I can think of several essential ingredients for any successful birding “Big Day”—an effort to identify as many bird species as possible during a single midnight-to-midnight period. Here goes:
1. A good team.
2. A good route.
3. A good plan.
And I can think of two other Big Day essentials we tend to take for granted:
4. Good wheels.
5. Good optics.
Robert Mortensen probably saw the following a mile away: I recently completed a Boulder County, Colorado, Big Day that broke all the “rules.” Specifically:
1. I didn’t have a good team. It’s not that my team was bad. Rather, I had no team at all.
2. My route bypassed many, probably most, of the must-visit birding destinations in the county.
3. My plan, to the extent that I had one, was to head in a circuitously westward direction. Oh, and I wasn’t going to miss lunch with
As to transportation and optics:
This was some sort of gimmick, right? Or a fundraiser perhaps? Gimmickry is not beneath me, and I admire fundraisers, but, no, that’s not it. This was an honest-to-goodness, plain-old Big Day of the sort that Amar Ayyash and Greg Neise excel in.
I hope to convince you that not using a car or bike contributed to what was an enjoyable and successful Big Day. And now for the real heresy: I truly believe that not using binoculars helped my cause.
I’ll get under way with the recap in just a moment, but, first, let’s do the numbers:
- Date: June 13, 2013.
- Time: 4 a.m.–8 p.m.
- Distance: About 25¼ miles, according to Google. But Google’s Distance Calculator doesn’t compute a vertical vector, which point we’ll return to.
- Species Total: 125. I think it’s fair to say that 125 species is a “good” total—perhaps a great total—even for a traditional (car or bike, bins and scope, good teammates, etc.) Boulder County Big Day in the third week of June.
My “Bare-Naked Big Day” route. Click here for a zoomable version of the map with stickpins showing the locations of notable birds seen or heard along the way.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky at 4 a.m., but starlight was notably dimmed by heavy smoke from the Black Forest fire to the south. At a little pond to the north, western chorus frogs a few Woodhouse’s toads were going off. What would be first bird, I wondered? I soon got the answer: a sputtering Western Kingbird [04:07:59], one of the most expected and characteristic sounds of astronomical dawn in early summer in Boulder County. The next bird was delectably unexpected, but not at all implausible: an Eastern Screech-Owl [04:10:48], an uncommon permanent resident in the county. Those two birds, it occurred to me, wonderfully emblematize the East-meets-West quality of birding in Boulder County.
I started walking. Due east. So much for my “plan” to head west.
A Pied-billed Grebe [04:14:49] went berserk in a cattail marsh, a Mallard [04:17:01] quacked, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird [04:19:13] “sang” a “song” that only Mark Peterson could love. The anurans were still going at it, Capella and Fomalhaut were rising in the northeast and southeast, respectively, and an Eastern Kingbird [04:23:52] started calling. Next up were a female Great Horned Owl [04:27:53], a Killdeer
[04:32:03], and an impressively bright meteor.
I passed South Teller Lake. A Blue Grosbeak [04:32:42] burst into song, and, a few minutes later, the Red-winged Blackbirds [04:35:44]
were going at it. Next up were my first and only Common Nighthawks [04:36:35] of the day, followed by the first of the great throng of American Robins [04:37:47] that would keep me company all day long. A Western Meadowlark [04:38:24] followed, and then a Spotted Sandpiper [04:41:58]. I passed a few houses, where some House Sparrows [04:43:54] were stirring.
An instant later, I heard one of the greatest of avian “voices”: the spooky winnowing of a Wilson’s Snipe [04:43:55]; this non-vocal sound is given as air rushes through the tail feathers of a male in aerial display. It was still nearly an hour to sunrise, but a Grasshopper Sparrow [04:47:35] was singing steadily. This species often sings right through the nighttime hours.
The dawn chorus was going at full tilt now: Mourning Dove [04:53:40], Vesper Sparrow [04:54:16], Bullock’s Oriole [04:58:32], Barn Swallow [05:05:22], Yellow Warbler [05:06:03], Common Grackle [05:08:41], and House Finch [05:09:51]. I was getting into taller and wetter grass now, and I heard the strange, pulsing song of a Dickcissel [05:10:22]. A Big Day is no time to indulge my penchant for counting birds, but
I couldn’t help myself: I would encounter a minimum of eight along this stretch of the trail. Until a few years ago, the species was uncommon, perhaps merely casual, in Boulder County. In recent years, though, the bird has been reliable here at Teller and elsewhere.
