How a bunch of teen birders spotted 100 species in a single day with Kenn Kaufman at the Point Reyes Birding Festival

It was April 27th at six in the morning. We had woken up an hour earlier and packed what gear we needed into our backpacks. After that, my dad and I quickly ate breakfast and drove southwest from Sacramento toward the coast of California. The sun was just coming up and as it became lighter, birds started to sing. A week earlier, my mom had bought tickets for me and my dad to go on a birding trip for young birders with Kenn Kaufman at the Point Reyes Birding Festival. He is a celebrity in the birding world for famously hitchhiking across North America in 1963. In that year, he found the most species ever recorded by one person in the U.S. Afterwards, he wrote a book about his adventure called Kingbird Highway.

As we headed toward the Point Reyes Station in Marin County, we passed the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. This seasonal river spillway is home to the largest number of bird species in the Sacramento region. Just a river and a county line over from where we live, we sometimes bird here. But on that day, we couldn’t stop. Closer to our destination and about an hour into our trip, we passed another major birding hotspot. From inside the car, we watched as San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge passed by. A marsh bordered the road on the right side and an expanse of the open bay was on the left. The road continued like this for several miles before reconnecting to the mainland. The birding there is excellent because of the high diversity of species and habitats.

A row of scaup swam single-file in the calm water. Then some coots and dowitchers shot by bobbing their heads and pecking in some reeds. After that, we observed a cluster of unusual ducks that had reddish foreheads which sloped into large black bills. They were Canvasbacks! As we sped by, the males’ white backs flashed in the morning sun. I looked ahead to see where the road went. It ascended onto a bridge whose arch stretched across the water. We had crossed this bridge a couple of times before while traveling to the bay. We had done this though, in overcast, at nighttime or during other less than ideal conditions. However, today was the first time I had a chance to view the birds. Unfortunately, as we neared the top of the bridge, the waterfowl below became too distant to identify. So I turned my attention to the Cliff Swallows that swarmed around the bridge.

Cliff Swallows are the ubiquitous swallow of northern California in the summer months. Their favored nest sites are usually man-made structures such as bridges or the underside of overhanging roofs. The nest site has to be within flying range of water for a source of food. These swallows were chirping and twittering loudly as they came in for a landing at their nest site. Individual swallows land on the bank of a lake, pond, river or any other body of water and use their beaks to grab a mouthful of mud. During the return flight, the swallow mixes its saliva with the mud to make a sticky compound. The swallow then sticks the “brick” to its nest and goes back for more. The mud can take about fifteen minutes to dry. While building a nest, a pair of swallows make hundreds of trips to eventually build what looks like an upside-down igloo. When the construction is finished, the swallows need grass to furnish their nest. They can also get it from the riverbank or can find loose grass in recently mowed fields.

Looking beyond the swallows out at the wetlands, I noticed a high-flying, bird-probing raptor watching carefully for any type of movement among the reeds below. It came toward the bridge, and as it passed over, its thin wings, finely barred breast and dark blue-gray upperparts became apparent. The dark mask on its face confirmed it. It was a Peregrine Falcon! The falcon disappeared as we headed down the other side of the bridge. These were all great birds, especially to see them from the car; I wondered what species we might encounter if we birded here on foot! I was thinking of owls and rails as we exited the preserve.

As the blue dot on the map got closer to the red one, the roads became windy and hilly. Frequently, the road went for miles without another one crossing it. This is where the birds are. Fences along the road held cattle from wandering into the street and served as perches for blackbirds and sparrows to sing from. A couple of times I thought a flock of exceptionally small birds were White-throated Sparrows; the coast was their usual hangout in winter but sometimes ventured inland to Sacramento. When we arrived in the neighborhood of the destination and found the place, we were surprised to find a red brick building in place of where a gas station should have been.

