Thursday, February 18, 2010

First Multi-Day Bike Trip for 2010 - the Carrizo Plain

I had a four day holiday weekend Feb. 12 - Feb. 15, the weather report was great, and it was a good time of year to visit and bird the Carrizo Plain (in the far eastern part of San Luis Obispo County). I spent Friday on a check-out-the-bike ride, and I packed for the trip. Even with much planning, I was carrying 45 pounds of food and gear (clothing for cold morning temperatures and much food because there was no food in California Valley!). I decided to take my scope and tripod (9 pounds!), but not my SLR camera. I would try digiscoping with a point and shoot instead.
On Saturday - day one, I felt good in the beginning. My first 8 miles to Highway 41 took about 25 minutes (mistake #1 - I started off too fast - not at a pace for a 75 mile trip)(mistake #2 was taking a tough ride on a new bike's 2nd ride - the body needs time to get used to a new bike, even though I adjusted it almost identically to my old bike). When I hit Highway 41, I realized that a strong offshore wind was blowing - in my face. Hills + weight + head wind + distance = agony. I was tired in my first 15 miles - 1/5 of the way to the destination! I turned off 41, at Cerro Alto, to look and listen for the Pygmy Owl, Mt. Quail and Band-tailed Pigeon that live in this wooded canyon, but no luck (probably too windy).
This birding break from the hill climb helped and I was downhill into Atascadero before too long (25 miles in 2 hours from the start), with White-breasted Nuthatches (trip BIGBY #1)welcoming me from either side of the road. I took a loop around Atascadero Lake, and had a Mute Swan (non-countable escapee) and a Cackling Goose, which looked like a pipsqueak with the domestic geese. I continued on 41 and had some Band-tailed Pigeons (trip BIGBY #2) fly over me as I cycled in Atascadero. On the east side of town, a bunch of White-throated Swifts (trip BIGBY #3)chattered by and acrobatically fed on flying insects around the Salinas River Bridge. BIGBY #4, Common Raven, soon followed (from then on it was my most common bird). The cycling was not easy - every time I had a good downhill, a worse uphill followed! I realized as I left Atascadero that I only had one water bottle of liquid. (mistake #3 - always fill up water bottles before leaving town for the open country).
By the time I got to Creston, the wind and many climbs had me very hungry and very exhausted (only about 1/2 way to CA Valley and well after noon). I ate a hefty meal and went down O'Donovan to Highway 58 where I practically collapsed when I reached La Panza Road (I should have taken the shorter La Panza from 41 - mistake #4 was not checking route distances carefully enough). I took a 15 minute break lying on a south facing slope in the warm sun, messaging my tight and aching thighs, neck, arm pits, triceps and traps. This helped and I was still alert enough to see a Yellow-billed Magpie (trip BIGBY #5)flying between large bare live oaks along 58 as I restarted. The next stretch, including the last long hill before the descent into California Valley, had me doubting if I would really make it to the motel. But I had no choice - no back up plan since my wife was in L.A. and my kids were out of town.
I very slowly pedalled the rest of the way to California Valley, with just enough energy to notice a very loud flock of 200-300 Tricolored Blackbirds enjoying the last sunlight in the tops of some leafless trees at 58 and Bitterwater Road. I also, somehow, saw a quiet Ferruginous Hawk (trip BIGBY #6) take off from a pole next to the highway, as I approached Soda Lake Road. I reached the motel at about 5:30 PM, having ridden on fumes the last 4 mile level stretch. I rode about 75 miles in over 9 hours.(This was harder than my one and only marathon run!)
The owner manager was gracious and I was probably not. I said very little as I rolled my bike into my room and flopped onto the bed. The room was a little funky, but clean. The furniture looked like garage sale mismatch and slightly worse for wear, but it was comfortable and the remodelled bathroom was spotless. After a long hot shower and a huge dinner from the food I carried, I barely had enough energy to take some notes and set up for the next day's ride. I also cramped badly in the quads, hamstrings, calves and feet. (mistake #5 - more stretching and more electrolytes - something better than Gatorade next time).
After a good nights sleep, I felt fine, but day #2 started with fog! (I cycled all the way there for dense fog?!) I was on the road with all my cold weather gear (including fleece lined leg warmers and a face warmer - see photo), and could only see about 10 - 20 feet from the road! I did have a lighter bike with only one partly full pannier after leaving food and clothes at the motel. I also did see some Mt. Bluebirds from the road, but few raptors. The sparrows were not moving around much.
