Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sept 29 (Day 272) - Getting ready for Monterey, thoughts on using sailboats this year

After the huge Pacific golden-plover triumph of yesterday, I today had to retrace my tracks south through Santa Cruz to reach Salinas, CA. I knew exactly what to expect for the first half of the ride, but the second half was a much tougher than I thought. I had been able to ride on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz, but was not permitted to do south south of that point. As a result I was shunted onto side roads that had lots of short but steep hills. After a total of 92 miles today, I was wiped out when I reached Salinas. Luckily tomorrow will be a short ride to Monterey where the sea birding will be heavily featured for the next 3-5 days.

One topic/idea that has been raised at various points this year is if it would be possible for me to sail out into Monterey Bay to add the pelagics species that are there found. I have decided against doing this. The main reason is that any sailboat that would be able (i.e. big enough, safe enough) to take me out into the often unpredictable Monterey Bay is going to have to use its motor (and gas) to get in and out of the harbor. It is illegal to be under sail in harbors as it puts the sailboat and all other boats at risk. I thought about kayaking out to a boat that had already left the harbor, but this all seems like trying to exploit loop holes so at to maximize my species count. Speaking with Mark Kudrav this week, we both felt that this would be disingenuous and contrary to the spirit of green birding. We agreed that there is a much better, more sincere and appropriate solution to the challenge of how to add seabirds to the list: seawatch harder. Sure, I would add more species by being out on a sailboat, but the integrity of my list is more important than the number of birds on it. For example, I have not taken my bike on a ferry this year. This has added many hundreds of miles to my route. Likewise, I have not accepted rides when offered. I could have birded the bird-rich Delmarva Peninsula in Jan/Feb on my way down the east coast and then hitched a ride over the 21-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. This would have saved me from going through the birdless (and dangerous) areas of Baltimore and Washington, DC. However, I felt that doing this would have again been disingenuous. I have certainly had lots of help from people in cars this year, but I think I want to draw the line at the boat. I know I am going to get a bunch of emails saying this is a good idea or that this a terrible idea, but it's how it's going to be. When you do your green big year, you can feel free to do it however you want. Just know that the 2 guys with the highest single-year-species-totals to date both decided against the sailboat. Lastly, kayaking would certainly be possible, but I do not think it would be as productive as seawatching from a good, high perch since I would be so low on the water and I would be scopeless anyway. 

It is going to be very interesting to see what happen if organizations start keeping green birding records like they do for more conventional methods of transportation. We will certainly have to come up with some standards moving forward. I will have lots to say about this later in the year, don't you worry! For those that are new to the blog, I did write a bit about this earlier in the year. You can see some of those thoughts here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sept 28 (Day 271) - Biggest gamble of the year so far........

Yesterday afternoon, en route to Santa Cruz, I received a phone call from Malia (who, with Chris, helped me find Red-throated pipit on the 25th) that a Pacific golden-plover had been found in Half Moon Bay (HMB). This is not an incredibly rare species, but it is rare enough that I need to keep it on my radar at all times if I am going to find one. Interestingly, this plover was found not 200 yards from where the Red-throated pipit was found  few days ago (As an aside, the pipit was found in the evening on the 24th. I saw it on the 25th whereafter it vanished. Man, did I time that right!). Anyway, despite the obvious attractions of the plover yesterday, I had to let it go for 3 reasons. First, it was Sonia's last night, and I wanted to spent time with her. Second, I was close to 40 miles south of HMB when the call came in. Third, there was a nasty north wind that would have made turning north impossible. For these reasons, this bird was going to be an impossibility. As the plover was found about 1/2 a mile from Malia's house, I did ask if she could stick her nose out onto the beach this morning and let me know if the bird was still around. What I would do with this information I didn't have a clear idea, but at least I would have it.

Malia called me at 7:15am this morning to say that the plover had stayed the night and was present in about the same area as yesterday. My newly-hatched plan was to have breakfast with Sonia and my host from last night, Tim, and then sprint the 51 miles from breakfast north back to HMB to look for the plover. I left hit the road at 9:45am today. I covered the 51 miles to HMBin 2 hours and 57 minutes. I was pushing very hard to beat the afternoon crowds that would take over the beach should the morning fog clear and the sun appear. This is exactly what happened as I was about 20 miles from HMB, and, as I feared, hundreds of people had descended on the beach before I arrived. Upon arrival, I called Malia to find out where she was. She sadly informed me that the Pacific golden-plover, along with the ~2 dozen Black-bellied plovers with which it was associating, had vanished and could not be relocated.

