Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dec 30 (Day 364) - Some fun with numbers......

With the 2 miles that I rode to the supermarket today, I ran the mileage total for the year to 17,830! Even though I still technically have one day left, the few miles I may (or may not!) ride tomorrow won't have any grand bearing one the overall numbers (miles or birds) for the year. I therefore decided with the free time that I had to today to present a few numbers and graphs that might help people understand my year a bit better.

The first value that is worth calculating is simple the average number of miles I rode each day. That number is 48.85 miles/day (17,830 miles / 365 days). I present how I calculated this number not as I doubt that reader how to calculate averages, but to show that I am counting all 365 days of the year in the average number. Traveling cyclists often count the average number of miles over a trip using the days riden rather than the total days. This method artificially inflates the daily average. Off days are days, and they permit the rider to recover and ride more miles on the days surrounding them. A year is 365 days, and 365 days should be used to calculate the average number of miles per day. 48.85 miles per day may not seem like that much until you remember that I also spent many hours birding. If all I did was ride, my daily average would be much higher. It is also worth noting that riding may more miles might not actually raise the species total that much. At many points this year is was well-worth slowing down to allow birds to come to me. Sure I could have raced through California in the fall, but then what? I just don't think that riding 70 miles per day is really going to net anyone significantly more species than what I tallied this year. It's better to be thorough and make sure you didn't miss any birds in the areas that you do reach. 

OK, now we can delve a bit deeper into some of the numbers. This first graph shows the average number of miles I rode during each month of the year. Again, every day is represented, even those days when I did not ride any miles.

There are several things worth pointing out from this graph. It is clear that January was, by a wide margin, my lowest riding month. Recall that this winter in the northeast was the worst one in the last 100 years from snow and temperature standpoints. I was snowed out on several occasions, and this dragged down the overall average for the month. These down days were not necessarily a bad thing though as they helped keep my miles down during the early part of the year. This was actually by design as I thought that burnout/fatigue/injury could be a major problem later in the year. That I made it through the year without getting injured and that I only really burned out as the list of possible birds was finally exhausted speaks to the wisdom of this strategy. The terrain the first few months while I was on the east coast and the Gulf Coast was very flat; Even though the miles increased in subsequent months, there still weren't any significant hills. The first of those came when I arrived in Colorado in June. You can also see that I rode significantly more miles in the second half of the year (9,909) than I did in the first half (7,921). Those miles in the second half were much tougher since many of them included large elevation changes. Again, that I was able to continue to build miles through the middle part of the year speaks to my control of my fitness level and program. 

OK, here is another way of looking at my rides from the entire year. This time I have binned or grouped them based on their distances. 

Most of the rides cluster around 30-70 miles. This is not surprising given that the daily average was ~50. I rode at least 70 miles on 86 days, and I rode at least 100 on 14 different occasions. These 14 occasions were: 

March 8 - 111 miles - Crossing South Florida on the Tamiami trail
March 12 - 102 miles - 102 miler capped with visit to Hooters!
April 27 - 112 miles - Big miles out of High Island on SE winds
August 7 - 121 miles - Longest ride of year in Southern Idaho
August 11 - 118 miles - Hot day and lots of climbing in Northeastern Oregon
September 1 - 108 miles - The race to Tufted puffin
October 14 - 101 miles - Riding into LA and finding Spotted dove
October 17 - 103 miles - Yellow-green vireo
October 27 - 111 miles - Rufous-backed robin, day 1
October 28 - 114 miles - Rufous-backed robin, day 2
November 15 - 119 miles - East ones with tailwinds
November 16 - 110 miles - One of if not the worst ride of year in TX with freezing north winds
December 13 - 107 miles - King Ranch traverse
December 25  - 112 miles - not even bike troubles can stop me

Man, writing this post is the most fun I have had all year! It is so much fun to return to these older posts and see what I was doing on those longest days. OK, since I cannot go on forever, I will present just one more graph in this installment. This graph shows the accumulation of species over the course of the year.

The X-axis is "days". For simplicity, I assumed each month was 30 days. Hence there are 12 values across the X-axis. The red line is the actual data, day-by-day. The black line is a line of best fit or regression that describes the data using a polynomial function. Don't worry too much about it, it's just another way of representing the data. Clearly, the overall rate of species additional is going to drop over the course of the year. While there are certainly going to be pockets of new species here and there, proportionately fewer common/widespread birds will be found later in the year. For example, you can see a big jump around day 135. That represents my arrival to Arizona and the Chiricahuas which occurred on May 15. My arrival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley can bee seen around the end of November and the beginning of December at ~Day 331. The most important thing, and this is true of any North American big year, is to notice how diminishing the bird returns are towards the end of the year. For example, I added 490 species in the the first 6 months and 127 in the next 6! This, coupled with the increased riding in the back half of the year, shows how much harder I had to work per bird in the later portion of the year. The black repression line goes almost flat by the end of the year; adding birds at this time of year is exponentially more difficult that at any other time. 

OK, that's juts a bit of the fun coming in the next few days. I am having almost more fun recapping the year than executing it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Dec 29 (Day 363) - Goodbye open road, hello safety....

As I wrote yesterday, I have at this late stage in the year found all the birds I can realistically find before 2014 expires. As Sonia arrived last night, I will now shift the focus away from bird chasing and towards her. I am also looking forward to the necessarily lighter riding days that will close out the year. However, there was still a bit of remaining riding to be done today to reach my friend's house in Dallas that will serve as our base for the final 2 days of the year. This ride, at exactly 60 miles, would be the last significant one of the year. The riding conditions today were near perfect with smooth roads, clear skies, temperatures in the 40s, and a nice light to moderate southeast tailwind that sped me west. 

