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For a while, fortune indeed seemed to smile. A thunderhead slid away from the sinking sun. Langham pried the van out of traffic and onto U.S. Highway 1. "Get it up to 90," John Parmeter urged, but Langham needed no whip. At a boat landing beneath a towering power plant, the day list grew to 221, although the loon was still elusive. The van raced to a field where Roberson had seen a burrowing owl early in the week; after someone first called out a ground squirrel by mistake, the owl, spotted by scope, became No. 222. As the light softened toward dusk the team arrived at the last major site, the Moon Glow Dairy.
The smell of the farm was overpowering, but with hardly a sniff the team carted its equipment through a hundred yards of muck to a slope above a pond. The men set up along a fence, and gradually peace descended. Birds were everywhere: swallows high, ducks, phalaropes, terns, gulls. Two years earlier Roberson and Langham had been part of a team that conducted a Big Sit here, restricting their movements to a 12-foot-wide circle for an entire day; they had seen 99 species. Now the birds rode a cooling wind, the cows were silent, and the six men paused in their headlong rush. The air was filled with those feathered creatures they so admire, and for a moment that was enough.
Then Roberson, peering through a scope, called, "White-tailed kite." Mike Parmeter, plucking sound out of thin air, added, "A long-billed curlew just called." Then it was back through the muck and into the van for a thrilling race with a train to a crossing—the van won—and on with the game.
It was almost dark, and after a heated discussion the men decided to use the remaining light to spot the red-throated loon they were sure was back at the power plant. Off they went, but without success. The loon was nowhere to be seen. So, discouraged, they drove in darkness and falling rain to a pond at the Laguna Seca Raceway, where the birders peered into the night with binoculars and flashlights, looking for a bird they had seen here earlier in the week. They were subdued. A victory now seemed impossible. The rain increased. There was some talk of dinner and bed. Roberson said, "I think we gave it our best shot." Then, as the men gazed at the faint glow on the water cast by the team's flashlights, Peterson saw a pair of Canada geese swim slowly into view.
Joy spread through the darkness. Dinner and rest could wait. The team made a long journey into the woods for owls, but at first the only one heard by everyone turned out to be Langham calling from around a bend in the road. Suddenly all the members of the team heard a pygmy owl and a saw-whet owl, and in the rain among the tall black shapes of redwood trees, some heard the single lonely hoot of a spotted owl. The list stood at 236. But the 95% rule had defeated them at last. All of the final owls were unanimous, except for the important spotted one. After all the figuring, which lasted until noon of the following day, the California team was one bird short of a new record. They'd tied the Texas record. Peterson, who seldom displays either elation or disappointment, compared the two Big Days laconically: "Texas requires luck." he said. "California requires hard work."
At midnight, as the Big Day was coming to a close, the van had been parked on the deck at the Monterey Coast Guard pier, where seals barked in the distance. As the hour struck, Langham scanned the harbor through his scope, still hoping to see the upturned bill of a red-throated loon.
"Time's up," said Roberson. There was a pause. Langham folded his tripod. The seals seemed to be laughing. It was 12:05 a.m.
"Our day list is now zero." said John Parmeter.
In the morning the group split up, content with the tie. But around midday Langham, still restless, took his scope back to the Coast Guard pier. There, floating serenely on the slack water, was a pair of red-throated loons.