Saturday, August 28, 2010

Challenge Night

Wednesday night is "challenge night" for squash at the gym in San Luis Obispo, where I work out. Squash players can play against any other squash players between 5 and 8 PM. This last Wednesday, 8/25, I was trying to get out of the office so I could drive over to the gym to play; I was looking forward to playing since I had been out with a torn calf muscle for a couple of months.

Then, at about 5:30, I got a call from Kaaren Perry. She had found a White-winged Dove in her backyard in Morro Bay. This was a species I had missed on two trips to Pismo and a couple of searches in Los Osos for reported individuals. Do I go after the bird (was there enough daylight to drive home, change, ride to Morro Bay, find the bird, and ride back home?) or do I hope it sticks around and go to the gym to play squash and lift? I figured if I left work right away and drove home I would have about 20 - 30 minutes to find the bird and still make it home before dark. "Challenge Night" developed a new meaning for me that evening!

By the time I got home and ready for my ride it was almost 6:15; I couldn't stop at all to see if there were any shorebirds on the way there since it was about a 30 minute ride and it was getting dark at about 7:45. I got to Kaaren's neighborhood in about 25 minutes and looked around for doves in trees and on wires. For some reason, the White-wingeds that stray north to this area hang out with Eurasian Collared Doves (not Mourning Doves) and often sit on wires or perch in large eucs. or pine trees. I was hoping I found the bird before it bedded down for the evening in one of the large pine trees in Karen's neighborhood. I had only checked a couple of dove groups when I saw a likely candidate on a wire behind some houses. The light was already fading in the foggy evening and I confirmed the diagnostic white strip on the wing and took a couple of photos in the dwindling light. I couldn't savor the bird for long as the light was going and I still needed 25 minutes to get home! I did meet the people who lived in the house where the dove was perched.  They wondered what I was looking at with my optics.  I showed them the dove and explained its significance and they seemd to be satisfied I wasn't a Peeping Tom. They even said I could climb up onto their roof for a better photo (!), but I declined.  I got home before dark and still had time to go to the gym.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Something Different

On Sunday, Aug. 22, I wanted to try some different birding to turn up some new species for the year. I got up early to cycle over to the trail which winds along the edge of the bluffs, high over the ocean, just north of the Spooner's Cove beach at Montana de Oro State Park. This has been a good place to scope the ocean and it was a nice clear morning with good visibility. I got there and set up my scope by 8 AM. It was quiet birdwise. I stood and searched the visible ocean for birds. There were a few scattered Sooty Shearwaters flying by, flashing their silvery wing linings as they stiffly travelled back and forth, low to the water. A few alcids also passed by, mostly heading south. At least a couple were Common Murres. I also found some Pacific Loons, Red-throated Loons, a Red-necked Phalarope, Surf Scoters and other assorted common species. Then I saw something exciting - a new sighting for the year even if it was not a bird. I saw a big high blow of a whale and saw a very large dark shape on the surface. I watched it in the scope for several minutes and it was not the shape of a Humped Back or Gray Whale. Then I saw it begin to dive - its body kept coming and coming and then a very small dorsal fin and no fluke (tail) showed. It was a huge Blue Whale!!!! I had only seen one once before and this was really exciting! (Birds, what birds?!)

I left after about an hour of sea watching since the birding was a little slow. I went home to pack for kayaking and then cycled over to the Morro Bay State Park Marina to meet Ross Schaefer for some paddling on the bay and hopefully some different species. We were on the lookout for different shorebirds, terns, and herons. The terns were present in number - Caspian, Elegant, Royal, Forster's, and Common. The shorebirds were frustrating as we could not get close to many in the kayak due to the tide. Just as we had almost returned to the marina Ross spotted a grayish looking godwit, but it was such a quick look that we could not definitively say that it was a different species of godwit than the usual Marbled. Common Tern was new for my BIGBY, so it was not a total waste of kayaking and birding.

"It's Where?!"

On August 21, I had sufficiently recovered from my Hawaiian vacation so I decided to work my way up Highway One along the coast to Arroyo Laguna on my bike: checking sandy shorebird spots along the way. I had to start early to beat the summer hoards of tourists and locals with their unleashed canines, all of which scare the shorebirds off the accessible beaches. After quick stops at the nearby ponds at Turri Road, and the mouth of Torro Creek, I stopped at the mouth of Old Creek which disappeared into the sand on the beach at the south end of semi-touristy Cayucos. I had been hoping for Baird's Sandpiper, a usually fairly common migrant in the latter half of August and September. The mouth had shrunk to a pitiful pond with a few peeps and several curlews and Whimbrels. Joining them was the usual loud and obnoxious Killdeer - the one that always seems to take pleasure in flushing rare birds at the drop of a hat (or the raise of binoculars or camera).