Tim and me at the diner

62 miles today

UGH - what an incredibly painful piece of news. It was a very intense ride in the complete wrong direction. I probably should have kept going south instead as one of these would likely pop up somewhere along my route anyway. This is a bird I really wanted, and I might have let me personal feelings to tick it force me into taking such a big risk. As I am staying with Chris and Malia in HMB tonight, I will have another crack at the bird on a person-less beach tomorrow morning before I retraced my steps south.

The beach was littered with people this afternoon. There was no place the group of plovers could find peace and quiet - except perhaps for the jetties in the harbor 3-4 miles down the beach. High tide was at 2pm today. I decided that I would relax util around 3:30 and then head out to check the jetties on a falling tide. I had seen loads of shorebirds in one particular elbow of the jetty a few days ago when I birded it after finding the pipit. I arrived today and found a nice mix of the same birds I had a few days ago. I scanned all around with no sign of the golden-plover. There were some Black-bellies, but I have no idea if these were the same birds that were associating with the golden-plover down the beach (Black-bellied plovers are very common along the coast). I decided to relax, take a few pictures, and take another stab at the golden-plover on the beach tomorrow morning once the weekend hoards had departed. As I was about to close-up shop, I took another scan down the exposed beach adjacent to the jetty that the falling tide had exposed. What the hell is that? A buffy head could be discerned from about 100 yards. Could that be the bird? I saw a fisherman climbing off the jetty right near the interesting bird. I started sprinting down the rocky beach toward to bird in hopes I could get a better look at it before the guy flushed it. I ran to within 50 yards of the bird and confirmed theat the bird was in fact the Pacific golden-plover! The fisherman flushed the bird 2 seconds later, and it flew right past me and back towards the harbor. Number 563 was found in the most amazing manner. I had guessed exactly right where the bird had gone after it had been flushed off the main beach 4 miles away 4 hours earlier!

Beach exposed along jetty as tide fell this afternoon

Uncropped frame showing Pacific golden-plover down jetty beach.
Its the smaller bird behind the central Whimbrel.

Crop from above showing plover a bit closer

BAM! No black under the wings!

Black-bellied plover showing black axilleries (i.e. armpits)
for comparison with above

There were quite a few other people hanging around the area, but over the course of the next hour I was very slowly able to approach this bird between regular disruptions from other people and dogs. I entered in "Bird Whisperer" mode and stalked/skulked/crawled my way to within a very short distance of this bird on several occasions. How close did I get? This close........

.....and bit closer still......

......don't move too fast......

.....hold your breath......

......he's right in front of you!

Yes, sure, I may have found this species further south without this big detour, but there is NO WAY I could have seen this bird better than I did today. I would have probably seen it 1/2 a mile out in a plowed field or sod farm. This was an incredibly satisfying find for me for several reasons. First, this is a bird I needed to find to keep the march towards 600 going. Second, I had looked for this bird in Washington and missed it; It was seen at that location the day before and the day after I looked for it. Third, I busted my ass to get here today. Yes, it was a big ride (and I must still do the return half of it tomorrow), but it was a defined ride. This defined devil is better than the undefined one I may (or may not even!) encounter later. Lastly, I think I showed some very good resourcefulness today to find this bird. 

And with that, the Pacific golden-plover joins the list in remarkable fashion.

Tomorrow I will head back south through Santa Cruz to Salinas. From there its to south to Monterey!

Goodnight from Maverick's.
Best big wave surfing spot in North America
when its going (not today)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sept 27 (Day 270) - Seawatching, southward movement, and reader questions - part 1!

So, how many of you bit on the Speckled Hatchback? This has been a long-running personal joke of mine, and it is high time I shared it with you. It all started when I was about 11 or 12 years old when the other guys on my youth ice hockey team found out that I was a big birdwatcher. My friend RP Urban was giving me a hard time, and he said “Dude, what do you do? Go out in the woods and wait for the Speckled Hatchback to go ‘Cheep Cheep’”. He knew nothing about birds, but he had somehow managed to instantly create an outlandish yet completely believable bird name that has stuck with me to this day. As a metaphor, Speckled hatchback for me now represents anything for which a person might be searching. This could be something as tangible as a rare bird, or as abstract as the meaning of life. Every person has his or her own personal Speckled hatchback, and how we each look for it largely determines how each of us lives his or her life. I will hopefully return to this metaphor in the book I hope to write at some point. Anyway, now you know.

