Spring Birdathon Surpasses Target

The 2023 WFO Birdathon took place over 45 days in April and May, a wonderful time of year to go out and find birds. Need proof? We could crow about the fact that our 12 teams recorded a cumulative list of almost 500 species! Part of the explanation for this large list was that one Birdathon team comprised a group led by Jon Dunn on a WFO-sponsored excursion in Costa Rica. Even discounting all those motmots, antshrikes, and the like, our US teams amassed a laudable total of 351 species in their own right.

Thanks to our 12 teams and their many supporters, the 2023 Birdathon raised a total of $27,567 in sponsorship donations. Sales of the distinctive T-shirt featuring John Schmitt’s Tricolored Blackbird painting brought in another $400. We thank the team leaders, team members, and many members and friends of WFO who contributed to the success of the 2023 Birdathon.

WFO named the Tricolored Blackbird as the signature bird for the Birdathon. Along with that designation was a pledge that a portion of the money raised would be used to help directly fund a project to support the conservation of this threatened species. Read about the exciting project that was selected to receive this $5,000 grant, made possible by all the teams and their sponsors.

The Bucks Start Here

Bobolinks “Fall Back” to Earn Top Fundraising Honors!

The Bobolinks, led by Dave Shuford and Scott Carey, brazenly thumbed their nose at WFO’s decision to hold the Birdathon during an April–May springtime window. But they are to be forgiven! Conducting unofficial fall birdathons to raise money for WFO has been a long-standing tradition for this tandem team, and they’ve built up a loyal base of donors over the years. They held their count last fall, on September 23, and raised $5,157. They sent their checks to WFO in a timely fashion and politely asked that their efforts be credited to the spring Birdathon. These early birders topped the next highest fundraising team by over $1,000!

As far as their birding was concerned, they probably know Sonoma County birds better than anyone, and they had a well-tested strategy and route. An early start at 3:30 am was rewarded with four owl species including Northern Pygmy-Owl, Spotted Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. Bodega Bay, a renowned location for waterbirds, did not disappoint. There they saw 16 unique species, many—for example, Black Oystercatcher and Pelagic Cormorant—commonly found only along the outer coast. Unusual was a small flock of over-summering “Black” Brant and a Humpback Whale that surfaced a little farther offshore. Tallying 129 birds for their day, they also finished among the top five teams overall in birds seen.

The Valley Guys raised a little over $4,000, earning them second place in fundraising honors. Piute Ponds Yacht Club, Shrike Force, and Solano County Species Seekers rounded out the top five fundraising teams, with each bringing in over $3,000.

Teams Ranked by Donations Raised

  1. Bobolinks                                            $5,157
  2. Valley Guys                                           4,028
  3. Piute Ponds Yacht Club                      3,778
  4. Shrike Force                                         3,668
  5. Solano County Species Seekers        3,375
  6. The Non Tanagers                               2,500
  7. Western Field Optimists                    2,032
  8. Mountain Brewbirds                          1,385
  9. Bird ’Til You Hurl                                    500
  10. Dean’s Big Day                                       400
  11. Longmont Longspurs                           245
  12. Cerulean Songster                                150

Unassigned Donations                               349



What About the Birds?

Costa Rica Tops US—Wins Title by 11 Goals!

The Costa Rica Non Tanagers held their Birdathon on April 16. Mario Córdoba and Jon Dunn led this WFO trip, helping their team amass 154 species for the day. They easily set the high species count for this year’s Birdathon, with 11 more species than the second-place team. (Fielding 14 members on their squad, they would have also bested the US teams if the competition had been waged on a soccer pitch.) The team name was a nod to the many tanagers in the tropics, that not all so named are true tanagers, and that some species lacking “tanager” in their name actually are tanagers!

Turquoise-browed Motmot, a tick for The Non Tanagers on their big day in Costa Rica. Photo: Wendy Beers

Highlights in the mangrove swamp on the Tarcoles River included four kingfishers: Amazon, Ringed, Green, and American Pygmy; a Turquoise-browed Motmot; and a Roseate Spoonbill. Four Costa Rican endemics were observed: Golden-naped Woodpecker, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Black-hooded Antshrike, and Riverside Wren. The last stop at the Hotel Robledal revealed nesting Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls with owlets visible in the nest box. The final bird of the day was the only duck of the entire trip: a fly-over Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

An interesting data point emerged as we poured over the bird lists submitted by our 12 teams: the Costa Rica team scored the only Heerman’s Gull sighting during the April–May window. At the Puntarenas Ferry town in Costa Rica, The Non Tanagers chased down their Heerman’s Gull, which turned out to be a new Costa Rica species record for Mario. The only US team to record a Heerman’s Gull was the Bobolinks, and that happened when they did their birding last fall. So, the only two teams that recorded a Heerman’s Gull happened to be our two anomaly teams—the fall Bobolinks, which won the “most donations” fundraising title, and our lone international entry, The Non Tanagers, which won the “most species seen” title.

