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.
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).