My Big Day

ash-throated_flycatcher_1393.jpg

[Featured image: An Ash-throated Flycatcher was species 75 for the day.]

It was just two weeks ago that I ran 26 miles in 90-something degree heat in the hills around Bouquet Reservoir in the Angeles National Forest. While that may sound laudable (or crazy), it was because I was running the Leona Divide 50 trail race, so I came up 24 miles short. To redeem myself, I entered the Wild Wild West 50 that is taking place today. Unfortunately, my nagging problem this training season has been my right hip, which got drastically worse following my attempt at Leona. When I felt crippled trying to walk the day after a ten mile run last weekend, I decided to scrap my racing plans.

Prior to the start of a Big Day in Ohio many moons ago.

Prior to the start of a Big Day in Ohio many moons ago.

For some years, I have been mulling over the idea of doing a Big Day in a small area near my home in Los Angeles just to see how many species I can get. A Big Day, in birding parlance, is an effort to hear and see as many bird species as possible in a defined geographic area in 24 hours (usually midnight to midnight). I've done many, and was even part of a group that held the Big Day country record for Belize for a time. I considered conducting this effort in Elyria Canyon Park next to my home, but I wasn't sure I could do significantly better than my previous 50 species morning I got lucky on one day. If I expanded my range a bit - my thinking went - and did it without the use of a car, a decent day could still be an interesting side note about how many species of birds you can find in a small area, even in a massive city like Los Angeles.

As I realized the day my race was originally scheduled was also Bird LA Day, I began pondering a Big Day effort associated with that. As the week went on, I established a one mile radius from my home as the area (covering all of my neighborhood of Mt. Washington, plus Rio de Los Angeles State Park where I walk my dog several days a week, as well as a slice of the Los Angeles River) and realized Saturday would not be the best day to do the effort because of rain in the weather forecast and more people out and about. I settled on Friday, May 5 as the date. I establishing hiking and biking as my modes of transport. I looked over bird lists and thought that 75 species was a possible total if I had a good day.

The Summary

Before I go into a narrative about how my day went, here's a summary of the day for those who want to get to the point, have short attention spans, or both:

  • Total species: 81 (species list at the end)
  • Active birding time: 4:30 am to 6:00 pm (with one additional observed at home after dinner).
  • Total miles covered according to Garmin tracking: 33 (14 hiking, 19 biking)

And here is a map of the area birded (one mile radius from my home) showing open space areas from the California Protected Areas Database and a few other notable spots from my discussion for reference:

The Tech

All bird detections were recorded in the eBird app on my iPhone. I used the "My Maps" function on Google to store the one mile radius (created in Google Earth) and view it in the field using the Google Maps app on my iPhone to ensure I stayed within the boundaries. No birds were counted outside of the one mile radius.

The Narrative

Home

I awoke at 4:15. My first priority is always coffee and food. I ate breakfast and drank coffee next to my open screen door, deciding not to use the patio because the mosquitoes are bad right now. As I expected, two Great Horned Owls began calling shortly after I started listening. That was not my first bird, however, as Northern Mockingbirds apparently don't sleep in the spring and sing all night long, ensuring everyone's use of fans at night to drown out the noise. As sunrise approached, I started hearing the local ravens, California Towhees, and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I was getting worried that the resident Western Screech-Owls would be quiet, and I stepped out on the patio. They started calling late from somewhere near our backyard. One even flew overhead as the sky brightened. At 5:30, I gathered my stuff up and walked to Elyria Canyon Park with 9 species recorded a half hour before official sunrise.

Elyria Canyon Park

The day dawned overcast, the first morning with a substantive marine layer in quite awhile. I viewed this as potentially good: while cloudy days tend to reduce the intensity of bird singing activity (and, therefore, detectability) at sunrise, they also extend the active period until later in the day. This could help me get higher bird activity levels at more locations.

I entered Elyria Canyon via the Wollam Street entrance. Elyria Canyon is primarily dominated historically by California Black Walnut Woodland. While that is an important feature of the park still, the drought has decimated a large number of the trees and their crowns are barren. The trees are stump-sprouting after the rains this year. What remains is a patchwork of tall vegetation probably best classified as Mixed Chaparral (mostly Toyon, Laurel Sumac, Elderberry, and Cherry with the aforementioned Walnuts), with open grassland/ruderal areas and some pockets that vegetation splitters could maybe call Coastal Sage Scrub with a straight face.

While song levels seemed low compared to clear mornings, the important stuff I needed to get there (because they'd be hard or impossible to get elsewhere) made themselves known. At the end of the trail that heads up from Wollam, two of those important birds were California Thrasher and Wrentit. Both were singing (some days, they don't), and both may not occur anywhere else in my Big Day area. They are both known-occurring species in the same canyon that have been there for years.

