When WFO decided to host a September–October birdathon as a follow-up to its virtual conference, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. These were uncertain times. WFO was about to hold its first-ever birdathon in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. And all of this on the heels of WFO’s first-ever virtual conference. Could we pull this off?
We shouldn’t have worried. Our 17 teams, totaling about 70 birders, and all their loyal sponsors will forever go down in the annals of WFO history as charter members of WFO’s “First Birdathon Club.” The makeup of the teams covered the gamut. We had fast-rising, energetic youth teams, along with well-seasoned veterans. Some comprised good everyday birders, while others represented elite birders. As might have been expected, most of the teams were from California. But there were also multiple teams fielded in Colorado and Washington, and then there was an international team over the border in Vancouver, Canada.
Some teams were up at dawn and birded all day in their attempt to maximize species count. Others embraced a relaxed pace more focused on improving birding skills or just enjoying a fun day of birding. One team admirably sought to minimize its carbon footprint by focusing on a concentrated search in one special locale. Another team set out only to count birds it could document by digital image. Most teams conducted a self-contained, unified field operation, but three teams were aided by distant friends who contributed bird sightings and sponsorships from other states or countries.
When all the species and contributions were tallied, more than 250 fellow birders, friends, and family members gave donations to support their favorite team. In the end, Birdathon donations topped $35,000, greatly exceeding our most optimistic expectations.
The Scouting Trip
Sometimes, the real excitement of a birdathon begins a little early. The Mountain Brewbirds were scouting things out the afternoon before their big day. Their first stop was near the mouth of Lee Vining Creek, where freshwater flows from the Sierra into briny Mono Lake. Suddenly a strange gull appeared flying straight at them. Almost before we could lift our glasses, we yelled simultaneously “Sabine’s Gull!” With its striking plumage pattern, black-striped primaries, bold feathering, and slender shape, it was unmistakable. It passed by just slowly enough for John to get some great photos. What could be better than WFO’s patron saint and logo species! An auspicious start to our adventure, but would we see this bird tomorrow?—Mountain Brewbirds team report
Officially, a combined total of 282 species were recorded by the 17 Birdathon teams. This doesn’t include species that might have been seen by friends unable to participate on the appointed day or location chosen by their favorite team and who, nonetheless, went out birding anyway in various remote locales as a show of support. A regular member of the LPPS Pishers team in Vancouver snuck away from a conference he was attending in France to go birding to support his friends back home in Canada.
The “Hurlers” Set the Tone
The Birdathon officially began on the first day of September, and the Bird ’Til You Hurl team didn’t waste any time. They were first in the field and set an impressive early mark with a total of 111 species seen. The Hurlers were a spirited bunch and obviously had a lot of fun. But they had left the door open, and several later teams were able to slip pass them in the competition for “most birds seen.”
As anticipated, California was well represented, with 12 of the 17 teams hailing from the Golden State. It also came as no particular surprise that California teams led the way in species seen. The Wandering Babblers won the gold with their count of 132 species, edging out Shrike Force, which came up one bird short at 131 species. The Bobo-Links rounded out the podium with 127 species. The 100 species tallied by the Palouse Prairie Falcons put them in 8th place, the highest total among the non-California teams in the Birdathon.
The Bobo-Links were able to record five different species of owls, a testament to their predawn tenacity and their wise selection of habitat. They recorded five endangered Spotted Owls along a creek flowing through a narrow, heavily forested canyon outside Bodega. It was telling that they did not encounter any territory-hogging Barred Owls on their five-owl day. The Barred Owl was a target bird that had been brashly “guaranteed” by the Western Field Optimists. The Optimists were the only team to pick up the Barred Owl for the Birdathon, but it was not the “gimme” they had anticipated after their predawn owling effort proved fruitless. But fortune eventually smiled. As they were birding along a woodland trail in Nisqually NWR just before noon, they encountered a family with a couple of small children all excited about the owl they had just seen perched in a tree canopy. The Barred Owl sighting was confirmed in short order.
