Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Post #111 - Bay Area bird chasing - bicycle style! Bonus shorebird photos.....

Really fast before we get started! I just wrote an article on Guatemala for the Nature Travel Network. All of the photos in the accompanying photo gallery are my own. Please check it out, especially if you're thinking about a trip to that wonderful country! I'm happy to field questions if you have any. OK, now for the main event......

It's been roughly two months since Sonia and I moved from Norwalk/LA to San Mateo/SF, and I am thoroughly impressed with the bike-birding prospects so far! I didn't do any bike-birding in the Southern California sprawl, and a badly strained calf muscle kept me sidelined for the first few weeks that I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I wasn't in the best shape when I finally resumed bike last month, but I've since built up my fitness exploring the bayshore. I now regularly patrol a length of shoreline that runs from San Francisco Airport southeast towards Redwood City. Coyote Point just behind my apartment has proven particularly productive, and I imagine that the entire bayshore will only get better as fall and winter approach.

My local stretch of SF Bay shoreline

As I've always been one for setting goals, my most immediate intent is to push Bay Area bike list north of 200 species. I am currently at 112 for San Mateo County, so I've got a long way to go. Summer is the slowest birding season in the Bay Area, but I fully expect to reach that plateau once fall migration commences. I can hear Josiah Clark and Rob Furrow laughing right now. Those two ironmen routinely tally 180+ species on their annual bicycle Big Day in April! I'm still learning the area and getting into shape, but I hope to be able to keep up with those guys in a few months. How far beyond 200 I can can reach is yet to be seen, but the my photography interest will certainly limit my bike-birding to some degree as the two are usually mutually exclusive. That being said, I have biked my rig to Coyote Point on a few occasions, so there's at least some hope of integrating the two passions!

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

To reach 200 species, I'll certainly have to do some amount of chasing. That process started this past weekend as I made my inaugural trip over the mountains to the coast to chase a continuing Willow Flycatcher at Burleigh Murray Ranch State Park. I made it to within a mile of the bird when Alvaro Jaramillo called me with news of his Wedge-tailed Shearwater just of Miramar Beach in Half Moon Bay. I immediately abandoned the flycatcher in favor of the shearwater. That chase was not to be though as 3 hours of scanning produced exactly zero shearwaters of any sort. I really wanted that bird. It would have been an amazing bike list addition. It's not too often I can get a bike lifer after the 618 species I rang up in 2014. Oh, and the flycatcher? I rode back to Burleigh Murray and missed that too. Sweet......

My route from my apartment to the beach and back

Elevation profile of my ride

The ride home over the mountains was hard and hot but not as disappointing as many might think. The real beauty of the bike is that the rider extracts value even when the sought birds are missed. I got some much needed exercise, and I had a great day exploring the coast. I did add 16 new birds (#'s 93-108) to my bike list (Heermann's Gull, Sanderling, Common Murre etc), so I did make some progress towards my goal of 200. Equally important, I burned zero gas which means zero (well almost, my body put out some CO2) emissions and zero dollars spent on transportation. I even found what I though would be a great photo spot to which I returned the following morning - in the car - to shoot. I was not disappointed!

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/4, ISO 400

Willet (western) - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/4, ISO 400

If you like these photos, there are many more at my official photography website, or at my Instagram account!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Post #110 - Birding the mythical Farallon Islands!

Really fast! If you like the sort of bird-motivated content I provide below, please consider "following" the blog by signing up with the blue "Follow" button in the "Followers" section in the right hand column of this page (just below Blog Archives) - Thanks!

Now on with the show!

The Farallon Islands are located 30 miles west of San Francisco in the otherwise open Pacific Ocean. They are just close enough to land to register but just distant enough to have their full mystery preserved. At just 0.16 square miles combined, they are tiny. Only on the clearest days - those precious few free of San Francisco's trademark fog - are the islands visible as a innocuous, nondescript dots on the distant horizon. It is only with a closer, generally boat-based inspection that their true character is revealed. A sense of rocky intimidation is experienced as one's craft bobs beneath the overhead cliffs, the constant swirl of whitewater at their bases only heightening that sensation. There is little to no vegetation to disguise their rugged character, and is completely possible to imagine the islands as the perfect setting for some shipwreck or survival epic, something alone the lines of "Lord of the Flies" meets "Naked and Afraid". It is no wonder that the Farallons hold such a special place in California birding lore. 

Red pin indicates the Farallon Islands.

