Friday, July 30, 2010

The Shorebirds Are Back!

The shorebirds are back in full force as their southward "fall" migration is going "great guns". I saw my first adult migrating shorebird (only oystercatchers, Snowy Plover, Killdeer, and maybe Spotted Sandpipers nest near the coast here) on July 4 when some Western Sandpipers stopped at San Simeon Creek Mouth (see the above photo of a defensive postured adult Western from there on 7/18). (Some years the southbound shorebirds arrive as early as the last week in June!) Adult Leasts and other adult shorebirds arrived within days of the first Westerns. (see the photo of an adult Whimbrel and the very rare Double-decker Dowitcher below, taken at Old Creek Mouth on 7/11.) The juveniles start to arrive later, with my first sightings being juvenile Willet and Whimbrel on July 18.

The "fall" shorebird season (which extends into October) started off with a bang. I found an adult Stilt Sandpiper (the bird in the back, behind the adult G. Yellowlegs in the photo above) at Turri Road Ponds (tidal ponds near the edge of Morro Bay estuary) which was only the fourth record for the county. While looking for the Stilt, Bill Bouton and Maggie Smith found an adult Red-necked Stint in a nearby part of the bay on 7/10 - a very rare vagrant for all of California, from Asia/Alaska! When I got the call for the stint, I was sitting on my living room couch, eating chocolate and watching the re-broadcast of the day's Tour de France Stage (I was thinking it would be interesting if each cyclist had to find a set number of bird species before finishing each day's stage. I could hear the announcer Phil Liggett saying, "Alberto Contador may be a great hill climber and time trialist, but he really needs to work on his recognition of bird song if he expects to win the Tour.") I ran to change my clothes, pack the bike and tear on over to the edge of the bay about 3 miles pedal away. As I got there, people were walking slowly away from the location where the bird had been (not a good sign) and shrugging their shoulders. Apparently, a vulture had flushed the bird which disappeared over the bay to the west, just 5 minutes prior! (Expletives deleted!)

Local birder, Kaaren Perry found an adult Pectoral Sandpiper on 7/20 at the same location as the Stilt Sandpiper, called me, and waited for me. This bird was nice enough to be there after another hurried cycle from my house; I only had to go up and look through Kaaren's scope at this bird! I had seen an adult Pectoral in this county once before. (I took the photo to the left of the Pec. from far away and blew it up many times bigger.) Summer early evening high tides were really good for shorebirds at this location and the adjacent part of the bay.

Semipalmated Sandpipers are an unusual shorebird species in California - we see maybe one or two most each year in this county. This shorebird migration produced many around the state, but I was still excited to find one at Oso Flaco Creek Mouth on 7/24. I called other birders about this juvenile (photo left) and learned that while I had one, there were two at San Simeon! (At least I didn't have to cycle over 60 miles to the north to see them for my BIGBY!) There were 15 species of shorebirds at the creek mouth including 2 Wilson's Phalaropes, Snowy Plovers, an out-of-place looking Black Turnstone, and many Semipalmated Plovers. I also saw several Least Terns (yes, I know its not a shorebird) at Oso Flaco Lake, but had problems photographing them in flight as they were too quick. (See my not so sharp photo below)

On 7/25, I again cycled out to the Turri Road Ponds and found a sharp looking juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, joined by a couple of adult Greater Yellowlegs for comparison and a female Wilson's Phalarope. Also on 7/25, Tom Edell had a Wandering Tattler at Estero Bluffs beach, but I did not have time to cycle there. This was a species that I had missed a number of times already for the year. So, when Kaaren called me at work on 7/26 to tell me that she had two tattlers there, I planned to ride my bike there after work (work certainly gets in the way of birding and other fun). By the time I got home and ready for my ride, however, I only had 2 1/2 hours of daylight left to cycle the 16 miles to the bluffs, park my bike, transfer valuables to my pack, change my shoes and shirt, hike out to the beach, find the bird, and then ride home. With a headwind in parts, it took me a good hour to get to the trailhead for the bluffs trail. Rather than take the time to change and lock my bike, I took my bike out to the beach. (Bikes are prohibited from this trail, but no one else was on the trail and I saw no harm in pedalling out as long as I stayed on the trail.) This gave me the extra time I needed to find a tattler (see the photo below of a tattler that was hiding on the back of a boulder.) It took me 25 minutes to find this bird, so I had to jam back to the highway and then cycle home. I didn't stop on the 16 mile pedal home and barely made it home before dark. I got a new BIGBY species and a good workout.

On 7/31 I headed up the coast to stop at several shorebird spots between Los Osos (where I live) and Villa Creek Mouth (18 miles to the north). My third stop was at Old Creek Mouth, where I ran into Aidan Briggs. He was on all fours in the sand and mud, sneaking up to some peeps for a good picture. I saw that one was a juvenile Semiplamated Sandpiper, the fourth in the county in the last week! I waited and when he was done I looked more carefully at the Semi.(below). He said he would call me if he saw the Red Phalarope he had found down the beach a couple of days earlier. I pedalled north and realized after about four miles that he had left me a message, which indicated that he had re-found the phalarope. I turned around and rushed back to see and photo the bird (below), BIGBY # 285 for 2010. It was tame and I got close photos. I later continued up to Villa Creek where I had another adult Pectoral Sandpiper that would not let me get close enough for a photo. I also hiked Estero Bluffs trail and found a couple of Wandering Tattlers and Spotted Sandpipers that were spotted (usually when I see them they are plain). I had a total of 19 species of shorebirds for the day, but missed Sanderling which would have been number 20.

