Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sept 1 (Day 244) - Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.........

So after much deliberation, I decided to pass on the Oyhut Pacific golden-plovers and instead head south to Cannon Beach, OR and Haystack Rock. Given that I had tried for these birds and missed two days in a row (while everyone else succeeded!), doing this felt like leaving business unfinished. I realize that there are no guarantees in birding, but I would have had a very good shot at these birds had I backtracked. My heart was telling me to chase the plovers, but my head was telling me to make ground toward the puffins. I realized that I would have to lose the battle with the Oyhut plovers in order to potentially win battle with the more important puffins. I will ave more shots at the plovers further south.

With this in mind, I set out at 6:50am to make an all-out assault on Haystack Rock. At 108 miles, today's ride was going to be incredibly challenging. It was made even more so by the time constraints I placed on myself; I wanted to arrive in time to bird Haystack Rock today. The light was going to get progressively worse later in the day as the setting sun would continually backlight the rock where the birds hang out - well, might hang out. There was an added layer of risk/complexity to the today's big puffin hunt. While numerous puffins breed on Haystack rock, most of these birds have headed out to sea for the winter by mid-August. Some stragglers take a bit longer to disperse, but, by the end of the month, the birds are normally gone. It was completely possible that I was racing to chase birds that weren't even present. The last solid report came from 4 days ago when 2-3 birds were observed. Who knows if those birds had moved on.

108 - a strong start to September!

Stock photo of Haystack rock I pulled from online.
I would estimate that its @200' high.
At low tide a sand bridge connects it to the main beach.

The actual ride south was fairly uneventful. The first third of it was quite scenic with beautiful coastal views, but the rest of it was much less so as it basically ran through thick forest. Crossing the Columbia River at Astoria was exciting and a bit hair-raising on a very skinny two-lane bridge! I made decent time and arrived in Cannon Beach at 4pm. I immediately dropped my bike off at the house where I am staying and headed down to the beach to begin the big puffing hunt. The town is very nice and is current filled with tourists. The beach is beautiful, and many folks were out enjoying it when I arrived. Showing up with a spotting scope, binoculars, and camera to bird an area like this always ends up going the same way. I was asked "What are you looking at" ten thousand times today. I try to give very short, concise, boring answers so that I can focus on birding. If I didn't do this I would have taught the same puffin ecology class 100 times today. 

The rock was backlit as I surmised it would be, but patches of cloud gave me the chance to periodically scan through the hundreds of murres in hopes of spotting the all black, red-billed, target bird. On the alcid front, it was just murre after murre after murre, all afternoon. 2 hours came and went, and I had seen nothing puffinesque either on or flying over the cliffs. I was starting to wonder if the few remaining birds had moved on. Another 1.5 hours of the same pattern seemed to confirm this suggestion. I figured tomorrow's nice morning light would greatly improve my chances of finding this normally conspicuous alcid, but I was not overly optimistic given today's outcome. I could feel my hot normally birding hand cooling off. Yes, I had picked up Slaty-backed gull, but I had also recently missed Sooty grouse, Pacific golden-plover, and now Tufted puffin. I did add 10 birds in Ocean Shores and Westport, but I would have found all those eventually. The plover was the big prize at those locations, but I missed it.

Watching the abundant murres flying over the beach was really nice, and I did find a few other notable birds today. I had 2 Harlequin ducks on the rocks as the tide fell. These were followed soon thereafter by my first Black oystercatcher of the year for bird #542. All had not been lost as I was able to add this really attractive west coast resident to my tally. It was now close to 8pm. My legs were completely exhausted at this stage, and my arms were also aching from the ride and the seemingly hundreds of scans through the constantly swirling murres. Wait....what was hell was that? What appeared to be an all dark alcid just made a sundown pass of the rock. As it turned wheeled into profile, my suspicion was confirmed. The huge beak gave away this Tufted puffin unsuccessfully attempting to reach the rock without my detection! The bird was at least 100 yards out, but it made another 2 large loops before it ducked onto the back side of the rock not to surface again. Thinking quickly, I flipped the camera into manual mode cracked off a few shots as the bird disappeared behind the rock for good.

Puff Daddy! - Tufted puffin for year bird #543.
"The more puffins we come across, the more alcids we see!"
Lighting conditions were TERRIBLE

Lighting conditions at the time of the Puffin flyby

This was an incredible victory and certainly ranks in my top 10 bird finds of the year.  I had scanned the rock for 3.5 hours before this guy showed up right at sundown. I know that alcids normally return from forging at sea near sundown, so my plan to wait until the last bit of usable light disappeared worked to perfection today. Despite my waffling over which bird to chase, we all know that this bird was more critical than the plover. While I certainly passed on what might have been an excellent shot at the plover, I will have more chances for it over the next 2 months as I work my way down the west coast. Haystack Rock was by FAR the best shot I had at the puffin. Who knows if this one bird would be here 2 days from now. The Haystack puffin decision and chase was executed to perfection today! After I found the bird I was able to talk a bit more with beachgoers. I had some really nice interactions and was even given a hamburger! A perfect end to the day.

I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. I spent the whole day biking and birding, and I did not get to organize future plans. I may just kick around here tomorrow and rest after today. I will probably head inland towards Portland to pick up a few remaining inland/forest/mountain birds like Sooty grouse and Mountain quail before heading to Eugene and eventually back out to the coast at Coos Bay, OR. From there its south to Arcata/Eureka/Humbolt Bay. 

