Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Costly Roadrunner

On Friday, March 26, I decided to lunch-time bike up San Luis Mountain from work. This is a good location for Greater Roadrunner and a fun mountain bike ride. (the mountain is behind my bike in the picture). I went up with two friends. On the way up the mountain (mostly wide trails and fire roads - some of which were deeply rutted) I stopped and looked down and scanned for roadrunner. I did see one far off, on the top of a boulder - Bigby Bird # 219. I decided to go ahead and go all the way to the top, which I did - a steep and tiring climb. Unfortunately, on the way down I was a little casual and hit something in the road and was airborne! The flying was ok, but the sudden stop was not. Two fractured ribs later, I am taking a short break from bicycle birding. I will get back out as soon as I am able. I learned not to relax on a downhill mountain bike ride and not to forget to adequately deflate my tires and soften my shocks for such a trail.

Bird ID Challenge # 2

This pair was photographed at Cuesta Inlet, near where I live - on the edge of Morro Bay (Coastal Central California), on 3/25/10. Please let me know your ID and the reasons for your it, by clicking on "comments" at the bottom of this post. I will post the ID on Wednesday evening.
See the comments section for the answer.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bird ID Challenge # 1

This is an easy first mystery bird. I hope to post more. Please post your answer in the comments to this post, with reasons why you decided the way you did. Thanks. Hint: the bird was seen in San Luis Obispo county recently. I will make some of future bird ID challenges harder. Let me know what you think.
See the "comments" for the answer.

A Little Bit of Birding With That Biking

Since there were BIGBY species I needed in Atascadero and Paso Robles, I decided to pedal a 100 mile loop from my house in Los Osos, to Cerro Alto Campground, to Atascadero Lake, to Heilmann Park, to the Lewis's Woodpecker spot in northern Paso Robles (see my map) via the back roads east of Templeton, and then to home via Highway 46 and Highway 1. I had memories of the first day on my three day Carrizo Plain trip and I hoped that I wasn't pushing my cycling ablilities too far. It was going to be a long hilly ride.
I started at 7:15 AM and it was foggy with some frost on the roofs. (Bicycling gloves with the fingers cut off are not warm enough to bicycle in the cold! - I am making a list of things I have done wrong cycling and will post later) My first BIGBY species was Warbling Vireo, which was common once I left the coast. I could hear it in many spots as I pedalled up Highway 41 toward Atascadero. BIGBY bird # 2 also called from a farm on the way up. (I am not identifying this bird to see if readers of my blog can figure it out from the flight photo, shown above as the "Bird ID Challenge". It should be easy. I will post the I.D. with the comments.) Wild Turkeys were displaying in a couple of open spots along 41 and I took some photos of the competing males.
Cerro Alto was above the fog and the thick riparian habitat on the creek side of the road and the oaks on the other were noisy with bird song such as House Wren and Orange-crowned Warbler, but the only new migrant was Pacific-slope Flycatcher (BIGBY # 3) that I could hear. I stopped at San Gabriel where it crosses Highway 41, just outside of Atascadero. Purple Martins traditionally nest here, and 4 were flying around and perching in a large sycamore to the east of San Gabriel on the creek side of the highway (BIGBY # 4). I stopped at Atascadero Lake for a look-see and found a Phainopepla (pictured) in a mistletoe infested tree along with Great-tailed Grackles who were also eating the mistletoe. (Forget the proposed local bear season, how about a grackle season in San Luis Obispo County?) The wintering Cackling Goose was still present, with the domestic geese.
My next target bird was Green Heron at the ponds behind Heilmann Park and Chalk Mountain Golf Course. They are common here in the later spring, but none were visible this time. I did find two male Wood Ducks (BIGBY # 5), which would not let me get close enough for a photo. I pealed off my thermal top before leaving, but kept my light cycling jacket and leg-warmers on as there was still a cool breeze.
The route I had planned to get up to my next target bird in northern Paso Robles was a little shaky in that it had many turns with zigs and zags and I had never been that way before. On a 100 mile ride I didn't want to zig rather than zag and do many extra hilly miles. I did stop a few times to check my map on this rolling hilly route that wound through farm land and pasture, blooming with lupine, poppies, etc.
When I got to the Lewis's Woodpecker spot I found 2 of these large woodpeckers fairly quickly in this really marginal looking habitat - three old live oaks in abandoned pasture, that is quickly being developed (BIGBY # 6). I ate my lunch along the road here. (I had brought 2 sandwiches, 2 granola bars, a power bar, cashews, cup of applesauce, 3 small tangerines, and powder Gatorade for 2 bottles. I had a second lunch in Cayucos and finished it all.) After my lunch in Paso, my dessert was a flat tire! This was the tire I was going to switch to a Kevlar tire the night before, but I hate to change tires and I wanted to go to bed, so...)
I peeled off my leg warmers for the ride west on Highway 46. It was surprisingly hilly - much more so than Highway 41, but my climbs paled in comparison to the almost 5 mile constant climb that riders coming from the coast had on this highway (wow!). I saw nothing much on the ride along Highways 46 and 1, either because it was not very birdy or I was concentrating much more on the ride than on birding. I was starting to slow down as I finally hit the last big descent before the coast. I fueled up in Cayucos and had just enough energy to comfortably arrive back home at about 5:45. My BIGBY list now stood at 218. My doubts about doing a one hundred mile ride were gone! However, it turned out that one hundred miles in a day was too far me to cycle, bird, and photograph. I just did not have enough time to photograph, but did see most of my target birds.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Have Some Chips for Those Dips?

