Santa Barbara Big Day (long) #bigday

Dave Compton <davcompton@...>

Peter Gaede, Brad Hines, Mark Holmgren, and I did a Big Day in Santa Barbara
Count yesterday for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Bird-a-Thon. After 18
hours of driving, jumping in and out of the car, walking, running, sorting
through flocks of Bushtits and Chickadees, picking through groups of ducks
at hundred yards to find something different, doing sea watches, sorting
through Yellow Warblers in eucalyptus trees for something not yellow, and
trying to get small owls to call back at our imitations, we finally called
it a day (or by then, a night) with 164 species. We were sure we'd have 165,
but that screech-owl that was calling at Mark's house the night before just
couldn't be made to make a sound for us at 10:00pm.

Best Birds were PRAIRIE WARBLER at the ponds at Vandenberg, right where you
first enter the willows; 5 AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS (2 at the Santa Ynez
estuary; 2 east of the marina at Lake Cachuma; and one at the east end of
Cachuma); 6 BOBOLINKS in Goleta; 12 species of raptors (including Golden
Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Ferruginous Hawk); and a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED
GOOSE minding its own business at the Mission Creek outfall next to the SB
wharf, at 5am, while four guys shined lights in his face.

Some misses were pretty extraordinary, especially considering our final
total seemed pretty respectable. We missed Green Heron, Black-headed
Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Whimbrel, and Semipalmated
Plover. And of course the screech-owl.

For those interested in more details, read on.

Our route took us around the Lompoc Valley, up Figure Mtn Rd and down Happy
Canyon, and along the south coast from Goleta to Refugio (with, of course,
the 5am stop at the beach in SB to wake up that goose). We started at Lake
Los Carneros at 4am to listen for rails (Sora and Coot only), bitterns
(none), and whatever else might be calling that early. We then made our
quick trip to the wharf for the goose, hit Kinevan for unsuccessful owling
(we did get Great Horned), then on to Lompoc. Our daytime starting point,
and probably our best candidate in the county for a Big Sit, was a large
pullout on Ocean Blvd. that looks down into the Santa Ynez estuary and out
to sea. The 40 species we got here were lower than expected, but numbers
were down partly because passerines were quiet and inactive (it was pretty
cold). We did get some good stuff here, though--Black Skimmer, American
White Pelican--and got our water bird total started pretty well. We followed
with a sea watch at Surf Beach (Parasitic Jaeger, Black-vented and Sooty
Shearwater, Surf and White-winged Scoter) and a trip down into Ocean Park
(Peregrine Falcon and Lawrence's Goldfinch), before hitting our first
landbird spot, the ponds at Vandenberg. Among a nice variety here were
Ferruginous Hawk, Virginia Rail (making up for a miss at Lake Los Carneros),
Prairie and Hermit Warbler, and Tricolored Blackbird. We also hit Miguelito
Park and Sweeney Rd (Canyon Wren), before leaving the Lompoc Valley. We
headed for the mountains at 10:20 with 114 species.

As well as we did in Lompoc, we couldn't believe our luck driving up
Figueroa Mtn Rd. We added birds at every stop. We pulled over to look at
blackbirds and Brad spotted a Golden Eagle. We stopped for a couple of
sparrows by the road and they turned out to be Rufous-crowned. The next time
we stopped for a sparrow it was a Vesper. We stopped for a couple of small
birds that turned out to be Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Red-breasted
Sapsucker was sitting in the tree right next to the car. We made our only
scheduled stop along this road and saw three Rock Wrens.

Figueroa Mountain itself (i.e., Pino Alto picnic area and the summit) was
fairly quiet, but we did add most of the expected mountain birds. The ride
down Happy Canyon was fairly productive (Chipping Sparrow, Phainopepla,
Northern Pygmy-Owl), although we did miss Lark Sparrow, despite looking
pretty hard.

Leaving the Figueroa loop, we debated where to stop to view birds at Lake
Cachuma. Mark fortunately won the debate and we took 15 minutes out of our
schedule to visit the marina, where we added Caspian Tern and Canada Goose,
among about seven species. As we headed toward the 154 overlook at the east
end, it was 2:08 pm and we already had 146 species. Murmurs of 170 floated
about. Spirits soared.

We added only one (American Wigeon) at the east end of the lake, but still
felt pretty good. We saw a "Western" Flycatcher in a return stop to Kinevan,
but felt like we had spent altogether too much time there in two stops to
get just two birds. We then headed to Goleta Beach, where the best we could
do was a distant look at a Royal/Elegant Tern. Four tern species and lots of
shorebirds had been here about a week earlier. A trip to
Goleta Pt. was a little better, but we still missed the Ruddy Turnstone and
two tattlers that had been there the previous day. Subsequent stops
continued to yield only very small numbers of birds, gradually bringing our
expectations down. We saw two new species at Goleta sewage (an unscheduled
stop that we made because we didn't have Black-necked Stilt), added two at
Refugio State Beach (both of which we saw subsequently at Lake Los
Carneros), and ticked off two more at Devereux (another unscheduled stop to
get birds we'd missed). By the time we hit Lake Los Carneros again,
expectations of 170 turned to fears of not making 160. But it was birdy
here, and although we couldn't find the expected warbler flock, or a Green
Heron, we did add three species, including Western Kingbird, and reach 160.
We went to our final daytime stop at the Bobolink spot in Goleta and picked
up three more, for a total of 163 at sunset. Dinner and a beer preceded
another walk around Lake Los Carneros County Park for a last chance at Barn
Owl. But we dipped and returned to the parking lot to unload our gear before
a last stop for screech-owl. As we unloaded, I heard a harsh screech that I
thought was Peter imitating a Barn Owl. I heard the sound again a minute or
two later, but this time we all looked at each other and realized it was an
ACTUAL owl, rather than someone imitating one. Number 164, and the last
bird, for the day. You know the rest of the story.

A couple of more details. Of the 164, all but four were tallied by all four
observers. A faulty tripod leg kept me from seeing Peregrine Falcon, but
provided much amusement to my cohorts, who ID'd the bird. If not for the
sharp ears of Brad Hines, no one would've gotten American Goldfinch. Brad
was the only one to record that bird and the only one to record all 164
species. The last time Mark and I did a Big Day with Brad, he was the only
one to get all 158.

As always, it was fun but exhausting doing the Big Day. Thanks to all my
team members for being such great company. We saw a lot of birds and came
away with some good stories (for more on "The Owl I Almost Stepped On," "The
Tasty Barn Owl," and "The Friendly Locals on Sweeney Rd," ask me personally.

Dave Compton