I had already planned out an alternative blog entry in my head, but I'm going to save it for a day without so much excitement!

Cannon Beach mascot!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Aug 31 (Day 243) - Logistical headaches ahead.....

Real fast - the tagged, dead birds on the beach from 2 days ago were part of the COASST program. They keep counts of dead birds on Washington's beaches, among other things. The zip ties were tags so that the birds weren't double counted

Today I birded the greater Westport, WA area. The morning was spent sea watching while the afternoon was dedicated to (not) finding Pacific golden-plover. I am not going to spend too much time discussing the un-events of today as I now face some major logistical challenges. Missing the plover is incredibly painful. Several of these birds were seen on the other side of the inlet again today. The Oyhut Game Range where the birds were seen is only 3 miles from Westport as the crow flies, but at 60 miles around the bay, I didn't have enough time to bike back to see them today. The plover has now been seen on 9 of the last 10 days at Oyhut. The outlier day was the one I chose to visit - UGH. I had lots of other eyes with me that day, so I can say with confidence that we didn't just bird carelessly and miss the plovers.

34 miles around Westport and surrounds

Birders Kyle, Chris, and Eric that I met today

Sooty shearwater feeding frenzy off Westport today. 
There were tens of thousands of bird involved!
Audio is terrible, sorry.....

Here's the dilemma. I have the time and the energy to backtrack back around the bay and spend tomorrow and the next day, if necessary, plover hunting. I could then continue south as I had planned. The problem with this plan is that I am cutting Tufted Puffin at Haystack Rock, OR incredibly close. I do not know if the few lingering puffins have been seen in the last two days. In the next few days, these birds are going to head out to sea and take with them my best (if not only realistic) chance of ticking this species this year. So here are the possibilities:

1) Race the 106 miles to Haystack Rock tomorrow and pray that there are still some puffins hanging around. If they have already left, then I'm chasing a bird that isn't there while simultaneously folding a great chance to tick the plover. I just hope I can do this ride in 1 day.

2) Backtrack to Oyhut tomorrow to try to nail down the plover. I may get it right away, but, if I were to go back, I must be willing to spent at least 2 days to make it worth the return trip. I could then head south down the coast towards the puffins. They could leave during this time though if they haven't left already.

I will certainly have chances at the plover as I move south into California. However, this is exactly the same situation in which I find myself with the Sooty grouse. I can get it further south, it's just going to be a much bigger pain-in-the-ass than had I been able to deal with it sooner. The grouse and plover would both be hanging over my head and require my constant attention. These 2 species could not live in more disparate habitats; This means heading in opposite directions to track them down (coast, mountains).

In a car it's so easy; Drive to Haystack tomorrow, try for Puffin, then come back up to Oyhut and stay there until the plover is found.

Here are two more Surfbird photos from yesterday!

Late afternoon light showing natural coloring

Here the color is provided by the setting sun

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Aug 30 (Day 242) - Rain, Interview, Surfbird for #541 w/ REALLY good photos!

The video from yesterday now works (I hope) - check it out!

Brown Point Jetty from 8/29

It rained heavily and continuously from 6am to around 10:30am this morning (8/30). Conditions could best be described as unbirdable. Luckily, I had a very productive way to use this crappy morning. I had been contacted by Seattle birder and "Birdnote" producer/representative Adam Sedgley about doing an interview spot for this NPR-broacasted, bird-based radio program. Adam and I have been communicating over the last few days, and I knew that we would hit off. We had a good time rapping bird shop before and after the interview. Adam actually video taped the interview, so I will be sure to post a link to it once all the editing is done a few weeks from now. The rain dissipated right at we finished the interview. We headed back to the Oyhut Game Range and the Brown Point Jetty to do a bit of midday birding. The birdlife was similar to yesterday, and the clearing skies made for a really nice outing.

63 miles circuitous miles!

People generally bird Ocean Shores and Westport in one hit. Although they are separated by a few linear miles, the 45-mile journey around Gray's harbor can be easily completed in a bit over an hour. This journey would take me closer to 4-hours today with a very stiff west wind hindering the last leg. It was flat and the weather held nicely, so it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon on the bike (helped by requisite stop at Dairy Queen in Aberdeen!). I had hoped to bird Bottle Beach near Westport, but I arrived after the tide had reached its maximum high and push all the shorebirds off the flats. This area will be right at the top of my "to-do" list tomorrow. I plan to spend from around 2-5pm tomorrow around ottle Beach, a traditional location for Pacific golden-plover.

ARRGGGGHHHHH, I just found out that 11 Pacific golden-plovers were seen at the Game Range late in the afternoon. I almost stayed there until that high tide since the habitat looked SO good. This is going to cause me nightmares tonight!!!!

Anyway, I took a spin by the Westport Jetty when I arrived. I found an amazingly cooperative group of Black turnstones with one Surfbird mixed in for year bird #541. I spent the last bit of the day photographing these birds. I am now going to edit the photos I took today to get my mind off of the Plover. Incredible frustrating since I was right there at low tide and the birds came in on the afternoon high tide. Maybe I'll ride back tomorrow or the next day. Now to edit photos so I don't beat myself up!