I nearly missed the next bird: a Savannah Sparrow [05:15:37]—two or three of them, actually. If I’d had a better plan (see Big Day essential #3,
above), I’d have had a checklist with me. Glancing at a checklist every four or five minutes is an excellent way of pacing yourself, and of reminding yourself what to focus on—right now. I guess so. But I also don’t much care for routine and predictability, at least not while I’m birding. (Oh, but if you’re a contributor to Birding magazine, don’t you dare miss a deadline or mess up a possessive gerund.)
The next bird, my twenty-seventh of the morning, was the first I detected initially by sight. It wasn’t yet sunrise, but the shape of a flying European Starling [05:16:36] is distinctive. A moment later, I would hear its burry flight call, and that reminds me of something: Very, very few of the species on my list were seen-only. That’s not to say the silent birds weren’t special. I’ll talk about that later. Back to the dawn chorus: Western Wood-Pewee [05:21:00], House Wren [05:21:35], and Red Junglefowl [05:26:58].
What? A rooster? Are you crazy? Tell me this: What sound is more evocative of daybreak in the countryside? The idea that the species somehow doesn’t belong, that it doesn’t “count,” is patently absurd. The crowing of a rooster, the sweet smell of hay, a tractor rumbling to life, the first rays of sunshine—those things are the very essence of the new day.
More birds: Black-capped Chickadee [05:28:00], Black-billed Magpie [05:29:48], American Goldfinch [05:31:21], and, just east of Teller Lake No. 5, my only Bobolink [05:33:47] of the day.
Sunrise!—and time for some feedlot birding: American Crow [05:36:32], Brown-headed Cowbird [05:37:15], and Rock Pigeon [05:38:57] with the cows and horses at Teller Farm.
I crossed Valmont Road and continued in a generally northward direction, picking up Cliff Swallow [05:46:04], Red-shafted Flicker [05:47:01], Eurasian Collared-Dove [05:50:58], Blue Jay [05:52:03], Downy Woodpecker [05:52:33], Belted Kingfisher [05:55:34], White-breasted Nuthatch [05:56:01], Great Blue Heron [05:56:10], Red-tailed Hawk [05:56:11], and Common Yellowthroat [06:00:25].
Breakfast time, and what better place to pause than the typically productive southern floodplain of Boulder Creek. An Eastern Warbling-Vireo [06:02:50] sang directly overhead, and I audio-recorded its song. (No binoculars for me, but, yes, I brought along the VN-8100PC.) This was the first of a whopping eight of its kind I would find during the next several hours. I heard a Song Sparrow [06:04:26], I saw an American White Pelican [06:08:00], and I saw and heard—how could I not have?—a flock of Canada Geese [06:13:32].
Next up were two decent birds for Boulder County. First was a Willow Flycatcher [06:16:10] singing from a perch along Boulder Creek; the species (indeed, the same individual?) has been present here for several summers, and it may represent an unusual subspecies for Colorado. Second was a first-spring male Orchard Oriole [06:23:58] singing exuberantly from a tangle just north of the creek; this species reaches the
extreme limit of its range in eastern Boulder County.
I wrapped up breakfast with a Yellow-breasted Chat [06:30:03] singing by the creek and a flyby Double-crested Cormorant [06:32:03], and then continued north across the floodplain. A few Bank Swallows [06:42:12] cruised about an irrigation ditch, and it was time for the long slog across Gun Barrel Hill. The Gun Barrel terrain is high, dry, and hilly, and the avifauna is relatively sparse. But you can find some good birds here.
Like the singing, skylarking Cassin’s Sparrow [06:42:58] that greeted me at the very beginning of the ascent. Until a few years ago, the species was unheard of in the county. But a few summered in 2009, a few more in 2010, a whole bunch in 2011, then almost none in 2012. What about 2013? An obvious migrant was discovered in May, and now there’s this bird. So they’re on a five-year run. (Left: Photo by © Tony Leukering.)
Continuing across Gun Barrel Hill, I added Say’s Phoebe [06:59:37] and Lark Sparrow [07:03:24]. Then a long stretch with no birds, and then a dandy: a Cassin’s
Kingbird [07:40:08]. The bird wasn’t unexpected, I have to say: I’d seen one there earlier in the month, and multiples were seen back in May. In this vicinity, Gun Barrel Hill borders a residential stretch with decent plantings of piñon pines and junipers—great for birds with affinities with Colorado’s canyonlands.