Why yes, I have heard Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, plus various others.... just nothing new on my last 2 bird bicycle trips - about 30 miles each. You can tell when I have seen few or no new birds and the birding is slow - I post mainly pictures of scenery. So I took these two rides and missed recently seen target birds (Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Grebe, and White-winged Dove), but had a new BIGBY bird in my front yard yesterday - a beautiful male Hooded Oriole. Such is birding! It was just a little more frustrating when I was biking to locations where I saw nothing new. Ok, it was sometimes a lot more frustrating! But it was beautiful on the coast, so I am posting these photos of the beautiful scenery and a common but beautiful bird from Estero Bluffs Sate Park. I am planning my first century ride this coming Sunday - I better find something new on that!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pedalling for Poorwill

With the time change, giving me more time in the evening after work, and temperatures in the 70's on the coast, it seemed like a perfect evening on 3/16, to get my BIGBY Poorwill. I changed into my bike clothes, put on the wheels with wider tires onto my touring bike, packed my camera and lights, and headed out to Montana de Oro. I wanted to get to the top of Pecho Valley Road at 7:00 for the sunset, pictured here.
After the light show, I cycled out to Islay Creek Road where Steve Schubert had seen Poorwill. Just as I was starting out the dirt road along Islay Creek, three mountain bicyclist were coming down the road. I figured they had probably flushed any poorwills off the road and I hoped the birds would return. I proceeded about a mile or so up stream until I saw the first shape in the road, which flushed about the time I thought "Poorwill". This quick look was followed by another spotting of a Poorwill feeding from the road - fluttering 2 - 3 feet off the road and landing back on the road. I watched for about 5 minutes and then tried to take a picture. I used my bike light to illuminate the bird, whose eyes reflected red in the light. I then realized that my camera would not autofocus in the low light. I tried to hold the light with one hand and manually focus with the other. By the time I was able to do that, the bird had flow. I proceeded to go a short distance up the road and saw another Poorwill. Here I realized that my light's charge was low, so I decided to get down the dirt road before it was totally dark. Coming back I flushed 2 - 4 more Poorwills, including one which flew along side me, as I carefully coasted down the rocky road. The last Poorwill was just across the creek from the back of the state park campground, sitting on the road.
After getting to the paved road I put my flashing leg band on, and used the remaining headlight charge only when vehicles approached from head on. I could barely see the road when the light was off. Besides the exciting ride, I did hear the loud, clear, and incessant whistling of a Saw-whet Owl about 1/4 - 1/2 mile on the Los Osos side of Hazard Canyon (at 8:00 PM). I barely made it home before it was completely dark. The ten mile evening ride yielded BIGBY # 212.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ready for Spring Migration

