Sunday, December 26, 2021

Post #210 - An incredible encounter with Barred Owl

Greetings from the Southern Hemisphere! Sonia and I are eighteen days into our Chile vacation, and I’ll use our flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas (Patagonia) as an opportunity to crank out a final blog entry for 2021. Though I’ll write about this trip when I’m back in the US, I’ll summon previous inspiration for this abbreviated installment.

I last saw my Philadelphia-based family in November of 2019, the pandemic and other commitments denying me contact for nearly two years, so Sonia and I headed east for two weeks at the end of October. We spent five days at my parents’ house and used another nine to road trip through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. While Sonia reunited with a long-time friend in Boston, I headed north for a day of birding on the New Hampshire Coast, an area I hadn’t visited since January 1, 2014 (the first day of my bicycle Big Year). Here’s my ‘Biking for Birds’ blog entry from that kick-off. Damn it was cold!

Besides nostalgia, my recent New Hampshire brush gave me an wonderful window to Barred Owl, a species I hadn’t seen since Sonia and I moved to California in 2015. My bladder pushed to its limit while I was birding in Rockingham County, I ducked into wooded patch to relieve myself. I'd barely entered the trees when a large bird took unexpected flight from ten feet above my head. The commotion scared the hell out of me, but I fought-off premature evacuation as the startled owl fled. I took care of bathroom business, walked deeper into the woods, found the owl perched on an exposed branch, and raced back to the car to grab my camera.

The bird was incredibly trusting as I crept closer, and I was able to capture a bunch of frames as the arboreal noble watched curiously. The blur at the top and bottom of the frame in the first shot is deliberate; it was created by shooting through a thin veil of leaves which separated me from the subject. I think it lends a sense of secrecy, like I’m spying on the bird in its forested surrounds. 

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS R5

1/200 at f/4, ISO 3200

I don’t think I’m a particularly creative bird photographer, my work being mostly technical/editorial, so it was fun to try something different with this cooperative subject. How cooperative? Just check out this second shot. While Image Stabilization reduced motion blur, I also braced myself against a tree to further ensure a sharp result with the slow shutter.

Barred Owl - Strix varia

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS R5

1/80 at f/4, ISO 1600

I left the owl snoozing after twenty minutes, the photos an enduring memorial of an amazing intersection. Take a leak; find an owl. Doesn’t get much better. 

Interestingly, the New England leaves changed color very late this year; some to whom I spoke suggested that the delay was caused heavy summer rains. Regardless, you can see this patch of New Hampshire woods was still completely — and unusually — green at this late-October juncture.

Cheers for now!

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Post #209 - A few photos from Coastal Texas

As per my last post, Sonia and I have rented our Bay Area apartment and will be traveling for the next ten months. We're currently staying with my father-in-law in Riverside County in Southern California, and we leave for a month in Chile starting on Wednesday, December 8th. I'll blog as our adventure unfolds, but I'm going to dip into the past for this post.

A few weeks ago, in early-November, I served as a guide at the Rio Grande Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas for the sixth time in seven years, the 2020 installment cancelled because of the pandemic. I'm responsible for leading morning field trips on each of the five festival days, but I have the afternoons to explore the vendor fair, go birding with other guides, or sneak off for photography. I had some great luck with the camera on South Padre Island, and I'll use this post to share those results with you.

Let's start with this Greater Yellowlegs. I regularly see these birds around the Bay Area and beyond, but they're always too far away or in situations/settings which won't yield pretty pictures. I haven't had a decent opportunity at this bird since I moved out of Massachusetts at the end of 2013, so I was hella stoked when this cooperative individual strode through my viewfinder while I was belly-crawling on tidal flats. #crushed!

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/6400 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Greater Yellowlegs - Tringa melanoleuca
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

I've done better with Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin over the years, but I'm happy to add these two frames to my collection. I particularly like the curious head tilt in the first and the exaggerated bokeh (blur) in the second.

Ruddy Turnstone - Arenaria interpres
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

As much as I love shooting shorebirds, this White Ibis stole the show because I'd never had a decent photographic crack at the species. This example favored water that was 6 to 8 inches deep, so I had to be very careful to keep my lens dry as I crawled/floated/maneuvered into shooting position between the bird and the setting sun. The ruffled feathers in the first shot result from breeze blowing across the bird's left side. I don't know the identity of the prey in the second shot, but it was thrashing around like a worm or small eel.

