Sunday, October 14, 2012

Big Sit 2012: Cape Havasu

This weekend, everyone is talking about the Big Sit, a national birding event hosted by Birdwatcher's Digest, which falls every year on the second Sunday in October.  (This year, they added the preceding Saturday as a possible count day.)  This is one of the few events in birding that is purely for fun!  There's no scientific analysis of the data (unless you submit to eBird, of course), and no one is making comparisons of trends from year to year.  The event is supposedly non-competitive, but of course there is some competition among the circles to try to see the most species in the country or in the state.  The New Haven Bird Club, founders of the event, also pick a "Golden Bird" every year after the count, and every circle that recorded that species is entered for a chance to win $500 for a favorite conservation program.

I had been thinking that the Big Sit sounded like fun, and have also been increasingly interested in spending extended periods of time at Cape Havasu to see what may come by (for example, I spent five hours there last week).  With that motivation, I registered Cape Havasu as a circle for the Big Sit, and decided to spend my Saturday on the hill.

When people ask me what my favorite birding location in the LCRV is, I always say Cape Havasu.  It is situated just right at the north end of Lake Havasu, providing views of both the deep, open water on the main body of the lake, and the marshes on the northern end.  A narrow strip of mesquite, willow, and tamarisk runs along the shore, creating a corridor for landbird migrants.  Small stands of marsh vegetation along the water's edge harbor rails and herons.  Most of the surrounding land is desert, with rolling hills and deep washes of creosote and palo verde.  Lake Havasu City is nearby to the south, and Desert Hills to the north.  Also visible to the north is The Refuge, a golf course and country club.  The hill on Cape Havasu is tall enough to provide views of all these habitats, making it possible to see a great diversity of birds!

A Google Map showing Cape Havasu and the surrounding area.  Cape Havasu is the northernmost spit of land jutting into the lake, in the center of the screen.
I should note that this place has many names, and none of them are official.  In eBird it is called "north end viewpoint," which is how birders usually refer to the place.  David and I long called it "Lehman Hill" because it was Paul Lehman who told us about it, although I believe that Mark Stevenson discovered the spot.  Some call it "Pluym Point" for David.  It was Tom Johnson who, this spring, came up with the name Cape Havasu.  I think this is the most appropriate name for this amazing birding spot!

The diversity of birds seen at this spot is amazing, considering it has only been regularly checked for about the past two years.  I've seen nearly 200 species there.  The list of rarities includes Red-throated and Pacific Loons, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron (the first for both Mohave and San Bernardino Counties), Red Phalarope, Arizona's second Little Gull, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, Purple Martin, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Prothonotary Warbler, Virginia's Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrows, Bobolink, and (IMO the most unusual rarity for this location) Cassin's Sparrow.  Photos and details about many of those sightings are here.

All of these factors combine to make this my favorite birding spot in the LCRV, and an ideal location for a Big Sit!

On the morning of Saturday, Oct 13, I arrived at 4:15.  It was still completely dark out.  Immediately as I climbed the hill, I heard the "cree-cree" of Western Grebes, and accompanying begging calls.  As it turns out, apparently, Western Grebes do not sleep.  American Coots called occasionally, and before long I heard a brief call from a Pied-billed Grebe.  I listened intently for Great Horned Owls, but didn't hear a hoot.  I kept my digital recorder handy, and recorded several flight calls of migrating Passerines.  I'm not very good at identifying flight calls, but one Savannah Sparrow flew over, giving its distinctive "chintz" call, and I got a decent recording with a nice spectrogram.  Looking at spectrograms of other calls, I see a few of what I believe are Song Sparrows, and lots of unknowns.

Pre-dawn on the hill.  Photo by John West.
For a brief period before sunrise, local birder and photographer John West joined me in listening for the calls of the birds as they stirred.  Unfortunately he had to head down to the Bill Williams for the day, so he headed off before the sun rose.

John joins me on the hill.
 The birds woke with the sun, and I quickly started tallying new species: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Great-tailed Grackles, Audubon's Warblers, Abert's Towhees.  Clark's Grebes calling "creeee" among the many Western Grebes.  Thousands of swallows started swarming out of the marshes, mostly Tree and Barn Swallows.  As they streamed past the hill, I picked out single Violet-green and Bank Swallows among them.  Scanning the lake added quickly to the species tally: Eared Grebes, Gadwall, Buffleheads (my first of the season), Ruddy Ducks, a distant Forster's Tern.  Gulls are early risers, and within a few minutes of sunrise I saw Ring-billed, California, a continuing Sabine's Gull, and my first Herring Gull of the season.

I turned my scope on the land as well as the water.  In the nearby community of Desert Hills I could see flocks of Eurasian Collared-Doves as well as Rock Pigeons (the latter a new addition to my Cape Havasu list!) and a few Mourning Doves.  A few American Kestrels were flying around the desert hills and washes, and a Prairie Falcon perched on a distant snag, stretching its wings.  Orange-crowned Warblers and Lincoln's Sparrows began calling from the trees and bushes next to the water.  Four hours went by in a flash, and I already had 55 species.

