My 2022 Sonoma County Big Year

My 2021 Big Year
On January 1, 2021, I decided to try for 300 species in Sonoma County in one year. I have never done a big year of any kid in the past. I was unemployed because of the pandemic so I had more time than usual on my hands. There were quite a few rare birds around at the beginning of the season, and the most birds that I have ever seen in a year in Sonoma County was -292 in 2015.
I’ve always thought that doing a big year was a solitary endeavor, but I was amazed at how many people were backing me and supporting me, helping me and cheering me on. I might have been doing the birding, but it was really a team effort. From Brian keeping me informed on the current treasures at Santa Rosa Creek to Scott telling me about the Tundra Swans and his sapsuckers. Ruthie, Tony. and Gene were always careful to make sure that I knew the latest gems in the county. Josh would invite me to his home to look for his myriad of “good” birds. And, I can’t even mention everyone that was behind me and making sure that I knew what was around. The Valfers and the Blanchards were there. Mike Parmeter and David Hofmann were constantly asking about my current totals and planning what I should be going for next. And I am sure there are others who have helped me that I have forgotten to mention.
I started the year by dutifully going around the county ticking off Hammond’s Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Short-eared Owl, Sandhill Crane, Mountain Bluebird, Burrowing Owl, Swamp Sparrow, Glaucous Gull and Long-tailed Duck. This was going to be a GREAT year! I could feel it. The winter was going pretty well as I also made sure to look for the harder to find waterfowl: Snow Goose at the Salmon Creek mouth, Barrow’s Goldeneye at Port Sonoma, and Black Scoter at Goat Rock Beach (thanks Alan). Another highlight was “stumbling upon” an adult Harris’s Sparrow in Freestone. Josh found a second immature one and lots of people got to go see them and enjoy the birder-friendly people of Freestone and the great bakery!
With such a great winter, I couldn’t wait for Spring migration! But there were only a few highlights of the season. One of these highlights was an over-wintering Summer Tanager found by Peter Dellavalle. That was a lovely bird and number 210. One beautiful spring day, as I was atlasing my Marin County Breeding Atlas Block, I received a call from Alan Wight. He and Don Kirker were looking at a Black-chinned Sparrow on Pine Flat Road. I had never seen one in the county. I was lucky the next day as a group of birders and I were able to relocate the bird. Hurray! I also located a Solitary Sandpiper at the Sebastopol Community Center and scraped up a Wandering Tattler off the coast.
Last year was also a stellar year for pelagics! Lucas Corneliussen organized some pelagic trips in the spring. These haven’t been done in years because the weather is usually foul and they get cancelled. Dan Nelson also organized some offshore pelagics in addition to the fall pelagics that Gene had already organized through RROS. I accumulated an unbelievable list of pelagic birds for the year, including Parakeet Auklet, Hawaiian Petrel, Murphy’s Petrel, and Cook’s Petrel. Three Pterodroma species in one year!
Summer was interesting as I needed to go to Ohio and visit my family. I really needed to see my 93-year-old Mom. During my first visit, Don Kirker texted me a Laughing Gull at Bodega Bay. One day later, Noah Arthur found a Franklin’s Gull on Doran Beach. There wasn’t anything I could do from Ohio, and those birds didn’t stay around. When I returned, I did manage to find my own Semipalmated Sandpiper. During my search over about 10 days for that bird I only saw Elegant once. They were unbelievably scarce that summers.
Then came August: the gateway month to fall migration. I was happily birding in Tolay Regional Park hoping for a rare Hummingbird when Ruthie calls to tell me about a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that she and Don Kirker just saw at Santa Rosa Creek. Whoosh! I was there! I spent from about 5 hours there, knowing that I was going on a pelagic the next day, and then to Ohio again to visit family for about 10 days. Luckily toward evening the young birders located the bird, and had pointed out the chip note of the Hooded Warbler as well. Just before sunset a group of about a dozen birders photographed the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher that had been found a few days earlier by Brian Webb and Liza Vekoney.
It was a long 10 days in Ohio. I was watching reports from Sonoma County every day. Lots of people were reporting birds that I “needed.” My first day back I went out to Owl Canyon and there was a MacGillivray’s Warbler sitting up in a bush that I could see plainly from my car. They are never that easy! Then other birders arrived and we had fun and went around to the Doran Entrance Pond where Tony Briggs found a Ruff just moments before I arrived. My luck was still going strong when I read the report of Ron Storey’s report of a Least Bittern at Ellis Creek. Oh Happy days.