White Ibis - Eudocimus albus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 640

White Ibis - Eudocimus albus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

And lastly, we have this Piping Plover. I don't waste time taking pictures which include man-made stuff -- feeders, metal perches, roads, etc -- because it's lazy photography, but I make exceptions for banded birds because 1) reporting the band to this website helps researchers and 2) it's fun to learn the bird's story. The leg tag might be difficult to read in this wide composition (chosen for dramatic/creative effect), but it's sufficient to identify the bird as 48F. The banding folks sent me a certificate of appreciation for my submission, and I've added it to my running collection as displayed on my photo website. Hopefully, I'll find and photograph more banded birds in the future!

Piping Plover - Charadrius melodus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS R5
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

It took several hours on my belly to capture all these frames, but the water was so warm that a pair of ratty old short was all the clothing I needed. I did catch a few birders watching me through their binoculars and scopes while I was crawling around, so I hope like hell that they've erased the image of my pasty white body from their memories! 

Cheers for now!

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Post #208 - My final Bay Area bike chase and big plans for the future.......

No, I'm not retiring from the glory-sport that is bike-birding, but I will be vacating the Bay Area for the next 10 months. Airbnb is permitting Sonia to work remotely through next September, and Tropical Birding will fly me from wherever I am to wherever my tours run. So, with that flexibility, we've decided to rent our apartment and hit the road! We're going to Chile for all of December, and we're planning to spend the remaining winter in CA, NV, AZ, and NM once we've returned. We've not visited OK or AR, so we'll hit those states en route towards LA, hopefully in early-April. From the bayou, we'll follow the Mississippi River north through May. We'll explore Ontario and Quebec in June and July, and we're planning on camping in Norway, Finland, and Sweden in August before returning to the US, picking-up the car in Philly, and recrossing the country in September. Throw my tour schedule (TX, FL, NC, MA, WY, Newfoundland) on top of that plan, and it's going to be a very hectic year. I'm optimistic we'll have room for my bicycle on the US and Canadian legs, but there should be plenty of blog material regardless!

Given the necessary preparations ahead of our departure, bike-birding has recently been curtailed. I did, however, put a pause on planning to pursue a Gray Catbird (GRCA) which was found in the San Francisco Botanical Garden on November 1st. I'd missed the mostly-Eastern species (range map below) on two different occasions -- once in San Francisco's Presidio in September of 2018 and again Half Moon Bay in August of 2019 -- so I was keen to avoid a third strike when I mounted up on the morning of November 4th.

The 19.5-mile ride to the Golden Gate Park was painless (~85 mins). Half-a-dozen birders hadn't observed the bird by my arrival, so I settled into the search for the next hour. And then another. And then another. Nancy Palmer caught a glimpse of something promising as the fourth hour arrived, but it took another 30 minutes before a clearer view confirmed her initial suspicion, the bird finally perching in the open for all to see. It was a great 'get' given that I was ready to fold the search five minutes earlier!

Gray Catbird - Bay Area bike bird #343 (SF bike bird #252)

39 round-trip miles

The ride avenged my previous misses on this species and wrapped-up my Bay Area biking with a savory victory. I'll miss my adopted home these next ten months, but I know there will be plenty of biking and birding when we return next fall.

Here are some numbers since we moved to San Mateo in May of 2017.

2017: ~700 (estimate since I didn't keep track or know how obsessive I'd become)
2018: 2,001 miles
2019: 2,086 miles
2020: 2,940 miles
2021: 2,080 miles
Total; ~9,800 miles

Species totals by county:
San Mateo            292    (408 checklists)
San Francisco       252    (137 checklists)
Santa Clara           229    (71 checklists)
Alameda               194    (29 checklists)
Santa Cruz            117    (17 checklists, all on same overnight swing)
Marin                    138    (11 checklists spread across six visits, mostly Rodeo Lagoon)
Monterey               95     (6 checklists, all on one morning as part of 5-day trip)
Stanislaus              73     (3 checklists, all on one day as part of 5-day trip)
San Benito             62     (6 checklist across an afternoon and morning as part of 5-day trip)
San Joaquin           59     (4 checklists across one summer morning as part of 5-day trip)
Contra Costa          51    (4 checklists, all on one summer afternoon as part of 5-day trip)
1,562 county ticks representing 343 species

***These totals include widespread and ABA-countable introduced species like European Starling and Eurasian Collared-Dove but not Red-masked Parakeet (observed in SF), Mute Swan (the pets at SF palace of fine arts), Mitred Parakeet (observed in Palo Alto), Northern Red Bishop (observed in SF), Chilean Flamingo (observed in Alameda), and so so.