California Leads the Way

The seven teams from California included 32 members who collectively observed 263 species in the state. Northern California fielded five teams and Southern California had two. Mild competition, as evidenced by the California teams, often spurs some teams to strive for as high a species list as possible in one long day of birding. But, speaking for all the teams, having a fun day working for a good cause is also a laudable goal! Highest honors for the US team with most species seen goes to the Shrike Force, which tallied 143 species. Close on their heels were the Solano Species Seekers at 141 and the Bobolinks at 129 species. Impressive in a different way was the Bird ’Til You Hurl team, which found 18 species seen by no others. It helped that this SoCal team was birding in the unique habitat of the Salton Sea.

Once we received all the team species lists, we could compare them to see which species were seen by almost every team and which species were the “rarities,” seen by only one team. (Thanks to the leaders for their lists and for their reported highlights!) As you’d imagine, many species were seen by nearly every California team. Sixty species, or about 23 percent of all species seen, were found by at least six of the seven teams. You could probably guess many of these common sightings: Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Killdeer, Double-crested Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Black Phoebe, Common Raven, and Northern Mockingbird. On the other end, adding to the challenge and excitement of the day, almost every team managed to see at least a couple of species found by no other team. Read on for brief summaries of each team’s highlights.

Teams Ranked by Species Seen

  1. The Non-Tanagers                     154      (Costa Rica)
  2. Shrike Force                                143      (California)
  3. Solano Species Seekers            141      (California)
  4. Valley Guys                                 134      (California)
  5. Bobolinks                                    129      (California)
  6. Bird ’Til You Hurl                        125      (California)
  7. Longmont Longspurs               116      (Colorado)
  8. Mountain Brewbirds                 109      (California)
  9. Piute Ponds Yacht Club            107      (California)
  10. Cerulean Songster                      85      (Missouri)
  11. Dean’s Big Day                            75       (Texas)
  12. Western Field Optimists            64       (Washington)

The five-member Shrike Force, led by Lily Douglas and with expert route planning by Linda Pittman, ventured out on May 13 and tallied 143 species across three counties in the Sacramento Valley. By 10 am they’d seen 100 species! Unique species (those seen by no other teams) were American Bittern, Rock Wren, and California Thrasher. Their day finished fittingly by finding Great Horned Owl and Lesser Nighthawk. Shrike Force also had the second-highest species tally at the first Birdathon in 2021 (131 species). We give a special shoutout to the Shrike Force team, all of whom are active members of the Central Valley Bird Club, a group working hard on Tricolored Blackbird conservation.

The Solano Species Seekers, skippered by Robin Leong, achieved second place among the US teams with 141 species. The team stuck entirely to Solano County, covering Bay Delta country and touching along the edge of San Pablo Bay. They began their day (April 30) at 4:30 am, finished at 8:15 pm, and logged 300 miles crisscrossing from one favored spot to another. Those of us who had kicked back and were sipping refreshments by late afternoon on our day in the field hereby offer a nod and a tip of the cap in recognition of this team’s commitment and dedication to the task. Robin commented, “Roger Muskat designed our route. This route found 188 species two and a half weeks before, but as birding would have it, some weren’t there today.” The team found the only Rufous Hummingbird and Solitary Sandpiper recorded in the 2023 Birdathon.

Western Screech-Owl, the last species of the day, #134, for the Valley Guys. Photo: Ed Harper

The Valley Guys, led by Ed Pandolfino, went out on May 2, a day that should have featured ideal spring weather. Not so! Ed and his team of hot-shot birders were bedeviled all day by gusty winds, frequent showers, and even a hailstorm. Not to be deterred by wintry conditions, the Valley Guys racked up 134 species. They focused on Sacramento, Yolo, and Solano counties. Cold weather caused the Purple Martins to hide in their freeway underpass nests, so Ed broadcast a PUMA call and one martin responded in kind from within the nest “weep hole”! They began their day with a Great Horned Owl for the list and ended with a Western Screech-Owl. An excellent count, especially considering the bleak weather conditions.

