Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Post #163 - Bay Area Bar-tailed Godwit - by bike!

Opened in 1967, the San Mateo Bridge stretches 7 miles across the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It is the longest bridge in California and allows nearly 100,000 vehicles to commute between San Mateo and Hayward each day. It does not, however, feature a footpath or bicycle lane, a complication making a mid-bay crossing impossible for pedestrians and cyclists. Those can use the Dumbarton Bridge ~12 miles to the south, but detouring to that span is an impossibility for walkers and a big inconvenience for riders.

Ariel view of San Mateo Bridge 

Enter Bar-tailed Godwit, an Old World species which also breeds in Western Alaska. The bird is a rare but regular vagrant on the Pacific Coast, and I figured one would eventually appear in my Bay Area surrounds, a suspicion confirmed when an individual was recently discovered at Ora Loma Marsh in Alameda County.

Breeding plumage Bar-tailed Godwit from Adak, AK
Photo from Laura Keene (check out her flickr account)

Bar-tailed Godwit records from eBird

Though Ora Loma March is 10 straight-line miles from my apartment, the bike ban on the San Mateo Bridge would force me south to the Dumbarton, a circumstance rendering the vagrant godwit 34 riding-miles from my home. At 68 miles round-trip, my pursuit would need be calculated and organized to maximize the prospect of success.

My godwit pursuit

The initial godwit report - not posted until 10pm Sunday, July 21st - noted the bird was observed on the late-afternoon high tide that day. The reflexive approach would have been to aim for the same tide on Monday, but I wanted to know the bird had established a minimal pattern before investing 68 riding miles into it. A 5- to 6-hour bike chase can wipe me out through the following day as well, so I need to be selective in which birds I chase. I'm generally willing to concede short-staying vagrants (i.e. one day wonders) to ensure a higher overall success rate on chasing birds which remain in their discovery areas. I can chase a rarity that is 15 miles away (~1 hour) without thought, but the calculation steepens as the intervening distance grows. It's a similar calculation in the car, albeit with infinitely fewer variables in the equation.

Panorama of Ora Loma March

When the godwit was reported on the same late-afternoon high tide on Monday, I knew Tuesday was my day. I powered south out of San Mateo at 2pm, crossed the Dumbarton, and continued north along the eastern bayshore to arrive at Ora Loma at 4:20pm. The rising water had already concentrated hundreds of shorebirds in the marsh, and another birder (James Watts) and I split the task of scanning the roosting throngs, him from one end of the assembly and me from the other. James spotted the bird within a few minutes, and I bounded the 100 yards to his scope for a killer view of the sought rarity. The bird spent the next hour resting and preening before being flushed by a low-flying Turkey Vulture at 5:30pm. Half a dozen others arrived in that interval, and all enjoyed point-blank views of the rare shorebird.

Phonescoped winter plumage Bar-tailed Godwit
Bay Area bike bird #288
Traditional ABA bird #733 (#731 Lower 48)

The WNW headwind riding back across the Dumbarton and along the western bayshore was heavily impeding, but I fought through it and returned home at 8:20pm. Bike-birding celebrations are always broken into two parts, the first half in the field when the bird is observed and the second half when I return home safely. The godwit was my longest single-day chase since moving to the Bay Area, so my sofa felt great when I finally collapsed onto it to watch Deadliest Catch at 9pm!

It's worth mentioning the godwit was seen again at 7pm on Tuesday evening (after I'd departed) but not on subsequent days. In this instance, delaying for a day was the perfect move, but I'm sure I'll get burned at some point. It's inevitable in this game......

Friday, July 26, 2019

Post #162 - Epic bike-birding battle with Parakeet Auklet

There have been some epic rivalries in my lifetime: Red Sox versus Yankees, PC versus Mac, the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance. None, however, can hold a candle to Dorian versus Parakeet Auklet, an unrelenting 3-year battle that finally resolved this past week. To fully understand the struggle, I offer the following background and history.

Parakeet Auklets in Alaska. I haven't birded AK, so
Marc Kramer (birdingbybus) hooked me up with this shot.

Parakeet Auklet is a small member of Alcidae, a Northern Hemisphere bird family including murres, guillemots, auklets, murrelets, and puffins. Collectively and commonly referred to as Alcids, they share a general black-and-white color scheme, strong underwater swimming abilities, and an endearing terrestrial clumsiness. If you don't think Parakeets Auklets are super cute, then you have no soul.

This one from Tom Ford-Hutchinson, also from Alaska

Parakeet Auklets breed colonially on cliffs around the Bering Sea and adjacent bodies but disperse to sea during the non-breeding season. We don't know much about their pelagic wintering grounds, but at least a few reach waters off Washington, Oregon, and California each year. Though there are a few coastal records, but pelagic trips from Westport, Washington offer the best chances of observing this species in the lower 48 states. 

Parakeet Auklet eBird records for summer (L) and winter (R)

Given that background, it was hella unexpected when a representative appeared at Land's End in San Francisco on July 13th, 2016. There is only one eBird record for that bird - likely because it vanished before others could pursue/relocate it - but the unlikely story renews when the presumed same bird reappeared at Land's End a year later, on July 16th, 2017. I'd moved to San Mateo in May, so I jumped into the car and sped to San Francisco with hopes of adding the unlikely auklet to my ABA list. My Bay Area Bike List hadn't become the obsession it is now, and I didn't want to risk the bird disappearing given its brief stay the previous year. I missed the bird on that first try, July 16th, but secured it on my second two days later. Yay.