At about 9:00, it was clearing and at about 9:30 it was glorious! It warmed up, I peeled off layers, the birds were active, and I could see that the lake (Soda Lake) was full. Sage Sparrows (trip BIGBY #7) lined the path from the turnout near the lake overlook (see my map)and were joined by shrikes, Savannah Sparrows, Meadowlarks and White-crowneds. The Sages ran along the ground with their tails up, like little roadrunners. The lake had a couple hundred avocets wading out in the water. The plain was beautiful for the rest of the day - bright green hills and meadows with splashes of the yellow of early goldfields and pools of water reflecting the clear blue sky. The lush fields and jagged hills of Carrizo Plain contrasted with many rundown homesteads, which had a feeling of isolated desperation with their dead trees, dilapidated buildings and mobile homes, and yards with long-broken washing machines and other machinery, furniture and tires. I stopped at the Goodwin Education Center which had an informative interpretive display on the wildlife and geology, but what happened to the habitat there!?
The ride back north to the motel was birdy and Sage Sparrows were in almost every stand of brush along the road. Occasional Vesper Sparrows (trip BIGBY #8) were in several mixed sparrow flocks along the road - often showing their white outer tails in flight as I pedalled by. A Prairie Falcon (#9)flew from a low pole and away from the road as I cycled the mostly level Soda Lake Road, with a tailwind. The blue of the male Mt. Bluebirds seemed to almost glow in the bright sunlight as I passed a few small flocks. The Carrisa Plains School was alive with birds (e.g Tricolored Blackbirds) feeding on some fruit in the ornamental trees, but the dozen or more collared doves were an unpleasant addition. A flock of over 1,000(!) Long-billed Curlews fed out in a pasture behind the community center, with a few calling out their name as they moved to a new feeding spot. A Merlin took off from a fence post and quickly flew over the plowed field.
This would be a great place to drive and stay at the motel and then break out the bike in mid-morning for a beautiful and easy tour of the plain.
I road an easy 40 miles around the plain and got back to the motel feeling relaxed. I had no cramps in the evening, but I was bored after I cleaned up, took some notes and packed for the next day's ride home. There was no TV and I did not bring a book because of the weight. There was a radio which only has AM reception, with its Spanish-language stations, right-wing talk shows, and born-again broadcasts. I reluctantly threw out much of the unused food that I would likely not use on the ride back - to save weight and got to bed very early.
Day 3 started mostly clear at 6:30, but by 7:30 it was very foggy. I left at about 8:00 and started my ride home with some fear that drivers might not see me in the wet fog. I listen for the sound of tires over bots dots to let me know that approaching vehicles were going around me as there was no bike lane on 58. I had learned not to wear my binoculars on my bike as some pickup truck drivers appeared to pass and then purposely cut back in very close to me when I had the binocs. on my back on the day before.
I saw very little as I approached the hills on the west edge of the plain. As I got into the hills, the fog lifted and I enjoyed the sun, the tailwind, and the junipers dotting the grassy slopes. I heard the birds calling as I cycled past - a towhees "tink", a raven's "croak" and a magpie answered my Gatorade belch with a series of calls sounding like a nasally jay. What a difference a change in direction made from two days prior! I started at an easy pace and enjoyed the ride back to Santa Margarita. I stopped and photographed the fields of Shooting stars at Red Hill Road (see the photo). I heard the short and easily imitable "come here" whistle of Phainopeplas (BIGBY trip bird #10) in three locations between there and milepost 16. They hung out in the large bare valley oaks which had many yellow-green clusters of mistletoe. The yellow blossoms of fiddleneck lined the road in places. I was taking the shortest way back to Santa Margarita and home on 58.
After a good sandwich at the mercantile in Santa Margarita, I headed for Cuesta Grade. The start of the bike path before the 101 summit was not very obvious (just a littered drainage ditch) and the start of the dirt road/bike path at the summit seemed to be unmarked. At first, I saw no other bikes and wondered if I had gone the right way. As I sat fixing a flat, many other cyclists came by. (Good thing I had a patch kit and a spare tube as my new spare tube had a defective valve.) The flat, and a headwind on Los Osos Valley Road, were all I could complain about as I arrived home just before 4 PM, feeling tired but fine. On my next trip I will have a high pressure pump and different brake pads as the ones I had were not very quick to slow me. I may take my SLR and leave the scope, tripod,and point and shoot camera as the digiscoping was slow and cumbersome to set up when I spotted a bird and I missed the capabilities of my SLR.
The trip mileage was about 75 miles out, 40 miles on the plain, and 67 miles back. My bike did well (I used all the gears), I learned some lessons about touring, and I saw 10 new birds for my BIGBY! The Plain really is a beautiful place!