60 miles back into the Dallas 'burbs

I will confess to getting a bit emotional towards to end of my ride today. As much as I have complained about the bike this year, I will miss (most of) the time I spent on it. I was able to see an amazing amount of the country in a way that most can only dream of. I was also able to challenge myself in ways that only I will ever fully appreciate. At times the bike felt like an inoperable tumor, and at others it felt like the most beautiful and exciting roller coaster a person could imagine. Such it is with anything worth doing though; There are necessarily going to be difficult and challenging stretches that make you truly appreciate the high points. One of the great things about biking, at least in the way I experienced it this year, is that the goal is very well-defined: Ride the bike from point A to point B. Sure there is an amazing amount that happens along this path, but the goal of traversing this distance is quite simple. As someone who likes having defined goals, I thrived under these circumstances. By achieving each daily riding goal, I was able, with 365 iterations of this model, to more than achieve my birding goals for the entire year. The trick was to break the whole task down into manageable bits. I think this strategy will serve me well during the next phase of the project - book writing.

While I may ride a few miles around the neighborhood tomorrow and Wednesday, I will now finally say that I am incredibly relieved to have survived this year. One of my unofficial goals for this year was simply to make it back as a fully-functioning body. There are so many poor, distracted, and tired drivers on the roads across this country that it is a minor miracle that I was not involved in a really serious accident. Even when I was hit by a car, I walked/rode away without a mark on me. I will say that there were probably 2 handfuls of very close calls with cars/trucks this year. I actually chose not to discuss these for fear of scaring readers, most notably my mom and Sonia. I am sure they were concerned about my safety without actually hearing about the nonsense that goes on out there. Drivers in much of this country have no idea that bikes exist. For select motorists, I can only conclude that they see cyclists as obstacles or impediments to their own progress along the road. How else can I explain the multitude of times cars and trucks missed me by 6 inches on their right even with open lanes to their left? It was as though they were trying to scare me, or just physically push me, off of the road. These close calls don't even count the myriad of other disastrous possibilities. Hitting roadkill, garbage, or a hole/crack in the road could spell disaster. A rock or insect to the face could cause a quick reflex that could send the rider flying. At any point, a momentary lapse of focus could be disastrous, particularly in urban environments. There's just so much that could have gone wrong on the road. I'm not a believer in any sort of 'higher power', but after surviving this year, maybe I should be.....

Lastly, Sonia decided to make a stop at the famous "Cadillac Ranch"along route 66. As this art installation is designed to be ever evolving, Sonia decided that Biking for Birds should be a part of it, even if it only temporarily. She's the best!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dec 28 (Day 362) - 2015 road trip, I'm tapped out, a bit of birding ethics

Before I get into today's adventures, let me just put this out there. Sonia and I will be driving from Dallas to Philadelphia starting on January 1. This is a very possible route right for the 1st part of the drive. If you live near/in the specified towns and would be willing to host us for a night, please let me know at bikingforbirds@gmail.com. Sonia promises to sing and dance. I promise to tell stories and eat. Thanks so much!!! 

What happens after Lexington we're not sure yet!

As for today, Smith's longspur is the last bird I will realistically have time and energy to try to find this year. The most reliable spot for this species within striking distance of Dallas is an old airstrip adjacent to Lake Tawakoni. Smith's longspurs spend their summers on tundra and look for similarly flat, open areas for their wintering grounds. A defunct airstrip covered in low grass is an ideal winter haunt for this species. The only problem is that access to this area and the airstrip is restricted on all but 1 day a year. That lone day was yesterday when the Lake Tawakoni Christmas Count occurred. As I discussed, I was not able to participate in this count due to time/distance constraints. Participating in this count would certainly have been my best shot at this species.

Smith's longspur range

Even though I was not able to participate in the count yesterday, I decided to position myself close to the count circle for today. I did this on the off-chance that someone might find Smith's longspurs in an area that I could legally access this morning. At 11pm last night, I received an email from Dallas birder and eBird moderator Chris Runk. He told me that a flock of ~30 Smith's longspurs had been found on and eBirded from the count. However, as I expected, these were found on the restricted airstrip. With experience birding this area, Chris suggested that I head over to the airstrip anyway. He said that he sometimes sees longspurs as they fly over the publicly accessible County Road 1480 that borders the airstrip to the north. There is another large field to the north of CR 1480 where the birds are sometimes seen. As I had no other solid leads, I figured that this idea presented at least a chance of ticking this bird. 

You can kinda see the outline of the old runway
slanting from bottom left to top right.

Temperatures were in the low 30s when I set off from the Emory Best Western this morning. I had a 10-mile ride to the spot. It was just too cold to set off at sunrise, but I was able to reach the area by 9:00am or so. I was greeted with lots and lots of fence; "Authorized Personnel Only" and "No Trespassing" signs were prominently displayed. However, I found a very large gap in the fence through which I could easily squeeze. Hell, it was early on Sunday, and it was cold. No one would be around to catch me if I just slid under the fence and walked around for a while. If I could walk along the airstrip, I could probably kick up at least one longspur given the number that were found here yesterday. I am sure I am not the first birder who has had thoughts like this. However, they remained just that, thoughts. I was sure as hell not going to be the birder to get busted sneaking into the area. Getting busted might mean that the already limited Christmas Count access could be revoked entirely. I'm not going to pretend I have been a perfect "access angel" in my 30 years of birding, but I will say that I the know the difference between taking a risk on behalf of myself and taking one on behalf of the birding community. The former is sometimes OK, the later is much less, if ever, so. It's all about judgement, so let's just leave it at that........