Particularly notable birds:
Tufted Duck (SM)
Broad-billed Hummingbird (SF)
Black Rail (heard-only in SC)
Hudsonian Godwit (SM)
Bar-tailed Godwit (SM, Ala)
Ruff (SM, SC)
Rock Sandpiper (SF)
Parakeet Auklet (SF)
Sabine's Gull (SF, SC)
Slaty-backed Gull (SM)
Laysan Albatross (SM)
Red-footed Booby (SM, SF)
Northern Gannet (SM)
California Condor (SB)
Yellow-green Vireo (SF)
Dusky Warbler (SM)
Brown Thrasher (SF)
LeConte's Sparrow (SM)
27 New World warblers including Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Prairie, Yellow-throated, Lucy's, Worm-eating, and Ovenbird.

OK, enough. More from the road in the near future. Cheers!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Post #207 - A few recent photos

I've really struggled with the camera this calendar year. The closure of my local photo spot for major construction has been a crushing blow, and I've been reticent to travel for personal purposes during the pandemic (though that's about to change - big time). I have done some traveling while guiding for Tropical Birding, but it's virtually impossible to do my own shooting while I'm pointing out birds to clients or helping them take their own pictures. That said, I have managed a handful of decent frames around the Bay Area in recent months, and I'll use this post to present them and say a few words about each. 

First up is this Snowy Egret. I had way too much lens when this subject sauntered into my view on the SF bayshore, so a tight headshot was the best I could hope for given my proximity. The bird was very focused on a school of baitfish, but a quick whistle was enough to get it to look up for a brief moment. I'm a huge fan of the feather detail which these close-cropped frames reveal, and I find that it easy to connect with the subject when peripheral distraction is minimized, the yellow eye and lores attention-grabbing in this instance. I like this shot be because it's an uncommon look at a common bird.

NOTE: I sold my Canon 1DX Mark II and have been relying on my 7D Mark II while I raise funds to buy the mirrorless R5. It's been nice to dust off this older body and see what it can do! 

Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 400

Next up is this Golden-crowned Sparrow which I intersected while birding outside San Jose. I rarely bother carrying the camera while I'm birding because I'm too focused on bird-finding and identification to worry about taking artistic photos, but I was stoked to have my walk-around rig with me when I spotted this subject at Vasona County Park. High overcast minimized midday shadows, and I consciously positioned the bird against some distant, low-hanging branches to suggest the Autumn season at the moment of capture. Sparrows don't get much photographic love, particularly in their winter plumage, so I was really happy with this colorful image of an under-appreciated species. 

Golden-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia atricapilla
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/800 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Moving right along, I'll offer this Pomarine Jaeger, an oceanic species which spends the vast majority of its life many miles from land. We regularly intersect 'Poms' on pelagic trips, but those encounters are usually transient, the powerful fliers rocketing by the boat at high speed. It was therefore very unusual that this representative spent a week frequenting a public beach in Half Moon Bay. The bird flew around a good deal on my visit but eventually put down on the sand and allowed close approach. Unfortunately, the beach was covered with ugly-ass seaweed, so I decided to go with a headshot to keep the frame clean. I never imagined I'd be so close to this striking species. The light was super muted (see next photo for explanation why), but I like how that rendered the frame more contrasty than colorful.

Pomarine Jaeger - Stercorarius pomarinus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Now for the best one! Snowy Plovers love to hunker in human footprints along the edges of the dunes, a behavior which doesn't lend to striking/memorable photographs, but circumstances suggested that I get creative when this incredible opportunity presented post-jaeger. While some lazy, fake-ass photographers have taken to swapping-in prefabricated backgrounds instead of working to obtain a real result, this one is totally legit, it generated as the setting sun shone through forest fire smoke which had drifted onto the Pacific. Though I was hundreds of miles from the inferno, the scene was a striking reminder of the challenges California will continue to face as the impacts of climate change compound. This is a bird photograph, but it's the surrounding negative space (beach and sky) which renders the frame memorable.

Snowy Plover - Charadrius nivosus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Cheers for now!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Post #206 - The bike giveth, the bike taketh away.......

Williamson's Sapsucker (WISA) is common in California's Sierras but makes only rare appearances at lower, coastal elevations; between May of 2017 and September of 2021, eBird shows just three records from the Bay Area (blue pins on right map). All were single-observer encounters with flying/transient birds, so there was zero opportunity to initiate a pursuit in each instance. Given that scarcity and pattern, I was curious when Carter Gasiorowski reported a beautiful male at Vasona Park in Santa Clara County on October 4th (orange pin on right map). When the bird frequented the same small grove of trees through that day and the next, I decided to ride for it on the morning of the 6th. At 72 round-trip miles, it promised to be an exhausting undertaking.