We’ve already sung the praises of the Bobolinks, who tallied 129 species for fourth place among the California teams.

The Bird ’Til You Hurl team conducted their Birdathon on April 15 in Riverside and Imperial counties, in the vicinity of the Salton Sea. Team leader Debbie House reported 125 species, 18 of which were seen by no other California team. This area is in the Colorado Desert, so specialty species found nowhere else in California abound. Adding to the unique character of the area is the Salton Sea, now in dire shape environmentally but still attracting a great variety of waterbirds. Debbie’s team was the only one to spot Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Abert’s Towhee. As a side note, this team seems to epitomize a special camaraderie associated with longtime friendships born in high-spirited college years and built around shared passions for birds and love of nature. They sure seem to have a lot of fun! Their special take on this year’s Birdathon included a secondary focus to record as many different lizards, snakes, and other critters of that ilk. We concede they likely took home top honors in that department!

The Mountain Brewbirds—Chris Swarth, John Harris, and Dan Airola—at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where they cleaned up on woodpeckers.

The Mountain Brewbirds assembled on April 22, restricting their birding entirely to Calaveras County. Dan Airola’s ranch house in Angels Camp was their staging ground, and the immediate vicinity produced 50 species by 8:45 am. Midmorning they traveled upslope to Calaveras Big Trees State Park for higher-elevation, coniferous species. At the park they spotted every woodpecker possible as well as the only Golden-crowned Kinglet seen by any California team. Where was this tiny, canopy hugger? Foraging knee-high in a bush only 15 feet in front of them! A minute earlier Dan had complained that they “needed” this bird badly—then it appeared as if on cue. A little lower down John Harris spotted a Gray Flycatcher dipping its tail nicely. They then went west toward the valley, where they found a breeding-plumaged Red-necked Grebe on Salt Springs Valley Reservoir, floating placidly near shore as jet skiers created wakes around it. The day was capped by the appearance of a dusk-flying Cooper’s Hawk while the team sipped a celebratory beer, remaining true to their chosen moniker. In a relatively relaxed 12-hour day, they totaled 109 species, including 9 woodpeckers, 2 eagle species, 6 tyrant flycatchers, 2 kinglets, 4 wrens, and 3 genuinely rare species for the county.

Tundra Bean-Goose, a rarity found by the Piute Ponds Yacht Club team. Photo: Kimball Garrett

The Piute Ponds Yacht Club set sail on May 2 and, according to leader Kimball Garrett, engaged in what was “probably the most thorough coverage Piute Ponds has received on a single day.” Seven team members divided up the area in a systematic way and were rewarded with 107 species at this Mojave Desert haven in northeastern Los Angeles County. They counted 17 species of shorebirds and 15 species of waterfowl, including a very rare Tundra Bean-Goose. They found 7 species not seen by other teams, including migrating Black Swift and Olive-sided, Hammond’s, and Dusky Flycatchers. Among other birds of interest were White-faced Ibis, Swainson’s Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike, Cactus Wren, and Yellow-headed and Tricolored Blackbirds. Throughout the day they heard the constant backdrop of marsh bird sounds, including Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Virginia Rails, and Soras. As a side note, we’d like to give special recognition to the Piute Ponds Yacht Club for their wonderfully imaginative team name. It begs the question: Is it possible to pish with one’s tongue firmly planted in cheek?

Escape from LA

The Longmont Longspurs proved that life exists outside California. In Boulder County, Colorado, the team of four, led by Sarah Spotten, set out on May 14. Their stated goal of finding 75 species on what was to be a rainy day turned out to be quite an underestimate, as they tallied 116 species! That special day earned them a top-six finish among the US teams, and the honor of being the only non-California team to crash the party of top finishers. The Longspurs covered riparian, lake, and urban habitats and found a good mix of birds, from resident and late-migrating waterfowl (19 species) and shorebirds (10 species) to raptors (8 species, including Turkey Vulture), to good numbers and diversity of passerines: 7 flycatchers, 11 sparrows, 7 icterids, and an amazing (for this area) 12 warbler species! The bird of the day was certainly the Clay-colored Sparrow. The team encountered a mass movement and found them everywhere. They don’t breed in Colorado, so none of the team had ever seen that many at one time. The Clay-colored Sparrows looked quite sharp in breeding plumage, and the team got very familiar with their buzzy song before the day was half over. In addition to the Clay-colored Sparrow, they found the only Black-billed Magpie, Vesper Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee recorded on the Birdathon.

