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!

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