CORRECTION: Originally counted at 157, Zachary Ormsby noticed a species missing from our final list below, and a quick check confirmed that we did actually have 158 species + Empidonax sp.! I’ve updated the checklist at the bottom of this post, and the numbers in the text below to reflect the corrected total.
I have 3 year old, so it isn’t very often that I get to spend a full day out birding. So, when Brian Steger suggested running a Big Day to coincide with eBird’s inaugural Global Big Day and International Migratory Bird Day, my wife gave me the day off of daddy duty and the game was on! Both Brian and I are new to the Reno area, and this was more than enough of an excuse for us to get out and explore new locales, refine our understanding of what birds are where this time of year, and to have a great day out birding.
After far too little scouting, some helpful suggestions from Rob Lowry and other Reno/Tahoe area birders, some final tweaks Friday afternoon produced a nicely scheduled route. Brian and I agreed to meet around 10pm after my son went to sleep to get a jump on owling, and despite the rain, we headed out around quarter past 10pm. Rob Lowry, who had work commitments, couldn’t afford to lose sleep Friday night. So we decided that good birding companions trump ABA Big Day listing rules, and we planned to pick up Rob in Carson City late morning, and he would join us for the rest of the day after that.
Our first stop was one final scouting stop in south Reno. We’d received a tip about a pair of Barn Owls from the Birding Nevada facebook page, and we wanted to pin down that location so we could get them after midnight. Unfortunately, a light rain kept the Barn Owls holed up where it was warm and dry, and we neither heard nor saw them. After that, the skies started to clear, and we had other owls to find.
We began our Big Day at 12:00am in the Geiger Summit area, hoping for Common Poorwill and some owls. By the time we started, conditions had improved considerably. The moon had appeared from behind the clouds, the stars were shining bright, the rain had subsided, and the wind was dead calm. But there were no birds, only some wild horses.
With nothing on the board, we headed back to the Barn Owl spot. As we approached, we quickly spotted one sitting on a roof exactly where we had told we might find one! A state bird for both Brian and I, and a great bird to start our Big Day!
We quickly moved on and headed to Damonte Marsh where we added Sora and Virginia Rail along with some more common marsh birds. The rails were nice, but the highlight was a nearby coyote pack sounding off in the otherwise calm darkness. The clock was ticking, so we continued on.
After unsuccessfully trying for Great-tailed Grackles, we headed up to the Tahoe basin for a second shot a owls and poorwill. A stop at Spooner Lake produced our first Great Horned Owl. Regardless of being the easiest owl to find in the region, the experience of listening to one hooting while watching the moon rise through the trees and fog was an extraordinary moment.
From Spooner Lake, we headed to Chimney Beach. Upon stepping out of my vehicle, we were greeted by a pair of serenading FLAMMULATED OWLS! A life bird for Brian, a state bird for both of us, and a bird we thought it was too early in the season to get! After just a minute or so, a Common Poorwill sounded off, shortly after that a Northern Saw-whet Owl (species #12 for the day) joined the chorus! Things were starting to look up.
After a few unsuccessful stops for Northern Pygmy Owl, the dark sky began to lighten up, and we headed out into Tahoe Meadows. As darkness started to give way to daylight, we quickly bagged Wilson’s Snipe and Fox Sparrow. Then Mountain Quail, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Clark’s Nutcracker, and a few more common species. The Quail were a treat, but the real surprise highlight was a vociferous Northern Goshawk! A difficult bird and another state bird for both of us!
From Tahoe Meadows, we headed back to Chimney Beach. We hoped to pick up Pacific Wren, Sooty Grouse, and a lot of other hard to find birds, but, due to our inexperience birding the area, we started on the wrong trail and climbed up away from the creek. Despite the error, I got lucky and got a visual on a calling Pileated Woodpecker across the drainage, but we dipped on Sooty Grouse and head back down. We missed the wren as well, but added Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and a few other good birds.
After Chimney Beach, we returned to Spooner Lake. It was still early, and the insectivores seemed to be just getting active. Brian observed a noticeable decrease in the number of birds from a week earlier, but we still added several target species – Ring-necked Duck, Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Tanager, all three nuthatch species, and several Cassin’s Vireos (a lifer for me; and I was lucky to have multiple birds provide some excellent views!).
Driving south along the lake before heading down 207 into Carson Valley, we picked up Peregrine Falcon at Cave Rock, and added a few other odds and ends, but we left the mountains short on insectivores and a few other mountain species we weren’t likely to see for the rest of the day.
Goodbye Mountains, Hello Valley Birds!
