Saturday, January 30, 2021

Post #192 - An amazing day of bike-birding in Santa Clara County

Commitments have kept me off the bike for two weeks, so I'm gonna dust off a ride from early-January for this post. Undertaken on January 10th, it sought three would-be Santa Clara County bike birds at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. With negligible wind and partly sunny skies forecasted, I departed my San Mateo apartment with high hopes.

The day's first target was the long-staying Common Loon (COLO) on Pond A4 in Sunnyvale. Abundant on the oceanside of the peninsula, the species is highly unusual on the Santa Clara bay shore. I'd not found the time to pursue the bird during its two-month stay, but it cooperated for me as it had for so many others, the slow-slung swimmer materializing from hoards of scaup on the far/north side of the impoundment after a twenty-minute search (too far for photo). Santa Clara bike bird #217 bagged, the day was off to a good start.

Next up? Glaucous Gull (GLGU). Unusual but regular across all Bay Area Counties, the species has been a recent nemesis; I struck out on San Francisco example 3 times before dipping on an Alameda bird on the day I hurt my thumb. That's more than 150 miles of GLGU misses! Given those headaches, I was hella stoked to find the continuing second-year example shortly after arriving at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Alviso (Santa Clara bike bird #218). I was also able to pull an Iceland (Thayer's) Gull (ICGU, Santa Clara bike bird #219) from the flock on an adjacent impoundment. Two-for-one - money.

Glaucous Gull at Don Edwards

Extending my hot hand still farther from home, I rolled into Lick Mill Park and immediately had a quick but identifiable glimpse the seasonally-aberrant Hermit Warbler (HEWA, Santa Clara bike bird #220) which had frequented the patch park since its Christmas discovery. The songbird nests at ridge elevations towards the southern end of the county, but those areas are a royal chore to reach on the bike. I tried for the bird at Monte Bello and along the Santa Clara reaches of Skyline Drive last summer - to no avail - and I was apprehensive about reaching farther and higher for it this year. Fortunately, that's a moot point now.

Running ahead of schedule and feeling like I couldn't miss, I decided to get greedy, expand my return route, and try for the Phainopeplas (PHAI) which had been hanging around the Stanford Dish since January 5th. The only problem? I had my scope in my panniers, and bikes aren't allowed into the Dish reserve; I wasn't about to lock my bike up and walk away from it with the scope hanging out the back pannier. The solution? I hid my panniers (and scope) in a heavily-wooded yard, continued a quarter-mile to the Dish entrance, locked the unloaded bike, and - after 52 miles of riding - started walking. It was quite warm at that sunny, mid-afternoon juncture, and I was lagging halfway through the 4-mile loop. Stopping to rest, I detected movement in a mistletoe-adorned oak and approached to find the female Phainopepla foraging in its upper reaches. Santa Clara bike bird #221 capped an incredible day of bike-birding! 

Female Phainopepla at Stanford Dish

My Santa Clara exploits on January 10

Three-and-a-half years into my Bay Area tenure, Santa Clara returns continue to diminish, so adding five birds on a single swing through the northern part of the county was a huge victory. I'd love to reach farther south and east in Santa Clara, but those longer trips will probably require an overnight ride and will be best done post-Covid. Until then, I'll keep exploring the bayshore for unaccounted species like Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Osprey, Cackling Goose, and Chipping Sparrow. I really enjoy birding in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Alviso, and I'm guaranteed a good workout riding to and returning from those destinations. I just have to avoid days with strong north or west winds; those make the return ride a huge pain in the ass.

More coming soon. Stay tunes. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Post #191 - Recent waterfowl photos

Good news - my thumb is on the mend! It's still tender, but I can grip stuff and generally function as usual. I was able to resume biking this week, so stayed tuned for recaps of those rides.

I'll also point you towards my Top Photos of 2020. 19 of the 20 were captured in California - the Sandhill Crane is from New Mexico - and I'm stoked that every shot was an authentic, in-the-field result. Shooting baited birds at established set-ups is fun, but I find it more satisfying to study behavior and stalk birds in their natural environments. Getting down an dirty is always fun too.

OK, let's dive into the ducks. I'll start with this male Common Goldeneye. I was fortunate to have close photographic opportunity at a confiding female in Golden Gate Park two years ago, but I was missing comparable images of males - until this encounter. All it took was laying down on the edge of a local lake and waiting an hour for this beautiful example to swim within range. I whistled at him so that he'd turn his head a bit, but my plan backfired and he dove underwater just after I captured this image. They're so skittish.

