Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Apr 29 (Day 119) - 4 years without a cigarette, Austin arrival, Grasshopper sparrow

First, thank you to everyone who has written to Best Western. They told me they have received lots of notes thanking them for their support of Biking for Birds. If you have not yet do so, please feel free to drop them a note and let them know that you're glad they are involved with the adventure. Please consider the brand in your future travel plans!

OK, let's get started! I smoked my last cigarette exactly 4 years ago. After 11 years of moderate to heavy smoking, I quit cold turkey on April 29, 2010. I have not had a single puff since that day, and only very rarely have I even thought about smoking. I mention this for several reasons. First, it is an accomplishment of which I am very proud. Second, this trip would certainly not be possible if I was smoking a pack a day like I was at the height of my smoking career. Third, I know that quitting smoking is generally a very difficult thing to do, and I want people to know that it is possible; You just need to want to do it badly enough. It also takes some help from those around you, and Sonia (my girlfriend) was incredibly supportive right from the time the decision was made to quit. I like to think that the same mental fortitude that helped me overcome smoking can now be used to overcome the heat, hills, and wind that is waiting for me just outside Austin.

I arrived in Austin relatively early this afternoon. This is because I got a very early start to try to lay down some miles before the forecasted wind picked up. I started riding in the dark at 5:30am. It was cool and there was zero wind. It was nice and quiet on the rural roads, and I was able to hear 2 Grasshopper sparrows (#335) calling just at dawn. I was able to cover 45 miles by 8:45am when the wind really got going. The weather folks forecasted a northwest wind, but it was more like true north. This did not bother me at all since it was a crosswind instead of a partial headwind. There were rolling hills all day. These provided some good practice for the climb onto the Edwards Plateau, or "Hill Country", that will happen later this week. The bird life will make a dramatic change in the next few days. I should start to add many desert species in addition to the 2 main Hill Country specialty birds, Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-capped vireo.

79 miles today

Grasshopper sparrow from my stock. 
Taken on a very cloudy day in 
Massachusetts 2 years ago.

Topographic map of Texas showing Edwards Plateau
as raised area just west of center

Schematic of Edwards Plateau (Hill Country)

Black-capped vireo range map

Golden-cheeked warbler range map

Today taught me a valuable lesson: beat the Texas heat by getting an early start. I am going to start my rides in the dark for the better part of the next two weeks. I-10 has a very nice, wide shoulder that gives traffic plenty of clearance space. I normally ride at around 14 MPH, and the sun comes up at 6:45 or so. If I start my rides at 5:30am, I can knock out close to 25-30 miles before the sun even gets a foothold around 7:30. Generally, the real heat starts around 10:30, so the more riding I can do before this the better. I will also sweat much less. This will help me greatly in the very important task of water management. 

Right now my plan is to have the bike sorted out tomorrow. I am also going to hit REI to get an additional hydration system, and the post office to mail a few items. The winds tomorrow are also going to be from the north (no help to me), but they are going to start swinging around to blow from the south the day after. This is when I will leave town and head northwest to the plateau. The south wind should give me a nice push as I start the climb.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Apr 28 (Day 118) - Heading towards Austin, Lark sparrow at #334, need to drop weight.....

I decided to bypass the Attwater's prairie chickens for several reasons. First, I would have only moved 40 miles today if I had tried for them, and some of that would have been to the south - away from Austin. Second, the wind today was lighter than expected, so I could cover a decent distance towards Austin instead.  Third, the wind the next 2 days is going to be very strong from the northwest, and this would make the long, 2-day northwest ride into the wind from the prairie chicken spot to Austin very difficult. From where I am now it should only take 1 long day of riding into/across this wind to reach Austin. Fourth, my bike is showing some significant signs of wear and tear, and I want to get it Austin as soon as possible. I have scheduled a bike tune-up in Austin for Wednesday midday. So, in effect, I am trading the chickens for a day of time and a smoothly running bike. Fifth, I am going to save my next big bird finding battles for the Golden-cheeked warbler and the Black-capped vireo. The riding the next 3 weeks is going to be incredible difficult, and a detour right now only postpones the inevitable. Procrastination is not my style.

Today's ride ~75 miles

The prairie chicken scenario that I skipped

I did make one minor detour today to the Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham, TX. I was introduced to this ice cream a few weeks back, and I have been totally addicted ever since. I consumed a full pint each night I was in High Island! As today was very hot, I felt justified in a "quick" stop to sample a few flavors. I walked in with $20, and I walked out with much less. Scoops were only $1 each, so you can tell I did some real damage. Today's performance was not quite as epic as the 2013 Scooper Bowl  debacle in Boston, but it was close. 

At the creamery

Round 1 of ?