Our next stop was the Centerville Ln and Centerville Marsh in Carson Valley. The Tricolored Blackbirds were exactly where Brian had seen them a week earlier, and yet another state bird for me. A short distance down the road we added Sandhill Crane, and the small pond where the blackbirds bred in prior years produced Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes, Swainson’s Hawk, and other more common species.
After adding the nesting Bald Eagles from Genoa Lane, we headed to Rob and Rickie Lowry’s house in Carson City with high hopes of adding Evening Grosbeak and some other difficult to find species visiting the Lowry’s feeders. We quickly added the grosbeaks and then got our only Cedar Waxwings of the day as the three of us were loading the car to head to Carson River Park.
At Carson River Park, we added Western Screech-Owl, Lazuli Bunting, Wood Duck, Black Phoebe, American Goldfinch, and several other target birds. We then headed back to the Lowry’s place for a second chance at feeder birds and were not disappointed when we picked up a Hooded Oriole, another state bird for Brian and me!
From the Lowry’s house we headed straight to Deadman’s Creek. We nailed our three targets – Long-eared Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, and Rock Wren – added a soaring flock of American White Pelicans, and moved on.
Our next stop was Davis Creek Park. The targeted Calliope Hummingbird was perched exactly where we expected him, and we picked up an unexpected Chipping Sparrow. An empid was chipping, but we were uncomfortable calling it and couldn’t get eyes on it, so we disappointingly left a species on the board (that was our ONLY empid of the day!).
From Davis Creek we raced north to the Damonte wetlands pond behind the fire station. The pond had very little water and the mudflats were getting pretty dry. We added just one species – American Green-winged Teal – and left Damonte a little worried about our shorebird and waterfowl prospects for the day.
If Damonte was surprisingly bad and dispiriting, the South Meadows pond was surprisingly good and uplifting. The 5-minute stop produced no less than 9 new day birds – American Crow, California Gull, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Forster’s Tern, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, and a lone Great-tailed Grackle. Score! We left South Meadows with a pep in our step and a second wind!
Since we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, and still needed Ring-billed Gull and Clark’s Grebe, we made a quick detour to Virginia Lake and quickly added the gull and the long-present grebe. A quick stop at Idlewild Park was necessary to add Downy Woodpecker. And then we scoped the Red-shouldered Hawk on it’s nest across the river from Ivan Sack Park.
The next stop was Crystal Peak Park, where we added several more targets – Vaux’s Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. A quick stop on the Bridge Street bridge in Verdi produced an Acorn Woodpecker, but we left Verdi without American Dipper, Hairy Woodpecker, and Violet-green Swallow, three species we’d end up missing altogether.
Lemmon Valley then Back to Reno
Our next key area to visit was Lemmon Valley. The sewage ponds were a complete bust. Whereas a lack of water was a problem at Damonte, too much water at the water treatment plant left no shorebird habitat. A Northern Mockingbird, a flock of flyby Least Sandpipers and distant Canvasback were all we added from a place for which we had high hopes. From there, things turned around as Sage Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse, Black-throated Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Brewer’s Sparrow all were found exactly where we had hoped for (and expected) them to be.
With our time running short, we decided to skip Rancho San Rafael and head directly to the Sparks Marina for Mew Gull. This bird had been super reliable the past week, and Brian had stopped on Friday evening and had seen the gull within a minute or two. Our goal to was to find it quickly and then move on to Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area to end the day. Alas, our quick stop for Mew did not go as planned. Not only did we not find the gull quickly, we didn’t find it at all. Pine Sisking and Hairy Woodpecker were a pity to miss for the day, but the gull was easily our most disappointing miss of the day.
Mason Valley WMA
As we drove away from Sparks Marina, we did a quick count to see how many species we had and what we could still possibly add. Before we started, Brian had pegged us for 155 or so species, and I thought 150ish was likely. After Sparks Marina were were at 149 species. 149! With the drive to Mason Valley and then Mason Valley itself all that was left for us to bird, those projections were looking pretty accurate. Optimists that we are, Rob and I predicted we’d end up over Brian’s projection of 155 … Brian played it safe and took the under.
We hoped to luck into a Prairie Falcon on the drive, but added only Horned Lark, #150. As we entered Mason Valley, we saw a large flock of Mourning Doves. Within the flock was a lone sparrow, which turned out to be species #151 – Lark Sparrow! My 16th state bird for the day, #198 for my state list, and #197 for my state year list! As we drove along, eyes slowly closing, Brian started making some guttural grunting sounds at the same time Rob simultaneously called out, “Wild Turkey!” for species #152 of the day. A drive around the wetlands loop at Mason Valley WMA added American Bittern #153, Common Yellowthroat #154, and Black Tern #155.
