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Monday, June 22, 2009

Big Day: Birds, Flowers, Amphibians, Mammals, Insects....

Every year my dad and I try to do a "Big Day" of birding, where we try to visit as many habitats and see as many species as possible in a day. Our record is something like 90 species in 14 hours. Today was somewhat of a mini Big Day, with "just" 9 hours of birding, and a focus on more than just the birds.

On our drive to our first destination we picked up a respectable eight species: song sparrow, red-tailed hawk, American crow, European starling, rock pigeon, barn swallow, Brewer's blackbird, and American robin.

Our first stop was just outside of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. Other birders had reported Lazuli buntings in the meadow there, and sure enough, I was able to hear them. The only way they made our day list is because someone else had already reported them and we had played the Lazuli bunting call so I knew what to listen for. Otherwise, they easily would have been dismissed as a sparrow or finch call, and we never saw the bird. At this same meadow we also heard our first Swainson's thrushes of the day, a Pacific-slope flycatcher, a western scrub-jay, and we also saw a Steller's jay harassing a hawk to the point that it flew off its perch.

Right next to where we parked our car to listen for Lazuli buntings was an ant colony:

The meadow was also filled with wildflowers like oxeye daisies, St. John's wort, clovers, and these purple thistles that some American goldfinches were feasting on (Cirsium sp.):

Down at the entrance to the refuge itself we heard and saw some recently fledged Bullock's orioles, heard our first savannah sparrows. As we started on the auto-tour loop that takes you through the wetlands and forested areas of the refuge, we picked up two more swallow species (violet-green and rough-winged), and saw families of mallards, pied-billed grebes, and American coot. Common yellowthroats could be heard singing, great blue herons foraged in the shallows, a turkey vulture soared overhead, and both red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds perched in the cattail marsh. We also heard the winnowing of airborne common snipe.

Nearby we noticed this western painted turtle that was out of the water basking in this odd pose with its rear legs fully extended:

At the edge of the cattail marsh my dad noticed these plants, which thanks to paging through my field guides I immediately recognized as Arrowhead (also known as Wapato, or Sagittaria latifolia):

We stopped to get out at the blind that overlooks the largest lake along the auto tour route. The six American white pelicans - a rarity for the refuge - stood out like a sore thumb against the brown and green background of the marsh. There were also several dozen Canada geese, many gadwall, a small handful of northern shovlers, and an American kestrel perched in a nearby tree. We almost missed this barn swallow on her nest in the blind, and only noticed her just as we turned around to leave:

We drove through the rest of the refuge with the windows down despite the swarms of mosquitos that were everywhere. Amazingly, they seem to have mostly avoided me in favor of feeding on my dads arms and feet. As we drove through the woods along a stream, we saw a white-breasted nuthatch, our first tree swallows of the day, and a cinnamon teal. In one small marshy area I was lucky enough to spot the normally elusive American bittern walking across an open waterway, at one point apparently swimming through the deepest part of the water. While watching it through binoculars we also saw a nutria swimming the other direction behind the bittenr. Finally, as we crossed the bridge to leave the refuge, we spotted a few cliff swallows, making it a respectable five swallow species day.

We've often talked about birding both wetlands and the coast in the same Big Day, but today was the first time we actually did it. We drove out to Happy Camp beach on the Oregon Coast to conduct a COASST survey for beached birds on my dad's stretch of beach, while looking for live birds at the same time. While walking along the beach we heard a common raven, orange-crowned warblers, white-crowned sparrows, House sparrows, and a spotted towhee. We didn't find any beached birds, but we did see about a dozen of these huge jellyfish:

From his beach we also added the pigeon guillemot, pelagic cormorant, Western gull, glaucous-winged gull, and Caspian tern to our list, as well as 10 or so harbor seals. We then headed closer to the rocks in the photo below to scan them with his scope. Through the scope we could see tens of thousands of common murres and a few dozen brown pelicans (the first time either of us has seen two pelican species in one day). We were also surprised to see small flock of black scoters, and wondered what they are still doing in the area this time of year. The base of the rocks were also covered with a couple hundred sea lions. Just as we pulled out of the small town of Oceanside, we saw a juvenile bald eagle cruising overhead.

The next stop was Cape Meares lighthouse, where we know a pair of peregrine falcons has nested in the past. On our way down the trail we heard a singing winter wren. It didn't take my dad much time to locate the falcon nest on the nearby cliffs, and through the scope we could see both of the falcons preening and stretching their wings near the nest.

We drove along Tillamook Bay before heading inland again, and were rewarded with a few more species for the day list. We saw a few double-crested cormorants, heard a belted kingfisher, and saw a juvenile brown-headed cowbird. On our drive back through the coast range we stopped along the Wilson River in hopes of picking up an American dipper. We didn't, but I did see a spotted sandpiper and a mourning dove to add to the list.

Our last stop of the day was at Killin Wetlands near Banks, Oregon. We heard several more American bitterns here. We were hoping a sora or Virginia rail would help us break 60 species for the day; we didn't hear either of these rails but did see a wood duck family and hear some marsh wrens to bring us to 60 species. As an added bonus, on our way out of Banks we saw a pair of Eurasian collared doves, only the second time I've seen this species.

All in all, a great day's birding, and a decent day list of 61 bird species!


julie said...

i am impressed! you not only saw a wonderfully diverse number of species but you did this with your dad on what sounds like a traditional way to spend time together. wonderful... we should all add "Big Days" to our calendars; once a season, perhaps. as usual, you inspire me, monika!

Warren Baker said...

What a day! What an impressive list of wildlife, it takes me most of the month to get 61 bird species! Well done you.

Monika said...

Julie - My dad gets to take a lot of credit for turning me into the naturalist that I am. He started me bird-watching at a young age, for one thing, and its a tradition we continue together when possible. When one of us gets interested in something - mushrooms, flowers, etc. - it doesn't take much to get the other person involved as well. I like the idea of one "Big Day" per season.

Warren - It was a lot of fun! We had the luxury of traversing a lot of ground to get 61 species, going all the way from a National Wildlife Refuge in Washington to the Oregon Coast. I'm continually impressed by the variety of species you see on your patch! I think I'm at about 30 bird species seen or heard in my "yard" this year.

Heather said...

Wow, what a busy and productive day you two had, and what a great way to spend time together! I can't get over how much ground you covered. I like the photo of the Swallow's nest in the blind. I always think it's kind of humorous when birds nest INSIDE blinds - kind of like they're missing the point. I ran across a Phoebe nest in a blind once.
Love the photos of the basking turtle and especially the lighthouse.