Google had erroneously listed the Point Rayes Station as a place to refuel cars. We got out and saw that the front door had an ad for gym memberships, so we walked around the building and saw Jessica. We had been put in touch with her when we had called to register for the birding trip. She was the organizer for the event. It was nice to finally meet her after a week of calling back and forth. She explained that the festival was being held at the Dance Palace next door. We walked over and immediately identified at large chruch-like building as the place. The check-in booth was covered in stickers, magnets, pamphlets, checklists, and books all about birds. To complete the collection, a metal rack beside the stand had all kinds of different bird T-shirts advertising the festival.

We walked over to get our registration sheet and fill it out. As we did so, in walked Fiona and her mom, Beth. Fiona lives near Sacramento and I have birded with her once before. We had both been past scholarship recipients from the Central Valley Bird Club. We were then directed to give our filled-out form to one of the boys who was going to lead the group. Kenn Kaufman and Dave DeSante technically were leading the group but the members of the Bay Area Bird Club birded this area and knew what to expect in different locations. The members of the bird club who were with the group today were Lucas Stephenson, Lucas Corneliussen, Ethan Monk, and Lucas’s dad, Mark Stephenson.

There was still half an hour till the trip began, so I went with them down the road to a local marsh. As we walked down the dirt path, a Wrentit sang from the roadside scrub. By the marsh, Common Yellowthroats skulked in the dense reeds and a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flew across the landscape with epaulets flaming. We checked the time and hurried back so we would not be late for the trip.

The group was just leaving. Everyone chose a car to carpool in. Ruth invited us to ride in their rental. A few miles down the road, we parked at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. We got out of the car and saw Acorn Woodpeckers flying among the pine trees and landing on dead snags with rows of holes drummed out near the top. We spread out along both sides of the road and birds were immediately found. Along with the woodpeckers, we heard Spotted Towhees and Black-headed Grosbeaks. We were working our way down the wooded hill the road was on, and suddenly, as we crossed a creek, we were in riparian habitat. Then, we realized we would need someone to record the birds we saw on eBird. eBird is a website many birders use around the world to track their sightings by submitting digital checklists of the birds seen in any given place. Mark Stephenson was elected the lister for the day, so we went back to birding. Loving willows, Wilson’s Warblers flashed around, perching on the thin branches. A Chipping Sparrow had been seen here recently so we started looking in likely places; behind rocks, under trees, and around a barn. Brown-headed Cowbirds landed at the top of a tree and began to call.

Birding at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

We started up towards the road, walking around a few white houses. It seemed we were trespassing on someone’s property, but no one was there, and the guides came here often, so we kept birding. By the road, Bullock’s Oriole and Swainson’s Thrush called. The pine trees started on the opposite side of the road. Then, a tiny Pygmy Nuthatch was spotted creeping up a tree stopping frequently to grab a bug. We now had a better view of the Acorn Woodpeckers and the trees they were on, dead with holes at the very top. According to Lucas C., this was where Purple Martins were seen often. Not having seen this large swallow, I scanned the skies hopefully. Then it was spotted. A black-looking swallow flew overhead calling. Cameras went off and I had a new species for my life list.

As we continued along the road, more Spotted and California Towhees called; a grumbling call from the thickets and a high-pitched “tink!” respectively. A Hutton’s Vireo foraged above our heads in a tree. Their patterns look a lot like Ruby-crowned Kinglets but it can be identified by a stockier body and heavier bill. As we walked back to the cars, we reviewed the checklist before submission, adding a few other species we had seen. Once submitted, the checklist had sixty-two species including Brown Creeper and Chestnut-backed Chickadees.

Our next stop was quick. We drove down a dirt road into the parking lot for Olema Marsh. There was a path leading away into the marsh, but we were only going to pick up some key species near the cars. On the other side of the parking lot, a hill led down into the marsh. Virginia’s Rail was supposed to be here. As we waited for it to show, we enjoyed Common Yellowthroats and Allen’s Hummingbirds as they hunted for insects. Then, we heard the rails. They were squabbling among the reeds. These chicken-like birds with long beaks were colored to look like the reeds and were rarely seen. I had never seen one even though I had encountered them a few times in similar habitat. Not expecting to actually see the birds, we went back to the cars and to another location.