Anyway, I spent a freezing 45 minutes not seeing Smith's longspurs. I walked up and down CR 1480 listening for their distinctive flight calls. I figured that a flyover was my only shot. At around 9:45, I heard what sounded like Smith's longspurs calling from overhead down the road. I got my binoculars up in time to see 4 stout birds flying high across the road. I was fairly certain these were the sought bird, but given that this would be a lifer for me, I just wasn't ready to call it 100% from what I heard/saw. I needed about another 5 seconds. Bummer, but encouraging nonetheless. I continued my pacing routine for another 30 minutes. I then heard this loud racket coming from behind me. I looked up to see a huge swarm of Smith's longspurs flying 50 feet above my head. They were all calling, and I able to make out stout, buffy, short-tailed birds as they flew off to the north. They flew in a tight flock with undulating flights. This group spiraled upwards and eventually returned to the fenced airstrip to the south. I estimated that this flock contained ~40 birds. And there it was - year bird #615 was on the books. Sure I wish I had had a better look, but this was what I expected. They are on the list, and I have yet another good story to tell. Those are the important things. As this is almost assuredly the final new bird for 2014, it's extra special given that it was a lifer. Sure I could have had a better look, but I'll go to Alaska to photograph them breeding at some juncture and then it will be a moot point! Over the course of the last 45 minutes I spent at the spot, two more groups of 8-10 birds flew over. Huge props to Chris for recommending this approach. 

View north from CR 1480

And with this, I would bet my camera that all the species that will join the 2014 Biking for Birds party are presently represented. After finding these birds, I rode to the Best Western in Greenville for an afternoon of football. This place is just as nice as the Emory BW! The timing of how this all worked out couldn't have been more perfect as Sonia is going to arrive late tonight. Right now the revised plan is to head into Dallas for the last few days of the year. One of my best friends from high school has invited my to her house for a New Year's eve party. She lives in a suburb with parks and such, so I will probably do some casual neighborhood birding with Sonia (if temperatures allow!) The older of my friend's two sons (8 years old, I think) has actually developed a bird interest, so I figure I can spend a least a few hours at the end of my year mentoring the next generation of birders. All of this will be done via bike of course! No car until 2015!

39 miles today - Smith's longspurs sandwiched by Best Westerns. 

Greenville Best Western Lobby

In case anyone is curious, it would be ~380 miles with 6000' of climbing (~2300' net gain) to reach Lesser prairie-chicken in Northwestern Oklahoma. While I have astounded even myself with some of the miles I have biked this year, 380 miles north in 3 days, with elevation gain, in freezing weather, and 2 of 3 days with north winds just isn't going to happen - at least not with energy/daylight to find the bird!

With Sonia's arrival, I am sure there will some entertaining blog content forthcoming. She actually pulled a very cool stunt today that will be well-worth your time tomorrow to read about. I will also start thinking about some of the lists I promised, so there should be decent blog content for at least a few more days!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dec 27 (Day 361) - Flying blind, more bad weather, thoughts photo big days/years

The last two days of effectively gearless riding really beat the hell out of my legs. They were as tired and as sore today as they have been in my recent memory. My physical condition coupled with cold temperatures, strong north winds, and forecasted rain made it very difficult to find the motivation to hit the road this morning. It took until 10:30 for me to find the 'activation energy' to actually get rolling. 

The other big problem I am currently facing is that I really do not have any viable leads on Smith's longspur. Lake Tawakoni, ~55 miles east of Dallas, has proven to be a somewhat reliable spot the last few years. However, access which is only possible on very select days throughout the year. This was actually one of those days as the Tawakoni Xmas count was scheduled for today. I was unfortunately not able to make it in time to participate. This is where those consecutive 2 days of strong north winds extracted their price. I had originally hoped to deal with Little gull on Thursday and then put myself in position for the Saturday Tawakoni count on Friday. When I lost that day to wind (and more time to the bike issues), my chances of making the count today evaporated. I did not have the energy last night to ride to Tawakoni, and thus the count went off without me. Right now, it does not look as though I would be able/permitted to try to refind tomorrow any Smith's longspurs that are found today. I am basically shut out of anything to do with the Tawakoni count. A bit frustrating, but there it is.

Smith's longspur sightings north and east of Dallas.
Orange pins represent sightings in the last month.

Looking at the map above, you can see that I really do not have many options. There just aren't enough data, other than from Tawakoni, to make a highly educated guess as to where might be a really good spot to find this species. There looks to be a decent cluster of sightings, but only 1 recent, from the Oklahoma City area. Strong north winds today and tomorrow would make that ride about as much fun as a swift kick to the genitals - with a steel-toed boot. I therefore decided to ride east out of Dallas and slightly past Lake Tawakoni to Emory and its very nice Best Western. Should someone tip me off as to where I could find and access longspurs near Lake Tawakoni, I could easily reach that area from Emory. I highly doubt this will happen, but at least it the possibility exists. I am instead banking on the single, small orange pin northeast of Dallas and west of Texarkana. 2 reliable observers reported loads of longspurs from this area about 3 weeks ago. More importantly, in a state where > 98% of land is privately held, it appears that I can actually access a good field for the birds. Texas has great birding, but, with such an incredibly high percentage of land being privately held, access is often challenging. Want to go birding in Colorado? Just walk into National forest anywhere you want. In Texas? Not so much.  While I have yet to have a shotgun pulled on me, I am sure that Texas stereotype exists for a reason. 

64 miles east to Emory

Best Western Plus Emory Inn - Definitely in top 5 BW's this year.
Certainly a welcome port in times of wind and rain.

Anyway, tomorrow I will ride to ~50 northeast to Mt Vernon which will serve as my base for the longspur search. I can spend a day or two there and then reevaluate depending on how the search goes. Should I find the birds, I will like ride north to Oklahoma just to go to Oklahoma. If I do not find the birds, things get more complicated. As the weather right now is TERRIBLE and is going to get worse as we get into next week, it could shut me down for good. Today was a high of 42C with constant 15-20 MPH north winds. Throw in some rain and you can see that today's ride was cold, windy, and wet (i.e. it sucked). Temperatures are supposed to drop further the next few days and culminate with freezing rain on the 31st or the 1st. I simply do not have the clothing to combat these types of temperatures. Right now, I think finding Smith's longspur is a very long shot. My pessimistic mindset has served me well this year, so I am not going to trying to start farting kittens and rainbows at this late stage.

