Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bicycle Birding Equipment Checklist

___ Comfortable well maintained bicycle, touring bike is good for
multi-day trips with panniers.
___ water - 1-3 bottles, depending on trip
___ well fitted helmet
___ tools - tire tools, compact Allen wrench/screwdriver set, spokes?,
___ 2 tire tubes, liner?
___ patch kit
___ emergency tire boot
___ small high pressure pump with pressure gauge
___ sun glasses or clip ons
___ electrolite drink and powder to make more on longer trips
___ 2-3 times the amount of food you normally eat
___ Wider tires (and wheels?) for use on dirt (I don't take them with
me but change before ride)
___ pannier(s)
___ handlebar bag
___ binoculars
___ checklist, field notebook, field guide?, pen
___ first aid kit including vaseline intensive care for chaping
___ sunblock and chapstick with sunblock
___ bike shorts
___ bike socks and shoes
___ bike jersey
___ bright bike jacket
___ leg warmers (have these or tights for cold rides)
___ Greenish long sleeved shirt (goes over bike clothes for birding)
___ thermal shirt or wicking sweater? (better to bring extra layers than to be cold)
___ handkerchief(s)
___ wipes (for poison oak/ivy, grease, dirt, road rash)
___ money, credit card, driver's license
___ cell phone
___ U Lock
___ key(s)
___ iPod and speakers? (spare batteries)
___ camera? (extra battery and memory card?)
___ scope?
___ tripod?
___ shoes for hiking?
___ hat for hiking?
___ pack to hold pannier for hiking?
___ light weight breathable rain jacket?
___ insect repellant?
___ handlebar light? leg light?
___ leg light or tail light?
___ toilet paper
___ map(s)?
___ camping equipment?
___ light tent
___ sleeping pad and bag
___ toiletries
___ cook gear?
___ spare clothes
___ light food for camping meals
___ mail food to destinations without any available food?
___ reservations for camping or motels
___ hand washing powder for clothes
___ plastic bag for clothes that don't dry
___ zip-lock baggies
___ charger for camera battery and iPod

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bicycle Birding Basics

In the last three years I have done a fair amount of bicycle-birding and have learned the following lessons (many the hard way):

1) Watch for cars, watch for cars, watch for cars (especially the ones with little cyclists painted on the side). Drivers do the most stupid, dangerous, inconsiderate, and asinine things. Watch for it and be prepared to react - it may save your life! Modify your behavior, especially if you are a male with elevated testosterone when you cycle. Its kind of like dealing with cops - try not to curse drivers or have an attitude (especially when they are completely wrong) because they have all the power. Avoid dangerous roads (e.g. Highway 41 from Cerro Alto to Morro Bay where there is no shoulder, falling rocks, and poor visibility due to curves), especially when the traffic is heavy. Pull well off the road when looking at birds - it is easy to focus on the birds and forget the cars whizzing by.

2) Wear a helmet!!! (Even for short trips.) I know several cyclist who have cracked helmets in cycling accidents, and so avoided cracking their heads.

3) Observe the rules of the road, especially stay on the right side, come close to stopping at stop signs, don't run lights, and signal your turns. Not only might this save you a ticket, but it gives drivers one less reason to hit you. When necessary in town, ride in a way where you are visible even if it means you are not all the way to the right. Do not weave around cars, be predictable and visible. When outside of town, stay as far right as possible in or out of bike lanes as some cars ride on the edge of bike lanes or off to the right more than is necessary. Pull into pullouts on narrow highways or whenever else it would allow fast cars behind to pass.

4) Don't wear cameras, binoculars, etc. around your neck when riding - it gets in the way and is uncomfortable on long rides. It may seem nerdy, but a handlebar bag that locks onto the handlebar is the best place to keep such items and cell phone where they are safe and handy. Especially avoid wearing binoculars in areas where rednecks or others are hostile to birders or nature lovers. It identifies you as a target!

5) Keep the weight of your load as light as possible (it makes a big difference on hills) and try to balance it so not too much weight is in the back or to one side. I f you use only one pannier, hang it on the ride side as wind will tend to push you to the right and not into traffic. If you don't need a scope on a particular trip, leave it at home.

6) Bring plenty of food and fluids for the road, and use them. Don't underestimate how much you should eat and drink on a long ride - take 2-3 times what you would normally eat in the same time period and drink more fluid then you think is necessary (don't wait till you are thirsty). Bike shops and Internet sites sell specialty endurance drinks and food. "Bonking" is no fun! Also make sure your water bottles are full before you leave a town with a long subsequent stretch that may have no water.

