Record Breaking Nevada Big Day, May 2016

Running a successful Big Day requires local knowledge, lots of scouting, a well-planned route, some skill, and a fair amount of luck (among other things, e.g., a lot of caffeine). This past Sunday, May 15th, it all came together for four of us doing a Nevada Big Day: we tallied 171 species, surpassing the previous record of 162 and our 2015 Big Day total of 158! Continue reading for a a few highlights, and our full checklist for the day.

One year ago…

Last year around this time, Brian Steger and I – both recent arrivals to Reno – decided to do a Big Day despite having minimal knowledge of the area’s birding sites, minimal time for scouting, and very little experience with the route we ran. Why? It was a great excuse to get out and bird some new areas, to add some birds to our state and life lists, and (most importantly) to have a little fun!

We were able to tally 158 species that day in 2015 thanks to input from several local birders with more experience birding “Northern Nevada” (the local term for west central Nevada; the region within an hour or two of Reno). That included a lot of help from our friend Rob Lowry (an Ohio native who moved to NV a few years ago), who was only able to join us for half of the day due to work obligations. Having Rob join us for only part of the day, according to ABA rules, meant our Big Day wouldn’t officially count, but we greatly preferred Rob’s good company and were more than happy to have him join us.

This year, however, I hadn’t even entertained the possibility of running another Big Day until just a couple of weeks ago. My wife brought two adorable little twin girls into our family this past December, and two infants plus a four year old (plus work obligations) pretty much meant that I had zero time for big birding trips.

Photo of the twins: "You want to go on a Big what, daddy?"

“You want to go on a Big what, daddy?”

Brian, however, had other plans! He had convinced Rob and another local birder, Dovid Kozlovsky (a graduate student at UNR), to run a Big Day on May 15th. As luck would have it, a few weeks before the Big Day, my in-laws decided to plan a two week visit to see their grandchildren. A visit that just happened to overlap with the 15th! Brian, with almost perfect timing, sent me one last invite to join them (the day after I heard about my in-laws plans) and my wife excused me from daddy duty. Big Day 2016 was on!

Unlike last year – when Brian and I were happy to just get out and explore new birding sites and add to our Life, State, and County lists – this year we took aim at the Nevada Big Day Record: 162 species seen and/or heard on May 10, 1997 by Larry Neel, Graham Chisholm, Keith Geluso, and Bob Flores.

Unfortunately, we had very little time to go scouting this year. Rob was working 50-hour weeks in Yerington. Dovid was also busy preparing for and taking his comprehensive exams while simultaneously working on his Ph.D. research. Brian, who did the bulk of the planning, had just returned from his honeymoon and felt guilty for neglecting his new wife every time he needed to adjust the route or go out scouting. And I had to wrap up my teaching for the semester.

Fortunately, despite not having much time to properly scout our route, our experience birding in Northern Nevada had grown by leaps and bounds, and we were confident the new route that Brian had put together would give us a legitimate shot at the record.

The Big Day Begins

We started the day much the way we did last year – we met up at my place, and at midnight on Saturday the 14th we were at Damonte Ranch listening for rails and looking for Barn Owls. We quickly nailed Virginia Rail and Sora before finally seeing and hearing a Barn Owl. Three target species down as planned at our first stop.

Our second stop also went smoothly, as we added Long-eared Owl and Common Poorwill at Deadman’s Creek on our way down to the Carson River. The night before, Rob had heard a Western Screech-Owl there, but we had no such luck. We did hear several Great Horned Owls, which was nice to get out of the way, and had Wilson’s Snipe calling at the nearby Silver Saddle ranch.

From Carson City, we headed up into the Sierras and made a quick stop at Spooner Lake to pay our entrance fee to save time later and to listen for more owls, but we added nothing but a distant Canada Goose.

Last year at Chimney Beach we had two Flammulated Owls and a Saw-whet Owl heard from the parking lot, but this year only a distant Great Horned Owl. None of the Flamms, Saw-whets, and Northern Pygmy-Owls we had hoped to hear.