WISA range (left) and Bay Area sightings 2017-2021 (right)
Map adapted from All About Birds

I departed San Mateo at 7:15am, battled heavy traffic and uncooperative lights south to Redwood City, and reached Palo Alto before joining Foothill Expressway and rounding the outskirts of San Jose. Reaching the park at 9:55, I intersected a dozen disappointed birders and photographers, the sapsucker absent all morning. Disregarding their dejection, I scoured the favored grove and surrounding with hopes of a midday reveal. No sapsucker in evidence and my stomach begging for sustenance by 1pm, I folded my search, grabbed a quick lunch, and started home. I assumed that task would consume three-plus hours given the northwest headwind which had built through the day, but I completed the inbound leg in the same 2 hours and 40 minutes which the outgoing required. Checking my phone after showering, I learned the WISA had shown for several observers at 3:30pm. Ugh - at least it was a nice day for a ride.

75 miles including a detour for Vesper Sparrow in San Carlos

That miss behind me, I turned my attention to the Ovenbird which Kaia Colestock and Elias Elias found at Salesforce Park on October 11th. Ovenbird is an eastern species which makes occasional cameos in California, usually during fall migration, but I'd not seen one anywhere in the state since moving from Boston in April of 2015 (6+ years). 

Ovenbird range

Huge northwest wind prevented a pursuit on the bird's discovery day, but positive reports on the 12th coupled with calm conditions to suggest a pursuit on that second afternoon. I'd knew nothing of the urban oasis when I arrived after an 85-minute ride, but it turned out to be a pretty neat place. I had no idea it was built on top of a transit center. It's not everyday I get in an elevator to go birding!

Salesforce Park in downtown SF

There was zero drama on this day; a horde of observers pointed me towards the Ovenbird five minutes after I arrived. It was very approachable/cooperative, and I was able to snap a serviceable digi-binoc pic as the bird poked about the understory. 

Ovenbird - Bay Area Bike Bird #342 (SF #251)

OK - remember the Williamson's Sapsucker from above? Well, it was seen on seven consecutive days following my failed attempt. Non-birding responsibilities and wind prevented redemption through the 13th, but I decided to give the bird another crack on the 14th. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect day -- sunny, no wind, mid-60's -- but the goddamn thing failed to show (again) despite my 5-hour vigil. It was a demoralizing defeat, and the return 36 miles miles took close to 3 hours when it was all said and done. And the worse part? The bird reappeared the following day and continued through the 20th! It seems to be most regular in the late-afternoon, but that timing doesn't work on the bike because I'd need to spend the night down there afterwards. So, the bird will remain one of my greatest misses unless it decides to stay into November, when I return from the East Coast.

72 miles direct, without detour for Vesper Sparrow as on 10/6

That's it for now. Cheers! 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Post #205 - The Bay Area Bike-birding hits keep coming!

Locals have found so many great birds around here these last few weeks that I'm wondering if my legs are ever gonna get a rest! I guess there are worse problems to have, and I'm fortunate that breaks in my writing and guiding schedules have coincided to allow regular pursuits. I will recap one particularly involved chase in this post.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (BTBW) is an eastern species which makes rare cameos on the West Coast. One was found in Robertsville in Southern Santa Clara County in October of 2017, but it was out of my range (45 miles each way) in those early Bay Area bike-birding days because I was still recovering from a torn calf suffered ahead of my May move. As that was the only regional record across the last few years, I was stoked to learn that Nina Bai found a beautiful male in the San Francisco Botanical Garden on Saturday, October 2nd. Spotting on an Alvaro's Adventures pelagic on that day and locked into family stuff on Sunday, I had to delay my pursuit until Monday the 4th. Fortunately, the bird stuck, and a mini-mob pointed me towards it ten minutes after I arrived. Pro-tip: make sure you put the battery in your camera before leaving the house so that you don't have to resort to digi-binocs when your SLR is powerless. It was so dark in the understory that I was just happy to get anything with the phone.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - Bay Area Bike Bird #341 (SF #249)

With that first target secured, I hustled over to Crissy Field on the Presidio waterfront to look for the female Bobolink which others had reported for the previous ~3 days. Bobolink is another eastern species, but it reaches farther west than BTBW; it is therefore a more 'common' stray in California. 

Bobolink range

I spent 90 minutes stomping through wet grass but was unable to locate the field-loving bird, it clearly departed as suggested by additional negative reports from that day and the next. I did add a previously-reported female Blue-winged Teal (BWTE) on the lagoon as consolation (SF bike bird #250). That duck is regular around the Bay, but there's very little habitat for it in San Francisco. The female Blue-winged Teal can be differentiated from the very similar female Cinnamon Teal by the better defined eye-line and light patch at the base of the bill (among other subtle field marks). Note - the second/front bird in the below photo is NOT a female Cinnamon Teal, it is a female Green-winged Teal (GWTE). The confusion never ends......

Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field

Female BWTE (with female GWTE front) - SF Bike Bird #250

From Crissy, I proceeded east along the water to Fort Mason. David Assman's Lark Sparrow (LASP) had continued for the previous ~10 days, but I wasn't able to find it despite two hours of searching. The bird wasn't reported on that day -- October 4th -- or any day after, so I was clearly looking for another departed example. I can live with missing birds which aren't present because they've moved on, but over-looking a bird which others later re-find sucks. I have LASP on my San Mateo and Santa Clara County bike lists, and I'm sure I'll get it in SF eventually.

My route on October 4th - 50% ain't bad.......

I already have a backlog of content for you, so I'll try to crank additional entries in the next few days. Good birding until then - cheers!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Post #204 - Fall Migration in Full Swing!

The stream of interesting migrants continues! I've been out on the bike a fair amount lately, and I'll use this entry to highlight a few birds I've intersected since my last post. Let's get rolling....

Canada Warbler (CAWA) is an eastern species which occurs in California as a rare migrant, usually in fall (range map below). Beyond a would-be addition to my Bay Area Bike List, CAWA would be a state bird for me because I'd not intersected it anywhere in California -- by bike or by car -- since moving from Boston in April of 2015. That as a backdrop, I sprung into action when Aaron Maizlish reported one at the Colma Creek mouth on the San Mateo bayshore on September 14. The report came in 2.5 hours after the original sighting, and I wasn't optimistic about relocating the bird given the huge wind which had materialized in the interim. I saddled-up regardless and -- to my surprise -- relocated the bird after a ten minute search. Other birders arrived a bit later, and the subject showed well through the afternoon and the next day. It was the first CAWA reported in the county since 2014, so it was well-received by all.

Canada Warbler
Bay Area Bike Bird #340
San Mateo County Bike Bird #291

While I was looking at the Colma CAWA, Noah Arthur found another in the San Francisco Botanical Garden. I didn't have the time to continue to SF for that second bird, but I caught up with it two days later, on September 16th (SF Bike Bird #248. No photo, sorry). So, after seeing zero CAWAs in California across six years, I saw two by bike in the span of three days. I think it was karma since I decided not to drive for a cooperative CAWA in Contra Costa County the previous week.

I hadn't birded the Colma Creek mouth prior to my CAWA visit, and I decided to return on September 24th since I liked what I saw the first time around. There's a lot of fennel along that stretch of bayshore, and I was hopeful I could find some interesting migrants. When I didn't find much beyond White-crowned Sparrows, Black Phoebes, Bushtits, I continued to the adjacent mudflats where I took a quick binocular scan of the various shorebirds.

What the hell is that? Could it be a Ruff ? No way - they're hella rare around here.

I jumped off the bike, fished out my the scope, and threw it onto the tripod, my subsequent view to the bird confirming my Ruff suspicion! I snapped a few digiscope pics, but the bird vanished while I was posting it to the Telegram group and list server. Fortunately, I relocated it from another vantage half an hour later, and at least one other person arrived in time to see it. Ruff is a great find for San Mateo -- there are only a handful of county records -- but it wasn't a Bay Area Bike Bird since I observed one in Santa Clara at Don Edwards on November 3, 2018.

Ruff - San Mateo Bike Bird #292

That's it for now. More to come in the next few weeks. Cheers!

Friday, September 10, 2021

Post #203 - My most ridiculous bike chases yet?

I know the title is high billing, but two of the three pursuits I'll recap in this post were laughable, albeit for different reasons. With that teaser, let's start with something standard to get warmed-up.

I saw Eastern Kingbird (EAKI) by bike in San Francisco a few years back, but I've been waiting for one to appear in San Mateo. That finally happened when biologist Rusty-something found one at Crystal Springs Reservoir on the morning of September 1st. Though positive reports rolled in through midday, non-birding responsibilities prevented me from getting out until 2:30pm. I wasn't optimistic about my chances given the howling wind which had materialized across the day, but the bird showed right after I arrived. It stayed well inside the fence, so even scope views were poor. 

        Eastern Kingbird - San Mateo bike bird #289
At least the white tail band is visible...

It's nice when rarities show up so close to home....