Their mythical qualities aside, a very real 355 bird species have been eBirded from the Farallons. All of the expected West Coast species have been tallied, and beyond those all sorts of rarities have been found over the years. Eastern vagrants include Northern Gannet, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Worm-eating Warbler, Cape May Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler. Pelagic rarities such as Short-tailed Albatross, Cook's Petrel, Hawaiian Petrel, Great Frigatebird, and Red-tailed Tropicbird have all materialized from the depths. The list of Asian vagrants is the most impressive, what with Eurasian Dotterel, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ruff, Red-throated Pipit, Brown Shrike, Dusky Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Little Bunting, and Common Rosefinch checking-in over the years. The list of birds that have occurred on the Farallons is hardly to be believed. I mean how the hell does Northern Saw-whet Owl or Sage Thrasher make it out there?!?!? Sadly though, most of us won't ever set foot on the islands as they are protected as part of a National Marine Sanctuary; Only a lucky few researchers are afforded that most intimate of Farallon experiences!

The Farallons during my visit last weekend.
These are the Southern Farallons, by far the largest group.

Despite the restricted land access, anyone is welcome to enjoy the islands from a boat. The summer months are the best time to do this as the Farallons are the largest Pacific seabird colony south of Alaska. With upwards of a quarter million individuals, Common Murres dominate. Combing through their hoards, we also found good numbers of Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, and Rhinoceros Auklets. Cassin's Auklets were particularly prevalent with nearly 500 individuals observed, many at very close range. Beyond alcids, we spotted Pelagic and Brandt's Cormorants, Western Gulls, and Black Oystercatchers. The light was really bad what with the fog and sea spray, but I did manage a few shots to show you what everything looked liked.

Common Murres through the fog 

More murres

Common Murre bringing food to nest

Common Murre chilling

Pigeon Guillemot doing the same

Tufted Puffin streaking by at some distance from the boat

Cassin's Auklet - best looks I've ever had at this shy species

Beyond the expected species, we were stoked to find one Brown Booby and one Blue-footed Booby perched high on the Farallon cliffs. These generally tropical birds were clearly holdovers from the northward push of warm water that ran up the West Coast from 2014 to 2016. That northward expansion of warm water brought with it not only increased numbers of boobies, but also more traditionally warm water pelagic species such as Black-vented Shearwaters and Craveri's Murrelets. As water temperatures have cooled to their historical averages (low- to mid-50s) in the past half year, the vast majority of those warm water birds have collapsed back to more southern and temperate latitudes, the two individual boobies we observed being very obvious exceptions. I suggest this article from NatGeo for those interested in reading a bit more about the recent influx of warm water in the North Pacific.

Adult Brown Booby

Adult Blue-footed Booby

Marine mammals were also in great abundance as California Sea Lions, Northern Fur Seals, and Steller's Sea Lions covered what available, rocky real estate they could find. With that veritable buffet, it's probably not surprising to hear the the Farallons are a great place to observe Great White Sharks, particularly in the fall when they are the most abundant. We saw several Humpback Whales, and I'm sure Orcas are occasionally present as well. So, even if birds aren't your thing, there's plenty of sea life and scenery to experience at the Farallons!

Northern Fur Seals with single Western Gull photobomber 

A hefty looking Steller's Sea Lion as 
identified by his golden coat. 

The particular boat trip that I took (Alvaro's Adventures), coupled the Farallons with some more traditional pelagic on the outgoing and return transits. Since it was still early in the season, shearwater numbers were low, but we did find a few Sooties and a few Pink-footed. Several Black-footed Albatrosses also showed nicely, but most exciting was a significant concentration/raft (50-70 individuals) of storm-petrels on the return leg. The flock was comprised of 3 species, mostly Ashy with maybe 10 Fork-tailed and a pair of Wilson's mixed in. This bodes well for the fall pelagic season as storm-petrels have been scarce on the Northern California Coast the last few, warm-water years.

The Farallons are quite close to the continental shelf. 
It's easy to swing into the deepwater in transit.

So there it is, a recap of my inaugural visit to the Farallon Islands. I will most certainly be back in the future, so maybe I can fill you in a bit more of Farallon history with that future post. If you're in the Bay Area, I highly suggest a visit. The boat trip itself is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. I'm hoping to get back out there as soon as possible!

The end! 
Glad to find a use for this otherwise useless shot......

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Post #109 - Want to see Flammulated Owl? Head to Utah!

This will be the third and final post recapping my recent road trip from Minnesota back to my Bay Area home in California. After leaving South Dakota (see last post, #108, for my account of that state), we made our way across southern Wyoming on Interstate 80. We didn't do much birding along that stretch as we had a very important and time-sensitive appointment in Sandy, Utah with Tim Avery of The Mountain West Birding Company. I first met Tim on my 2014 bicycle Big Year. I stayed with him for two nights during that adventure, and we got along so well that we have stayed in relatively good contact since then. Tim is a master of all things Utah birding. At just 35 years of age, he has eBirded more species (424) from his home state than has anyone else. Much of that can be attributed to his 2007 Utah Big Year, an effort that garnered him a still-state record 355 species! More recently, he tried something a bit less conventional with his 2016 Undercover Big Year. So, when Tim offered to take me out for Flammulated Owl on this, my most recent Utah visit, I jumped at the chance.

Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake
Actually, it's more of a peninsula than an Island.
Causeway access from Syracuse to the northeast.

With a few hours to kill before meeting Tim for olwing, I decided to tour wife Sonia around Antelope Island State Park. I had visited the park once before, also on my bicycle Big Year. The place really is impressive; It's basically a huge, rocky ridge line rising right out of the great Salt Lake just north of Salt Lake City. Summer is the slowest birding season at Antelope, but I still found a number of birds to occupy my attention, most notable breeding plumage Eared Grebes, nesting Sage Thrashers, and the always comical Burrowing Owls. Surrounded by the white, salty crust of the Great Salt Lake, Antelope can at times feel otherworldly, and it is for this reason that I suggest a visit irrespective of one's birding proclivities. Beyond birding, Antelope offers a great view of the Wasatch Mountains to the east.

View east from Antelope Island.
Most of the island is scrub/sage as shown.
Wasatch Mountains in background.

Bison Sculpture at Visitor's Center.
American Bison are found on Antelope. 
We saw them very well from the road.

Though most were a bit distant, I did manage one serviceable Burrowing Owl shot from my visit to Antelope.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 1000, handheld.
*f/8 to get a bit more of the perch in focus

Sonia and I rendezvoused with Tim in Sandy at 8:30pm. By 9pm, the three of us (and Roody!) were piled into Tim's truck, heading up-mountain to start our Flammulated Owl search. It was Friday night, and I was admittedly a bit nervous about our prospects of finding the shy bird given what would surely be increased traffic on both the forest service roads and hiking trails. A master of his surrounds, Tim took us just half an hour from town to find a completely deserted trailhead. From there we walked in about half a mile and began our owl search. We first heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl, but we were unable to get a visual on it despite much effort. In the following hour, we heard 10 Flammulated Owls, and we were able to get visuals of 3 of those. None came quite low or close enough for the sorts of incredible photos that Tim has on many occasions managed, but I was nonetheless happy with these results given how small and secretive this species is. I used an external flash without a flash bracket to obtain these images; Hence, the red-eye.

Flammulated Owl!

These were by far the best views I have ever had of this shy bird, so our night outing was a rousing success. Tim really has this bird down to a science, so if you're looking to add this species to your life list or just get a better view of it than you've had to date, then he's your man. There's all sorts of great birding in the Salt Lake Area, so a search for Flammulated Owl could easily be coupled other Utah specialty species, most notably Black Rosy-finch which is found not too far away.

I forgot to take a photo of Tim and me this time around
so I've recycled the one from 2014. We were both a few
years younger back then so it works!

From SLC, Sonia and I basically B-lined it back to California. We had planned to stop in Nevada's Ruby Mountains to search for Himalayan Snowcock, but the trails were still covered in very deep snow after such a wet winter in the region. I am almost certainly going to return to the Rubys later in the year, so I'll hopefully have a full report about that adventure at some point. The snowcock would couple very well with a few days in Salt Lake with Tim, so keep that in mind for the future!

OK, that's it for the moment! Until next time - Good Birding!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Post #108 - South Dakota - Landscapes, birds, wildlife, and loads of roadside fun!

Quick, what's the first thing that you think of when I say 'South Dakota'? It's kind of tough, right? Yes, the state has Mount Rushmore, but South Dakota doesn't elicit the strong and stereotypical images that states like California, New York, or Texas instantly do. South Dakota instead flies a bit off radar as a sparsely populated, unspoiled, and beautiful part of the Upper Midwest. My recent and inaugural visit to South Dakota was made as part of a weeklong road trip from Minnesota to California. We generally followed I-90 west, but we made some really fun detours along the way. This post will therefore be a mix of birding, more general wildlife, landscapes, and entertaining roadside fun.

Our route from Minnesota to California.
We flew for a wedding and drove back over 6 days.

Our South Dakota leg, in a bit more detail.

Our first day took us from Minneapolis to Chamberlain. The eastern portion of South Dakota is incredibly flat, all of the land being used for agriculture or ranching. We didn't make any birding stops along that easternmost stretch, but we did make a brief detour to experience the world famous Corn Palace in Mitchell. It was super fun, a must-do for anyone in the area. The palace is a giant commemoration to the region's corn industry, the highlight being the huge corn murals that adorn the inside and outside of the building. During the summer months, 'corny' tours of are offered, and a pop-up gift shop attracts all sorts of visitors. Once the tourist season ends, the facility converts back to the town's recreation hall and basketball arena. Our visit was made extra interesting by a passing storm front and associated tornado warning that kept us hunkered down for over an hour. It was the true Midwest experience, quite exciting for us Californians! Since the weather was so bad, I pulled a couple shot from online to give you an idea of the palace.

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD 
Corn Willie Nelson and Corn Elvis murals visible

Bison mural made of corn

Summer gift shop

Recreation hall and basketball arena rest of year

Angry skies during our visit

Radar during our Corn Palace visit.
The storm dropped gold ball-sized hail in places,
thankfully not on us.

Nervous moments as the town's tornado sirens sounded!

Killing time while waiting for the storm to pass

The storm front passed early enough for us to camp at the American Creek Campground on the Missouri River at Chamberlain that night. It was really pretty and held quite a few birds, notably both Eastern and Western Kingbirds. We packed up early the next day and made miles towards Badlands National Park, but before we reached that point, we made 2 roadside stops. The first was at the 1880 Town between Stamford and Belvidere. Basically, someone has salvaged a whole bunch of vintage buildings from around the American West and reassembled them into a complete town right off of I-90. Many of the buildings are filled with period furniture, decor, and possessions, and together they really give a sense of what frontier life might have felt like. There is also a fairly extensive homage to the Oscar-winning movie "Dances with Wolves", a beautiful epic filmed entirely within South Dakota.

Locked up in the 1880 town

Our second stop was at a The Ranch Store on Highway 240 as one heads into the Badlands from I-90. This is another roadside tourist trap, albeit of the best sort. Adjacent to the gift shop one finds a colony of very tame White-tailed prairie dogs. For $1, a back of peanuts can be purchased to feed these animals, and, let me tell you, its worth every penny! If you're patient, they'll even eat right out of your hand. The sun was a bit steep compared to how I usually like it, but I squeezed out a few fun shots despite the harsh light and admittedly manipulated conditions.

Sonia feeding prairie dogs

After the prairie dog nonsense, we made it into the Badlands National Park. I had no idea what to expect but was thoroughly impressed with the scenery. There is an extensive auto tour, and we drove the whole thing as we made miles west.

Badlands National Park

Bighorn Sheep at Badlands National Park

This one with a radio transmitter ran right in front of our car

From the Badlands we continued west where we made the obligatory stop at Mount Rushmore. Some people think it's kind of cheesy. I personally though it was really cool, particularly from a design and engineering standpoint. Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum only got one shot at it, right? It wasn't as though they could glue Washington's nose back on if they made some critical mistake.

Clowning it up at Mount Rushmore

We spent that night, our second in the state, at Sylvan Lake Campground in Custer State Park in the same Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is located. There the birding was very good, feeling as much like Colorado as anywhere else. Around our campground I found Hairy Woodpecker, Swainson's Thrush, Gray Jay, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Hikes on trails in other parts of the huge park further yielded Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Plumbeous Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Mountain Bluebird. Beyond birds, Yellow-bellied Marmots and American Bison showed nicely. The State Park was an amazing place, a place where we could have easily spent a few more days just exploring hiking and exploring.

Sylvan Lake in nice morning light

Black Hills vista

View of Black Hills formations

A quiet horse trail that we hiked - no one else on it

Yellow-bellied Marmot

Roadside American Bison (in terribly midday light!)

Bison calf, chillaxin'

Adult bison with curious calf

Roody staying warm at the campsite.
And, yes, we are totally ridiculous with our dog, I know.

What I hope you can see is that there is lots of cool stuff to see and do in South Dakota. It might not have quite the number of specialty birds as other, more peripheral areas of the US, but the birding experience is absolutely fantastic. At many places we were the only people for miles, a nice break from our familiar but admittedly overcrowded Bay Area surrounds. So, if your travels take you to the center of the country for any reason, please do think about either a pass through or an extended stay in South Dakota. It really is a fun place!