Birding Marathon: And You Thought Birdwatching Was For Grannies

This weekend was Sea & Sage Audubon Society’s Birdathon, a local competition that takes place over a 24-hour period, during which the goal is to see as many species as humanly possible. Also called the “Big Day,” this event is for fun, scientific research and also a fundraiser for the Audubon Society.

My Birdathon team consisted of Vic Leipzig, local birder, Neil Gilbert, a high school student and myself. We birded all over Orange County for an 18-hour period, driving over 150 miles within the county. Beginning at 3:30 a.m., we picked up Neil and headed into Silverado Canyon for owls. I knew it would be a good day when our first bird of the competition was a spotted owl, which is a life bird for me! The owl called beautifully for us, and we continued up the canyon in search of more owls. As we headed up the canyon, we checked off birds on our list, including the long-eared owl, the great-horned owl and the common poorwill.

An exciting find of the day while we were trying for a northern saw-whet owl was a singing purple finch, a county bird for me. Dawn was showing its colors and we needed to get down to the coast, so we began our descent back down the canyon. Stopping at a pullout, we got out to try for a saw-whet again, and instead got a green-tailed towhee calling from the bush in front of our feet, another county bird for myself. Dawn chorus was getting going as we were leaving the canyon, and we noted a few warblers and passerines, like the ash-throated flycatcher.

We headed to the coast to hit our usual spots in search of pelagics and other coastal specialties. We did well, only striking out on a few expected species, some for which we’d have other opportunities later that day.

The theme of the day seemed to be that we were picking up less common species, at the expense of “sure things.” An American redstart at Mason Park was a good find, yet we had no white-crowned sparrows, a winter migrant we were hoping would still be around. The weather was nice, cooler and a bit overcast in the morning, which is good for birding, then sunny but cool. Unfortunately, as we headed into the afternoon the wind began picking up, and by the time we made it to Huntington Central Park, known to birders as a migrant trap where we’d expect to find songbirds and other specialties, things had gone dead silent.

We spent the last few hours of daylight getting coastal shorebirds and terns at Bolsa Chica, where we saw yet another Birdathon team. A sweep through Upper Newport Bay, which we had skipped in the morning, provided us the usual rails and a few things we’d missed elsewhere. We made a few grabs in Irvine and we headed back inland for a second stab at the crepuscular and nocturnal species before we called it a night.

While the species lists are being tallied now, it looks as if our final count was 168, a respectable number and more than 20 species higher than our list last year, but still short of the Orange County Big Day record, which is 185 species out of the 446 possible species in the county. If you’re interested in getting involved in bird watching, I truly recommend it. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just a hobby for old people, and it can have a truly sport-like competitive edge. To get started, I recommend checking out Sea & Sage Audubon Society, located at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary at Michaelson and Riparian Way, just a few minutes from campus. Also, feel free to drop me a line and I’d be more than willing to take anyone out for a birding lesson: