Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Farther Afield Fall Birds

Do I ride up or down the coast, or even inland, to maximize my chances for new species? Or do I bird close to home, where I have seen most of my year birds? (Or do I stay home and do the chores my wife has been after me to do? Who am I kidding?)

I am very fortunate in that I live within 5 miles of an incredible range of productive birding locations: from rocky shore, to sea bird lookouts, large tidal estuary, coastal vagrant traps, no less than 5 creeks that feed into the sea or Morro Bay, pastureland, oak forest, coastal scrub, remote sandy beaches, pine forest, and urban spots. Why should I ride 60 or more miles when I can often find better birds close to home? One reason is that I might find vagrant species in other parts of the county that I will likely not see close to home. A better reason is to go after resident species that are known to exist in other parts of the county which won't have left before I get there. Best yet, is when someone else finds a very rare vagrant somewhere else, and I find out with enough time to pedal there and back on the day it has been seen.

Since no new rarities were being seen, and I had birded my local patches over and over again, I decided to pedal 30 miles north up the coast to San Simeon State Beach. I went straight there so I could get there before the onshore winds (from the northwest) kicked up. I then could bird on the 30 mile return trip with the wind at my cycling back!  I first checked the beach and the lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek (photo above).  It is sometimes good for shorebirds and waterfowl. The only thing unusual that I could find was a very tame flock of White-fronted Geese (photo above, taken from the highway 1 bridge) next to the lagoon - nice but not new for my year.

I then put on my waterproof Teva sandals and walked up the middle of the stream to look for flocks and any vagrants in the San Simeon Creek riparian habitat (left). Unfortunately, on this particular day, it was quiet with only a couple of small flocks and nothing out of the ordinary.

I then rode back down the coast with stops at Pico Creek (below), Moonstone Beach and Santa Rosa Creek. There were a couple of large chickadee, bushtit, warbler flocks at wooded path along Santa Rosa Creek and the usual large gull flock at the mouth of the creek at Moonstone Beach, but nothing noteworthy. It was good to get out on my bike and bird some spots I hadn't birded lately, but I had added nothing to my big year.

Oceano has traditionally been the best spot for fall vagrants in San Luis Obispo County, so on October 16, I rode down the coast 25 miles to bird that spot and other locations nearby. The Oceano area had produced only a few vagrants so far for this last fall, so I went down there with less expectations than I would usually have for the area in October.

I met Maggie Smith there and we walked around the lagoon, looking for a flock. After finding a small flock on the north end of the campground we then heard a much larger flock in the pines on the west side of the campground. Dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, kinglets and other birds moved through the trees. We followed the flock, looking for the odd bird, which Maggie found. "Palm Warbler," she called out as I ran over with my binocs and camera bouncing. "Its just above eye level in the small tree below the pine in front of us." I found the bird and tried to keep up with the dull-colored Palm (a new BIGBY bird), trying to take a decent photo. (I did manage the straight-on shot shown below.) We continued to chase the flock as it broke up and seemed to disappear - about the same time that other birders arrived. We saw a female Summer Tanager which Maggie had found on an earlier date, and continued our walk around the lagoon without finding anything else unusual.

Maggie took off and I continued on to the open county park lagoon to the south where I searched through gulls and ducks. I then went further south to the willow riparian habitat along Arroyo Grande creek where I looked through the willows and a stand of pines. I found one flock along the horse trail which paralleled the creek and found my first Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren) for my green year. I headed back home against a slight wind, stopping a couple of times for brief bird checks.

In the evening of November 5, I heard about an adult Ivory Gull that had been found two days prior at Pismo Beach. It took two days for this distinctive bird to be identified! I was on my way to Pismo, on the following morning, to look for this amazing bird. After a quick 1 hour 40 minute ride, I ran out to the beach, pulling my bike through the sand. There was a large flock of birders (below) in the sand, but they were not looking at a bird (not a good sign)!!

"The bird was just here," several birders said as I approached. "It just flew down the beach to the Pismo Creek Mouth." I went down the beach with another birder and the small pure white gull was in with other larger local gulls. I had great looks and then it flew down the beach to where I had first started on the sand. I saw it feeding on a seal carcass at this spot. I took a far away shot and Dave Lawrence got a great close up (below)! This was an incredibly rare and beautiful gull for BIGBY # 310!  I stood on Pismo Beach in my bicycle shorts, among totally oblivious tourists, looking at a bird from the Arctic Circle - a bird that had only been seen in California once before!

I went on to nearby Oceano after I heard that a Harris' Sparrow and other rarities had been found there. Unfortunately, the rain started soon after and I not only missed the sparrow, but also failed to see a Northern Parula seen by a birder standing right next to me. I still didn't really mind the rain on most of the ride home from Pismo - how could I complain after seeing an Ivory Gull!

On November 14 I again headed north up the coast, all the way to Arroyo Laguna (75 mile round trip), and found nothing remarkable. I did manage to see an immature Moorhen at San Simeon and a good variety of birds on my way home, but nothing new for my BIGBY. I stopped at Pico Creek (below) on the way north and south to scan the wetland for bittern or other reed loving birds, without any luck.