As we arrived at Miller’s Marsh to finish up the day, the sun fell behind the mountains, and things looked bleak. We had miscounted at this point, and thought we were at #154, so when, right on cue, two Caspian Terns flew by (for species #156) Rob and I thought we were still one shy of our prediction. Surely the last birds we would get, or so we thought. Since I was driving, I told Brian and Rob that I would take them hostage and drag them to University Farms to add Savannah Sparrow in the dark to guarantee species #156, if needed. Fortunately for them, as I scanned the marsh my jaw dropped open and I couldn’t believe what was there preening in the water in front of us. I blurted out “No way. No way!” before the words “Blue-winged Teal!” finally fell from my lips. Everyone got great looks at the breeding plumage male. After some high fives between Rob and I, we sat enjoyed extended views, snapped a few photos and savored the moment. And then, as Rob was taking photos of the teal, bird number #158 sang out — Savannah Sparrow. We were on cloud nine.
The brilliant orange sunset was almost the perfect ending to this amazing day of birding, but mother nature was not letting us go without some fanfare. As we headed back to the car, an American Bittern became visible a few dozen yards out into the marsh and it began pumping away as we looked on before heading back home to catch up on some much needed sleep.
Great birds, great company, it all made for an unforgettable day of birding! I added 18 state birds and one life bird, and Brian added 1 lifer (Flammulated Owl; heard only), somewhere around 21-23 state birds and 14 county birds.
PS: All 158 species, plus the unidentified empid, made it into eBird for the May 9th Global Big Day event. This was the second highest Big Day total for Nevada that I’m aware of (the current Big Day record for Nevada is 162, set 10 May 1997 by Larry Neel, Graham Chisholm, Keith Geluso, and Bob Flores), however we had to break ABA Big Day Rules to pull this off on May 9th and to make sure Rob could join us for at least some of the day. I suppose that means we’ll just have to do it again sometime! 🙂
SPECIES LIST (Order is only approximate; via eBird)
|1||Canada Goose – Branta canadensis|
|2||Virginia Rail – Rallus limicola|
|3||Sora – Porzana carolina|
|4||American Coot – Fulica americana|
|5||Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus|
|6||Barn Owl – Tyto alba|
|7||Marsh Wren – Cistothorus palustris|
|8||Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos|
|9||Great Horned Owl – Bubo virginianus|
|10||Flammulated Owl – Psiloscops flammeolus|
|11||Northern Saw-whet Owl – Aegolius acadicus|
|12||Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttallii|
|13||Mountain Quail – Oreortyx pictus|
|14||Northern Goshawk – Accipiter gentilis|
|15||Wilson’s Snipe – Gallinago delicata|
|16||Williamson’s Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus thyroideus|
|17||Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus|
|18||Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri|
|19||Clark’s Nutcracker – Nucifraga columbiana|
|20||Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli|
|21||White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis|
|22||Brown Creeper – Certhia americana|
|23||American Robin – Turdus migratorius|
|24||Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata|
|25||Fox Sparrow – Passerella iliaca|
|26||Lincoln’s Sparrow – Melospiza lincolnii|
|27||White-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia leucophrys|
|28||Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis|
|29||Cassin’s Finch – Haemorhous cassinii|
|30||Common Merganser – Mergus merganser|
|31||Bushtit – Psaltriparus minimus|
|32||Spotted Towhee – Pipilo maculatus|
|33||Brown-headed Cowbird – Molothrus ater|
|34||Western Grebe – Aechmophorus occidentalis|
|35||Osprey – Pandion haliaetus|
|36||Band-tailed Pigeon – Patagioenas fasciata|
|37||White-headed Woodpecker – Picoides albolarvatus|
|38||Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus pileatus|
|39||Red-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta canadensis|
|40||Golden-crowned Kinglet – Regulus satrapa|
|41||MacGillivray’s Warbler – Geothlypis tolmiei|
|42||Wilson’s Warbler – Cardellina pusilla|
|43||Ring-necked Duck – Aythya collaris|
|44||Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps|
|45||Eared Grebe – Podiceps nigricollis|
|46||Cassin’s Vireo – Vireo cassinii|
|47||Common Raven – Corvus corax|
|48||Pygmy Nuthatch – Sitta pygmaea|
|49||House Wren – Troglodytes aedon|
|50||Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula|
|51||Orange-crowned Warbler – Oreothlypis celata|
|52||Green-tailed Towhee – Pipilo chlorurus|
|53||Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia|
|54||Western Tanager – Piranga ludoviciana|
|55||Brewer’s Blackbird – Euphagus cyanocephalus|
|56||Peregrine Falcon – Falco peregrinus|
