Thursday, October 29, 2020

Post #185 - San Francisco Bike Birding

Fall migration is slowing down, but there this year's iteration brought loads of interesting birds to the Bay Area. Several of those appeared in San Francisco between October 8 and 12, and I'll use this post to highlight three trips I made to the city in that window. Fall is usually great weather around here, so its a fun time to be on the bike!

San Francisco, October 8
This afternoon sprint targeted three species: Long-billed Dowitcher (LBDO) and Pectoral Sandpiper (PESA) at Yosemite Slough on the bayshore and Philadelphia Vireo (PHVI) at Lake Merced. The two shorebirds aren't rare in the Bay Area, the dowitcher in particular, but there's next to no habitat for them in the city; hence they're good San Francisco County birds. Contrarily, the vireo is an excellent find anywhere in California, examples often found in urban parks which receive lots of coverage. 

The vireo was the most exciting bird of the three, but I prioritized the two shorebirds since they'd occupied the same small pond for 4-5 consecutive days and would be easy to find, assuming they were present. The continuing group of 7 LBDOs was exactly as advertised when I reached Yosemite Slough (SF Bike Bird #225), but additional scanning over the next 30 minutes failed to reveal the PESA. Conceding that bird, I crossed the city for the PHVI but was unable to find it with remaining daylight. Originally found in the morning, it was last seen when I departed San Mateo at 2:30pm. Had I pursued it first, I would have spent remaining the remainder of the afternoon searching for it, failed to reach Yosemite Slough, and missed the LBDO as well. So, one outta three.....

San Francisco, October 8
Rode hella fast, so loop took 2.5 hours

San Francisco, October 9
The stealthy vireo was seen for a second morning, so I returned to Lake Merced that afternoon. The bird wasn't around when I arrived but surfaced an hour later. I don't usually drag my 7D2 and 100-400 on top of my binoculars, scope, tripod, and biking supplies, but I prioritized the camera+lens over the scope+tripod for this passerine pursuit, a wise decision given how cooperative the bird was.

Philadelphia Vireo

The vireo added as SF Bike Bird #226, I had the daylight to continue north to Sutro where I added a continuing Brewer's Sparrow as SF Bike Bird #227. Two for one - money!

Brewer's Sparrow

San Francisco, October 9
1 hour 20 mins each way

San Francisco, October 12
With Tropical Kingbird (TRKI) and Red Phalarope (REPH) reported from Lake Merced on the previous afternoon, I shuffled my schedule and made a morning run for that pair. I struck out on both, but ended up with three consolation prizes. The first was an overhead flock of Cackling Geese (CACG) for SF Bike Bird #228. The next was a completely unexpected Green-tailed Towhee (GTTO) which I found while looking for the TRKI. I was able to snap a quick digi-binoc of the GTTO (SF Bike Bird #229) before it vanished. While a number of us worked to relocated the towhee, Aaron Maizlish pointed out a Blackpoll Warbler (BLWA) for SF Bike Bird #230. I took off before the towhee was refound, but it did surface for many others that afternoon and through the following day. Frustratingly, the REPH was also seen later in the day, so I should have looked harder for that bird while I was there. Given that the towhee was a better bird than either TRKI or REPH, I chalked the morning up as a big win. I'd seen REPH in SF waters on pelagic trips, and I'm sure I'll get one by bike in SF eventually.

Digi-binoc shots of Green-tailed Towhee and Blackpoll Warbler.
Had the scope to look for REPH, so no real camera......

San Francisco, October 12
1 hour each way

OK, that's it for this installment! Cheers!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Post #184 - Solano County Photography

With international travel shut down and domestic travel dissuaded in the COVID age, I've explored more of the Bay Area in 2020 than in previous years. Much of my wandering has been on my bike, but I have ventured farther afield in the car. I'd not, for example, birded in Solano County prior to March, and I've had fun exploring that southern end of that area in the intervening months. Lagoon Valley outside Vacaville has proven particularly productive (eBird hotspot), and I'm going to use this post to share a few photos I recently captured at the park. It's worth noting Lagoon Valley barely escaped the gigantic LNU Fire which roared through nearby Vacaville in August; the fire approached the park on two sides but ultimately spared it. 

