foggy, not the best climate for viewing birds. Plus high tide was coming at Badham about 10:00 AM and low tide at 4:30 AM. On any other day, I would have called it off, and gone back to Mason or San Joaquin; but this was really now or never for the beach in 2009. When I started I could hear a few birds but visibility was severely restricted. I was very glad that most of the trip would be on bike paths and very low traffic roads since I wasn’t sure cars could see me. I could hear some Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Crow or two, and just barely make out a couple of Mallards in San Diego Creek. I heard Canada Geese honking long before I saw them fly down the creek. I hoped the fog would lift quickly, but by the time I reached Upper Newport Bay, it was still thick on the ground:

Fog, ducks, and bridge

I could make out the American Coots in the water, a few Lesser Scaup, a noticeable group of Redheads, and a few shorebirds including a Long-billed Curlew and a Spotted Sandpiper. However, I didn’t even bother pulling my scope out of my backpack since I couldn’t see far enough to need it anyway. Searching for the Loggerhead Shrike or Short-eared owl would have been hopeless. Sidenote: Willet calls from out of the fog are really eerie.

Riding along back Bay Drive the fog began to lift slowly. However, a lot of the birding was still by ear. One species that was esepcially vocal were the Clapper Rails. I heard at least five and saw none. Then again, that’s pretty much what you expect from Clapper Rails, even in bright sunlight.

I kept an eye out for the reported Eurasian Wigeon amongst all the flocks of American Wigeons, but never did locate it. At the intersection with Shellmaker Road, I pulled off to check the bay, and surprised a nearby Sora, who jumped up and flew into a nearby bush. Finally! Soras were one of the birds that had eluded me on the BGBY search this year. Even if the fog skunked me at the beach, this was at least one addition to the list.

As I exited the upper bay, near the Back Bay Science center, I heard on particularly vocal bird calling from on top of the guard house to the trailer park. It was a House Sparrow. These are surprisingly uncommon around here, and I’d only had one before on a BGBY trip, also down toward the coast.

I hadn’t been down in this area before, and I got a little lost, taking the bike trail off toward the other side of the bay instead of heading up Jamboree Road. I backtracked through the trailer park and added Rock Pigeon and Western Grebe to the day list. Rock Pigeon is another surprisingly uncommon bird around here, and another one that I can only count on my biking BGBY. I’ve only had one maybe for Rock Pigeon while walking in the vicinity of my house this entire year.

After crossing Jamboree Road I headed up Bayside Drive to Marguerite, and then down to Ocean Ave. This is the only really non-birdy, suburban part of this route. However it did add Mourning Dove to the day list. So far, though, the only BGBY bird I had was the Sora.

I finally arrived at Badham about 11:00, by which time the fog had lifted enough to see a little ways out to sea, if not enough to see a mile or two out that would be necessary to pick up Black-vented Shearwater. I chained my bike to the finish, and followed the path down to the beach. A few hardy souls were braving the 60 degree weather and wind on the beach, though I don’t think anyone was swimming.

I checked the rocks, and yep, there were the Brandt’s Cormorants, right where they were supposed to be.

Brandt's Cormorants and Brown Pelican on rock at Badham Marine Life Refuge

No Heerman’s Gulls, but they’d be along soon enough, I was sure. Continuing to look at the gulls, I noticed a small, roundish bird on the same rocks. What could that be? I unpacked my scope, and tried to get a closer look. It’s a Turnstone! But which one? Black or Ruddy? At this time of year, they look a lot alike, and this one was far away on a foggy day , and my scope was bouncing in the wind. (A bad scope on good legs will outperform a good scope on bad legs. Unfortunately only the flimsy, lightweight legs will fit in my backpack. :-( ) The bird moved away before I could get closer, so I had to mark it down as a Turnstone sp. However, then the first Heerman’s Gull of the day flew by, and cheered me up considerably. It was soon joined by several others:

One adult and one juvenile Heerman's Gull on rocky shore in surf

I walked back down to the other end of the beach and noticed some more little lumps on a different pile of rocks. These also looked shaped like Turnstones, but they were just standing there, and allowed me to get closer and get better looks. Sure enough: 7 Black Turnstones, the fourth BGBY bird of the day! The two expected birds and two extras made the trip officially worth it. I pulled up a rock and sat down to eat my lunch.

