Although my green big year was over, I wanted to continue to do green birding in 2011, and encourage others to do more green birding (it's nice to have company once in a while). For both reasons, I approached the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival organizers about leading a bicycling-birding trip. After some initial concerns over logistics and liability, they agreed. I had no idea if participants would sign up for such a trip and I had not led such a trip locally (I did lead one for the Kern Valley Festival the prior spring with low attendance). I figured that I would design a trip that had minimal miles and hills, but still had a high number of species. I thought that a 1/2 day trip would be enough for a first time trip like this.
Based on the amount of cycling and birding I had done locally, I had a fair idea where I wanted to go from the Morro Bay Community Center (festival headquarters, below). My birding buddy, Ross Schaefer, and I got on our bikes and checked out the planned 8 mile route one week prior to the Saturday, January 8 trip. We had a good time birding for a half day on our bikes, even if the birding was a little slow due to less than optimum tide levels. We found nothing unusual, but had a fair variety of species - almost 70 species. The only problems I could see were the really cold and windy conditions at Morro Rock and the time limit, which might severely limit the number of stops on the trip (I would have to limit the stops and not take my scope out every time). I found out that the trip filled up early, so at least there was interest.
On January 8, I got up early so I could pedal the 30 minute ride from home to meet the participants at the community center before the 7:30 starting time. Although I was early, many of the 8 participants who signed up were not. By the time we got going it was about 8:00 AM. Lesson # 1 - cycling trips take longer to get going than vehicle trips - plan accordingly. It turned out to be a friendly and enthusiastic group of beginning to intermediate birders who were on this trip. All of the group were decent cyclists with only one participant who lagged a bit due to having a bike he was unfamiliar with. When we started with a bright yellow Townsend's Warbler at the community center parking lot, the whole group seemed excited by the bird and I relaxed a bit since it was clear this group would be happy with the usual local birds and I didn't need to be preoccupied with finding rarities or particular target birds. That was fine by me!
We practically coasted from the center down to Morro Rock where we were greeted by a variety of grebes, loons, gulls and scoters in the harbor mouth. One of the resident adult Peregrine Falcons glared down at us from its perch up on a spire on this massive basaltic plug (the remains of a no longer active volcano). A Canyon Wren gave its descending song from the rock and White-throated Swifts gave their grating "chittery" calls from above the rock, but we could not visually find either. Pelagic Cormorants (some showing their winter white flanks on their otherwise all black body) sat on a large rock next to Morro Rock, where they breed in sheltered spots on its almost vertical face. Larger Brant's Cormorants flew by occasionally. Since I had frozen my rear off at the Rock the weekend before, I was relieved that it was warm for this festival trip to the rock.
From the rock we pedaled over to the nearby sandy Morro Creek mouth, where we found a variety of gulls , including Mew Gulls, which were distinguished by their smaller size and unmarked small yellow bill. An adult male Northern Harrier tipped back and forth as it flew by low to the ground, giving everyone good looks at its silvery gray color and white rump. It was starting out to be a productive trip, but a little slow to get the group moving. Lessen # 2 - it takes a long time to get a group of people going at stops on a bicycle birding trip - stops have to be limited and attempts should be made to see some of the birds without getting off the bikes. ( I did not use a long cable I brought along to lock all of the bikes together, but would still bring it in case it was needed on future trips - since some of the birders did not bring a lock.)
From the vicinity of the Rock, we cycled around the edge of the bay, south toward the natural history museum, with a nice stop at the Bayshore Drive overlook of the bay and Grassy Island. Here we saw a good variety of birds such as Spotted Sandpiper teetering along the shell strewn shore below us, Snowy Egret strolling the bay's edge, many shorebird species farther out on a tidally exposed sandy island and our second Osprey of the day perched on a mast. The tide was better today (not too high or too low, just right) and many of the species were concentrated in a few areas. When leading this cycling bird trip, I had to think about keeping the group together as well as where to stop and finding as many birds as possible, but stay on our time schedule. It kept me preoccupied enough during the trip that I totally forgot to photograph the group despite the fact that my camera bag was strapped to my waist! Lesson # 3 - don't forget to take pictures.
We stopped to scope the bay from the point where the natural history museum is perched. There are vantage points at this spot whence (I always wanted to use that word) birders can scope the bay to the north and the south. We added a few more ducks, grebes and shorebirds from this point, but after the late start and the flat tire we were running short on time. Lesson # 5 - birding with a group by bicycle is like birding in Mexico: itineraries are made to be broken "so go with the flow". At this point, we decided to split up, with one group going back to the community center and one group doing some more birding.
We then returned to the center. The trip was a little rough around the edges since it was a first time trip. With a few changes next time, including a longer time and earlier start, it should be a smooth and even more enjoyable trip (as long as I have such friendly participants). We ended up with well over 80 species, including some fun sightings - not bad for a field trip by bicycle!