When I visited Lagoon Valley for the first time, on April 26th, the central lake was full of water and hosted a nice variety of waterfowl. It offered excellent birding but didn't strike me that it would be particularly good for photography (or at least no better than spots closer to home). Fast forward to September 8th; I returned to the park to find the lake almost empty, a giant mud puddle all that remained. A variety of shorebirds patrolled the shoreline, and I kicked myself for bringing the dog and leaving the camera. Birding with him isn't an issue, but I cannot do proper photography with him in tow. 

The evaporated lake at Lagoon Valley.
The backing hillsides were incinerated by the LNU fire.

I thought the evaporated lakebed had so much photographic potential that I returned the following day, with camera and without Beagle. I always try to arrive at a shoot before sunrise because it allows me to ready my gear, survey the situation, and get into position ahead of the best light. Among Killdeer, Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Least Sandpipers, I decided to focus on a group of five Pectoral Sandpipers. It took a bit of cat and mouse, but my crawling earned the quintet's trust through the next 90 minutes. 

I was shooting straight west -- as is best in the early morning -- and some thin forest fire smoke filtered the sun behind me to the east. Besides evening out the exposure and helping to preserved detail in the lightest parts of the subject, the smoke imparted the surroundings with some really unique colors.

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Without much action/behavior to motivate this next shot, I went with a wide crop to emphasize the pastel surroundings. I think the composition imparts the frame with a pensive feel, the bird pausing to contemplate his next move as I captured him. I love these small-in-frame-type images where I can use the camera to 'paint' the surroundings.

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

I wish I could see at least one foot in the next shot. The problem was that the birds wouldn't give me eye contact while they were feeding, so I had to settle for a static frame where the feet were obscured by mud. Without eye contact, the frame goes in the trash!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

While I was pursuing the Pecs, this guy cruised through in the background. Thankfully, I was able to reposition for a clear shot! These lighting conditions were unlike anything I'd previously experienced.

Great Egret - Ardea alba
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800

The adult Black-necked Stilts were very wary of me, but this juvenile was willing to come pretty close to me. I didn't notice the flies until I returned home and put the images into the computer - bonus!

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

I did notice the flies in this last shot and did everything I could to get maximize their presence in the frame. I had to crawl into some hella nasty stuff, but I think I came out with a really unique shot.

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

So yeah, this was a really productive morning of photography. I'm usually hoping to get one keeper frame per outing, so I was stoked to get these five and a few others. I'm hoping to make it back to Lagoon Valley sometime this fall. I'd particularly like to capture some Long-billed Dowitchers as that species is a weak spot in my shorebird collection at the moment.

The best part of Lagoon Valley?  There's a hose in the parking lot! I got some funny looks as I stripped down to my boxers and cleaned up, but it was totally worth it given these frames. Thanks to the kind soul who snapped this 'before' pic.....

Mud didn't smell as bad as it 
looked. Nice and cool though....

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Post #183 - Fall Bay Area Bike-birding Update

Damn, my recent blogging has been shameful! I apologize for the lack of content, and I hope at least a few readers can forgive my extended neglect. I'm going to try to rekindle the blog as shorter days approach, so hopefully some will find refuge in my silly posts these next few months. They're going to be interesting, to say the least..... 

I wrote in June that I'd established a torrid bike-birding pace through the first half of this year, and I've continued that momentum through to fall. To date, I've amassed 2,251 miles, the equivalent to driving from San Francisco to Indianapolis. I biked 2,086 miles in 2019 and 2,001 in 2018, so this year represents a significant increase. Stoked cuz though miles allow me more pizza, donuts, and ice cream.