Despite the Killdeer's best efforts at getting all the birds agitated upon my arrival, I still found 2 Semipalmated Sandpipers, with Semipalmated Plovers (pictured) and Western and Least Sandpipers. Most years I would be excited by this species, but this season I had already seen several and I still needed Baird's Sandpiper for my BIGBY list. I photographed the Semis and made sure they weren't some rare stint before heading north. I made a couple of quick stops along the way, to look for Ruddy Turnstones - my year's nemesis bird, the one I was convinced everyone was lying about since I had missed reported Ruddies at least 8 times since January 1st. At the first spot - an overlook of the sandy beach just north of the Cayucos pier I counted over 40 Black Turnstones picking through beached kelp. And then the unexpected occurred - I actually found an adult Ruddy Turnstone, just before a person, and its dog owner, flushed it. A new BIGBY species and one I had almost given up on!

I didn't want to stop anymore on the way to San Simeon Beach because in my mind I could see the tourists with their rock-throwing kids scurrying along the edge of the lagoon at San Simeon - scaring every winged creature to oblivion. I rushed up there and locked my bike under the highway bridge and its now mostly empty (I would not have parked my bike there otherwise) Cliff Swallow nests (photo) and got to the lagoon where the tourists were already in force (photo).

I found a few common peeps and my first-of-the-season Northern Pintail (photo). I also saw Snowy Plovers, hiding in footprints in the sand, in a spot they hoped would be less traveled by the weekend warriors. Just as I was leaving the lagoon to eat lunch at the park's parking lot picnic tables, I received a call from fellow Los Osos birder, Mike Stiles, that a nice adult male Chestnut-sided Warbler was in Los Osos at the end of the block where I lived - 31 miles from where I was!

Since warblers migrate at night, and the spot where it was found often holds birds till there is a clear night and they continue their migration, I felt hopeful that the bird would stay and I could re find it. Mike noted that it was even calling, which should make it easy to re find. I stopped at the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek on the way back, to go through the large flocks of gulls and a few shorebirds. I put my Tevas on, to walk the creek to check for migrant land birds. I found nothing unusual and so I headed south only stopping for a couple of cookies at the Cayucos gas station/deli/bakery (not the overpriced yuppie cookie store less than a block to the north).

When I got back to my neighborhood, I went straight to the willows at the end of my street and parked my bike just as I ran into a couple of local birders also looking for the Chestnut-sided. The bird was not calling or otherwise being cooperative so after almost an hour of looking I went home to eat a 3 PM lunch. I walked back to the willows at the end of my street at about 5:30 and finally found the still silent and solitary bird. I snapped a couple of terrible photos including the one here which, if you look closely, shows the chestnut side (really!).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Forgive Me Mother, I Have Sinned

Not only did I break my green birding "vows" for the year during a one week period of birding and hiking by car (Aug. 12 - 18), but I did it in Hawaii (which I reached by airline since I couldn't figure a way to cycle there). I couldn't resist the offer from family to stay with them on Maui and to use airline miles earned on a credit card. Hopefully, Mother Nature will forgive me as I continue my Big Green Big Year, now that I am back home.

One other sacrilege - if I had lived in Hawaii I would have not been a birder as likely as an avid snorkeler, watching fish, turtles and marine mammals ("fisher", "fish watcher",?). In Hawaii, the creatures in the water are a lot more fascinating to me than what is left of the land creatures (since they have been annihilated by rats, mice, pigs, mongooses, habitat loss, alien plants, grazing, avian malaria, etc.)  I love to snorkel there and swim with green turtles, watch incredibly beautiful fish like Moorish Idols, Pennantfish, tangs, and the Pinktail Triggerfish pictured here.

So, I spent 2 days on Oahu and 5 on Maui - hiking, sightseeing, birding, swimming, snorkeling, visiting with family, and photographing. Of all the sights I saw, the fish, turtles and dolphins were the highlights. The Red-tailed Tropicbird pictured was common on the east end of Oahu near Makapuu Point and it was great to see, along with the Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigatebirds and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters there. I had mixed feelings about all the alien bird species which were so numerous everywhere on land - interesting and sometimes beautiful (like the Shama Thrush pictured), but out of place. Somehow, it was OK to see some of my bird friends from the states that had made it there on there own, such as the coot, moorhen and Black-necked Stilt. I saw no native passerines on Oahu and had to hike out of Hosmer Grove on Maui (into Waikamoi Preserve, which is not a very pristine native forest) to see Amakihi, Apapane, Iiwi and Maui Creeper. Additional sea birds showed up on the Hana side of Oahu, such as Black Noddy next to Black Sands Beach and White-tailed Tropicbird on the way there.

The birds paled in comparison to the huge groups of native coral reef fish on Maui: at Black Rock, Molokini, and Lanai. They were fantastic, but they also face threats such as coral damage, pollution, sedimentation, and out of control collecting by those who sell to aquarium owners. Some alien fish have even been introduced!

I'm still tallying up my fish species, but am glad to get back to my local birds. I have resumed my march toward 300 species for my green big year! (for more photos of my trip and other birds see .