Urban Nature

On the Hunt with Dominik Mosur, Record-setting Birder

November 15, 2011

Dominik Mosur calmly scans the tree line of Buena Vista Park through his binoculars from the sidewalk below. In a large Carhart jacket with loose jeans and his long hair poking messily from his baseball cap, he easily identifies birds amongst the trees by their calls, flight styles, colors and sizes. But they’re not the species he’s after.

His phone rings. “This could be the call,” he says. “‘Alright, excellent, you just saw it? I’ll be right there.'”

Mosur, 34, recently achieved San Francisco’s record for identifying the most bird species in a one year period within the 49-square-mile city limits. The accomplishment, known within the birding community as a “Big Year,” is somewhat obscure to the wider public, but has gained star power this year thanks to the recent Hollywood film, Big Year, starring Steve Martin.

On this early November day, Dominik is in pursuit of a bird that would put him up to No. 257. The previous record of 254 was set in 2005 by Hugh Cotter during a competition amongst local birders.

Birding Corona Heights
Mosur scans Corona Heights for birds. Photo by Richard Karevoll.

In an instant, the silence of the neighborhood is filled with the thundering clap of shoes pounding against concrete toward Corona Heights Park. Feverishly, Mosur scans the house numbers and makes a wrong turn up a staircase. Back down again, he draws the attention of a wary woman with a little dog who quizzes him on what he’s up to.

“I’m looking for a Scott’s oriole,” he tells her, a bird that has no business being in San Francisco at this time of the year.

Finally, he reaches his destination. At the top of a beautiful tile staircase, a man ushers him into a meticulous home, asking that he remove his shoes. “Thanks for the call,” says Mosur.

The man saw the Scott’s oriole a few days ago, knew it wasn’t a regular, and called in the sighting to the Randall Museum, where the birder works, caring for 14 bird species and as many as a hundred other injured animals. Tips like this are how Dominik got to where he is today.

On October 25, Mosur got another tip from a fellow birder that a swamp sparrow was hanging around the East end of Lake Merced, near the concrete bridge. Without hesitation he followed the lead and recorded his 255th bird of the year. It dawned on him that without even really trying he had beaten the local record.

“Dom’s successful ‘Big Year’ attempt has brought interest and excitement to the birding community,” said Cotter in a press release from the Randall Museum. “It is a testament not only to his skills as a birder but also to his commitment, patience and perseverance to find and identify so many species of birds and to achieve this record with more than two months to spare.”

Scott's oriole
A Scott’s oriole in its home range in the Mojave. Creative Commons photo by Marcel Holyoak.

Mosur’s eyes light up as he sees the back yard. A very well maintained garden with scores of flowers, bird feeders and succulents are the perfect setting for the insect-eating bird, a desert relative of the blackbird, which by all accounts should be relaxing in a much warmer climate by now.

“The Scott’s oriole is not supposed to be here,” says Mosur. “It’s supposed to be in the Mojave Desert or Mexico this time of year. He must have gotten lost and is holing up in this guy’s yard.”

According to Mosur, the Scott’s oriole hasn’t been officially spotted in San Francisco for more than five years. He waits. Half an hour passes. He whispers to himself, scanning the yard with intent eyes, mentally cataloguing all the birds that dart about the lively green oasis. Suddenly he stiffens, his face and whole body go motionless and his eyes take a fixed stare. “There it is, on the left branch of that fern.”

He reaches for his camera, but it’s as if the bird senses his anticipation and as quickly as it appeared, the yellow and black Scott’s oriole disappears. And with that, the bird becomes a “lifer” to Mosur.

“I may see that bird again and again in my life,” he says. “But probably not here in San Francisco and certainly never again for the first time.”

What started out ten years ago when he joined a birding walk in Golden Gate Park, has matured into an obsession within the last six years. He rises early in the morning most days and follows leads to all stretches of San Francisco. Once a year he and a few friends get up at 4 am and bike through the entire city until past sundown to partake in a “Big Day” (a one-day equivalent of the Big Year, a race to see the most birds in 24 hours). Mosur also leads monthly bird watching strolls for the public in conjunction with Golden Gate Audubon Society.

“I really feel I was meant to be with birds,” he says. “Here I am taking care of them, looking for them as a hobby, and taking people on walks to get them interested too.”

The Big Year competition is an informal one and as Mosur puts it, he isn’t in it for any other reason than his love of birds; if he sets a record along the way than that is just an added bonus. The community of birders is relatively small but very active and tightly knit. Just that morning a 13-year-old young man from the Presidio had joined Mosur in looking for birds in Corona Heights Park.

Back on the street, Mosur meets two older men emerging from a car with binoculars around their necks. “Did you see it?” they ask.

He tries to conceal his fresh enthusiasm. “I did,” he responds. “If you watch this tree line, or maybe go up to the next street and look down into these yards; it’s still around here.” They congratulate him and Mosur’s face colors red. “Those guys are cool,” he says.

Since the Scott’s oriole sighting on November 7, Mosur has gone on to spot a northern harrier and a Lucy’s warbler, bringing his count to 259. The Big Year extends the calendar year, giving Mosur another month and a half to further his growing record.

About the Author

Marin native and surfer Richard Karevoll just graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in journalism.

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