Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nov 23 (Day 327) - New birds all over! Knocking at 600!

There was some good and some bad today. I'll start with the bad. I have talked at length about how bad the road food has been this year. The worst case scenario though is when I have to walk a long way to get dinner after I arrive. This is exactly what happened tonight. My hotel is 1.5 miles from the nearest food - McDonald's (which I also had for breakfast UGH UGH UGH UGH UGH. They were out of ketchup to boot. Out of ketchup? At McDonald's? That the only was to make make the food palatable. BBQ sauce was a poor substitute). This made for a really unwelcome, 3-mile roundtrip walk to fetch dinner after a long, hot day. The road was very poorly lit, and I decided biking it would be lethal. I elected to walk instead. The worst part was on the debis-littered, busted up walkway on an old bridge; The rest was on the highway shoulder. It was not fun. I think people might forget that I do ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING on bike and foot. My "green" birding does not end at the end of the day. I have to "green" forage as well, and on nights like today when food is far away, it really, really sucks. I think this is a hugely underrated aspect of doing a content wide bike big year versus a locally bike big. A local bike-birder might ride his ass off on the weekend, but then he gets into his car to go to work, buy food, take his kids to school etc. There is zero break for me, and the physical and psychological toll this takes cannot be understated. I think tonight was the most I've wanted to get into a car all year - UGH, again.

The walk to dinner - no lights on walkway 
side of bridge.

Anyway, when something like this happens at the end of the day, it really colors my day in a negative way. Luckily, today was such a good birding day that even this nonsense can't take the shine off of it. The plan for today was to ride from Laredo to Zapata with a couple of birding stops along the way. The most notable of these was going to be at the La Laja Ranch, a private tract to which I had been granted access. The landowners have been opening the ranch for birding festivals, and they are going to be looking to open some form of Bed and Breakfast on the property in the near future. Please keep your eye on La Laja Ranch moving forward. After my visit today, I can say with certainty that LOTS of good birds are going to be found on this property in the next few years. It has a full mile of riverfront that really looks like a rarity magnet. At present though, the ranch's best claim to fame is the reliability with which visitors see White-colored seedeater. Although I saw seedeater yesterday, I still really wanted to bird this property today. I met the owner, Edward Herbst, and his son, Ed Jr, as the Ranch entrance at 9:30 this morning. Ed Jr and I would spend a very nice 3 hours wandering around the property. We did see 2 seedeaters, and, just as exciting, I was able to add 4 year birds during my visit. The first of these was a White-tipped dove that flushed from the roadside for #594. During the walk, I was also able to add Altamira oriole (#595), Audubon's oriole (#596), and Plain chachalaca (heard-only for #597). It was really nice to find the orioles without the aid of a feeder today. I will certainly see more chachalacas in the next few days. Otherwise, even during the late morning on a hot day, the ranch was filled with birds. This is definitely a place to watch in the next few years!

Rio Grande view from La Laja Ranch

Tour guide Ed Jr

Altamira Oriole  (#595)- was playing around with 
the camera when this guy appeared. The settings 
were all funky!

Audubon's oriole (#596)

In the afternoon, I continued south towards San Ygnacio. This is another well-known seedeater spot that I was hoping to bird for at least a while today. However, as this has been a very wet year around here (shocking, huh?), the seedeater area was so overgrown that I decided not to fight my way through it. Instead, I continued south to my final destination of Zapata. I was last in Zapata in 2008 when I saw my then lifer seedeater in the pond behind the Zapata public library. I decided to return to this small park today to do a bit of laid-back, end-of-day birding. It was filled with Kiskadees and Vermillion flycatchers, Green jays, kinglets, and assorted doves. Walking around the pond, I stumbled onto a brown bird perched on a stick. A quick glance with the binocs showed a Clay-colord thrush for year bird #5 for the day and #598 for the year! Technically this is a code 3 bird, but it was become increasingly common in the LRGV in the last few years so maybe its due for a downgrade. Regardless it was a really good find to cap off a very nice day or birding and riding. On my way back to my bike, I found my 3rd seedeater of the day. This was actually a decent looking male. He vanished after only a few seconds, but I did get a shot of him before he took off. When all was said and done, I biked ~60 miles and walked about 6.5 after the dinner fiasco.

Clay-colored thrush #598!

