Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How I spent my equinox

Monday, September 22, was the autumnal equinox, that half-light, half-dark day which marks the beginning of fall. Did you celebrate? Maybe swap from your summertime door decoration to a harvest theme? Cast on a lovely fall sweater?

Well I spent the autumnal equinox doing one of my competitive birdwatching events - a birding "big day" in San Mateo County. That was Monday and today is Thursday. I think I've almost recovered.

I've mentioned these odd pursuits before - a birding "big day" is an attempt to see as many birds as possible in a single 24-hour period, usually in a specific county. Many birding big day competitions are fundraisers for environmental organizations. Ours was part of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory's California Fall Challenge - so if you want to donate anything to support bird conservation science in the SF Bay, just click on over.

To run a big day, you get a team of people (me, the spouse-o, our friend Bob) and a location (San Mateo County) and a date (September 22). You plan a route through the county which maximizes the different types of birds you will run into. Our route had about 14 different stops from the "sea watch" at Pigeon Point lighthouse to a manky little pond behind the Nob Hill market in Redwood Shores. Once you have your route, you have to scout the area you want to bird so you know what to expect at each location -- which is why you didn't see me online Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the equinox. I was "in the field". Scouting also helps in planning your snack and bathroom options carefully, so you never have to stop birding on the big day.

It's traditional to name your big day team. Ours is called "MBB Overdrive", for our initials (Mary, Bill and Bob). This gives us license to make an iPod playlist of 70's classic rock schnulzers to play on the road between stops. We favor songs that reflect the urgency, craziness and time-compressed nature of our adventure. Think of BTO's "Takin' care of business", Steve Miller's "Fly like an eagle", Boston's "More than a feeling". Of course our playlist begins at our rendezvous point with the Chariots of Fire theme, to get us fired up for our big race. (Playlist suggestions always welcome!)

Then the planning is done and it's time to run the big day. On Monday, we get up at 2:30 in the morning, drove down to Pescadero and went out listening for owls in the dark on cold country roads (4 species heard in and near Butano State Park. And no rangers!). We then spent every hour of daylight (7:15 to 7:15... the equinox, remember?) looking for more birds, hitting our fourteen locations and keeping an eye on the clock. We had fabulous weather - clear skies, very light wind and a high at the coast around 72. This may have helped with the seabirds, but may have hurt with little dickeybird migrants.

No one monitors our results - big day sighting are on the honor system - so you'll just have to believe me when I say our total for September 22 was 129 different bird species, which is 48.134% of the 268 species recognized as occurring in SM. You can read the rest our trip report at birdWalker.

This result is "good" but not "great". Winning teams in the California Fall Challenge big day contest usually get over 50% of the county total for the county they are birding, so no prizes for us this year. Looking at the birding mailing lists after we got home, we found that other birders saw an additional 7 species in locations we were at, but didn't walk far enough into. Didn't walk far enough?? Dammit dammit dammit! This only makes us eager for next fall and our next chance to run this route.

On Tuesday, when I was released from birding duties, I spent a couple hours finishing up some unfinished projects from the Black Sheep Gathering and my recent trip to the TKGA Fall Knit & Crochet Show in Portland. Look for more knitting and less birding content in the next installment of spinnity knits.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Makes me tired just reading about it. What a day!!! Sounds like you had fun. I'm trying to picture you getting up that early. What did you do just not go to bed? Mom

September 26, 2008 11:25 AM  

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