Miwok-style Birdathon, 2014

Editor’s Note: Several years ago, Ivan Samuels started wondering what it would be like to do a Big Day in the style of California’s original inhabitants — no binoculars, scope, car, bike, flashlight, phone, playback equipment etc. This April was his fourth annual “Miwok-style” trip to raise money for GGBA’ Birdathon. Here is his report!

By Ivan Samuels

It was fun to daydream about where to do a Native American-style count when I first came up with the concept in 2011.  I soon settled on the area in and around the Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County due to the diversity of habitats within walking distance and the lagoon itself, which can easily be birded by kayak.  As this area was frequented by the Miwok Indians, I decided to call the team “Miwok-style.”  That year I did the count alone, setting a route that remains little changed today.  The route incorporated lush riparian, old-growth Douglas Fir, mixed conifer-hardwood, and oak woodland amongst the upland habitats.  The afternoon was then devoted to kayaking the lagoon, birding the town of Bolinas (the most altered of habitats visited) and finally scanning the rocky shore and ocean off of Duxbury Reef. 

Ivan Samuels
Ivan Samuels

Repeating this route, the team added fellow San Francisco birder Brian Turner in 2012, and in 2013 and 2014 we added Peter Pyle.  In addition to being a professional ornithologist, Peter is a long-time Bolinas resident, thus bringing to the team a wealth of local knowledge about where particular species have been frequenting.  He also showed us the best route through the very shallow lagoon, and indeed our big-day list went from 105 species in 2012 to 124 in 2013!

We considered that record hard to beat when a Spotted Owl woke the team in the pre-dawn hours of April 14, 2014.  We would add a Great Horned Owl before first light, and then embark on an intense birding-by-ear hike, taking advantage of a robust spring chorus.  Our eyes played little role at this stage, although scraping in leaf litter did turn out to be the only Fox Sparrow of the day.

On the shore of the lagoon we finally felt our limitations, straining and squinting to ID distant ducks and gulls.  But most of these would be nailed down later by kayak.  A female Hooded Merganser that had spent the winter at the mouth of Pine Gulch Creek put in a fly-by, and perhaps our best bird of the day, a Green Heron, was spotted by Peter as it settled on a snag.

Kayaking the lagoon was extremely productive, and removed some of the frustration of birding from shore.  If you can’t identify the bird from a distance, paddle closer!  Our arms got such a workout that we were happy to return to shore and again become Miwoks on foot.

With relatively few misses, we made a straight line for Duxbury Reef.  Here we were quite limited, and had to ignore the distant dots on the horizons that could have been, well, about anything without optics.  But enough species came close enough to the ocean bluffs to be identified, including what would certainly be the bird of the day number-wise — Brant.

Brant feeding at Bodega Bay in 2010 / Photo by Bob Lewis
Brant feeding at Bodega Bay in 2010 / Photo by Bob Lewis

Large flocks of these elegant waterfowl streamed north in V-formations, thousands in total just during the time we were present.  We returned to town along the rocky shore, picking up Black Oystercatcher, but could never find a single Turnstone.

In the end we tallied 120 species, only four shy of our record of 124 in 2013.  Exhausted but extremely satisfied, the Miwoks plan to return in 2015, so stay tuned.


San Francisco native and resident Ivan Samuels has been birding for almost 30 years, and is a supporter of bird conservation initiatives both locally and abroad. You can read a previous blog post by him about Miwok-style birding here.