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Big Day (Bird Race)

03 May 1996

by Larry Neel

Big Day Statistics:

A good day of pre-scouting paid off big for the Lost Gonzo Bird Team, but the record was finally made vulnerable when we convinced our Lahonton Audubon Society committee to hold the Birdathon a week earlier than normal.  This gave us access to shorebirds in the wetlands that would be gone in the next few days.  Our observation is, in Nevada, too much effort is expended by teams in the high elevations trying to pull sexy forest birds out of the woods.  Teams get behind the clock, and fail to work the lower riparian habitats at the right time of day.  Our advice is, take what the mountain gives you, and STAY ON SCHEDULE!



1800: The Run For The Record actually began as Martha chauffeured Bob Flores and I over to Carson City for an overnighter at Motel 6.  As we dropped off the Swingle Bench into a highway construction bottleneck, we observed a UPS truck make an end run around the stoppage by way of the old highway frontage road.  "Hey!" Bob said, 'Look at that!"  I countered, "We may have to remember that tomorrow.  I've made Graham aware of this construction stop.  I don't know how he'll want to handle it."

MAY 3, 1996: THE BIG DAY


0430: Bob and I were waiting outside the lobby door when Graham's little blue 4-Runner came slicing through the black Carson City morning.  We tossed our gear into the back, and jumped into our seats.  "Wind's up", I said.  "Yeah." was the generic reply.  Keith Geluso was riding shotgun, well-rested and pumped.  "You ready for this?"  I asked.  "You bet!"  We wouldn't have to worry about him today.  My own stamina, however, was in question.  I was on the tail end of a gruelling schedule that had seen me pull off three weekend wildlife events and three days of employee interviews in Las Vegas in the previous 14 days.  "I may be the one to go under today, guys."  "Naaaah..." Graham was supportive.

We were the Lost Gonzo Bird Team.  Because I handled most of the pledge work and keep the clock, they tolerate my label of Team Captain.  They call me The Commander because I usually wear a black commando sweater until the sun gets up.  Graham Chisolm of The Nature Conservancy is the driver and Co-Captain; he's aggressive, but always under control behind the wheel.  We leave logistical decisions up to him.  Graham negotiates with me on behalf of the rest of the team for more time at sites.  Most of the time, we compromise.  Keith Geluso, University of Nevada, Reno graduate student in biology rides shotgun.  He has quick eyes and rarely makes a mistake.  Bob Flores, Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Assistant Manager, rides tail-gunner.  He is also our official cheerleader.  Bob has incredible energy, which he expends on a steady, controlled burn.  It gives him awesome staying power.

We were halfway up Spooner Summit when Graham couldn't stand it any longer.  "Shall we try for Poorwill?" he proposed as he pulled off at a cut bank.  Yeah, let's get it out of our system.  We bailed out and scrambled up the cut bank.  At the top we were met only by the ominous heavy breath of a wind that promised only to get nastier as the day progressed.  Even if a Poorwill was calling in such a wind, we wouldn't be able to hear it.  We didn't dally.  

Back to the car and back on the road.  I decided it was time for a reality check.  "Look, guys, with this wind, there's not going to be any records broken today.  We'll be lucky to get 136." (Our total two years ago).  Graham wouldn't have it.  "Maaaan.  Listen to this... it's not even 4:58 and the guy is  already counting us out.  C'mon, let's have a little optimism."  I grumbled to myself, but silently vowed not to bring it up again.

0510: We shot into the Spooner Lake Campground parking lot, felt our way to a parking spot, and climbed out of the car.  "Guys, I would really feel good if we were in the car heading down Spooner Summit by 0730," I said.  The Time Keeper had established his annoying presence.  Still feeling our way in the darkness, we moved like wraiths through trees and snowdrifts down to the North Canyon trail.  Our ears were finely tuned for owl hoots.  We figured to get pygmy owl, at least.  At the bottom, we were greeted with the "Wipwipwip" of a startled American Robin.  followed quickly by the "RASHRASHRASH" of a Steller's Jay.  The list had begun.

We tried hard to make every creaking tree an owl hoot, but we never achieved consensus on anything that removed all doubt.  It was not to be an owl day.  The birds on the meadow began to stir -- Killdeer; Song Sparrow; Fox Sparrow.  Our quest for forest birds was slow starting.  On the other hand, it was a beautiful morning to be out.  We had the whole mountain to ourselves.  

The wind was steadily pushing overhead, but the canyon itself was relatively calm, so we couldn't complain about conditions.  The birds were just slow to wake up.  By the time we turned around and started back down the trail, we had only ticked 11 species, and were frustrated by several woodpeckers that would not reveal themselves.  Finally, we nailed a Red-breasted Sapsucker to salve our wounded egos.

