Bringing Back the Bay Birding Challenge

By Whitney Grover

In 2022 Golden Gate Bird Alliance brought back the Bay Birding Challenge to Birdathon. Two teams, one in the East Bay and one in San Francisco, squared off to see more species in their areas than their competitor in the span of a single day. San Francisco won the day in 2022, only to have their title taken back by the East Bay team in 2023. Watching from the sidelines, it was clear the Bay Area tops the charts in both bird species and badass birders who know just where to find them. This year we are mixing it up! 

Rather than two teams competing across the Bay, we’re inviting any number of teams to join us on April 27 for a Big Day Challenge like no other. By forming a team of 3 to 10 birders, you can use your hard earned birding skills as a veteran or develop your skills as a beginner by exploring any of our three counties (SF, Contra Costa, and Alameda)! The goals of the Bay Birding Challenge are to have fun, compete in seeing the most bird species, and help fundraise to support our work throughout the year. 

Interestingly enough, this “new approach” to our Bay Birding Challenge isn’t really new at all. Back in the day we had multiple teams participating in Birdathon “big days.” In some years we participated in National Audubon’s Bird-A-Thon, or partnered with other local chapters to fundraise for particular conservation causes like saving Mono Lake. Turns out we have the best birds, birders, and bird-pun-name-creators in our region.

I sat down with Dan Murphy of “Murphy’s Mob” to learn more about our history of Big Day competitions and get the skinny on the best strategies for planning one. “April is the month to do it,” Dan said. 

By April 27 we may miss some ducks but it will be the last good week for shorebirds. It’s important to have all your locations and routes picked out ahead of time. But Dan reminded me the planning process wasn’t like it is today, where we have all the birds and even rare birds pinned down. (I know I start any birding planning with eBird and I’m grumpy when rare birds aren’t reported with exact GPS coordinates, we’re spoiled). It took expert knowledge of the Bay Area’s habitats and a lot of birding to find “hot spots” where you could maximize species. 

Routes and modes of transportation are important to consider. In the 1980s Dan Murphy and Alan Hopkins would organize big Big Days by car, starting in the central valley or Los Banos and ending in San Francisco. They attempted to get to 200 species on this crazy one-day journey and came close once or twice at 198. Alan recognized the carbon emissions “spewing” from their car as they traversed the state and eventually moved on to walking Big Days. One year he and Jan Anderson, president of Golden Gate Bird Alliance at the time, walked from Mt. Tam to Bolinas, catching 130 species on their journey. 

Without the use of technology, when you were out there on the Big Day, you had to use your intuition and identification skills to make sure you were picking up everything around you. Sometimes you hear a bird and it just doesn’t register right away (no Merlin app to help ID). One particular story Dan Murphy told drove this point home. 

Early in a Birdathon Big Day, the Mob was at Lake Merced in San Francisco. They heard a call, no one recognized it right away, nor paid much attention. As the day went on there were fewer and fewer birds so the group huddled to discuss strategy. How should they spend their remaining daylight? It was in that moment of re-strategizing that one of the experts casually recalled, “you know, I think that call was a Least Bittern…”, Well okay! Let’s go back and try to find it. They returned to Lake Merced and there it was, a Least Bittern in the marsh. “That was really incredible,” Dan recalled.

Our Bay Birding Challenge big day competition has one clear benefit to Bay Area birds: we need the financial support to do what we do. “Birding for Bucks” makes it possible for our work to continue throughout the year. But in talking to Dan, there’s another benefit to big day birding in the spring, and it was the original driver of the less formal spring big days in yesteryear: counting and documenting bird populations. 

Did you know that in 1963 the San Francisco Christmas Bird Count was dropped! The count went from its inception in 1915 to 1962, skipping a few years here and there, but generally holding strong. It’s hard to believe that a community science effort as important and highly regarded as the CBC could just quit after 48 years. 

Fortunately we have the “old guard” to thank for bringing it back. Folks like Alan Hopkins, Dan Murphy, Donna Lion, Shirley Kelly, and many others got out there, birded the city, found incredible birds, and advocated for its return. Spring big days were used to document the incredible diversity of birds in the city which led to the return of the San Francisco CBC in 1983. It wasn’t until 1990 that Golden Gate Bird Alliance (then Audubon) became the official sponsor of the count. 

The competitive side of birding sometimes gets a bad wrap. Big days, listing, rarity chasing, and the like may not be your cup of tea but it’s one way to bird, and there’s so many ways to celebrate the beautiful creatures all around us. Documenting the species seen on a Big Day and getting that data into eBird can help us advocate for bird populations in the centuries to come. 

How many species can you find in one spring day? There’s only one way to find out!

Whitney Grover. is the Deputy Director for Golden Gate Bird Alliance. She participated in Golden Gate Bird Alliance’s 2019 Master Birder class and is a founder of the SF Bay chapter of the Feminist Bird Club. 

Learn more and register a team to compete in the Bay Birding Challenge here.