Several people have asked me how many species I have photographed this year. The answer is I do not know. The follow up answer is that I do not care. As I consider myself a fairly serious bird photographer, I would much rather work for 2 hours with a single bird for one really good shot of it than come home with what I consider to be throw away photos of 100 species. This year I have kept crappy photos of birds for the purposes of documentation and personal memories. They also function to make the blog much more interesting. Sure, I am a bit of a photo snob, but your work is only going to be as good as the standards to which you hold yourself. One thing I have learned over the years is that posting fewer good shots on your Flickr/Smugmug/Picassa site will keep people much more interested than inundating them with marginal to crappy shots - even if the shots are of rare birds. 

All that being said, the idea of photo big days is kinda cool (for the reasons above, I won't be doing one any time soon though). In these cases, a species is counted as "photographed" if and only if the bird can be definitely identified from the photo and only from the photo. What the observer actually saw in the field is irrelevant. You may have had a Eurasian Hobby fly 3 feet from your face, but if all you get onto the sensor is a dark blur as it flies way from you, that ain't good enough friend! The above definition provides a very objective measure of what "photographed" actually means. I can certainly understand the excitement surrounding photo bigs days. First, you get excited when you see the bird. Second you get gear up as you switch into photo mode to try to document it. Third, you get jacked when you realize that you got a countable photo of the bird. Photo big days seem to compound the excitement of normal big days. I'll be curious to see if these catch on moving forward.

In case you haven't seen it yet, here is a Flickr gallery of the species I would count as "photographed" from this year using my own personal definition. This is my running photo collection from this and previous years.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Dec 26 (Day 360) - It's the Little things......

Yesterday I experienced my most major bike malfunction to date: a snapped rear derailleur cable. This left me with effectively 2 gears during the last 44 miles of yesterday's ride. The bike was certainly ridable, but it took significantly more effort than when fully geared. My legs were really sore this morning as a result. Despite the sore extremities, I needed to continue pushing towards Dallas and the remarkably well-behaved Little gull that has taken up at least temporarily residence on White Rock Lake just east of downtown. The bird has been seen regularly for the last 10 days or so. One of my local spies informed me the bird was present yesterday, Christmas, morning. I had pushed 4-5 days and 320 miles into this chase. I was not going to let one broken cable stop me from reaching White Rock Lake on Friday afternoon as originally planned.

51 miles + 3 unmapped trying to find lunch = 54 for today.

With my two functional gears, I hit the road at 8am this morning. I had just 40 miles from Ennis to reach the lake. There was a moderate amount of south wind aiding my efforts today. It was not nearly as windy as yesterday, but, on only two gears, any bit helps, right? I made decent time north. I dodged a few raindrops along the way, but managed to reach the lake around lunch. The bird has most predictably been seen at the lake "spillway" early the morning where its keeps company with the resident flock of Bonaparte's gulls. Every time (3x) I have previously seen Little gull it has been mixed in with Bonaparte's. So, the mission was simple: check the spillway for the Bonaparte's gulls. I did exactly this and found exactly zero Bonaparte's gulls. Not a major problem as the birds were likely out on the lake feeding. The circumferential bike bath around the lake would provide the perfect artery for a wider search of the lake. 

Close-up of White Rock Lake portion of ride

White Rock Lake looking north from south end

Biking a few mile north along the lakeshore, I soon found the Bonaparte's gulls. I would guess there were ~75 of them, but I am not very good at estimating bird numbers when the birds are this active and spread out. The birds were dispersed over roughly the northern third of the lake. I picked a shore point that I thought was about mid-flock, set up the scope, and began systematically culling through the larger Bonaparte's gull in search of the smaller 1st year Little gull. Several immature Bonaparte's gull caused momentary excitement before I realized they weren't the sought bird. Recall this image of an immature Bonaparte's gull from a few days ago on the Freeport jetty.

1st winter Bonaparte's gull

After several false alarms, I eventually spotted what was surely the Little Gull foraging on the far side of the lake. HELLS YES!!! The 300-mile ride was worth it! The snapped cable had been overcome, and I had ticked bird #614 for 2014! This was a bird at which I had an outside shot in the northeast in January. However, the hellish winter severely limited the time I could spend looking for this bird and also Black-legged kittiwake. Today was a bit of redemption, at least for the Little gull. I rode around to the other side of the lake hoping to obtain at least a record photo of the bird. It always stayed at least 100-200 yards offshore, but I was able to get a few shots of it. The first photo below is the uncropped version, the bottom is a crop from that frame. I'm just glad I walked away with anything given the distance and the light rain!

Compared with Bonaparte's above, this bird is noticeable smaller 
in the field. It has a darker carpal bar on its shoulder and more 
black in the primaries. Both birds show the black "M" pattern 
on the wings, but the Little gull's is much more pronounced. Bonaparte's has a dark trailing wing edge that Little lacks. Little gull also has a very faint bit of black on the cap.

1st year Little gull for #614!!!

Crop from above frame

After ticking this guy, the next priority was to get the bike fixed. It just so happened that there was a really good bike shop about a mile from where I found the Little gull. A half-hour pitstop left me with a fully functioning rear derailleur. The guys at the bike store had a good laugh at the bike. They said that if my bike was a car, there's NO WAY it would pass inspection! I told them I just needed to squeeze 5 more days out of it. They all thought I should be able to do this. I hit the road after the repair to spend a bit more time kicking around the lake. Nothing terribly notable surfaced, but I did have a fun run-in with what appeared to be a large group of resident Monk parakeets. I have only seen these at the tops of trees, on power lines, or in their huge communal nests. It was nice to see them so well today. Shots came back OK what with continued light rain and all. Full checklist from today is here.

Yum, grass!