I was having a hard time finding more than one or two new birds in a day of birding and I was ready for some new birds to migrate here. On Sunday, March 14, my wife joined me for the ten mile round trip cycle out to Coon Creek Trail, Montana de Oro State Park. We went there to look and listen for Winter Wren (unsuccessfully)and to try to find any early migrants. We did find 5 Wilson's Warblers (BIGBY # 211), but I spent most of my time photographing wild flowers (nightshade and trillium shown here) and chasing butterflies because it was so slow bird wise. The 3 mile hike through the lush stream side habitat was enjoyable and the vistas on the bike ride at MDO are always breath taking.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Estero Bluffs Revisited

I am glad that many of the birds I have needed for my BIGBY are up Highway 1 from where I live because it is a beautiful and very comfortable ride. The map of my green year, linked on this blog, shows how little I have gone south beacuse the ride north is so much more bike friendly and scenic. That will change in the fall when I will be bicycle-camping at Oceano frequently. Today, 3/13, I took the 30 mile round trip ride to Estero Bluffs Sate Park, and locked my bike near the San Geronimo Creek/Road pullout (at the windmill north of Cayucos) so I could hike out to the bluffs to look for the male Harlequin Duck and some Ruddy Turnstones.
When I do such bike and hike trips I empty what is left in my handle bar bag (after I take out my binos, my camera, and my cell phone) into my pannier and put the pannier into the day pack, that was in the pannier, so I can hike and leave no valuables at the bike. My handlebar bag locks to the bike and I put my bike shoes somewhere inconspicous so I can hike in running shoes I brought. I take the tripod from my rear rack and my scope from the pannier and I am ready to go.
There are several access points to the Estero Bluffs and this is my favorite because the trail here goes out along the creek, goes across a short beach and back up onto the bluffs to the north. The bluffs can be windy, but the beach below is often sheltered from the wind. One particular cove to the north of San Geronimo Creek is particularly sheltered and the rocks offshore protect much of the cove from the waves. Harbor seals haul out here on the many rocks. Mergansers, grebes and scoters feed in the relatively calm waters. This is where I found the Harlequin Duck (BIGBY#210) - basking beautifully on a rock not too far from shore. I ate an early lunch at this cove and enjoyed these birds as well as the turnstones, Whimbrel, oystercatchers, pipits, and other birds as well as the unusual rock formations, flowers (Blue-eyed Grass was out in bloom), and clear blue sky and great visibility after the prior evenings rain.
I never could find any Ruddy Turnstones. I had over 60 Black Turnstones and at least eight other shorebird species, but no Ruddies. I had only one new BIGBY bird and I will have to return to find the Ruddy and maybe a Wandering Tattler. Not that I need a reason to return to this incredible spot!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wild Goose Chase

