By Keith Maley (Stork Raven Mad Team Captain)
The day’s sunrise at 6:55 a.m. marked the start of the competition, and Team Stork Raven Mad was already gathered on Lake Merced’s concrete bridge filled with anticipation. Marsh Wrens rattled in the reeds. A Clark’s Grebe glided along the still water. A Sharp-shinned Hawk plucked its breakfast of an avian variety in the willow thickets. Male Great-tailed Grackles assembled a lek on the bridge to display in the cold, 45-degree air.
Observing an impressive number of species after 20 minutes at the bridge, the team piled into two cars and headed up to Fort Funston’s observation deck to see what we could over the ocean. Almost immediately, team member Rajan Rao spotted a continuing White-winged Scoter among the many Surf Scoters — a lifer for him! Not far away, a stunning Pacific Loon in alternate plumage preened on the water, affording great scope views for everyone. Two huge birds for the day, and it wasn’t even 8 a.m.!
At Lake Merced’s Harding Park Boat House, disappointment awaited. Failed attempts at a continuing Snow Goose, Northern Parula, and a Great Horned Owl seen sitting on a nest just the day before, were the first major letdowns for Team Stork Raven Mad. That is, until Lisa Bach shouted, “I SEE THE SNOW GOOSE!”– pointing to the end of the fishing dock where the bird stood nonchalantly. More shouting ensued, and we were off to our next destination, but not before Nina Bai picked up on a distant White-throated Swift among the swallows.
On to Ocean Beach for the continuing small flock of Black Scoters and a few lingering Brown Pelicans, which are mostly absent in the city this time of year. We raced to Battery Godfrey to see if there were any migrants moving. There were not. We did grab Wrentit, Spotted Towhee, Peregrine Falcon and a few other key species, but dipped on the long-continuing House Wren. Fort Scott yielded a wheeting Hooded Oriole from a palm tree as we stepped out of our cars. Swallows flew over the field, including a pair of Cliff Swallows. Five meadowlarks foraged in the grass.
Cutting across to El Polin Spring, we spent some time ticking additional species, including an Acorn Woodpecker, and the continuing Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that Dawn Lemoine and Lisa Bach located after some effort. Onto Crissy Field where no less than three breeding-plumaged Red-necked Grebes floated on the bay, and a late Say’s Phoebe hunted for flying insects in the dunes. Crissy Lagoon produced a surprising Great Egret.
Our timekeeper Nina informed us we had saved enough time to stop at Fort Mason to make up for our missing Great Horned Owl and the trip paid off! The owl was in its usual roost, and nearby, a stunning Rufous Hummingbird was feeding on red crocosmia flowers! Then it was back to the community garden where Eli Gross picked up on two chattering Bullock’s Orioles, the male of which, showed briefly as an orange and white flash before perching high in a eucalyptus.
At this point, we mentally prepared to face the hordes of people and cars in Golden Gate Park in what was turning into a top-10-type day in San Francisco. Warming temperatures and light winds were fueling our energy. Our targets were the three sapsucker species overwintering in the botanical gardens but it appears they departed just in time for our competition, which was rude. Rajan located the Orchard Oriole, Nina spotted the White-throated Sparrows, and we were off.
A few more stops around Golden Gate Park– energized by Lisa Morehouse’s delicious chocolate chip cookies, and we were able to tick off Tennessee Warbler, Lesser Scaup, Barn Owl, and Wood Duck. We were slightly devastated that the Baltimore Oriole did not show, depriving us of an oriole grand slam. It might have been warded off by my Red Sox hat. Our consolation prize was a flyover, chirping Osprey carrying a fish and evading a pair of ravens, but not us.
For most of the day we paid no attention to our East Bay Scrub-Jay competitor’s status, as we focused on our own goals to achieve. We thought a realistic total would be about 139 species for our territory, and if we could exceed that, perhaps we could approach last year’s total of 146.
We picked up Black Turnstones and Eli pulled us a single young Iceland (Thayer’s) Gull perched on the rocks off Cliff House, though Surfbirds were nowhere to be seen. We then quickly located the continuing flock of Snowy Plovers on Ocean Beach, before departing for the east side of the city, with an impressive 127 species in the bag.
Heron’s Head Park was filled with a diversity of shorebirds at low-tide, including six Long-billed Dowitchers that gave great looks and even briefly vocalized. No Rock Sandpiper, but Nina found us a lingering Common Goldeneye at the very end of the peninsula.
We thought we’d try our luck for a Eurasian Wigeon that had been hanging around Yosemite Slough, but it was not to be. However, as we headed down to the northeastern corner of Candlestick, Lisa B. quickly pointed out a perched Western Kingbird in a coyote bush snag. Behind it on the water we were delightfully surprised to find a pair of Gadwall!
It was time for our final stop — our first and only outside of San Francisco county. By this point, we had tallied 145 species, one shy of last year’s total. Though different rules, the Big Day record for San Francisco County is 150 species. We would make our final stand at Colma Creek, and hope that the East Bay Scrub-Jays’ torrid pace had stalled out. We took a peek at their total, and had a brief flash of hope we’d be able to catch them.
Collectively, after significant effort, we picked up several new species at Colma Creek including Greater White-fronted Goose, Northern Shoveler, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Wilson’s Snipe and a Herring Gull. A pair of distant Green-winged Teal scoped by Yvette and Nina in the waning light completed the day’s haul. As the sun set at 7:33 p.m., we cheered our team’s efforts, immensely proud of our 152 species total.
Our day’s most painful misses included Belted Kingfisher– perhaps already departed for their breeding grounds– Merlin, American Kestrel, Surfbird, House Wren, and the sapsuckers. Other than the kingbird, there was an absence of migrants in the city, though it is early. Also, several known individual birds did not show for us, including the Rock Sandpiper, Baltimore Oriole and Northern Parula. Those few misses paled in comparison to our total overall — we ran the table on almost all the other species we could observe.
In the end, Stork Raven Mad walked more than 12 miles over 19 stops and observed 152 species in almost 13 hours. We celebrated at the Pizza Place at Noriega with some delicious pizza, cesar salad and beer. Many thanks to the SF birding community that provided us advice, bird sightings, donations to Golden Gate Audubon Society, and good cheer. A wonderful day.’’
P.S. Even though the competition for species count is over, the race to see which team can raise the most money for Golden Gate Audubon is still on! Help us meet our fundraising goal of $9,000 and support our Bay Area birds, wildlife and habitat by giving a one-time donation to our campaign page here.
Keith Maley is a San Francisco birder who co-teaches GGAS’ “Bird City: Beginning Birding in San Francisco” with Whitney Grover. He works at Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national profit dedicated to connecting everyone to the joys and benefits of the outdoors.