 Surfbird (#541) chillaxing

Surfbird bathing

Black turnstone skulking

OK, I'm wiped out. Time for bed!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Aug 29 (Day 241) - Pacific arrival, new bird explosion, VERY disturbing find on beach

I have been waiting for a day like this for a long time. Much of the high elevation birding and "grousing" that I did in the last few months was painfully slow; Species diversity was often very low, and the species that were present were represented by exceptionally few individuals. These struggles evaporated today as I witnessed huge numbers of birds all day. Yesterday I surmised that it might be possible for me to add 10 birds today. This is exactly what happened today as I added ran the year's list from 530 to 540 species!

50 miles total with all the looping around!

I started the day by riding the  ~22 miles from Aberdeen, WA to Ocean Shores, WA. I got a very early start, and this ride was very short. I arrived at the Best Western Lighthouse Suites at 9:30am to find that my room was ready! This made my life super easy as I was able to ditch everything but optics in the room before I headed to the south end of the peninsula to start birding. It rained intermittently much of the morning, but I was able to carve out ~2 hours when the skies held back to do my first extended round of sea birding. As soon as I hit the Brown Point Jetty, new birds started to appear. In the first 5 minutes, I added Western gull (#531), Heermann's gull (#532), Wandering tattler (#533), Common murre (#534), Brandt's cormorant (#535) and Pigeon guillemot (#536). Turning my scope further towards the horizon yielded hundreds of Sooty shearwaters (#537). As I scoped the inlet over the next two hours, I was able to add Pelagic cormorant (#538), Elegant tern (#539), and 2 flyby Black turnstones (#540). All the views of all these birds were scope views, so unfortunately I don't have photos of any of them. That, and the light made photographing the gulls on the beach a waste of time anyway.

Video from this morning

There were hundreds of gull and murres, dozens of cormorants, and thousands upon thousands of shearwaters. I love seeing this much biomass from one spot. The thin times in the mountains really helped me to appreciate the incredible number of birds I observed this morning. I really thought that I had picked a Black-legged kittiwake at the end of this morning session, but I am only about 90% sure of the ID. This close call has motivated me to sea watch even harder and nail this bird down for real in the next few weeks. I actually missed this species in the northeast. Every time I went to search for it the weather was atrocious, and I eventually had to move south without it. It's been a splinter in my mind for the whole year. Getting redemption on the West Coast would be great!

It was very windy and cold, and by the time I left the jetty after my morning sea watch I was shivering very heavily. I rode back to town to get warmer clothes and eat lunch. After lunch I headed to the Oyhut Game Range (its just a big marsh/lagoon) to search for Pacific golden-plover. However, this place was dead, dead, and dead. It did full up with several thousand Western sandpipers as the 4pm high tide approached, but the species diversity for which I had hoped was nowhere to be found. Several Peregrine falcons kept the sandpipers on their toes, and this may have contributed to the absence of some birds. By 4pm the sun had come out in force and the heat shimmer over the shorebird lagoon made birding difficult. The warm clothes that I had fetched proved useless. I moved back to the jetty for a second, sunnier stint in the late afternoon and early evening. I was joined by Evan Houston (of Seattle Discovery Park fame a few days back) and his friends Scott and Dave. I will see more of them in the next few days as thy are staying in the area for the weekend. I did not add any new birds during the second jetty session, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sunny birding time!

Flock of Western sandpipers at lagoon

Tomorrow I am going to return to the lagoon just after the 5:30am high tide. From there I am going to return to the Jetty for a few more hours. After this I will need to start the ride ~55 mile ride around Gray's harbor to reach Westport where I plan to spend the next two days. Fingers crossed for the plover in the next few days, and maybe kittiwake.

Lastly, I am not sure what to make of this. There were several dozen dead birds piled up on the beach today. They looked as though they had been deliberately placed here. There were at least 3 gull species and a few alcids represented. All of the birds had 3 colored zip ties on their wings. If anyone knows anything about this, please let me know. It was really disturbing.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Aug 28 (Day 240) - The naked truth, Varied thrush, Egyptian goose, stoked for tomorrow!

Although the blog is usually filled with biking and bird specific details, every once in a while something so nutty happens that I have to feature it. This is exactly what happened today.  I had been texting back and forth with a potential host trying to arrange the logistics of my stay. Here is the end of this particular exchange. I offer this not to pass judgement on anyone's lifestyle, but instead just as comic relief. I am so happy this came out before I showed up at this guy's door! Needless to say, I am in motel tonight! 

"No thanks, I already have Hairy woodpecker on my year list"

This was a really good laugh. I politely declined since 9:30pm didn't work for me! Anyway, let's get on with it....

Today was mainly a moving day to position myself for the start of my Pacific Coast birding this weekend. I had a very nice morning with my college friend, Joe, and his wife, Jen, in Olympia, WA. It was nice to lounge around with them and do a bit more catching up. I only had to ride ~50 miles today, so there was no real pressure to hit the road early. When I did get rolling, it was cloudy and cool - perfect riding weather. I did make one rather major birding stop at Capitol State Forest. I was not completely sure what to expect. It was incredibly quiet, but I did scape up my first Varied thrush of the year for bird #530! It was a bit scruffy looking, so I am still looking forward to finding a nice clean adult male at some point later in the trip. There was a fair amount of ATV activity today (UGH), so what Sooty grouse might have been around were surely scared off by these "outdoor enthusiasts".

