SI Vault
Michael Parfit
June 06, 1983
The bullfrogs groaned. Wind stirred the rushes beside the lake. Clouds raced across the moon. Six men stood on a California road, their shadows long in the moonlight. Off to the east, toward Arizona, the lights of the Imperial Dam on the Colorado River glowed in the sky. One of the men said quietly, "One, two, three." On the count of three, they broke into applause. Just as abruptly they stopped. From the distance came a tiny noise, something between a trill and a rattle. Most people might have assumed it was just another rustle in the brush. But it was, in fact, the call of a bird. "Black rail!" shouted one of the men. "Black rail!" It was 3:19 a.m.
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June 06, 1983

This Big Day Was Definitely For The Birds—235 Different Kinds Of Them

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The thicket rang with birdsong and with the calls of the Big Day team. Chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh: "Cactus wren!" Tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee-titi-wee: "Yellow warbler!" Peek: "Abert's towhee!" Snowy and cattle egrets flew sedately along the shoreline. Then, as if it knew the team wanted to restrict its sightings to California, so it could set that state's record as well, a great blue heron played hard to get, soaring over the far shoreline before finally turning west. "He's still in Arizona," Roberson said, frustrated at the bird's unhurried pace. "When he gets to the middle of the river, then we can count him." At last the bird obliged.

As the light brightened, the team jumped back into the van. "It helps to have a good driver," Binford said later. "A fast driver who's willing to take a chance, maybe." Langham was very good. The team dashed to sites scouted out days before—a canyon where they heard a rock wren, a campground where Annas and black-chinned hummingbirds dueled for access to a feeder, a marsh where an osprey guarded its nest. Then, between 7:04 and 7:18, while the van covered 10 miles, the team stared at the blurred roadsides and, in its curious terminology for spotting birds on the run, "gunned" a northern harrier, a roadrunner, a Say's phoebe and a rock dove. (Langham nearly ran over a mourning dove, but the days when naturalists had to kill a bird to identify it are, thanks partly to Peterson, over.) As the team raced for the plane, optimism bloomed. "That gunning was one of the turning points." Binford said later. "It set us up."

The Big Day still looked promising at 10:45, when the team arrived at Big Morongo Wildlife Reserve, a game refuge in the hills northeast of Palm Springs. An hour's visit to the north shore of the Salton Sea, which Peterson called "the greatest spread table, the greatest smorgasbord of birds," had produced a flock of shorebirds. Flying over the lake's southern end, they spotted black skimmers from the aircraft. "They were the right shape for skimmers," Roberson said, "and they were in the right spot for skimmers. We listed them." The surprise was a semipalmated sandpiper, a bonus rare to California that had not been on Roberson's list. "At this pace we'll get 237," Roberson said, sounding like a marathoner. Mike Parmeter was thinking golf. "We birdied that hole." he said.

The Morongo Valley is a beautifully wooded stream bed at the bottom of a stony gorge. For Mike Parmeter it was heaven. "That Morongo!" he said later. "That sunlight, those cottonwoods, the trees just alive with birds!" Birders tend to be labeled by their talents. Binford is particularly good with the spotting scope, and Peterson, whose once sharp eyes have been dimmed by cataracts, is renowned now for his acute hearing. Mike Parmeter also has a sharp ear, and down in Morongo he chirped and warbled at the dense greenery, identifying each response almost before the bird's song was finished. Mike had trained for the Big Day by spending two weekends doing nothing but listening to birds, and to him the high moment of the Big Day was when the team heard the song of a Bell's vireo, another bird they anticipated seeing this year in the valley.

From the cacophony of Morongo the team flew to unexpected silence at Big Bear Lake, high in the San Bernardino Mountains. Suddenly disaster loomed—new snow hid the cold-shocked birds and muffled their sounds. By the time the team climbed stiffly back into the plane at 2:35 p.m. for the hour-and-a-half flight to Monterey, it was six birds behind on the count. The team was lucky to reach the plane: The van had barely made it through the muddy Arrastre Creek Road. Even the calm of Binford, who earlier had been so appreciative of daring behind the wheel, had been disturbed. "I closed my eyes three or four times." he said when the ride was over.

Some team members slept on the plane. Others worried. On the horizon were the white towers of thunderheads. indicating rain and early darkness. Roberson pored over the day list: just 181 birds. "It looked as though we had to see everything in Monterey to make it," he said later. Almost as important as the actual count was one other statistic: a small but growing list of birds that had been missed by one or more team members.

Roberson got out of the airplane muttering about double bogeys, but then—bang! At 4:10, on the way out of the airport in van No. 4. the team gunned a bandtail pigeon, one of the species missed on the Big Bear list. Good cheer returned. The birders leaped out of the van into a park full of leaning Monterey pine trees, wet grass and invisible but noisy birds and started identifying right and left.

Then it was on to the beach. The birders assaulted the ragged Monterey shoreline like commandos, racing to the water's edge with their tripod-mounted 20-power spotting scopes to stare at the waves. "Red-necked grebe!" "Horned grebe!" "A wandering tattler!" "Two rhinos on the water!" Everyone turned his scope to the rhinoceros auklets. "Got 'em? Let's go!" Back up the beach they ran.

Bird No. 200 was a glaucous-winged gull. "We're going to come close," Roberson said during a brief but stirring ride in the van. "It will be a matter of five birds or so, but those five will be like pulling teeth." The team still had not seen one of the more common of Monterey's shorebirds, a red-throated loon.

A few minutes later the van, slowed by heavy traffic, crept across a bridge over a little estuary, where the team picked off a swallow and a Bonaparte's gull. "Drive-in birdies," Roberson said. Then, like a shell fired across a bow, a dark brown shape with a white underbelly flew past the windshield. "Wood duck! Wood duck!" It was another bonus, an unexpected bird that shortened the odds. "I would say the wood duck was most fortuitous," Peterson would observe.

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