At our next location, we drove north to Inverness, a town on the western side of Tomales Bay. The parking lot was limiting. There were only five or six thin parking spaces in the back of a run-down shop. So, having large birding vehicles, some had to park parallel to the curb. The first thing I noticed on the beach beyond the parking lot was a white gull. As others came, they also saw the pallid gull. Before we could identify it though, the crowd of people emerging from the cars inclined the gull to walk down the beach. After persuing it for a few yards, it took flight and soared away.

Then we set up the scopes and scanned the water. As the group watched the grebes and tried to identify them either as Western or Clark’s, the young birders and I took a scope and walked farther down. It was set up again in sight of a wharf where Black Turnstones ran up and down on the decaying wood. We also saw a Mixed flock of Greater and Lesser Scaup. About half an hour later, we went back to the rest of the group and learned they had seen a Bald Eagle just above the ridge overlooking the road. It was then that I noticed some members of the group had disappeared, and some others had mysteriously conjured paper bundles that they were eating from. Then I realized they were coming from the store. My dad had also bought us both a sandwich. I ate half of it and then it was time to go. I wrapped it up and put it with the other food we had brought. Then, just as the caravan had taken to the road, a large bird flew spread-eagled above the trees shading the street. It was, in fact, another Bald Eagle. The entire group saw it, as I learned at the next destination.

The cars in front of the pack pulled into the beginning of an unpaved road where we would bird next. This was Mount Vision Road. There was no more room to park. So our car kept along the road to look for a parking spot farther down. All the cars behind us followed as we made a U-turn and parked on the opposite side of the road. Then we joined the rest of the group as they started up the dirt path. We were hoping to find MacGillivray’s Warbler here. We searched in low, dense bushes and listened for its call. We walked farther up the dirt path and found a covey of California Quails sitting at the end of a dead log trying to camouflage themselves. We also saw Allen’s Hummingbirds, Violet-green Swallows, and more Wilson’s Warblers, but we could not find the MacGillivray’s. So we walked towards the cars and saw members of the group aiming telephoto lenses at a clump of trees. As I got closer, I saw that they were looking at a Pacific-slope Flycatcher only a few yards away, catching insects in the tree.

The road to our next location was long. We drove up and down hills where cows grazed and Savannah Sparrows sang. There wasn’t much else except for a farm or two along the way. It reminded me of the seemingly endless road through thirty-two miles of Pawnee grassland in Colorado, but I saw occasional glimpses of the sea. Then I knew where we were. We were heading for the outer point on Point Rayes. There was sure to be lots of seabirds. On the way, we drove by the Cypress Tunnel. a road that passes underneath a grove of cypress trees. These were the only trees here. They could stand the sea wind much better than most deciduous trees. As we passed a farm, Ruth said that they had once stopped here and found Great-horned Owls and Barn Owls roosting together.

When we reached the edge of the water, the cars stopped in a small loop protruding from the road. Everyone parked and the scopes were taken out. I saw Western Gulls flying around the edge of Sunset Overlook and below. Large rocks were projecting from the crashing water and looking through the scopes, I saw hundreds of penguin-like Common Murres congregating on every flat surface available. Farther out, Cormorants flew with wings almost touching the water. Both Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants were common here and it was obvious which were which. The Pelagic Cormorants, now in breeding plumage, had large white spots which looked like a saddle; the Brandt’s didn’t. The spots on the Pelagic Cormorants were easy to see with binoculars, but in the end, we only had a count of five birds. A few Brown Pelicans were seen sitting on the rocks. And Pigeon Guillemots also floated on the ocean. Than an Alcid was spotted by Lucas Stephenson and he thought it looked like a Rhinoceros Auklet. Dave DeSante and Kenn Kaufman took a look and confirmed the identification. Lucas digiscoped it for the checklist. It was another life bird for me!