48 miles today

I reached Aberdeen, WA in the late afternoon. Tomorrow morning I will bike the 27 miles to the southern tip of Ocean Shores. The birding will really heat up at this point. The most sought after prize is Pacific golden-plover. There have been several of these birds hanging around the area for the last week; Hopefully they will stay put for one more day. Outside of this particularly tricky species, I will certainly find a number of other more common birds that will be new for the year. These include:

Brandt's cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Sooty shearwater
Black turnstone
Wandering tattler
Heermann's gull
Western gull
Common murre
Pigeon guillemot
Black oystercatcher (possible, though unlikely at this spot)
Greater white-fronted goose (they have been seen migrating over the area recently)
Elegant tern (still on bit far north, but they've beed seen near here)
Tufted puffin (how lucky could I get - I got word today that there are still birds at Haystock Rock, OR. I'm racing to get there before they leave!)

With enough searching of jetties and oceans in next 3-4 days, I fully expect to find the the first 10 birds listed above. The last four will come at some point either this weekend or later, I am sure of it. This is also a really good time for shorebird rarities, so I will be on the look out for birds like Bar-tailed godwit which are annual at this location. I am very good at identifying shorebirds, so if there is something good floating around, I am confident I will pick it out. I now have my spotting scope and tripod back in my hands after it was completely overhauled by Lecia during the summer. I use the original 77mm APO Televid. Interestingly, when I sent it into be serviced, it had a straight eyepiece. When it came back, it had an angled eyepiece! This doesn't bother me one bit as now I can more easily share views with shorter observers. Only problem with the scope/tripod is the 8 lbs that it adds to my kit!

I am going to have a hard time sleeping tonight since I am so excited about birding tomorrow. Could you imagine if I could get 10 year birds tomorrow?!!? Its going to be exciting.

Oh, if you ever make it to Aberdeen, you simply MUST check out the Star Wars Store! It is just incredible! 

Props in front of store

Mural on side of store

Lastly, the ABA has decided that Egyptian goose is now a countable species if observed in South Florida. Please see this article for specifics. I saw two of these birds fly over the Wakodahatchee Wetlands on March 1st. I made a mental note of this since I knew there was a movement afoot to make this a countable species. I see no reason why I cannot add this bird to my list. It's not a terribly satisfying addition, but I did see it. It was not countable on the day I saw it, but it has been made countable during my big year. I am not sure whether to add it to the list as the number when I actually saw it, #218, or add it as #531. I would note the nature of the addition at either position. I am curious what if any discussion this will generate! 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Aug 27 (Day 239) - Tacoma Slaty-backed search, round 2!!!

This morning I headed back to the Tacoma Port to resume the Slaty-backed gull search that ended near sunset yesterday. I arrived on a falling tide and did not find many birds in or around the river. However, as the tide continued to fall, a series of sandbars were exposed in the river. Glaucous-winged-type gulls began to trickle in from other reaches of the port. Like yesterday, I ping-ponged between a couple of vantage points hoping that I could catch a glimpse of the darker-mantled (i.e darker-backed) Slaty-backed. The sun was quite high by mid-morning. This made judging the relative shades of gray on the various gulls more difficult. However, right round noon, after 3 hours of searching, I saw a suspicious bird on a roof several hundred yards way. I biked around to get a bit closer to it. In so doing, I got a decent look at what I presumed was the Slaty-backed gull. The light was less than outstanding, but I took this record shot anyway. I was really hoping the bird would fly so that I could see a few more definitive field marks. While this was the ONLY dark-backed gull I had found, I wanted to get better looks and photos to be sure.

My view of the gull after biking around the building - UGH

I hung around for about 20 minutes, but the bird just paced around in circles on this particular patch of roof. Suddenly though, he took to the air and gave me a single overhead pass. I cracked off a decent flight photo showing the very wide, white trailing edge to the wing as well as the entirely gray underwing. The similar Western gull would have a thinner trailing edge and much more black under the wing. This looked good for year bird #529! This was also a life bird for me. 

Slaty-backed gull from below in noon sun

After a single loop, it landed in the same spot on the roof. I decided to head back to the spot from where I previously saw the bird. I figured that maybe he would eventually join the other gulls on the exposed sandbar to feed. Sure enough after about 10 minutes he did just this. He spent the next 30 mis or so running about, feeding, swimming, and preening. I had a great view of him from the bridge on which I was perched! I left him preening on the sandbar to ride back to my base in Puyallup and begin the ride to Olympia.

With Glaucous-winged-types, for mantle comparison

Slaty, slaty, slaty can't you see,
sometime yo wings just hypnotize me!

Looking at me as I banged on metal bridge with 
a rock to get his attention

Headshot extracted from above.
Light eye, pinkish orbital ring.

I even tries my hand at video on the 7D today...Need practice!

This was a fantastic addition to the list. Assuming I can find all or nearly all my possible/expected species, this is the type of bird that will push me right up towards 600. With this bird in hand, I formulated a plan for the next few days. I was still tossing around the Mt. Rainier idea for Sooty grouse, but after I ticked this bird, I tossed the Rainier idea out the window. What is the connection between these events? Well, if I had missed this bird today, I could made the Rainier run to look for the grouse as previously proposed. Regardless of how that might go, I could then swing back through Tacoma on my way west to take another crack at finding this bird. Once this bird was ticked, Rainier seemed a lot further for only one bird. Recall I got Gray-crowned rosy-finch in the Cascades which also lowered the potential payout of a Rainier run.

