Saturday, October 18, 2014

Oct 17 (Day 290) - Racing south to San Diego to look for Yellow-green vireo

During the Western Field Ornitholists meeting last week, A Yellow-green vireo was found in Fort Rosencrans National Cemetery. This is a Central American species that occasionally strays north into the Southern United States. Several of these birds have appeared along the California coast this fall, but all of them have vanished almost as quickly as they have been found. As a result, I have not had a solid opportunity to chase this species.

Yellow-green vireo range

This particular Yellow-green vireo was first observed on Oct 11. It was seen the following 3 days, the 12th, 13th, and 14th. When I did not see a positive report from the 15th, I thought that this bird might have finally moved on (ugh). However, looking at eBird last night I saw that the bird was seen yesterday, the 16th. Hells yes! If I really hauled ass I could look for this bird this afternoon, the 17th. However, there were 2 things that really complicated this plan. This first was that the cemetery was 87 miles from where I stayed last night. The second was that the cemetery closes at 4:30pm. Even if I actually made it to the cemetery, I might not have enough time to locate the bird before the staff kicked me out for the day. I could always return the following morning, the 18th, but the bird could easily leave by then. When it comes to rarities,  I am willing to break my back to get to them the NEXT day versus 2 days out. Birds generally leave their given locations at night, so every night that goes by before I can reach the bird decreases the chances the bird will be in the same spot when I finally arrive. This strategy has worked wonders on the long, high speed chases for Sabine's gull, Red-throated pipit, and Pacific-golden plover. Rain also helped keep the pipit from moving that first night. The second night was nice and POOF - the pipit was gone the morning after!

I hit the road at exactly 7am this morning. I decided to keep on eye on the clock and my mileage to give readers an idea of how the time and the distance of the chase unfolded.

Biked 43 miles from Corona del Mar, CA to Oceanside, CA. I did not stop, rest, or bird during these 3 hours. There were quite a number of significant hills.

Bathroom break, Breakfast/lunch* at Subway, water reload in Oceanside (*I skipped breakfast to get going early today)

10:30 - 2pm
Biked the remaining 43 miles to the cemetery. I did make a ten minute stop when I was 5 miles from the cemetery to crush 2 king sized candy bars. There was one very large hill in this segment.

86 miles to cemetery + 2 to Cabrillo Monument +
15 back to La Jolla for the night = 103!

So, I covered the 86 miles in exactly 7 hours of total time. That's an average speed of 12.3 MPH. If we toss out the time I was stopped, the average speed was 13.6 MPH. Not bad considering I climbed nearly 3,000 feet during that stretch. I know many of you have driven 7 hours to see a bird. Now think about biking for that same amount of time - ouch!

I reached the cemetery at exactly 2pm. The bird has evidently been alternately foraging in a number of closely clustered Ficus trees in a particular part of the cemetery. Since I had no idea what a Ficus tree looks like, I used the trusty world-wide-web to clue myself in. Using eBird annotations and info contained in message board posts, I deduced that the vireo was most likely going to be in one of these fluffy, round-ish trees as shown in this extraction from Google. Note - I have never birded this spot before!

The general strategy for finding birds like this is to stand under the tree of interest and stare upwards into the branches with unfocused eyes. The idea is to look for any movement as the bird hops or flies around the branches as it forages. It's fairly straightforward. However, there was a ton of wind today. The wind was strong enough (15-20 MPH) that it shook all the branches in a given tree. This made the "motion detection" strategy above useless as the whole tree seemed to move. In the first 3 trees I searched, I was not able to find a single bird. In the fourth tree, I found a Yellow-rumped warbler. I also saw an interesting bird fly from this fourth tree to one of the trees along the eastern boundary of the cemetery. I followed the bird to the tree into which it flew, and tried in vain to isolate bird-like movement from wind-generated movement. After about 15 minutes, at 2:30, I finally saw a small bird foraging in the tree top. I got my binoculars on it fast enough to identify it as the Yellow-green vireo! Incredible! I could not believe that I had made it here in time, that the bird was present, and that I was actually able to find it! The damn thing quickly disappeared into the upper branches of the tree before I could get a photo. After missing the Spotted dove with the camera the other day, I did not want to miss this very high quality bird today. Over the next 40 minutes, I played cat and mouse with the bird as it bounced about the tree top. As the wind subsided a bit, I finally managed to get a few decent shots of it. This is yet another lifer for me. I have already had 5 lifers this month, but this one feels much more legit than the others since they all resulted from either splits, reintroduced native species, or introduced foreign species. The photos are really grainy since I had to shoot at ISO 3200 (on the 7D) under the canopy (no IS either!). Shutter was 1/160 - 1/250 for most shots. All the major field marks (big bill, characteristic striped facial pattern, gray crown, lemon-lime-Gatorade-colored sides and undertail) are visible in these photos.

Suspect bird flew into left hand Ficus tree

A sample of what I saw looking up into the Ficus 
tree. I had to dial in 1-2 stops of additional 
exposure with such strong backlighting.

Yellow-green vireo for #577!

This bird represents potentially the most valuable chip in the San Diego scheme of things. This bird could easily have evaporated last night and left me searching for a bird that wasn't going to be found. All of the other birds for which I will be looking in the next few days are ocean/pelagic species. Getting this done today means I can focus entirely on the ocean for the next few days. I should be able to find Cassin's auklet tomorrow morning at La Jolla Cove, and I should be able to get Brown booby from the south end of the city either tomorrow afternoon or Sunday morning. Beyond those 2, anything else that would be new for the year would be a very lucky find indeed (Craveri's murrelet, Black storm-petrel, Blue-footed booby).

That's it for now.

Oh yeah...Go Royals! Cardinals = zzzzzzzzzzzz


  1. I used to go to PLNU which is less than a mile fom that cemetery and Cabrillo NM. So I especially loved this post and I've birded there in the past as well:)

  2. Dorian
    You are one bad tough. ass. You deserve the congressional medal of birding (if there was one) for your daring, persistence, endurance and sacrifice. "BE SAFE BE SEEN WEAR HI-VIZ GREEN" as you continue your epic journey.

  3. Congratulations! This was quite an effort that really paid off. What a grand find.