We must call attention to the Stanislaus Audubon Photobombers team, unanimous winner of our “Most Image-Conscious Birders” Award. “The Stanislaus Audubon Photobombers team is putting a twist on the usual birding big day experience as we are only counting birds that we can get a digital capture of. Whether it be a discernible audio recording, digital photograph, or video grab, we won’t count it if we can’t capture it digitally.”— Stanislaus Audubon Photobombers team page profile
Despite the added pressure and time involved in trying to capture an image or recording of every bird encountered, this photogenic trio were able to officially tally 107 well-documented species, good for sixth place in the team standings.
Better Late than Never
Every team eventually records its “last bird of the day.” Sometimes it’s a particularly “good” bird, maybe a long-sought target bird, or even an unexpected rarity. Sometimes it’s a very common bird that had been simply overlooked throughout the day. Often, it’s that final species needed to reach a special milestone in the species count. Or it’s a bird seen after all hope was lost for another species, maybe in the growing darkness after sunset, maybe in the final trudge back to the car after the last stop. Here are some stories from a few team reports.
Bobo-Links—Arriving with fading light to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Preserve, we walked the trails through riparian along a slough and adjacent to irrigated farm fields. The Laguna did not let us down, bearing eight new species, including a Yellow Warbler blazing in tall weeds in the low-angled light, White-breasted Nuthatch, Oak Titmouse, Western Tanager, and a Black-headed Grosbeak occasionally peeking out amid the large leaves while gobbling the fruit from a wild grapevine.
Mountain Brewbirds—In the gathering darkness Dan went searching for a Killdeer and was successful, as well as seeing the silhouette of a Great Horned Owl, soon joined by a second one. The loud squawk of a Black-crowned Night-Heron brought our day to a close. We’d accomplished our goal and had a fantastic day of birding and camaraderie.
Palouse Prairie Falcons—We walked back into the woods a bit to a spot Curtis usually gets Brown Creeper. Nothing, but while wandering around that area we heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling loudly near the campground. Species #99. Then we got a call from Mason back at the car, and he was on a Brown Creeper in the parking lot! Species #100! With no remaining reliable species nearby and the sun setting behind us, we called it a day.
Wandering Babblers—As darkness settled in, we were listening for nightbirds. We hoped the warm evening and rising moon would prompt early vocalization by our nocturnal targets. Two Common Poorwill began calling promptly at 7:20 as they had done two days previous on a scouting trip. We continued our search for owls. Barn Owls are common in the park, and it wasn’t long before we saw this white ghost of the night flying across a well-lighted parking lot, uttering its harsh scream. Western Screech Owls are residents in the oak and sycamore groves, and we were fortunate to see and hear at least one individual. It was nearing 9 pm, but the Great Horned Owl still eluded the team.
You Don’t Always Get What You Want, But Maybe Sometimes You Get What You Need
Birding as a sport, activity, pastime, or passion wouldn’t be as rewarding if all of one’s goals and dreams were fulfilled on every outing. We reflected on the ups and downs of the day and headed for home, satisfied that the Wandering Babblers had given their best.—Wandering Babblers team report
Reduced Carbon Footprint
Team Juniperros’ leader and sole member, Kimball Garrett, describes in the team report his mission to find birds with a sensitive eye on the human impact on the environment: I view my WFO Birdathon day as a celebration of bird diversity at a single site and a rejection of the energy-consuming 200+ mile driving routes that typify most “big day” efforts. Total door-to-door driving for my day, including about 7 miles onsite at Piute Ponds, consumed just over 3 gallons of gas in my Toyota RAV4.