A New Bike for BIGBY

My old bike wasn't worth fixing (I couldn't find someone to weld it and it required lower gears, a new derailleur, etc.). I looked at Craig's List and other sites on line for a used touring bike, but the selection was very limited and none fit my needs. So, I called all the county's bike shops, to see what they recommended and what they had in stock. I checked bike dealer web sites, as well as bike forums and other internet sites that reviewed bikes. I decided to get a bike made for touring (more rugged and more comfortable for longer rides with baggage). I wanted to stay under $1,000, if possible. I liked Surly, Rocky Mountain, Navara(REI), and Raleigh touring bikes because they were readily available, comparatively affordable, and heavily reviewed (mostly positive). I tried out several bikes at the local Cambria Bicycle Outfitters (CBO) and the ones I liked were all over $1,000. I ruled out cyclocross bikes as not really set up for serious touring - not the right geometry, ruggedness, or fittings. Then CBO showed me a new (but last year's model) Rocky Mountain Sherpa 30, a very good touring bike with all the fittings for racks, and geared low (32 tooth large rear gear) - it was ready for a long mountain touring ride. They would sell the bike for under $1,000 although the MSRP was $1,800 and their reduced price had been $1,600! I found no new Sherpa 30s on line for under $1,600. It felt great and I prefered buying from a local bike shop, so I couldn't say "No". After swapping my old crotch-comfortable seat for the new one, and putting on my old clip-in pedals, I was ready with my new Sherpa 30 touring bike! (I bought some leg warmers, a lighter tool kit with seat post bag, and a small light pump). The dealer checked my tools so I could take out ones I didn't need and add those I did. I used the rear rack from my old bike and mounted my waterproof Ortlieb rear panniers and handlebar bag that I had ordered from (great prices and advice). I was very happy with the fit, the performance and the price of my new bike!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Are Bad Pictures Better Than None?

On February 11, I had to take a break from work. I got onto my mountain bike (which I leave at work) and took a quick 10 mile loop around San Luis Obispo looking for birds. My first stop was the waste-water treatment plant in town, to look for a new BIGBY species - the Black-and-white Warbler found on the Christmas count by Michael Hansen. It hadn't been seen in the three plus weeks since the count, but it was worth a look. I figured I'd ride along the new creek-side bike path - the "path to nowhere" (it just ends near the plant's open ponds and then you have to turn around and go back to the beginning). I would ride along and listen for bushtit/chickadee flocks because I wasn't going to find the warbler if it wasn't with a vocal flock (fortuately, wintering warblers often associate with vocal flocks that warn of predators). The second mixed flock I heard along the path had about 30 or 40 birds in it, including a Black-and-white Warbler climbing along the branches of the mostly leafless willows and other trees along the creek! It first came to my "pishing" along with butterbutts, chickadees, kinglets and several Anna's Hummingbirds. I got my camera out and it did not have a long lens on. By the time I swapped lenses and was ready to snap, it was gone. I stashed my bike and bushwhacked down to the creek to try and get some photos. The birds were no longer as responsive to my pishing (or owl whistles), so I searched through the flock, only getting fleeting glances at the Black-and-white. I snapped away and got the two shots posted - terrible but identifiable for documentation (the rest were even worse!).
I had to take off and complete my loop so I could back to work. I took two other quick stops, but found nothing new. Had the Great-tailed Grackles finally succumbed to the food at Costco where they had been hanging out (just kidding - don't sue me Costco)? Where was the Ferruginous Hawk that everyone else has been seeing along Foothill? Oh well, one new BIGBY bird for my break was OK.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Odds and Ends - 2/7