Bonus male White-collared seedeater at day's end

Tomorrow I am going to head to Salineno. I was going to try for the orioles there, but with those in hand most of my focus will be on Red-billed pigeon. It would also be nice to see a wild Muscovy even though I already have the counted the introduced Muscovy from South Florida. Interestingly, I saw the Pigeon and the Muscovy in the same 10 minutes when I visited Salineno in 2008! There are a bunch of places to bird in the Salineno area, so I'll spend the entire day there tomorrow. I might need to spend a day or two more depending on how the big pigeon search goes, but we'll cross that bridge when we get there. It is totally possible that I could reach 600 species tomorrow - Woo Hoo!

60 miles 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nov 22 (Day 326) - Lazy day in Laredo.......but wait.........

I slept like an absolute rock last night. I might have been more more exhausted than at any point this year. I knew today was going to be very low key. I figured I would just kick around Laredo looking for the seedeater. If I found the seedeater, great. If not, no big deal since I would have a very good chance at it tomorrow at the La Laja Ranch a bit south of the city. The most important thing would be that my body would get some much needed rest. The weather forecast called for strong winds in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Given this, I was not terrible optimistic about my prospects of finding the seedeater today.

White-collared seedeater is a Central American species that just makes it into the US, specifically in the vicinity of Laredo and a few specific points south. They are tiny little birds (4"), and at this time of year they are a rather drab, buffy yellow color. They normally inhabit reedy and grassy areas like those found around local ponds or along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Breeding male White-collared seedeater

Seedeater range - it just makes it into Texas near Laredo

Seedeater in US - It barely clips Laredo area

I decided to start the seedeater search at Father Charles McNaboe Park on the north side of Laredo. This park backs up the the Rio Grande and has good seedeater habitat. As predicted, there was quite a bit of wind this morning. This made the birding incredibly slow and frustrating. No bird with a fully functioning brain would be out in such conditions. They would be hunkered down, relaxing instead. Despite the crappy conditions, my host from last night (Carlos Escamilla) and I spent 3 hours schlepping around the park this morning. By 11am, the wind was too strong to bird and nearly too strong to ride. It was blowing at a steady 20 MPH from the south. I was very happy not to be riding any real distance in it. I did swing by a local bike shop to pick up a few extra tubes. I retired to the house for lunch, and I spent the early part of the afternoon loafing around and watching college football. I figured thunderstorms would put pay to what afternoon birding I might otherwise have mustered the energy to do.

13 mellow miles today

However, the T-storms held off, the winds died down, and at 3pm Carlos and I walked over to North Central Park just around the corner from his house. This is the same park that I birded in the afternoon yesterday. Carlos and I wandered around a specific wet area looking for seedeaters with out success. I then wandered off on my own for a bit. I took a few Kiskadee pictures to fill up the time as I was not terribly optimistic about finding this bird. Just then, a small bird flew into a shrub 50 feet from me. A quick binoc view revealed it to a seedeater! Incredible! I reached for the camera and POOF - gone. I called Carlos over, and we relocated the bird in the top of a tree not far from where I first saw it. I tried to get a photo, but a pesky brach got in the way. By hanging around a bit longer, I was afforded a few more but equally brief view of the seedeater. At one point it did sit still long enough for me to grab a few usable frames.

Out-of-focus seedeater behind Couch's Kingbird

Carlos managed a better shot of it so I used his 
as a supplement to mine

White-collared seedeater for #593!
With patience, I was able finally able to get a decent shot!

This is what non-breedng males, female, and immatures generally look like.

Seedeater habitat in North Central Park

This was a huge find today. This was the single bird for which I had come to this area. Seeing this bird at La Laja Ranch would have been all but guaranteed, but now all the pressure is off. I am going to spend the day birding the ranch tomorrow as it is a great birding area regardless. After I do that, it's onto Salineno and the Lower Valley!

Great kiskadee from today. One day
soon I'll get in good light.

Laredo hosts Carlos + Diana (and lowly me)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Nov 21 (Day 325) - RGV arrival!!!

I have finally reached the Rio Grande Valley! I have not taken a day off during the 15 days it has taken me to cover the ~1,000 miles from Patagonia, AZ to Laredo, TX. I am physically exhausted, and today's ride did nothing to help this. However, mentally I feel good knowing that the transit to my last major birding location is now just about complete. From a birding standpoint, the Rio Grande Valley runs from Laredo at its northern/western end down to Brownsville and the Texas coast at its southern/eastern limit. Most of the birding happens within a few miles of the Rio Grande, and it is her my efforts will be focused for the next 10-14 days as I move Southeast down the valley.