I now have what I think will be a fabulous next 5-6 days mapped out. I am currently staying with one of my best friends from college in Olympia. It was really great to catch up with him and his wife, Jenn. She is due with child #2 momentarily (literally), so I am glad I made it here to see them before the baby required their complete attention! Tomorrow I will ride to Aberdeen with a stop at the Capitol State Forest for some land birding. Sooty grouse is actually a remote possibility at this location. Varied thrush and Red-breasted sapsucker are also "in play". From Aberdeen I will ride to Ocean Shores on Friday morning. I will bird that area all afternoon Friday and Saturday morning (staying at Best Western in OS Saturday night!). Saturday afternoon I will head over to Westport where I will stay both that night and Sunday. This weekend will mainly be focused on shorebirds, but I am sure I will find some other interesting gulls, cormorants, and the like as well. From Westport, I will run south to Astoria, OR and Haystack rock where I hope to arrive in time to tick Tufted Puffin. I all certainly get Common murre at this site, but the puffin is the big prize! So, it looks like 5 or 6 relatively mellow 50-mile days where I already have all my lodging sorted out! I can focus totally on birding!!! If anyone is birding in the Westport region this weekend, drop me an email at bikingforbirds@google.com. I know there's a big pelagic headed out on Saturday, but maybe some of those folks will stick around to bird on Sunday. If you live in Astoria, OR, I still need a place to stay in that area!

A relatively easy 60 today.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Aug 26 (Day 238) - Urban birding for Slaty-backed gull

Posting from McDonalds. Internet very slow (its usually very good). Not going to add normal photos and commentary.

The story of today was the great Slaty-backed gull hunt. I left Seattle after the morning rush hour and headed south to Tacoma to spend the afternoon searching for the gull. I had some very good intelligence, and I thought I would have at least a decent shot at finding the bird. It has been recently observed at various locations in and around the Port of Tacoma. Aesthetically, this area leaves a bit to be desired, but based on the abundance of Glaucous-winged gulls, it is clearly a place that attracts Larids (gulls). I spent the afternoon bouncing around a number of supposedly productive areas. I had some help from local birder Mike Charest who has actually seen the bird several times in the last week. He is the one who initially reported the bird a few days ago. He lives very close by and birds this area regularly. This bird has apparently spent the last 3 winters in the port, but based up some new revelations, locals are starting to consider the possibility that the bird resides permanently in area and does not migrate back to Siberia in the summer as might be predicted.

Port view. Bird is sometimes seen in this channel.

Despite all of this information and much searching, I was not able to find the bird today. This is one of those birds I will have to grind out. There isn’t much species diversity at the port, and it is less then scenic. I am going to make at least one more run at this bird, but exactly how it will shake out in the context of the potential Rainier run and/or run to the Washington Coast has yet to be determined. 

The bike ran great today, so the tune-up certainly was well-worth the time and money yesterday.

43 plus 5 of birding in port for 48 total miles

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Aug 25 (Day 237) - Seattle visit, bike repairs, a bit of birding, and TWITCH TIME!

I have been to the Seattle area 3-4 times over the years, but I have never really spent any time in the city proper. That all changed today. I was able to secure housing right on Pike Street in the city center for tonight. This spot served perfectly as my base to access Seattle's numerous bike shops and to explore this now understandably awesome city. I dropped my bike off a The Bicycle Repair Shop at 10pm this morning. They said they would have it back to me by 5pm which would be perfect! I had the day to explore the waterfront, Pike Market, and the rest of the downtown area. I was thoroughly impressed; I now see why so many people are moving to this beautiful place. I will certainly concede that I am visiting the area at the best time of year weather-wise, but this place is great. It is also an incredibly bike-friendly place. I crossed one bridge that even had a digital display of the number of bikes that used it during the morning commute. I was number 870 - at 7:45am! I also spent some time today catching up with several scientist friends who work at either the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center or the University of Washington. It was a really nice, relaxing day.

Obligatory fish shot at Pike Market!

The serviced bike ran like a charm when I picked it up at 4:30. To give it a thorough test ride though, I decided to meet local birder (and scientist!) Evan Houston for a bit of birding at Discovery Park. This is probably the best metro-Seattle birding area, and although it was a bit quiet on the high tide this evening, I can see why it is a popular birding destination. We did find several cooperative Rhinoceros auklets at relatively close range for year bird #528. I also had some much better looks at Mew gulls. Mostly though Evan and I talked birding shop and just enjoyed the day out.

Me with Evan

Mew Gull from today

Tomorrow is going to be exciting as I will attempt to twitch a Slaty-backed gull in Tacoma, 35 miles to the south of Seattle. This same adult bird has returned to the exact same spot for the last 3 winters. It has been seen the last two days and is apparently always in the area. This would be a HUGE addition to the year list, and as such I think it is worth pushing a few days into the search for it. The bird is exactly zero miles out of my way, and I have the time at the moment. It would also be a life bird for me which adds additional excitement.

I am having a very difficult time deciding what to do about Sooty grouse. I could go to Rainier after the gull search, but that's in the exact opposite direction to where I ultimately need to go (Olympia, Westport/Aberdeen. What I really need is a reliable Sooty grouse spot in Southern Washington, Oregon, or Northern California. Pipe up if you have any really solid leads/ideas!

An easy 24 miles around Seattle

Monday, August 25, 2014

Aug 24 (Day 236) - New birds, Dumb Dumb Dumb mistake!