As for actual birds, Mark and I spent 6 hours seawatching from Pigeon Point this morning an early afternoon. There were fair numbers of birds all day. The species represented were the same as yesterday, and like yesterday, we thought we had 1 probable Pomarine jaeger that got away without definitive identification. Otherwise, we had ~15 Parasitic jaegers, 20-30 Black-vented shearwaters, and maybe 5-6 Pink-footed shearwaters. Breaching humpbacks kept things interesting, and we had a few flyby phalaropes that provided excitement even without positive identification. After lunch I headed south to Santa Cruz where I am spending the night. En route, I received a call that a Pacific golden-plover had surfaced behind me in Half Moon Bay this afternoon. I am contemplating going back the ~50 miles to get it tomorrow morning since I have tons of time. I need to give this some serious thought to this tonight.

41 miles south today

I also had not one but two run-ins with blog readers today. Mike and Corrine recognized me (and Sonia!) while I was birding at Pigeon Point. We had a nice chat with them as we scanned the ocean for an hour. I was also stopped on the road by Ethan Goodman with whom I have been corresponding over the course of the year. He is from New York, but was in the area on vacation. We had a brief chat before he had to run to SF to catch his flight back to the east coast.

Me, Corrine, Mike

Me, Ethan

Lastly, here is the first installment of the reader-generated questions. I will be posting more of these on days when there isn't too much birding-related news. Sonia and I decided to start with the most general question and work towards things more specific. Hopefully everyone will enjoy this series!

Sept 26 (Day 269) - Mellow day to add Tricolored blackbird and Pacific loon, chasing 600 update!

This north-central part of the California coast is just beautiful. Great scenery, relatively few people, and lots of bird combine to make birding here a really relaxing and therapeutic experience. Great weather had combined with great company to make the last few days of birding really special. I decided to focus on seabirds this morning. Mark K and I headed down to Pigeon Point lighthouse. We arrived at 7:45am to find the sea fairly quiet from a bird standpoint. Over the next 3.5 hours, by meticulous scanning the ocean beneath us, we were able tint find some nice birds on this beautiful morning. Sooty shearwaters were ever-present, albeit not in the same numbers as off of Pescadero beach yesterday, and we were able to pick out a number of Black-vented shearwaters was well. I was finally able to tick Pacific loon for #562. This was not long after the appearance of the apparently resident Tricolored blackbirds in the parking lot for #561. However, the birding highlight of the morning for me was culling through the ~15 Parasitic jaegers we saw looking for a Pomarine. We did have one larger juvenile bird with more white in the wings that we both felt was a Pomarine, but neither of us was certain enough to place the official title on it. 

Pigeon Point Lighthouse today

Queen Sonia joined us for the second part of the morning. She spent the time basking in the sun, and hearing way more than she ever wanted to know about shearwater and jaeger identification. She and I did make a number of videos answering many of the reader-generated questions that we solicited from you. I will be posting these in the next few days once I have access to the really fast internet that video posting requires. In other Sonia-related news, she and I have joked that we want to open a bed and breakfast on the California coast that caters specifically to birders, photographers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. If we ever did this, we have decided we would call it "The Wandering Tattler"! Maybe in a few years, maybe......

Sonia scopes!


Another Wandering tattler from yesterday.
I didn't get him/her dead center, and I had to crop it 
kinda funny. The bird needs to have more space into 
which to look on the right (and more rock below!)

The afternoon was spent dealing with some logistics and relaxing. I even managed to take a rare nap late in the day. Since I have hit the coast and been able to take my foot of the gas, I really feel good at the moment. Between the 16 miles I rode to Pigeon Point and back, and the 10 miles I rode to Pescadero Beach+Marsh later in the afternoon, I only biked a marathon today - whew! Hopefully, there will be many more sub-40-mile days in the next week or so. Tomorrow I will ride to Santa Cruz with a morning stop at Pigeon Point. There is a really strong NW wind right now that should continue through the night. Sonia has hypothesized are hoping that this will help turn over some of the seabirds and perhaps push them a bit closer to shore for us tomorrow morning. Maybe I'll be able to get my Pomarine jaeger.....

Looking ahead, here is a list of bird that I hope to find in California between now and the end of October. What you will immediately notice is that is is very short considering that I have exactly a month to get these birds before I start the sprint back through AZ and NM to TX. I am hoping to bird very slowly during this month with the hopes that rarities will pop up around wherever I find myself. This is EXACTLY what happened with Red-throated pipit yesterday! 

Group 1 - Land-based birds. The plover is the only bird for which regular spots might be tough to find. With enough searching, I should get 12/13 or 13/13 of these.