To reach Laredo today, I biked 78 miles south from Carrizo Springs. This ride was complicated by a SSE headwind that blew at 8-13 MPH for most of the day. There were some significant periods of frustration, but I managed to avoid the sorts of wind-induced meltdowns that have on occasion got the better of me this year. I guess that's a small victory! I did manage to sneak in a bit of birding at the end of the day. I was met by several local birders in a local park where we made a half-baked attempt to locate seedeater. It was really more of a social call than anything else. It was actually a very welcomed chance for personal interaction after a long stretch alone. I also gave a short interview that will be shown on the local Laredo News tonight at 10pm! Local celebrity - woot woot! All was not lost on the bird front this afternoon as I was able to add Couch's kingbird in the park for species #592. I'll surely see many more of these in the next few weeks.

78 windy, rough ones today

Laredo birders, Danny, Glenda, Nikki, and Holly

While the best birding is another 100+ miles downstream from Laredo, White-collared seedeater is a bird that can be found only at the upper end of the the Rio Grande Valley. The bird is frequently seen along the river right in downtown Laredo. There are an additional half dozen or so spots for the bird as one moves the 50 miles south from Laredo to Zapata. As I need a day off, as I have a host willing to host me for 2 nights, and as there is supposed to be some very dangerous weather around Laredo tomorrow afternoon, I am going to use tomorrow morning to check a few local spots for seedeaters. I will then spend the afternoon on the sofa watching college football. I have earned that much! I should have a decent shot at finding the bird, and more importantly, a nice short day of riding to let my legs at least partially recover. On Sunday, I will ride south from Laredo towards the additional seedeater spots. The most notable of these will be the private La Laja Ranch to which I have been granted access. This property is supposed to be a bird goldmine. There is a distinct possibility I could walk out of it with both the seedeater and Red-billed pigeon. Should I still need the seedeater after Sunday, I'll set up shop in Zapata and comb local spots in that vicinity until I find the bird. From Zapata, it will be just 30 miles to reach Salineno for a day or two before I head to Mission for a few days. From Mission, I can bird any number of very productive Lower Rio Grande Valley. It is going to be super exciting the next few days! 6-Hundo is just around the corner! I gots 99 problems but a new birds ain't one!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nov 20 (Day 324) - Green birds, questions about how I'm getting home, bonus ramblings!

Knowing that I had to ride only ~50 miles from Uvalde to reach Carrizo Springs, I took my time getting out the door this morning. I decided to return to the Cook's Slough Sanctuary that I visited in the afternoon yesterday. There was quite a bit of activity today around the pond and on the trails. Most of the birds overlapped with what I saw yesterday with one notable exception. I did not see any kingfishers yesterday, but I found 3 species this morning. Belted and Ringed had both been ticked this year, but Green was #590 for 2014! This little guy is a South Texas specialty that I have managed to find on each of my previous trips to the area. 

Green kingfisher for #590!

Moving south mile by mile

Along the road today. Not sure if there is more
mesquite or pick-up trucks in Texas.

After wandering around the sanctuary for 2 hours, it was time to hit the road. I had to cut back through a neighborhood to reach Route 83 to Carrizo Springs. As I cut through the residential block, I heard several Green jays making a ruckus. I slowed down and immediately 3 of the birds (#591) flew over my head and landed in a back yard. These might be my favorite South Texas specialty bird, and, as much as I wanted to get a photo of one today, it just wasn't worth the time give how far off they were. I am certainly going to see hundreds more of these in the next few weeks. I am sure I'll get a good shot of one at some point. With these birds under my belt, I rode an uneventful ~50 miles south to the Best Western Plus Carrizo Springs Inn and Suites. This place is really nice. It is certainly in the running for the nicest Best Western property at which I have stayed this year! I spent the whole afternoon connecting with Laredo birders about the best strategy for finding White-collared seedeaters. After this bird, I can shoot south to the heart of the LRGV valley where most of my target species reside.

Several people have recently asked how I plan to end up my big year. Specifically, people want to know how I am getting home when all of this is finished. Right now, the plan is for Sonia to pick me up in our car as she transits from California back to the Northeast. Now, I am sure people some people are going to jump all over me for this. I can hear it now, "Gas, gas, you used gas...your year doesn't count!" However, you should first consider the following before jumping all over me. I have addressed this before, but it never hurts to do it again.

Everything has to do with geography. Anyone who has a problem with me using a car to return home basically believes that a bike big year must start and end in the same place. As I will show you, this is an over simplistic way of looking at this. I will present 2 very significant reasons why I believe that a bike-birder should be free to design whatever route he or she wants without requiring the starting and ending points to be the same. It was after considering this carefully that I designed my route the way that I did.