I was psyched for fall migration. I scoured the coast several days in September looking for any vagrants. I came up empty-handed on most of these ventures. I was lucky to be at Campbell Cove when Zac and Theodora found a Northern Waterthrush. Then, while seeking rarities in the Bridgehaven area, I received a text from Dan Nelson that there was a Magnolia and a Blackburnian Warbler at Owl Canyon. Of course, I abandoned my own search and went straight down to Bodega Bay. It took what seemed like forever for these skulking birds to show up. I only got brief views of the Magnolia Warbler but the Blackburnian turned out be a real show-off. At one point it was directly over my head. I had to lay on the ground to watch it. The next fall migrants that I saw were a Tropical Kingbird that Tony Briggs found and a Palm Warbler found earlier in the day by the Sneads and Valfers at the Bodega Marine Lab. I shared this moment with the YAMS during our Bird a thon. I picked up my last owls of the year during the Rich Stallcup Point Blue Bird a thon with the Gray Jays with Northern Saw-whet and Spotted Owl. A Green-tailed Towhee at the Terry Loveton and Jeff Johnson private residence in Barnett Valley was a great addition to my growing list. Thank you Terry and Jeff!
In early November, I was sitting at 298 after seeing a Red Phalarope at Bodega Bay. Now I really wanted anything: a Rough-legged Hawk, a Ross’s Goose, a Lewis’ Woodpecker, anything and I was just birding frantically to pick anything up.
Then, as I was sitting in my car at Port o Bodega, eating some junk food, I caught a glimpse of a weird gull. I didn’t think much of it at first but then I kept staring at it. The features were going through my brain and I thought “the features fit Slaty-backed Gull (SBGU), but it can’t be a SBGU because it is sitting only 50 feet from me in plain view. One has to go to Goat Rock Beach on the coldest, windiest day of the year and sort through thousands of California Gulls to find a SBGU in Sonoma County. So, I photographed it. My first photos were backlit because that was the best I could do. But eventually I was able to get it in decent light and get pretty good photos. I even got a crappy photo of the “string of pearls.” I was still scared to call this bird a SBGU, even though the features fit and I couldn’t make it a pale-eyed Western or a weird California or a Lesser Black-backed or even a dreaded hybrid. It only fit SBGU. So, I sent the photos to a few experts and they agreed – straight-forward SBGU. It stayed for 2 more days and people got better photos and really got the string of pearls documented and the molt pattern and everything. That was my favorite bird of the year.
I was then sitting at 299. I didn’t want to have to hike up Mt. St Helena because I wasn’t sure that my knees were up to the downhill portion of the trek. I didn’t want to stand on that cold dike at Shollenberger Park and hope for the Taimyr race of Lesser Black-backed Gull that I affectionately call “Noah’s Gull” to come in at dusk and sit in amongst a thousand similar looking gulls and try to pick it out in the half light. My best bet was to find a Rough-legged Hawk. Birders were reporting it at Jenner Headlands. I drove into the parking lot one morning and there it was. Beautiful! 300! I did it. I wasn’t out to shatter any Sonoma Cunty record because I knew that I wasn’t up for it. I just wanted to personally have a year where I saw 300 birds in Sonoma County. I was satisfied.
And then Lucas Stevenson discovered the longspurs out on Skaggs Island Road. He invited to me to come with him and his Dad one morning and we did manage to see a Lapland Longspur in a scope. That was 301 and it felt good to get and “extra” one.
I am so grateful to the Stephensons for helping me see that bird because ………..It wasn’t extra! As I was going over my 2021 list, I noticed that I had Short-tailed Shearwater on it. I never saw Short-tailed Shearwater. It was seen on 2 pelagics that I was on, but I couldn’t say that I actually saw one, and I forgot to delete it from a shared list. I had to cross it off. I was paralyzed with uneasiness. It took me a couple days to get up the nerve to double-check the rest of the list. and I am totally relieved to say that I did NOT have to cross any more birds off of the list. So, I ended up with exactly 300 birds on the list. But, I will say that I slowed down in late December. I was exhausted and I turned my attention more to participating in the local Christmas Bird Counts and the White-sparrow project that Dave Shuford and I are organizing.
I will not do this again.