Snow goose - Missed in Northeast since everything was frozen! Will get at Salton Sea, if not then TX
Yellow-footed gull  - Salton Sea
Pacific golden-plover - Very few specific spots for this though Ventura sod farms could be good.
Spotted dove - LA area. Need specific, reliable spots for this. Closer to coast better than inland.
Allen's hummingbird - Palos Verde Peninsula if I don't have it by the time I get there.
Yellow-billed magpie - Lompoc/Santa Barbara. Again specific spots and help always welcome.
California gnatcatcher - Palos Verde Peninsula
California thrasher - Will get along road in next few days
Le Conte's thrasher - Need spots for this. Mealworm feeders somewhere, right?
Bell's sparrow - Open to any and all ideas
Lawrence's goldfinch - Likely to find along the road, but good spots would be helpful
Purple finch - 562 and no Purple finch, right? Should get this in next few days
Scaly-breasted munia (aka Nutmeg mannakin, now countable) - Huntington Beach, among others

Group 2 - Pelagic birds. Pomarine Jaeger is the only one of these I expect to see. Any of the others would be a high quality find indeed. Seawatching for one of these is the same as seawatching for all of them; This is why I have included so many long-shot possibilities. I will do much seawatching in the next week around Monterey Bay. I will also do some from the Palos Verde Peninsula when I reach it.

Brown booby - Lots of sightings in offshore waters this year. Maybe 1 will come inshore.
Black-footed albatross - Highly unlikely, but easy to identify from miles away!
Northern fulmar - Late arriving this year, totally within realm of the possible though
Buller's shearwater - Few this year, would require lots of luck. Maybe in a week they'll be a few more
Manx shearwater - More around this year. One seen at Moss beach today. Very, very, long shot.
Red phalarope - Maybe one gets blown into land, but they're surely out there. Another long shot
Pomarine jaeger - Will get in next week
Cassin's auklet - Stranger things have happened

Right now I am at 562. If I get all 13 land-based birds and Pomarine Jaeger that would put me at 576 - exactly where I want to be leaving California (575) to have an outside shot at 600. If I could add any of the other pelagics, or huge bonus birds like Yellow-green vireo, Sharp-tailed sandpiper, or Speckled hatchback I'd be in really good shape.

A few other notes:
- I am not expecting to get Rock Sandpiper, Thayer's gull, or Ancient murrelet. I am too early and too far south for these.
- I missed Black-legged kittiwake in the Northeast. As above, these will fill in north of me as I move south so I do not expect to see this bird without Divine intervention. 
- California condor is not a countable bird; The population is not self-sustaining. It would be sweet to see this, but I probably won't make too big of a detour to do so.

OK, enough. Goodnight......

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sept 25 (Day 268) - Call me "Swiffer", cuz I'm cleaning up....

Today was just a fantastic day of birding and riding. It rained fairly heavily last night and into this morning. For reasons I will explain in a bit, I think this was a very good thing. The rain did clear at around 7am, and this permitted Mark and I to hit the beach for a couple hours of seawatching. The waters off of California have been much warmer this year than in recent memory. Some folks might call this phenomenon "El Nino". Seasoned seabirders call it 'awesome'. Inshore, there have been tens of thousands of Sooty shearwaters off the San Mateo County Coast for several months now. Mixed in with these have been good numbers of both Black-vented and Pink-footed shearwaters. Offshore, pelagic trips have encountered a similarly amazing number of birds, and there have been an incredibly array of rarities found on boats of of both Monterey and Half Moon Bay this year. Birds such as Hawaiian petrel, Shy albatross, Craveri's murrelet, Brown booby, Blue-footed booby, and Red-billed tropicbird have all made Central California appearances in recent weeks. In short, this has been a very good sea birding year both inshore and offshore. 

Mark and I found the usual thousands of Sooties, and, by methodically watching the streams of these birds, we were able to pick out a few Pink-footed and at least a dozen Black-vented. These represented year birds, #558 and #559, respectively. The number of shearwaters was just amazing, and when one throws in gulls, terns, cormorants, and pelicans, it was a really incredible spectacle. We spent about 2 hours enjoying these birds from Pescadero State Beach before Mark had to head off to work. At this precise moment, my phone rang with an update from Half Moon Bay, 16 miles to the north. The Red-throated pipit was present this morning! I was stoked when it started raining last night since I figured this would help pin the pipit down overnight. This is exactly what apparently happened. The chase was on!