After several scans, I started thinking about the easier species that I was missing.  Northern Rough-winged Swallow immediately came to mind.  Loggerhead Shrike, Gambel's Quail, Greater Roadrunner, and Say's Phoebe were species that should be easy to see by scanning the desert.  I knew I would have to keep an eye out for migrating raptors: I expected to see Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Sharp-shinned Hawk (Cooper's was surprisingly easy, with a big female calling from the nearby trees early in the morning), and Red-tailed Hawk.  I hoped for Peregrine Falcon as well.  I was missing Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Crissal Thrasher, all species I hoped to get in the riparian vegetation around me.

At first I focused my attention on scanning the desert hills to come up with those missing species.  A single Greater Roadrunner stood sentinel atop a distant hilltop.  A very, very distant Say's Phoebe flew around, barely identifiable (one would visit the hill later in the day).  I spotted Turkey Vultures roosting in cottonwoods, the local Osprey began terrorizing goldfish in golf course ponds on The Refuge, and I saw a Northern Harrier cruising over the marsh.  Loud call notes brought my attention to the trees below me, and a flock of Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows flew in to the tamarisks--amazingly, they stayed only for about 15 minutes, and I didn't see any others all day.  Twice I thought I heard a calling Wilson's Warbler, but I couldn't hear it clearly enough to count.  Eventually, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher came by, its whining calls standing out among the calls of the resident Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.

I listened carefully for new birds as I continuously scanned the skies and the water for new birds.  Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail were visible only briefly.  A strange call coming from the water below me turned out to be a small group of Horned Grebes, early arrivals to the lake.  A distant small flock of teal flew over the marshes, either Cinnamon or Blue-winged, but I never got identifiable looks at either species.  A Lawrence's Goldfinch passed over the hill, calling its bell-like "dee-dee" as it went.  A single Pine Siskin was a welcome surprise, and an American Robin calling from the nearby willows was unexpected.

Late in the morning, the biggest surprise of the day showed up.  I was checking out warblers in a small flock below the hill, when a yellow one caught my eye--at first I thought it was an Orange-crowned Warbler, but something about it made me do a double-take.  Then it popped up and I saw white wing-bars, and realized it was a Baypoll Warbler!  A better look confirmed that it was a Blackpoll Warbler, a very rare bird in Arizona.  I managed to get it in my scope, and it gave me good looks for about 45 seconds before dropping out of sight.  The really mind-boggling thing about this sighting: it was in exactly the same place where the Blackpoll Warbler was found in the spring of 2011!!  I took my point and shoot camera to the trail below, leaving the circle to try to get photos of the bird.  It never showed up again.  I did see a Black-throated Gray Warbler, which I couldn't refind from the hill, so I wasn't able to count that species for the Big Sit.

As the morning became afternoon, the wind started to pick up.  The sun was shining, but it never got too warm, topping out around the upper 70s.  The wind was chilling, with gusts eventually reaching about 13 mph.  It wasn't so windy that I couldn't bird, but I did have to rescue my chair twice as it started blowing down the hill!

My setup.  I had to set my backpack in my chair when I wasn't using it, or it would blow away in the strong winds!
The wind did make listening a bit more difficult, and abundant boats and jet skis on the water had shooed away most of the water birds, so new species were suddenly much more difficult to come by.  Scanning the hills for quail, I finally spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  I kept looking through the swallows flying by, amazed that I hadn't seen a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, but eventually a few came by.  After thirteen hours on the hill, I hit the milestone of 80 species when I clearly heard the Wilson's Warbler call.  I scanned the hills, golf course, towns and streets continuously, looking for Gambel's Quail, one of the most common and widespread species in this area.  As the sun set and the light began fading, I gave up on the quail quest.  John and Lorraine West joined me for a few minutes in watching the orange and red sunset, and the three of us enjoyed the sight of a few Lesser Nighthawks emerging from the dusky sky.

With the light gone, I settled back into my chair to listen once again for Great Horned Owls.  A chorus of "WOK!"s came from the marsh across the lake, Black-crowned Night-Herons emerging to feed.  A few times I heard calling Green Herons, which I had expected to see foraging along the shoreline during the day.  Finally, just before I left for the night, I heard an owl call, but not the one I expected!  It was the screech of a Barn Owl, species #84.

Looking for Great Horned Owls on the hills and snags.  Photo by John West.
Overall it was, I think, a very successful day!  Surprisingly tired from the day's adventure, I returned home, typed up an eBird checklist, and fell asleep.  The list has been submitted to Birdwatchers Digest, and right now Cape Havasu is leading in the rankings.  I hear that will change, though, as soon as a certain other Cape enters their list!  I should note that the night before the Big Sit, I asked some friends to predict how many species would be counted.  Amazingly, Jennifer Willcox guessed 84 species.

The Big Sit was a lot of fun, and a very different birding experience.  I hope to repeat the experience next year, hopefully with fewer scheduling conflicts so that others will be able to join in the fun!


  1. What a great spot! Looks like you set the bar high, especially with that Blackpoll. Thanks for sharing your amazing day.

  2. What a Sit! Well Sat Lauren!
    Great narrative too.