The first has to do with weather. All of the notable bicycle big years that have been done to date have been done in California and Arizona, two states with year-round, bike-birding friendly weather. Let's assume that a proper big year runs Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 (as I personally think it always should). This means that those bike-birders based in the northeast who want to do continent wide big years will have to brave frigid temperatures, freezing rain, ice, and snow not once, but twice - outgoing and returning. Bike-birders living in areas with inclement weather (the northeast, e.g.) should not be penalized for this. 

Second, generally speaking, species numbers increase as one moves south and west across the country. This means that bike-birders who live in the northeast (and northcentral US and Canada) are, again, at a very big disadvantage compared to our equivalents in the southern and western portions of the country. Bike-birders in the northeast must bike much farther than their more southerly and westerly counterparts to reach the most species-rich areas. Again, we should not penalize bike-birders who live farther north and east. 

Taking these two things together, it is obviously unfair to constraint people's potential successes by where they live. Take the exact same bike-birder (me for example) and hypothetically require that I start and end in the same place (i.e. where I live). My results are going to be completely different if I live in Southern California versus if I live in Northern Vermont. Sure, I could bike back to wherever I started during the beginning of the following year, but that's also going to vary based on geography. It's also going to mean some people are going to need to negotiate varying amount time off from work, relationships, families, etc. A big year should be 365 days - not 365 days plus one week return for one person and 365 days plus 2 months return for another.

If we make a rule that says bike-big years MUST start and end in the same place, you know what we're gonna have? A "whole bunch" of people flying from the northeast to the southwest, doing their big years, and then flying back to the northeast. Instead of this scenario, I would strongly argue that people should be free to start and end their years wherever they want. I did not start in Boston because I lived there (although it helped!), but rather because I thought that the only chance I had to reach to 600 species would be to brave the brutal cold at year's outset to collect the very limited number of specialty birds the northeast has (and they're all around in winter). At least I'll only need a ride home versus a flight out and back had I decided to start somewhere other than Boston.

We could let people start bike big years at whatever point in the year the individual sees fit, but I am not a fan of this idea. On Jan 1 you start your year list just the same as everyone else. That's why its fun. But hey, it you want to start your year at some other time, feel free to do so. 

Incidently, I think someone should do a closed-loop big year, and do it REALLY REALLY REALLY soon - like 2015. Why do I say this? There is certainly a strategically best, closed-loop route that starts on Jan. 1 at the same place it ends on Dec 31. If you're going to do this, you certainly want to be the FIRST person to do it. Now why is this? If in fact there is a best route and you manage to identify it and ride it perfectly, anyone who follows after you is under an incredible amount of pressure not just to exceed your total but to crush it. Why is this? Well, as the guinea pig you did a ton of original planning/headwork and found X number of species along your/the best route. Anyone who wants to take a shot at your number is almost certainly also going to ride that same, best route. This person would necessarily be expected to find at least as many species as you (not even considering for future splits) since he/she can use your successes and failures as a blueprint to streamline his/her own transit of and birdfinding along your previously established, best route. The same goes for my route from this year. This blog is a "how to" for that particular route. I would hope and expect the next person who rides it, or anything close to it, to find more species than me since the roads, lodging, food/water, birding contacts, and pitfalls are mapped out already. It gets easier still for the third person and so and so forth. As I'll discuss below, one person's petroleum-based big year doesn't really bare on anyone else's. Every single petroleum-based big year is completely unique. This is no so for bike-based endeavors because of the importance of the exact route.

The route is EVERYTHING for a bike big year or a bike big day. Go ask Josiah Clark, Andy Kleinhesselink, Rob Furrow, and Ron Weeks, the national co-record holders for bike big days at 181 (I think!). They'll tell you the exact same thing - the route is everything. Yes, you can pick up unexpected birds (i.e. rarities), but these do not factor into equation/calculation since they will comprise such a tiny percentage of the total species found. You can't predict rarities (they're rare, after all) so they shouldn't factor into the equation/calculation. These guys have painstakingly mapped out their routes, and they get mad props in my book for being the people to do this. 

Contrast this with a petroleum-based big year where there is no set route; You go wherever the rarities turn up, and you fill in the breeding birds in between the chases. All petroleum-based, big year birders essentially find all code 1 and code 2 birds. Last year Neil Hayward got all code 1 and code 2 birds save 1 - Common-ringed plover. What this means is that everyone who does a petroleum big year starts off with essentially all the code 1 and code 2 birds virtually guaranteed; The ultimate success, from a numerical standpoint, is dictated by the number of rare birds the person can add on top of this huge baseline. The ability to do this is generally most dependent on the financial resources (and personal energy) the birder has to chase these rarities around the continent. There's nothing wrong with that, it just the way it is.