Three members of the Longmont Longspurs: Stephen Chang, Sarah Spotten, and Jamie Simo (not shown: Emily Harris). They claimed the field behind them is full of longspurs.

Cerulean Songster was the one-woman team created by Kristie Nelson, a recent transplant from California to Missouri. Kristie managed to see 85 species on her own on May 4. She writes in her refreshing, stream-of-consciousness fashion, “I basically birded around my home, and there’s a pasture nearby that’s had some Upland Sandpipers, and I’ve been doing biological surveys for a new state park out here—birded there, too. I missed the abundant Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which I was a hair early for in the season. I did have a Cerulean Warbler, luckily, included in the day. Missouri is a great place, the Ozarks have abundant clean water and public lands. The birdlife here is varied, with things like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Red-headed Woodpecker, and the usual eastern birds. I missed a few easy migrants—seemed like migration diversity was low this spring, mostly the breeding residents—though a lot of those!” Amazingly, 39 of Kristie’s 85 species were not seen by any other team, and she spotted 17 warbler species, probably twice the number of any other team!

Don Marsh and his wife, Laura, formed Dean’s Big Day—a two-person team with the goal of seeing 75 species on a Birdathon in Texas dedicated to Don’s brother. When they arrived on April 22 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, they found it closed due to a severe storm that had downed trees and branches the evening before. They birded around the parking lot and picked up Texas specialties such as Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Altamira Oriole, and Olive Sparrow. Next, they headed to the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, one of the nine World Birding Centers in the Rio Grande Valley. It was not very birdy, probably due to work crews using chainsaws and chippers to clear tree debris. An unexpected find there was a Green Parakeet. At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, they picked up 29 species. Finally, the Estero Llano Grande State Park was the most active site of the day and offered excellent views of a wide variety of birds—54 species total. After Don put together his eBird trip report, he discovered that they’d reached their original goal of 75 species! We should note that Laura and Don ended up spending two weeks on their south Texas trip, seeing 229 species in total, including 25 lifers! (We’ll give them a presumed second place on the “lifers seen” list, making an assumption about those Costa Rican birders!)

The Western Field Optimists, a team of four headed up by Andy Mauro, worked around Gig Harbor near Tacoma, Washington. They figured the best bird of their day (May 13) was a male Yellow-headed Blackbird found foraging in the grassy marsh at Theler Wetlands Reserve in Belfair. It was a distant bird poking its yellow noggin above the tall grass. As they wrote in their team report, “Sometimes, the highlight of a birding excursion is simply the sighting of an otherwise common species at an unexpected time or place.” Another memorable sighting was a very active Purple Martin colony of about 30 birds using a dozen weathered bird boxes attached to old ferry pilings in Puget Sound waters below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The martins were one of five species of swallows the team spotted on the day. They were the only team to record Pigeon Guillemots, which were also nesting on the ferry pilings and regularly flying down to the water, sporting their brilliant red legs and bills. As the team wound up their day, they had a memorable sighting of a male Hairy Woodpecker feeding chicks at its cavity nest in a Douglas fir snag. The woodpecker sighting completed their sweep of the five woodpecker species that breed around Gig Harbor. Their total of 64 species bested their 2021 Birdathon total of 56 species, although they admit their more casual approach to the day easily left another 10 to 15 species unseen. For the next Birdathon, they are promising to recruit a couple of hot-shot birder friends from their wintertime CBC team in order to push their pace, raise their bird count, and lower the overall average age of the team!

Andy Mauro, Joyce Meyer, Mike West, and Rich Machin of the Western Field Optimists, rocking the 2023 Birdathon T-shirt.

Looking Forward

A new WFO Birdathon Committee will meet later this summer to begin planning the next Birdathon. We welcome any thoughts, suggestions, or preferences you might like to offer. Feel free to drop us an email or corral one of us at the WFO Conference in Colorado in late July. One of the committee’s first orders of business will be scheduling the WFO 2024 Birdathon. Should it be in spring or the fall?

Thanks again, everyone. We’ll see you at next year’s Birdathon!

Andy Mauro and Chris Swarth, 2023 WFO Birdathon Committee

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