Saturday, April 24, 2010

Looking for Spring Migrants

My daughter was visiting for the weekend, so I took two morning bike rides on Saturday and Sunday, April 24 and 25. That way I could be back home not too long after she got up from bed. Whale Rock Reservoir and Cerro Alto Campground are two good spots in the spring and early summer. They are also far enough away from the coast for a good variety of breeders and close enough for relatively short bike rides from where I live (about 30 miles round trip for each).

On Saturday, on the way to Whale Rock I stopped near Morro Bay Sate Park and had a singing Olive-sided Flycatcher (BIGBY # 238) at its annual spot in eucalyptus trees near the Ranger residence along State Park Road. I didn't even have to get off my bike to here "Drink three beers!" Whale Rock had great birding along Cottontail Road, which parallels the main creek that feeds into the reservoir. On the down slope side, the thick riparian habitat had a variety of singers, including Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's Oriole, Yellow-breasted Chat (BIGBY # 239), Wilson's Warbler, etc. On the drier pastureland uphill side of the road Blue Grosbeaks, Rufous-crowned Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings sang. The views of the lake are great from here as well. I stopped on the way home to watch Cliff Swallows getting mouth fulls of mud from a wet spot near the road, for their nest building.

On Sunday I rode up to Cerro Alto Campground - located in a canyon about eight miles from the coast. I had a great variety of singing species all along the road and up onto the trail from the back of the campground, but nothing new for the year. I did manage a photo of the local Merriam's Chipmunk, which is quite shy. On the way home I took a short detour on Turri Road, into a ranching area near the coast. A low wet spot here surprisingly had a Green Heron (BIGBY # 240).

I will not have a Bird ID Challenge for a couple of weeks as I am taking off on a nine day, 500+ mile solo bicycle ride to the South Fork of the Kern River, the Greenhorn Mountains, and the Mojave Desert. I depart early Tuesday, April 27.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sea Watch from Montana de Oro Sate Park

The ocean off the Central Coast of California is good for a variety of pelagic species, but most of them are best seen from a boat, often the farther out the better. Unless I could find someone with a sail boat who can get out without using any gas I was pretty much limited to what I could see from shore. Usually this has been pretty limiting. I have already scoped from the bluffs at Montana de Oro State Park, Morro Rock and North Point this year, for a total of about 10 times with only a few truly pelagic species. From what Richard Rowlett (expert pelagic birder and counter of sea birds from Piedras Blancas to the north of me) and Brad Schram (local expert birder, tour leader and author of Birder's Guide to Southern California) tell me, it seems that early morning is often the best and a strong onshore winds can help blow species closer to the coast.
Since the morning of April 21 was really blowing (which made land birding difficult)and since there was no court this morning, I pedalled down to the high point just north of Spooner's Cove and scoped from 9:00 till about 10:30 AM. I only lasted 1 1/2 hours due to the cold hard wind and the blowing sand. Birds were going both directions with the following going north: Pacific Loon (18), Brant (133), Surf Scoter (12), and Peregrine Falcon (1 adult). Local species going both ways were: Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatcher and Western Gull. Going south: Sooty Shearwater (6)(BIGBY # 236), Unidentified dark shearwater (probably Sooty) (40), Pink-footed Shearwater (1)(BIGBY # 237), Brown Pelican (1 adult), Ring-billed Gull, California Gull. I saw no terns, no alcids except the guillemot, and no shorebirds except the oystercatcher. Some of the shearwaters were too far out to ID.
I biked through the campground after leaving the sea watch, but it was very windy and starting to sprinkle, so I bailed and went home. I also needed the ride home to thaw out. Next time I will wear pants over my biking tights and I will bring another layer for my upper body. (I had worn a cycling jersey, long sleeved T-shirt, light cycling jacket and then added a fleece jacket and a rain coat at the overlook!). Sea bird watching is like pelagic birding on the Pacific Coast - I have to take more clothes than I think I will ever need!
(I have posted a photo of this sea watch spot taken on a more peaceful day when I wasn't afraid to let go of my tripod for fear of it blowing down.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bird ID Challenge # 5

I photographed this bird in my neighborhood in coastal central California on April 16. By clicking on "comments" at the end of this post you can enter your ID and the reasons for the ID. Good Luck. I will post the answer and supporting reasons for that ID on Thursday night (sorry, I couldn't do it Wednesday night.) (You can mouse click on this or any of the photos in the posts here for an enlargement.)

Birds Keep Me Guessing

I often don't know where or when bird species will turn up. I do have a general idea from past years of birding in this area, but what exactly I will see in a particular place on a particular day is still often a mystery. I might bicycle and bird all day in the best of habitats and have few birds. Or I might walk my dog on the same route I take almost every morning in my neighborhood and a new species or two will pop up along with all sorts of other nice birds! While some times it can be a little frustrating (like an all day pedal with few birds), it is also part of the appeal of birding in that there is always the element of surprise and wonder with birds (as there is with nature in general).
After birding all day in one of the best locations for numbers of species in the central coast yesterday, Nike and I took our daily 30 minute walk this morning, April 18. Immediately upon getting to the edge of the bay near our house, I saw species I had not seen the day before in the estuary from the Elfin Forest; Blue-winged Teal swam the low tide channels and a gorgeous male Red-breasted Merganser was nearby. As I approached Pecho Willows (a stand at the end of my street that can be birdy) Lazuli Buntings streamed by (their buzzy call note was heard from all over), one flock was at least ten birds. Wilson's Warblers and Warbling Vireos sang from the sunny edge of the willows along Pecho, along with two Nashville Warblers (photo) and an unexpected male Black-chinned Hummingbird (BIGBY # 233). This was only the second Black-chinned I had seen in the neighborhood in the 20 years I had lived there! Numerous other species were active in the trees - the same trees that had been very quiet two days before. My 30 minute dog walk became almost an hour walk.
I didn't want to take too long because I had planned to ride to the county environmental school, Rancho El Chorro (a few miles inland and between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo). I wanted to look for Blue Grosbeaks seen by Maggie and then onto some private ponds nearby for possible Yellow-headed Blackbirds. At the same time, I did not want to leave a place full of birds for somewhere else that might be slow.

Once I felt I had seen almost all of the birds in my neighborhood, I changed and left on my bike for Highway 1 and Rancho. I heard Blue Grosbeak (BIGBY # 234) as I pedalled along Highway 1, well before I ever got to Rancho (near willows in a low spot just north of the shooting range, near a lone large palm). Two males were singing and one female was nearby. Two Cassins Kingbirds also called in the area.
I then rushed over to the ponds fearing that the blackbirds had mostly dispersed into the nearby fields from their roost in reeds at the ponds. Unfortunately, many of the blackbirds were gone, but 30 or 40 Tricolored Blackbirds and a few Red-winged Blackbirds remained. The other unfortunate thing was the presence of about 12 pair of Great-tailed Grackles, a sometimes nest predator, gathering nesting material. I went on to the second pond and found a lone shorebird, the only shorebird in the area except for Killdeer. Expecting maybe a yellowlegs, I looked through my binoculars and saw the Solitary Sandpiper (BIGBY # 235) pictured here - a very rare spring migrant in coastal California! It nervously moved along the edge of the pond and I didn't want to bother it too much because at least one year lister for the county needed it.
Next I went to Rancho El Chorro to try and photograph a Blue Grosbeak, but windy conditions made it difficult. I did get the one shot shown here. I then left for home and the L.A. Lakers first playoff game.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Spring Big Sit

For over ten years I have organized a local Big Sit (see the Big Sit link on the side bar) at the Elfin Forest in Los Osos, in October. This is a national event with some Big Sits even in foreign countries. The purpose is to stay at one spot (within one seventeen foot diameter circle) and count all the bird species you see or hear in one 24 hour period. All of the counts do their counting on the same day. This event is, in part, a "green" reaction to the traditional Big Day where participants drive (or even fly) hundreds of miles to increase their one day total. Our local sit occurs at a spot in the coastal scrub overlooking the Morro Bay Estuary (see the photo) and nearby ranch and park land as well as the adjacent neighborhood in Los Osos. We have recorded as many as 122 species in one October count. In the fall, as many as twenty of us count in shifts so that there are fresh counters from the dark of the early morning till the evening. The spot is really a beautiful and it is easy to sit for hours.
This spring Mike Stiles and I decided to do a Big Sit at the Elfin Forest in April. The 17th had a good weather forecast and seemed to be in the middle of migration so we decide to set that date. Mike lives a couple of houses away from the Elfin Forest and I am a short bike ride away. We me at about 6:00 AM and counted till about 4:30 PM. Tom Edell joined us (see Mike and Tom in photo) for about half the time. The weather did turn out fairly well as we started with a slight off shore breeze and clear skies. While the wind switched to on shore late in the morning and was cold for a while, it later slowed and the day warmed back up.

