This is a report of a record setting San Benito County Big Day by Steve Rottenborn, Scott Terrill, Don Doolittle and Debi Shearwater. The previous record for this county was 149, held by Steve Rovell and R.J. Adams on April 25, 2006. We recorded 155 species of birds on April 29, 2011. As always, we raced against the clock, drank a lot of coffee, battled unseasonably chilly winds, and found some surprise birds.
After driving hundreds of miles, some of it very productively, participating in Audubon California's Tricolored Blackbird Survey, Shearwater had a good idea of what birds were lingering and which migrants had not yet arrived. Shearwater and Doolittle did a scouting Big Day on April 27th. Yet, all did not look well. Shearwater had not detected any gulls or terns, anywhere in the county for several weeks. Neotropical migrants were barely showing up— only one BLUE GROSBEAK was on territory. No Lazuli Buntings were found. Neither Hermit, nor Swainson's Thrushes were around. Precious few warblers had arrived. The first of spring, SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER had arrived and WHIMBRELS seemed to be on the move, but few other shorebirds were around. Many of the hoped for duck species had departed, along with the single remaining Ross's Goose. Things did not look too hopeful for a successful Big Day.
Scott Terrill provided the shining light— while winds had been steady and consistent from the southwest, they were forecast to shift overnight to the northwest. This they did, with big gusts smacking against my house about 8:30 pm. This wind shift could very well put migrants down, improving our birding chances, but would also mean that we'd have to deal with the dreaded wind.
Everyone gathered at Shearwater's home in Hollister at 1 am on April 29th, loaded with coffee. Spirits were high. Over the past many months Shearwater had gained access to several private ranches which would prove key to the final tally. Debi made one announcement, "I can guarantee that, somewhere in this county, there is a Calliope Hummingbird and a Solitary Sandpiper. Somewhere." These two species had been turning up on many reports on the various list serves.
The early morning hours found us driving through the grasslands, where we easily found the same GREAT-HORNED OWL and family of BARN OWLS that Shearwater and Doolittle had seen on April 27th. At the top of Quien Sabe Road, we had hoped for Poorwill, but none appeared or called. Too cold and too windy, although another BARN OWL was added. At a pond on a private ranch, we added calling, SORA, VIRGINIA RAIL and COMMON MOORHEN, MARSH WREN, all apparently nesting here, as Shearwater had them staked out. Only another GREAT-HORNED OWL was added on Cienega Road.
Next, we headed for San Juan Canyon Road, the road that leads up to Fremont Peak State Park. This must surely be the best owling road in the county. Despite the wind, we added COMMON POORWILL, LONG-EARED OWL, NORTHERN PYGMY OWL, WESTERN SCREECH OWL and NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL. This was a smashing start to the day!
We drove to the top of Fremont Peak and had an hour to spare before dawn arrived. A short rest was deserved, but we were mostly too excited to sleep. ACORN WOODPECKERS greeted the first light of day. We spent the next several hours, birding our way down this mountain, stopping each time we heard any singing birds. It was a very chilly 37 F, all the way to the bottom! Some of the key species recorded here included: a singing RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, a calling HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER, OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, BAND-TAILED PIGEON, BROWN CREEPER, HERMIT WARBLER, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, WILSON'S WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, countless singing ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, WESTERN TANAGER, CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, PINE SISKIN, CEDAR WAXWING (by day's end, we would see many flocks of waxwings, definitely on the move this day), CASSIN'S, HUTTON'S and WARBLING VIREOS, BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, LAZULI BUNTING, PURPLE FINCH, LESSER, AMERICAN and LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCH and GOLDEN EAGLE, SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. This road could possibly be the best spring birding road in the county! If only we didn't have to rush on to other places. At the bottom of the road, Rottenborn suggested checking the first Washington Palm Tree for HOODED ORIOLE, which we promptly ticked.
Our next stop was Vista Park Hill, in downtown Hollister. This park is planted with many ornamental shrubs and trees. It is the highest elevation in the surrounding area. These two characteristics make it attractive to migrants. Upon entering the park, is a row of bottlebrush shrubs which usually have more flowers open at this time of year. (The hot weather of this coming week may help to pop open more flowers). This is a haven for hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers and sometimes, warblers. I have seen upwards of 100+ hummingbirds at one time, feeding in these flowers. We were not disappointed! Before long, we had tallied, RUFOUS, ANNA'S BLACK-CHINNED, and TWO CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRDS. Also added to the count were AMERICAN KESTREL. We were at this park from 9:25 to 9:55 am.
STARBUCKS was next on the agenda! Refueled, and having a bathroom stop, we headed to Southside Road marsh in hopes of a lingering Ring-necked Duck. Although they were present only a week ago, all had departed. Debi's staked out BLUE GROSBEAK was next on Cienega Road.