Got right up in his/her grill for this shot.....

I will now turn my attention to what I think should be the last "getable" bird of the year: Smith's longspur. There are some spots north and east of Dallas where I might be able to tack on this species. I am going to do a bunch of research tonight and hopefully formulate some feasible and attractive plan to track this bird down in the next 4-5 days. Any ideas for this bird are certainly welcome. I am going to try to get onto the Lake Tawakoni CBC tomorrow which should give me a decent shot assuming I haven't let it go too late or I am too far away to participate. After Smith's longspur.....Daddy is closing up shop!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Dec 25 (Day 359) - Bike problems strike - more stuff breaks!

First, 'Happy Holidays' or whatever the correct term is these days. Hopefully everyone is having some nice family time! Second, thanks for all the nice notes and words of encouragement in the last day or so. It's nice to know everyone is behind me!

As you all know, I am really beat up at the moment, and the weather the last few days has not helped my physical or mental condition one iota. Today, however, was a completely different story. There was not a cloud in the sky when I started riding this morning. There was a slight south wind that built all day and topped out at 20 MPH in the in afternoon. In short, these were certainly the best riding conditions I have experienced in the past 5 weeks. I have been really disappointed with the weather during this stretch, so today's ideal riding weather was the best Christmas gift I could have received. The original plan for today was to ride ~92 miles from Hearne, TX to Corsicana. This would have positioned me roughly 60 miles south of White Rock Lake and the continuing Little gull (which was present this Christmas morning). As I will describe, major alterations to this plan were required.

The view today

With the wind and sun at my back, the first ~65 miles of the ride melted away. Temperatures started at around 40C and rose into the mid-50s; These conditions were absolutely pristine for riding. The ride rolled up and down shallow hills along relatively quiet rural roads with wide shoulders. The holiday ensured that roads were quiet, and the constant "whoooosing" of headwinds I endured the last two days had finally abated. It was literally perfect. I was thinking that this ride would surely make the Top 10 of year, particularly considering the juxtaposition with the previous few days. The disaster struck.

With one casual flick of my wrist, the cable the controls my rear derailleur snapped. My bike has 3 gear rings on the front crank and 9 gears on the rear cassette. This means I normally have 27 gears available (3 times 9). I do not always use all 27. On today's ride I might have used ~12 of the gears . When tension on the cable that controls the rear shifter is lost, only the smallest gear is available. This means I had only 3 gears available after the cable snap (3 times 1). Actually though, I only had 2 since the highest gear of the remaining 3 is one I haven't used once all year. This was going to be a big problem as the rolling hills required constant gear shifting. As I know next to nothing about how to fix bikes, I would have to get the bike to a shop to sort this out. Only problem was that this happened in Wortham, TX - 70 miles from the nearest bike shop. The only solution was going to be try to tough out this 70-mile ride on effectively two gears. 

Had this happened on either of the last two days, it would have been an insurmountable problem. I needed to constantly switch gears with the howling headwinds and rolling hills. However, with wind at my back today, I decided I would put the hammer down, really push myself, and see what distance I could make towards civilization and associated bike stores. Riding a huge wave of adrenaline, I was able to ride the 23 miles to my slated destination of Corsicana. With the wind still blowing strongly, I decided to push on, still effectively gearless, to reach Ennis, 21 miles beyond Corsicana. These 44 miles required dipping deep into the anaerobic realm, a muscle function that bike touring rarely requires. Since I had only two gears, I had to keep cranking as hard as I could on them; I couldn't drop into lower gears to relax and save energy. The result of being stuck in these "high-speed" gears was that I was flying down the interstate service road at ~18-25 MPH. I have reached these speeds often this year, but not for such sustained distances with hills. I was gassed when I finally did arrive in Ennis. 

112 miles after all the screwing around

I am going to try to adjust the rear derailleur tonight so as to lock-in the 3 most useful gears for tomorrow. I am fully confident that I can reach the Little gull spot sometime in the afternoon even I must ride on only the same 2 gears that I did today. My plan is to deal with the gull, then deal with the bike. It should be an easy fix for a shop, but the gull is much more pressing right now. I will say that I wasn't really that upset when this happened. I consider myself incredibly lucky when it comes to the health of the bike this year. Something like this was bound to happen at some point in the year. The timing really could not have been better, and, with only 2 days to ride to reach a major city, the problem will get fixed with relatively little effort. Compared to breaking a wheel in an accident in West Texas, this was a walk in the park. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dec 24 (Day 358) - Another miserable day on the roads

If there was going to be more strong north wind tomorrow, I think I would just close up shop and quit for the rest of the year. The last two days have been miserable and relatively unproductive. Yesterday I managed just 37 miles before the wind shut me down. Today was almost as frustrating as I covered just 50 miles from Navasota, TX to Hearne. The wind that blew from 14-18 MPH all morning (gusting >20 MPH) did actually die down a bit in the afternoon. I thought about continuing on, but I was doubtful that I would be able to find food in the next, small town on Christmas eve. When I found out the Pizza Hut here in Hearne would be open until 8pm, that sealed the deal. I have now consumed 2 large pan pizzas from Pizza Hut in the last 24 hours. 

50 miles - I couldn't make a perfect bike map since I 
did some riding on the interstate

I simply cannot stress enough how exhausted I am at this stage of the year. This physical condition translates into an incredible lack of motivation at year's end. I am really, really ready for this whole thing to end. It has passed the point of being enjoyable and now is one giant slog. Yes, all big years slow down at the end. However, petroleum-based birders could be at home with their families waiting for their phone to ring with news of one last bird appearing somewhere on the continent. If the phone never rings, they can just hang out and enjoy the holidays. This is not so for me. I am alone as ever, and I am still laying down miles on weary legs. Tomorrow I will - hopefully - ride 92 miles north to Corsicana, and on Friday I will ride the ~65 miles to White Rock Lake in Dallas to look for Little gull in the afternoon. At least for the next two days, there is no rest in sight. Mentally, I am completely done right now. I am literally out of things to think about. Cursing the wind was all I could do today. It was really awful. Thankfully, the wind is going to swing around to blow stiffly from the the south the next two days. Without these tailwinds, I might just ride the bike into oncoming traffic and be done with it. Yeah, it's that bad.