We tried several more stops at promising spots in the Carson Range for owls, without success. Disappointed, we headed south to the Wellington area in the hopes of getting some desert birds at daybreak.

We arrived at our destination near Wellington shortly before daybreak and it was COLD!!! There were Horned Larks everywhere (last year we had only one) and lots of Brewer’s Sparrows singing. Shortly after dawn, a Greater Sage-Grouse flew over. It was hardly the kind of look you want for a life bird, which it was for Dovid and me, especially for such a magnificent bird, but it was a great bird for our Big Day.

We then headed over to Wilson Canyon in the hopes of adding Peregrine Falcon, Canyon Wren, and White-throated Swift. We were somewhat deflated after missing all three, but our spirits were lifted by the addition of many more common species: Bullock’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, House Wren, and Rock Wren were all species we’d see and hear throughout the day, but it was fun to tick them and lots of other new species off the list in that very birdy riparian corridor along the canyon bottom.

After emerging from Wilson Canyon we had nice and unexpected looks at a beautiful singing male Blue Grosbeak and Townsend’s Warbler thanks to driving slowly with the windows down. We also added Black-headed Grosbeaks and a few more expected species.

The next big stop was Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area, where our targets included the previously observed Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Ash-throated Flycatcher, American Bittern, Willet, Common Yellowthroat, Black Tern, Forster’s Tern, and Caspian Tern. Common Yellowthroats were in abundance, but none of the other birds were in their expected locations. We got a little worried, however, we eventually added everything we had hoped for other than Caspian Tern. We left Mason Valley right on time and with most of the species we had hoped to get. Whew!

From Mason Valley we headed to Fort Churchill Road to drive along the river over to Carson City. In route, we added a Golden Eagle, a species we hoped and expected to see but had no sure spot for. Fort Churchill Road was our best chance at Wood Duck, Canyon Wren, White-throated Swift, Violet-green Swallow, and Lazuli Bunting. The Carson River was raging, and we missed Wood Duck along the river. We also missed Canyon Wren at the spots Brian had observed them just 2 weeks earlier. They were species we would end up missing on the day.

It was around 9am at that point, and the lack of sleep the night before had caught up to us! But, we carried on thanks to a little more caffeine and hopes of a full day of great birding ahead of us.

On the way to Mexican Dam to try for Pinyon Jays and Wood Ducks we lucked into a lone Franklin’s Gull in a large flock of California Gulls at Eagle Valley Golf Course. Franklin’s Gulls are uncommon in Northern Nevada in fall and rare in spring, so we were very happy to have found one. Just the boost we needed to forget how tired we were!

Unfortunately, Mexican Dam and the road in and out was a complete bust. It was valuable time we would not be able to get back.

Rob had a female Hooded Oriole visiting his feeder the day before, so we added a quick stop at the Lowry’s house. There was no sign of the oriole after several minutes of waiting, and we were getting ready to leave when Brian spotted it in a tree behind one of the hummingbird feeders. For the second year in a row the Lowry’s place produced our only Hooded Oriole and Cedar Waxwings of the day.

After quick stop at the Carson City Waste Water Treatment Plant failed to produce anything of note (other than an odd looking Mallard that might have had some Mexican Duck genes in it), we were off to the Carson Valley before heading into the Sierras.

Within a couple minutes of our arrival at the Bently-Kirman Tract Trail we heard our target – Vesper Sparrow. We then headed down Genoa Lane in the hopes of adding Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle. We got the eagles at their nest, but we dipped on the cranes – a species we would miss for the day. One of the highlights of the day, however, was seeing a pair of Long-billed Curlews harassing a Red-tailed Hawk. Not only were the curlews unexpected, their behavior in attacking the flying red-tail was really quite remarkable!

Centerville Marsh also failed to produce any cranes, but we did get a lone male Tricolored Blackbird at the spot that held 25 or so just 2 weeks earlier. This little population on “the wrong side” of the Sierra Nevadas is always a treat to encounter, so we were happy to see at least one!