Soon we were on private property, again, near San Justo Reservoir. Here, we spied WESTERN and CLARK'S GREBES and GREEN HERON. From there, we visited the Hollister Sewer Ponds where signing in and out, is required. Best birds here were: two SPOTTED SANDPIPERS, SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER, NORTHERN SHOVELER, RING-NECKED DUCK, BUFFLEHEAD, GADWALL, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, RUDDY DUCK, CINNAMON TEAL, and GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, apparently nesting.
A quick check on Lover's Lane and Pacheco Creek did not turn up anything special other than more nesting GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES. So, we headed to San Felipe Lake at the north end of the county where it borders Santa Clara County. A flock of five WHIMBRELS flew overhead on Lake Road. Special birds here included: BURROWING OWL, GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, CACKLING GOOSE, one WHITE-FACED IBIS and NORTHERN PINTAIL. Missing American White Pelican, we headed over to San Felipe Road marsh. I guess the Bald Eagle had driven them off, after trying to catch and eat one two days ago! One AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN was found here, thankfully!
We made our way back toward the central part of the county by way of Santa Ana Valley Road, where we found the staked out CASSIN'S KINGBIRD. Driving up Lone Tree Road, we also found the staked out ROCK WREN and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW, but dipped on Grasshopper Sparrow. (Shearwater had not found any in recent searches). WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS were zipping along the rocky peaks. Near Bolado Park, we added PRAIRE FALCON. Paicines Reservoir was our next stop, hoping for the Osprey that had been hanging around for the past week. We dipped, again. On nearby private property, however, we added first of spring, singing YELLOW WARBLER. A PHAINOPEPLA nest spot that had been staked out did not yield the bird on the scouting day, but did so on our count day. Tick! Checking the wetlands, Rottenborn spied not one, but two SOLITARY SANDPIPERS! There are fewer than ten records for the county of this species.
Finally, we headed out to Panoche Valley for the day's end. So, in essence we never made it south of Paicines Reservoir. Although we tried for Canyon Wren on Panoche Road, we dipped on that one. However, several small flocks of VAUX'S SWIFTS were zipping along with the swallows in this canyon. The staked out HORNED LARKS were a piece of cake. As the sun was setting, our last hopes of adding new birds to the day were dimming. We headed to yet another stake out spot. Almost simultaneously, Rottenborn spotted another PRAIRIE FALCON, and Terrill spotted a LESSER NIGHTHAWK.
We had hit 155, and broken the old record. It was 9:30 pm. So, we decided to not wait for the staked out Short-eared Owl. In retrospect, we probably should have waited, as it would have meant that we ticked all of the owls and nightjars known to the county at this date. But, we were tired, especially the two of us who had put in two of these Big Day counts. So, we headed home. While we were still on the valley floor, a COMMON POORWILL was spotted on the road. Debi stopped the car while Don got some photographs of this little gem. This was teh only bird we had time to photograph all day. (Images forthcoming). We arrived at Debi's house about 10:45 pm, having driven 295 miles. It was a very fun day of birding a little known county!
"Best" birds of the day: Hammond's Flycatcher (1), Solitary Sandpiper (2), Calliope Hummingbird (2 females), Cackling Goose (3), White-faced Ibis (1), Northern Saw-whet Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Hermit Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1), Whimbrel (5). Biggest misses of the day: American Wigeon (all had departed only days ago), Snowy Egret, Cooper's Hawk, Dunlin (only recently arrived), Western Wood Peewee, Canyon Wren, Hermit Thrush.
I would sincerely like to thank my awesome birding companions— Scott Terrill, Steve Rottenborn and Don Doolittle. We had a lot of good fun. As a County Birder in California, Scott surpassed 200, not counting introduced species, for his San Benito County list. As a birder who is doing a San Benito County Big Year, I reached 201 for the year, not counting introduced species. The previous Big Year record is 237 in 2006, which I hold. So, I'm trying to better my own record. The total San Benito County species list is 301 (308 with introduced species, including California Condor).
I would also like to thank the owners of the private properties that we visited. Without their generosity, we would not have been able to capture this day. Please stay tuned for future birding opportunities on private ranches in San Benito County.
The complete species list for APRIL 29, 2011 SAN BENITO COUNTY BIG DAY follows:
1.GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE
19.AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN
21.GREAT BLUE HERON
24.BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON
56.WESTERN SCREECH OWL
60.NORTHERN PYGMY OWL
61.NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL
80. SAY'S PHOEBE
89.WESTERN SCRUB JAY
96.NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW
123.BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER
San Benito County Birding