Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Post #187 - Recent Bay Area Biking - Punctural Sandpiper and Pacific Golden-Puncture

Despite the fact we didn't have a single Pectoral Sandpiper (PESA) in San Mateo County this fall (according to eBird anyway), the species made strong showings in neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties. Don Edwards NWR in Alviso was historically productive; 60-plus birds were recorded through the first week in October, and at least 30 remained on October 13 when they were joined by at least one Pacific Golden-Plover (PGPL). PESA numbers eroded through the next week, but a handful remained through the 21st, as did the PGPL. I'd watched daily reports of both species roll in, and I was finally able to ride for them on the morning of October 22nd. 

The first hour of my pursuit ride unfolded without incident, but I skidded off Middleton Road in Atherton when a metal rod punctured my rear tire. No big deal; I swapped in a new tube an continued after a 13 minute delay (yeah, I timed it). 

Flat tire #1 - no doubt!

I hadn't covered another two miles before that replacement exploded on a patch of rough road. My subsequent examination revealed the tube had ruptured at the point of valve attachment, a sure sign of an inherent defect. Inconvenient? Of course. Terminal? Hell no! I swapped in a thrice-patched old tube and continued to Alviso after a 15 minute delay. I found a pair of PESAs and a single PGPL shortly after reaching Don Edwards, but all three birds were too far away for photos, especially looking into the morning sun. Fortunately, the PGPL took flight in the next few minutes and landed closer to the road in more appropriate light. I didn't lug the real camera, so I had to settle for a digiscope image.

Pacific Golden-Plover
Santa Clara bike bird #213 (PESA was #212)

The two shorebirds bagged, I spent another hour doing some general birding before turning northwest and heading for home. Like the southeastern leg, the return leg was uneventful until I reached Atherton, my rear tire going flat for a third time. I was barely 100 yards from where I suffered the first puncture! Depleted of intact tubes, I stripped out the thrice-patched tube and patched it a fourth time while standing on the side of the road. Thankfully it held, and I made it home without additional delay.

Flat tire #3 - also no doubt!

I'd only had 3 or 4 flats across 3.5 years of Bay Area bike-birding (6,000-plus miles), so an outing like this was unexpected (and probably overdue). They only cost me time, but I'd like to avoid similar insults moving forward.

My flat-plagued ride to Alviso on October 22

And since my one bird photo in this post was crap, I'll leave you with a proper photo of a Pacific Golden-Plover. I observed this beautiful juvenile in Pillar Point Harbor during my 2014 bicycle Big Year. Probably the best photo I took across 17,830 miles!

Pacific Golden-Plover
Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens on EOS 7D
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Post #186 - Rusty Blackbird Spotlight

When an out-of-range Rusty Blackbird (RUBL) was found at the southern end of my home San Mateo County (California) on October 27th, I faced mutually-exclusive choices for the morning of the 28th.

Option #1 was to pursue the bird by bike. The wandering individual was the first RUBL to stray into biking range since I moved to San Mateo in May of 2017, and the species would be a fantastic addition to my cherished Bay Area Bike List (324 species to date). With over 3,500 feet of climbing spread across 74 round-trip miles, the ride would be an exhausting undertaking and consume an entire day.

Option #2 was to pursue the bird by car so I could photograph it. RUBL would be a new species for my photo collection, and the folks who observed the bird on the 27th noted that it was very approachable. My 600mm lens is too valuable and heavy to carry on the bike; even if I was willing and able to ride with it, then I'd to need to leave at 3am to reach the the bird by sunrise. So yeah, I'd drive if I opted for photography.

Decision, decisions.....bike or photograph?

Rusty Blackbird range (left) and hypothetical ride (ride)
Map adapted from this informative website

Extended hemming and hawing aside, the photos I captured were better than anything I imagined. I could not have asked for more from this winter plumage female, and I hope the color in these frame impresses the benefits of getting into shooting position ahead of sunrise. By the time the sun reached the optimal angle 45 mins after that event, the bird was totally cool with my presence. My amphibious belly-crawl through the creek was cold and nasty, but that's what it took to create the smooth, golden surrounds. As an aside, the bird was flushed by a Peregrine at 9:15am. It was not observed again, by me or anyone else. I would not have arrived in time to see it had I been on the bike. #carforthewin, this time anyway.

***click on the images for larger views***

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Splash is from a failed stab as a small fish

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
I think she found this fish dead on the edge of creek

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Posterior perspective exaggerates the color on the layered feathers

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 1000
Love that yellow iris!

Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 1000
My favorite of the bunch. Gotta have eye contact!

These results are some of my 2020 favorites, particularly the last two. I hadn't appreciated how beautiful this species is before this encounter, so I was hella stoked to capture images which show the female so well. Most hardcore bird photographers focus on flashier subjects like waterfowl, birds of prey, and warblers, but I've always been happy to pour time and effort into species which others ignore (shorebirds, sparrows, e.g.). I guess that's my birding background coming through the camera.

On an important conservation note, Rusty Blackbird has suffered precipitous declines in the last half-century, and current estimates suggest the species persists at 10 to 15 percent of historical levels. Unlike many other blackbirds which thrive in standard-issue reeds, agricultural areas, and/or suburban environments, Rusties specifically seek the interface between woodlands and marshes. Boreal bogs in the undeveloped Canadian wilds present ample habitat during the summer breeding season, but continued development in the eastern half of the lower 48 states has hugely degraded their winter options. Rusty Blackbird isn't as iconic as some other threatened or endangered birds, and I think it's comparatively nondescript appearance has allowed many to overlook or ignore the declines the species has suffered. Unfortunately, appearances matter as much for birds as they do for people.

For those interested in learning a bit more about Rusty Blackbird biology and conservation, I offer the following links:


Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
I really like the round body and spindly legs.

Until next time, cheers!