7) Progress slowly when increasing mileage or hills. It's like running or lifting or any other exercise - ease into it. Especially if you are an old fart like me! Even take it easy on a brand new bike; don't take a really long trip on a new bike till you are used to it.

8) Make sure your bike fits your body. Buy a bike that is the right height and length for your body. Have an expert at a bike shop help you select a bike and set the seat height, cleat placement on your clip-in shoes, and handlebar height.

9) Keep your bike well lubricated and adjusted (brakes and derailleurs). Have at least an annual tuneup by a local bike store. Learn to do basic maintenance such as adjusting cables, adjusting the derailleur, changing a flat, patching a tube, changing a spoke, etc., so you can do it yourself on a ride. On long rides especially, make sure you carry all the needed parts and tools for basic repairs. Flats are a drag. I have been using Bontrager tires with Kevlar belting with success. You can also try tire liners or tire sealant which you inject into the tire.

10) When purchasing a bike or panniers, or other cycling equipment and clothing, consult experts at bike stores and online. Many employees at bike stores know little about bike touring, so find one who does. ( see thetouringstore.com )

11) Wear appropriate clothing for cycling so that you are comfortable cycling and birding. Cycling shoes, shorts, jerseys, leg warmers, tights, gloves, jackets. etc. protect your body, make you more aerodynamic, wick away sweat, keep you from getting too hot or cold, make you more visible, and generally feel comfortable when cycling. Wear full gloves for cold weather (not cutoff finger tips). I wear a bicycle jacket with zip-up pockets and a color called "screaming yellow" which makes me highly visible for drivers. I take along a dull green shirt to put over it or change into (depending on the weather) so I am not birding in screaming yellow. An extra sweater or thermals are useful when birding along the coast, especially with a cool onshore breeze. In redneck areas, bike jerseys with an American flag may reduce abuse from drivers (not kidding). I have an equipment list for bike birding in another post.

12) Carefully check out bike routes before a trip for the shortest, safest route. "Google Maps" and other sources make it easy to check distance and terrain. Google maps are not always accurate about bike routes so check with local cyclists or bike shops when biking an unfamiliar route. Also, check weather reports carefully before rides, especially multi-day ones, and don't forget to check on wind direction and velocity as this can greatly effect cycling. Wind and rain suck big time.

13) When not cycling, it helps to lift weights for leg and overall body strength, cross train by running and rowing, stretch (also after rides), and keep your weight down (long rides help with this!).

14) Pace yourself on long rides. Take breaks, stop and smell the roses or look at or listen for birds, or take photos. Enjoy the rides!

15) Lock your bike to a pole or tree when it is out of your sight. Use a U lock that cannot be cut. Lock the pannier and helmet as well as a wheel and frame with the lock. Lock both wheels if you are going to be gone for a while. If hiking, bring a light backpack that fits a pannier so you don't have to leave it and the stuff in it. Have a handlebar bag that locks to the handle bar and don't forget to take valuables out of it when you leave.

16) Check your bike and other equipment right before each day's trip and after significant breaks. Make sure that the wheels are on tightly, that the tires are fully inflated, the brake pads don't rub the rims, derailleurs are adjusted, and rack bolts are tight. Make sure that your tool bag, panniers and pockets on your clothes are all zipped up and securely closed to prevent leaving tools, money, keys, etc. along the side of the road.  A few quick tweaks before a trip can make a trip much more pleasant.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

More Local Surprises to Finish the Year

Nike and I love our early morning walk (before work or a weekend cycle) from our house and along the edge of the back bay and through Pecho Willows. Although there are often interesting birds (a typical 40 minute walk yields 40-65 species of birds), it is a really beautiful place to be (photos left and the masthead). The light is always different depending on the time of day, the amount of fog or clouds and the angle of the sun. The path through Pecho Willows (below) often has bird surprises, errant golf balls from the adjacent golf course that I collect for my golfer son, and occasional deer or coyotes (which I have to restrain Nike from chasing). My neighborhood has some color as shown in the picture of our commercial fisherman neighbor's house, below.

When I want to get out on my bike, but don't have a lot of time, I can pedal to the campground next to Islay Creek in Montana de Oro State Park, or the Audubon Overlook on the edge of Morro Bay, or Sweet Springs Nature Preserve with its fresh water pond and platform on the edge of the bay, or the coastal scrub habitat and hill top lookout of the bay at the Elfin Forest, or the pastureland and ag. fields of Turri Road or the old oak forest at Los Osos Oaks - all within four miles of where I live!