I rounded a sharp bend and headed straight west. To my right, a few Horned Larks [07:47:30] were singing; to my left, a female American Kestrel [07:49:19] peered from a nest box. More piñon–juniper lay ahead—good for a singing Chipping Sparrow [07:51:44] and a Spotted
Towhee [08:01:42]. Note to self: Bird here more often. This southwest corner of Gun Barrel Hill is the perfect refuge for birds straying from the
canyon country of southeastern Colorado. From Gun Barrel Hill, I meandered through the sprawling Heather Wood subdivision, and then south to the Boulder Creek crossing at 75th Street. Here I enjoyed another one of those bewitching East-meets-West episodes: American Dippers [08:21:05] bringing food to a nest and a watchful Eastern Phoebe [08:23:52].
As I crossed 75th Street, so as to get over to the always productive Walden–Sawhill Ponds complex, I noted a who-needs-binoculars adult Bald Eagle [08:30:59] and a screaming and circling Swainson’s Hawk [08:31:01]. The birding at Walden–Sawhill was slow but steady, yielding American Avocet [08:55:26], Snowy Egret [09:03:43], Wood Duck [09:07:14], Northern Rough-winged Swallow [09:13:11], Tree Swallow [09:14:19], Osprey [09:14:43], Hairy Woodpecker [09:16:59], Black-headed Grosbeak [09:20:36], Cedar Waxwing [09:22:49], Lesser Goldfinch [09:23:53], and Indian Peafowl [09:37:17]. (Click here if you need to be persuaded of the “countability” of the last species in the
Walden–Sawhill is always good for non-avian spectacles, of which I saw several. For example: an adorable baby raccoon making some impressively loud whistling and warbling sounds. Also: several dozen birders out looking for a county mega found a few days earlier by Boulder County super-birder Christian Nunes. I delighted in the birders’ fine company, but assiduously avoided their optics and neurotically changed the subject at the first hint of conversation about finding birds.
I wound down my time at Walden–Sawhill with a careful inspection of Cottonwood Marsh. It took some patience, and I had to squint and crane my neck, but even without binoculars I was able to see Cinnamon Teal [09:56:06], Gadwall [09:57:58], White-faced Ibis [09:59:36], Great-tailed Grackle [10:11:00], and Western Grebe [10:11:33].
For a whole hour, I added nothing to the day’s list as I walked a long, barren stretch north along 75th Street and then west, west, west along winding Valmont Road. But things picked up near the intersection with 63rd Street. A house had feeders, and the feeder had a male Black-chinned Hummingbird [11:18:22].
I hooked up with the Boulder Creek Trail, and, over the course of several miles, added several more birds to my list: Lazuli Bunting [11:25:05], Cooper’s Hawk [11:58:04], Cordilleran Flycatcher [12:21:11], Violet-green Swallow [12:54:20], and Turkey Vulture [13:07:13]. I had an
Alison Kondler sighting, too, along the trail. And as nice as it was to cross paths with Alison, I sighted something even more glorious: a water fountain, and not only that, but a working water fountain with cold water.
Speaking of detours, I next made a big one: a sit-down, indoors lunch with Kei, Hannah, and Andrew. Somewhere out there, Jack Solomon saying, “I told you so.” The food was good, but better still was a change of footwear. Kei and the kids brought me my bionic boots, essential for the next leg of my journey, and check this out: They brought me clean, chilled socks. I can’t begin to tell you how good they felt. (Back to the boots for a moment: Yes, Joe Roller, the same pair that delighted you so when we birded together in Bolivia.)
Eh? You’re counting a hybrid?—between two subspecies, no less?? Relax. It’s my list. Not yours. But I’m not spoiling for a fight: I’ve elected not to count the bird. The things I do for the cause of birderly comity… (Right: Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
At the summit (seriously!) of 9th Street, I ticked an unproblematic Broad-tailed
Hummingbird [15:07:41], soon followed by a flyover Pine Siskin [15:08:48]. I next found my way to Ski Jump Trail, where I spotted a promising raptor that obligingly sailed right over, resolving itself into a Golden Eagle [15:21:21]. As I proceeded into the ponderosa pines, I found a couple of inevitable birds: Western Tanager [15:25:20] and Virginia’s Warbler [15:33:45]. And finally—finally!—I got the day’s first Common Raven [15:37:19]. How I missed that species back in Boulder proper is beyond me. (And I had a Vulcan mind meld with John Dillon: How come
dog owners in Boulder County carefully and lovingly drape plastic bags full of dog doo from branches along the trail?)