Black Turnstones standing on rock in surf

After lunch, the tide had gone out a bit more so I walked a few meters further, clambering over various rocks and trying not to twist an ankle. When I’d gotten as far as I could I started scoping some rocks still further out, and on one I saw a roughly robin-sized, elongated gray bird madly wagging its whole body up and down like wagtail or a Spotted Sandpiper. However a wagtail would be too good to believe, and this was the wrong habitat for a Spotted Sandpiper. A quick check of the field guide confirmed my suspicion: Wandering Tattler! BGBY bird #5.

Back down to the other end of the beach, I looked carefully at the cormorants, and realized one perched on the other side of the rock was different: smaller head, greenish sheen, no white patch on the throat: Pelagic Cormorant! BGBY bird #6. (I also noticed that a Double-crested was mixed in with the Brandt’s but these are quite common inland, and can even be seen flying overhead from my house.)

I walked back to the other end of the beach, and spent some time trying to scope a large tern that was criss-crossing in front of me on the ocean. I was hoping it would be a Royal Tern, but given the returning fog and the poor legs for my scope, I couldn’t be sure. Might have been a Royal. Might have been a Caspian. However on the way back I did find a Red-breasted Merganser swimming in the ocean. #7!

Once again I headed down to the north end of the beach, and checked the rocks again. Here I again found a roundish shorebird, much like the one I’d seen earlier. However this time I was closer, and the bird was more cooperative. Were those yellow legs? Yep. Ruddy Turnstone! #8.

By this time the tide had gone out some, and on the next rock over there were not one but two Surfbirds that had either flown in or come out of hiding to start feeding on the newly exposed rocks. #9!

By this point the fog was rolling in again, and I still had to head home so I left about 1:00. I did add a few more birds on the way back. At Back Bay View Park I found White-crowned Sparrow (the only one of the day!) and my first Say’s Phoebe. Also, in the south end of Upper Newport Bay I found a few Blue-winged Teal. The fog had mostly lifted off the bay at this point, so I could try for the Loggerhead Shrike but I had to content myself with a Great Egret instead.

For comparison's sake here's what the head of Upper Newport Bay looked like around 2:00 P.M.

For comparison's sake here's what the head of Upper Newport Bay looked like around 2:00 P.M.

I got home about three and made a very quick swing through Mason Park to try for the maybe-vireo I had found but not conclusively identified on last Sunday’s Christmas count. No luck, but I did add Bushtit to the day list. Totals species count for the day was 66:

  • Canada Goose
  • Gadwall
  • American Wigeon
  • Mallard
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Cinnamon Teal
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Northern Pintail
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Redhead
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Bufflehead
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Western Grebe
  • Brown Pelican
  • Brandt’s Cormorant
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Pelagic Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Northern Harrier
  • Clapper Rail
  • Sora
  • American Coot
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • American Avocet
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Wandering Tattler
  • Willet
  • Whimbrel
  • Long-billed Curlew
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Black Turnstone
  • Surfbird
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Long-billed Dowitcher
  • Heermann’s Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Western Gull
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Black Skimmer
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Allen’s Hummingbird
  • Black Phoebe
  • Say’s Phoebe
  • American Crow
  • Common Raven
  • Bushtit
  • Marsh Wren
  • Wrentit
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Song Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • House Finch
  • House Sparrow

What did I miss? I could have hoped for Common Loon, Pacific Loon, Red-throated Loon, Black Oystercatcher, and American Oystercatcher too; but none of those were sure things. Maybe next year. The big miss yesterday was Savannah Sparrow. I should have had this somewhere in the south part of Upper Newport Bay, but I guess the fog kept them hunkered down. It would probably also help if I learned that song. Still, 9 new BGBY birds was great, more than double what I was expecting.

I finish the year with 159 total BGBY birds, 144 walking and another 15 from my bike. Good, but I could have done better. Neil Gilbert‘s in the same county and he’s managed somewhere over 200 this year. I’ll have to take what I learned this year (new county, new state, new birds) and put it to work on next year’s list.

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