Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Post #174 - An epic day of bike-birding in my home San Mateo County!

When Alvaro 'Gull Whisperer' Jaramillo found an adult Slaty-backed Gull - an Asian species which wanders to the lower 48 states in small number each year - in Half Moon Bay on January 14th, he immediately texted me in case I wanted to put my bike into motion to pursue it. I received his alert at 1:15pm, promptly stood from my desk chair, did a bit of stretching and a few unweighed squats, and realized I didn't have the juice to ride for the bird that afternoon. It was a tough concession, but I slated a better-rested chase the following morning.

Slaty-backed Gull range

I left my San Mateo apartment at 7:15am, covered the 15 miles and 1,000 vertical feet over Highway 92, and rolled onto the Venice bluffs at 8:25am where several birders were already assembled. Initial scans of several hundred gulls revealed no Slaty suggestions, but Chris Hayward and Malia DeFelice arrived on bikes and redirected efforts to a lower beach vantage from which they'd observed the bird the previous afternoon. Sifting through a greater number of gulls we couldn't see from the bluff, Chris picked the sought Slaty-backed from the flock. Marginally darker than nearby Western Gulls (none in photo), the streaked head, comparatively smaller beak, and pot-bellied profile helped make the ID.

Slaty-backed Gull - Bay Area bike bird #301 (Digiscope)

The gull handled, I mulled the possibility of continuing south to Pescadero to look for would-be-Bay-Area-bike-birds Red-naped Sapsucker and Prairie Warbler, an ambitious extension which would swell my morning jaunt (30 miles) into a full-day undertaking (68 miles). My legs felt good during my outgoing ascent of Highway 92, and I knew I'd have to survive a return/second climb whether I went directly home or extended south. The decision therefore hung on wind, a quick check of the weather revealing a weak southern flow building through the afternoon. That would be perfect as I'd get an unusual afternoon push as I returned north later in the day. All the variables aligning, I was off to Pescadero.

Perfect riding conditions

Chris and Malia joined me in Pescadero after swapping bikes for a car, and the three of us absorbed Aaron Maizlish as we scoured the roadside thicket the Prairie Warbler had frequented since its discovery ten days earlier. Unable to find that bird and suffering a depressing lack of activity, Chris and I ditched the other two while we explored the creek for the Red-breasted Sapsucker. That bird showed with the minimal effort Chris promised, our Picidae quarry revealing itself after an easy fifteen-minute search.

Red-naped Sapsucker - Bay Area bike bird #302 (Digi-binoc'd)
The red back is a phone artifact.

Activity had increased while Chris and I were dealing the with Sapsucker, and our reunited foursome persevered to achieve distant but diagnostic views of the sought Prairie Warbler (Bay Area bike bird #303). When a closer encounter wasn't afforded after an additional 20 minutes, we ducked into town to try for a continuing Orchard Oriole. Unlike the wary warbler, the obliging oriole materialized for great views just after we arrived.

Orchard Oriole (Digi-binoc'd)

When a final try for better views and photos of the warbler failed, I began the two-and-a-half-hour ride home. The wind didn't aid me as much as I'd hoped, but high clouds kept the sun off me and held temperatures in the mid-50s. My afternoon ascent of Highway 92 was rough, but the day's efforts didn't seem outrageous against some really nice birds!

Map with elevation profile at top right

To summarize

Slaty-backed Gull: Bay Area bike bird #301, San Mateo bike bird #265

Red-naped Sapsucker: Bay Area bike bird #302, San Mateo bike bird #266

Prairie Warbler: Bay Area bike bird #303, San Mateo bike bird #267

Orchard Oriole: San Mateo bike bird #268 (I'd seen one in SF previously)

The kicker? The gull and warbler were new for my CA list, sorry as it is. So yeah, January 14th will go down as an amazing day of bike birding! 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Post #173 - My Bay Area bike list reaches 300 species!

Happy 2020! Glad you've returned for another year of The Speckled Hatchback, the blog's fifth! I'm sorry for the month since my last post, but I should be back on track after returning from Thailand, a wonderful country and fantastic birding destination which I will feature in future posts. For now, I'll stick to the Bay Area, but only after I mention three quick asides.

1) I have put together a gallery of my favorite photos from 2019 to match those from previous years. This years's collection features shots from CA, NY, AL, New Zealand, Colombia, and Thailand. Here's a preview....

Blue Pitta from Thailand
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/100 at f/5, ISO 3200, tripod

2) I would like to shine attention on John Patten Moss, the entertaining Georgia twenty-something who has recently embarked upon his unicycle Big Year from Washington State. His plan is super ambitious, and I encourage you to have a look his blog, updated weekly. I will post more about his CA route as he approaches The Golden State, and I am sure John would appreciate housing offers from those who can manage it. I'm hoping to intersect him at some point, and I'll be sure to offer a write-up of that anticipated rendezvous when it happens.

Photo from this article

3) If you're mapping out your birding year, be advised there is still space on the Colombia birding extravaganza I'm running for Alvaro's Adventures. It will run June 20 to July 2, and - with two additional days this year - we should exceed the 375 species we found last year.

Colombia has tanagers, antpittas, and hummingbirds galore!

OK, on with the bike-birding show! As I finished 2019 with 299 species on my Bay Area bike list, I was curious to see what yet-unobserved species would surface as 2020 arrived. I missed some potentials while I was in Thailand - notably Scarlet Tanager at the SF Zoo - but Ken Moy's discovery of a usually-more-eastern Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park on January 6th lent intrigue just as I returned. Exhaustion and responsibility prevented me from pursuing the bird immediately, but it stuck around until the 11th when I observed it in the same fruiting tree it had frequented for the previous six days. Though unable to obtain a photo during my brief encounter, I was hella stoked to achieve 300 species after pedaling nearly 5,000 bird-motivated miles since moving to the Bay Area in May of 2017. Granted, an amassed list of 300 birds isn't good for much, but it's been a ton of healthy fun exploring the Bay Area as I inched towards that plateau. I'm encouraged to explore more and farther afield, and I'm excited to discover what additional species will surface along the way!

My grosbeak pursuit. I also added Wrentit
 in the Presidio for SF bike bird #191.

This seems the perfect occasion to remind everyone of the achievements of some other notable California bike-birders. Most impressive are Mark Kudrav and Jim Royer who've each observed 300+ bike-based species in California a single year, Jim with 318 in 2010 and Mark with 326 in 2013. Their's was remarkable dedication, and I am in awe of the efforts they put forth during their respective campaigns. They and folks like Josiah Clark, Rob Furrow, and Chris O'Connell are California bike-birding pioneers, and we are fortunate their examples have inspired so many, me included. I am particularly excited by the number of Bay Area birders who have more recently taken up the bicycle. I regularly intersect burgeoning bike-birder Joshua Stacey, and Chris Hayward and Malia DeFelice increasingly patrol the Half Moon Bay beachfront from rolling perches. Most exciting is seeing the younger generation of Oscar Moss and Jonah Benningfield wheeling around!

Jonah and Oscar exploring SF

All of this is to say that California - and specifically the Bay Area - feels the nation's bike-birding capital at this moment. Climate, topography, bicycle infrastructure, and species diversity certainly encourage the pursuit, but it's ultimately up to adventurous individuals to seize on those facilitating circumstances. Bike-birders are still a small group, but I hope our ranks will continue to swell through 2020. It'll be great when John Patten Moss wheels through our state, so hopefully we can give him the welcome he deserves when he arrives! I'll try to keep everyone posted as that day approaches. Cheers!