Thursday, April 15, 2021

Post #197 - A bit of San Francisco bike birding

I usually present my rides in threes, but I'm going to rush these two to press ahead of leading back-to-back-birding tours for Tropical Birding across the next three weeks, the first on the Upper Texas Coast and the second in South Florida. I signed on with the company last year, and the two tours I've led before this pair -- one in Southern California and the other in Southern Texas -- have been tons of fun. I'm operating domestically at present but hoping to expand in the future, my ability to teach photography particularly portable as far as international borders are concerned. Anyway, I'm happy to be a part of the Tropical Birding team, and I encourage you to check out our tour line-up as COVID restrictions ease through the later part of the year.

TB clients and I with world'd largest killer be in Hidalgo, TX.

OK, on with the bike-birding! The first ride I'll recap targeted an adult Bald Eagle discovered on Lake Merced on March 11th (and possibly earlier given scattered sightings at that site across the previous two months). The species is highly-irregular in San Francisco where it occurs almost-exclusively as a flyover, so I followed continuing reports of the Lake Merced example while waiting for an opportunity to pursue it. A free afternoon presenting on March 17th, I made the ride to the location where I found the bird roosting on its favored eucalyptus on the far side of the lake. Anti-climatic from that distance? Sure. One the the list regardless? You bet!

Lake Merced Bald Eagle (DSLR) - SF bike Bird #242

The eagle presented quicker than I expected, so I figured I'd double-down with the continuing Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA) in Corona Heights Park. Hustling across the undulating cityscape, I reached the park at 4:30pm, the bird flying into its favored cotoneaster tree 30 seconds later. I'd dipped on a YBSA -- quite possibly the same bird -- at nearby Buena Vista Park several months prior, so it was nice to redeem that miss with this close look. The sap wells are pretty sweet!

Corona Heights Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (DSLR) - SF Bike Bird #243

Two birds in a single, 42-mile swing!

The second ride I'll chronicle, undertaken on April 5th, took me to Ocean Beach in San Francisco to search for the Sabine's Gull which had been present for the previous two days. The species is usually highly-pelagic, the bird migrating far off the California Coast in spring and fall, but this individual had suffered a chest injury which forced it to the beach to rest and recover. Chasing an injured individual for listing purposes initially felt dirty and self-serving, but my feelings changed when I intersected it, the views better than I've had on any pelagic trip. Though the bird was missing some feathers at the apparent wound site (visible as dent in breast in photo), it did make a few short sorties along the beach when flushed by dogs. The bird has remained on the beach since my sighting -- 12 days total -- so it will be interesting to see how it fares moving forward. Hopefully it recovers and heads back out to sea. 

Sabine's Gull (digiscope) - SF Bike Bird #244

A quick 40 miles!

That's it for now. I doubt I'll be able to squeeze in another post before I leave for my tours, but I'm sure I'll have something for you when I return. Cheers!

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Post #196 - Recent Photographs

I've dispensed a lot of bike-birding content recently, so I'm just going to throw up a bunch of photos and say a few a words about each. It's been really, really hard with my local shorebird spot shut down for the two years starting in January, but I've squeezed out a few keeper frames from other places. I'm hoping to get out a bit more now that the days are longer and sunnier!

Surf Scoters are usually far from shore, but I was able to float right up onto this male in my inflatable kayak. Since depth of field compresses at such close range, I closed the the lens down to f/8 (from f/5.6) to make sure I preserved focus across the face and neck. These high-contrast subjects are a real challenge in bright sunlight. It's easy to overexposure the whites or underexpose the blacks, so I was stoked to preserve feather detail at those extremes. I think he looks like an alien with that multicolored beak and white eye!

Surf Scoter - Melanitta perspicillata
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/8, ISO 800

Incredibly, this Bushtit frame happened without the aid of audio or food. How'd I get the bird onto such a sweet perch without crap in the background? Well, I saw a family group of ~20 picking its way through a low hedgerow. There was a break at the end where the birds would emerge, so I ran ahead of them and waited. My plan worked to perfection, and I had a quick opportunity at this bird before it flitted across the opening and disappeared into another shrub. I see this species around my San Mateo apartment almost every day, but this is the first decent photo I've managed of this tiny and highly-kinetic bird. For perspective, the bird's body is about the size of a golfball. So yeah, a hella small target!

Bushtit - Psaltriparus minimus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

I have lots of shots of the Ring-neck Ducks which winter in Golden Gate Park, but I love the consistent, low angle opportunity they offer. The birds patrol Stowe Lake while looking for handouts, so it's as simple as staking out a water-level vantage, laying prone on my stomach, and waiting. That's easier said that done while holding my heavy camera, but my patience paid off when this guy cruised by at the perfect distance. You can't beat water-level bokeh/blur!

Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris
Canon 600mm f/4 IS on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Last, a bit of a cheap shot. I was in a blind while leading a photo workshop in Texas in January, and food and water were used to lure a variety of local birds to an array of perfect perches (this happened at a private ranch which specializes in this sort of 'set-up' photography). It's kinda cheesy since it requires zero behavioral knowledge or stalking skill, but it's a great way to reinforce technique with clients. I much prefer shooting in the field - where shots have to be earned - but it's tough to argue with results like this, particularly when the subject is as stealthy as the Long-billed Thrasher!

Long-billed Thrasher - Toxostoma longirostre
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 1250

That's it for now. Headed out with the camera tomorrow, so hopefully I'll have more for you in the next installment.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Post #195 - Tired of bike-birding? I hope not cuz it's all I have right now!

More of the same around here at the moment! I've been venturing farther afield since birding my local Coyote Point Park is so depressing right now; a big chunk of the park is ripped up for levy improvements. It's incredibly frustrating on top of the Foster City closure (2 damn years!). It seems the entire San Mateo bayshore is under construction. Why can't they do one place at a time, do it fast, then move to the next? So dumb. Anyway, let's get into my recent adventures. 

California Thrasher (CATH), San Francisco, March 4th
Common in my home San Mateo County where its preferred chaparral is more widespread, CATH is quite rare in the more developed confines of San Francisco to the north; eBird suggests it ~annual with 4-5 records spread across the last 4-5 years. A couple stuck around for a while in 2018, but I wasn't invested in those sightings because I'd seen the bird in San Mateo and hadn't starting listing for the other, individual counties at that juncture. Wondering if I'd get another crack at CATH in SF, I was happy to learn about one at Candlestick Point at the end of February. I couldn't make time for a pursuit until March 4th, shocking as the bird was less 15 miles from my apartment (an hour's ride), but I was happy to find it kicking around the same area it had spent the previous week. I forwent the scope in favor of the DSLR on this occasion, that decision validated when the bird allowed close approach!

California Thrasher - SF bike bird #241


Mileage is for the round trip

Common Poorwill (COPO), San Mateo, March 11th
Nocturnal birds present another level of bike-birding challenge because riding at night comes with additional dangers versus riding during the day. My wife lets me get away with it close to home, but neither of us wants me riding significant distance - like over the coastal mountains - after dark. So, chasing a continuing COPO in Montara required more logistics than usual, specifically an overnight in Half Moon Bay.

I left home at 4pm on Thursday, March 11, did some leisurely birding en route, and reached Montara at 6pm. The bird had been showing on a particular path like clockwork between 6:30 and 6:45, but it was not to be on this this night. It had rained heavily overnight and all morning, so I suspect the weather disrupted the bird's routine. Worse, more rain materialized just as I was leaving. Visibility was reduced to twenty feet, and I had no choice but to push south along Highway 1 until I found temporary shelter. That came in the form of a gas station where I spent fifteen minutes before continuing to south the Half Moon Bay under lighter drizzle. I was drenched from head to toe. It sucked. I made it home the next morning without trouble, but I really should have waited for the weather to stabilize before I invested the time. Overall, it was a big bummer as COPO would have been new for my cumulative Bay Area bike list. I might make another attempt if the bird sticks around, so stay tuned for that. 

Shelter from the downpour - see street behind!


Lesser Black-backed Gull (LBBG), Santa Clara, March 14th
This another bird which slipped through my radar with at least 3 individuals kicking around Alviso in the South Bay for the previous few days. That's a tough destination for me to reach on the bike because prevailing NW winds make the return ride a huge pain in the ass, but Sunday offered unusual opportunity on two fronts. First, the start of daylight savings guaranteed the roads empty at sunrise, a circumstance which would let me run every light and stop sign on the outgoing leg; second, south winds ahead of an approaching storm meant I'd have a rare tailwind on my return (rain in the Bay Area is almost always accompanied by southwest winds).

I left at first light and hauled ass south. Making tracks through Palo Alto, I glimpsed four geese flying towards me as I zipped by the Renzel Wetlands. Three were standard Canadas, but the final was a comparatively-tiny Cackling Goose (CACG). That species had eluded me in Santa Clara as far as the bike was concerned, so it was a nice bonus en route to Alviso. Santa Clara bike bird #223 - woo hoo!

Reaching that destination 1 hour 52 minutes after I left home, I bumped into Santa Clara stalwarts Matthew Dodder and Bob Reiling who said they had the 1st cycle LBBG ten minutes before I arrived. The three of us were unable to relocated the bird, but it flew in for me 90 minutes later. A quick digiscope snapped - light head, dark body, black bill, long wings, slender appearance - it was time to head home ahead of approaching rain. I bombed up the bayshore, but traffic lights crushed me once I rejoined the sprawl; I had to stop more times that I cared to count. Regardless, the return ride took 1 hour 56 minutes, a solid 45 minutes faster than when I need to ride into NW winds to get home.

1st cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull
Bay Area bike bird #331. Santa Clara Bike bird #224.


So, two outta three ain't bad. I've been doing a bit more photography lately, so maybe I'll go with an image-driven post the next time around. Cheers!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Post #194 - More Bay Area Bike-birding

Days are lengthening, the COVID vaccine is being distributed/administered, and spring migration will be here before we know it. Things are looking up! My bike-birding has been hampered by other projects, familial commitments, and injured toes (long story) of late, but I've managed to sneak out on the bike a few times since my last post. I'll recap three recent rides in this installment: one in San Mateo County, one in Santa Clara County, and one in San Francisco City/County.

Mountain Bluebird (MOBL) and Red-necked Grebe (RNGR) in San Mateo County
More common towards the Sierras, MOBL makes only rare appearances at/near the coast; there are only a handful of eBird records spread across San Francisco and San Mateo Counties, so folks on the peninsula were surprised by an iNaturalist report from Mori Point Pacifica on January 24. The bird was seen daily for the next week, but I wasn't able to ride for it because of high winds and accompanying rain. Better weather prevailed on the 30th, and I used a free morning to make the hour-long ride to Pacifica. Drama? Nope! The bird showed with 5 minutes of my arrival and bounced around the coastal cliffs exactly as advertised. Pretty sweet San Mateo bird, especially on the bike!

Mori Point in Pacific - Not traditional Mountain Bluebird habitat!

Mountain Bluebird (digi-binoc)
Bay Area Bike Bird #329, San Mateo County Bike Bird #287

The MOBL showing quickly, I shot up to Mussel Rock to look for the Red-necked Grebe(s) which had been hanging around there for the previous week. The species has been a bit of a San Mateo bike nemesis for me. I've tried piggy-backing it onto pursuits of other species, always without success, and this time was no different despite a two-hour vigil. I have it on my SF bike list and my regular San Mateo list from a pelagic, but it's proved elusive in San Mateo when I'm on the bike. Eventually......

My ride for MOBL and RNGR on January 30th

Chipping Sparrow (SCHSP) in Santa Clara County
This species had eluded me in Santa Clara, so I rode down to Terman Park (Mountain View) on the advice of Adam Burnett and ticked three continuing birds within 30 seconds of arriving. Easy as could be. And that's all I'm gonna say about that

Chipping Sparrow (digi-binoc) Santa Clara bike bird #222 

My ride for CHSP on February 10th

Varied Thrush (VATH), Bullock's Oriole (BUOR), and Baltimore Oriole (BAOR) in San Francisco
I was prepared for a longer search since took a friend and I ninety minutes to find a VATH at this location the previous week (by car),  so I was stoked when one revealed itself just 5 minutes after I arrived. San Francisco Bike Bird #238 secured with minimal effort, I cruised over to Fort Mason to look for the continuing Bullock's and Baltimore Orioles. I didn't have a whiff of either across three hours, so I packed it in at 12:15. I loaded my crap into my panniers and pushed my bike out of the community garden where I'd stashed it. Mounting up, I heard an unexpected rattle from behind me. Slamming on the brakes and excavating my binocs, I got eyes on the sought Baltimore a moment later. It kept calling, so I fished out my 7D2 and 100-400, reassembled the functional rig, and captured some frames of the improbable bird. As I was pishing it in closer, the Bullock's popped up as well! It was really sweet to salvage both birds after I'd conceded them. 

VATH - SF Bike Bird #238 (DSLR)

Bullock's Oriole - SF Bike Bird #239 (DSLR)

Baltimore Oriole - Bay Area Bike Bird #330 and San Francisco Bike bird #240 (DSLR)

And what about this thing?!?! It's an immature male Northern Red Bishop which has been hanging around Fort Mason, apparently for some time. He doesn't count towards my various lists since the species is an introduced exotic in California - it's native to equatorial Africa - but I had fun chasing him around community garden while I was looking for the orioles.

Northern Red Bishop (DSLR)


My ride for VATH, BUOR, BAOR on February 26

That's it for now. Stay safe. I hope to see folks in the field the next few weeks. Cheers!

Monday, February 8, 2021

Post #193 - San Francisco Bike-birding

Last time I recapped a super productive ride through Santa Clara County, and this time I'm going to describe some San Francisco exploits. The described ride is another holdover from the first half of January, it undertaken on January 7th and targeting three birds in different parts of the city. The first of those was the continuing Swamp Sparrow (SWSP) at Lake Merced. Reliably present for the previous nine days, the bird was favoring the scrubby hillside separating the Vista Grande Canal and the adjacent golf course. Ditching my bike in some bushes after covering the ~14 miles from my San Mateo apartment in 53 mins, I glanced skyward just in time to view a White-tailed Kite (WTKI) float buoyantly over my head. That bird was long-overdue for SF bike bird #236, and my subsequent passes of the favored hillside produced the sought SWSP for SF bike bird #237. Two-for-one, no complaints.

Digi-binoc'd Swamp Sparrow - sweet perch, right?

My first target acquired, I turned my attention towards the Hammond's Flycatcher (HAFL) which had been frequenting Moscone Park in the city's northern reaches since December 29 (10 days prior). Beyond a SF bike bird, it also be new for my cumulative Bay Area bike list, that consideration motivating me through the cityscape post-sparrow. The sun broke through while I was en route, and I hoped the flycatcher would be active given warming temperatures and associated insect activity.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not a huge fan of birding in urban parks, particularly on really nice days. Why? Well, with a group of little kids playing on one side of the flycatcher's favored area and a dozen twenty-something women doing yoga on the other, I looked like hella shady as I repeatedly scanned chain link fence which separated the two groups. I've watched enough Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to know I - as a forty-two-year-old, ugly-ass white dude - fit the pedo-perv stereotype, particularly with binoculars dangling from my neck, so I just wanted to find the bird and get the hell out of there.

"What were you doing George, birdwatching?"

Swirling hoards of White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers monopolized the fence for 75 minutes, but a small flycatcher eventually found the gumption to join their ranks. Approaching for a better view, I noted the blocky head, small bill, eye ring, and long primaries, that final field mark rendering the tail short in appearance. The bird also drooped its left wing as other observers had noted of this individual Hammond's (SF bike bird #238). I snapped a few quick shots, jumped on the bike, and cleared out.

Digi-binoc'd Hammond's Flycatcher, thankfully without downward dog behind.....

With ample daylight on my way home, I made a one-hour stop at Heron's Head to see what I could find. That yielding nothing unusual beyond Rocky, the incredibly-approachable Rock Sandpiper which has spent the last two winters at the park's distal terminus, I continued to Yosemite Slough with hopes of Loggerhead Shrike. More common inland, the crafty predator makes only hella rare appearances in San Francisco; the individual found by Rachel Lawrence on December 23 as part of her record-breaking SF total (275 species, I think) represented the first SF sighting since 2008 and one of only a handful since 2000 (according to eBird). I missed the bird on my previous December 28 swing, and, sadly, the result was the same this time around. Can't win 'em all, and 2 outta 3 (plus the kite) ain't bad!

Digiscoped Rocky as bayshore consolation


Until next time.........

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Post #192 - An amazing day of bike-birding in Santa Clara County

Commitments have kept me off the bike for two weeks, so I'm gonna dust off a ride from early-January for this post. Undertaken on January 10th, it sought three would-be Santa Clara County bike birds at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. With negligible wind and partly sunny skies forecasted, I departed my San Mateo apartment with high hopes.

The day's first target was the long-staying Common Loon (COLO) on Pond A4 in Sunnyvale. Abundant on the oceanside of the peninsula, the species is highly unusual on the Santa Clara bay shore. I'd not found the time to pursue the bird during its two-month stay, but it cooperated for me as it had for so many others, the slow-slung swimmer materializing from hoards of scaup on the far/north side of the impoundment after a twenty-minute search (too far for photo). Santa Clara bike bird #217 bagged, the day was off to a good start.

Next up? Glaucous Gull (GLGU). Unusual but regular across all Bay Area Counties, the species has been a recent nemesis; I struck out on San Francisco example 3 times before dipping on an Alameda bird on the day I hurt my thumb. That's more than 150 miles of GLGU misses! Given those headaches, I was hella stoked to find the continuing second-year example shortly after arriving at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Alviso (Santa Clara bike bird #218). I was also able to pull an Iceland (Thayer's) Gull (ICGU, Santa Clara bike bird #219) from the flock on an adjacent impoundment. Two-for-one - money.

Glaucous Gull at Don Edwards

Extending my hot hand still farther from home, I rolled into Lick Mill Park and immediately had a quick but identifiable glimpse the seasonally-aberrant Hermit Warbler (HEWA, Santa Clara bike bird #220) which had frequented the patch park since its Christmas discovery. The songbird nests at ridge elevations towards the southern end of the county, but those areas are a royal chore to reach on the bike. I tried for the bird at Monte Bello and along the Santa Clara reaches of Skyline Drive last summer - to no avail - and I was apprehensive about reaching farther and higher for it this year. Fortunately, that's a moot point now.

Running ahead of schedule and feeling like I couldn't miss, I decided to get greedy, expand my return route, and try for the Phainopeplas (PHAI) which had been hanging around the Stanford Dish since January 5th. The only problem? I had my scope in my panniers, and bikes aren't allowed into the Dish reserve; I wasn't about to lock my bike up and walk away from it with the scope hanging out the back pannier. The solution? I hid my panniers (and scope) in a heavily-wooded yard, continued a quarter-mile to the Dish entrance, locked the unloaded bike, and - after 52 miles of riding - started walking. It was quite warm at that sunny, mid-afternoon juncture, and I was lagging halfway through the 4-mile loop. Stopping to rest, I detected movement in a mistletoe-adorned oak and approached to find the female Phainopepla foraging in its upper reaches. Santa Clara bike bird #221 capped an incredible day of bike-birding! 

Female Phainopepla at Stanford Dish

My Santa Clara exploits on January 10

Three-and-a-half years into my Bay Area tenure, Santa Clara returns continue to diminish, so adding five birds on a single swing through the northern part of the county was a huge victory. I'd love to reach farther south and east in Santa Clara, but those longer trips will probably require an overnight ride and will be best done post-Covid. Until then, I'll keep exploring the bayshore for unaccounted species like Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Osprey, Cackling Goose, and Chipping Sparrow. I really enjoy birding in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Alviso, and I'm guaranteed a good workout riding to and returning from those destinations. I just have to avoid days with strong north or west winds; those make the return ride a huge pain in the ass.

More coming soon. Stay tunes. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Post #191 - Recent waterfowl photos

Good news - my thumb is on the mend! It's still tender, but I can grip stuff and generally function as usual. I was able to resume biking this week, so stayed tuned for recaps of those rides.

I'll also point you towards my Top Photos of 2020. 19 of the 20 were captured in California - the Sandhill Crane is from New Mexico - and I'm stoked that every shot was an authentic, in-the-field result. Shooting baited birds at established set-ups is fun, but I find it more satisfying to study behavior and stalk birds in their natural environments. Getting down an dirty is always fun too.

OK, let's dive into the ducks. I'll start with this male Common Goldeneye. I was fortunate to have close photographic opportunity at a confiding female in Golden Gate Park two years ago, but I was missing comparable images of males - until this encounter. All it took was laying down on the edge of a local lake and waiting an hour for this beautiful example to swim within range. I whistled at him so that he'd turn his head a bit, but my plan backfired and he dove underwater just after I captured this image. They're so skittish.

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 640

Next up is Canvasback, a species I've wanted to photograph for years. The flocks which winter on San Francisco Bay are always out of range, so I was grateful when a friend pointed me towards Alondra Park in Lawndale (in the LA sprawl). The twenty-some birds at that traditional winter haunt were very approachable, presumably because of the constant presence of fisherman and joggers, and I captured a nice panel of frames during my morning with them. The different water colors result from shooting against varied refections of foliage on the far shore of the lake. Beware - there was loads of goose crap around the pond, so wear crappy clothes if you wanna get low.

Canvasback (male) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Canvasback (male) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Canvasback (female) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Apparently jealous of the attention I was showering on the Canvasbacks, this male Lesser Scaup decided to crash our shoot. He looks ready for his close-up, right? What a diva!

Lesser Scaup (male) - Aythya affinis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/4000 at f/6.3, ISO 800

Last is this Bufflehead I photographed at Shoreline Lake in Mountain View. Female waterfowl don't get as much photographic attention as their male counterparts, so I was really happy when this lady surfaced in these dreamy surrounds. I'm glad I held onto the feather detail in her creamy ear patch; it's very east to overexpose that characteristic field mark against the surrounding brown, especially in bright sunlight. 

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 500

That's it for now. I'll try to post again next week, assuming the country doesn't burn to the ground on January 20th.