A Cooper's Hawk called, later flying around the canyon with what I assume is its mate. One of the resident Downy Woodpeckers, another species that has been around for years but not necessarily reliable, also called (Nuttall's Woodpecker is its common cousin here, and they are easy to get in the park). The Cedar Waxwing flock that was around the previous day was still present, but in smaller numbers. Somewhat surprising was a flyover by three Eurasian Collared-Doves: I only recently recorded this introduced species for the first time in the park, but they seem to be rapidly expanding their numbers in the area. I missed on the native Band-tailed Pigeon (a regular here), as well as Red-tailed Hawk. My only warbler was Wilson's Warbler (I had a MacGillivray's Warbler the previous day). I finished at Elyria Canyon with 29 species in the park, 31 overall for the day.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park

Rio de Los Angeles State Park rose from the ashes of the former Taylor Yard, a railyard near the Los Angeles River. It has a mix of uses, including ball fields (some of which are good for birds) and an artificial wetland area dominated by Willows and Cottonwoods. I don't do a lot of serious birding there (despite being the lead lister for the location in eBird), picking up most of my species records while walking the dog. There are some interesting birds in the park, however, including breeding Blue Grosbeaks. It's a good spot to see raptors, especially in the winter, including Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys that winter along the river. I found a Burrowing Owl there once. Endangered Least Bell's Vireos sometimes stop there for a moment during migration.

I biked to the park, arriving at 7:39 am. Dawn song was still evident, but muted. Yellow Warblers were singing, as were the Blue Grosbeaks. They were even some Lazuli Buntings around. The resident American Kestrel pair was perched on a light post next to the baseball field. A few Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were flying around. Both of the expected goldfinches (American and Lesser) were present in the wetland area.

I walked around the Sycamores near the soccer fields. This is a good area to get winter sparrows (such as Savannah and Lark) and I was hoping a few stragglers might be hanging around. No such luck. I walked the barrier "woods" on the north end between the park and FedEx facility as that can be a good place for warblers and vireos, but there was nothing of any note. I left the park a little after 8:30 with an overall total for the day of 54 species. Of note here is that none of the species was unexpected, except for a calling Northern Flicker and a male Great-tailed Grackle. Flickers are common here in the lowlands in the winter, but much less so in the warmer months (but still easily found in the San Gabriel Mountains). Great-tailed Grackles are common locally, but this was only my second record for the park.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park

Rio de Los Angeles State Park

Los Angeles River

After leaving Rio de Los Angeles, I biked down Cypress to Figueroa and took the new separated bike path on the new Riverside bridge to the Los Angeles River bike path. I pulled out my phone and kept watch on Google Maps until I reentered my Big Day circle. I then started walking my bike along the path, recording what I saw in the eBird app. I had some preconceived notions of what should be easy birds along the river. I don't bird the river a lot, however, and those notions were based largely on what I've seen in the larger river area, and not specifically the portion in my Big Day circle.

Canada Geese and Mallards were immediately evident. Some pairs of both species had young. Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, and Double-crested Cormorant were also present and expected. A Green Heron flew by, a species that I wasn't sure I'd be able to dig up even though I knew it was there. A few Spotted Sandpipers, also expected, were present. The same with Black-necked Stilt. I reached the north end of my survey area concerned that Green Heron was my only heron. I finally found a Great Blue Heron at the end. Killdeer? One finally called right after I turned back south. I began searching frantically for Black-crowned Night-Heron (expected), and finally got one back at the south end again. There was also a Snowy Egret.

I passed back and forth through the Los Angeles River segment four times. I did so because I felt the river was not being kind to me on this day. Here's why:

  • Perhaps this was in error, but I really expected to get Great Egret. There were none to be found.
  • I expected to find some species of duck other than Mallard. While you can not point to any other single species and expect to get it this time of year, there is a sizeable suite of species that tend to have late stragglers (or breed in isolated areas) and I thought I'd find at least one. I didn't.
  • Same with the shorebirds. I thought I'd get some other species than Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, and Killdeer. I didn't.
  • I expected to get one of either Warbling or Least Bell's Vireo. Again, I didn't.

There are a few more such shortfalls, but I'm sure you get what I'm saying here. The only gift I did receive from the river was an unexpected Acorn Woodpecker calling from a grove of cottonwoods. It seemed like an odd spot, and that species wasn't on my radar screen (even though they are common in a lot of nearby areas just outside of the Big Day circle), but I was happy to have it. I left the river a little discouraged with 69 species.