I should also note that I do believe big years to be about more than just species totals. For me, the people this year have been just as awesome as all the birds I have seen. But hey, let's be honest, the numbers certainly matter for a big year, there's just no denying it. 

Sorry, I did not expect this to turn into a stream-of-consciousness rambling, but that's were it went. I guess you could say I deviated from the planned route!

Common ringed-plover - the one bird I probably had on Neil last year!
Photographed May 21, Plum Island, MA in rain and near darkness.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nov 19 (Day 323) - Uvalde new bird hat trick!

***I am looking for a place to stay in Laredo on Friday the 21st if anyone knows anyone in that area!

The plan for today was to ride the ~70 miles south from Rocksprings, TX to Uvalde, TX. I knew there would be some light to moderate south winds, but these did not look like anything that would make today terribly arduous. I was also going to lose about 1,500 feet of elevation over the course of the ride, so that would help keep me moving along despite the wind. The first part of the ride was actually quite scenic as it took me through some very undulating terrain in the southern part of the Hill Country. As the day progressed I dropped off the Edwards Plateau and into the flats surrounding Uvalde. Here, I am at 900' of elevation. I will be losing this in tiny bits as I head south and east in the next 2 weeks. I should not see any really significant hills for the remaining 6 weeks of the year - whew.

70 miles from Rocksprings to Uvalde +
5 miles birding in Uvalde for 75 total.

Rolling hills this morning

The Nueces River

The Redbox in the Camp Wood gas station!

You know you're in Texas when......

I received a tip that Cook's Slough Nature Park in Uvalde provided decent birding. After dropping most of my stuff in my motel, I biked over to check this place out. I had the entire place to myself for the 2+ hours I spent wandering the trails through dry scrub and around the series of impoundments. There were grebes, cormorants, herons, and coots on the water. However, it was a number of land birds that really made the afternoon. The first of these was the Great kiskadee that I found just as I arrived for #587! This large and colorful flycatcher is a South Texas specialty with tons of personality. Their squeaky calls and striking color patterns make it hard for them to hide. The photo I managed is terrible, but I will surely see lots more of these in the next few weeks. 

#587 Great kiskadee

Walking through some of the scrubby areas, I found a Northern cardinal feeding on the path. Not terribly exciting, I know, but from right behind her emerged my first Olive Sparrow of the year! Unfortunately, I could not manage a photo of #588 as he and his cardinal friend split as soon as I attempted an approach. I waited for a few minutes to see if the bird would hop back out onto the path; It would not. However, while I was waiting, I heard a rustling in the dead leaves just a few feet oof the path. Peering through the tangled vines, I was able to catch a glimpse of my first Long-billed thrasher of the year for #589. This species, like the Olive sparrow above, is a common resident of scrubby and tangles understory throughout South Texas and the LRGV. I managed a very poor photo of the the thrasher. Like the kiskadee, I will certainly see more Olive sparrows and Long-billed thrashers as I move south. 

If you use your imagination you can see a Long-Billed thrasher
buried in the center of this tangle!

It's great to start finding new birds after a very challenging week of ridding across Western and Central Texas. Cook's Slough was incredibly peaceful this afternoon. After my ride to reach Uvalde and the sanctuary, it was so nice to just casually wander around at a snail's pace. These are the times that I think I will miss most when I return to the real world next year. I can bird at a slow pace back in Boston, but, as I know most of the birding areas fairly well, those excursions often lack the curiosity and surprises that a first visit to a new area necessarily elicits. I should have many more afternoons like today's as I move south into birdier areas!

Tomorrow I have an easy ~50 miles to reach Carrizo Springs. There will be a headwind (and maybe some rain!), so there is no chance I can push to make it to Laredo, 125 miles away, in a single day. The prevailing south winds are really limiting what I can do each day, but each day that I make it to the next 'station' is a good day in my book! 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nov 18 (Day 322) - More Hill Country biking, new birds a day away!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tonight in find myself in the booming metropolis of Rocksprings! Booming? Well, maybe not so much. Metropolis? Just a bit of hyperbole here. All joking aside Rocksprings appears to be a very nice small town, the sort of which I have been frequenting lately. I arrived here mid-afternoon after a 56-mile ride from Sonora. Despite an ever-present, steady 10-15 MPH wind today, the ride was warmer than I expected it to be. It was actually quite pleasant as I stayed for cool for the duration. It was rolling hills all day, none of which presented any real challenge. What did present some challenge was the scenery. It was incredibly uniform all day which made for an incredibly monotonous ride. I guess it is a good thing that there is so much undeveloped land anywhere in the country these days though!

