Rob is currently finishing up a PhD in evolutionary biology. When he's not puzzling over how populations adapt to novel environments, he is biking, birding, cooking, and playing music with his wonderful friends.
Sorry I’ve been so silent lately. I’m preparing for my PhD dissertation defense this upcoming Wednesday, May 21st. I have already sent out my written dissertation to my committee. Now I need to give a talk explaining the details and relevance of the last five years’ work! I’m stressed. The process is not designed for failure, but I want to end my PhD on a strong note, with a clear and interesting talk.
A relaxing view of nature.
I have still had some time for birding. In times like these, I realize how therapeutic birding is in my life. After 3 or 4 days without much natural history observation, I’m wound tight. And when I finally get outside, I can feel my self uncoiling and opening up again. As crazy green big year birder Dorian Anderson has suggested, birding is great therapy! I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up with some nice migrant flocks at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, including plenty of Swainson’s Thrushes and a nice mix of flycatchers. I even found my first SF Bay Area Hammond’s Flycatcher! Here are two ebird checklists from last week.
This birding got me wondering if people have done any research about birding and stress relief. I came upon one particular approach to this question — how does experience with nature help someone recover from a stressful experience? In an hour of reading, I’ve found tons of papers on the topic. In one classic study, university undergraduates were shown a stressful video (about workplace injuries). Apparently this video has been used in multiple studies and is known to cause a physiological stress response. After the video, students were shown either videos of nature, a mall with pedestrian traffic, or a street with vehicular traffic. Researchers took measures of heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension at three time points: the onset of the experiment, after the stressful video, and after the second video (the ‘treatment’ video). At these time points they also recorded the participants’ self-ratings of fear, aggression, and positive affect, as well as a few other factors.
The results were stark. Participants who had viewed the nature videos showed greater decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension after the stress. They also showed greater decreases in fear and aggression, and a greater increase in positive affect. So even this relatively minimal natural experience, something I would hardly categorize as time spent enjoying nature, produced relaxing effects at both a physiological and emotional level. Now I know, I’m not just procrastinating when I stop for some birding on the way to work. I getting myself into a nice relaxed state for maximum productivity!
The tally is in, the ducks are in a row, the wheels have stopped spinning. At midnight on Tuesday, April 29th, we had found 179 species in 24 hours (full list here). We didn’t break last year’s record of 181. However, the day was anything but a failure. We kayaked through a harbor at night, hustled through 25 miles of predawn cycling, and spent dawn among Macgillivray’s Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets. A Pileated Woodpecker accelerated into a heady cackle as we sped down mountain trails. Eared Grebes showed off their golden facial finery in groups of hundreds along foamy salt ponds. Loggerhead Shrikes bounded out of trees while a Say’s Phoebe mourned from atop an abandoned house. And a Bald Eagle perched watchfully next to a nestling-filled nest. Josiah, Andy, and I tested the limits of our physical endurance, grinding through energetic troughs to find the next mile and next bird. I wouldn’t trade the day for anything, and I can’t wait for the next one. For anyone who needs a reminder of the route, check out this post.
Ready to ride home the next morning. From left to right: Josiah Clark, Rob Furrow, and Andy Kleinhesselink.
The day started calm and cold. Winds died and clouds disappeared, and with them the hot air escaped. We launched kayaks into Pillar Point Harbor at 11:30pm to get into position for midnight. Position was actually on the beach, where we would work along the edge of a marsh looking for Sora and Virginia Rail. Success with the rails! We quickly launched again and cruised the harbor. Under a new moon, it was tough to see very far, and we suspected that birds avoided us just beyond our vision. Cruising along the breakwaters, we found Whimbrel by the hundreds and Brandt’s Cormorants by the dozens, with piping Black Oystercatchers in earshot and a few Black Turnstones flushing away. The Red-breasted Mergansers we had found at 11:50pm managed to avoid our gaze after the midnight hour. We locked up the kayaks and hopped on our bikes, scanning back over the water to find Brown Pelican and Common Loon.