Coming back down the trail, we began to pick up steam.  A White-breasted Nuthatch and a Clark's Nutcracker were seen in the dying pine stand to the north.  Bob remarked, "We're crankin' now, guys."  We slogged our way down the creek and across the meadow.  Not having that much experience with Fox Sparrow song, I reeled at every Fox Sparrow call, much to the amusement of the team.  After a while, I started faking a "What's that?" pose.  Gotta have a sense of humour about oneself...  We left Spooner Lake with 24 species.  Our confidence was slightly shaken.  We were edgy and quiet.  

0730: We left the Campground on time, but I had failed to allow for some scouting along Lake Tahoe.  It was O.K... Half hour max.  We picked up five species, including a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches, giving us the nuthatch trifecta, which isn't easy.

0815: O.K., we were fifteen minutes late, but we tallied a Canada Goose as we hurtled past the meadow toward Spooner Summit junction, giving us 30 species going down the hill, which was Graham's target.  We took what the mountain would give us, and didn't fret over what it kept from us.

There is no down time on a Run For The Record, particularly between sun-up and noon.  We added seven species on our way around Carson City and eight more up to Virginia City.  We were ready to rumble at the foot of the Sugarloaf in Six-Mile Canyon by 0915, a full hour earlier than two years ago.  The wind was holding steady at a manageable ten mph.  "Now, keep in mind, Virginia's Warbler is a distinct possibility here," I warned.  "Really?" Bob countered with measured scepticism.  To keep things challenging, however, the male Cooper's Hawk from the nest downstream was on patrol up canyon and had a dampening effect on our dickey birding.  

Bob got onto a frazzled gray passerine down in the willows.  "Hey!  What's this?"  I looked.  Keith looked.  It was almost without a distinguishable field mark.  Its tail feathers were frayed; it had moulted almost all of its undertail coverts, except for a thin dirty yellow wash along one side.  It had a dirty, ill-defined eye-ring.  "What is that?" Bob asked again.  I looked at Keith; he looked at me and stated the incredulous, "It's a Virginia's Warbler!".  Yes, Virginia, it was.  A scruffy, hard-travelled specimen, to be sure, but undeniably a Virginia's.  Moving downstream, Bob shook his head.  "I can't believe you called that one!  'Look for Virginia's Warbler here...'  Yeah, right!"  Great bird!

I had also told them to keep an eye out for Pinyon Jays flying overhead.  We spread out down below the Cooper's Hawk nest.  Again, the birds were coming a little hard and slow.  At the same instant, Keith and a Pinyon Jay let out a "Hey-ah!" as Keith pointed upward at the single overflying bird.  "I can't believe it," he would say later.  "I've seen two Pinyon Jays in my life; both of them have been on Birdathon, and both of them have been singles in this canyon."

1025: Six-Mile had yielded 13 new species, putting our total up to a respectable, but less-than-dazzling 58.  All but the hummingbirds had been I.D.'d by the entire team.

We crossed Highway 50 onto the Breakaheart Canyon road and prepared to parallel the Carson River to Fort Churchill.  This was our first new segment of our route, and we were apprehensive.  I had warned the team that it would take an hour to complete.  Two years ago, Sage Thrasher had been our nemesis bird; a defeat Graham took particularly hard.  This year it was our first bird of the new route.  Things were perking up.  The gotta-get birds of Breakaheart are White-throated Swift, Wood Duck, Spotted Sandpiper, and Western Bluebird.  

We got them all, and a few bonuses: Great Horned Owl, Violet-green Swallow (a single bird in a mixed flock), and Black Phoebe by the diversion dam at Table Rock.  The owl and the phoebe were Keith's, and he was hot.  He nailed us a Gray Flycatcher for extra measure as we left the last bend in the river before taking the highlands past Fort Churchill.  As we rolled onto Highway 95 at the Fort Churchill intersection, we had cranked our list up to 77.  It was 1130 and we were back in the chase.  Breakaheart Canyon had come through for us.

1145: Now we hit our first extended dry spell of the day.  Silver Springs - Lahontan Reservoir - construction stop.  We sat in line impatiently waiting for some sign that traffic would be moving soon.  Nothing so signified...  Bob and I told Graham about the frontage road, and he moved quickly, even though I was uncomfortable with making trouble with the road crews.  Before we could get cut off from behind, our Fearless Pilot threw the 4-Runner into reverse, whirled around on the shoulder, and went back to the frontage road access near the State Park Headquarters entry.  "I mean, this is important stuff we're doing here!" Graham alibied, "We're raising money for conservation!  Precious minutes are bleeding away!"  We snaked our way through gravel truck traffic and slipped by field headquarters just as if we expected the crews to recognize who we were and what our mission was.  Nobody challenged us.  The frontage road took us right to Pioneer Way, and we made another executive decision to hit Diversion Dam next.