Mark at Pescadero this morning

The route up Highway 1. 51 miles total for out and back.

I loaded up the bike and hit the beautiful and famous Highway 1 for the sprint north. Skies had cleared, and there was very little wind to slow me. I made it in exactly an hour. I rendezvoused with Malia and Chris who immediately pointed out the pipit as it skulked around on the open beach. Number 560 was in the books! They had located and lost the bird several times this morning, but they managed to keep an eye on it for the hour that it took me to reach the spot. For this I owe them an incredible 'thank you'. They made finding this bird almost criminally easy. 

Chris and Malia confessed that they have been die-hard blog readers this year. Chris in particular seemed incredibly excited to share his lifer Red-throated pipit with me. His enthusiasm is EXACTLY why I put so much effort into the birding and the blogging. Although I am the one physically on the bike, I want the whole birding community to be along for the ride. This component, and the green angle, is really how I am trying to separate my big year from previous efforts. I certainly set out to see as many birds as possible, but I take just as much pride in the number of blog hits as I do the number of birds ticked. In a world of ebola, ISIS, income inequality, terrorism, government ineptitude, climate change, and the last-place Red Sox, I hope this blog provides a minimal and welcome distraction from all things frustrating in the world today. I hope that morning coffee tastes better with this blog than with any other real world news source.

Pa-pa-pipit real good (from Salt N Peppa)!
Red-throated pipt for #560!

Me, Malia, Chris

Sonia met me for lunch in the afternoon. We spent a relaxing few hours around Pillar Point Harbor. The sun was shining very brightly and provided some decent, albeit a bit steep for my taste, afternoon light for photography. I found a nice collection of shorebirds in the harbor that included Black oystercatcher, Surfbird, Black turnstone, Wandering tattler, Sanderling, Marbled godwit, Spotted sandpiper, Black-bellied plover, Willet, and Whimbrel. Sonia is becoming more an more proficient at identifying each of these. She is well on her way to becoming a full-fledged birder despite my best efforts to label her as such. She's even starting to to throw around terms like "Alcid". I am so proud!

Here are a few of the shots I collected this afternoon. I wood have liked the sun to be a bit lower to get rid of some of the shadows on the undersides of the birds. I couldn't get them doing anything terribly cool, but its a nice variety of stuff nonetheless.

Black oystercatcher

Black-bellied plover


Marbled godwit


Double-crested cormorant

Wandering tattler

Western gull photobomb!

The winds are really going to be banging from the west the next 2 days, so I am going to spend a lot of time of time seawatching from Pigeon Point. I will after that move south through Santa Cruz and then down to Monterey for more seawatching. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sept 24 (Day 267) - Getting into position for California sea watching, staying with another bike-birder!

After yesterday's big bird chase, Sonia and I had a leisurely morning hanging around Palo Alto, CA. As I attended Stanford University, I took a midday spin through the campus. It's good to see that the place hasn't crumbled in my absence. After that I climbed up over the coastal mountains towards my destination of Pescadero. This will serve as my base for at least tonight and tomorrow. I have used Google Maps for all of my navigation this year. It has done an incredible job of route finding, even in the most remote of areas. Today the program made a catastrophic rout finding error that left me cursing out loud.   Somehow it decided to loop me onto a mountain bike trail as opposed to either a paved or graded dirt road. I would guess that much of it was graded at 12-15%. I had to push the bike up a terrible "road" for 2 miles. During these 2 miles I gained ~1,000' of elevation. It was a complete nightmare. It sucked - period. I was exhausted when I finally did reach the top. There was much cursing and a near bike throw down. I guess that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.......

31 miles today

Otherwise today on the road was fairly uneventful. The really interesting day started when I arrived at  my host's house. I am actually staying with Mark Kudrav. Mark did a very involved green big year last year, 2013, in which he recorded 326 species in California. This actually set the North American record. More impressively, Mark did this while working a full-time job! A link to his blog from his year can be found here. We had a really nice time exchanging biking and birding stories this evening. It is really nice to commiserate with a fellow bike-birder about road mishaps, missed birds, and the like. We are going to spend some time seawatching tomorrow morning. I should have the chance to add a few new birds. There was also a Red-throated pipit reported by a very reliable observer ~20 miles north of here in Half Moon Bay. That would be a fantastic addition to the year!

Me and Mark tonight!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sept 23 (Day 266) - Kee-kee-Krrrrr! Plus special bonus find for 557! Great transit through SF....

