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.

That's no mean task: Despite that density, San Francisco remains one of the top bird spots in the world. f the 800 or so species of birds nationwide, around 400 have been spotted in San Francisco, Hopkins says.

But Mosur and Clark are a far cry from the classic image of birdwatching as a retiree's game. Their attitude, passions, dress, and lifestyle are all San Francisco Generation Y. They intersperse birding lingo with exclamations of “Dude!” and “Sweet.” They come at birding with the sort of all-in artistic verve you might find in a Mission muralist, and with the sense of innovation and adventure of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Clark is a native San Franciscan and nonstop environmental proselytizer who works as an ecology consultant to cities seeking to re-establish native habitat. In 2008, he launched a Sebastopol nursery selling indigenous Northern California plants. Mosur, whose political dissident father fled Poland a quarter-century ago, came from San Diego to San Francisco during a low point in his life a decade ago because, he says, he'd heard dope was cheaper here. He soon met Clark, and became enthralled with the study of local wildlife. He quit toking for good, and now makes a living teaching kids about California nature.

Mosur retains some of his father's mindset, particularly when it comes to San Francisco's seemingly overwhelming desire to resist proposals to restore some natural plant and bird habitat to Fort Funston and thus limiting dog-walkers' range. “It's a huge piece of habitat that, if it were partitioned in a way where a little part could be revitalized, you could teach a full semester college course there on plants, birds, and the landscape,” he says. “But it's being instead used for a giant dog park. It would be like having a roll of toilet paper made out of hundred-dollar bills. You could build orphanages. You could feed the poor. But you're wiping your ass with it. That's what I think about when I see Fort Funston.”

Indeed, the most important way Mosur and Clark represent a new wave of environmentalism is in their focus not just on nature's inhabitants but on the restoration of urban ecosystems to benefit those inhabitants. In sporting terms, their work is like Olympic-caliber bird doping. Clark has helped the Department of Recreation and Parks restore natural plants to the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park. Now that area has become home to coyote as well as bird species like killdeer, black-bellied plovers, and western meadowlark, which Mosur and Clark eagerly mark on their tally sheets each time they attempt to break the local birding record.

These athletes-cum-advocates' larger goal is to help grow the urban ecology movement, which seeks to repair the natural environment close to home. It's a way to cut through the ambiguity of modern environmentalism, whereby driving a Prius may — or may not — prevent climate change. But there's no question that restoring native plant life has helped bring back the song of the Sunset.

“Here, if you talk to anyone who grew up in San Francisco, they'll say, there was this bird in my neighborhood that used to go too, tee, te lu lu lu lu lu. And that's the white-crowned sparrow,” says Clark, stopping to listen to just such a bird as we pedal through the Sunset from Lake Merced toward Golden Gate Park. It's around 7:30 a.m., and we are at 45 species and counting. But somehow he has something on his mind other than numbers.

“That's the song of the avenues. If you don't have that song, something's missing,” he says. “We almost lost it from some of the areas. And now it's back.”

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