The silhouettes of me and Andy in the dark water.
Our timing was off. The sparse waterbirds of the harbor had left us chasing for too long, and we were now about an hour behind schedule. So we kicked the cycling into high gear and powered along for the next hour, making only one short stop for a Great Horned Owl. As we turned onto La Honda Road, we heard a Barn Owl and even detected the flight calls of a few Swainson’s Thrushes. We also realized that we were cold, thirsty, and hungry. So we paused here and there along our ride through La Honda to recharge.
As dawn arrived, we were along a thick slope of poison oak that hosted a Macgillivray’s Warbler. Golden-crowned Kinglets sounded off from deeper woods, and a few Swainson’s Thrush songs bubbled up. I had hoped we would be about 2 miles further up the steep road by this point, but you’ve gotta take the dawn chorus where you can get it. As we continued to ride and bird, Andy spotted a small, light sparrow on the road. Acting like a freshly landed migrant, it made a weak little hop to the side of the road, then snuck into the bushes. Soon it gave a buzzy call. Lincoln’s Sparrow!
Looking and listening during the dawn chorus.
Reaching the crest of Skyline Ridge, we had already heard great birds like Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, and Western Tanager, and we were ready to find our stakeouts. Pygmy Nuthatches rattled and Red-breasted Nuthatches ‘yank’-ed from a nearby pine stand. Chipping Sparrows monotonized from a christmas tree farm, and a Hermit Warbler’s song rocketed into the stratosphere from the top of a hill. The memory of the previous day’s rattlesnake still rattled in our heads.
A young rattlesnake at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, 4/28/14
Having found almost every imaginable Santa Cruz Mountain passerine, we hustled through Monte Bello and Stevens Canyon Road, stopping here and there for Cassin’s Vireos, Western Wood-Pewees, Lazuli Buntings, Brown Creepers, and Hairy Woodpeckers. I confess, I didn’t bring my GoPro for the big day. I just didn’t want the extra gear to wrangle and the extra weight on my helmet. But here’s a taste of riding on Stevens Canyon Road, following Stevens Creek, from an earlier video I took.
In Stevens Creek County Park, we faced our first disappointment in comparison to last year. The water level was LOW. No Wood Duck, no Common Merganser, no Belted Kingfisher, no Osprey. Instead there was an expanse of dry, cracked earth. Well, no rest for the weary. We pushed on, continuing to follow Stevens Creek all the way to its mouth. Here, we made a gamble. We wanted to catch the mouth of the San Francisquito Creek before the rising tide covered it completely, so we put on our blinders and rode north as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there was no shorebird bonanza waiting. We did hear Clapper Rail chattering, and we spied a few Northern Pintail along the muddy edges and more than a few Greater Scaup. But last year we had ~10,000 shorebirds here. Now we rode and picked up interested birds here and there. Surf Scoters on Shoreline Lake, Black Skimmers on a few islands along the bayside, a Common Gallinule at the Lockheed Ponds, Redhead and Bonaparte’s Gulls on an expansive salt pond (A2E, if you’re familiar with the names).
Reaching the southern edge of the bay, it was time for a new suite of habitats and a fresh shot of energy. After swinging along Coyote Creek for a vigorously singing Yellow Warbler, we headed up Old Calaveras Road towards Ed Levin County Park. A pair of Loggerhead Shrikes surprised us as they popped right out of a roadside tree. A Black-chinned Hummingbird buzzed by as I passed a California buckeye, and Josiah pointed out a Say’s Phoebe calling from a rooftop. As we dropped in to Ed Levin, we didn’t have much luck in the Sandy Wool and dog park area. But Spring Valley offered a stealthy Green Heron and whirring Rufous Hummingbirds. Across Calaveras Road from the trails we heard a Grasshopper Sparrow’s jumbling and Rufous-crowned Sparrow’s sputtering, while a Swainson’s Hawk passed overhead. The sun was sinking, so we needed to hustle up to the Calaveras Reservoir for our last daytime birds. Here’s some footage from our earlier scouting in the area, to give a sense of the lovely scenery.