OK, now for the fun stuff! It began when Sonia and I drove to Garin Regional Park in the East Bay for a morning of hiking on Monday, September 5th. The birding in the parched hills was expectedly-slow -- the topography was selected to exhaust our energetic foster beagle -- but we swung through Coyote Hills afterwards to look for previously-reported Baird's (BASA) and Pectoral Sandpipers (PESA), two species which I needed for Alameda County (by car or by bike). I had great looks at two of each while Sonia gave the dog some additional walking, and we returned home via the Dumbarton Bridge at 3pm.

Sonia wanted to lay low through the afternoon, so I decided to hop onto the bike and sprint straight back to Coyote Hills -- 22 miles -- with hopes of adding the same birds to my Alameda bike list. All the shorebirds had vanished since my earlier visit, but a BASA and a PESA eventually flew-in with a flock of peeps. The sun sinking to the west, I turned-tail and arrived home at 7:50pm, twenty minutes after sunset. I've double-chased birds before but not on the same day, so this represents a new level of bike-birding obsession. Not sure if that's good or bad.......

Pectoral Sandpiper (left) and Baird's Sandpiper (right)
Alameda bike birds #193 and #194

What the hell was I thinking?!?!?!

Interestingly, in pursuing the above pair, I necessarily passed on the Phainopepla which David Assman found at Fort Mason earlier on that same day. That location is a headache to reach because of all the traffic lights, and I was already limited by daylight given how late I was leaving. Plus, I wasn't keen to bike into the city via the baseball stadium when the Giants were playing the Dodgers on a holiday weekend. Phainopepla would have been a great SF bike bird (I already have it in Alameda and Santa Clara), but I didn't feel I was set-up for success given the above considerations.

It was therefore apropos that Aaron Maizlish found another Phainopepla in San Bruno (San Mateo County) on Wednesday, September 8. I was walking the dog when the report came through, so I hustled home, jumped on the bike, and quickly covered the 6.6 miles to the location. 75 minutes of searching yielded nothing but a Chris Hayward sighting, so I folded the search and headed home with hopes of a productive afternoon. And wouldn't you know it? The crafty Brit found the bird about 20 minutes after I departed! I'd already covered 5 of the return miles with the aid of a stiff tailwind, but I immediately turned around and returned to the location. Chris kindly held onto the bird -- with Malia also en route he better have! -- and it showed shortly after my re-arrival (and again after Malia arrived). So yeah, with all the back-and-forth, I rode 23 miles to see a bird which was less than 7 miles from my apartment. Ugh.

Phainopepla (immature)  - San Mateo bike bird #290

If at first you don't succeed.......

That's it for now. I'm sure there will be additional chases as fall progresses, so I'll post about those as they unfold. Cheers!

Monday, August 30, 2021

Post #202 - August Bike-Birding in San Francisco

Spring migration was really slow here in the Bay Area, but fall might be more interesting if recent trends continue. There have been a number of exciting shorebirds found in the East Bay, and Sandwich Tern and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher have sent many birders sprinting towards the North Bay. As those destinations are a bit ambitious on the bike, I'm thankful that a number of unusual birds have presented in San Francisco, a destination I can reach under my own power.

The first of those is Ruddy Turnstone (RUTU), a species I've already observed -- by bike -- in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Representatives have made sporadic appearances in San Francisco County since I moved to the Bay Area four years ago, but all disappeared before pursuits were possible. Fortunately, Sam Cooper found the first of three eventual birds on Ocean Beach on August 11th, and the trifecta hung in there until the 13th when I was able to catch up with two of them. These digiscoped photos are awful, but the birds kept running and flying under pressure of dogs and runners. I was just glad to get something.

Ruddy Turnstone - San Francisco Bike Bird #245

To Ocean Beach and back, with bit of time at the Cliff House
The SF excitement continued when Nina Bai found a Costa's Hummingbird (COHU) in the Presidio on August 18th. COHU would be new for my cumulative Bay Area Bike List -- the bird usually much farther south and east, in drier habitat -- but it was too late to organize a chase on that discovery day. When the bird was reported early on the 19th as well, I handled morning responsibility before powering north early-afternoon. The diminutive bird appeared in its favored bottlebrush 30 seconds after I arrived, and it spent the next fifteen minutes defending that food source as though it owned it. That behavior suggested that it might stick around for a while, and it's been reported daily through August 29th. A cool and cooperative regional rarity!

Costa's Hummingbird
Bay Area Bike Bird #339 and San Francisco Bike Bird #246.