I woke up at the usual time on the morning of March 12 and looked at my watch. "Oh crap!", I said out loud. I thought I had set my alarm for 30 minutes earlier so I could ride the 2 1/2 miles to the Elfin Forest to look for the Snow Goose reported on the listserve "slocobirding" the day before. Snow Geese show up in the county most winters and I would probably see one in December, but what if I didn't and I finished the year at 299?
I very quickly showered and ate, and briefly walked my dog (sorry Nike) so I could create 30-40 open minutes in my morning before I had to leave for work. Loading my bike for birding has become an almost unconscious routine and I was on my bike at just after 7 AM. I had 40 minutes to ride my bike 5 miles, walk to and from Bush Lupine Overlook at the Elfin Forest (the best overlook of the "back bay' where the Snow had been seen with a flock of Canadas) and find the goose. I brought my point and shoot camera for an attempt at digiscoping since the bird would be too far out for my SLR.
I arrived at the overlook thinking "white." The tide was at an intermediate level and the salicornia flats were dotted with white shapes - White Pelican, Snowy and Great Egrets, gulls and Caspian Terns (see the photo). I found 2 Canada Geese in one spot and another elsewhere, but no Snow. With very little time left, my scope scanning of the estuary finally turned up a white goose. Was it a Snow or a Ross's? Compared to the Willets it seemed large enough to be a Snow. I zoomed my Zeiss scope to 60 power and waited impatiently for the goose to turn its head and show its bill. I was about to "pack it in". (If I stayed too long and was late to court, I could imagine telling the judge, "The stupid goose just would not turn its head."). Then it turned its head in good light so I could see that it did not have the stubby bill of a Ross's and it had black "lips'. (Snow Goose - BIGBY # 209).
I tried to get a decent digiscope photo, but I could only get white blobs like the one depicted here (I know, I need an adapter). After several blob shots, I dashed back to my locked bike and rode home (7 minutes, when I push it). Check off one more wintering species tick!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I'd Ride 82 MIles for a Glaucous Gull

How far would I ride for an unusual bird that I might not otherwise see for my BIGBY? That was the question when I was birding with a Leif and his son Hannes from Sweden, and we found a Glaucous Gull (pictured) at Piedras Blancas (we had travelled by car). Would I ride over 40 miles, one way, to see if I could re-find this bird? There were still several rarities within 10 miles that I had not seen yet, so why would I ride over 80 miles for a bird that might be gone? First, I needed to increase my mileage in preparation for my longer rides for the year. Second, the bird (if it was there) should be easy to find. It also had been re-found several times after I had found it, and very recently. Third, it is a beautiful ride in March. Fourth, Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and the county line with Monterey County is a great road for cycling - wide bike lanes, great scenery, and no terrible hills.
So, on March 7, I found myself getting up early to try and beat the onshore wind to Piedras Blancas. I put narrow tires on my touring bike and loaded one pannier (with food and my scope) and the handle bar bag (with my optics). I almost beat the wind as it did not start blowing in my face till Villa Creek and not hard till San Simeon. It increased further while I was at the Elephant Seal area so I was glad I had made it when I did. And the Glaucous Gull was there! It was not close enough for a good photo, but it stood out as a large gull and the only one in the flock that was all nearly white. The Elephant Seals were greatly reduced in number from a couple of weeks ago (mating was over and most of the pups had weaned), but gulls hung around to feed on dead pups. I even got a second BIGBY species as an early Grasshopper Sparrow sang "tickbuzzzzzzzzzzz" from a pasture on the way up, near Villa Creek.
And the ride home! SWEET! The tail wind was so strong that at times I hardly had to pedal! I stopped to check various spots for bittern and saw 2 Golden Eagles, but no more new BIGBY birds. I got home at about 3:30 and felt like I could have gone another 20 miles or so. In all, I pedalled about 84 miles and increased my BIGBY total to 208 species.