As far as timing was concerned, noon is not the optimum time to hit the largely riparian songbird site at Diversion Dam, but I had stumbled onto a straggler Ross's goose there during shorebird surveys the day before, and was anxious to include it before it decided to continue its tardy journey north.

While I probably would have driven right over the river to where I could spy the Ross's goose, Graham decided it would be productive to work the riparian below the dam.  In almost no time at all, they had two Golden-crowned Sparrows, stragglers, pinned down in the brush, and... "Hey, wait a minute... What's this?  White-crow-- NO!  WHITE-THROATED!  Yellow lores!  Here's a White-throated Sparrow down in this Russian olive!"  Graham had his first State White-throated Sparrow.  We were still reeling from our dumb luck when Keith bellowed, "Warbler!  Townsend's Warbler!"  Unfortunately, none of us ever saw it again.  It was our only one-observer tally of the day.

We climbed back into the car and crossed the "A" Canal.  "Had a Downy Woodpecker working back and forth across the canal between these two trees yesterday," I warned.  "Which tree?" Graham quizzed.  "This one."  He stopped and stuck his head out the door.  "Oh, there he is."  Indeed, the little Downy Woodpecker was stuck to a lateral limb just as if I'd stuffed it and pegged it there with a hatpin.

After parking on the south end of the dam, we walked maybe 70 yards, when Keith exploded, "There is a WHITE GOOSE!"  It had stood up on its island to see what was going on.  I made sure everyone saw the blue skin above the nares on the upper bill.  It was definitely a Ross's goose.  "And it can fly at least 300 yards," I assured them, "I saw it yesterday."  The whole thing was beginning to get a little surreal to Keith.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.  Diversion Dam yielded 15 species, including four diamonds that would push us inexorably toward the Chalice.

The little blue 4-Runner careened off Highway 50 onto the Sheckler Road Cut-off.  Now it was Bob's turn to cash in a stake-out.  Our colleague Bill Henry had set us up with a Wild Turkey spot.  The  4-Runner crept tentatively onto Powerline Road.  One field... two fields... "They oughta be right here..."  Either Graham or Keith said, "What's that way back against the fence there?"  A couple of substantial but amorphous shapes were threatening to disappear into a Russian Olive windbreak.  "That's them!" Bob confirmed.  Wild Turkeys in the bag!

1330: Carson Lake was teeming with avian biomass.  The sheer energy of it was overwhelming.  Full from two consecutive years of above-normal snow pack, the historic pre-sump of the Carson River was producing in a manner unseen since 1986.  It was inspiring to reflect on the roles we had played in preserving and promoting this most under-appreciated of four-star birding destinations.  Now we cashed in our counters and reaped the bounty we had helped sow.

By now the wind was through holding back.  It was cranked up to 30 mph, but we didn't care.  We were into the Wind Birds now.  Let 'er blow.  The team was calling out species like gunners on a B-17.  "Black-necked Stilt on the right."  "Got 'em.  Pelicans on the right."  "Got'em.  Great Egret, Black-crown on the left."  "Got'em.  Four large shorebirds coming in on the left."  "Got'em.  Hey, what are those?"  "Whimbrels!  They're Whimbrels!  Probably the birds we saw last weekend in the fields."  "Probably.  Bogeys at four o'clock low."  "Got'em.  

As we neared the flooded field north of the Rice Unit fence, I primed the team again.  "O.K... heads up, guys.  This is gonna be our best shot at Blue-winged Teal.  We pulled up to the parking area and stopped.  Before I could even get my binocs up to survey the teeming mass of shorebirds and dabbler ducks, Keith was on the point, "I'VE GOT ONE!  BLUE-WINGED TEAL!  I'VE GOT BLUE-WINGED TEAL!"   As Dick Vitale would say, "OH, BAY-BEE!!!  What a sweet pair of young eyes!"  And that wasn't all...  We gathered up singles of shorebirds that would be all but gone in another week to ten days, like bank robbers sweeping out an untended vault -- Black-bellied Plover; Willet; Wilson's Phalarope; Red-necked Phalarope; Dunlin.