We drove a little more and came to the end of the road. It ended in a parking lot loop which was mostly filled up. It seemed to be a popular tourist spot. The group drove through, filling the remaining spots and the rest of the cars had to be satisfied with parking on the side of the road. We walked down the broad path leading to the fish docks. It then split into two; one path led through scrub and to the fish docks. The other path went down a hill among Cypress trees and to the far tip of the peninsula. we set up the scopes right at the fork and scanned the water. There were some loons out in the water which was identified as Common or Red-throated. A Common Loon in breeding plumage sat far out on the water. Pacific Loons were also here; another lifer! Then a very dark sparrow was seen in the scrub. At first glance, it looked like a fox sparrow, but when it popped out again, we saw its field marks were those of a Song Sparrow which was unusually dark.

Then I noticed that the group had shrunk. Upon further inspection, I saw that the Bay Area Birding Club was missing; they had gone off birding just down the path. I looked around back towards the parking lot and saw from the top of a bush a shimmering orange spot. I called out “Allen’s Hummingbird!” and everyone turned to look at and photograph it. More birds were seen; some more loons flew overhead, breeding Horned Grebes were scoped out on the water, and a raft of Surf Scoters floated on the water. I was watching the Scoters when I saw an unusual bird. Among the pied males, A small, dark individual rested on the waves. The orange knob on its bill looked like the Black Scoters in my field guide. The experts came to ID it and, even though it was hard to see, they confirmed my identification.

It was getting late. It was two o’clock, but we were supposed to be back around twelve thirty. Kenn was the keynote speaker for the evening event and he had to be back soon. He joked that maybe we could skip the evening event so we could keep birding. We started down the path the boys had gone. We were going to find them and bird along the way. In about five hundred feet, we reached a part where cypress trees stood in a circular formation around this section of the path. Owls were often reported here, so we settled down. we sat down and scanned the trees. We saw no owl. A couple members of the group went farther ahead to find the young birders. They came back without luck. We started heading back and when we were under a cypress tree, Fiona shouted “Bushtit!”. Out came the scopes again as the twittering pair brought grass and moss to furnish a nest in progress. This was a great find! Normally, Bushtits are common and can be heard from almost any point in their range, but the lack of habitat from the base of the peninsula to the tip makes bushtits a rarity on the Outer Point. As we stood there watching the birds, a group of hikers came by, asked what all the equipment was about. They looked through the scope to see the nest. It was very hard to find because of all the branches in front of it, so the birds going in and out were the only indication of something there. One hiker even attempted to photograph them; first having to find the birds himself, then finding it on his camera screen. Once the hikers left, we reluctantly packed up the scopes and made for the cars.

The boys had been missing, so we decided that Kenn would come with us back to the Dance Palace while the rest of the group searched for the avid birders along the trail. We were soon in the car and pulling out from our position on the side of the road. As we reached the top of the hill overlooking the parking lot we had just left, a few cars in front of us slowed and turned off the road. We saw the reason. Some trucks were coming up the hill and the cars in front of us had a small shoulder. Once the trucks were passed, we could continue along the road. During the long drive back, we passed through a large puddle spanning the entire road. We drove in hoping it wasn’t too deep. It turned out to be only a few inches at its deepest. My dad and I had encountered one of these a few weeks earlier looking for a Red-throated Loon, so we knew what it was like. During the rest of the uneventful drive, we tried to convince Kenn to attempt a Kingbird Highway number two using another fuel-efficient way of transportation, but he did not seem to like that idea. Then, Ruth saw a dark clump in a tree on the farm where they saw the owls. We stopped on the other side of the road and took out the scope. It was a Great-horned Owl which we needed for the day list. We watched it sleep for another fifteen minutes, and as I was sketching the bird, a pair of hikers came along the road. They also wanted to look at the bird through the scope. we were on the road again ten minutes later. Then we saw an osprey eating a fish on top of a telephone pole. The car slowed as we got ready to hop out again, but we decided to pass it.