Looking a bit sick at Scooper Bowl 2013 in Boston!

Today, I encountered the first real hills that I have seen in months. These hills are only going to get more challenging as I move west in Texas this month and north into Colorado during subsequent months. I am definitely going to dump my tripod and telescope in Austin. This should save around 8-9 lbs. I should not need the scope much during my time in AZ, NM, CO, WY, ID, and OR. I will send it in to be serviced for these months and get it back when I reach California in September. I have also made the incredibly difficult decision to dump my camera for the summer months. This would save another 4.5lbs. I would love to have it with me, but if I am going to tote the laptop, them something else has got to go. A blog with no bird photos is better than no blog at all. Ditching the field guide will save another pound. Since it is a very old NGS book that is due for an upgrade anyway, I am going to tear out the flycatcher pages and bring those with me. I think I am pretty good on most other families. The bottom line is the weight is going to be EVERYTHING in the next few months, so I have to drop as much of it as possible. Today's stop at Blue Bell did nothing to help the weight reduction agenda. 

Today's ride became more scenic the farther I got from Houston. By the end of it, I was riding through rolling, grassy terrain that was dotted with oaks. I did manage to add Lark sparrow along the side of the road right at the end of the ride. It was a nice reward for a very hot 75 miles today (it was 92F).

OK, early to bed so I can get up early to start riding before it gets hot tomorrow. The north wind should keep it a bit cooler than today (~81F), so I've got that going for me!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Apr 27 (Day 117) - Motivation returns to reach 5,000 miles, Best Western information, new year bird!

Yesterday, I explained how I experienced a dip in my motivation and decision making ability. Today, everything returned to normal as I hammered out my longest riding day of the year to date (112 miles). These miles put me over 5,000 for the year! I made several important decisions, and I am very happy with the outcome of each. I have not yet sorted out what to do about the Attwater's, but I have put myself in a location from which either decision (try for it or bypass it) can be made without major alterations to my route. As I will show you, my ability to put myself in this position is thanks in large part to Best Western. I will explain using a map of today's ride.

A beautiful start to the day!

112 miles today to reach 5,005 for the year!

I got a nice early start from High Island this morning. There was a a very stiff south wind right from the start (~14 MPH), so this gave me a really nice push as I headed north towards my destination, the Best Western Dayton Inn and Suites. I covered this 60 miles in about 4 hours with one birding stop. I felt great when I arrived, so I decided to continue west another 35 miles to the Best Western Plus North Houston Inn and Suites. By this time the wind had built to 20-22 MPH.  It took quite a bit of energy to keep the bike running straight with a crosswind this strong, but I managed just fine. Surprisingly, when I arrived at the North Houston property, I still had a decent amount of juice left in my legs. I made one last revision to my plan, and headed another ~15 miles west to reach the Best Western Windsor Suites where I finally retired for the day. Having a multitude of options really helped me today. As of 2013, Best Western had 2,163 properties in the Unites States; This ensures I will frequently be able to find one of their hotels in which I can take refuge.

My home for the night - Best Western Windsor Suites

I was actually approached by one of my new friends at High Island about providing feedback for Best Western. Basically, he had decided that he was going to start staying at Best Westerns on his travels. He felt strongly that he should support the brand that is supporting so much of my year. He also asked if he should contact Best Western and let them know about his decision. I gave him an emphatic "Yes". Best Western is a great, environmentally conscious brand, and it would be great if people would think about staying with them moving forward. Please, Best Western know this, and please, let them know that their support of my year means something. I have below provided a few links that people can use to contact the brand. Notes as simple as "Thanks for helping with Biking for Birds" would go a long way to ensure continued support in the future. If you have a few seconds, I would really appreciate any time folks could take to do this. Please consider Best Western in your future travel plans. I promise you won't be disappointed!

You can read about Best Western's commitment to the environment here and here.

Birdwise today, it sometimes felt like I was back in Florida. I had a my second Crested Caracara of the year today. My only other was in in Florida. I also had several soaring Anhingas over Liberty TX, and a few Swallow-tailed kites in the same vicinity. However, the highlight of the day was surely the 4 Mississippi kites (#333) that flew over the road just outside of Liberty. One bird came over the tree tops and gave me a few overhead passes before it disappeared out of view. It was followed by 3 others although these were much soaring much higher. This is only the second time I have ever seen this species. This first time was an immature bird flying over the famous Beanery at Cape May, NJ on a spring day sometime back in the mid 1990s! This was certainly a welcomed find today.

The weather tomorrow looks a bit iffy, so I am hopefully going to schedule my movements between cloud bursts. I will keep everyone posted!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Apr 26 (Day 116) - Indecision, lack of motivation.....