2,251 miles from San Francisco to Indianapolis

My cumulative Bay Area Bike List is an ongoing project (obsession?), so I'll use this eBird snap to show the last five birds I've added. I'll say about a few words about the circumstances of each below.

#317 Northern Parula, Fort Mason, San Francisco County, June 30th
Northern Parula (NOPA) was not the bird I set out to find on this day. I was initially pursuing Sooty Shearwater (SOSH) and American White Pelican (AWPE) for the San Francisco County subset of my bike list, but this bird was reported at Fort Mason while I was birding at Chrissy Field, just two miles away. Folding my failed pelican search, I powered towards the parula and found it without much effort. Sadly, the bird was too fast for my lackluster digi-binoc skills.

Incidentally, I had Sooty Shearwater on my regular (i.e. petroleum powered) SF list from Alvaro's Adventures pelagic trips, so I was trying redeem that "dirty" bird. I failed on JUne 30th but succeeded a few weeks later, on August 13. I finally got the pelican on September 24, after 3 misses.

My ride Northern Parula (NOPA) on June 30th
Red = missed, Green = Found

#318 Sabine's Gull, Sunnyvale Water Treatment Plant, Santa Clara County, September 9
This bird was present for two days before I had the time to pursue it on the third. There were 4 other would-be Santa Clara bike birds in the same area, so this outing had tons of potential. My ride unfolded under apocalyptic conditions, forest fires smoke blanketing the Bay Area, but I wasn't affected because most of the soot and ash stayed in the upper atmosphere. Despite the conditions, I found all 5 of my targets: Sabine's Gull, Brandt's Cormorant, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Vaux's Swift, and Bank Swallow. The kicker? I also found a Purple Martin on the ride home to give me 6 county Santa Clara bike birds on one 54-mile swing. Talk about efficiency!

Sabine's Gull (left) and 2 Brandt's Cormorants (right, together)

Birding the apocalypse

My ride for Sabine's Gull (and Santa Clara others) on September 9th

#319 Lark Bunting, Pier 94, San Francisco County, September 14
This bird was found in the morning, but I couldn't chase it until later in the afternoon. It was a quick sprint once I departed, and the bird showed within 10 minutes of my arrival. I swung through Yosemite Slough to look for Pectoral Sandpiper (PESA, map) on the way home, but that was not to be. 70 minutes up, 80 minutes home with the extra stop - easy! Interestingly, another LABU showed at my Coyote Point patch two days later, so that was a nice San Mateo addition in the wake of the SF individual. I wasn't able to get a photo of the SF bird, so here's a digi-binoc of the Coyote Point bird.

Lark Bunting

My September 14 ride for Lark Bunting

#320 Sage Thrasher (Sept 30) and #321 Brewer's Sparrow (Oct 5), Coyote Point Park, San Mateo County
Both of these birds were found in the course of general birding at my Coyote Point Patch. The thrasher was a particular surprise because the bird wasn't remotely on my radar given how infrequently it visits the Bay Area. I was just scanning bushes when the bird appeared in my view, and I nearly fell off my bike when I realized what it was. One other birder who I didn't recognize arrived 30 mins after I posted, but the bird didn't stick overnight. Crushed it with the digi-scope on the first day though!

Sage Thrasher from Coyote Point

A week later, the Brewer's Sparrow materialized from a flock which included its White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Lincoln's, Song, and Clay-colored relatives. The bird wouldn't allow close approach, but I was able to grab a couple of crappy digi-bin shots from a distance. Others had been reporting the Brewer's to eBird before I observed it - albeit without my knowledge - so I can't claim to have found this bird. Regardless, it was pretty exciting in the moment. This was a bird I knew I'd get at some point, so it was nice to intersect it so close to home.

Digi-binoc record of Brewer's Sparrow at Coyote Point

Coyote Point convenience. This is my usual route. Takes 60-90 mins most days.

That's it for this installment! I notched an additional bird (#322) in the two days it took me to put this together, but I'll hang onto that story for another post. 

Stay safe out there.....