The higher stretches of Calaveras Road tired us, but also rewarded us with the insistent calls of Rock Wrens on a background of White-breasted Nuthatch song. We couldn’t find our stakeout Lark Sparrows, but a Bald Eagle sat stoically next to the full nest. We spent the last bit of light scanning the reservoir, surprising ourselves with a Common Merganser but little else. As night fell, Western Screech- and Great Horned Owls began to call. There were few possibilities left for us at night: Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Snipe, Great-tailed Grackle. We worked carefully back along the bayside, but couldn’t find any of our missing birds. As midnight struck, we rode a short five miles to Sunnyvale to be graciously hosted by birders Mike and Alma Rogers. It was nice to have a warm, soft bed!
Big days have a way of seeming much longer than 24 hours. The kayaks were only a distant memory as my head hit the pillow. I’m sure we’ll ponder over the route, the birds, and the timing many more times, but it’s hard to feel anything but satisfaction after a day so well spent. What will next year hold?
You’ve heard a lot from me. Here are two very nice perspectives on the why and how of green big days: the first by Andy Kleinhesselink, the second by Josiah Clark.
Why do a self-propelled/Green/carbon-free/bicycling Big Day?
It doesn’t matter what you call it, doing a Big Day without a car is something very few birders have done. Why add the extra twist to the already crazy sport of the Big Day?
It’s not really about being “green”
The conventional Big Day records take a lot of driving—the ABA Big Day record (an astonishing 294 species!) required driving over 300 miles across the state of Texas. This year the record holders, Team Sapsucker, plan to go even farther, from Arizona to the California coast. That’s an amazing feat of birding but also a lot of driving—especially when you consider all the scouting that goes into such a long route. Driving for birds contributes to the elevated carbon dioxide concentrations that are acidifying the oceans and warming the climate—ultimately these effects may be endangering many species of birds that we hope to see.
But even a 300 or 500 mile Big Day drive is really nothing compared to the thousands of long trips birders make each year to chase rarities. And it’s even less when you compare it to the estimated nearly 3 trillion miles Americans drive each year.
Any way you add it up, birding just doesn’t add much to global warming. Doing a green Big Day is a beautiful gesture towards less carbon intensive recreation, but it’s not really a pragmatic environmental solution.
It’s more efficient
The truth is that what makes a self-propelled Big Day (lets face it a Biking Big Day) so compelling is that it is more of an adventure than any driving Big Day could ever be! During a Big Day by bike you can hear and see birds all around you the entire day — even while you are moving! In a car you can only hear birds well when you get out of the car. And you can only see a fraction of the birds that are around you from the inside of a car. You want to be one with the birds? Then get on a bike. Not only does a bike let you detect birds non-stop, it also lets you get to some birds that you can’t even get to in car. Any birder knows the stress and danger of pulling over to look for birds on the side of a busy road. On a bike that danger is greatly minimized because there are just many more safe and legal places to stop a bike than there are to stop a car. Not only that but in many places the best birding can be done along designated bike paths and trails. During a Big Day, these spots often take too long to walk to from a parked car but you can get to them easily on a bike. On our Santa Clara Big Day last year we took advantage of the many miles of the Bay Trail that goes along the south end of SF Bay. Hitting all these spots would actually take longer and yield fewer birds in a car. In fact our species total last year, 181, is nearly as good as the Santa Clara Big Day record set by car of 187.
April is the glory month for diversity in birds, where lingering wintering birds are still present and neotropical songbird migrants are just arriving. They are highly detectable as they sing and set up breeding territories. While a heat wave is not the best for a long distance bicycling event, it is among the best conditions for a spring “migrant fallout”. We find the best conditions for bird watching are often the most difficult conditions for the birds themselves. The high-pressure stops North bound migrants in their tracks, which otherwise stream into the prevailing wind. At dawn these nocturnal migrants set down in mass on ridges, like Skyline in the illuminating light, where they regroup into feeding flocks and reorient themselves. Windy NW conditions are generally the worst for birding, as it shuts down activity and makes hearing birdsong difficult.
