Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Post #200 - A hella slow spring on the bicycle - with one unexpected find!

My 200th post crept up on me since I allowed blogging to slide during the year's second quarter, but I'd like to use the milestone to recognize the The Speckled Hatchback's six-and-a-half-year lifespan! Though my online journal isn't going to garner me international fame and fortune, knowing that at least a few people enjoy my bike-birding tales, photography, and avian musings is enough. So, I like to say 'thanks' to whoever reads my ridiculous blog, however infrequently. I hope my content inspires you to explore the natural world and appreciate the birds around us. 

In that vein, I recently received an email from Brianna Camp (briannacamp37 on Instagram) who asked permission to use my Loggerhead Shrike photo as a template for some sidewalk art she'd been commissioned to do. I'm always honored when artists ask me to use my work to inspire/assist their own, so I immediately granted her permission on the condition she send me a photo of the finished product. I'm not sure if Patrick is obsessed with shrikes or if the bird holds special significance as a school mascot, but I thought the result was pretty cool regardless!

My capture of a Loggerhead Shrike in Riverside County

Brianna's chalking

All that said, this spring was really, really slow on the birding front. I don't think it was specific to the Bay Area because I heard rumblings about low numbers and delayed movement from other corners of California (and beyond), but there wasn't much to get excited about through April, May, and June. I have to pick-and-chose my moments on the bicycle, and it felt like I was constantly waiting for a burst of activity which never materialized. This spring was very windy, so I'm curious if that contributed to the lack of birds, perhaps by blowing migrants farther inland than usual. 

One anomalous bird that did materialize was Indigo Bunting (INBU) at McLaren Park in San Francisco. I've seen the bird in Santa Clara (it was Bay Area bike bird #283 in June of 2019), but I was unable to connect with the SF example despite making two rides for it during its extended stay. Ugh.

My unsuccessful rides for INBU

I missed a bit of action while I was in Minnesota and North Dakota in the middle of June, but my interest was piqued by a Black Tern (BLTE) at the Sunnyvale Wastewater Treatment Plant in Santa Clara a week after I returned. I'd not seen that species anywhere in the Bay Area -- by bike or by car -- so it would be a nice addition to my cumulative Bay Area Bike List. Though the bird was seen by individual observers on the 23rd and 25th, several of us were unable to relocate it on the morning of the 26th. I did, however, hear something intriguing from the adjacent tidal marsh. Reaching for my cell phone and dialing up a Black Rail (BLRA) call, I was able to elicit a confirmatory response from a bird less than twenty feet away. I stared into the reeds for a while but was predictably unable to get eyes on the stealthy figment. Regardless, it joins my Bay Area bike list as species #332, my lone 'heard-only' among that four-year total. It was great to salvage that species in place of BLTE, particularly as I was able to share the rail with a handful of other birders. 

This map is from Strava, a running/cycling app which maps my movements in real time. It knows when I'm moving and when I'm stopped, so the time on this graphic (blue box, bottom) is the time I spent actively cycling. The Google time displayed on the INBU graphic above is only a prediction, so Strava is infinitely-more accurate in that respect. My 51 miles across 3 hours and 24 minutes translates to ~15 miles per hour, so that's about what I'd expect on flat ground without significant wind aid or impediment.

My ride Sunnyvale on June 26th

OK, that's it for now. Take care until next time!

Friday, June 4, 2021

Post #199 - A Morning of Marsh Photography in Sierra County, California

My goal when I head out with the camera is simple: capture one high-quality frame of whatever species I'm seeking. Sometimes I'll get lucky and end up with multiple shots of the desired target -- as occurred on the Canyon Wren and Whimbrel outings I chronicled in my last post -- but it's really, really rare that I come home with keeper shots of different species from the same outing. That's what happened in while I was shooting in Sierra County, California last weekend, and I'll use this post as a photo essay to recap a pretty memorable morning at the marsh.

Let's start with one of the most striking birds in North America - the male Yellow-headed Blackbird. This species is common in the Sierra Valley in summer, and the birds can be very confiding along the region's rural roads. It can be tough difficult to get birds on a natural perches with so many available fenceposts, but I was fortunate to intersect this individual as he belted out his song from a low shrub. The vegetation is a bit busier than ideal, particularly between the wings and tail, but I think it makes for a natural-looking frame.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/1000 at f/7.1, ISO 800

The blackbird bagged, I turned my attention towards the morning's primary target, Virginia Rail. With marsh on both sides of the road, I laid down in the deserted thoroughfare and used a bit of playback to see what I could draw out of the reeds. I've had decent responses from this species in the past, but this was unlike anything I'd ever experienced, two birds sprinting across the road twenty feet in front of me within twenty seconds. They recrossed the road a minute later, and the more curious of the pair walked to within fifteen feet me of as I remained prone. I'll certainly remember the encounter for a long time! Fortunately, I was so low that the gravel road is mostly unrecognizable in these shots.

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Virginia Rail - Rallus limicola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 800

A bit later in the morning, this Wilson's Snipe landed on a roadside post. That perch was very big and blocky, so I decided the only way to minimize its distraction was to eliminate it altogether by going for a tight headshot. This bird permitted unexpectedly close approach, and I was really happy with the resulting feather detail. He wouldn't turn perfectly parallel to the light, so I'll have to live with diffuse shadows across the breast. Can't complain about the engaging head angle though!

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago delicata
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/8, ISO 1000

And lastly, I'll include this American Bittern since I photographed it at the same location, albeit on the previous evening (I ditched camped in nearby National Forest overnight). Cloudy conditions rendered the light pretty dodgy on that first visit, but I cranked up the ISO to combat the conditions. Topaz Denoise AI did a great job at reducing the noise and recovering the feather detail once I put the file into the computer. If you haven't used that program, it's definitely worth checking out. It can be used an a plug-in in Lightroom or Photoshop, so even Luddites like me can figure it out. I'm super stoked with this result because it's my first good frame of this species!

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

So yeah, a sweet pair of visits to the same spot. I'll certainly go back in the future, if not this summer then perhaps sometime in the fall. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Post #198 - Whimbrel meets Canyon Wren,

Wow - Tropical Birding responsibilities have kept me busy since my last entry a month ago! My Upper Texas Coast tour piled up 250 species when the Hill Country extension was included, and my South Florida Birding with a Camera© installment found most of the Sunshine State specialties plus Antillean Nighthawk, Shiny Cowbird, Black Noddy, and Black-faced Grassquit. Running back-to-back nine-day tours took a lot of planning and energy, but both ventures unfolded perfectly. I'll be tweaking the itineraries based on my experiences on this go-round, and I'll be sure to link the finalized versions when they're done.

I've been swamped with trip reports these last few days, so I have limited appetite for additional writing at the moment. Fortunately, I captured a nice panel of photographs before I left for Florida and Texas, and I'll use this post to share those with you. Canyon Wren is a new species for my photo collection, and the Whimbrel images represent a huge upgrade from anything I previously had of that elegant species.

Let's start with this Whimbrel. Getting super low really makes the bird look like giant, right?! This bird was on a slightly-raised tidal ridge, so I think I was shooting up on him from the low trough I'd assumed. The soft background is a distantly breaking wave.

Whimbrel - Numenius phaeopus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Let's start with this Whimbrel. Getting super low really makes the bird look like giant, right?! This bird was on a slightly-raised tidal ridge, so I think I was shooting up on him from the low trough I'd assumed. The soft background is a distantly breaking wave.

Let's jump to the Canyon Wren for a moment. Given numerous intersections with the species in AZ, NM, UT, and CO, it's kinda funny that my first decent photograph of this Southwestern speciality came from outside San Jose, CA where it very unusual. This individual had been eBirded from a local park for weeks, so I went to look for it knowing it would be a Santa Clara County bird even if it didn't cooperate for photos (fortunately, it did). This favored perch featured several dried poops, so I used an old rag to scrub them off while he rotated through others. Who needs Photoshop when it can be done in the field, right? I was a bit nervous I wouldn't be able to freeze the pulsating beak in the cloudy conditions, but ISO 3200 did the trick. I'm not usually one for lat-light results, but the super-sharp details made this a keeper. 

Canyon Wren - Catherpes mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 3200

Returning to our Whimbrel friend, I liked this frame because the subject is almost perfectly isolated from the surroundings. Some might want more habitat context, but there wasn't much of that to be found in this wide, sandy expanse. This is also about the best example of direct eye contact that I have in my collection. 

Whimbrel - Numenius phaeopus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 1250

This next frame represents the same wren as above. I was really happy with this result because the direct sunlight helped to bring out the colors on the bird and the rock. I liked the lichen so much that I went with a wide crop to included a lot of it.

Canon WrenCatherpes mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 1250

We'll close with a third Whimbrel shot. The other two images showed the subject closely, so I decided to back off a bit for this frame. Minus the reflection, I think I could be convinced he was walking across the sky. It's really hard to use negative space effectively in the Bay Area areas since buildings, people, dogs, bridges, trash, and all manner of other man-made distractions inevitably work their way into the background, so I was really happy with this result. Getting low delivers again!

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Five keeper frames from two individual birds on two different days - can't argue with those results! That's it for now. Cheers!

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!