As per the last 4 days, I got moving at ~5am to head down to the marsh, in this case Santa Venetia March preserve, to begin what had up until today been a futile vigil for calling Black rails. I basically birded the same areas as last night, but with much different results. Although I arrived in the dark, the sky soon started lightening to the east. I was alternating using the ke-ke-krrr call. and the aggressive growl call (I will in the next few days discuss, as I have on previous occasions, some of my thoughts on taping birds). I heard something interesting a maybe 40 yards down from me. I took a few steps out in the marsh and played the growl call. I received a prompt but quiet growling response from the other side of a small channel that I did not want to try to cross - for both my sake and that of the bird. It was surely a Black rail growling back at me. This is all I expected to get from this bird. It was probably not more that 20-25 feet from me, but it never showed itself. As I was entertaining this bird, a second bird gave me 4 quick ke-ke-krrrrr calls from down the path. Yes! I got to hear two birds doing 2 different calls. However, this was all I got as the sun peaked over the horizon a few minutes later and shut down all Black rail activity as far as I could discern. This was an incredibly victory for me. I had worked really hard to find this bird, and I was starting to think it was going to be impossible. The only things that bummed me out this morning was that Sonia had a 6am work call and could not join me. It would have been great to share this moment with her given how much time she had put into the search for the rail.

There is a Black rail buried in that Salicornia/Pickleweed
across the channel from me!

A slightly wider shot of the habitat at Santa Venetia Marsh

We then went into San Rafael to find some food. As I was eating, I received an email from SF-Bay bike-birder Rob Furrow informing me that a Rarity X (X, hereafter!) had been seen for the last 3 days in Sunnyvale at the south end of SF Bay. I had not yet started scanning the South Bay message boards, so this news came as a bit of a shock to me. X is a bird that I thought I might have an outside shot at finding in Central California. I figured it would be completely fortuitous if I saw X. The problem with Xs is that when they do turn up, they normally do not stick around. Thery are often "one hit wonders", so to speak. I was shocked to hear that this X had been seen in the same spot for 3 days running, including this morning. I made the decision that although the spot was 75 miles away, I would make a mad dash south to chase this bird this afternoon. This meant I effectively bypassed SF. I was only able to sprint through/around the city on this most amazing of weather days. I knew that I had to reach the bird by 6pm to have enough time to look for it. Miraculously, I made it with time to spare. This is no small feat considering the density of traffic lights through which I had to fight today! It only took a few minutes of searching, before X appeared right in front of me!

X = keep scrolling.........

......just a bit further......

Sabine's gull!!! #557!
Only complaint is that he was backlit the whole time.

Passing through SF was really nice today. If I had a spare million and Sonia was down with the idea, I would totally move to SF! I have been communicating with local bike-birding legend Josiah Clark over the past few weeks. He was kind enough to meet me on the Golden Gate bridge this afternoon and escort me at least part of the way through the city. Josiah, along with 2 other very-well known bike-birders, Rob Furrow (from above, yes) and Andy Kleinhesselink, actually holds the North American biking big day record at 181 species! These 3 guys conspired to reach the number in late April a year (or two or three?) back. I was also fortunate enough to meet Ron Weeks in Texas, another notable big day bike-birder. It's great to see how many of us there are scattered around the country! 

Josiah and me on the Golden Gate Bridge.
We saw a few birds, notably Parasitic Jaeger, as we crossed.

Matching Bridge and Bike (and Panniers!)

Fisherman's Wharf ride-by

This was a hard chase to tack on Sabine's gull today. I might see this bird while sea watching in the next few days/weeks, but if I do, cha css are it will be WAY offshore. It was great to see this bird so well today. I am incredibly proud of myself for grinding out the ride on busy, traffic light-filled streets. It was a good gut check moment, and I think I passed with distinction. At no point today did I have any issues with being on the bike. It looks as though the recent shorter days have helped reset my saddle tolerance. After ticking the bird I back-tracked into Palo Alto for the night. Many of you know I did my undergraduate work at Stanford, so it is really nice to be back in this familiar area. I would love to live in Palo Alto, but unless Sonia and I have several spare million, that ain't gonna happen either!

83 + 2 unmapped to marsh this morning for 85 miles today.

Tomorrow we will likely head out to the coast. I plan on doing some serious sea watching the next few days - probably from the beautiful Pigeon Point Lighthouse. There have been lots of shearwaters near shore recently, so I am very optimistic that I can tack on Black-vented and Pink-footed in the next few days. Pacific loon should also be easy to find, and I expect to find Pomerine Jaeger at some point as well. Fingers crossed for Red phalarope, Northern fulmar or anything else out-of-the-oridinary.....

