Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bicycle Big Day

I had originally planned to do my bicycle big day on the previous weekend, but was rained out.  So, on Friday April 30, I rode my bike (with my camping gear - about 45 extra pounds with camera and scope) to Cerro Alto Campground (about 15 miles from my house in Los Osos).  I camped here alone in an isolated camp site in a canyon at about 1,000 feet in elevation.  Sycamores, willows and oaks line the bottom of the canyon, on either side of the East Fork of Morro Creek and chaparral grows above this riparian corridor.  For dinner, I ate the burrito I had picked up at a Mexican restaurant on the way to Cerro Alto.  At night, my head was cold as I had forgotten my wool cap and I did not use a tent (so I could hear owls better). 

Screech Owls started their low whistled trill in the early morning hours all around my campsite and a surprise Saw-whet Owl's higher pitched single repeated whistled call note could be heard coming from across the creek.  At dawn, Poorwills answered my whistled call and called on their own a few minutes later.  I ate my whole-wheat cinnamon roll and gatorade breakfast, packed my bike and started hiking up the canyon, looking and listening in the early morning light.  The expected birds such as Mountain Quail, Olive-sided and Ash-throated Flycatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler and Western Wood-Pewee called or sang as I walked along the entrance road.  I did not find a good migrant flock until I was up on the trail, about a half mile past the campground.  Here, I heard and saw many birds such as Cassin’s Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Tanager, and Townsend’s Warbler.  After I worked this flock for awhile, I turned around and walked back to my campsite, satisfied with my finds and heard some late risers such as Band-tailed Pigeon and Purple Finch. 

I pedaled my bike slowly down the campground road and stashed my camping equipment in some bushes near the campground, before I rode up to the summit of Highway 41 and down into Atascadero.  I heard and saw birds along the way including Purple Martins (going to nest holes in sycamores in three locations!), Wild Turkeys gobbling, and White-throated Swift chattering above me.  Atascadero Lake was my first stop in that city.  I found the raucous sounding Great-tailed Grackle there.  At the wastewater treatment plant I found the expected but always striking Wood Ducks, and teetering Spotted Sandpipers, as well as a pair of unexpected Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  As conspicuous as they look, Yellow-billed Magpies still took some time to find and I realized I was way behind schedule!  I hurried over to some other ponds in Atascadero and struck out on expected Phainopepla, Green Heron, Marsh Wren and ducks except for Ruddy.  I did get a Sora response to my rail recordings.

I went back by Atascadero Lake on my way back to Highway 41 and heard the "sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet" of the Yellow Warbler that I missed the first time.  I rode back to pick up my gear at Cerro Alto and heard a Rufous-crowned Sparrow from the chaparral, along the way.  I was tempted to bird again at Cerro Alto, but I was still way behind on my schedule and wanted to get down 41 to Morro Bay before the onshore wind started up. Unfortunately, I did not beat the wind and it slowed my descent toward the coast. I did get some extra birds on the way down such as the Western Kingbird pictured above. 

When I got to Highway One on the coast, I headed north a short distance to North Point. I scoped off this point and had rocky shorebirds, scoters and loons, but I had very few gulls and no pelagics.  I next cycled over to Morro Rock, birding along the harbor mouth on the way.  After a wait, I saw one of the resident Peregrines.  I then scoped from the base of the Rock - above the breakwater - finding Pigeon Guillemot and Rhinocerous Auklet between lines of breakers.  A kite (the kind with a string attached) festival nearby made for a lot of noise and people, perhaps causing my miss of Canyon and Rock Wrens at the Rock.

I birded back along the bay edge in Morro Bay and found much less that was new for the day than I had expected. I did find several breeding plumaged Eared Grebes.  At some bottlebrush, near the state park campground, I found both of the usual Selasphorus hummingbirds. The biggest surprise of the day was a Hammond’s Flycatcher near a ranger residence there. This is a rare bird on the coast in California and I carefully looked at its proportions, bill size and color, tail pump and other marks.
After a brief stop at Chorro Creek, I continued my birding along the edge of the bay - toward Los Osos.  Due to my being behind, I skipped the ride to Cuesta College and Ranch El Chorro (a big mistake that cost me 5 or 6 species).  I was shocked that the bay had no ducks other than Mallards!  (A week or two prior I could have found at least 6 other duck species.)  I did find White Pelicans. 
I rode up Turri Road away from the bay, along some brackish ponds, followed by riparian habitat and pastureland.  No Savannah Sparrows were singing from the pickleweed around the ponds, so I played a recording. Nothing responded in the early afternoon, but I saw that a Savannah had come up right next to me in some bushes!  I left my iPod on and reached for my camera.  Just as the track ended, a loud rock and roll song came on.  The bird hurdled off to the pickleweed before I could get a photo! (I really do have to separate the bird songs from the rock and roll on my iPod!) Further up the road, I found a bright blue, white and orange Lazuli Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow and Cassin’s Kingbird (photo above).  The kingbirds flew out form some eucalyptus trees that they breed in and were really upset with my recording.  I didn’t play it more than once, but they were still calling and posturing on the barb-wire fence as I left. 

Next, I worked the edge of the bay in Los Osos on the incoming tide.  I also stopped at the Elfin Forest for the birds of the coastal scrub, like California Thrasher and Wrentit (above).  From the Audubon Overlook, I checked the edge of the incoming tide and found several shorebirds new for the day such as Semipalmated Plover (100+!) and black-bellied Dunlins.  I added Caspian and Forster’s Terns, as well as a single Black Skimmer unsuccessfully trying to blend in with the perched flock of terns.
Following the bay edge, I continued onto the Baywood Pier, Sweet Springs, and Pecho Willows.  At Pecho Willows (one block from home), I found a Nashville Warbler and a stake-out Yellow-breasted Chat.  I also saw the Anna's Hummingbird and a male Western Tanager checking each other out (photo below).  I then went home to unload the camping gear off my bike and look at my list for what I could still get. I then realized the mistake of not riding to Cuesta, but didn’t have the energy to backtrack and ride south on Highway 1.  I didn’t think I could find much new at Montana de Oro, so I quit birding with about 3 hours of daylight left!  My total stood at 146 species.  I had recorded 156 species on the same route before and knew I could not top it on this day, and I was beat!  
Next year I will try to count a couple of weeks earlier and will not skip Cuesta and Montana de Oro. I’ll also do more riding before the count day, so I am in better shape.  The extra weight on the bike took its toll on me.  I had found some good birds, but the absence of many ducks and dipping on common raptors such as Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, harrier and kestrel hurt my big day total.  It was still a good day of birding!  My total miles biked on this big day was about fifty.


  1. 143 is still a great total by bike. Ive been too lazy to do a big day in years, and thats assuming I use a car!

  2. You found 143 species in one day on a bike?!? Wow, I really have to go back to California! Here in central Illinois I'm happy to get 50!

  3. I felt bad because I pooped out before the end of the day and I could have topped 150. This is a good area. I have gotten over 100 species in a day on foot from my house. Next year I'll do better on my bike.

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