Somewhat counter intuitively, flying into the prevailing north wind creates lift (Bernoulli’s Principle) and keeps songbird migrants (the bulk of the species) on the move and virtually undetectable. (Conversely large movements of seabirds (few species), notably loons and shorebirds can be seen flying north over the ocean on north wind days. ) The heat also forces migrating songbird athletes to search for food and water, usually around riparian areas, making them easier to find. At the same time raptors, which use thermals can be seen throughout the day slowly working their way north. Shorebirds are also forced to stop and can be seen in mass along the bayshore. 90% of the northbound shorebirds on the Pacific Flyway pass through SF Bay within one week of April 15, basically now.
The team “The BeastMasters” consists of myself and PHD students Rob Furrow and Andy Kleinhesselink
So far, you’ve heard about the basics of our route. Now you’ll get to learn more about the crazy side of the route. But first, the place where we’ll spend dawn. We’ll be starting in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Picking a high point for dawn, we bird a hill (nicknamed ‘Hermit Hill’ by Garth Harwood) that is often good for Hermit Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and other birds with a more Sierra Nevadan feel. Here’s a glimpse of the forest edge.
We’ll quickly drop down into Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, which is actually in Palo Alto, despite being at the crest of the mountains! One spot we’ll bird carefully is a meadow 1 mile down the Canyon Trail. It’s often wonderful for migrants.
Josiah, Andy, and I scouted this on April 22nd, and found lots of Hermit Warblers as well as a few other migrants. Check out our ebird lists.
Okay, so that’s the mountain start. But it’s not really our start. We’ll be on the water at Pillar Point Harbor at midnight. Josiah dropped a kayak in there the other evening, and demonstrated that a lot of birds can be found on the ocean at night. Tattlers hyperactively teeted, Black Oystercatchers wailed, and Black Turnstones offered the occasional rattle. The harbor can be pretty lit up in places, and the glare can offer views of loons and Red-breasted Mergansers. As Surf Scoters heave themselves away, their wings whistle deeply. This is certainly the biggest X-factor of our route. We could find 5 special birds, or we could find 10 or more. Regardless, it will be an adventure to remember.
After hauling out the kayaks and locking them up, we’ll be on our bikes, making our way up the mountains and racing the clock to beat the sunrise. I think we can do it!
Stay tuned for some guest post from Josiah and Andy!
Here I want to outline some of our birding preparation for the upcoming green big day on Tuesday, April 29th. In the quest to see as many species as possible in 24 hours, big days are not like most birding. They’re not about observing birds, or really even looking for them. They’re about knowing where the birds should be before you even begin. Things are so fast paced that every nest, territory, and roost that you know about can really help add to your total. To that end, we’ve put in a lot of scouting hours to understand the birds and their behavior on our route. Loosely, the scouting is in four portions: the San Mateo County coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the southern SF bayshore, and the eastern foothills of the Diablo Range.
On April 20th, Logan Kahle, Josiah Clark, and I carpooled over to Milpitas and hopped on our bikes to scout the eastern foothills, focusing on Ed Levin County Park and nearby Calaveras Reservoir. Here’s a taste of the scenery.
This area is arid grassland, with fingers of riparian habitat that stream into the reservoir, and the occasional patch of California Sagebrush. As we rode, we delighted in a pair of Rock Wren exchanging food, Lark Sparrows warily eyeing us and attempting to distract us away from their territories, and Golden Eagles soaring above. Here are the ebirds checklists for the day.
To scout the bayshore, Andy Kleinhesselink and I hopped on bikes yesterday (April 26th), and road around various salt ponds and marshes of Alviso and Sunnyvale. I can be a bit restless, so having Andy’s patient scanning really paid off. We found a very late Common Goldeneye, a nice assortment of gulls including a Thayer’s, and lots of peeps. Checking out the freshwater marshes behind Yahoo’s offices, we enjoyed a lingering Wilson’s Snipe, eye-level Vaux’s Swifts, many Cinnamon Teal, and a Common Gallinule bobbing past. A few checklists from the day.
I’ve hinted at this here or there on the site, but one of the springtime birding goals is to break our previous green big day record. Last year, Josiah Clark, Andy Kleinhesselink, and I set an imposing bar at 181 species, but we’ve been scheming for months to improve and diversify. We’re definitely on to something right now — it involves the ocean and the San Francisco bay, and a lot of riding.
The basic outline and elevation profile for our route.
Here’s the way we can fully the SF Bay Area’s diversity in 24 short biking hours. Start at midnight on the ocean! Crossing the Santa Cruz mountains during the day just takes too long. After an hour or two, you’re not hearing new birds but you’ve still got hours of riding. By working along the coast in the dark and reaching the mountain ridgeline at dawn, we can enjoy some ocean restricted birds without a lengthy daytime ride. We’ll be aiming for loons, rocky shorebirds like turnstones and oystercatchers, as well as roosting gulls and lingering ducks.
From there we cut into the mountains, passing through the town of La Honda and onto the quiet and beautiful Alpine Road. Here’s where we’ll find the wonderful owls of the Santa Cruz mountains. From there it’s across Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, through Monte Bello OSP and Stevens Creek County Park, and out into the suburbs. We criss-cross the bayshore to hit all the hotspots, then head east for the second round of mountains. But you can see from the elevation profile that these are more like hills. We finish along Calaveras Reservoir, imagining the life of cattle rancher.
I’ll share a few more details as we pin down some trickier birds this weekend. But for now, the big day should happen on April 29th. The local birds are back on territory, and migrants are streaming through to points north. Get ready!
On Saturday, April 19th, the Mean Green Birding Machines hit the trails of Mountain View. This was a 4-hour birdathon for the SCVAS (learn more here). In a birdathon, your goal is to find as many species as possible with the time limit. But we didn’t stop there. Our extra restriction was that we couldn’t use cars. So bikes it was!
We birded along salt ponds and tidal sloughs, starting with a little salty mudflat that hosted big groups of plovers: many Semipalmated, but also Snowy Plovers, the white sprites of the flats. Soon we cut into the small, willow-filled Charleston Marsh. As the time wound down, we scanned a freshwater lake then scoured the mudflats of the tidal Charleston Slough. We managed to find 90 species in 4 hours, including wonderful goodies like the Snowy Plovers, hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls, 11 species of duck, and a late Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Check out the full list on ebird.
It was really interesting heading up a team of 13 people on bikes. A bit tough to wrangle everyone, but we managed to have almost every bird seen by almost every team member. The trickier part was staying stable on quick, gravely turns. A few falls, but nothing broken. And everyone agreed that birding by bike is the bee’s knees. The birds are all around as you ride, especially in the environment of the SF Bay Trail. Check out the power and majesty of our team. And if you’re really feeling inspired, sponsor us by choosing my name (Rob Furrow) from the pull-down tab on the SCVAS site.
Stanford takes the victory! With a total of 76 species, our hale and hearty team of 10 edged out Berkeley’s team, who found 64 species. If you haven’t heard about it before, here are the details on this competition. And best of all, this was a green effort! We met at a single location and then divided ourselves up to cover the campus on foot.
After meeting and planning early this morning, the group split into three sub-teams: one for the Stanford dish trail, one for San Francisquito Creek, and one focusing on the main campus. The dish team came up big, finding Western Kingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, as well as Grasshopper, Savannah, and Lark Sparrows. The creek team found their own treasures, like Downy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Yellow Warbler.