The home where I stayed last night in Everett, WA is only about a mile form Puget Sound. Yesterday evening I biked down to Mukilteo Lighthouse to do a bit of birding, but it was fairly quiet. I had scheduled a short ride into Seattle today, so I had a bit of time to do some additional birding in the Everett area this morning. I headed to Howarth Park just down the hill from my hosts' house. There was a fair amount of chop on the water this morning, but it surprisingly settled down by around 8am. Once this happened I was able to pick out 3 Marbled murrelets floating around for year bird #526! Turning my new scope on the shore I located 2 Mew gulls for #527! This was a very strong morning indeed! These birds might have been a bit tougher had I hit the coast further south (say, Northern California), so I am glad to have knocked both of them out in a single hour. The murrelets were a good distance out, but I am very happy with the looks I had. This is a bird that is often only glimpsed before they dive not to be seen again. The birds today were just floating around and hanging out - nice! I got my scope back today so that is a big help.

Digiscoped Marbled murrelet for #526

Digiscoped Mew gull for #527

After the early morning successes, I returned home to pack up and hit the road. One giant problem: I managed to leave my cell phone on the kitchen sink when I filled my water bottles. The door clicked shut behind me, and that was it. Locked out. I could see the phone through the window. I used the laptop to snap a photo of my self-created situation! I looked around the house for an open door or a hide-a-key. No luck. UGH - I had to wait until they got home around 3pm. After I got my phone I moved to the north edge of Seattle (24 miles) from where I will tomorrow access downtown and its numerous bicycle repair shops. I didn't have much slated for today but to reach Seattle, so the phone issue didn't cost me too much on any front.

My plans for the next few days are starting to take shape nicely. Once I get these totally ironed out I will pass the along to you.

Also, I probably should have posted this earlier, but here is a video Matt Yawney made during the great Spruce grouse hunt last week. It's definitely worth a view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcYLqf5iC2M&feature=youtu.be

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Aug 23 (Day 235) - Pacific coast arrival!

I have officially reached the other side of the country! Yes, I know that the Puget Sound is not the same as the open Pacific, but given that I haven't seen salt water since I left the Texas Coast in late April, it counts in my book. Today was fairly mellow as I moved just 50 miles down the road towards Seattle. Since I had a shorter day, I decided to take the scenic route. This was a mistake as there was no scenery and quite a few hills. Avoid Marine Drive - Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! I had a bit of time to visit Mukilteo Lighthose and do some birding in the evening. At this gorgeous spot, I was able to add Glaucous-winged gull for bird #525. There was a range of plumages as there always seems to be with this species, but there were certainly some pure birds present. I also saw some large dark alcids that were almost certainly Rhinoceros auklets, but I'll wait until I get a better look to definitively tick this bird. I am going to return to this spot tomorrow morning to see if I can find a few more alcids. There was a fair amount of boat traffic this afternoon since it was a really nice Saturday. I imagine it will be a bit quieter tomorrow, Sunday morning.

2,400 feet of climbing  - a bit more than I 
wanted to do today.

Mukilteo lighthouse with ferry in back

My bike is absolutely beat to hell at the moment. It's actually a pretty close race between my bike and my body! My plan right now is to have a very mellow riding day tomorrow to reach Seattle, just 30 miles down the road. I am going to spend at least 2 nights in Seattle. I plan to have my bike completely overhauled during that middle day. During this time I will explore downtown Seattle, a city in which I really haven't spent much time. I can also use this time to plan out what will happen after the city. I think a Rainier run is now unavoidable. I think I might head that way on Tuesday/Wednesday. If anyone wants to spend a camping night with me at Rainier one of these nights, please let me know at bikingforbirds@gmail.com. Someone even reported White-winged crossbill from that area today, so you never know what's going to show up. 

On a more humorous note, I saw this campaign sign along the road today. I'd only vote for him if his campaign manager and/or best friend does the required dance!

Campaign by Napoleon Dynamite!

I will do this dance if I get 600 birds!

Although yesterday's post mush have made me sound as though I am suicidal at the moment, I assure you everything is fine on this end. Anyone, including myself, who thought this year was going to be all "kittens and rainbows" is smoking crack. There are going to be some incredible highs this year, but there will also certainly be some really low points. Most of these will stem from the physical discomfort that biking over 15,000 miles in a single year will cause! If this pain is the worse thing I face this year, that's fine with me. I may bitch and complain a bit, but I'll keep going. I also feel that it is important for you to hear about all aspects of this adventure: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Aug 22 (Day 234) - A bird in the hand isn't always better than 2 in the bush....

The plan for today was to search for Sooty grouse at Sauk Mountain before dropping out of the Cascades to reach the Puget Sound region. If I could find the grouse today, I would just chart a coastal route south without concern for detouring to alternate inland, mountainous spots for this species. It really was a must find from a logistical standpoint. I took off from Marblemount, WA at 6:45am and paralleled the Skagit River to reach Rockport, WA ~10 miles downstream. From here I would access Sauk Mountain Road and climb into what appeared from aerial photos to be good grouse habitat. I was able to add Pacific-slope flycatcher while biking along the river this morning. His characteristic 2-note call gave him away. A quick pish brought him into view for year bird #524. Again, no photo since he was under the canopy and there wasn’t any light at this early hour.