Speaking of beat up, my gear is literally falling apart before my eyes. My rear rack on which most of my weight is carried is cracked-through in two places. My rear fender cracked in half and the one half had to be jettisoned. Today, my handlebar-mounted phone holder completely shattered. Also today, the zipper on my insulated jacket broke irreparably. I purchased a $10 sweatshirt to battle the 37C morning temps tomorrow. My tripod lost a critical knob from the constant bouncing on the road;  I had to go MacGyver to fix it. The corse focus knob on my scope has broken for a second time. I am willing to bet my life that this was also due to excessive rattling along crappy roads. I am not sure what is in worse shape, my body or my gear. 

Incidently, the Fort-tailed flycatcher was not seen today either. Had I chased that bird 230 miles in the wrong direction and not found it, the bike would certainly have been thrown into Galveston Bay and the year would have come to a premature but incredibly welcome end. I can only laugh at how miserable I am right now. In some respects the blog is the main thing keeping me going. Without it I could quit and no one would be the wiser! All joking aside, I will somehow finish the year out, new birds or not. While it will be awful/torturous for the next week, I'll be glad I didn't fold the tent 20 years from now. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dec 23 (Day 357) - Big winds shut me down, end of year "top 5" list ideas

I left Harvey's ranch at first light this morning. I knew a very large northwestern front with associated big winds of 20-25 MPH was heading my way. I wanted to knock out at least some miles before it descended on me and made my life miserable. I was able to make ~37 miles to Navasota, TX before it the winds really escalated. I took a break for an early lunch and contemplated trying to continue towards College Station. The winds were ~18 MPH when I sat down for lunch. By the time I finished, they had grown to a steady 22 MPH. I decided right there to hang it up for the day. I could have probably pushed the 23 miles to College station, but it would have been potentially the most miserable 2.5 hours of the entire year. Also, given the spacing of the towns, it really would not have helped me that much. As I must ride into more significant north wind tomorrow (but nothing like today), I needed to make sure I had some gas left in the tank for that. The winds should be N to NW at 11-16 MPH tomorrow. This is certainly a headache, but it is much better than today. There are two potential stopping points for tomorrow: one in Hearne at 47 miles and one at Bremond at 70 miles. 

A very tough 37 today (36 mapped + the 1 mile driveway!)
The last 4-5 miles were at a snail's pace

No matter how things go tomorrow, the first chance I will have to search for the Little gull in Dallas will be Friday afternoon. The bird is being seen at White Rock Lake either right at the beginning of the day (7:30am) or right at the end of the day (4:30pm). Incidently, the bird was seen yesterday; This is good news! I am currently 200 miles from the lake. The last 30 miles of this distance will be traffic light-riddled, so time-wise it will take much longer than 200 miles on the open road. The north wind tomorrow (Wed) and town spacing will ensure that even if I reach Bremond, I'll still have 130 miles to reach the lake. I will have a nice south tailwind on Thursday, but, given how slow the last 30 miles will be, I won't be able to cover those 130 miles before dark and/or before afternoon rush hour. Thus, the plan is to stop short of Dallas on Thursday night. I will then let Friday inbound rush hour traffic clear out before I head into the city. Since I can't be there at daybreak Friday, whether I am 20 miles or 60 miles from the lake on Thursday night won't matter. As long as I can reach it by Friday afternoon, that's all I can do. This is why it ultimately doesn't matter if I ride 50 or 70 miles tomorrow. I'm just going to see how I feel and what the wind is doing when I reach the 50-mile mark. 

As a quick side note, the Galveston Island Fork-tailed flycatcher does not appear to have been seen today, at least as of this 5pm writing. Since I would not have seen that bird today even if had I chased it, it would have cost me at mininum 4 days had I done so: today to reach Galveston Island and not find the bird, tomorrow to look for bird again, and two days to cover the 150 miles back north and west to Navasota where I find myself now. We'll see if the bird is seen tomorrow.......

As I mentioned the other day, I hope to produce a series of ranked lists to summarize the high- and lowlights of the year. I was thinking about some or all of the these:

5 best rides of the year
5 worst rides of the year

5 most exciting bird finds of the year
5 biggest bird misses of the year - there will probably be an entire post on this topic afterwards

5 best strategic decisions of the year
5 worst strategic decisions of the year

5 states where I spent the most time
5 states where I rode the most miles

5 best/favorite birding spots I visited

Here's a preview!

Top 5 things I hated about this year:
5) headwinds
4) strong headwinds
3) never-ending headwinds
2) hurricane force headwinds
1) $%^&*^&  %$#$E&%^  @#$^&ing headwinds

Anyway, you get the general idea. If there is a list you would particularly like to see, please let me know either in the comments section or via email (bikingforbirds@gmail.com).

Lastly, since today is a bit thin news-wise, I will tell everyone that I am certainly going to enjoy my last 8 days of being able to eat WHATEVER I want without thinking about it. Dinner tonight will be a whole pizza and a pint of ice cream - yum! As soon as January 1 hits though, I am going to have to make some major adjustments to my diet. I will need to cut down what and how I eat immediately so that I don't experience major weight gain. This would be the inevitable result if I continue to eat like I do now. In fact, I am really excited to get into the kitchen and try out some of the recipes I have learned during my travels. I am excited for fresh veggies and other healthy foods. As January is scheduled as a recovery month for me, I should have lots of time to spend in the kitchen. Sonia is a much better cook than me, so I am sure she will be happy to assist/advise as needed! 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dec 22 (Day 356) A long but pleasant ride capped off with Harris's sparrow!