I did find a couple of new BIGBY species in my neighborhood toward the end of the year. The Tundra Swan shown below was first seen flying by in the company of an unsavory Mute Swan and after calling Kaaren Perry about this local rarity, she photographed it on the bay, as shown here on November 23.
I also found a Swamp Sparrow on the day after I got back from my 160 mile trip to the Carrizo Plain - right at the end of my street! (BIGBY # 317)

My last BIGBY bird of the year, on December 31, occurred at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. I rode my bike the 12 miles there, got on my rubber boots and walked through the flooded vegetation along the shore (photo), playing the bittern recording on my iPod. An American Bittern answered and was seen briefly as it flushed. This was my 318th BIGBY bird and my last species for the year.  I thought of the birds I had missed for the year and was satisfied, as they were few.  The surprise species for the year were many!

Last Multi-day Trip in 2010

As the year wound down, I decided which additional trips I could make to find new species for my year's green list. The weather was not being cooperative as it was the wettest November and December I could remember. There were still several species I needed from the Carrizo Plain area - one day's bike ride east of where I live on the coast. This area includes the Carrizo Pain National Monument and habitat that is unique for this area - a large alkaline lake, sage and saltbush scrub land, and arid grassland and hills. So, I had to find a three day weekend without rain and not on a holiday with family commitments. This gave me two days for the ride to the California Valley Motel and back, and one day to bird the Plain.

After a couple of rained out weekends and Thanksgiving, I finally had a window of opportunity between Friday, December 10 and Sunday December 12. I hadn't been riding as much lately because many of the species I had needed lately had been close to home, and due to the weather and holidays. The first day of my ride to the Carrizo was going to be a tough one. This was my third trip out there for my BIGBY.

Matt and Trisha covered for me in court and I hit the road at about 8:00 AM on Friday - loaded with clothes for the possibly sub-30 degree weather of the Carrizo Plain, as well as three days of food, my camera equipment and my iPod and speakers. It was a little foggy as I left my house and went west toward San Luis Obispo on the fairly flat coastal plain - through farmland and grazing land. I was glad to be on my bike, on the way out to the eastern part of the county rather than in my car on the way to work like the people in the cars whizzing past me. I offered them my condolences, but none acknowledged my presence - they were just envious (or more likely oblivious).

I took it easy on the first 12 miles of the trip, knowing that one of the two hardest hills was approaching - Cuesta Grade, a climb of over 1,000 feet in elevation. Unlike my ride in the spring, the hills were quiet and the sky was gray as I ascended the grade. About half way up, I saw a sad sight - a freshly killed Western Screech Owl. Fortunately, the bike lane was wide on this stretch of the highway so I wasn't overly worried about joining the owl on the side of the road. I took the climb slowly without a break except to see the owl, and made the summit before the descent to the exit for Santa Margarita.

Santa Margarita, a small unincorporated town, was the last place to get food and water before the roller coaster ride out to the Carrizo Plain. I made sure my three bottles were full with water and Gatorade and picked up a fresh sandwich and chips for lunch on the way east. On the first stretch east of Santa Margarita I saw the weird hillside depicted below (you can click on any of the post's photos to enlarge). I wasn't sure what to make of it - a piece of conceptual art or a piece of shirt? or?

At about this time, the overcast was breaking up and it was starting to warm up a bit. I was now on the up and down Highway 58 which rolls its way about 50 miles out to the Plain. The pasture land here hosts flocks of Yellow-billed Magpies, Western Bluebirds, and various sparrows and finches. Scanning the sky while riding can yield an occasional Golden or Bald Eagle soaring overhead (or a ride off the pavement if I'm not careful). I was able to find an immature Bald Eagle. The ride out to the plain varies between the pastureland, oak forest, chapparal covered hills and farms of grapes and even jojoba. As I cycled, I heard the occasional plaintive whistle of a Phainopepla (always from oaks with clumps of mistletoe in their branches). Scrub Jays cried, ravens croaked and Oak Titmice performed their varied repertoire of calls and songs. There was little or no bike lane for most of this stretch, but fortunately traffic was very light and the drivers that did pass were considerate.