The detour up Sauk Mt can be seen in
the elevation profile

The ride up Sauk Mountain Road was absolutely murderous. It was both steeper and longer than Teton Pass, the previous titleholder for the most challenging stretch I have faced this year. It was also all on dirt (Teton pass was all paved). Luckily, I ditched most of my weight at the bottom of the hill since I knew I would be able to collect it after the descent. There were many stretches of the climb that were excruciatingly slow, and the bike had to be pushed around swithbacks on a number of occasions. It took nearly 2 hours to climb the 6 miles to the top. Riding the fully loaded bike up this road would have been impossible.  Physically, my legs did feel good today, so I guess the day off yesterday did the trick. The views from Sauk Mountain were fabulous. These have become standard in this part of the world.

Mt. Baker and its glaciers way in the distance

Sooty grouse like areas that have been previously logged and are now undergoing reforestation. They like open woodlands intermixed with meadows. This is in contrast to Spruce grouse from earlier in the week; They like the really dense stuff. My strategy today was to walk the various logging roads on and around Salk Mountain. These wound through apparently appropriate habitat, and I was hopeful I could kick one of the birds off of one of these roads. I spent roughly 6 hours scouring the logging roads without luck. There were very few birds today, but I did find the usual western warblers, kinglets, and chickadees. I also saw several dozen Band-tailed pigeons. These were a nice surprise since I have not seen them since Arizona. 4pm came and it was time to descend. This was as hard on my forearms as the climb was on my legs; I had to squeeze my brakes with everything I had not to run away down the incredibly steep, winding road. It was very nerve-racking.

I birded lots of area like this......

....and this without finding the grouse.

 The afternoon ride was a bit of a headache as I had to cover almost 40 miles into a moderate west headwind after the monster climb I did earlier. This pattern of big morning climbs followed by afternoon headwinds has made the last few days of riding really hard. Throw in two 6-hour hikes and the fatigue problem  compounds exponentially. I will say that although the scenery is incredible, I am not enjoying any of my time on the bike these days. Maybe it’s the long days, maybe it’s the recent headwinds, maybe it’s the incendiary set of saddle sores that I have at the moment, or maybe it’s the fact that there is no break from biking – ever.

I realized today that I ride the bike like someone who doesn’t want to be on it. I am pedaling as fast as I can all the time. I am not stopping to explore. I blow right through small towns without looking up. I avoid bike paths in favor of highways since they are more direct. I am basically trying to make every ride as short as possible. My pedal clips currently seem like handcuffs, and the loaded bike feels like a giant tumor than I cannot shed. On my ride from Okanagon to Mazama three days ago, I got so frustrated with the wind that I got off the bike and threw it down on the side of the road. I then ripped off my helmet and smashed it against the guardrail. It took several additional minutes of pacing the highway shoulder before I was calm enough to resume the torture. Since then, I have just been counting mile markers; “63 miles to go, another 5 hours of this f’ing bullshit” and so on and so forth. Biking can be great, but when you have to do it day after day after day after day with ZERO breaks, it extracts an immense toll on your mind and body. What I really need is weeklong vacation from the bike. Thanks to the missed grouse, that ain’t gonna happen!

Tomorrow I will hit the Washington coast for the first time. I expect there to be a nice bump of new birds as a result. It is also nice to be back in flatter, more developed areas with more places to find food and lodging. Although I am really sick of biking, I am confident it will get better over the next 2 weeks (minus the search for the Sooty). I just need a few easier days to recover before I resume the grouse hunt.

Tail feather from Sooty grouse that I found today.
As a said, a bird in the hand isn't always better.....

Friday, August 22, 2014

Aug 21 (Day 233) - I feel like I got run over by a steamroller.....

This is just a quick entry since today was very quiet. I spend the day recovering from yesterday's incredibly challenging ride and hike. Today was the weakest my body has felt all year - hands down. I tried to get the energy and motivation to take a short ride this afternoon, but I just could not do it. My legs felt like bricks. I was only able to totter about the woods near where I am staying looking for common woodland species. I am actually amazed at how quiet the area is from a bird standpoint. There simply just isn't much going right now. I did see/flush several more Ruffed Grouse, and I was able to add Pacific wren for bird #523. This is a very common bird around these parts. It was added without much dedicated effort!

Pacific wren habitat - no photo of the bird.
400 5.6 w/o IS is useless in here!

Tomorrow I am going to make a very concerted effort to find Sooty grouse in and above Rockport State Park right down the road (~8 miles) from where I am staying. The only real kicker is that I have to climb 3000' in 6 miles once I reach the birding area! That's a 10% grade, on dirt - UGH UGH UGH. It will probably take me 1.5-2 hours to ride those 6 miles. I may just opt to ditch the bike in the woods and hike it instead. Hiking it will take about the same length of time as biking going up, but it will take 2 hours to walk back down versus 20 minutes to bike down. Decisions, decisions.....

OK, that's it. I am going to bed super early to let my body recover to the best of its ability tonight. If I can get the grouse tomorrow I am done with climbs specifically for birding. The only climbs will be the smaller ones between birding areas from then out. Fingers crossed for the bird!

Tomorrow's challenge - then I have to ride 40 more miles
to where I will probably stay.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Aug 20 (Day 232) - North Cascades Highway traverse, Great bird find!

First, Sonia got a big promotion today! She is now a Senior Travel Manager at Cognizant. We are both very happy for her. She is very deserving of this recognition.

I knew today was going to be one of the toughest days of the year.  I managed to cross the very long, very challenging 78-mile stretch from Mazama, WA on the eastern side of the North Cascades to Marblemount on the Western side. However, this is only half of the story. I also took a 6-hour, 8-mile hike that climbed ~2,300' into the mountains. This made for 6 hours of biking and 6 hours of hiking today. I am exhausted. I am going to give myself a day off tomorrow and do some local birding around Marblemount; This will let my legs and ass heal after a grueling day today.