Closed Roads and Smoky Skies
The impact of the extensive fires that ravaged the West in late summer and early fall was a complication for several of the California teams, especially the Harried Woodpeckers, who conducted their Birdathon in hard-hit Nevada County. As the date for their neared, two team members tragically lost their homes and were unable to participate, but still made generous donations. For some teams, birding routes needed to be adjusted to accommodate road closures and access restrictions, scouting trips needed to be adjusted or canceled, or important bird habitats had been burned and were eliminated from the route. Lack of clear visibility and poor air quality were concerns for several teams on their Birdathon day. A special thank-you to all who participated, whether as a team member or as a donor, despite having experienced significant impacts from the fires of 2021.
The $35,000 brought in during the Birdathon represented a tremendous group accomplishment. Every team contributed to the effort by participating, by helping to spread awareness and enthusiasm for the Birdathon, and by taking on the sometimes uncomfortable task of asking friends and family to support their worthy cause.
Some teams proved especially adept at fundraising. The Western Field Optimists from Gig Harbor, Washington, outpaced the field with their success in raising funds for WFO. When the team’s donation total of $6,975 was announced at the Zoom wrap-up party, a playful suggestion was made to pass the hat to get them the bucks they needed to hit the $7,000 mark. The Optimists’ total was greatly aided by a little over $2,000 in donations they received from birding friends organized by their birding buddy Steve Brad in San Diego.
Three other teams, the Bobo-Links, Solano Species Seekers, and Shrike Force, also reached the “Pileated Woodpeckers” top-tier fundraising level, each generating about $5,000 in raised donations. These three teams deserve special recognition for also finishing as the top three teams in species seen. The “Northern Flickers” level of $2,000 in raised donations was attained by another four teams, the Palouse Prairie Falcons, Mountain Brewbirds, Harried Woodpeckers, and Wandering Babblers. Bird ’Til You Hurl and Stanislaus Audubon Photobombers each generated about $800 in donations to reach the “Hairy Woodpeckers” level. Six teams achieved “Downy Woodpeckers” status with donations ranging from $300 to $500 per team.
Setting the Goal
We kept a running total of Birdathon donations once they began coming in and posted the team totals each week on the Birdathon website. Early on it became evident that the teams that had made a commitment by setting a fundraising goal on their team page at the beginning were most likely to be among the teams leading the way in fundraising. In the end, almost all of those teams had at least met, and in many cases greatly exceeded, their initial goal. As is often the case in nature, it was early commitment, dedication to the cause, and perseverance that won the day.
Don’t Forget Grandma
Attracting sponsorships for one’s birdathon team generally involves asking friends for money. Our birding friends are usually the first to be approached, but don’t forget your loving family members! Shortly after the Birdathon launched, WFO received a substantial check in support of one of our youth teams, the Palouse Prairie Falcons. We contacted the donor to make sure there was no mistake. As it turned out, the check was written by the grandmother of one of the team members. She wrote back to say she was so happy with her grandson and his passion for birds, and very appreciative of the wonderful youth programs offered by WFO. Not to be outdone, one of the Western Field Optimists wrote his siblings to remind them of their grandma’s great love of nature and asked them to support WFO with “a donation in memory of dear Grandma Mamie.” They all did, of course!
Just Bird Baby!
A birdathon is all about seeing birds and raising money, of course, but we had a couple of other objectives in mind. We wanted to attract participation by as broad a group of WFO members as possible. We simplified the rules and regulations to make it easy and uncomplicated for everyone. We emphasized an objective of camaraderie among friends, getting out in nature, and having fun. By every standard, it appears each of these goals was also well met. This “let’s have some fun” objective was perhaps best exemplified by the Drone Trackers team. From the get-go they made no bones about their approach. “We just want to go out and bird.” Thank you, Drone Trackers, for helping us remember to keep it real.
The unqualified success of the 2021 WFO Birdathon leaves little doubt that there will be a push to have return engagements in the coming years. The Birdathon Committee is preparing its final report for the WFO Board, along with recommendations for the next WFO Birdathon. We’ll consider recommendations for a few changes to make the event even more exciting and rewarding. One idea is to move the date of the next WFO Birdathon to late spring in 2023. Stay tuned!