It was interesting to compare spring species with fall. Our total was down, but this may have partially been due to fewer counters. While the variety of shorebirds, ducks, grebes, raptors, gulls and sparrows was down, the land bird migration was a bit better. Birds we saw on this spring sit that we have never recorded in October included Western and Cassin's Kingbirds, Rough-winged Swallow, Wilson's Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak and Lazuli Bunting. The total was 96 species - about 15 species less than our typical October totals. It was also warmer and greener than the fall, with more flowers (Sticky Monkey Flower pictured), lizards (photo of fence lizard) and butterflies like the "Coastal" Bramble Hairstreak shown.

I had no new BIGBY species after birding continuously from this spot for over ten hours, but between the birds, flowers, butterflies, visitors and the view, it was still very enjoyable.

Tree-Top Migrants

Migration on the coast just wasn't happening, and Cerro Alto had been getting good reports. So, I took the morning off of work on April 16 and pedalled the 15 miles from my house near the coast to this Los Padres National Forest campground. The ride up is not overly steep, but an offshore wind in my face (deja vu) made me work. I did hear the buzzy call of Lazuli Buntings along the way (Bigby # 225), in an overgrown pasture area with scattered brush.
Cerro Alto Campground is about about 7 miles from the coast and a little over 1,000 feet in elevation. What a difference this short distance made for migrants! The very first bird I heard after locking up my bike off the road, was a MacGillivray's Warbler (Bigby # 226). I arrived at about 9:00 AM after the 1 1/4 hour ride and the "Mac" was singing continuously from up in a large oak - his male hormones had him boldly singing where this species normally doesn't go - except when trying to attract a mate. House Wrens, robins, Spotted Towhees, and creepers sang along with him. The entrance road is surrounded by large oaks (photo) and nearby is the willow riparian habitat along the East Fork of Morro Creek. The few open sunny areas had wildflowers like the pictured Hummingbird Sage - a favorite of the local hummers.

Shortly after placing my pannier into my day pack and covering my screaming yellow bike jacket with a green shirt, I was ready to hike the road up to the campground and then up the trail to look for more recent arrivals. As I approached the road I saw two other experienced local birders - Tom and Maggie. I welcomed their company with the extra eyes, and we made our way along the creek. Black-headed Grosbeaks sang from the creekside sycamores and willows, and American Robins gave their similar song from the oaks across the road. An unfamiliar warbler song came from deep into the willows and after much searching and pishing a bright male Nashville Warbler showed itself. For the rest of the paved road we saw and heard many birds including several very vocal Cassin's Vireos (local breeders and BIGBY # 227), and Western Wood Pewee (BIGBY # 228) and Ash-throated Flycatcher (BIGBY # 229) at the tops of sycamores. Just before starting up the trail another song similar to a robin, but a little more burry than what we had heard so far that day, was a Western Tanager (BIGBY # 230). It too was way up in a sycamore, showing of his red head and bright yellow underparts. At this poinbt we also ran into Alan and Kaaren, two other local birders who told us what they had up the trail. More good birds were ahead!
After getting onto the trail which goes up from the end of the campground, we started hearing the thin song of a Townsend's Warbler, which eventually led us to a large flock of warblers and flycatchers, which included a sharp looking male Hermit Warbler with his bright yellow face, black bib and white underparts (BIGBY # 231). A couple of Black-throated Gray Warblers (BIGBY # 232) were in the same flock, as were Pac-slope Flycatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and more Townsend's. We left the flock as we went further up the trail, and the habitat changed, so we turned around and went back down to the entrance, happy with all the nice migrants we had seen. I left with no satisfactory photos of any of these birds since they had all been way up in the tall trees, but I did post one poor picture of the Mac.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bob Jones Trail and Avila