Back down the Rice Drain -- Long-billed Curlew; Green-winged Teal; Cattle Egret hanging in the 30-mph wind like a bad cutout mobile on a string, as if to say, "Don't have Cattle Egret yet, do you?"

As we approached the south end of Carson Lake, the wind was beginning to wear me down.  The shallow water was rolling back before the wind, and gulls and shorebirds were exploiting the benthic invertebrates exposed in the shining mud.  We stopped at the southwest corner of the flocks to get our bearings and figure out how to work the field.  Graham jumped out and set up his binocs over the roof of the car.  I could see gulls with black heads through the front windshield some 100+ yards ahead.  "Black-headed type gulls ahead," I announced.  "What do you think they are?" Graham asked.  They were too far away to see eye rings, bill colour, or hood shape.  They were also far enough off the dike that I didn't think the car would disturb them.  "I can't tell, let's move up on them."  

Graham evidently didn't hear me.  He got his scope out of the back and set up on them.  There was a short silence.  "I don't know... Larry, what do you think...?"  I guess I lost my patience.  "Let's move up on them where we can see them!" I fairly snapped.  "O.K.!  O.K.!  Jeez!  You don't have to get snippy about it."  "Jeez, Larry," Bob added.  I was beginning to pay the price for no lunch and no rest stop.  Cell waste build-up was taking its toll.  I didn't take it any further.  Back off.  This is supposed to be fun.  But when we did move up so that we could all see them out the side window, they were easily identifiable as Franklin's Gulls, the first of the year.  We also added Bonaparte's Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls, but still no new sandpipers or Snowy Plovers.

We came to the Lott Freeway, which takes off to Holmes to the east.  "Do we want to do this?" Graham seemed dubious.  "Yes.  Let's take the Freeway," I recommended.  We went down it for a while, pushing white pelicans and gulls off as we advanced.  "How far do we want to go?"  Graham felt like we were spinning our wheels.  I realized I was not communicating well.  "We may have to go all the way to the gate.  We want to at least go to the islands in the southeast corner of the Big Water.  It will probably be our last shot at Snowy Plover."  Maybe getting Snowy Plover on our list was more of a matter of honour with me than it was with the rest of the team.

The first islands we came to had a sprinkling of Least Sandpipers on them, but no snowies.  Keith panned to the next islands ahead, and, "THERE THEY ARE!  I'VE GOT SNOWY PLOVERS!"  I smiled inside.  Before we could get turned around on the narrow dike at the gate, Keith was up again.  "Hey!  Is that some kind of falcon?  Over there on the fence!"  Just as if it had sensed its discovery, the falcon let the wind sweep it off its perch and it knifed its way through shorebird flocks at ground level.  The wind and flurry of escaping birds made it impossible for us to get set up on the falcon.  It sat on the ground for a short while about 150 yards down the dike, then disappeared for good amid another flurry of potential prey.  We suspected it was a peregrine, but we had missed it.

1640: We left Carson Lake thinking we had 133 species.  Actually, in retrospect, we had had 137.  We were dangerously close to the record with lots of daylight left.  We strategized at Harmon Junction as we waited for Keith to get out of the bathroom (my own difficulties would not get relief for another 3 hours...).  "O.K... S-Line Reservoir.  Red-breasted Merganser (I hoped...), Sora and Virginia Rail, and if we can get to it, I may have a Lesser Yellowlegs in the north seep pond."  "Lesser Yellowlegs!?" Bob howled.  "You didn't even tell us about that!"  Must have forgotten.

On the east side of S-Line Reservoir, we got Virginia Rail and Sora to respond in unison to my Sora whistle.  I directed us around to the north seep pond.  "If you are brave, you can ease up onto that sand dune.  From there I had a Lesser Yellowlegs yesterday."  Graham was brave, and eased the 4-Runner up onto the sand dune in good shape.  "The bird was over here on the right on one of these little points."  I couldn't even get my scope set up before Bob and Keith had found it.  "There's a single bird over here... and it looks like Lesser Yellowlegs."  We all confirmed through the scope.

We bumped along the east access road back to Reservoir Road, and moved west, slowly scanning the main body of the south bay.  Keith sprang to life.  "What's that back against the back shore?  It's sleeping... and it looks like a merganser!"  I bailed out with the scope.  It was my Red-breasted Merganser from yesterday.  Keith's sharp acuity for spotting birds was reaping the harvest of a good day of pre-scouting.

We probably didn't know exactly how many species we had, but we knew we were close.  We talked Graham out of a mad dash to Pyramid Lake in favour of Indian Lakes and Timber Lake.  "Timber Lake could be good... possible Ash-throated Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Oriole, possible Red-naped Sapsucker... we could do all right there."