From Ski Jump Trail I worked my way down to Gregory Canyon, which, in mid-June, is Boulder County’s version of The Magic Hedge. First up were a couple of birds that I think many of us associate with eastern North America: Rose-breasted Grosbeak [15:43:09] and Gray Catbird
[15:45:00]. Then a light rain shower and a couple of inarguably western birds: Western Warbling-Vireo [15:51:51] and White-throated Swift [15:55:18]. (Don’t like the warbling-vireo? A little birdie tells me a forthcoming scientific paper may change your mind.) Then another “eastern” bird: Red-eyed Vireo [16:01:49]. Then a slew of westerners: Mountain Chickadee [16:01:59], Plumbeous Vireo [16:10:25], Bushtit [16:12:19], and Steller’s Jay [16:15:05]. And the most cosmopolitan bird of all: a wailing Peregrine Falcon [16:31:53] pulling up for a landing on a rock outcropping.
Gregory Canyon’s non-avian life forms were diversionary. I paused for a garter snake (Thamnophis, sp.) and a fence lizard (Scleoporus,
sp.); where’s Joey Kellner when you need him? I delighted in all the two-tailed swallowtails and Weidemeyer’s admirals, I was transfixed by a plague of Putnam’s cicadas, and I was vexed by a beautiful green hairstreak in the genus Callophrys; where’s Dave Leatherman when you need him? Finally, the wildflowers were enchanting; where’s John Tumasonis when you need him?
Back to birding. An Olive-sided Flycatcher [16:47:08] cried out, a reminder that Gregory Canyon quickly ascends into the boreal zone. As if to emphasize the point, a calling Hammond’s Flycatcher [16:56:06] flew in close. Other birds followed in a steady procession: Pygmy Nuthatch [16:57:08], Rock Wren [17:02:04], Green-tailed Towhee [17:08:32], Canyon Wren [17:21:02], Red-breasted Nuthatch [17:21:24], MacGillivray’s Warbler [17:21:46], Gray-headed Junco [17:41:13], Wild Turkey [17:46:06], and a strikingly black-backed adult male Arkansas Goldfinch [17:47:05].
About a horizontal mile—and a substantial fraction of a vertical mile—from the trailhead, Gregory Canyon Trail becomes Long Canyon Trail. Along this stretch, the birdlife begins to take on characteristics of the spruce–aspen zone, and, accordingly, I found Brown Creeper [17:51:06], Audubon’s Warbler [18:00:40], Lincoln’s Sparrow [18:21:16], and Ruby-crowned Kinglet [18:22:08].
Long Canyon Trail ends at Flagstaff Road—which keeps going and going. And so did I, picking up a flushing Townsend’s Solitaire [19:04:14], a chorus of Hermit Thrushes [19:09:23], and a pair of Type 2 Red Crossbills [19:16:33] chippering their way across a clearing.
Kei and the kids pulled up beside me at 8 p.m. It would have been impolitic of me to ask that they just hang out there for two hours, you know, so that I could get up into better habitat for bluebirds (I thought I heard one) and sapsuckers (I saw drillings), and then Common Poorwill and the three species of small mountain owls.
Besides, it wouldn’t have been in the spirit of my break-all-the-rules Big Day. There was something fitting about walking—no, riding, finally riding—away from an easy five, probably closer to ten, additions to my list.
And there’s always next year.
In the meantime, I have a few questions, and you probably do too:
1. Let’s start with an obvious one. What birds did you miss?
Answer: Cottonwood Marsh and the various other ponds surely harbored a few silent birds that were too far away to ID without binoculars. Blue-winged Teal, anyone? Green-winged? American Coot? A night-heron or even a bittern roosting in the cattails across the way? And there was a decidedly interesting hawk at the base of Gregory Canyon;binoculars would have resolved it into an uncommon Broad-winged, or not.
2. Those are the birds you missed by going “bare-naked.” What birds did you miss by going “green”?
Answer: Along this particular route, nothing. On the contrary, I saw many, many more birds than I would have seen by birding this route in a car, or even a bike. I’ll take it a step further: This route would have been impossible and illegal except by foot.
3. That suggests another question: Did you gain any birds by going “bare-naked”?
Answer: It’s hard to prove, but I think so. Speaking for myself (but also, I suspect, for a great many of you), I find that binoculars are a crutch. Without binoculars, I enjoy a heightened sense of awareness. I’m always looking around. I’m always paying attention. I suspect I would have missed one or two species, maybe four or five, during all that time I would have been peering through binoculars at only a tiny fraction of the airspace visible to the naked eye.
4. Did you misidentify any birds?
Answer: Ouch. Let me back up a step here: I misidentify plenty of birds with binoculars. During the course of my Big Day, I endeavored to see birds at least as well as I would have with binoculars. That means I had to wait on some birds (cf. Golden Eagle), and let others go (cf. possible Broad-winged Hawk). But let’s take the broader view: Even if I missed a few (e.g., ducks at Cottonwood Marsh) and messed up a few (could the White-faced Ibises have been rare Glossy Ibises?), practically everything out there was slam-dunk. I’m increasingly impressed by just how unimportant binoculars and telescopes are. Optics are The Great Lie of birding.
5. Okay, but don’t binoculars enhance the birding experience?
Answer: That’s the conventional wisdom, but I’m seriously starting to question it. Ask me the next question.
6. What were your favorite birds of the day?
Answer: You think I’m going to mention a handful of “heard-only” birds, don’t you?—the winnowing Wilson’s Snipes, the dulcet Canyon Wren, the heavenly chorus of Hermit Thrushes. Actually, no. I can think of three sightings that surpassed any of those heard-only detections. First was a Cedar Waxwing so close I could see the mid-morning sun reflected in its eyes. I just stood there, and the curious bird sidled down the branch to practically within arm’s reach. Is any bird more exquisite than the Cedar Waxwing? That question is definitively—and affirmatively—resolved, I believe, by beholding a waxwing with your own eyes, and nothing else.
Second was a Western Kingbird doing something I’d read about but never seen: landing, actually landing, on a Red-tailed Hawk it was driving off. The panoramic view, without binoculars, heightened the drama. And with binoculars, would I even have bothered to look? I mean, it was just a “boring” Red-tail…
Third, and best of all, were all the American White Pelicans at the Walden–Sawhill complex. Is there anything more glorious than pelicans soaring and spiraling against a clear blue sky? Conversely, is there anything uglier than a pelican’s ugly mug? We all know about not seeing the forest for the trees. Do birders have the same problem? Can we not see the bird for the feathers? (Left: Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)
7. You don’t plan ahead (except when you’re terrorizing contributors to Birding), but, come on: What’s your plan for next year?
Answer: I guarantee you, I won’t do this again. What I mean is, I won’t do the same route again. Here’s another guarantee: I’m hooked, and I’m doing it again. Somehow, I’m going to get from the marshes around Boulder Reservoir to the steep foothills of the Mesa Trail complex…
8. Are you finally going to submit to Listing Central?
Answer: First things first. Kudos to my colleagues Greg Neise and David Hartley for their hard work in providing this brilliant resource to the birding community. To answer your question: Yes, in due course. Especially if Neise gets around to creating an entry for bare-naked Big Walks.
9. Has anyone else ever done a Bare-naked Big Walk?
Answer: I wonder. I doubt it. Sixteen hours, twenty-five miles, no bins. But maybe Kenn Kaufman will inform me that, more than a century ago, Lynds Jones (1865–1951) was all over the bare-naked Big Walk.
10. Can your record be broken?
Answer: Easily. For Boulder County, my money’s on Joel Such and Marcel Such. Here’s a thought that’s personally gratifying: For once, the big coastal counties are at a relative disadvantage. Remember, no optics. Seabirds and such present challenges for the bare-naked birder. I’ll take this a step further. I suspect my record will be demolished. I can’t say where, or when, or by whom. Of this I’m certain: 125 species—okay, “only” 120 if you don’t like my taxonomy and if you’re a peacock-hater—will be surpassed, by a very wide margin.
I have a final question, for you. What are your stories and strategies for bare-naked Big Walks? I’d love to learn more. Who knows—next year, I may even get a few of you to accompany me! Mark, Frank, and Chuck: Let’s do the Pittsburgh CBC bare-naked and on foot. And Noah: Next time, don’t sweat it when you lose your binoculars.
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