I have posted a photo to the right of a partially breeding plumage Sandering taken at Villa Creek Mouth on 7/11 because it is in a plumage that could cause an overeager birder to identify it as a Red-necked Stint, or some other rarity, when it is actually a very common local species.

Juvenile Birds

Young birds can be confusing both in the way they look and the way they sound. It makes it much easier to identify them when an adult is nearby, but the lone youngster can sometimes be confusing. I have often chased after a bird sound which I don't recognze just to find that it is a common species, but a young individual. When I see these juveniles, they can be harder to ID or just as obvious as the adults, depending on the species. The young Cliff Swallow (San Simeon Creek, 7/4) and Pygmy Nuthatch (Cambria, 7/4) above are still obvious, but the turkey (Poly Canyon, 7/16) and the White-crowned Sparrow (Morro Rock, 6/20) below might demand a second look before identifying them. It is a fun challenge for me to ID the calls of such young birds.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spring and Early Summer Land Birding

Between mid May and mid July, I checked many of the riparian habitats close to the coast, as well as Cerro Alto, a riparian site in the hills about 7 miles from the coast. These have been locations which in past late springs and early summers have had unusual warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, etc., often in breeding plumage. This year such birding was not productive as there were practically no such vagrants. I did find sharp looking common local breeders such as the Wilson's Warbler pictured (Coon Creek) and pretty butterflies like the Satyr Comma pictured (Coon Creek), but I spent a lot of time land birding locally with no new BIGBY species. One of the few exceptions was a brief female American Redstart in some willows near the edge of the bay in Los Osos on July 1. It was there for about ten minutes and then was never seen again. I could not get a photo of this bird, which seemed to be in a hurry.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Break from Green Birding

Leif Rydell and his family (photo left) visited us from Sweden, so I took three days off from my BIGBY to show Leif and his son Hannes some birds in my home territory. (Leif's wife and daughter did other things while we did most of our birding).

They arrived midday on June 19 so we birded nearby at Montana de Oro State Park (photo above). We went there to see Pigeon Guillemot (photo below) which nest in the cliffs at the park and which was new for them. We also had surprisingly good luck at the Bluffs Trail - finding five Pacific Rattlesnakes (photo), which Hannes really wanted to see. These snakes were very drably marked and acted very passively. That was a good thing since the snakes were all less than a foot off a very heavily used trail! I lifted one up gently with a tripod leg and it did not strike. It barely even rattled while sliding off into the weeds.

On the 20th, we went inland to Cerro Alto for birds which breed in riparian habitat away from the cool coast and for the slightly higher elevation which attracts birds like Olive-sided Flycatcher. At Cerro Alto, we met Ross and Mike Schaefer, and Aidan Briggs, from Templeton and Atascadero. They helped us to find many new birds for the Rydells, such as Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Wood-Pewee, a beautiful male Western Tanager, MacGillivray's Warbler (after some long looking for this bird that was singing in thick cover) and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. We also visited Whale Rock Reservoir where we found breeding Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting (a gorgeous male that flew over tantalizingly, before finally perching in the open for good looks). We were also surprised by an adult Bald Eagle (unseasonal, but they do breed at reservoirs within 30 miles, as the eagle flies). Leif and Hannes had seen over a dozen new species that they had not seen on their prior visit to the area (in the winter).

On the 21st, Leif and I (Hannes decided to sleep in a bit) found a group of very vocal ("chi-beer") Cassin's Kingbirds (they seem to often breed near our coast in eucalyptus groves) on the way to Atascadero, where we saw Wood Ducks at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Since access to the plant was denied, we viewed the birds from a hill on the outside of the fence.  While I couldn't really bird with these visiting birders on my bike, it was a fun bit of birding. I enjoyed birding with them and seeing the birds from their perspective. I was also glad that I didn't find anything I hadn't already seen on my BIGBY since I would not have been able to count it!

Feeling Old?

My fractured ribs were healing and feeling better until I tore a calf muscle playing squash on May 28 - the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. I figured it was just a "Charlie Horse" when I rode the 100 miles up the coast to Ragged Point and back on Saturday and Sunday, and then rode my bike 30 miles up to Cerro Alto and hiked the hilly trails on Monday. The cycling seemed to make the calf feel better, but the hiking worsened the injury. What had been stiffness and soreness in my calf (with minimal swelling) became a more painful calf with considerable swelling into my ankle and my now red, purple and blue foot. My doctor said it was a torn muscle and that I should lay off of exercise for at least 2 weeks. Some of my friends said I should act my age! (I also had a scraped-up hand from slipping on a closed gravel path at Ragged Point.)

After a week of no leg exercise, I began with short rides which seemed OK. I avoided steep hills on my bike, and did not even try to run or hike. On June 16 I took the morning off of work, since the superior courts were not in session, and rode south to the Bob Jones Bike Trail, an asphalt trail through riparian habitat along San Luis Obispo Creek before it flows out to the coast. This mostly forested stretch had willows, oaks, cottonwoods, walnuts, and other trees and plants. (see the photos)

I listened for any unusual calls or songs from the sometimes thick riparian forest, but found nothing unusual. I did find 48 species of birds along the bike path, including this Red-shouldered Hawk (photo below) hiding in the shade next to the busy path. The path highlighted a good range of species from breeding passerines, to nesting Great Blue Herons, to raptors, overhead swallow flocks, to birds of the beach and coast near the creek mouth.
I turned around at the Harford Pier for the back stretch of my 25 mile ride. I fought a head wind on the way back to San Luis Obispo, but got back in time for an afternoon of work. I decided I wasn't feeling old, just injured from some
                bad luck. I was on the mend. At least I could still cycle!