Great morning light on this California quail.
Nice to see them up off the ground.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sept 22 (Day 265) - I give up...

Really fast entry since it's 11pm, and I need to get up again in 5 hours. Sonia and I spent 4 hours in Santa Venetia Marsh Preserve without hearing or seeing a thing tonight. There was no amount of taping or listening that would produce any sound or sight of a Black rail. Since we are already here, we are going to try again tomorrow morning. After this I may have to throw in the towel on this bird, which is very frustrating considering how much time I have put into it. There's always a shot in Yuma, AZ as I head back East in late Oct/early Nov. 

I was able to add Nuttall's woodpecker (#555) along the road today! There was a second one in our campsite tonight at China Camp State Park near San Rafael. Also, a Western screech-owl serenaded us as we returned from our fail rail hunt. 

I am still trying to sort out what to do about tomorrow. Several people have suggested trying the Palo Alto Baylands for the rail. I just don't know if I want to push more time into this bird. I have passed on chasing a continuing Cape May warbler at Point Reyes; I am sure as hell not going to find any nice surprises while searching for the rail. 

Alright, time to hit the hay. Sonia wants me to ask you all to send out some good vibes. She is far more optimistic than me at this point. Let's hope she's right.


Map added a day late!

37 miles total

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sept 21 (Day 264) - Relaxing day with Sonia in Petaluma

Since I wrote the blog yesterday afternoon, I will give you an update as to how our day ended. In short, we did not see or hear Black rail last night. This despite ditch camping in a marsh where Black rails are known to be. We found a great stealth campsite where we spent an incredibly pleasant evening together. Our only company were geese and ducks that made a fair amount of noise through the very mild night. We started birding again before sunrise with the same result as the day before: no rails.

At one point late in the morning, as we were walking around a thick, reedy pond, Sonia saw a reed move in a suspicious manner. She investigated and heard something scratching around at the edge of the reeds. We played a Black rail tape to see if we could pull the potential prize into view. We were standing about 15' apart as we peered into the reeds. They were so thick that visibility was limited to the maybe 6'. Just then a small bird that Sonia described as "a skulking, slow moving slate gray potato" crossed in front of her. She quickly waved me over, but in the 3 seconds it took me to move those 15-20', the bird vanished into the marsh. Showing Sonia photos of Black rails and other possible candidates, she is fairly certain the bird she saw was a Black rail. She saw several Sora yesterday and she said this bird wasn't a Sora. She knows what wrens and sparrows look like, and she was also certain it wasn't either of those. For the next 20 minutes, we could hear something very small shuffling around just out of view in the reeds, but despite repeated taping we could not get the bird to show itself. So close! Sonia may not know how to identify every bird she might encounter, but she does have a great eye for detail. I trust that she did see the rail today.  Looking at eBird reports, it turns out that we found this bird in the exact location from which another birder reported Black rail less than two weeks ago (on 2 different days!). Trusting that she did see a Black rail, I decided to stay in Petaluma for another day to return to this exact spot this evening and again tomorrow morning. Our evening trip back to the spot was marred by high winds (makin birding unproductive), so we will have to rely on one last visit tomorrow morning to try to find this bird. I am cautiously optimistic. 

It was really, really nice to spend the whole day today with Sonia. As I only biked 12 miles around town, she was able to stand/walk by my side for most of the day. Rather than me write second-hand about show she felt about our day, I am going to throw the computer her way for her to tell you about it. 

[Enter Queen Sonia - trumpets sound!]

Hey all! Let me start by saying that I have loved the last week that I've been able to spend with Dorian.  I was getting to a place where the distance was really weighing on me, so having the ability to drive up and see him to spend a significant amount of time together has been fantastic. I'm very happy. 

Is it just me, or does it seems like my visits always correspond with some great search for a really difficult to find bird? Then again, I guess at this stage in Dorian's year, every bird is going to be like this. The rail hunt has been a huge challenge. We have essentially spent 3 days scouring over miles of marsh land in hopes of finding a small black nocturnal bird that has decided to become a mute during our search. Ugh. That said, I have really enjoyed the search. While I'm not an expert birder, the treasure hunting aspect of this type of birding is really fun for me. As Dorian mentioned above, I think I did have a very brief encounter with the Black rail today. I immediately felt a rush of excitement as I called Dorian to my side, only to have my heart sink as it retreated back into the reeds by the time he reached me. You have no idea how badly I wish Dorian and I had switched spots. I spent the rest of the day obsessing about finding this bird again. While Dorian was understandably feeling defeated, I tried to keep his spirits up and hopes alive in finding this bird. We have one more crack at it tomorrow morning and I want this bird to show more than anything I've wanted in a long time. Please say your prayers tonight!