Bike path along the Los Angeles River

Bike path along the Los Angeles River

Heidelberg Park and Mt. Washington Neighborhood

At this point, having hit the major spots before noon, my goals changed to targeting my efforts toward getting species that I still needed. I still needed Cliff Swallow, and I knew there was a breeding colony of Cliff and Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the side of a house on Kite Hill in my neighborhood. The birds were easily viewable on arrival, and Cliff Swallow was species 70. I guess if I stopped here, most folks would think I had a great day, but there were still some common species I was missing (some I couldn't believe I didn't have yet) and half of the day to go.

I headed next to Heidelberg Park. Heidelberg is on the opposite side of Mt. Washington from me. I've only birded there a few times. It is on a very steep slope with some difficult trails to traverse, but it also contains a lot more oaks than Elyria Canyon and I've had some different birds there. I thought the different habitat could potentially help me turn up different birds, some wishful-thinking species being Dark-eyed Junco and Hutton's Vireo.

Surprisingly, the moment I arrived, there were a couple Dark-eyed Juncos chipping up a storm in a fracas with other birds in a front yard across the street from the park. I locked up my bike and immediately found an Orange-crowned Warbler. That species is not surprising, but I was somewhat surprised it was feeding recently-fledged young. 72 species. Now, it was a matter of making my way through the park and hopefully finding the three "guarantee" species I was still lacking (Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, and Ash-throated Flycatcher), and maybe something else. I was also hoping to find a Turkey Vulture now that the sun was fully out and there should be enough uplift for them to soar around.

Walking around Heidelberg was rough. The trails were badly overgrown with dry grasses and entirely invisible in many areas. As happens when walking through that stuff, the sharp grass seeds poked through my shoes and socks everywhere, stabbing my ankles. I discovered that walking on those grasses could be like ice. I fell several times as the flattened grasses made an ice-slick surface. I felt I could have used crampons and an ice axe.

While I found birds there, obviously, there was nothing new pertinent to the park itself. I did, however, have a flyover flock of Ring-billed Gulls. I left Heidelberg Park with 73 species and a need for a change of shoes and socks.

Grass seeds in my socks.

Grass seeds in my socks.

Home Again & Elyria Canyon Part II

My immediate goal after Heidelberg was to head home and eat some real food. As I rode my bike down San Rafael just past Mt. Washington Elementary, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks was soaring overhead and calling for species 74. I decided to veer left and ride down Mt. Washington Drive as this is often a good area for the still-needed Ash-throated Flycatcher. I was correct: I had two of them on the ride down. Species 75. I was at my goal for the day and it wasn't even 1pm.

I decided to walk my bike back uphill and slowly take in the sky, hoping to find something new. Nothing showed itself on much of the walk. As I got to the top and finally within view the Fellowship property, there was an American Robin singing from the top of a tall conifer. Species 76. Shortly thereafter I saw a couple Band-tailed Pigeons (finally) flying overhead. Species 77.  As I neared San Rafael, there was an entirely unexpected Hutton's Vireo singing away from the Self Realization Fellowship property. Species 78.

Diminishing Returns

I finally made it home and put on fresh socks and shoes. I had some lunch. I left my phone to charge while I walked the dog in Elyria Canyon for visit number two. From here on out, I didn't keep full lists of all birds detected and just recorded new things in eBird as incidentals. The dog walk finally turned up White-throated Swift for species 79. Now I had to get to 80.

I saddled back up on the bike and rode to Rio de Los Angeles again. One of the first birds I saw was a Turkey Vulture flying overhead. Species 80. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, with four hours of daylight left.

To someone not familiar with birding, they may think with all of that time left that I could reasonably hit a much larger number. Things don't work that way, though, especially within the constraints of such a small area. There are only so many species of birds in an area. As your number of species detected gets larger, the number of species remaining to be detected gets smaller. Every new species found makes upping the total again that much more difficult.

I thought my best chance for upping my species count was to stay near the river. I spent the rest of my time walking around Rio de Los Angeles, sitting and watching the sky at Rio de Los Angeles, walking and biking the east side of the Los Angeles River, and again walking around Rio de Los Angeles. Two and half hours later with no new species observed and tired from biking and walking around for 33 miles, I messaged my wife and told her to expect me home for dinner.

I was ending the day at 80.

Or was I?

Once home, I showered and ate dinner. I had a beer on the patio. I heard White-throated Swifts screaming overhead. I decided to grab my binoculars and check out the swift flock circling over our house as they often do in the evenings. Sure enough, there were several Vaux's Swifts with the White-throated Swifts. That was species 81.

I kept an eye out hoping to get 82. A lot of birds like to visit our fountain (chosen specifically to attract birds as it dribbles water over a rock), including a MacGillivray's Warbler every year. That didn't happen this day. We sometimes have a Barn Owl flying around at night, as I did a few days prior. I didn't hear it, though.

I would officially end at 81 species. While that was six more than I optimistically hoped for, you always feel you failed somewhere when there are species you didn't get that seem easy. There's always next year.