Invent a new activity called "birdathlon," similar to Olympic biathlon in combining two disparate activities, one involving aerobic activity and producing a high heart rate (running in both cases) and the other a stationary activity benefiting from a low heart rate (shooting in the case of biathlon, birding in the case of birdathlon). Run and bird the entire length of the Bay Area Ridge Trail (BART) in Santa Clara County, from the Santa Clara County/Alameda County line in Ed Levin Park to the Santa Clara County/Santa Cruz County line at the entrance to Long Ridge Open Space Preserve, a length of 41.9 miles. The entire trail to be covered on foot, with a car ferry between segments (because the existing segments of BART in the county are non-contiguous). The segments which were included are discussed below in separate sections. Birds were only counted when on the trail, including the parking lots at the beginning and end of the trail but excluding any birds seen while travelling by car.
Please note the proper spelling and pronunciation of this event. Like "biathlon," "duathlon," and "triathlon," "birdathlon" has one "a" and three syllables, i.e., bird-ath-lon, not bird-ath-a-lon.
Segment 1 - Ed Levin Park (5.9 miles, elevation gain 600')
The Santa Clara County line is reached by following BART along the Calera Creek Trail and Agua Caliente Trail to Scott Creek. The distance is only 2.5 miles, but it has to be done as an out-and-back, doubling the distance. Furthermore, at our 6:40 a.m. start, the park is closed, necessitating an extra half mile (twice) in and out of the park from the nearest road. We allowed 90 minutes for this section, but the birding was so good it ended up taking 20 minutes longer.
Left: Just outside Ed Levin Park, 6:45 a.m.
Right: Santa Clara/Alameda County line, 7:55 a.m.
Crew chief Debi Jamison helps spot birds at the start of the
assisted (?) by Caspian the Welsh Terrier
Since this was the first stop, everything we saw had to be checked and counted; there is also a mix of habitats, with open fields, wooded creeks, and an open lake. 31 species were counted here, starting with Violet-green Swallows on the phone wire above our parked car at 6:41 a.m. Highlights included several Yellow-billed Magpies near the county line, an Ash-throated Flycatcher singing in a tree at the start of the official BART route at Calera Creek Trail (past the west end of Sandy Wool Lake), a White-tailed Kite, and a Black-crowned Night-Heron flying low across Sandy Wool Lake.
Segment 2 - Alum Rock Park (2.0 miles, elevation gain 600')
BART starts from the Penetencia Creek entrance, following the Creek Trail, crosses the creek to the North Rim Trail, includes the Todd Quick Trail and finishes at the end of the North Rim Trail across from YSI. The Boccardo Trail is also designated as an official BART segment, but because it is essentially a "spur" trail we didn't include it. As with Ed Levin, good birding caused us to take 15 minutes longer than "predicted" for this segment.
Left: Alum Rock Park Creek Trail, 9:15 a.m.
Right: The view from the Todd Quick Trail, 9:45 a.m.
Injured rattlesnake on the Todd Quick Trail, 9:50 a.m.
Birding was also good here, with 13 species added. The highlight was watching two Red-shouldered Hawks actively mating in the tree opposite the parking lot at the start of the North Rim Trail; other highlights included a close-up look at a House Wren on the North Rim Trail, and hearing (but not seeing) both Wilson's Warbler and Western Wood-Pewee at the final (YSI) parking lot. One aspect of a birdathlon, as comparing to a simple birdathon and particularly given our ambitious schedule of covering 41 miles in a day, was that we had to "cut our losses" when looking for a bird. In a normal birdathon, we would have stayed longer and most likely seen the Wilson's and/or the Wood-Pewee, but in this event we didn't have that luxury.
The photo of the Black-headed Grosbeak at the top of this report was taken near the end of the Alum Rock segment.
Segment 3 - Coyote Creek Parkway from Coyote Hellyer Park to Metcalf City Park (Parkway Lakes) (6.3 miles, elevation gain 0')
This is a straight segment, which we started from the Hellyer Park velodrome and ended at the Parkway Lakes parking lot just south of Metcalf city park. Coyote Creek trail continues south to Morgan Hill, but we again classified this section as a "spur" segment of BART and didn't include it in our route, nor did we include the Grant Ranch segment which is also a spur not (at the moment, in any case) on the "basic" BART route.
Starting down the Coyote Creek Trail, 11:15 a.m.
Although this route was our longest stretch of creekside running, we only picked up two new species here, and no creek-specific ones (e.g., kingfisher). We did get good looks at Northern Rough-winged Swallow in a typical habitat under the Highway 101 underpass, as well as a good look at an (already-seen) Ash-throated Flycatcher. At the very beginning of the run, a probable Western Tanager was heard in the trees, but our identification wasn't reliable enough to count.
Segment 4 - Santa Teresa County Park to Los Alamitos-Calero Creek Trail (4.3 miles, elevation gain 300')
Skipping the spur to Coyote Peak, the route follows BART from the Pueblo Group Area along the Pueblo Trail to the Mine Trail, the Stile Ranch Trail, the Calero Creek Trail, and finally the Los Alamitos/Calero Creek Trail. Although this seemed like a "simple" segment, we started it just after 1 in the afternoon at the heat of the day, on a day which saw record hot temperatures (over 90 at this point).
Left: Santa Teresa Park, 1:15 p.m.
Middle: Santa Teresa Park, 1:30 p.m. Yes, we did stop running when there were birds to be seen!
Right: Heading towards Coyote Valley in the heat of the day, 1:50 p.m.
Note that two of the team members (Don and Gillian), veterans of the Badwater Race
across Death Valley in the middle of the summer, are well prepared with desert hats and
long white-sleeved Sun Precautions shirts. The other member of the team suffered.
Only three species added here, but the highlight, and possibly the highlight of the day, was a Western Kingbird singing (and showing himself) in a large tree just south of the Pueblo Picnic Area parking lot (in the picture above left). His "fast-forward tape" call was totally distinctive and repeated over and over. The brief creek segment along Calero Creek yielded nothing new (and very little at all in the heat of the day).
Segment 5 - Almaden Quicksilver Park (4.7 miles, elevation gain 1200')
Lucky for us, the Almaden Quicksilver section of BART was dedicated just one week before our birdathlon! Actually we would have done this segment anyway, since it was a pretty clear "unofficial" segment of the trail even before that. The route proceeds from the Mockingbird Hill entrance, via the V.O. Norton, Hacienda, Capehorn, Mine Hill, Castillero, and Woods Trails to the newly opened park entrance on Hicks Rd. Again the heat of the day was oppressive and made for slow going on the steep uphills of this segment.
Left: The newly-dedicated V.O. Norton trail, 3:40 p.m.
Right: Starting on the newly opened Woods Trail nearing Hicks Rd., 4:40 p.m.
Three more species added here. The highlight was Hutton's Vireo. A quarter mile from Hicks Rd., the team had just finished listening to and viewing one at close range, only to find crew member Debi and her companion Caspian the Welsh Terrier lying on a picnic table, literally staring up at another Hutton's who was staring back down at her.
Segment 6 - Sierra Azul OSP to Lexington Reservoir (11.8 miles, elevation gain 2000')
After a rolling start along the Woods Trail, another steep climb eventually brings you to Mt. El Sombroso, at 2,999 feet the highest point on this route (actually the trail passes about 50-100 feet below the summit). It then follows Kennedy and Priest Rock Trails down to Lexington Reservoir. The latter two trails in particular are where the "Ridge Trail" lives up to its name, running the length of a ridge with expansive views to the north of Santa Clara Valley and to the south of more of Sierra Azul and the Santa Cruz Mountains. We started this segment at 5:30 p.m., so the heat of the day had subsided, and by the time we finished the last mile or so of downhill down to Lexington Reservoir (which we hit at 8:45 p.m.), it had become dark enough to require flashlights.
Left: Starting into Sierra Azul, 5:30 p.m.
Right: Rapidly fading light along the Priest Rock Trail, 7:50 p.m.
Three more species added here, with the highlight being a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher heard (but not seen) very close to last light (close to where Don and Gillian - the two white dots on the trail - are seen in the picture above right). The very last birds seen before the light faded completely was a covey of quail flushed as we ran down the Priest Rock Trail from Kennedy. The original plan called for a final round of waterfowl birding at Lexington Reservoir, but the fact that it was pitch black by the time we got there precluded that possibility.
Segment 7 - Sunnyvale Mountain (Sanborn Skyline Park) to Long Ridge (6.9 miles, elevation gain 200')
According to the original plan, we would have started this segment at 5:30 and finished at 7:15 with plenty of daylight to spare. Alas, the best laid plans etc. As it turned out, we wouldn't have been able to start this section until 9:15 p.m., with two hours or so of running left to do. We were prepared with headlamps and flashlights, but with probably a 1 in 5 chance of picking up a Great Horned Owl on this segment, decided to abort. Leaving our crew member parked alone at Saratoga Gap for two hours at night seemed like a very bad idea, and the fact that Debi and Steve had been in San Francisco the night before watching the premiere of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and didn't return home until after midnight made the decision not to go for a second post-midnight day even easier.
In the end, our ability to complete the original plan was done in by several factors. The record heat definitely slowed down our running, but even more than that, made for much longer "rest stops" than planned, as the team took extra time to re-hydrate and re-fuel between segments (of course we were drinking and eating while running as well). If we were to try this again, we would start earlier, taking advantage of the fact that the Ed Levin segment is an out-and-back, which means we could have started that segment before daylight, timing the run to reach the county line (and the turnaround) just at daybreak so we could come back and see just as many birds on the way back. But anyway it was a great day on the trail, and well worth the planning and effort that went into it, with the final results, 55 species, far exceeding our wildest expectations.
The team was composed of one beginning birder (Gillian) and two who are intermediate at best (Steve and Don). Debi, who rates as an advanced intermediate, added to the count by spotting birds at the beginning and end of each segment where she could point them out to us and add to our totals. But since she wasn't part of the actual team, any birds she saw by herself (a half-dozen more) weren't counted. Better birders doing exactly the same route would have no doubt added many more to our total, since we had a number of fairly common species (chickadee, titmouse) which we were pretty sure we heard but not positively, and since we never saw them we didn't add them to our count. Nevertheless, as noted in the previous paragraph, we were both proud and surprised by our final total of 55.
One of the team members, Steve Patt, had conducted two trial runs for this event, one of 44 miles (from Saratoga Gap to and thru Big Basin and back to Saratoga Gap), and another of 21 miles (from Wunderlich Park to Huddart and back). During the first of those, a grand total of 5 birds were seen. Not 5 species, 5 birds. During the second, the total was up to a whopping 7 species. Both runs proved the importance of the old real estate adage - location, location, location. A route predominately through woods (as both those runs were) makes for difficult birding in any case, and even more difficult birdathloning. Small motions which can catch your eye while standing still are a lot harder to detect when you're running! By contrast, the BART route taken on the Birdathon birdathlon was almost entirely through open areas, providing much better sight lines and easier birding and especially easier birdathloning.
One key to effective birdathloning, as discovered through trial and error on the trial runs, is proper care and feeding of the binoculars. Running for 35 miles, or any distance, with binoculars in your hand is not a practical choice, particularly when you also need your hands to eat and drink as you go. The solution adopted is shown here:
The binoculars are being held in place first of all using a standard "hiking strap" such as one can buy at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society store. Such a strap works well for simple walking, but when running, the binoculars will still bounce. This necessitates the addition of an elastic strap around the body to hold the binoculars in place while running, but from which the binoculars can be instantaneously extracted when a bird is heard or spotted. In this case, the strap is a standard "number belt" which is sold to female triathletes for holding a race number in place around their body so they don't have to stick pins through their bathing suit; fortunately, Debi was in possession of one. This arrangement worked absolutely perfectly, and is a must for the serious birdathloner. The other strap seen in the picture above, the black one just below the yellow elastic one, is a strap holding in place the waist pack containing food and drink for the run.
The other "trick" to using binoculars while running is to learn to control the breath. Coming to a stop to look at a bird, the birdathloner's breath will be rapid and, typically, moist. Glasses and/or binoculars can easily fog up and render the entire exercise useless. There are two solutions - either breathe out of the side of the mouth, expelling air forcefully to the side of the face (away from the glasses and binoculars), and/or hold one's breath (recommended for short periods only!) while spotting the bird.
Obviously, the better one's bird call I.D. skills are, the more successful one will be as a birdathloner, perhaps not even having to rely on binoculars at all. For the relatively inexperienced members of Team Ridgerunners, that wasn't an option.
Final Final Thought:
A great way to spend a day!
For more reading...
High resolution copies of all of Steve Patt's birdathlon pictures (the ones on this page and more) are on the web at:
http://community.webshots.com/user/slpatt (click on "Bay Area Ridge Trail Birdathlon")
High resolution copies of all of Don Lundell's birdathlon pictures are on the web at: http://www.dclundell.net/running/photos/2004-04-25_birdathlon/
Key: 1=Ed Levin, 2=Alum Rock, 3=Coyote/Hellyer, 4=Santa Teresa, 5=Almaden Quicksilver, 6=Sierra Azul (noting only where the bird was first seen or positively identified, not all sightings)
1 Blackbird, Brewer's 1 Blackbird, Red-winged 1 Bluebird, Western 3 Bushtit 1 Coot, American 1 Cormorant, Double-crested 1 Crow, American 1 Dove, Mourning 1 Egret, Great 1 Finch, House 4 Finch, Purple 1 Flycatcher, Ash-throated 1 Gadwall 6 Gnatcatcher, Blue-gray 1 Goldfinch, Lesser 1 Goose, Canada 1 Grebe, Pied-billed 2 Grosbeak, Black-headed 2 Hawk, Red-shouldered 1 Hawk, Red-tailed 1 Hummingbird, Anna's 1 Jay, Steller's 5 Junco, Dark-eyed 2 Kestrel, American 4 Kingbird, Western 1 Kite, White-tailed 1 Magpie, Yellow-billed 1 Mallard
4 Meadowlark, Western 1 Night-Heron, Black-crowned 1 Oriole, Bullock's 2 Phoebe, Black 1 Quail, California 1 Robin, American 1 Scrub-Jay, Western 1 Sparrow, Song 2 Starling, European 3 Swallow, Northern Rough-winged 1 Swallow, Tree 1 Swallow, Violet-green 1 Tern, Forster's 1 Towhee, California 6 Towhee, Spotted 2 Turkey, Wild 5 Vireo, Hutton's 2 Vireo, Warbling 2 Vulture, Turkey 5 Warbler, Orange-crowned 2 Warbler, Wilson's 2 Wood-Pewee, Western 2 Woodpecker, Acorn 1 Woodpecker, Nuttall's 2 Wren, Bewick's 2 Wren, House 6 Wrentit