The original plan for today was to ride out of High Island (TX) and make ground towards and around Houston. This is not what happened. As soon as I got out of bed this morning, I was completely crippled by indecision. This stemmed from two sources. First, the weather and wind forecast for the next few days is all over the place. There looks like there could be some really severe weather north of Houston on Sunday/Monday. If and how this would affect me is not 100% clear yet. Second, I just do not know what to do about the Attwater's/Greater prairie chicken. On one hand, I have the to time to try for this ABA countable bird. This will be by far my best shot at this bird this year. One the other hand it will take a lot of coordination, and although the birds are technically ABA countable, this population is only in existence because of continual human maintenance (kind of like of Whooping cranes in Florida). I do not yet know what the access situation will be, and I would also have to do a lot of riding through and around Houston which stands directly in my way. 

A possible bike route around Houston

A better route I cannot take since it requires a ferry.  
This route would better avoid Houston 

Since I was endlessly waffling about what to do about the prairie chicken, I quickly decided to spend another night here on High Island to end my deliberation. In effect, I took a page out of the US government handbook and kicked the proverbial can down the road a day. I rationalized this decision on the basis that I would rather visit the Attwater's refuge on a clear Tuesday than a stormy Monday (its a 2 day ride from here) should I elect this route. This plan would also give me additional time to assess what help I might get from the folks at the refuge. Recall they will tell me on Monday what the access situation will look like. Thus, if I reschedule my potential visit for Tuesday, I will have all the information in hand upon my hypothetical arrival. The wind will actually aid me more tomorrow than it did today, so my decision made sense from this standpoint as well. I am sorry if this makes no sense, I am just trying to sort through it all in my own head.

Once I put my Attwater's decision on hold, I could get back to more immediate birding. I knew the strong south winds would make land birding around here terrible, so I decided to do some shore birding this morning. This turned out to be a great decision. My shorebird list for the morning was outstanding - 24 species in just a few hours at just 2 spots.

Black-bellied plover
Semipalmated plover
Piping plover
Snowy plover
Wilson's plover
American oystercatcher
American avocet 
Black-necked stilt
Lesser yellowlegs
Spotted sandpiper
Marbled godwit
Ruddy turnstone
Red knot
Semipalmated sandpiper
Least sandpiper
Long-billed dowitcher
Stilt sandpiper
Wilson's phalarope

The highlight of the day was my first White-rumped sandpiper of the year for bird #332. Finding this bird means that I have found all the central and eastern shorebirds that I needed to find during this leg of the trip. This is a nice weight off of me as I do not have to stop to scan every wet farm field I pass tomorrow. Finding this bird today means I can actually ride farther tomorrow. 


***Click thumbs for bigger images***

White-rumped sandpiper - note long wings

Head shot

Gotta love f/5.6 for the thin plane of focus!

I spent the afternoon kicking around the woodland areas on an incredibly quiet High Island. I found only 6 warbler species, the most notable of which was Bay-breasted. In hindsight, I should not have rebooked my room. I should have done the morning shore birding and then headed to the Best Western in Dayton, 60 miles to the northeast. Had I done this, I would be that much closer to where I ultimately need to be. I could then ride 2 short days (Sun, Mon) to reach the Attwater's NWR for Tuesday morning should I elect to do this. This bout of indecision is very uncharacteristic and a bit disturbing. Maybe it means I am starting to experience some amount of mental fatigue. For the first time in a while today, I started to wonder if I have might have tackled too large a task. Given I have been at this for 116 days now, I guess this is not altogether surprising; Its just a bit frustrating when it does. I was hoping that these days of light riding would really get me ready to attack the trans-Texas portion of the journey. Today I felt that I am in no way ready for this. I think today was a bit of a temporary wobble, so hopefully I will be able to properly motivate tomorrow to finally head out of here. The shorebird viewing did required a 20-mile ride, so at least I got my legs going a bit today.

For unbirders and birders who have not yet visited High Island, I will tell you it is a very popular destination at this time of year. Here is a shot of the viewing bleachers that have been placed near the bird bathing area. Dozens of folks hang out here as they wait for migrants to come and go from the bath. It's quite the social spot!

The players club! Hotter than 
Studio 54 ever was.......sort of.

Apr 25 (Day 115) - High Island exit strategy, plans for the next few days

Despite relentless searching around High Island (TX), I was unable to locate any new birds today. This is not surprising as the list of potentially new birds has been whittled down to a literal handful: Black-billed cuckoo, Mourning warbler, Yellow-bellied flycatcher, Willow flycatcher, and Alder flycatcher. Identification of the last 2 is essentially impossible without hearing their calls, and these species generally do not call in these parts. The bottom line is that adding new birds at this location has become sufficiently difficult that it is time to move on; Time has become more valuable than birds under these circumstances. I should be able to pick up Willow flycatcher later, but finding these others is very unlikely after I depart High Island. I did spend a very nice afternoon birding with 2 new friends, Dub from Louisiana and Noah from California. Both of them proved to be diligent bird finders and great trailside companions. I may have missed Black-billed cuckoo (damn you cuckoo, and Mangrove too!), but I walked out of High Island with 2 new friends instead. Not a bad consolation prize......