Since COHU appeared so quickly, I had time to look for the Brown Thrasher (BRTH) which Daniel Scali found in another part of the Presidio four days earlier, on August 15th.  I pursued the bird by car on that day, while returning from the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in Sonoma, but I failed to intersect it on that petroleum-powered pass. It favored a 200-yard stretch of impenetrable tangle, and I didn't have recourse beyond staring into the occupied ravine, a restriction rendering the search among the most boring I'd ever experienced. Given that consideration, I put the bird out of biking mind through the 16th, 17th, and 18th because I had better things to do than stare into bushes. However, when the bird continued through morning of the 19th, I decided to try for it post-COHU since I was already in the area. Anticipating a protracted and futile vigil, I was hella stoked when I spotted the shifty birding picking its way through the foliage after just 15 minutes. I never had an unobstructed view of the goddamn thing -- the flank visible at one point, the tail at another, and the head at a third -- but I was able to capture a record shot for blog purposes. This was only the second BRTH in the city in 20-some years, so it was great find by Daniel (and a strong poach by me). Coupled with COHU, it made for an amazing day on the bike!

Brown Thrasher
Bay Area Bike Bird #339 and San Francisco Bike Bird #247

To The Presidio and back

Otherwise, we at Alvaro's Adventures have been killing it on the ocean this month. Every trip is turning up something sweet. Between Hawaiian Petrel, Cook's Petrel (4), Short-tailed Shearwater (2), Flesh-footed Shearwater, Laysan Albatross, Manx Sheawater (2), Guadalupe Murrelet (2), and thousands of storm-petrels (mostly Black and Ashy with dozens of Wilsons and single Fork-tailed and Leach's mixed in), it's been a epic August. If this keeps up, then fall will be amazing! Many boats are already sold out, so don't delay if you're thinking about joining us.

That's it for now. Cheers!

Monday, August 9, 2021

Post #201 - My epic, bike-birding quest for California Condor

Among Golden State birds, none are as majestic or storied as the California Condor (CACO). The enormous vultures suffered near-terminal declines in the second half of the twentieth century -- poaching, habitat destruction, power line collisions, and lead poisoning reducing the population to 27 captives by 1987 -- but breeding programs and vigilant management have enabled a slow-but-steady recovery since that nadir. The birds currently number near 500, and the wild half of those are highly-localized in California, Utah, Arizona, and Northern Mexico.

California Condor from Brian Sullivan - ten-foot wingspan!

Setting my bike-birding sites on the iconic species, Pinnacles National Park emerged as my best bet; with 120 miles separating that location from my San Mateo apartment, it would be a significant undertaking. Triple-digit temperates would complicate my course, but I decided to brave the heat because a coastal detour on the outgoing leg would bring Black Swift (BLSW) into play, the uncommon breeder to depart the region by mid-August. If I went down the coast via Santa Cruz, spent an extra day kicking around the northern portion of Monterey County, continued to Pinnacles via Hollister, and returned north via San Jose, then I figured I pound out ~320 miles when all the twists and turns were considered. I'd also have chances for Cassin's Kingbird (CAKI) and Canyon Wren (CAWR) in Hollister and at Pinnacles, respectively, so the six-day journey could grow my cherished Bay Area Bike List by four species if everything went to script. 

My prototypical plan

Day 1 - Tuesday, August 3 - The San Mateo and Santa Cruz Coasts
Black Swift had been reported from south of Davenport across the previous six evenings, so my plan was to reach that area by 6:30pm and hope a representative revealed itself before nightfall. I left home at 9:30am, crossed the coastal mountains on Highway 92, and turned south onto Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay. Sunny skies prevailed, and a slight NW tailwind lent assistance as I achieved Pescadero and Año Nuevo through the morning. Crossing into Santa Cruz County, I found Olive-sided Flycatcher at Rancho Del Oso, Purple Martin on Swanton Road, Peregrine Falcon on the Davenport bluffs, and California Thrasher on Bonny Doon Road. Continuing to Yellow Bank Beach, I set up shop on the cliffs and waited. Then I waited some more. Unfortunately, zero Black Swifts appeared by my 8:20 departure, and I winced when I saw eBird reports which noted that a single representative buzzed my approximate vantage at 8:22pm. It was a nice day regardless, the night spent with a cycling couple in Davenport.

My end-of-day vantage at Yellow Bank Beach

Approximate route from San Mateo to Davenport.
The Strava App measured exact distance with twists, turns, backtracks.

Day 2 - Wednesday, August 4 - The Santa Cruz Coast
Looking to avenge my BLSW miss, I returned to Yellow Bank Beach at 7:30am and immediately spotted my quarry buzzing over the bluffs for Bay Area Bike Bird #334. Additional swifts appeared in the next few minutes, and I had seven in my binoculars at one disbelieving point, the aerodynamic fliers offering eye level views as they knifed and wheeled over the ocean breakers. I didn't tote a proper camera for weight reasons, so forgive this sorry-ass digi-binoc. I had to go with a bird that was far away because the phone couldn't focus on anything closer. It was also kinda cool to add Pink-footed Shearwater to same the checklist as the swift, that pelagic spotted during a subsequent seawatch.