I thought I'd also take a brief moment to talk about the amount of energy this all takes. Seriously, I'm exhausted. We've been waking up at 5am every day, birding hard all day long and crashing hard at night. And I haven't had to ride a bike as my transportation! I have such an incredible admiration for what Dorian does day in and day out. Even writing these short paragraphs are a challenge as I am physically and mentally exhausted. I challenge you all to take one day where you would bird by a car and use a bike instead. At the end of that day, sit down an write about it. Then imagine doing this 365 days in a row. You guys, what he is doing is so incredibly challenging. These small glimpses into his life have been so good for me. 

Here is a photo of the Ross's goose from 2 days ago! I finally found the time to get the photo sorted out this evening.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sept 20 (Day 263) - Black rail frustrations, Ridgeway's rail in the house though!

I am actually writing this post from Starbucks in the middle of the day. Last night Sonia and I searched (i.e. listened) for Black rails in some areas around Schollenberger Park and the Ellis Water Treatment Plant in Petaluma, CA. We stayed about 3.5 miles from this area. I actually birded the area in the afternoon to get a feel for the area. We returned at ~7pm and stayed until 10:30pm without hearing any Blacks rails. I then biked back to where we were staying, getting in at 11pm. I hit the hay at 11:30, got up at 5am, and was back at the birding spot at 5:45am. I stayed there until 11am, again without success. I also spent some time scoping the mudflats for Pacific golden-polver, but this bird also avoided ticking. I did, however, late in the morning manage to catch a 2 second glimpse of the newly split Ridgeway's rail for year bird #554. I will certainly see more of these as I move south along the coast. I was joined for part of the morning by conservation biologist and local birder Mark Dettling. We have been communicating via email for some time. It was great to hang and bird today!

Me and Mark this morning

Black rails are as hard a bird I will have to find this year. This is due to a number of factors:

1) They are not widespread. The best areas to find them are probably the Texas Coast (where I missed) and the SF Bay Area (where I am now).

2) The are very small (5-6') and very secretive. They live in thick marshes.

3) They are black and largely nocturnal - Yeah, looking for a small, secretive, black bird at night sucks. This is why most people just listen for them.

5) This is the worst time of year to see or hear them. Some people see them as they are pushed out of the marsh on high winter tides, but most often they are heard-only. Problem is that they are very quiet at this time of year. It would be much easier if I was here in spring or summer.

So, you can see what a pain in the ass it is to see or hear this bird. In fact, I have done neither in my life! That I am on a bike really makes this more difficult. Why? Access. I am having a very hard time finding places to stay near the good Black rail areas. I do not want to stay 15 miles away since that's potentially 30 miles of night riding. Last night was Friday and tonight is Saturday which means there are more drunks than usual on the roads. I have at many points this year thrown the calls for safety out the window to access birds, but in this case I am actually listening to them. Every hotel and campground in the North Bay is completely booked for this weekend compounding the housing problem.  We had a sweet housing arrangement last night, but there appears to have been a miscommunication that has resulted in my having no place to stay for tonight. Well, no place with decent, safe access to Black rails. I have seen some really sketchy stuff going down in isolated marshes during my birding career, and I do not want to get caught in an odd place on a bike in the middle of the night that I have not scouted out in the daylight ahead of time.

If you're a birder with Black rails down the street from you and would put me up for a night or two, gimme a shout!

For these reasons, this bird is a royal headache right now. I also feel like a terrible boyfriend at the moment as my days now revolve around where to hear - not even see - this bird. I am so stressed as to how to handle this bird that I am not giving Sonia the attention that she deserves. She slept in a bit while I birded this morning, but the rest of the day has been spent at Starbucks or other places where we can plug in our stuff and rest before the next rail hunt. Sitting at cafes strategizing how to find this bird is now how I want to spend the time I have with her. The search for this bird is so focused that not much else is going to happen while I am looking specifically for it.

Since this post has been nothing but doom and gloom, here are 3 funny videos Sonia and I made at the marsh last night. And, yes, they are dark by design......

Video 2 needs an explanation. Sept 19 is 
International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Sonia remembered this as we were listening 
for the rail last right. 

We are going have to get a bit creative to tick this bird......

10 miles total today - 6 mapped + 4 of birding