Simply put, this ride is absolutely incredible. The well-maintained Highway 20 runs through some of the most unspoiled wilderness in the Lower 48 States. It was just sprawling forest surrounding the amazingly rugged peaks that rise high above treelike. This area is too rugged for a ski industry to have developed (yay!), so its still very pristine unlike much of Utah and Colorado. I am just gonna start throwing out photos since I took a lot of them today.

Local birders Victor and Libby Glick 
recognized me on the road just as
I started the big climb!

View up the last 4 miles of the killer 18-mile, 3,700' 
climb to start the day. I passed just below that 
huge formation right of center

View looking back down/west during 
the last mile of that same climb

Starting the descent after crossing Washington Pass

Now this is where things got really interesting. The Maple Pass hike that I did today just after crossing Washington Pass was potentially the single best day hike I have ever done. The road is great, but you simply must get a bit higher to really appreciate what's going on in the North Cascades!

I had a nice chat about birds and science with Scott Price
at the top of the pass

Besides the incredible scenery, there was a bird-motivated reason behind this hike. In speaking with a long-time birding friend, Barry Lyon, he suggested that I look for Gray-crowned rosy-finch on the hike to Maple Pass. His rationale was that I was already going to be at 5,000' when I biked by the trailhead, so what effort was it to climb to  ~7,000' (easier said than done)? If I could find the bird here, it would mean I might be able to skip Mount Rainier. Rainier NP is a very reliable place for this species since it is heavily glaciated; Rosy-finches like it high and cold. However, Rainier would be a bit of a detour back to the east from my potentially more coastal route. It would also require biking back up to 5,000 feet of elevation (from sea level) and hiking to around 8,000 feet to have a good shot at the birds. This would be a lot of effort. With all of this in mind, I arrived at the trailhead, stashed my bike in the woods and began the amazing hike pictured above. 

Birding was slow on the ascent. I did find one very nice mixed flock with Red-breasted nuthatch, both Kinglets, Brown creeper, and Chestnut-backed chickadee for year bird #521. This was one of those free birds I figured I would get this week. I thought I might also get Pacific wren or Varied thrush, but I dipped on these. I am sure both will be added in short order, so it's nothing to worry about. Reaching the top of Maple Pass, I was concerned that I was not high enough to find rosy-finches. There were some small patches of snow near where I stopped for lunch, but the most rugged areas with the best snow cover were a bit higher and inaccessible from where I was eating. Several people lunching at the same spot recognized me from the road - they had passed me on my bike while they were driving. I explained Biking for Birds and how I was looking for a small finch that I was not optimistic about finding. Not two minutes later I heard a very distinctive buzzing sound coming from the cliffs to my right. What the hell? Could it actually be the finches? I leapt up and stared down the slope. It took me a few moments to locate the source of the sound, and when I did I saw a few birds flying up towards me at the pass. I didn't even need to see them to know what they were. The calls had already given them away. I got a short and quite unsatisfactory view of one of the birds as it crested at the ridge and disappeared up into the rocky formations above my head. 5 trailing birds with the same stocky, compact, finch shape followed for a total of 6 Gray-crowned rosy-finches. The look was a real let down compared to how well I saw Black rosy-finch and Brown-capped rosy-finch earlier in the trip. Needless to say no photo was obtained. I waited around for another 1.5 hours hoping they would return. They did not, and I will be forced to live with the brief, crappy view I got today. It was really the call that enabled the ID. 

The Rosy-finches were on this rock slide below me
and/or the rock face above me

I had to stick to my pre-determined 2:30pm descent time since I still had 52 miles to cover to reach Marblemount. Yes, most of it was downhill but it took 3.5 hours with a stiff 20 MPH headwind blowing west up through the valley. I arrived at my home for the night at 7:45pm, 13 hours after I rolled out the door in Mazama. It was a long day, but it was a visual beautiful and bird-productive one as well. Yes, I got really lucky with the rosy-finches today. However, I put myself in a position to be lucky by killing myself physically to reach Maple Pass. I can say without question that no one in the history of the world has burned more calories in a single day searching for this species. Big props to Barry for this idea!

With GCRF ticked, I have a lot more flexibility. The last "high" elevation bird that I need to find is Sooty grouse. This species isn't even a high elevation specialist; It's more low to mid elevation, but I'll still likely need to do some climbing to get it. I am now at 340' above sea level. This is the lowest I have been since I left High Island, TX on April 27/28! I will actually keep my eyes open for Sooty grouse as I bird above Marblemount tomorrow. The issue is that the best place to find this bird is Rainier, so I might end up going there anyway. The difference is that I only need to get one bird since I dealt with the rosy-finch today. I am hoping I can get lucky and find it between here and Rainier. This bird can also be found in Western Oregon and Northern California, both areas I will visit. However, I do not want to bypass Rainier since it is such a good spot for Sooty grouse. Unless I get some intel on other really consistent spots for this bird, I can't yet rule out a Rainier run. Washington and Oregon folks please chime in if you have ideas on this bird (bikingforbirds@gmail.com).

Lastly, I had a beautiful male Ruffed grouse in the road when I turned into my hosts's driveway at the end of my long ride. It was a really nice way to finish out an incredible day.

Midnight - bedtime!