The ride to Rocksprings

I am currently still at elevation here on the Edward's plateau - 2,400 feet to be exact. Tomorrow I will drop close to 1,600 feet as I ride the 70 miles south to Uvalde. As I drop off the plateau, I should start picking up some new birds! Several of the Rio Grande birds (Great kiskadee, Couch's kingbird, Green jay, Long-billed thrasher) reach the northern limits of their ranges right at the southern edge of the plateau. Finding a few of these in the next few days will be a huge morale booster after the last week in the bird-desert of the I-10 corridor in winter. Who knows, maybe we could be close to 600 in a week! If that's not motivation I do not know what is!

Edwards plateau

Right now I am getting really excited about the book I think should result from this year. I am hoping to meld my adventure this year with funny, enlightening stories about my birding and personal past. I also hope to put a strong emphasis on conservation as it relates to the places I have visited and the species I have seen this year. I do not want this book to be just a memoir. I want it to be that plus a well-researched and educational window into conservation policy and our relationship with the environments around us. It would be so interesting to use this bike trip to connect seemingly unrelated issues of fisheries management in the northeast with invasive species in the Everglades with cattle grazing plans in Texas with logging in the Pacific Northwest with drought management policies in California. As each of these environmental challenges will ultimately affect the birds in these places, I think that a conservation-based exploration of the birds I sought on my trip would be really cool. Anyway, just some crazy ramblings on a day without too much roadside content!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nov 17 (Day 321) - A short ride with actual birds!

After two very long, 100+ mile rides, it was time for a break today. I stayed at the Best Western Ozona Inn last night, and today I commuted 37 miles east down I-10 to the Best Western Sonora Inn. My legs actually felt fine on the ride, but I nonetheless feel asleep as soon as I arrived. Earlier in the year I would have the energy to go out birding/photographing after I reached at my destination, but at this stage of the year I am so wiped I can't do much else than watch TV, surf the net, and snooze when I arrive. I suspect that once I reach areas with more exciting birding this will change, but at the moment I do feel a bit like a slug. I guess I've earned the right to veg a bit though!

A wider map to give you some perspective of where I am right now.
I am now in the heart of Blue Bell Ice Cream territory!

Texas waffle at Best Western this morning

Rolling through Texas Hill Country

It was a chilly 28F when I awoke at 7:00am this morning. Given that I did not have far to go, I waited until 11am to depart. By this time the temperature was 37F. However, today, unlike yesterday, the sun was shining brightly and this helped to nullify some of the additional chill provided by the 10-12 MPH north wind. There was a nice service road paralleling I-10, and from here I was able to do some actual birding as I rolled leisurely along. Greater roadrunner, Black-crested titmouse, Hermit thrush, Black-throated sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, Bewick's wren, Red-tailed hawk, Lark Bunting, Golden-fronted woodpecker, White-winged dove, Canyon Towhee, American goldfinch, American kestrel, Lark sparrow,  and Loggerhead shrike all made roadside appearances. It was really nice to actually use my binoculars today. They've been firmly stashed in my bag for the last 4 or 5 days. The should see some more action in the next few days - I hope. 

Tomorrow I am going to ride 55 miles to Rocksprings. This ride will take me south for ~20 miles and then southeast for ~35 miles. With moderate to strong south winds forecast, this ride looks like it will be a pain in the ass. I would get started at sunrise, but again, it is going to be in the mid-20s in the morning. I just do not have the clothing with me at this time to ride in thee conditions. I will have to wait for it to warm up which means the winds will be in full swing for most of the ride - UGH. Who knows, maybe a hawk-owl will ride the cold air down to Texas!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nov 16 (Day 320) - Weather causes a change in plans....

The plan for today was to ride the ~65 miles from from Fort Stockton, TX to Iraan, TX. This would set me up for nicely for either a short, 54-mile ride to Ozona or a longer, 89-mile ride to Sonora tomorrow. 

Enter my favorite weather phenomenon - The Polar Vortex. While I thought I might have escaped this royal headache from the beginning of the year, it looks at though winter 2014-15 has other plans for me. I figured that I'd be safe from extremely cold weather in central Texas; I was wrong.

Polar Vortex pushing south!

The weather forecast for today was bad. North (cross) winds of 15-25 MPH would sweep down across Western and Central Texas. Associated cool air of 45-55F would make riding uncomfortable given the clothing I am carrying at the moment. I knew this heading out the door this morning, and I figured I could tough it out for the 65-mile ride to Iraan.  Looking at the same weather forecast from above (and cross referencing it with several others online), it became equally apparent that tomorrow's weather was going to be even colder than today's. 