Back at the Dance Palace, we got out of the car and took some photos with Kenn. When we were finished, we saw the rest of the cars parked at the curb and Ethan’s mom walking towards us. “Did you guys just get back?” she asked. We nodded, then explained that we had seen a Great-horned Owl, how could we resist? She understood. By now, we were walking inside to help set up. We were attending the evening program, but when we signed up, all the seats had already been filled. We agreed to help set up the outside dining area and the inside auditorium in exchange for a few sixty-dollar seats in the back of the room.

Posing with Kenn Kaufman.

Jessica first had us come to a back room to find a volunteer T-shirt for us. We had to polish wine glasses first. We would take one out of a crate, wipe its base and cup with a towel and set it on the table. There were three crates of twenty-five glasses each, so I was glad to have the help of two other boys also trying to earn a seat. Our next job was moving heavy wooden tables so they wouldn’t rock back and forth with lumps of dirt under two legs. Then we had to put chairs around the tables, ten chairs to a table, and fill the auditorium with chairs.

Volunteering to earn seats in the speech.

By now, the food was out and guests were arriving. When we were finished, it was four o’clock and the people had all come back from their birding trips. Kenn Kaufman was sitting at a table in a corner signing copies of his books. I did not have any of his field guides or Kingbird Highway, so I with three other members of the Bay Area Birding Club went for the second time that day to the preserve down the road. We walked down the paths finding Savanah Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, and more Red-winged Blackbirds. At the fence bordering the marsh, we scanned the landscape revealing a pair of Bald Eagles sitting on a low snag in the distance. At this time, two of the other boys decided to find a Black Rail. So, they went beyond the fence and into the tall grass at the edge of the swamp. I was worried that we wouldn’t have time for dinner and time until the ceremony, so we left, unable to pull them out of the marsh. Not having eaten since lunch, I was starving. I piled my plate with linguini, salad, and bread and sat down to eat. I had seconds, and when I was finished with that, it was almost time for the speech.

Talking to Kieth Hansen, a bird artist from the bay.

My legs had a cramp. It had been creeping up as I helped out and birded, but now it was in full force. we were on our way to the car to get a bottle of water to help my legs when my dad realized he did not have the keys. We backtracked to where he had sat and talked while I looked in the volunteer room. He eventually told Jessica who told everyone to look for a set of keys. We kept looking. This time we searched near the car. We found them in the keyhole of the trunk to our car. What a relief! It was now time to go to the auditorium for the speech. My Dad interrupted the group Jessica was talking with to tell her we had found what we were looking for. Everyone cheered, then we went to find a seat in the auditorium. Before the speech began, we noticed the phone with the directions to get home was at four percent. we had used it to get to the station, get around, and we needed to use it to get back. My dad went out to borrow a charger and came back quickly. The phone was plugged into a nearby outlet. Now we could sit back and listen to the speech.

The speech was about Kenn’s new book titled A Season on the Wind. It was about bird migration. During the speech, He talked about his experience with birds and how he grew up to write about them. At the end of the speech, It was time for most people to go, but not us! We still had to stick around helping to remove the chairs from the auditorium and sweep the floor, but when that was done, we could go.

When we got home (two hours later), we stayed up recounting the story to my mom. It was eleven thirty when I finally got to bed. It had been a wonderful day of birding in which I saw four new birds, tallied one hundred species for the day, and made new birding friends. Below are links where you can see all the checklists for the day.

Link to checklist for:

San Pablo Bay

Bear Valley Visitor Center

Olema Marsh

Inverness Store

Mount Vision Road

Sunset Overlook

Fish Docks

Outer Point

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