Wrapping Up Winter Birding

Recently, I have been riding after those wintering birds that will be leaving soon or that I have been putting off seeing for various reasons. In the latter category are the nocturnal owls that I have not chased because I hate to bike at night - its too dangerous. On 3/4 I decided to "bite the bullet" and get some nocturnal owling done. After work, I rode over to a local Sushi restaurant, on the other side of town, for dinner and so I would be closer to the owling spot while it got totally dark. (The food at "Sushiya" was excellent, including the Nochi - the best $1.00 dessert at any restaurant I know!) I then had to get on my bike and go up into Perfumo Canyon for Screech and Saw-whet Owls. I had a Trek headlamp which mounted on my handlebar (it lighted the road well) and a Trek band which went around my leg, that flashed a red light as it went up and down when I pedaled. I also use an iMainGo2 (internet sale - pictured) with a padded protective case and speakers for my iPod, which has owl recordings downloaded on it (by my computer-savvy daughter).
The first good owl spot was almost 4 miles up the canyon and there was no moon. This spot has open pasture, nice stands of live oaks and willow and Sycamore riparian around a stream which was rushing from the recent rains. It is usually a good for owls. I listened and heard nothing, so I played Saw-whet and W. Screech on my iPod as I walked my bike on the dark and damp road. Fortunately, there was practically no traffic as I had turned my lights all off. Finally about a half mile up the road I heard an incessant Saw-whet whistle call and two much lower pitched Great-horneds chimed in. The Screech took a little more work, but after hearing three Saw-whets and four Great-horneds, I heard a far off Screech call. At this point I was very cold and I had my owls, so I quickly went down to town and back to work to thaw out.
I took another cycle from work on 3/5 after I got out of court early. I pedalled up to the TV towers on Cuesta Ridge - about 2,000 feet in elevation gain in about ten miles. I took Stagecoach Road to avoid riding on Highway 101 up the grade and then linked up to the narrow pothole covered road to the towers. The first stand of Sargent Cypress had a Townsend's Solitaire (Bigby # 1 - pictured) . The ridge was not very active with birds for the most part, but I did have a Rufous Hummingbird farther up the road for my second new Bigby species for the day. The ride back to work was a very quick downhill into town.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cycling Between Rains - 3/1/10

A day off from rain caused me to take a long lunch to cycle to ponds near Cuesta College. Maggie (she is up to 224 on her big year by car)said there might be Canvasbacks at the ponds. The less than 10 mile cycle took about 30 minutes on Highway 1. Calling Tricolored Blackbirds greeted me as I arrived and two female Canvasback (BIGBY #1) were out on the first pond with other ducks and coots. Swallows flew over the pond. I checked the remaining two ponds, and a weird small duck was in the back pond - a possible abherrant Bufflehead or a hybrid duck, which would not let me get close enough for a good photo so I am posting very enlarged and not very sharp photos. (If you can ID this duck please let me know.) I returned to the first pond and found my first Barn, Cliff and Rough-winged Swallows for my BIGBY. Four new BIGBY birds was good for a ninety minute lunch ride!