The big problem today was cloud cover. It was everywhere. The I did not see the sun today, and as a result temperatures did not reach the low to mid-50's as predicted. Instead, they hovered between 40-44 for most of my ride. Coupled with the wind, I was really cold. My feet were completely numb, and I was in my Polartec mittens all day. Despite these conditions, my legs actually felt OK even after yesterday's 119-mile, wind-aided sprint to Fort Stockton. At ~52 miles into the ride, I decided to alter the plan for today. Instead of turning off I-10 and riding NE to reach Iraan, I would put my head down and hammer another 58 miles along the blustery freeway to try to reach Ozona today. It was really cold, but I realized that tomorrow was going to be even colder. I would rather do the ride today than in even colder conditions tomorrow. This resulting 110-mile ride from Fort Stockton to Ozona would push me to the limits of what I have been able to accomplish the year. To be be brief, the ride completely sucked. Cold air, wind, and big hills combined to batter me for the entire afternoon. I had a tough time keeping the bike in the road at times. The wind blew from the north the entire time save for the last hour when it decided to switch to blow a bit more from the east. Those last 10 miles were agonizing. When I arrived, the air temp was 40F and the wind was a sustained 22 MPH, gusting to 30 MPH, from the NNE to NE.  

Cloudy day in Texas

What I had planned for today (Dragon Buffet was where 
I started in Fort Stockton)

What I had planned for tomorrow

Skipping Iraan, I rode the 110-miles directly from 
Fort Stockton to Ozona.

Despite all my bitching about the cold, this ride would not have been possible without it. Why? Because there is no where to refill water (or food) along the 110-mile stretch from Fort Stockton to Ozona (without a very significant detour - i.e. > 10-15 miles). This is why I had to detour through and stay in Iraan on the westbound leg in May in the 97F temps. I simply could not carry enough water to ride 110 miles if it was warm/hot. I hardly sweat at all today, and I was able to make the entire 110-mile run today on ~60oz of water. I hardly touched my camelback after I had drained my bottles. So the same cold temps and clouds that made today's ride miserable, also made it possible. Kinda funny, huh? I will venture to say that a huge majority of cyclists in my position would have sat tight in Fort Stockton both today and tomorrow and let the Polar Vortex pass. However, I'm not a cyclist. I'm a birder, and the clock is ticking.

Tomorrow I will wait for things to warm up a bit and then do the short, 35-mile ride to Sonora. Right now there are 2 competing factors that dictate how my day goes. Temperatures are lowest in the early morning before it warms up, but winds will pick up as the day progresses. If I leave to early, I freeze on my ride. If I leave too late, the wind makes things much more difficult. Since tomorrow's ride is so short, I can wait until around 10-11 to leave and I'll be in in 3 hours, before the wind switches and strengthens from the east (headwind) mid-afternoon. All this strategizing is driving me crazy. It's never easy on a bike - especially in West Texas. 

230 miles this weekend - HELLS YES! That's a nice big bite out of Texas.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nov 15 (Day 319) - All in on good winds, very cool raptor encounter

Well, the forecasted west wind certainly delivered today. It never blew really hard at any point, but the presence of a constant 15 MPH wind (gusting to 20 MPH) made for a perfect day on the wide open I-10. There was one long, gradual climb out of Van Horn, but otherwise, like yesterday, it was relatively flat with a few rolling hills here and there. The plan was to ride the 69 miles to Balmorhea in the morning and then assess the possibility of continuing ~50 miles to Fort Stockton in the afternoon. The morning ride went incredibly smoothly, so the decision to continue on as a no brainer. The additional miles melted away, and I cruised into Fort Stockton with plenty of daylight to spare. I relaxed for a bit before I attacked the Dragon Buffet next door! I do not feel so good right now - UGH. 

119 miles from Van Horn to Fort Stockton

The worst case of helmet hair I've had this year!

Dragon Buffet

This sets me up nicely to ride the ~65 miles to Iraan (pronounced Ira-Ann) tomorrow. Winds will be from the north in the morning before shifting to the east later in the day. As there is not much climbing tomorrow, I should be able to get on the road early and reach my destination before the wind switch occurs. 