We then headed back up to Spooner Lake for the start of our all-important leg of mountain birding. Spooner Lake delivered several target species, including Ring-necked Duck, Hairy Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Green-tailed Towhee.

Quick stops at Bliss Creek and Secret Harbor Creek added Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Fox Sparrow.

From there it was off to Chimney Beach, which, thanks to Rob’s scouting, produced a number of key birds – Pileated Woodpecker nesting near the parking lot, Pacific Wren, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Sooty Grouse (my 2nd life bird of the day), MacGillivray’s Warbler, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

The Tahoe Meadows area produced the expected Clark’s Nutcracker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Mountain Bluebird but was otherwise disappointing. The snow cover made it impossible to reach known locations for Williamson’s Sapsucker and other high mountain specialties.

Just down the road from Tahoe Meadows we picked up our first and only Townsend’s Solitaire perched at the top of an evergreen.

We then headed down the mountain to Davis Creek Park still needing several mountain species we were unlike to get anywhere else. Davis Creek delivered in a big way with our only Calliope Hummingbird, Chipping Sparrows, Cassin’s Finches, and Cassin’s Vireo of the day. We also picked up our first Western Bluebird of the day, and thanks to Brian and Dovid we all got good looks at a distant Peregrine Falcon just as we were about to get in the car to head to Reno.

Leaving Davis Creek, we decided to modify our route to maximize our chances at getting new species. The first detour was to try for Wood Duck and Red-shouldered Hawk at known locations in South Reno. We whiffed on Wood Duck for the third time, but we did get a Red-shouldered Hawk exactly where we expected one near a traditional nest site rumored to have been used by Red-shouldereds for nearly two decades.

We then raced to Mayberry Park in the hopes of getting American Dipper. But with the high river levels, for the second year in a row, we dipped on dipper.

Disappointed, we headed to Crystal Peak Park in the hopes of adding Vaux’s Swift, Evening Grosbeak, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. The grosbeaks were gone, but we did add the other two.

Anna's Hummingbird on her nest, UNR campus. (Photo taken 9 May 2016)

Anna’s Hummingbird on her nest, UNR campus. (Photo taken 9 May 2016)

From there we headed to the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) to look for staked out nesting Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. We added both species within just a few minutes and headed north toward Lemmon Valley. A quick count reminded us the record was within reach!

We tried first at Silver Lake to relocate the Cattle Egret I had seen there just two days earlier. We had no luck with the egret, but we did find Western Sandpipers, an American Wigeon, and a few Bonaparte’s Gulls.

We then headed to a business property that has been home to an out of range Greater Roadrunner for the past 4 weeks. The first documented in Washoe county! This bird is well north of the nearest population (Mono Lake area) and while they rarely wander far they have been known to turn up far north of their usual range elsewhere in Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The security guards didn’t want birders visiting the private property (hence the obvious lack of location information here) but they granted us permission to visit that Sunday. The bird had been observed trying to feed lizards to it’s reflection in the building’s mirrored glass windows, and has built at least one “practice nest.” A more well maintained nest is located right next to the building, where I suspect the bird has paired up with it’s (frustratingly coy) reflection. As we pulled into the parking lot we were able to quickly spot the bird. After a few good looks, we then left the premises to capitalize on every last minute of daylight we had left.

Greater Roadrunner, Stead, NV (North of Reno), 5-15-16. Private Property (Restricted Access). Photo by Rob Lowry.

Greater Roadrunner, Stead, NV (North of Reno), 5-15-16. Private Property (Restricted Access). Photo by Rob Lowry.

Our next stop was the Lemmon Valley Waste Water Treatment ponds and Swan Lake. Luck was on our side as Rob spotted a pair of Blue-winged Teal before we added Red-necked Phalaropes, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, and Sage Thrasher.

Blue-winged Teal, Lemmon Valley WTP

Blue-winged Teal, Lemmon Valley WTP

With several stops yet to come and several expected additional species, we knew the record was in hand.