I took a long lunch today and cycled over to the Bob Jones Trail and then on to the Harford Pier at Port San Luis. The spring migration has been very slow on the coast and I was hoping with the nice weather that this might have changed. The thick riparian corridor along the Bob Jones Trail was noisy with bird song even at 11:30 AM when I got there, but no new BIGBY species were singing as I slowly cycled the public asphalt path. Spring arrivals included Black-headed Grosbeak, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Rough-winged Swallow and Warbling Vireo, but little else that was not a permanent resident. I had about 60 species on this 23 mile ride, but nothing new for the year. There were guillemots, loons and scoters in the harbor. I took photos of a cooperative and very active Barn Swallow on the pier, who seemed oblivious to me as I stood about six feet away snapping pictures. One lingering female Common Goldeneye was all that was left of the wintering ducks on San Luis Obispo Creek, visible from the bike path bridge over the creek. I enjoyed salmon tacos, rice and black beans at Pete's on the pier and pedalled back to work after an enjoyable but unproductive (BIGBY-wise) trip.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bird ID Challenge # 4

This photo was taken this month in San Luis Obispo County, coastal California. Please let me know your ID and supporting reasons by clicking on "comments" below and posting. I will post the ID on Wednesday evening, in the comments section.

South to Osos Flaco Lake

Just north of the Santa Barbara County Line, this lake is named for a skinny bear (Oso Flaco in Spanish) killed and eaten by Spanish explorer Portola's 1769 expedition party. The grizzly had been apparently been poisoned by the indigenous people and two of the Spanish party died from consuming the meat. While no grizzlies remain in California, the habitat at Oso Flaco has recovered from years of off-road vehicle use and it is now protected from the vehicles. Fall is usually the best for birding here, but it can be productive in the spring (Spring rarities have included Little Gull, Franklin's Gull and a few vagrant passerines). So, I pedalled south on Saturday, April 10, to see what I could find.
I paralleled Highway 101 for much of the trip and then took Highway 1 down to Oso Flaco Lake Road - almost 3 hours ride from Los Osos and about 2 hours pedal south from San Luis Obispo. It was difficult to pass by good-looking and sounding habitat along the way, so I could get down to the lake for as early a start as possible. Unfortunately, it was not worth the rush as Osos Flaco was cool and breezy, and the birds were not very numerous.
I spent a lot of time going through the many swallows at the lake, like the pictured Tree Swallow. I could only find Tree, Barn and Rough-winged Swallows. I scoped the lake edge for bittern, moorhen and rails, but only saw one Sora (3 others called). Some birds were busy with nests (like this Marsh Wren nest) and nest holes (like the Chestnut-backed Chickadees). I walked out on the boardwalk (pictured) across the lake and out through the sand to the beach, but the birds were even fewer (the flowers were colorful). Oso Flaco is another example of over regulation by the state - with fences and signs everywhere. (By the way, the complete re-vegetation of the dunes in this area may be good for sparrows, thrashers and wrentits, but it is not conducive to nesting of the threatened Least Tern and Snowy Plover, which are being forced even more than before into the recreational vehicle area!) It is especially ironic because from the boardwalk, surrounded by fences and signs, you can see the vehicle area where it is only bare sand and dune buggies scream over the desolate landscape.
I tried hard, but could only find one new BIGBY species here - Yellow Warbler, a common migrant in my neighborhood which I had not seen yet. I ate lunch and headed north to Oceano Lagoon and the county park pond to see if my luck might change with a Green Heron or Moorhen or some surprise.
I stopped at a market along Highway 1 in Oceano(a community with a large latino element, unlike most of this largely white non-diverse county) and got a fresh made burrito and some chocolate milk to eat at the county park while I watched grackles and gulls. Nothing more unusual than a couple of Glaucous-winged Gulls were apparent at the park. I decided to take my bike around the lagoon trail since part of it was flooded (to keep my feet dry)and to get around a little more quickly. I found some small flocks, with one large flock near the back of the campground. It included many Bullock's and Hooded Orioles with the usual warblers, but no new migrants. This trip turned out to be a good cycle workout for my legs and ribs, but only yielded one new migrant which I would have undoubtedly seen on my morning dog walks from home!
I packed later that evening for a ride the next morning, but gusting winds, dark skies, sprinkles and the forecast of rain kept me at home on Sunday. While mowing the lawn before the rain started, I saw an apparently all dark swift overhead. I ran to get my binocs, to see what it was. I ran into the street in front of my house, to get a look at as much sky as possible, and saw eight or ten small dark swifts with a slightly lighter color on the throats - Vaux's Swifts (BIGBY # 224) - a better bird than I had on my day long ride and bird the day before. I ran inside for my camera. They aren't called "swifts" for nothing; I ran around the neighborhood trying to get a decent photo and coming up only with the photo posted here. It was undoubtedly humorous to any neighbor who might have been watching as I ran around the street pointing my camera straight up in the sky, letting out little "ohs" or "ahs" as I tried to get a photo. This was interspersed with sneezes from the spring pollens followed by an "ow" as my healing ribs hurt each time I sneezed.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Bird ID Challenge # 3