A "Short Ride" - 2/28

"I'm just going out for a short ride and some birding. I'll be back after noon sometime", I told me wife as I left the house at about 8 AM. I packed a lunch (just in case)and loaded my scope, tripod and camera. I did not return till 5:30 PM, having biked fifty miles, hiked four miles, birded seven spots, and found 5 new BIGBY species on a gorgeous day between storms.
My first stop was a small wetland located on Quintana Road just south of South Bay Blvd., near Morro Bay. I pulled up to the kiosk on my bike and listened for the Virginia Rail Maggie had heard here recently. It obliged almost immediately with its clicking call - not the "dirty old man laugh" call. It stayed concealed in the dry reeds and green weedy undergrowth, so I pulled out my iPod and portable speaker system and stood playing a recording of its calls. I could not see the bird, but it sure sounded close! I then looked down and the bird was looking up at me, right at my feet! It was an "Oh my God!" moment for both of us - I was shocked by how close it was and it was shocked by the big monster in bright cycling clothes standing over it. It ran back to the reeds and I stepped back because it was too close to focus my telephoto lens. I then did what I should have done in the beginning - I sat down on a log a little ways away and played the recording. The rail only came to the edge of the weeds this time and I took a photo.
Next I went to a friend's house where an Orchard Oriole was sometimes being seen. I missed it, despite playing a recording of its song and calls. At Morro Rock I missed the wintering Red-necked Grebe for the fourth or fifth time. It was time to take out my frustration on some cycling - up the coast to Villa Creek (north of Cayucos). This was an easy ride along Highway 1 except for breeze coming off the ocean and into my face. I had forgotten one of the rules for cycling on the Central California coast - get as far north as early as you can, before the wind kicks up in the later morning. The relatively flat 15 mile ride was easy enough that the breeze was tolerable. I locked up my bike near Villa Creek (access is 2 or 3 turnouts to the south of the actual creek)and took my pannier and handle bar bag out to the beach for lunch with the Snowy Plovers.
The Snowies (BIGBY bird #2) were among the first birds I saw when I got out to the beach. They were hunkered down in footstep impressions in the sand, and running around with Sanderlings. Two of the approximately 90 plovers were banded, which I recorded (and later reported to Point Reyes Bird Observatory). The plovers got nervous if I got too close, but I managed to get some photos without flushing them. I ate lunch surrounded by these animated little whitish balls of feathers, and felt even more lucky when a passing hiker told me that the area was going to be closed off on the following day with a barrier. As I left Villa Creek, I stopped to watch a Peregrine Falcon tear up a bird I wasn't able to identify.
I cycled in shoes still wet from the trail at Villa Creek (take old running shoes for hiking next time)to Whale Rock Reservoir (above south Cayucos). Old Creek Road is a fairly steady climb, so it was a good place to work on my standing pedalling endurance. Despite the approximately 20 inches of rain this season, the lake was as low as it had been in October. I pedalled to Cottontail Creek Road, at the back end, where the birding is usually the best. Both the land birding along the riparian habitat (with rocky pasture) and the arms of the lake along Old Creek and Cottontail Creek are often birdy. I found an immature Bald Eagle with a huge bill, perched near the mouth of Old Creek. I wondered about my ID until it took off and the whitish areas spread out in the under wing from the leading edge and into the flight feathers in places, along with the less contrastingly colored tail and the farther protruding head and neck (compared to a Golden) convinced me of BIGBY #3 for the day. Two pair of Ring-necked Ducks on the Cottontail Creek arm were Bigby #4 (good thing I had my scope.)
On the way home I stopped at the Cloisters Pond (northern Morro Bay) where I saw my first Great-tailed Grackle for the year. I also stopped at Black Hill and road my bike on the dirt path on the back side that parallels Quintana. I could not find the wintering Grace's Warbler and Red-breasted Nuthatch. I made the mistake of taking the path toward South Bay Blvd, near which the path gradually turns into a gnarly Mt. Bike path. I had to walk my bike in many parts before getting back to a road and the ride home.

Lopez Lake - 2/20

I took a midday break from preparing my income tax return by riding south to Lopez Lake. It was a day of bright sun punctuated with the shade of large fluffy white clouds that passed over in the onshore breeze. The road south of San Luis rolled through picturesque farm land (like the vineyard pictured) and pasture, and then quickly up to the dam. Almost as soon as I could look down from the road onto the reservoir, I saw dozens of Common Mergansers (a brand new BIGBY bird). Nearby were cormorants, White Pelicans, and Buffleheads with other ducks and grebes. Acorn Woodpeckers called from some of the oaks, where they were busy moving acorns around. Ring-necked Duck (a target bird) was nowhere to be found on the still low water level lake. I also searched the sky and hillside perches for any Bald Eagles, but found only Osprey and Red-tails. I searched stands of trees along the park road for some new passerine since I was having no luck with 2 of my 3 my target birds. I did a Pygmy Owl whistle when I heard an odd call note, and was surprised when a Pygmy Owl answered. It called off and on for about 20 minutes, only showing itself briefly when it flew between pines. I also found a large oak tree with dudleya (a native succulent) growing on it, which is different than the rocky slopes the dudleya usually grow on. Happy with my brief look at year bird #2, I went to the lake store for lunch, but found out that they had no sandwiches, burritos or anything else for lunch other than snacks and drinks. I downed a carton of chocolate milk and some chips, and road back to work to continue on my taxes.