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.