Our first stop was at Ohio Street to try for Black-throated Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse. We immediately got on a perched, singing black-throat but had not luck with the titmouse. Rob also spotted a Loggerhead Shrike, but it flew over the hill and out of sight before any of the rest of us could get on it.

Brian had located another spot for Juniper Titmouse during scouting along Matterhorn Boulevard, and we quickly headed there. Within a few minutes a titmouse appeared prominently on top of a juniper, and then a Gray Flycatcher made an appearance.

From there we headed down Antelope Valley Road in route to Range Land Road. We all got great looks at Loggerhead Shrikes and we were able to coax a single Sagebrush Sparrow off the desert floor onto a sage brush. A Burrowing Owl was added quickly on Range Land Road, and we were off to Pyramid Lake to try and add a few more species before dark.

We went straight to the south end and quickly added Snowy Plover. We had no luck finding the expected Caspian Terns or a hoped for Common Loon, but I was able to spot a single Semipalmated Plover. As darkness fell, we decided to head to the Sparks Marina to add one last species – Black-crowned Night-Heron – before calling it a day.

Shortly after getting out of the car and heading down to the water, we spotted an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron flying over to the rocky shore to feed. After hugs and high fives on a job well done, we were ready to call it quits. But then things got strange. I took a quick glance down the beach before turning back to the car, and I noticed a really small gull next to two larger gulls. Something didn’t add up – were these two Herring Gulls and a Ring-billed Gull? Two California Gulls and a small hooded gull? – so we went to investigate. Last year, our most painful miss of the day was a Mew Gull at the Sparks Marina that had been extremely reliable in the week leading up to our Big Day. This year, there had been no reports of Mew Gull at Sparks Marina or anywhere else in Northern Nevada for several months. Yet, there it was. On the beach, hopping around in the dark among a flock of sleeping Canada Geese, was a MEW GULL!!! We didn’t know it then, as we had lost an accurate count, but that cute little gull was species number 171 for the day (not counting Mute Swan and domestic geese at Virginia Lake). We couldn’t have had a more fitting ending to a most amazing day!

Mew Gull

Mew Gull, Sparks Marina. Found in the dark on the beach as our last bird of the day.

We suspect efforts like ours would almost certainly nudge the state Big Day record higher in the coming years. A total of 180 is very reasonable, and a strong effort on the right day following the right route could probably land a Big Day total closer to 200. We missed more than a handful of birds that we might have ticked with a little more scouting, and a little less sleep on Sunday: birds like Belted Kingfisher, Canyon Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Prairie Falcon, Pine Siskin, American Dipper, Sandhill Crane, Wood Duck, various owls, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pine Grosbeak (Dovid’s nemesis bird!), Caspian Tern, a few flycatchers, etc. are all on the table for anyone who goes looking for them.

Species List

We followed the ABA’s Big Day count rules, including the 95% rule: I missed Hairy Woodpecker and American Goldfinch. Dovid missed Hooded Oriole and American Goldfinch. Rob missed Golden-crowned Kinglet and American Goldfinch. Brian missed Long-eared Owl and Sooty Grouse. All together, those six leave us with a little over 96% of species seen by the whole group.