|57||Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura|
|58||Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos|
|59||Black-billed Magpie – Pica hudsonia|
|60||Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto|
|61||Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura|
|62||California Quail – Callipepla californica|
|63||Red-winged Blackbird – Agelaius phoeniceus|
|64||Tricolored Blackbird – Agelaius tricolor|
|65||Western Meadowlark – Sturnella neglecta|
|66||Yellow-headed Blackbird – Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus|
|67||Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias|
|68||Sandhill Crane – Grus canadensis|
|69||American Wigeon – Anas americana|
|70||Cinnamon Teal – Anas cyanoptera|
|71||Redhead – Aythya americana|
|72||Swainson’s Hawk – Buteo swainsoni|
|73||American Avocet – Recurvirostra americana|
|74||Spotted Sandpiper – Actitis macularius|
|75||Wilson’s Phalarope – Phalaropus tricolor|
|76||Red-necked Phalarope – Phalaropus lobatus|
|77||American Kestrel – Falco sparverius|
|78||Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia|
|79||House Sparrow – Passer domesticus|
|80||Northern Shoveler – Anas clypeata|
|81||Bald Eagle – Haliaeetus leucocephalus|
|82||Cedar Waxwing – Bombycilla cedrorum|
|83||Black-headed Grosbeak – Pheucticus melanocephalus|
|84||Hooded Oriole – Icterus cucullatus|
|85||House Finch – Haemorhous mexicanus|
|86||Evening Grosbeak – Coccothraustes vespertinus|
|87||Northern Pintail – Anas acuta|
|88||White-faced Ibis – Plegadis chihi|
|89||Black-necked Stilt – Himantopus mexicanus|
|90||Wood Duck – Aix sponsa|
|91||Gadwall – Anas strepera|
|92||Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis|
|93||Western Screech-Owl – Megascops kennicottii|
|94||Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon|
|95||Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans|
|96||Western Kingbird – Tyrannus verticalis|
|97||Warbling Vireo – Vireo gilvus|
|98||Northern Rough-winged Swallow – Stelgidopteryx serripennis|
|99||Cliff Swallow – Petrochelidon pyrrhonota|
|100||Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii|
|101||European Starling – Sturnus vulgaris|
|102||Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia|
|103||Lazuli Bunting – Passerina amoena|
|104||Bullock’s Oriole – Icterus bullockii|
|105||Lesser Goldfinch – Spinus psaltria|
|106||American Goldfinch – Spinus tristis|
|107||American White Pelican – Pelecanus erythrorhynchos|
|108||Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii|
|109||Rock Wren – Salpinctes obsoletus|
|110||Long-eared Owl – Asio otus|
|111||Calliope Hummingbird – Selasphorus calliope|
|112||Western Wood-Pewee – Contopus sordidulus|
|113||Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana|
|114||Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina|
|115||Green-winged Teal – Anas crecca|
|116||Willet – Tringa semipalmata|
|117||Lesser Scaup – Aythya affinis|
|118||Bufflehead – Bucephala albeola|
|119||Ruddy Duck – Oxyura jamaicensis|
|120||Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus|
|121||Great Egret – Ardea alba|
|122||Snowy Egret – Egretta thula|
|123||Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax|
|124||California Gull – Larus californicus|
|125||Forster’s Tern – Sterna forsteri|
|126||American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos|
|127||Great-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus mexicanus|
|128||Clark’s Grebe – Aechmophorus clarkii|
|129||Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis|
|130||Rock Pigeon – Columba livia|
|131||Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens|
|132||Red-shouldered Hawk – Buteo lineatus|
|133||Vaux’s Swift – Chaetura vauxi|
|134||Black-chinned Hummingbird – Archilochus alexandri|
|135||Red-breasted Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus ruber|
|136||Western Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica|
|137||Tree Swallow – Tachycineta bicolor|
|138||Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus|
|139||Canvasback – Aythya valisineria|
|140||Least Sandpiper – Calidris minutilla|
|141||Northern Mockingbird – Mimus polyglottos|
|142||Say’s Phoebe – Sayornis saya|
|143||Sage Thrasher – Oreoscoptes montanus|
|144||Juniper Titmouse – Baeolophus ridgwayi|
|145||Black-throated Sparrow – Amphispiza bilineata|
|146||Loggerhead Shrike – Lanius ludovicianus|
|147||Brewer’s Sparrow – Spizella breweri|
|148||Horned Lark – Eremophila alpestris|
|149||Lark Sparrow – Chondestes grammacus|
|150||Wild Turkey – Meleagris gallopavo|
|151||American Bittern – Botaurus lentiginosus|
|152||Northern Harrier – Circus cyaneus|
|153||Black Tern – Chlidonias niger|
|154||Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica|
|155||Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas|
|156||Blue-winged Teal – Anas discors|
|157||Caspian Tern – Hydroprogne caspia|
|158||Savannah Sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis|