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