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Gadwall
  3. American Wigeon
  4. Mallard
  5. Blue-winged Teal
  6. Cinnamon Teal
  7. Northern Shoveler
  8. Northern Pintail
  9. Green-winged Teal
  10. Canvasback
  11. Redhead
  12. Ring-necked Duck
  13. Lesser Scaup
  14. Common Merganser
  15. Ruddy Duck
  16. California Quail
  17. Greater Sage-Grouse
  18. Sooty Grouse
  19. Wild Turkey
  20. Pied-billed Grebe
  21. Eared Grebe
  22. Western Grebe
  23. Clark’s Grebe
  24. Double-crested Cormorant
  25. American White Pelican
  26. American Bittern
  27. Great Blue Heron
  28. Great Egret
  29. Snowy Egret
  30. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  31. White-faced Ibis
  32. Turkey Vulture
  33. Osprey
  34. Golden Eagle
  35. Northern Harrier
  36. Cooper’s Hawk
  37. Bald Eagle
  38. Red-shouldered Hawk
  39. Swainson’s Hawk
  40. Red-tailed Hawk
  41. Virginia Rail
  42. Sora
  43. American Coot
  44. Black-necked Stilt
  45. American Avocet
  46. Snowy Plover
  47. Semipalmated Plover
  48. Killdeer
  49. Spotted Sandpiper
  50. Willet
  51. Long-billed Curlew
  52. Western Sandpiper
  53. Wilson’s Snipe
  54. Wilson’s Phalarope
  55. Red-necked Phalarope
  56. Bonaparte’s Gull
  57. Franklin’s Gull
  58. Mew Gull
  59. Ring-billed Gull
  60. California Gull
  61. Black Tern
  62. Forster’s Tern
  63. Rock Pigeon
  64. Band-tailed Pigeon
  65. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  66. Mourning Dove
  67. Greater Roadrunner
  68. Barn Owl
  69. Great Horned Owl
  70. Northern Pygmy Owl
  71. Burrowing Owl
  72. Long-eared Owl
  73. Common Poorwill
  74. Vaux’s Swift
  75. White-throated Swift
  76. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  77. Anna’s Hummingbird
  78. Calliope Hummingbird
  79. Red-breasted Sapsucker
  80. Downy Woodpecker
  81. Hairy Woodpecker
  82. White-headed Woodpecker
  83. Northern Flicker
  84. Pileated Woodpecker
  85. American Kestrel
  86. Peregrine Falcon
  87. Western Wood-Pewee
  88. Gray Flycatcher
  89. Dusky Flycatcher
  90. Black Phoebe
  91. Say’s Phoebe
  92. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  93. Western Kingbird
  94. Loggerhead Shrike
  95. Cassin’s Vireo
  96. Warbling Vireo
  97. Steller’s Jay
  98. Western Scrub-Jay
  99. Black-billed Magpie
  100. Clark’s Nutcracker
  101. American Crow
  102. Common Raven
  103. Horned Lark
  104. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  105. Tree Swallow
  106. Violet-green Swallow
  107. Bank Swallow
  108. Barn Swallow
  109. Cliff Swallow
  110. Mountain Chickadee
  111. Juniper Titmouse
  112. Bushtit
  113. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  114. White-breasted Nuthatch
  115. Pygmy Nuthatch
  116. Brown Creeper
  117. Rock Wren
  118. House Wren
  119. Pacific Wren
  120. Marsh Wren
  121. Bewick’s Wren
  122. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  123. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  124. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  125. Western Bluebird
  126. Mountain Bluebird
  127. Townsend’s Solitaire
  128. Hermit Thrush
  129. American Robin
  130. Sage Thrasher
  131. Northern Mockingbird
  132. European Starling
  133. Cedar Waxwing
  134. MacGillivray’s Warbler
  135. Common Yellowthroat
  136. Yellow Warbler
  137. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  138. Townsend’s Warbler
  139. Wilson’s Warbler
  140. Chipping Sparrow
  141. Brewer’s Sparrow
  142. Black-throated Sparrow
  143. Lark Sparrow
  144. Fox Sparrow
  145. Dark-eyed Junco
  146. White-crowned Sparrow
  147. Sagebrush Sparrow
  148. Vesper Sparrow
  149. Savannah Sparrow
  150. Song Sparrow
  151. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  152. Green-tailed Towhee
  153. Spotted Towhee
  154. Western Tanager
  155. Black-headed Grosbeak
  156. Blue Grosbeak
  157. Lazuli Bunting
  158. Red-winged Blackbird
  159. Tricolored Blackbird
  160. Western Meadowlark
  161. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  162. Brewer’s Blackbird
  163. Great-tailed Grackle
  164. Brown-headed Cowbird
  165. Hooded Oriole
  166. Bullock’s Oriole
  167. House Finch
  168. Cassin’s Finch
  169. Lesser Goldfinch
  170. American Goldfinch
  171. House Sparrow
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