The area the auklet had favored each July

It was really sweet to see such a cool bird outside its usual range, but the euphoria waned in subsequent days, mostly because I knew I could have biked the 46 round-trip miles instead of driving them. Regret eventually overcame me, and I biked back to Land's End to redeem the auklet on July 21st. I was unsuccessful on that day, and I missed a second time on July 23rd before leaving for Philadelphia a few days later. By the time I returned from the East Coast, the auklet had departed. Boo.

I thought 2017 was the end of the story, but the bird reappeared for a third July in 2018. It stayed for the better part of a month, but I was in Colombia during his entire visit. We couldn't properly renew our rivalry with me away, but I could almost hear the bird mocking me from a distance. Ugh.

Fast forward to 2019. The damn thing comes back for a fourth consecutive July, but I'm in Colombia again. (And yeah, I know it's totally neurotic to monitor the CA list while traveling.) Fortunately, the bird stuck around, and I returned to the Bay Area to make another self-powered attempt on the 12th. Result? Miss. Undeterred, I made an additional attempt on the 16th. Result? Another dip. My addictive personality in full effect, I made yet another attempt on the 20th. Result? Booyah!

Phonescoped record shot of SF Parakeet Auklet

A group of ten of us had nice views of the bird as it fed and preened in the surf below its favored Hermit Rock. It was really great to share the bird with others, most of whom had missed it previously. The auklet was a tremendous bike-birding triumph, one requiring 5 trips and 230 miles of cumulative riding (46 miles per attempt). I'm sure there will be more chases - bike and car - in my future, but I doubt I'll ever chase another individual rarity 7 times (twice by car in 2017, twice by bike in 2017, and thrice by bike in 2019)!

More adventure coming, so please stay tuned. Also, here's a recap of my recent Colombia Photobirding trip for Alvaro's Adventures. It was really sweet!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Post #161 - Recap of my Colombia Photobirding tour for Alvaro's Adventures

My inaugural Colombian Photobirding Adventure for Alvaro's Adventures was an unbelievable success! We found 376 species in 11 days and experienced no logistical snafus save for a local protest blocking one of the main inter-Andean arteries. That impromptu rock-and-log blockade forced an hour detour, but understanding participants absorbed the delay without grumbling. Driving in Colombia - as in much of Latin America - is notoriously inefficient, and roadside drama is par for the course. Whether it's cows crossing the road, an overturned sugarcane truck, or a dancing mob of soccer fans, Colombian travel is always an adventure!

The intrepid octet with Howler Monkey accompaniment at 
Otún Quimbaya (Colombian co-leader Andrea Beltrán at far right)

As for birds, our incredible total featured 46 species of hummingbirds, 9 species of parrots/parakeets, 11 species of antpitta (9 seen), 8 species of tapaculos, 24 species of furnarids, 44 species of flycatchers, 7 species of cotingas, and too many colorful tanagers to count. Notably, we tallied 18 Colombian endemics, 15 seen and 3 heard-only.

***all photos taken at sites visited during the tour***

Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) against cloud
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/250 at f/7.1, ISO 500, fill flash at 1/16

Green-and-black Fruiteater - Pipreola riefferii
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/100 at f/7.1, ISO 2000

Our tour started in Cali and visited a wide array of elevational habitats between 3,000 and 13,655 feet in the Western and Central (930 to 4,138 meters) before terminating around Manizales and Pereira. For those unfamiliar with South American topography, it is vital to understand that the Andes trifurcate into three discrete ranges in Colombia. Species have evolved independently in each branch, and most of Colombia's endemics are found in and between the three ranges (all but one of the rest - Chiribiquet Emerald - evolved in the isolated Santa Marta Mountains on the Caribbean Coast). With time in both the Western and Central Andes, we were afforded a very wide sample of Colombia's diverse and highly-specialized avifauna.

Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer - Diglossa gloriosissima
Colombian endemic found only in the Western Andes
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D4
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Video at Tatamá National Park where we saw Chestnut-bellied
Flowerpiercer, Munchique Wood-Wren, and Gold-ringed Tanager

We designed this tour with photographers in mind, and clients had fabulous photo opportunities at many of the sites we visited. All participants birded together in the mornings, and the two die-hard photographers usually split off to do their thing at lodge feeders in the afternoon. The balance worked really well, and even self-described 'hardcore' birders had their cameras glued to their faces for much of the trip. With point-black views of so many incredible birds, everyone went home happy!

Crescent-faced Antpitta - Grallaricula lineifrons
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 2000

Thick-billed Euphonia - Euphonia laniirostris
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II +1.4x II on EOS 1DX2
1/200 at f/8, ISO 1600

So, that's a very cursory overview of what transpired on our tour, none of which would have been possible without our wonderful ground operator Andre Beltrán of Birding and Herping. She was brilliant with the birds and a master of logistics, and I cannot praise her personality and professionalism enough. Andrea, Alvaro, and I are already planning next year's iteration; it will run late-June into early-July and probably be a day longer than this first run. Please contact me if you are interested in securing a spot. We only took 8 clients this year, so book early to make sure you aren't left behind!

It doesn't get any better than Termales del Ruiz!

Birders enjoying dinner at Tinamu Lodge.
Spectacled Owl flew in while we were eating!

You get the idea. Colombia is awesome. Come with us next year. And in case you're still waffling, here are a few more shots to convince you!

Rufous Antpitta - Grallaria rufula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 2000

Andean Motmot - Motmot aequatorialis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/200 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Buff-tailed Coronets - Boissonneaua flavescens
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/100 at f/9, ISO 1600, fill flash