Oh wow, I almost forgot. I did have on incredible bird encounter on the road today. I was cruising along the I-10 shoulder when I saw something in the middle of the left lane about a half a mile ahead of me. I wheeled along and eventually what looked like a vulture took shape. It was backlit so it was hard to see exactly what was going on. Whatever it was, it was eating something. It also seemed as though it could care less about me. I rolled up to within 15 feet of what turned out to be a huge adult Golden eagle! Now, I have seen some Goldens really well this year, but nothing like this. The bird kept an eye on me while it continued to peck at the rabbit carrion. I stood stopped on the shoulder with the bird right in front of me for about 20 seconds before an 18-wheeler came along and scared it off. It was really an amazing view of a majestic bird. 

I will confess that it is tough to generate blog content at this stage of the year in this part of the country. These rides are tough, and without other people around, I am left in my own head for a huge proportion of the day. This is all part of the challenge though. That I have made the decision not to listen to anything (music, NPR, audio books etc) while I ride heightens this sensation. It can be an altogether scary yet equally rewarding experience to spend so much time by oneself. Hopefully, once I reach the LRGV and rendezvous with some actual people, more substantive blog content can be generated. I am just so drained at this stage of things. I knew this leg was going to be tough. I just have to keep cranking. I should have a bit more energy tomorrow, but I'm wiped out right now.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nov 14 (Day 318) - The wind subsides, other route options

After two days of challenging headwinds, the weather finally cooperated today. I had scheduled a 68-mile segment from Fort Hancock, TX to Van Horn, TX. Cool morning air eventually gave way temperatures in the mid 60's, and what little south wind there was hardly bothered me on my perpendicular ride to the east. There was one moderate length, but appropriately graded climb that lifted me 1,300' above my Fort Hancock starting point. Otherwise the ride was mainly slow rolling hills and flat stretches. After 62 miles though, the 6-mile final descent into Van Horn was very welcome! I did get a flat along the road today for those that are counting

68 miles to Van Horn, TX

Climbing out of Fort Hancock

Midday topography

Roadside bikeshop! I shoulda taken it when I 
had the bike turned over and the wheel was off.

Tomorrow should be fun as winds are expect to shift to blow from the west. This should make the ~68 mile ride to Balmorhea fairly easy. If the winds are strong enough, there is an outside possibility that I could make it to Fort Stockton - an additional 50 miles beyond Balmorhea. 

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the upcoming route tonight. Here is the original plan to reach Laredo. 

10)     Fort Stockton, TX  >  Sanderson, TX        65 miles             Local motel

11)     Sanderson, TX  >  Comstock, TX              89 miles        Local motel

12)     Comstock, TX  >  Del Rio, TX                  32 miles          Best Western

13)     Del Rio, TX  >  Eagle Pass, TX                 55 miles            Local motel

14)     Eagle Pass, TX,  >  Carrizo Springs, TX    43 miles            Best Western

15)     Carrizo Springs, TX  >  Laredo, TX           75 miles            Host or Best Western

Day 10 is fine, but problems surface on day 11 as there is no restaurant or gas station (i.e. water) in that 90 miles between Sanderson and Comstock. I also do not think I can do 90 miles if the wind decides to blow from the SE (which it usually does at this time of year).  It also not clear what, if anything, remains open in Comstock. Day 12 could be combined with Day 13 if conditions were absolutely perfect, but otherwise I'd be too wiped from the 90 miles the day before.

Rather than messing around with what appears to be an essentially desolate 120-mile stretch from Sanderson to Del Rio, I am thinking about staying on I-10 for a few more days. I know this ground well as I rode over it heading westward in May (days 10-12, below). I could potentially combine days 11 and 12, depending on conditions. 

10) Fort Stockton, TX  >  Iraan, TX                        62 miles            Local motel

11) Iraan, TX  >  Ozona, TX                                    54 miles            Best Western

12) Ozona, TX  >  Sonora, TX                                 36 miles            Best Western

13) Sonora, TX  >  Rocksprings, TX                       55 miles            Local motel

14) Rocksprings, TX  >  Uvalde, TX                       69 miles            Local motel

15) Uvalde, TX  >  Carrizo Springs, TX                  50 miles            Local motel

16) Carrizo Springs, TX  >  Laredo, TX                  75 miles

As written, this route would take an extra day to reach Laredo, but I am starting to think it is worth it. It is safe, and I can easily find food and water on all days. I have shown I can ride 60 miles in a big headwind, but if I get a big headwind on Day 11 of the original plan, I would be completely screwed. If I got a couple of days of headwind I would get pinned for a while. I have to KNOW I can make it the whole way in one hit since there's NOWHERE to stop in between the designated towns. I'm a bit like a passerine trying to decide how and when to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico!