Spotting Birds at a Record Pace, with a Camera and a Bike

This story has been corrected since it was first published. We incorrectly stated that there were "800 or so species of birds worldwide" when we meant to say "nationwide."

Just after 5 a.m. on April 18 at the concrete footbridge traversing southern Lake Merced, a San Francisco urban-ecology adventurer detects an unusual sound.

"I heard some lesser goldfinches over here," says Dominik Mosur, 33, a soft-spoken immigrant from Poland with a memory packed with hundreds of bird calls.

"Did you really?" chimes in Josiah Clark, 36. "That's amazing! I didn't even know they sang at dawn."

Today, Clark and Mosur, along with less-experienced birding companion Brian Turner, hope to break the record of 149 bird species seen or heard in a single day within San Francisco city limits. That record was set in 2007 by a crew led by former Golden Gate Audubon Society chapter president Alan Hopkins, 59, who crisscrossed the city by car. Mosur and Clark hope to best it on bikes, while also surpassing their own San Francisco bike-birding record of 138 species in a day.

This isn't as obscure a pursuit as it might seem: Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson are scheduled to star this fall in The Big Year, based on a true story about men outdoing each other at competitive bird-watching.

Clark and Mosur have for several years aimed to best the 24-hour record in mid-April, when the city hosts its greatest number of migrating birds. Yet though they've spent thousands of hours birding here over the years, they seem today to be making unprecedented discoveries every few minutes in what is turning out to be a snapshot-in-time audit of San Francisco's constantly changing natural landscape. Many of the new discoveries provide provide reason for optimism about birds' ability to thrive in the city. Despite the encroachments of human progress — or maybe because of progress in a new form — San Francisco's hidden natural ecosystems are changing in many areas for the better.

That's because San Francisco, despite being the western United States' most densely populated city, is also the heartland of a growing urban ecology movement that promises to become environmentalism's next wave. During the past 10 years, more and more locals have worked individually, formed groups, and then networked with other like-minded groups to restore, preserve, protect, expand, and proselytize about the pockets of natural ecosystems that exist within the city's gritty environs.

These local organizations, which now number at least 50, include homeowners in the western Sunset neighborhood working to establish a native plant species corridor that connects groups of endangered green hairstreak butterflies, and kids in the eastern Bayview-Hunters Point housing projects re-creating bayshore wetlands in the former industrial wastelands of Heron's Head Park.

More habitat, of course, means more birds. And Heron's Head is where Mosur and Clark detect an endangered California clapper rail, which has only recently returned to this side of the bay. All day long we witness similar stories of rejuvenated nature.

In Pine Lake Park, site of a habitat restoration project cutting eucalyptus and ivy to make room for native willow and other plants, Clark and Mosur spot Baltimore orioles, Allen's hummingbirds, and golden crowned sparrows.

Best of all, "Wilson's warblers were singing all over the place," Mosur says. "If they're moving through habitat that's marginal, they tend not to be as vocal. But here, they were singing and hanging out for days on end, hoping to attract a mate and build a nest there."

After riding 60 or so miles during 16 hours, Mosur, Clark, and Turner spend the final hour of their quest at Crissy Field on a wild snipe hunt — yes, there really is such a thing. They don't find the snipe. And they wrap up their list with a baby barn owl, discovered at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina neighborhood. The species is thought to have abandoned nesting in this area since 1918, says Clark, who credits habitat restoration in the Presidio for the owl's return.

They end up stuck at 136 bird species, just two shy of their record and well afield of the 149 Hopkins managed in a car. "I'm pretty exhausted," says Clark at 10 that evening, lying in a patch of native plants reintroduced by the National Park Service about 50 yards from the Crissy Field bay shore.

He adds, "But if you feel like you try your hardest, it doesn't matter if you won. You feel good. We're doing a local test of the environmental canary in the coal mine. And it was amazing for us to go around the city and observe these different creatures thriving in their environment."


Mosur and Clark are two of the West Coast's top birders. In 2008, Clark set a record for most Northern California birds found in a year-long quest that included bicycling to Mono Lake. He ultimately detected 295 birds. But it's the quieter Mosur who displays a truly uncanny knack for recognizing birdsong. For the past decade, he says, he has spent nearly every possible hour seeking out San Francisco species.

"I've wanted to be able to tell someone who asks about [any] bird in San Francisco. What does it eat? How does it nest?" he says.

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6 comments
Adam Reeder
Adam Reeder

People have no idea how intoxicating bird watching can be, I am not trying to be ironic, it really is an amazing experience. My BFF started a website called birdpost.com and it has helped me keep track of birds as well as locate ones I have not yet seen. Good article!!!

Writeguy
Writeguy

Typographical error in worldwide bird species. Article says 800. Worldwide species count is now more than 10,000.

Brian Turner
Brian Turner

After just a couple years on the birding kick, I truly think people would be baffled to know what is right out their doorstep... Huge thanks to all those like Josiah and Dom who truly care about their surroundings and, even more importantly, have a passion for youth education. Keep it up...

Andy Kleinhesselink
Andy Kleinhesselink

Great article Matt, right on Josiah. One factual error: article states there are around 800 species worldwide. There are in fact around 10 000 (ten thousand!).

 
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