This photo was taken on the San Luis Obispo County coast in February. Please let me know your IDs and the reasons for them by clicking on "comments" at the bottom of this post and then posting your thoughts. I will post what I think the IDs are on Wednesday evening, but gulls are admittedly not my strongest area of identification so I will be interested in your comments. Have fun.
See the "comments" for my ID, which is rather tentative for the back gull.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Back In the Saddle Again!

I was able to hike for the first two days after my bike accident, ride a stationary bike on the third day, ride a short distance on the road on the fourth, and back in the gym on the sixth (where it hurt less to breath than before). Seven days after breaking my ribs I decided to try and go for a hilly 30 mile round trip to Cerro Alto (a campground about 8 miles inland from the coast with riparian and chaparral) and look for some new BIGBY species. I was surprised - the ride was fairly easy! I hit the eight mile mark at 27 minutes, and had not been pushing it, so I knew I was OK. The climb up Highway 41 (the shoulder and visibility to cars is acceptable as you ride inland) was not too bad and I locked my bike up near the entrance with plenty of energy for a hilly 5 mile hike.

It was noisy with bird song as I walked up the entrance road to the campground, following the creek. It was also cold and my sweaty clothes didn't help, even though I changed into a fresh dull green shirt for my hike (put my "screaming yellow" bike jacket in my pack). I should have brought a thermal shirt. House Wrens sang their beautifully complex song, Yellow-rumped and Townsend's Warblers sang an accompaniment from the willow tops and sycamores along the stream. Two Black-headed Grosbeaks (BIGBY # 220) sang for a nearby female. Brown Creepers, Spotted and California Towhees, Wilson's Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Swainson's Thrush (BIGBY # 221) added to the avian symphony. I was unable to find the Cassin's Vireo seen by Maggie earlier in the week so I decided to take the trail up from the campground and look for Mountain Quail. The flowers were more conspicuous than the bird, such as the clematis pictured here. Ceanothus was blooming all around the trail (photo).
As I got out of the lusher vegetation on the campground side of the ridge, I came into more open and drier chaparral with manzanita and a different set of resident birds such as Wrentit, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (photo) and Bell's Sage Sparrow (pictured). Many of these birds were local breeders and were acting very territorial. As I neared a grove of eucalyptus I heard Mt. Quail (BIGBY # 222) call and flushed a couple from within the grove. I wasn't able to get close enough to one in the open for a photo.

The views all along the trail were incredible and it was a very enjoyable hike till I took a wrong fork and ended up on Highway 41 about a half mile below the road where my bike was parked. The ride back was uneventful except for the 2 mile stretch on Highway 41 where there was no bike lane or shoulder, and I was right next to the slope where my visibility in turns was poor. Most drivers were courteous, but one blared its horn angrily in a spot where I could get over no farther. I need to be better about controlling my language in response to such behavior!

This gnarley gnatcatcher was defending his territory!