I stopped at one spot next to what remained of a long dead Blue Oak (photos here), ate my sandwich from the Santa Margarita Mercantile, rested, took some photos, and did some birding. Except for a brief stop at San Juan Creek (photo below) I did not stop again before the Plain as the species I needed would not be seen before I dropped down from the mountains down to the flats.

Once I got to the Plain I began to look for one of my target species - Rough-legged hawk - on the utility poles and fenceposts were raptors roost in good numbers in this expanse of cultivated fields, pasture, and native scrub. I did see several handsome Ferruginous Hawks (photo below), kestrels, a Merlin, several Red-tailed Hawks, but no Rough-leggeds. I also listened as flocks of Horned Larks swirled around in the plowed fields.

At one of the only ranches houses along Highway 58 with a pond (just before the right turn to California Valley), I stopped to look for any unusual waterfowl and found a Cassin's Kingbird on a wire - a very unusual species for the Plain. A little farther up the road a mixed blackbird flock, with close to a hundred Tricolored Blackbirds, fed on the ground and noisely perched on the nearby wires and fence strands.

I got to the motel at about 3:30. The 66 mile ride to California Valey was tiring, but nothing like my first ride there in February (when I thought I was going to die by the side of the road)! I cramped up a little bit as I sat on my motel room bed, eating a chicken sandwich that the motel owner had given me (thanks!) and a freeze dried microwaved dinner (yum!).

The next morning dawned clear and surprisingly not cold (over 40 degrees Fahrenheit). After oatmeal and hot chocolate, I took off at about 7 AM (I had unpacked and packed the bike the night before). I headed south on Soda Lake road, which goes toward the national monument and reaches nearly to the edge of Soda Lake. Raptors were numerous on the poles lining the paved road and traffic was nearly nonexistent. I spotted a Prairie Falcon on a fence post, kestrels, more Ferruginous Hawks (5 in sight at one time!) and Red-tails. I could find no Rough-legged hawks, but did get great looks the other raptors. I took detours off the main road to groves of trees, but found no Long-eared Owls (which I still needed for the year). I did see Mountain Bluebirds and Horned Larks (nothing sounded like a longspur) in the mostly grazed fields.

When I passed the farm and pasture land, and got to some native brush I found Sage Sparrows sitting atop scraggly salt bush, along with flocks of smart looking Lark Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows. I still had a ways to go to get to a spot for LeConte's Thrasher, another target bird for the trip. To get to a LeConte's location, I had to go east on one of the roads that passes to the other side of Soda Lake. Many are impassable after rains and it had recently rained. Fortunately, I was able to walk around low muddy areas and made my way past thousands of Horned Larks, pipits and sparrows to the Elkhorn Road - a higher dirt road that travels north/south on the eastern side of the lake (photo).  I ate lunch here and again listened for longspurs without any success.

At the junction pictured I saw a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk (bad photo of this high soaring bird).
Just south of the junction in the photo I came to a bunch of scrubby growth coming down from the Temblor Range. Here I found several LeConte's Thrashers (BIGBY # 315). I tried to get some photos as the thrashers ran around the brushy habitat bordering grazed grassland. At times they scurried around my feet with their tails up, like little roadrunners, but I could not get an open shot except for a quick far away shot blown up here. I finally thought I had to leave, to allow more time to look for longspurs and Long-eared Owl.

I road back north on Elkhorn Road and the graded dirt with areas of washboard bumps was really shaking me around at times. I would be glad to get off the dirt, but it was still several miles to Highway 58. Along the way I saw more small flocks of Mountain Bluebirds, glowing bright powder blue against the drab background of the arid grassland and hills. Large flocks of Horned Larks called as they flew over me, and on both sides of me in the fields. I finally got to the paved highway and went uphill to the small riparian habitat along San Diego Creek next to the road. Birding here was made more interesting by the angry big bull that pawed the ground and lowered its head as soon as I hopped the fence. I was able to avoid the bull as I bushwacked through the thick willows and brush under some large cottonwoods.

 The habitat here was hopping with birds in the spring, but was really slow on this visit. I had seen Long-eared Owls here in the past, but the only raptor I was able to flush this time was a Cooper's Hawk. After covering the habitat along this seasonal creek, I decided to cycle back toward California Valley via the dirt surfaced (but dry) Seven Mile Road, checking the poles for raptors. I saw more of the same raptors I had seen before. When I got back to the paved Soda Lake Road, I checked it again for raptors, but saw no Rough-leggeds. I got back to the motel after about 45 miles of easy riding, most of it on dirt and washed some of my cycling clothes. After another freeze dried backpacking food dinner I packed for my trip back to the coast and hit the sack early.