Black Swift at one million miles-per-hour

I spent the remainder of the day weaving along the coast and amassed 107 SCZ species after exploring Natural Bridges, Neary Lagoon, Corcoran Lagoon, and Pajaro Dunes. I'd submitted only one SCZ bike checklist previously -- from Skyline in winter -- so that haul increased my SCZ bike total to 117.

Approximate route from Davenport to Watsonville

Day 3 - Thursday, August 5th - Monterey County
I'd not done any bike-birding in Monterey, so I decided to use the first part of this day to dip into that county. A stop at Moss Landing revealed a continuing Long-tailed Duck, and I spotted an out-of-season female Black Scoter in the inlet. Moonglow Dairy yielded a mid-morning Bar Owl hunting over the marsh, and Elkhorn Slough produced a lone Wilson's Phalarope. My morning birding completed with 95 Monterey species claimed, I headed east into San Benito County. I didn't find much around Anzar Lake, but I did spot a pair of Cassin's Kingbirds (Bay Area Bike Bird #335) near the Hollister WTP.  I was so tired that I didn't think to take a picture, but I did snap a record shot of another the next day. 

Moss Landing (north side of inlet)

Moonglow cows

Awful but diagnostic digi-binoc of Cassin's Kingbird

Approximate route from Watsonville to Hollister, via Monterey County

Day 4 - Friday, August 6th - Pinnacles National Park
I knew it was gonna get hella hot hella fast, so I left my motel at 6:30am, housed four donuts at Spudnuts, and cranked south along Highway 25. Paicines Reservoir held a nice assortment of waterbirds, and Phainopepla and Yellow-billed Magpie appeared as I battled through the rolling, up-and-down topography. By the time I covered the 35 miles to the Bear Gulch Trailhead, I'd netted 1,000 vertical feet from 1,600 feet of climbing.
    It was already 10am, so I hustled up the trail with high condor hopes. I'd barely covered a quarter-mile when I spotted several candidates soaring high above the rocky formations, and I managed distant views of six individuals as the massive birds spiraled skyward through the next half-hour. All the birds disappeared to the west by 10:40, presumably towards Big Sur, so I was stoked to have arrived in time. Bay Area Bike Bird #336 secured, I used playback to pull a pair on Canyon Wrens (#337) from the rocks before vacating the gathering inferno. The afternoon heat wrenched moisture from me on the return ride, but I outlasted the sweltering conditions, regained my motel, and spent the remainder of the day recovering while watching the Olympics.

View from Highway 25 in morning

California Condor, hella high up

Canyon wren digi-binoc. Just happy to get anything given how fast it moved.

Pinnacles formations

Approximate route from Hollister to Pinnacles (and back)

Day 5 - Saturday, August 7th - Southern Santa Clara County
Rolling north out of Hollister, I rode a fortuitous southern tailwind towards San Jose through the morning. I'd planned to spend the middle part of the day birding Coyote Creek and Almaden Lake Park before hunkering down for the night, but my aspirations swelled when my three target Santa Clara birds -- Wood Duck, Osprey, and Scaly-breasted Munia -- appeared without any effort. With sudden time and energy to spare, I decided to push home rather than drop $90 on a motel. Despite already putting down 55 miles, I managed to cover the final ~30 miles in ~2 hours! I'm not sure what The Wok put in my sweet and sour tofu the previous night, but I felt unstoppable all day.

Approximate route from Hollister to home

So, a great trip! I explored some new areas, saw some sweet birds, and overcame the usual cycling obstacles, most notably the scorching heat on Day 4. I originally estimated I'd ride about 320 miles across the six days, so I was spot on with the 324 which I ultimately amassed, albeit in only five days. And the bonus? I chased (and missed) the Golden Gate White-breasted Nuthatch the day after returning home, that 40-mile ride bringing my six-day total to 366. I'd not pounded those kinda miles since 2014, so it's nice to know my legs can still get it done. Oh, I also pushed my total county ticks to 1,548. That breaks down as follows:

This latest undertaking will be my most ambitious riding for a while, but I'd like to make a five- or six-day loop through Marin > Sonoma > Napa > Solano > Contra Costa sometime in early-winter. I haven't done any bike-birding in Sonoma, Napa, and Solano, so that trip would probably net me 250 - 300 county ticks and get me that much closer to 2,000. But, for now, it'll be occasional day rides with some pelagic birding in between. 

Whew. Hella Long. Later.