I will confess that I had an ulterior motive for spending the last two nights in Freeport. Two of my very closest birding friends, Victor Emanuel and Barry "The Body" Lyon, were it town for the Freeport Xmas count. Not only have I have I been close friends with the both of them for 25 years, but they and their affiliate, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT), have been incredibly supportive of my efforts this year. You will recall VENT put up the $2,500 for our first match event of the year. Ultimately this helped us to raise close to $9,000 during the 2 week match period. So, when Victor and Barry offered me the pullout couch in their hotel room for the last two nights, I took it without a second thought. I had a really nice time with the the last two days. Sometimes, even on big years, birding can be just as much about people as it can birds.

Barry, me, Victor

I departed just after this photo opportunity to tackle the first leg of the 320-mile, 4-day ride to Dallas and the Little gull(s). Today would take me 82 miles north to Brookshire. With temperatures in the mid 60's, light cloud cover, and a tail/cross wind for most of the day, today's ride was very pleasant. My destination was a ranch just north of Brookshire. The rancher, Harvey Laas, is an avid birder and blog follower. He contacted me several weeks ago and told me that he always has Harris's sparrows on his feeders by mid-December. I therefore arranged to spend tonight at the ranch. Within 10 minutes of my arrival, we had found 3 Harris's sparrows! Year bird #613 could not have been easier! I had nice looks at these birds as they feed with White-crowned, White-throated, Song, Lincoln's, and Fox sparrows. I also had Vesper and Savannah sparrows on on our walk. Harvey has actually recorded 247 species on his 1,600 acre property in the last 7 years. This place really is a birding goldmine. We spent a the last hour or so of the day birding around the property. A checklist of what we found can he seen here (44 species). Not bad for a trot in the yard!

Year bird #613 - Harris's sparrow. More than
1 bird might be represented in these photos.

During my ride, I was informed that a Fork-tailed flycatcher had appeared on Galveston Island today at 1pm. I am not going to chose this bird. I had already put down 70 miles towards Dallas when I heard about this bird. This bird would require that I backtrack those exact 70 miles and then ride an additional 40 northeast to Galveston. I would not make it to Galveston until tomorrow afternoon. There is also this huge front with associated huge winds moving through tomorrow, so I highly doubt the bird will stay put. I would then have to turn around and ride over those same 110 miles to get back here over the next 2-3 days. The point is that this bird would coast me at least 3-4 full days (and I would have missed Harris's sparrow today). I am much better off making progress towards the Little gull. I will hopefully have a few days to look for Smith's longspur north of Dallas irrespective of how the gull search ultimately goes. Gambling my ability to find possibly find 2 birds for a long shot at 1 (with 2X more riding) is not a good idea. In this last week, time is the most precious thing I have. I need to use it to ride towards the maximum number of potential new birds, not the sexiest single bird.

82 miles after the run down the long driveway!

The next two days are going to be a big headache because of big north winds. I figured that the ~320-mile transit from Lake Jackson to Dallas would take 4 days of moderately heavy riding. I did what I needed to today, but the weather the next two days is likely going to add full day to the Dallas run. The wind is going to build from 5 MPH at 7PM to 22 MPH by noon. I should have a 4-hour window in which to cover at least some ground. I should be able to make it the 36 miles to Navasota before it gets really bad. Wednesday will also have big north winds. I hope to make it to Hearne, 44 miles beyond Navasota, on this day. Basically the wind is forcing a split of what should be a 1-day, 80-mile ride to Hearne into 2 half days. The winds should shift to the south again on Thursday. I hope to ride ~92 miles to Corsicana on that day. This would leave me 60 miles to the Little gull spot. I could cover this on more south winds on Friday morning. That afternoon could then be used to search for the gull. So........I need at least one of the apparently 2 Little gulls to stay until Friday afternoon. 

Who nose if the Little gull will stay put?!?!?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dec 21 (Day 355) - Stop! Jetty Time!

Between my fatigue yesterday and my focus on the Yellow rail, I completely forgot to thank Sonia for stepping up last minute to handle the blog. As per usual she did a great job. I will make sure she gets at least one last guest appearance before the year is complete. She is scheduled to join me wherever I am on or around December 29. Perhaps we can sort out some form of joint post. Also, while speaking of the blog, I intend to put together several "year in review" posts once 2014 is over. I hope to make several "Top 10" lists as well as present some graphical/numerical analysis of my year to appease geek-types like myself.

As for today, there were 2 intersecting goals for today. The first of these was to take one last crack at Black-legged kittiwake. I really should have been able to find this bird in the northeast  in January, but each time I went to look for it I was thwarted by one arm or another of the 'Polar Vortex': snow, ice, wind, or extreme cold. This was a painful bird to miss, but, given how well I did on the other species, I survived. Finding this bird here in Texas would literally be a miracle. They are seen each year along the length of the Texas coast, but only in single-digit numbers. To do away with any suspense, I did not find one of these rare birds today. During my seawatch, I did see many other birds that will be counted towards the Freeport Christmas Count totals. Aiding in this event was my second goal and would be achieved with or without the appearance of the kittiwake. 

Without going into too much detail, Christmas Counts occur during December and January of each year. Each count is essentially a winter bird census for a given area. More specifically, each count occurs within a historical circle that has a diameter of 15 miles (or ~175 square miles). There is a bit of friendly competition between different counts, and the same people generally turn out to do the same counts each year. I would imagine somewhere around 60-80 people participated in the Freeport count today. Groups of people are assigned different areas within this 'count circle' . Birders record the number of individuals of each species they observe over the course of the day, and the results are pooled and presented at a banquet dinner at the end of the day. Thus Christmas counts perform dual functions: scientific and social. As I was going to be on the North Jetty all day, I kept track of everything I saw as part of the Freeport count that occurred today. I found a few nice birds: Bald eagle, Sandwich tern, Common tern, and Common loon, to name a few. When it was all done, I spent 7 solid hours in the chilly wind today. At times it was less than pleasant, but it was all for a good cause. My personal highlight of the day was probable the sea turtle that swam right by the jetty.