The drive to Indian Lakes yielded Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Mockingbird, and Northern Oriole.  We approached the uppermost lake, which may not even have a name.  Bob directed us in to its lower end.  "Turn here!"  Graham whipped the 4-Runner into a brushy two-track.  We came upon a little pothole from which a brown-headed bird with a yellow eye scrambled to get into the air.  "Eurasian wigeon?" I said with incredulity.  "NAW!  Goldeneye!" Bob was emphatic.  "Yeah!  I saw the yellow eye.  It was a goldeneye!" I shot back.  

Graham, Bob and I were jubilant.  "Goldeneye hen!  That's a hard one to get this time of year!"  "That's right!  Wow!"  Keith waited for us to settle down, then dropped his bomb.  "Guys, based on what I saw, I can't call that a goldeneye."  We choked.  "I've got to check another field guide.  This one (NG) does not match the wing pattern I saw."  "O.K.," I ruled, "We don't get goldeneye unless we get consensus from Keith.  There was a scramble for field guides.  I found Peterson's flying duck plates and thrust them at Keith.  "Oh, yeah!  That's it!  It was a hen goldeneye."  It would have to count as "goldeneye sp.", number 145 on our list.  As far as we knew, the State Big Day Record was ours.

We got several Sage Sparrows in the brush en route to Timber Lake.  The sun was pretty low in the sky when we pulled up to Timber Lake.  The wind had also lost some of its pop.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk completely took us by surprise.  Graham got onto a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and later showed us several of them back by the car.  A walk south through the all-but-dead cottonwood grove produced nothing but prodigious mosquito bites.  A possible Ash-throated Flycatcher turned out to be a coy Western Kingbird.  

Heading back to the car, Keith spied something rummaging under a tamarisk.  "THRUSH!"  Graham was quick onto it.   "Swainson's!  No rufous on the tail, and that spotting on the breast is not very distinct and confined."  I was the last to get onto it.  There was little doubt it was a Swainson's Thrush.  As far as we knew, it was the first documented sighting for Lahontan Valley.

Darkness fell as we left Timber Lake.  We had The Record, but we were all thinking it would be a shame not to try to round it off to an even 150.  Graham suggested we try for American Bittern at Harmon Reservoir.  We were too tired to know better, and all agreed.

The little 4-Runner felt its way into the gloom around the west side of Harmon Reservoir.  The moon was rising blood red through the clouds in the east.  "O.K... pay close attention here," I warned.  "Not this road... Here!  Turn left here!"  I was nearly as confident as I sounded.  It was the correct exit, and led us down onto a salt-grass point that juts out into some extensive tule beds, a favourite teen-age beer-drinking and tire-burning spot.  We stepped out into the black, our presence being fully disclosed by the repeated upwardly slurred whistle of a Sora.  I started with my "Guck-goong!  Guck-goong!" American Bittern call, made mostly with Adam's apple and epiglottis.  Nothing but the Sora answered back.  We tried for about 10 minutes.  

Keith had wandered off by himself.  "What about Least Bittern?" Graham asked hopefully.  I threw in a few "Coocoocoocoo" calls.  Nothing.  Finally, I turned and said, "I don't think it's gonna happen tonight, guys.  Let's go."  Graham was firm.  "No, now... don't give up yet.  We haven't given it the proper time yet."  I turned back to the marsh and let out a couple more "guck-goongs".  Suddenly from way out in the gloom came, "guh-goongguh-goongguh-goong" in much more rapid cadence.  "I heard it.  That's it.  Over there!" everyone shouted at once.  That was it.  One-fifty.  We were done.  High fives all around.

Slumped over in my seat behind the driver, I started laughing softly to myself.  "What?" they asked.  "Can you believe what we just did?"  We just felt our way into the pitch-black night along some stupid marsh road into a teenage beer campsite, jumped out of the car, made some stupid bird calls, and raised a American Bittern out of the stupid tules.  Think about it...  How many other people do you know that would even try something like it?"  We laughed together, but only for a short while.  We fell into a silent stupor as the 4-Runner trudged back to town.  The Lost Gonzo Bird Team had struck.  We had the record, but for how long?  How would the other teams do tomorrow?  They would be gunning for us.  Were we to be One Day Wonders?  Flashes in the Proverbial Pan?  My body was a wreck.  My eyes felt like two mud-balls in a sandbox.  My face looked like a gumball machine.  My colon felt like someone had poured it full of Borax.  Deep inside, a voice would not be stilled, "You're getting too old for this, Gonzo..."