I got up early the next morning which was unnecessary because the fog was so thick outside that I could not see across the street! I waited for almost 2 hours and finally left at about 8:30 since it was not getting better. The fog did decreased a bit as I pedaled away from California Valley and I spotted a couple of Vesper Sparrows showing their white outer tail feathers as they flew away from the roadside barb wire fence they had been perched upon. I stopped at a roadside group of pines along the cyclone fence for the Carrisa Plains School. I decided to check this line of trees since there are not many trees on the Plain and this group of thick trees would be a potentially good place for owls to roost. I saw many owl pellets on the ground and flushed a Barn Owl followed by a Long-eared Owl. The size and color of the bird made the Long-eared ID obvious, but I did not try to re-find it after flushing it since the light was bad for a photo and I did not want to harass BIGBY # 316.

I has hoped to check the poles and fields along Bitterwater Road (which runs north of the Plain), but the fog was worse when I got there. I then decided to pedal toward home, happy with my two new green year birds! I saw nothing different on the rest of the trip home and was lucky enough to have a tailwind on the last leg home along Los Osos Valley Road (a rarity in the afternoon in the land of onshore wind).

Fowl Day for a Christmas Count

I know that a stormy day is typically a "foul" day. But when you are on a Christmas bird count, and it rains three inches, it is a great day for waterfowl (and not much else). I started early with my faithful canine companion, Nike, on our local count day (Saturday, December 18), and it rained on us for most of our walk. (photo) We did see some good fowl (not an oxymoron) - 2 Cackling Geese (photo) on the golf course. They had undoubtedly not been popular on the course due to the little surprises they scattered around the greens and the fairways, but I was certainly glad to see them even if the golfers were not. The geese stood out among a large flock of coots, and none of them seem concerned about the rain.

I waited for awhile at home after our walk and drank hot chocolate, but gave up waiting when the rain would not stop. "To hell with it - I have some bird counting to do," I announced to no one in particular since Nike wasn't listening and my family was out of town. I was suppose to count birds in my neighborhood and adjoining parts of Los Osos and Baywood Park and, by God, I was going to do it.

Being a mixture of quiet single family residences on the edge of the Morro Bay Estuary and having several groves of trees, a golf course, three ponds, and lookouts of the bay, my home town produced many unusual birds in the fall of 2010. Several noteworthy birds had been seen in the area in the week prior to the count, such as Swamp Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak and Wilson's Warbler. (These species are not common wintering birds in this area). These were also birds that might be dificult to see in the rain.

The first thing I did aftert my break was check the grove of trees at the end of my street where the above three rarities had been seen, but very few birds were out in the pouring rain - they had more sense than that!
I decided to take a four mile walk around the neighborhoods, and to the various bird lookouts and preserves in Los Osos and Baywood Park. Even if the dicky birds were not out, maybe I'd see a different shorebird, or duck, or something that didn't mind the rain. I wore my rain pants, a breathable rain jacket, wool socks and waterproof boots. I carried my scope and tripod on a backpack carrier and took a couple of dry handkerchiefs to dry my lenses.

I checked all the local spots that were good for wintering birds, but had nothing of note. I couldn't even find a Eurasian Wigeon or any unusual shorebird or waterfowl. After a while, things got very wet and my handkerchiefs were no longer dry! (I should have brought a bath towel!) Wet eyeglasses, binoculars and scope do not make birding any easier. There could have been rare birds on the bay at that point and I wouldn't have even seen them. "Time to go home!" I again announced to no one in particular (I probably should be more careful about walking around in the rain, talking to myself!) Not only did I not see any other counters out birding, but I saw very few people out of their homes at all on such a blowing wet day.
When I got home, the rain water had soaked into my clothing, from around my collar, and my feet were cold. (Christmas bird counts should have an alternate day when the usual day is rained out.)

I ended up with barely 60 species, when the same walk on a dry day would have yielded closer to 100 species! The entire Morro Bay Christmas Bird Count was only about 175 species - the lowest total for our count in over 25 years! It wasn't disappointed because I found no new green year birds, but because I knew that there were birds around that would have been unique for the count. I missed them on count day due to the "fowl" weather. Really crappy days like this one made me appreciate the usual nice weather in this area (that I often take for granted). (How's that for a great rationalization for having spent several miserable hours outside, vainly looking for birds in the driving cold rain?!)