My perch -  The North Jetty at Freeport harbor

Sea turtle of some sort - we think
it might be an Atlantic green turtle

Common tern

Sandwich tern with shrimp lost by fisherman

Those that have read "Kingbird Highway" by Kenn Kaufman might remember that Kenn was swept of this same Jetty by a huge wave when he participated in the Freeport Christmas Count in 1973 during his own Big Year. In this year, Kenn hitchhiked ~90,000 miles around the United States and Canada. During this adventure, he found 671 species and set what was then the North American Big Year record. "Kingbird Highway" is Kenn's extremely entertaining account of this year. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his year was that he did it when he was only 19 year old! I thought that birding this same jetty during Freeport Christmas count might add a bit of interesting historical significance and/or parallelism to my own efforts this year. 

Looking ahead, tomorrow I will ride ~85 miles to Brookshire where I will likely get pinned by wind on Tuesday. If I do move it will be only a very short distance. I am hoping to Reach Dallas Friday/Saturday. The Little gull was seen today, and there is possibility that it was been joined by a second bird. As long as one of them stay for 5 more days, I should be in good shape. We all know that there are no guarantees in this this game though!

Just 28 miles - with 7 hours standing on the jetty

Dec 19 and 20 (Days 353 and 354) - The big Yellow rail hunt!

Recall that on Thursday, based on a terrible weather forecast for Friday, I opted to bypass Sargent, and instead ride to Lake Jackson. I had hoped to look for Yellow rail in Sargent very early Friday morning, but, with the terrible weather and lack of lodging, this did not look like it was going to be possible. I figured I would hunker down in Lake Jackson during the heavy Friday rains and start fresh on Saturday. As it turned out, we did get a lot of rain on Friday (over 2" in most areas around Lake Jackson). However, this rain did not last as late in the day as expected. Because of this, we rescheduled our Rail Hunt for 8pm on Friday. Importantly, I was able to secure a place to stay in Sargent for Friday night. I reached Sargent at 5pm and prepared for the 8pm excursion. 

27 + 5 unmapped for 32 total

I was met on Friday night by San Bernard NWR Biologist Jennifer Wilson, her husband Woody, their friend Connie, and bike-birder Ron Weeks. We immediately set to task. It was cloudy and damp, but, with low winds and temps in the mid-50s, it was really quite pleasant. We used a traditional 'bottle-line' to aid out goal. A 'bottle-line' is a rope with cans of screws tied to it at periodic intervals. The idea is to that two people drag the noise-producing line between them to scare birds out of the marsh. As Jennifer is an expext rail bander, those rails that we could capture and band would be used in her studies. This foray was scientific! It took us about 5 minutes before we flushed out first Yellow rail. We subsequently flushed 2 more, both of which we captured and banded. I got great looks at them scurrying around the marsh. However, this was certainly the best look I'll ever have at this incredible surreptitious bird! A huge 'thank you' to everyone who helped to make this possible. This was redemption since I missed this bird, despite huge effort, at Anahuac NWR in Texas in April! I have videos of all of this, but the internet where I am tonight is too slow to upload them. Hopefully in the next few days....

Yellow rail for #612!
No, I did not eat it even though that looks
like what's about to go down!

I had to get this bird on it's wintering grounds since
I was nowhere near its breeding range this summer.

After the rail banding session, I returned to my place of refuge in Sargent. It was from here that I today departed to head east to Freeport and it's famous jetties. I had scheduled a few hours of sea watching from this locale. Even though my chances of finding Black-legged kittiwake were tiny (probably < 5%), I needed to spend what time I could looking for this bird from the jetties today. In all honesty, I had no desire to look for this bird today. It was cold and windy, and it would require a disproportionate amount of riding considering how small the chances of finding the bird were. The problem is that if one did fly by and I missed it, it would be a total disaster. Although my chances of seeing the bird under today's conditions were tiny, tinier still were my chances of finding it from the comforts of a hotel in Lake Jackson. If I used a car, today would have looked like this: Drive 30 mins, bird 3 hours, drive home in warm car. My day looked more like this: Ride 2+ hours in stiff, cold wind, bird 3 hours while getting even colder, ride 2 hours in same cold, stiff wind. Driving 1 hour to bird for 3 (or more!) is a good deal. Biking for 4 hours to bird for 3 is not. I just cannot explain how much easier a car makes birding. Take how easy you think a car makes things, then double it again to reach how much easier a car actually makes things when compared to a bicycle. There is simply no comparison. It goes without saying that I did not see a kittiwake today. Highlights were a single Franklin's gull and 2 Common terns (checklist). I did have some nice company though as I was joined my Ron Weeks (again) and Texas/Oklahoma birder Caleb Frome. Seawatching is certainly much better with others in tow. I will return to this same spot tomorrow for my last, tiny crack at kittiwake before I head inland for the last 9-10 days of the year. 

Ron and Caleb

The light on the jetty was simply awful today, but I did manage 2 fair shots.

Immature Bonaparte's gull - underside

Immature Bonaparte's gull - upperside

58 miles today (Saturday)

The Dallas Little gull was seen yesterday, Friday the 19th. I am not sure about today yet. It will realistically need to stay put for another 5-6 days for me to have chance at it. I know that I am going to be blown-out on Tuesday when the winds are going to be 20-30 MPH from the north, the direction I will be headed on that day. I am hoping to get Harris's sparrow on Monday, hunker down on Tuesday, and then continue North towards Dallas Wednesday through Friday. If the gull disappears this plan could change. Right now though I am proceeding under the assumption it will stick around. As per usual, fingers crossed......