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 640

Next up is Canvasback, a species I've wanted to photograph for years. The flocks which winter on San Francisco Bay are always out of range, so I was grateful when a friend pointed me towards Alondra Park in Lawndale (in the LA sprawl). The twenty-some birds at that traditional winter haunt were very approachable, presumably because of the constant presence of fisherman and joggers, and I captured a nice panel of frames during my morning with them. The different water colors result from shooting against varied refections of foliage on the far shore of the lake. Beware - there was loads of goose crap around the pond, so wear crappy clothes if you wanna get low.

Canvasback (male) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Canvasback (male) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Canvasback (female) - Aythya valisineria
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Apparently jealous of the attention I was showering on the Canvasbacks, this male Lesser Scaup decided to crash our shoot. He looks ready for his close-up, right? What a diva!

Lesser Scaup (male) - Aythya affinis
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/4000 at f/6.3, ISO 800

Last is this Bufflehead I photographed at Shoreline Lake in Mountain View. Female waterfowl don't get as much photographic attention as their male counterparts, so I was really happy when this lady surfaced in these dreamy surrounds. I'm glad I held onto the feather detail in her creamy ear patch; it's very east to overexpose that characteristic field mark against the surrounding brown, especially in bright sunlight. 

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 500

That's it for now. I'll try to post again next week, assuming the country doesn't burn to the ground on January 20th.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Post #190 - End of Year bike-birding adventures land me in the emergency room!

How's this for an end-of-year teaser? I biked 2,940 miles this year before ending the year in the emergency room! Please know I'm fine; it was a VERY painful but ultimately minor injury. So, with the hook baited, let's get into my recent wanderings. As the four rides I chronicle in this post were particularly ambitious, I hope they'll keep you entertained ahead of my injury reveal. 

Ride #1, December 4th
This story starts on December 1st when a Dusky Flycatcher (DUFL) was reported from the East Palo Alto bayshore. Common in the Sierras, the species makes only rare visits to the coast, the referenced bird only one of handful of San Mateo County records in the past decade. I wasn't able to pursue the continuing bird through the 3rd, but an equally exciting report of four Tundra Swans (TUSW) from Pescadero that afternoon forced a move on the 4th. Unable to chose between the two birds - both would be new for my Bay Area bike list - I decided to try for them both in one, very long day. 

My combined pursuits of TUSW and DUFL

Succeed, fail, or anything in-between, I figured this ride would make good blog fodder, so I kept careful notes on timing as I pedaled from home to Pescadero to East Palo Alto and to home again. Leg 1 unfolded as expected, but leg 2 with the higher climb over the coastal mountains really beat the hell out of me. Fortunately, I scored both birds with minimal searching, so adrenaline powered me through Leg 3 to close the 77-mile loop. This was my most ambitious one-day pursuit since I moved the the Bay Area in May of 2017, and it couldn't have unfolded any better. I even captured some hella bad digi-binoc images of both species!

Left: TUSW - Bay Area Bike Bird #325 (San Mateo County bike bird #285)
Right: DUFL - Bay Area Bird Bird #326 (San Mateo County bike bird #286)

Ride #2, December 9th

My next outing took me to Alameda County on December 9th, mostly to search for the long-staying Harris's Sparrow (HASP) at Pacific Commons Linear Park but also to fill in some more general Alameda County holes. I was able to find the sparrow for Alameda County Bike Bird #184, and I ran my total to 190 with subsequent additions of Redhead (REDH), Ring-necked Duck (RNDU), Bald Eagle (BAEA), Ferruginous Hawk (FEHA), Burrowing Owl (BUOW), and Loggerhead Shrike (LOSH). 

An overexposed Harris's Sparrow between White-crowned Sparrows

Being that I'd already made significant miles south, I continued around the bottom of the bay and turned northwest to reach Shoreline Lake in Mountain View where I found the continuing Brant.

Brant for Santa Clara Bike Bird #215

Another long day, but 8 county bike ticks was pretty sweet!

Ride #3, December 28th
Other projects and a bit of travel shut biking down for two weeks over Christmas but the longish-staying Least Flycatcher (LEFL) in San Francisco's Presidio put me into motion when I returned on December 28th. Wet conditions and low temperatures kept activity low through the early part of the morning, but the bird showed when the sun came out at around 10:30. The bird was hella trusting, and I wished I had brought the camera instead of the scope. I had to settle for the usual digi-binoc record shots. Would crushed it even with the 100-400. 

Least Flycatcher - Bay Area Bike Bird #327 (SF County Bike Bird #232)

With time to spare, I made a stop at Heron's Head Park en route to Yosemite Slough, that quick pause yielding a unexpected trifecta of Gadwall (GADW) for San Francisco Bike Bird #233. For those who don't know, Gadwall is a very tricky bird in SF even though it's common in adjacent Marin and San Mateo Counties. That self-found bonus secured, I pedaled to Yosemite Slough where I spent the next two hours not finding the Loggerhead Shrike (LOSH). The bird had been very reliable for the previous week, so it was a tough miss. Two other birders missed it earlier in the day, so it clearly wasn't around (despite reappearing for the SF Xmas count the following day, December 29th). A Northern Pintail (NOPI) did soften the LOSH miss for San Franciscio Bike Bird #234. I'd seen NOPI on SF pelagics, but it was good to redeem that dirty bird on the bike.

A trifecta of Gadwall at Heron's Head

Ride #4, December 30th
This ride started out just fine. I covered the 17 miles from my apartment to Geng Road in Palo Alto in 67 minutes and without incident. My target was Summer Tanager (SUTA), and I was shocked that ten others joined my search for the continuing bird; it present for the previous 2 weeks, I assumed everyone who wanted to see it had done so already. It took our search party nearly two hours, but I eventually spotted the bright pink bird and put the others onto it (Santa Clara Bike Bird #216). No time for photos, I hopped back on the bike and crossed the bay to look for the Lapland Longspurs (LALO) which had frequented Coyote Hills Park for the previous week. That ground-dweller surfaced quickly - Alamdea County Bike Bird #192 after the long overdue addition of Herring Gull for #191 - and I initiated a more directed search for the Glaucous Gull which is spending its third winter in the park. 

Lapland Longspur

It was at that point when everything went to hell. Powering towards another corner of the park, I stopped to scan a group of gulls. No Glaucous detected, I unearthed my lunch from the depths of my panniers and removed my leg-length tights amidst growing midday heat. Turning to repack my gear after eating, I hastily thrust my hand into my pannier. I immediately felt a bolt of lightning shoot up my arm, and I withdrew my hand with my thumbnail pried off the nail bed. It was pouring blood, but I squeezed the nail back onto the bed (ouch!) before calling my wife to come and rescue me since I'd be unable to ride home. I still don't know exactly what happened. I might have struck something in the bag, but it's also possible I missed the bag entirely and struck something on the bike frame. Whatever I hit, it went straight under the nail and popped it open, kinda like a car hood. It took my wife 30 mins to reach Coyote Hills, and we raced to the ER in Redwood City with my bike in the trunk and my thumb oozing blood.

The doctors said there wasn't much they could do but wedge the nail down and see what happens. It may fall off; it may not. Regardless, I am in a small splint for the next week and advised to stay off the bike for that stretch. It's therefore a good time to get caught up on blogging (fortunately, the splinted digit isn't required for my modified brand of hunt-and-peck typing), and I can do some car-based birding while the wound heals. The primary short term issue is that I can't manipulate the camera, but that should resolve fairly quickly. Fingers crossed, so to speak.

I counted the SUTA and LALO as bike birds even though I didn't make it home under my own power. As the pain of the finger exceeded anything the return ride could have inflicted save for getting run over, I figured I'd sufficiently suffered.

Eeyore shirt is apropos.....

So that's how my 2020 bike-birding story ends. This strange episode aside, it was a really good year, one during which I rode 2,940 miles and pushed my cumulative Bay Area Bike List to 327 species (I started 2020 at 299). It's going to be very hard to add new birds moving forward, but I'm far from saturating the contributing counties; there will be plenty of county and general birding to motivate me through 2021 - and beyond.

County                Start 2020        End 2020        Gain
San Mateo                 264                    286               22
San Francisco            188                    234               46
Santa Clara                186                    216               30
Alameda                    136                    192               56
Marin                           92                    138               46
Stanislaus                      0                      73                73
San Joaquin                   0                      59                59
Contra Costa                 0                       51                51
Santa Cruz                     0                      26                26
                  Total County Bike Ticks = 1275

Thanks for sticking with me for through the 6th year of this blog! I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2021! Cheers!