Since the weather was a little uncertain for later in the day, I decided to do some fairly local biking, hiking, and birding. Also, there were still several new BIGBY species within 10 miles of where I live. I got up early to get on the road for my first stop - the Morro Bay State Park Marina peninsula, to look for Nelson's Sparrow at first light. This secretive sparrow is often seen with Savannah Sparrows at extremely high tides along this edge of Morro Bay. Lately, birders have also found it at first light at the same spot even when the tide was not so high. I arrived at a little after 7:30 AM (about a 5 mile ride) and slowly approached the usual spot - an inconspicuous patch of mugwort (green after the rains), bordered by taller coyote bush. Several Savannah Sparrows were up in the morning sun, but I could see no sparrows with the Nelson's orange face. I took out my iPod touch and played a recording of a Nelson's Sparrow and got a response. Another play and another response. Then a sparrow popped up, onto the coyote bush, showing an ochre face. Then all of the sparrows (including the Nelson's) flew off into the salicornia out in the bay, for no apparent reason.
After a wait and no return of the sparrows I went to the campground to search for a White-throated Sparrow which had been seen in December - in among the RV sites near the entrance kiosk. I found a flock of mostly Golden-crowned Sparrows working the ground around several sites. At the base of a bush was a White-throated Sparrow (BIGBY #2) with tan stripes on the head. Finally! I had missed this species on at least ten tries already this year! I was unable to get photos of this bird, but did get a photo of one of the Golden-crowneds showing off his gold.
The nearby museum has two good overlooks of the bay - one to the south - toward the marina and farther Los Osos, as well as into the sun. The one to the north had better light and I spotted a Black Skimmer (BIGBY #3) roosting with some gulls on a sand bar out in the bay near "Grassy Island" which really ought to be called Salicornia Island, because it is not grassy.
I decide to push my luck and go onto the bay to look for Red-necked Grebe. Three was not a charm for this bird as I searched from the Rock along the edge of the bay, all the way back to the museum with no luck. Black Turnstones (pictured) were one of several rocky shorebirds on the jetty. My last stop at Black Hill for a Red-breasted Nuthatch (irregularly occurring here) was not successful after a two - three mile hike, but there were some interesting mushrooms. The ride home was uneventful for birds, but not for my bike as I got a flat tire (first for the year) as I rode up a hill approaching Los Osos. Not only did I fix the flat, but noticed a crack in my frame near the back axle! Did I need to buy a new bike or could I fix this one, or did the crack not matter? I certainly couldn't ride this bike until I found out.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A New Month and a New Pace

February was immediately very different than January. I was now going after one or two species at a time and multiple species trips would now mostly only involve trips of 40 or more miles. The easy days, of many new BIGBY birds in a day, were over for the year - the hard listing work was starting. (I don't want it to sound like I only bird to add year birds to my list because I enjoy a day of birding, even without any new species for the year.)
On February 1, I took an afternoon cycle from work for Ferruginous Hawk and Burrowing Owl - 2 new BIGBY species for me that had been recently seen on the west side of San Luis Obispo. (It meant I would have to come back and work late, but the ride would be worth it.)
The area was damp after the recent hard rains and the fields on the west side of town were flooded, with ponds having formed where there had been dry fields in the fall. I checked out the ponds and pasture near Foothill Boulevard for the hawk without luck, but it was interesting to note a grazing flock of at least four different forms of geese that were once all lumped together as Canada Goose. There were Aleutian Cackling Geese, minima Cackling Geese and the full size Canada Goose. The fourth was an intermediate form which I will have to study (see for a discussion). I next set off for the Burrowing Owl near Cuesta College and found it just where Maggie said it was - peaking out of a grassy mound in a large pasture hillside. It was in among many ground squirrels, which sometimes looked superficially like a Burrowing Owl until I looked more carefully. The owl watched me, but was too far away for a photo and people were working in the fields nearby, moving bee hives, so I couldn't get closer. I watched the owl for awhile and then set off for a another search for the Ferruginous. A perched Northern Harrier and a variety of ducks in the pond and wet fields were worth watching, but none were close enough for a good photo. I settled instead for a shot of the flooded fields as the sun set, and then pedalled back to work, glad I took the break.