Monday, July 9, 2018

Post #139 - Birding Honduras, part 2: Let's go birding!

OK, let's continue with Honduras! Last time I gave you a overview of the country and some general travel tips, and in this entry I am going to dive right into the birding sites and the species one can expect to find at each. However, I am going to do something that I haven't done before. Beyond my first-hand accounts of those sites that I visited on my recent trip, I am going to point you towards some other areas that should be on your radar. I am doing this because my recent trip was mostly focused on exploring new birding areas, and I think that several the tried-and-true spots warrant inclusion so as to provide the best picture of the Honduran birding landscape.

Selected Honduran Birding sites.
**Locations are approximate**

I visited the following sites on my recent trip:
Lake Yojoa
Celaque National Park
Reserva Natural Privada El Consejero
Zamorano University

I will also briefly mention these other well-known sites:
The Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito
Rio Santiago Nature Resort
Copán Mayan Ruins
La Tigra National Park

Stock photo of Copán

Lake Yojoa
Lake Yojoa is an up-and-coming outdoor destination, sort of like a little brother to Arenal in Costa Rica or Mindo in Ecuador. As I just wrote a comprehensive article on Lake Yojoa for the Nature Travel Network, I'm going to directly link that article instead of rehashing Yojoa a second time. It's an easy read and includes all sorts of helpful information. I didn't include links to eBird hotspots in that more formal article, so here are a few you should find helpful.

Parque National Azul Meámbar - Panacam Lodge
Eco Finca Luna del Puente
El Rancho Hotel and Restuarant
Lago Yojoa - Sector Honduyate
Quetzal Trail/Sendero, Santa Barbara

Celaque National Park (main/central eBird Hotspot)
Located in the southwestern part of the country, Celaque is a great destination for those that like to mix hiking with birding. The rugged and undeveloped track has miles of trails, and the most adventurous can make an attempt at Cerro Las Minas (9416'), Honduras's highest peak. Elevations in the park range from 3,200 to 9,400 feet, the lower reaches being mostly pine forest while the upper throes are cloud forest. Nearly 230 species have been eBirded from the main Celaque hotspot (linked above), but many more have been observed when one sums up the more specific eBird hotspots within the park. Highlights of my visit were Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (heard), Spotted Nightingale-Thrush (heard), Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush (heard), Black-banded Woodcreeper, Unicolored Jay, Violet Saberwing, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Collared and Mountain Trogons, and Golden-browed Warbler. We didn't reach as high as the cloud forest, but there is an entirely different complement of birds at those elevations. 

Lesson's Motmot at Celaque

In full disclosure, bird numbers at Celaque were low, and we had to work really hard to grind-out mostly single representatives of the listed birds. It's also worth noting that the walking was very challenging, the main trail gaining over 2000 vertical feet in just a few miles. The half mile beyond the nice observation tower will be manageable for virtually everyone birders, but once the trail turns skyward only those in good physical condition should continue.  The paved 2 kilometers from the Gracias entrance to the Visitor's Center are good birding, so those deterred by the prospect of mountain climbing should concentrate on birding that entrance road. Reaching all the way to the cloud forest is a hell of hike, once that will take effectively all day and be managed only by those in very good physical shape. 

Me struggling up the trail at Celaque

If you head to Celaque, I suggest the Hotel Casa Celaque. It's a beautiful property, and it's only 5-10 minutes from the entrance to the national park. The adjacent town of Gracias is quite fun, so keep that in mind for non-birding activities.

Reserva Natural Privada El Consejero (eBird Hotspot)
This place is nothing more than a private residence in Yamaranguila (outside Esperanca) with a whole bunch of hummingbird feeders, but don't let that fool you. It is fantastic! It was nonstop activity for the hour that we spent watching the array, and I could have spent a whole day trying to get that one perfect shot. White-eared and Azure-crowned hummingbirds dominated, but a few Rivoli's came in as did a single Berylline. Don Julio runs the place and is a very friendly guy. He charges $3/person, but I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving less than $5 (as I do at feeder arrays in AZ, for example). The reserve has a Facebook page, so be sure to give that a look if you are interested. All the relevant contact information can be found there. These are the sorts of views you can expect!

Azure-crowned Hummingbird - Amazilia cyanocephala
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Zamorano University (eBird Hotspot)
Zamorano University is a private, 1200-student institution about 45 minutes south of Tegucigalpa. Specializing in agricultural and outdoor pursuits, the expansive campus is very beautiful and loaded with birds. Our group spent a full day birding the campus with resident professor and field guide author Oliver Komar and found upwards of 70 species. Highlights included Crested Bobwhite, Ruddy Crake (3!), Northern Jacana, Striped Cuckoo, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Barred Antshrike, Nutting's Flycatcher, Black-headed Saltator, Yellow-billed Cacique, and Streak-backed Oriole. The students have even created a special trail - The EcoSendero - to facilitate birding on campus. There is also a biological research station at Uyuca (eBird Hotspot) which is worth a visit. Located at a higher elevation than campus, we found a completely different complement of birds including Mountain Elaenia, Slate-colored Solitaire, Crescent-chested Warbler, Mountain Thrush, and Black-vented Oriole. Most notable were Green-breasted Mountain-gem, Rufous-browed Wren, and Rufous-Collared Robin, three particularly prized "highland endemics" as discussed in my previous Honduras post. As Uyuca is a biological research station, the institution requires that visitors eBird what species that observe at the reserve. Please honor this request as they are willing to extend access as long as visitors comply (more on access below).

Zamorano campus center

Skeptical Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl at Zamorano

View of campus agricultural fields and associated cows

View from EcoSendero at Zamorano

The one big caveat with Zamorano (And Uyuca) is that the campus is restricted access, so you'll have to be accompanied by a local guide to bird Zamorano. I spent some time with guide Maryury ('Marjorie') Gomez and would highly suggest contacting her if you're in interested in visiting Zamorano ( She's got a good grip on the local birds, knows her way around, and is very friendly. Her English is coming along, but please do remember it's her second language! As for lodging, the Central Kellogg Hotel is great. It's administered by the university and is directly across the street from campus.

Bug Ugly and Maryury at Zamorano

Central Kellogg Hotel at Zamorano

In addition to those four sites that I visited on my recent trip, I want to say just a few things about the following tried-and-true Honduran birding sites.

The Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito (eBird Hotspot)
Pico Bonito is a full-service and high-end ecolodge on Honduras's Caribbean slope. I have never been but have heard only great things from many people who have. It's very popular with both tour groups and photographers, so there's a bit of something for everyone. The property is supposed to be stunning, and I think it is the sort of place non-birders would enjoy just relaxing.

Rio Santiago Nature Resort (eBird Hotspot)
Rio Santiago is another full-service ecolodge, albeit at a much lower price point than Pico Bonito. Rio Santiago is also on the Caribbean slope and not that far from Pico Bonito. Both are a few hours drive east from San Pedro Sula and so could be visited together for variety. Again, I have not been to Rio, but several people said the resort has feeders and is a good place for photography.

Copán Mayan Ruins (eBird Hotspot)
If you're into history, archeology, and culture, then a trip to Copan might be perfect for you. I have not birded Copan but have birded Tulum in Mexico and Tikal and Yaxha in Guatemala. If my experiences at those Mayan sites are indicative of what to expect at Copan, you'll have a blast. There are few experiences as cool as wandering through ancient Mayan ruins while looking at trogons and motmots. If you're thinking about visiting Copan, Yobani Peraza ( of Xukpi ('zhuk-pee', its a Mayan Word, appropriately!) Tours is your man! He knows the birds very well, has special access to restricted areas within the archeological site, and speaks English well. After spending a week with Yobani, I know I wanted to return to Honduras and visit Copán! Yobani is also available to guide anywhere in Honduras, so if you want to put together a longer, week-long private tour/itinerary he can make that happen too.

Me with guide Yobani Peraza and driver Yoni

La Tigra National Park (eBird Hotspot)
This is another spot I haven't visited but know something about. Located less than an hour from Tegucigalpa, La Tigra is best know for hosting the incredible Resplendent Quetzal. It's a popular birding spot and could easily be coupled to Zamorano (and maybe Yojoa) since both are so close to Tegucigalpa.

Whew, that's a lot of information! Coupled to my previous Honduras post and the linked Lake Yojoa article, I hope I've given you enough reason and information to add Honduras to your list of birding destinations. I had a blast on my too-short trip, and I can't wait to return sometime in the future. Maybe by bike.........

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Post #138 - Birding Honduras, part 1: Introduction and logistics

I recently returned from a week-long birding trip to Honduras, and I am going to use this post and the next to share some of my experiences with you. I hardly sampled what the country has to offer, but I can say with confidence that Honduras presents a comparable birding and ecotourism product to the other the Central American countries that I've visited (Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador). I will use this post to discuss Honduran travel and logistics, and in the next installment I will highlight the birding areas I visited plus a few others you might want to check out. With that roadmap established, let's get going!

Honduras's biggest ecotourism draw, like most tropical areas, is biodiversity. Though it is only the size of Virginia, Honduras boasts over 760 species of birds including hummingbirds, motmots, trogons, parrots, tanagers, toucans, manakins, honeycreepers, and oropendolas! Throw in 200 species of mammals, 200 species of reptiles, and nearly 6,000 plants species, and there is no shortage of life to hold one's attention. Honduras also has a fair amount of intact habitat, particularly in the highland areas where mountainous terrain has slowed clear-cutting and the associated agricultural creep. Those highland areas are very attractive to birders as they host a number of 'highland endemics', bird species that are found only in the contiguous highlands of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Southern Mexico. If you're looking to add those birds to your list, a trip to Honduras should be in your future. You'll also be able to look for Honduran Emerald, Honduras's only full endemic! It's really unusual for a country as small as Honduras to have an endemic bird, so everyone should make the effort to see that national treasure. I'll give you some tips on finding the Emerald in the next post, so stay tuned for those!

Sample range maps of Highland Endemics - 
note how they are found in Honduras.

I suggest the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America by Oliver Komar and Jesse Fagan. It includes Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador in a comprehensive and portable package. It served me well on my recent trip, and I wish I had bought it before visiting Belize and Guatemala last year - DOH!

As for traveling to Honduras, I think the first thing many people want to know about is safety. Honduras had some acknowledged problems in the past, but there has been a marked improvement in recent years (details here). It is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of problems are confined to large urban areas, notably Tegucigalpa in the southcentral region and San Pedro Sula in the northwestern part. Everything stems from drugs and gangs, and in that respect those urban areas are no different from Chicago, Baltimore, Houston, or Los Angeles. Since those visiting Honduras for ecotourism and birding purposes aren't likely to spend any time in the cities beyond flying in and out, safety concerns are relatively minimal. There is the occasional soldier posted around the country, but nothing more than other Latin American countries. Be smart to avoid petty theft, but that's true anywhere.

A beautiful day on Lake Yojoa

There are international airports in both San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. I flew into the former and out of the latter and had zero trouble on either end. It is worth noting that Honduras is in the midst of a major infrastructure upgrade. This means that major roads were in good shape, and I found traffic through both San Pedro and Tegucigalpa to flow better than San Jose, Costa Rica, for example. The infrastructure upgrade includes an entirely new international airport north of Tegucigalpa at Palmerola, and that facility will make accessing areas like Lake Yojoa north of that city even easier than it is now. Most visitors will find themselves in the western half or third of the country as that is where infrastructure is best. The easternmost reaches of the country, La Mosquitia are very sparsely populated and most inaccessible to foreign travelers. I would not hesitate to rent a car and drive around Honduras, but I've had experience driving in Latin America. Most side roads are dirt; some are well-graded and others are like driving on the moon. Exercise caution either way.

White-eared Hummingbird - Basilinna Leucotis
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Mostly though, Honduras is a typically lovely Central American country. The average standard of living, like anywhere in Latin America, is significantly lower than it is in the Unites States, so travelers should be ready for some amount of culture shock, particularly when it comes to the condition of houses in rural areas. Just remember, most of the world lives like the average Honduran; it is Americans who are the outliers! I found Hondurans to be incredibly friendly and helpful, and my time in Honduras will be remembered as much for the people and hospitality as it will the birds.

The traditional Honduran Baleada

Other useful tidbits before I sign off:

The currency is the Lempira. At the time of writing the exchange rate was ~ 24L:$1.

The CDC recommends vaccines against Typhoid, Hepatitis A/B, rabies, and influenza. That's the same list for about everywhere in Central America. I've never had special vaccines done for Central
American travel and lived to tell the tale many times over. And let's be clear - I've not had those vaccines because I was too lazy to get them done, not because I'm an anti-vaxxing dolt! 

OK, that's it for now. Please check back in a bit for a follow-up post that go look at specific sites one should bird while in Honduras!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Post #137 - Honduras and Colombia bound!

I am so sorry for the lack of recent content, but my recent writing efforts have been directed to finishing my book about my 2014 bicycle Big Year. I am currently editing 104,000 words down to a hopeful 90,000, and in the background I am looking for an agent to start the publishing process. I am actually very happy I wasn't under contract - and pressured - while writing, particularly as a first-time author. Without deadlines, I was able to throw out what was a nearly complete but generally terrible first draft and start over to produce what I think is an infinitely better second (no publisher would have signed that first effort anyway). This book is infinitely less another Big Year account than it is a more general story of adventure and self-discovery, a narrative I hope will appeal to equally to birders and the more general public. With the challenge of the bicycle and the adventure of the open road coupled to my more personal history of alcoholism, I think it has that chance. But we'll see. Maybe no one but my mom reads it. And that's cool - but not really. Here's a holdover photo from a February San Diego trip regardless.....

Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 800

I was hoping to have the writing done this summer, but my timetable has been shifted up since I am going to be away for all of June and July. I'll first head to Honduras from June 4-10 for my inaugural taste of that country. I'll be mostly in the western third, and I hope to crank out some content from that trip as soon as I return.  Please stay tuned for that, both here on The Speckled Hatchback and on the Nature Travel Network!

After Honduras, I'll travel to Colombia from June 15 to August 3rd (7 weeks!) to help the Audubon Society with the promotion and development of avitourism in that recently stabilized country (more info here and here). Colombia hosts more than 1,900 bird species, the most of any country, but hasn't yet developed the sort of birding infrastructure and revenue stream as has Costa Rica, for example. I will be scouting locations in the Southwestern (17 days) and Eastern Andes (24 days) and developing sample itineraries that individuals and tour companies can use as templates to fashion their own, more personalized Colombian birding adventures. The original goal was to have 10 birding trails in different regions of the country, and I was peripherally involved in the first two of those, The Northern Colombia Birding Trail and The Central Andes Birding Trail. It will be really cool to play a larger, more integral role in the next two, The Southwestern Andes Birding Trail and The Eastern Andean Birding Trail. In between my work on those projects, I'll revisit Colombia's Coffee Triangle around Pereira and Manizales for a week of personal travel and intensive photography with the most understanding and patient woman in the world (Sonia, my wife!)

Red = Southwestern Andes (Audubon)
Yellow = Eastern Andes (Audubon)
Blue = Coffee Triangle / Central Andes (personal)

I will certainly write a lot about my Colombia experiences, but that probably won't happen until fall,  once I have fulfilled all of my contractual Audubon responsibilities. OK, one last holdover to keep everyone quiet until the next entry!

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Friday, May 4, 2018

Post #136 - Hello neotropics, goodbye shorebirds - with photos!

As anxiously as I await the return of neotropical migrants each spring, their arrival is admittedly a bit bittersweet since it signals the looming departure of shorebirds, my favorite and most obliging local photographic subjects. Since I moved to the Bay Area exactly a year ago, I've learned a ton about shorebird distribution and behavior, particularly as I tend to visit the same spots over and over. I know which species can be found and photographed on which tides, and I understand how the light and angles change through the seasons. In some ways, I feel that photography has opened me up to a level of behavioral study that traditional birding and its often listing-centric approach completely misses. These last two weeks have been particularly exciting as most of the birds have molted into the breeding garb ahead of their own migration back to the arctic. Here are a few shots to send the bird off. I hope you enjoy them.

***Click all images for nice, higher resolution view***

Long-billed Curlew - Numenius americanus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri
 Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Breeding plumage Dunlin had been a particular photographic nemesis, so I decided to take control of that matter this week. Realizing the birds were in beautiful plumage bit would be gone very soon, I decided to crawl a long way out on the bay mudflats to get the shot I wanted. It took about an hour and half of crawling and pausing, but they finally got completely used to me and let me do my thing.

Operation Dunlin - here was my track. 
I probably crawled 60-70 yeards.

And here's what I looked like afterwards.

 Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 500mm f/4 IS +1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

I can't wait for these guys to return in the fall! As for what will happen the next few months, I probably spend a lot of time photographing terns, though I'll have to drive south on the bay to best do it. Otherwise, summer birding and photography is kinda slow around here, so I'll have to work really hard to scrape out shots in the next few months. Gotta get a good Pigeon Guillemot flight shot in Pillar Point Harbor.....

Friday, April 27, 2018

Post #135 - Recap of April 23 Bay Area Bicycle Big Day!

This past Monday, Rob Furrow, Josiah Clark, Sam Saffron, and I set out to break the California bicycle Big Day record of 187 species established by Rob and Josiah in 2015. Our route was a permutation of that record-setting route, and we hoped that an additional two pairs of eyes would be enough to push us beyond that benchmark. Conditions Sunday night into Monday were about perfect; there was little overnight wind and temperatures were in the low-50s when we assembled at 2am in Half Moon Bay. We spent the next 20 hours on our bikes, and our route was roughly divided into 4 legs. Those were, very roughly:

LEG 1 - The Coast (2am - 9:45am): coastal slope owling, Princeton Harbor, ocean, Pillarcitos Creek, Highway 92, and Skylawn Cemetery

LEG 2 - Cañana Road (9:45am - 11am): Crystal Springs Reservoir, mixed oak woodlands, chapparal, and neighborhoods to SF Bayshore

LEG 3 - SF Bay (11am - 4pm): San Francisquito Creek mouth, Palo Alto Baylands, Shoreline, Lower SF Bay, Alviso

LEG 4 - Ed Levin (4pm - 10pm): Coyote Creek, Ed Levin, Upper Calavaros Road, Alviso (again)

OK, with that outline, let's get rolling!

Leg 1 - The Coast (2am - 9:45am)
We immediately found Great Horned Owl and Barn Owl along Highway 1 and clapped-up a Sora at the Verde Road Pond as we made our way up Purismo Creek Road. Northern Saw-Whet Owl was a great heard-only bird along that route, and we crossed over to Burleigh Murray to add a vocalizing, predawn MacGillivray's Warbler. After that we shook off a flat tire and headed north towards Princeton Harbor for the dawn hours. 

Biking south down Highway 1 at 2:30am

We taped Virginia Rail at Mavericks, surprised a Wandering Tattler at the base of the jetty, and climbed the bluffs to find two Marbled Murrelets on the ocean. After that, we made a brief stop at Venice/Pillarcitos for gulls. Though both Laughing and Glaucous had been scouted in the days before our effort, we mustered only Western, California, Herring, and Glaucous-winged. The general lack of Larids (Heermann's, Mew) with the combined misses of Brant, Brown Pelican, Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Horned Grebe, and Surfbird meant we did adequately but not outstandingly on the ocean. We were never going to find all of those misses, but we really needed at least a few of those to complement the tattler and the murrelets.

Burleigh Murray flat tire at 4:00am

We did salvage some nice land birds as we climbed up Highway 92 towards Skyline: several Olive-sided Flycatchers, an early Swainson's Thrush, and a singing Pacific Wren. Skylawn Cemetery yielded Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin with minimal effort. We were at 102 species by the time we dropped from Skylawn at 9:45 - on perfect schedule.

Leg 1: ~ 31.6 miles (2am - 9:45am)

Leg 2 - Cañana Road (9:45am - 11:40am)
The coast behind us, we continued down Highway 92 to reach Cañada Road. We missed both Ring-necked Duck and Wood Duck on Crystal Spring reservoir, the first mostly due to seasonality and the second mostly due to chance. But we did add Grasshopper Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Black-throated Gray Warbler, singing Cassin's Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Vaux's Swift, and host of raptors along Cañada. We descended along Woodside Road and wound our way through the contrasting neighborhoods of Atherton and East Palo Alto before hitting the bayshore. We were at 126 species at that point.

Leg 2: ~ 21.5 miles (9:45 - 11:40am)

Riding along Crystal Spring Reservoir at 10am

Leg 3 - SF Bay (11:40 am - 4pm)
We timed our bay arrival to the falling tide so as to add shorebirds on the exposed mudflats. We were mostly on schedule but the tide was a bit farther out than expected, which, coupled with heat shimmer, made the birding tougher than it needed to be. We filled in most of our missing shorebirds but missed Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone because of tide and heat. Beyond shorebirds, we dug out Common GoldeneyeNorthern Pintail, Canvasback, and Ridgway's Rail. Our transit through the Baylands turned up Bald Eagle and a surprise Lesser Yellowlegs. Alviso and surrounds yielded Burrowing Owl and a single Red-necked Phalarope. We managed to grind out only a single Cinnamon Teal but missed Blue-winged Teal, Wilson's Snipe, Say's Phoebe, and Eurasian Wigeon. We had 165 species by the end of this leg.

Leg 3: ~18.6 miles (11:40 - 4pm)

San Francisquito Creek Shorebirding at noon

Leg 4 - Ed Levin (4pm -10pm)
We had biked ~72 miles by the time we started this final leg, so fatigue was starting to set in. We detoured along Coyote Creek to add Yellow Warbler then headed east towards Ed Levin Park. Reaching that destination after some painfully steep and very hot climbing we added Wild Turkey, Green Heron, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow-billed Magpie, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Western Tanager, Lark Sparrow, and two singing Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Climbing even farther up Calaveras Road (not exactly mapped due to Google thinking road is closed) we notched Rock Wren and Western Screech-Owl. We then turned around and dropped all the way back to Alviso where we dipped on Black Rail to end the day. At 10pm we were out of birds, so we closed up shop.

We finished with a very respectable 178 species in our 20 cycling hours. In that time we rode almost exactly 100 miles and climbed well over 4,000 vertical feet. It was a really fun day and a great introduction to bike Big Days. This was very different than anything I did on my 2014 bike Big Year, mostly because of the combined amount of riding and birding over those 20 hours. The time pressure was more acute, and it was frustrating to have to leave areas so soon after reaching them. But we had to keep moving so as to make sure we spent adequate time in each habitat and reached everywhere we wanted to bird.

Now that I've had a full run-through, I have a good idea what to expect on future iterations. This route has been adapted by Rob and Josiah over the past few years, and they should really be commended for their pioneering bike-birding efforts. Hopefully Sam and I will be able to offer some constructive suggestions for next year, and I know that with additional attempts we should be able to mount another challenge to the still-standing California record of 187 (the national record is 193 from Texas). 

Side note
I actually rode my bike to Half Moon Bay on Sunday afternoon (~15 miles) and home from Alviso on Tuesday morning (~30 miles) so that I could count all the birds we found on the Big Day on my Bay Area Green List as well. With the additions of Golden Eagle, Wandering Tattler, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Cassin's Vireo, Yellow-billed Magpie, Swainson's Thrush, Lazuli Bunting, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, my Bay Area Green List now stands at 250 species.

***Bike Big Days and bike Big Years need not start and end in the same place. That would penalize anyone living in a less-than-ideal area. There's also no point in requiring the loop to be closed if people are going to drive somewhere optimal to start and end anyway. As long as the whole route is self-powered, that's all that matters. True Green lists, however, necessarily be accrued from a single point (like my San Mateo apartment, for example).

Had to make a lunch stop after riding 
home from Alviso on Tuesday morning....

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Post #134 - Bay Area Bike Big Day Preparation

How the heck did I not write for the last month? So sorry, but I'm back now. Let's get going!

As each new spring arrives, birders reacquaint themselves with northbound migrants that spent the winter at more southerly latitudes. When I lived in the Northeastern US, Eastern Phoebes and American Woodcocks were always the first spring arrivals, and now that I'm in California Hooded Orioles and Wilson's Warblers are the annual pioneers. With that influx of migrants on top of lingering wintering species, species diversity is usually highest in spring in many places across North America. And those circumstances invite the one of the most entertaining sorts of bird projects - Big Days! I have never actually been involved in a Big Day, so it's only fitting that my first will be a bicycle-based effort here in the Bay Area with bicycle Big Day gurus Rob Furrow and Josiah Clark at the end of this month.

It's tough to beat this view...

Rob and Josiah have been doing this for a number of years and have painstakingly optimized the route over that time. This year we are going to ride a permutation of their 2015 route along which they amassed an incredible 187 species. We will start high enough on the Pacific side of the coastal mountains to collect predawn owls. We'll then head down to Pillar Point for dawn migrants, harbor birds, and seabirds. From there it will be over the coastal mountains, hopefully collecting a few finches en route. After descending we'll hit the bayshore for shorebirds and waterfowl before continuing beyond the bay and gain a bit of elevation into hotter, drier habitat in the late afternoon. As the sun sets we'll head back down to the bayshore to search for Black Rail and a few other nocturnal birds. As mapped, the route will be ~85 miles with around 4,000 feet of total climbing, but it'll probably be closer to 95-100 miles once we drop back down to the bay for the night. We'd love to find 190 species, but that will certainly take some luck!

Street view of the route. Mileage indicated every 5 miles.

Satellite/Topo view of the route

The trick with any Big Day, bicycle or other, is to visit at many different habitats as possible without spending too much time in any one of them. It's therefore important to have a premeditated idea/timetable of how much time should be spent in each habitat. Big Days are infinitely more time sensitive than are Big Years, so that will be a bit of an adjustment for me given my 2014 Big Year experience. Ron and Josiah have worked all this out, so I'll just move whenever they tell me to!

I've cycled more than 90-100 miles in a day many times but usually in big chucks with just a few breaks along the way. We'll be doing a lot of starting and stopping, so it might be tough to get into a good rhythm along this route. I'm in decent (but not great) cycling shape right now, so I think I'll be able to manage it regardless. I'm actually more curious about how I'll maintain birding focus since I've never done any sort of Big Day before, but I'm sure Rob and Josiah will keep me on track. It will also be really interesting to see what effect my extra pair of eyes will have, particularly along the coast where scanning massive amounts of open water is the most likely way to add additional and oddball birds. 

So, that's a very general idea of how we expect out bicycle Big Day to unfold. Right now we are hoping to make April 23 the day, but some of that will depend on wind and weather. April 30 is also an option, but that's a bit later than ideal as we're cutting it close on lingering waterfowl anyway. I'm hoping to take a few videos at points along our route, and if I can manage that I'll be sure to share them in the blogpost that will recap our efforts. Please stay tuned!

And since we need at least one bird photo......

Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta
Riverside County, California, March 2018
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Post #133 - Bay Area Bike Birding update and related thoughts on the '5-Mile Radius' project

First - Please check out the Ecuador piece that I wrote for the Nature Travel Network. It distills my 5 Ecuador posts down to a much quicker read! 

Since I spent a good chunk of this past Saturday successfully chasing a continuing Broad-billed Hummingbird in San Francisco (a county first), I figured it would be a good time for an update on my most recent Bay Area bike-birding exploits. After that I'd like to spend a bit of time discussing the recently-popularized 5-Mile Radius and how it could provide the perfect gateway into bike-birding. Here's a map of my route to the hummingbird. It was 22.6 miles each way plus ~5 miles around Golden Gate Park afterwards for ~50 miles total. I didn't bother with the camera since it adds much weight for what would have been crappy record shots anyway.

My one-way route to SF. I rode in it 1:31 (15 
MPH ave), much faster than the 2:10 Google 
suggests. Return trip 15 mins slower with traffic.

Broad-billed Hummingbird was species #236 that I've found from my bike since moving to the Bay Area last May. The vast majority of these have been observed in my home San Mateo County, but I've tacked on a few additional birds by venturing into neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties. The most notable species that I've added so far, beyond the hummer, are Red-footed Booby, Dusky Warbler, Tufted Duck, and LeConte's Sparrow, the last of those being a county first and technically rarer in my home San Mateo than any of those others with at least 2 county records each. It's also fun that I've found pelagics like Ancient Murrelet and Buller's Sheartwater alongside the more terrestrial likes of Burrowing Owl, Lewis's Woodpecker, Lucy's Warbler, and Red Crossbill. So yeah, bike-bring around here is really good. I'm really hoping to fluff up my list this spring or summer with ~10-day loop to the Sierras and back, and I'm hoping to get my total towards 300 by year's end. That will only take a couple thousand miles of cumulative riding, so stay tuned.

California state view

County view

I am also hoping to join Bay Area bike-birders Josiah Clark and Rob Furrow on their annual spring bike Big Day in late-April. A recently-materialized trip to Honduras in the middle of that month might make that impossible, but I am going to do everything that I can to make it happen!

OK, with all that as backdrop, I want to discuss the recently materialized 5-Mile Radius (5MR). The idea of the 5MR is to outline a circle with a radius of 5 miles from your place of residence (or other point of your choosing should you live in an awful area for birding) with the hope that a small, well-defined, and high-localized geography will motivate at least some birding within it. For example, this is what mine would look like. If I wanted, I could shift this circle several miles southwest so as to include less bay and more mountains while still keeping my residence within it, for example.

I know at least some of you are asking, "Why would I want to restrict my biding to such a small area?" Well, I see at least two very important reasons one might want to give 5MR birding a chance. The first of these is that carbon emissions will be reduced versus always driving to farther flung places. While birding emissions aren't likely to be significant in the face of ever-increasing world petroleum consumption, we birders should at least think about modifying our collective driving behavior to minimize our environmental impact. Second, data collected in the 5MR are particular valuable as they are highly localized and specific and as such will greatly aid in local conservation efforts. One of the problems with birding data is that a lot of them come from just a few areas, or 'Hot Spots'. If everyone spent at least some time each week in his/her 5MR, we'd get a more even distribution of data than if everyone races to the same places to chase the same reported birds. Who knows? Maybe you'll find the next great migrant trap right in your own 5MR!

Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800

I know that the 5MR flies in the face of the driving and associated no-holds-barred listing that motivates much of our birding behavior, but I think it is a really interesting idea, particularly when cross-promoted with the various forms of green birding (walking, running, biking etc). As no point in the 5MR is more than 5 linear miles from home, it would be very easy to bird most or all of it by bike or foot. I personally have an ~25MR that I bird almost exclusively by bike (it runs from SF to Pigeon Point or so). What time I spend outside that radius is usually photography-motivated, but I sneak in a bit of petroleum-powered birding on those occasions. So, and as per usual, I'm not advocating that everyone immediately give up his or her car, but I do think the 5MR offers the perfect opportunity to reevaluate at least some percentage of our birding behaviors. I must admit that I fly to several international birding destinations each year, so what I save on the bike I probably more than give back on the plane. Such is the cost of being human. Just something for me and everyone else to think about in this installment. 

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600