The fearless leaders checking for lurking sparrows in the weeds. (Photo by Karen DeMello)
I led the main campus group. The biggest treat was my group, with Joan Zuckerman, Karen DeMello, and Jasen Liu all providing great spotting and even better company. As we studied sparrows in front of Bing Concert Hall, a White-throated Sparrow popped out! We weren’t expecting that. We did expect (and did find) other birds like California Thrasher, Hooded Oriole, White-throated Swift, and California Gull, but that didn’t keep us from appreciating them just as much!
This White-throated Sparrow was foraging in front of Bing Concert Hall. (Photo by Jasen Liu)
All the groups reveled in the springtime chorus, with the shrill mews of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers exploding from the oaks, the deep blue backs of Western Bluebirds glowing in the sun, and the stammering chatter of White-throated Swifts peppering down from overhead. It was not a day I’ll soon forget.
A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at the Stanford dish trail. (Photo by Jasen Liu)
If this is at all inspiring, we’re still taking sponsorships for local SF Bay Area youth nature education and conservation. Sponsor me or anyone else on the team from the pulldown tab at the SCVAS birdathon website.
Members: Rob Furrow, Carrie Ann (Caroline) Adams, Marion Krause, Marina Dimitrov, Ellyn Bush, Joan Zuckerman, Danny Karp, Karen DeMello, Mike Rogers, Jasen Liu.
How many bird species are on Stanford’s campus on a spring morning? I’ll tell you soon enough! This Sunday is Birding’s Big Game. 4 hours, 1 Stanford team, 1 UC Berkeley team, 60+ species. I’ll be coordinating the Stanford side of things, working with an awesome crew of a dozen birders: alumni, undergrads, grad students, community members, oh yeah! I’m lucky to have such great birders helping, since the critical mission is to BEAT CAL in bird diversity. Football’s not enough — we need to hit them where it really hurts. In the birds.
Do you want kids to learn more about nature? Do you want to protect unique bay area habitats? SPONSOR US! The money goes to youth nature education projects and conservation work in the southern Bay Area, run by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (I love them!). You can do it online here. Just select my name (Rob Furrow) from the pull down tab and make a donation using paypal. If you want to make a per-bird donation (10 cents, 50 cents?), you can wait for the results and donate then. And if you don’t like paypal, you can give me a check in person, made out to SCVAS. Thanks!
Okay, down to the brass tacks. How can we optimize coverage of Stanford’s campus? We have a few key habitats. Oak savanna and grassland, of particularly high quality along Stanford’s dish trail. Riparian with some willows and alders along San Francisquito Creek. Brushy edges. Extensive eucalyptus groves. A few migrant traps. To cover it all, we’ll split into two teams.
Team 1 tackles the creekside habitat and the mish-mash of Stanford’s main campus. We’ll hope for migrants, woodpeckers, Hooded and Bullock’s Oriole, and some Brown Creepers making a breeding attempt behind eucalyptus bark.
The basic route for team 1
Team 2 covers the dish trails, and the lovely riparian where the trail meets Alpine Road. Lots of excellent grassland with great chances for hawks, kites, falcons, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Kingbird, maybe even a Grasshopper Sparrow.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to join my friends Josiah Clark and Brian Turner and head up to Josiah and Andrew Scavullo’s native plant nursery in Penngrove, CA (Sonoma County). Josiah and Andrew grow an incredible array of native SF Bay Area plants, and are responsible for raising a lot of plants that have now taken root as part of local habitat restoration projects.
I tagged along to help out with some vegetable garden planting, but I also took a moment to check out the birds. Sorry for the absence of photos, but my constantly muddy hands deterred me from handling my phone. I did, however, take a moment at the end to record a few calls.
A White-tailed Kite worked over nearby field, while White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows occasional erupted in song. Tree Swallows meticulously inspected nesting boxes in preparation for breeding, and a few Northern Rough-winged Swallows even dropped by to perch for a while.
For bonus points, feel free to point out the other birds in the background of this recording.
As the sun started to fall, another creature serenaded us. Here are the sweet songs of Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla), emanating from a wet depression.