Me, Noah, Dub

As a self-acknowledged perfectionist, the decision to give up on these remaining birds is incredibly difficult for me to make. I had a list of birds that I needed to find on the Texas Coast, and I am going to fall several species short of a full quorum. I knew that I was not going to find every possible bird, but it still stings when the actual concession is finally made. It would have been nice to find at least one of the outstanding birds today, but as most of these are late migrants, I simply cannot wait around for them to arrive. I must keep moving, and as I am going to have favorable winds the next 2-3 days, the time is right for me to start the next leg of my journey. I hope I can use this a lesson moving forward. I know full-well that few aspects of this trip will go perfectly. I need to periodically remind myself that just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean it isn't valuable. 

Scarlet tanager from today 
(far from perfect, but still nice!)

I plan to spend the next ~4 days riding to Austin. I must decide if I am going to make a stop at Attwater's Prairie Chicken NWR for the Attwater's subspecies of the Greater prairie chicken. I assume these are ABA countable, but someone please correct me if I am wrong. This would represent a significant detour for me. The refuge does tours to the restricted areas where the birds are most easily found on Saturdays, but I am not going to make tomorrow's (4/26) tour since its 170 miles (or 2-days ride) away. I am trying to work something out with the refuge to get access to the best areas on Monday or Tuesday of next week. If I can get access, I will very likely see the bird and the trip will be worth the extra riding and logistics. If I must use the general auto tour route, the chances of seeing the bird drop markedly, and I must decided if the detour is worthwhile. The problem is that I won't get an answer about access until Monday afternoon, so I have to make my decision without all the information in hand. If I pass on this bird now, it is unlikely that I will get another crack at it. I do not think I will be back in its range this summer. My original route map showed me going into Nebraska, but I now doubt that this will actually happen. The point is that this is a big decision that I must make in the next day or so.

The northeastern-most red dot in Texas is the Attwater's
NWR refuge where I could see the bird. 

I do not think I will have that much trouble covering decent miles each day on the ride to Austin (i.e. the next 4-5 days). However, I have no idea how difficult the riding is going to be west of Austin. I do know that it will be hilly and it will be hot. I am going to have to drop some gear so that I can carry additional water (I can hear everyone saying "Camelback" now so please know that I have that under control). There is very little infrastructure in this part of the country, so I will have to be constantly mindful of exactly where I am and how far it is to the next water source. It is going to be exceptionally challenging. 

NOTE: This is NOT the exact route. It's jus to 
give people an idea of what I am facing. 

And yes, that is a fully occupied, 
Texas-shaped, Purple martin house 
here in High Island.

I hope to look for a few birds along the road tomorrow, so I'll be sure to let everyone know how that goes!

Bonus Short-billed dowitcher shot leftover from 
yesterday (this bird had 2 legs unlike his 
one-legged friend from yesterday)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Apr 24 (Day 114) - Squeaking out a few more High Island birds, birding as therapy?

Given the strong south winds last night, I figured that this morning would be very slow birding. My suspicions were confirmed as I was able to find only 4 warbler species in 3+ hours of woodland birding this morning. Since the birding was so painfully slow, I made the 1/2 mile run down to the coast to check for White-rumped sandpiper. I struck out on this bird, but I did find a particularly cooperative Short-billed dowitcher who posed for some photos. This guy had only 1 leg, and as a result he spent much time hopping around with his wings outstretched for additional balance. This gave me the chance to get some really nice shots of his underwing and tail patterns at point blank range. I returned to the woodlands after this diversion to find a few more common warblers. I ended up with just 8 species for the morning.

Short-billed dowitcher

Victor Emanuel and his long time friend Dennis met me for lunch at Smith Oaks Sanctuary around noon. Most of the larger tour groups had long since disappeared to forage for themselves. As a result, the sanctuary felt rather empty as we took to the trails after we had finished our own midday meal. We immediately encountered a nice mixed flock that was comprised of various species. Dennis shortly called out that he had a spotted a Blackpoll warbler. He immediately got me onto the bird for year bird #329! This is a bird for which I have been diligently looking, but have managed to miss up to this point. I think everyone at High Island but me saw this bird yesterday! My other target bird for the day was Bay-Breasted warbler (I somehow missed this bird yesterday as well). We found a beautiful male of this species shortly after the Blackpoll disappeared. This was year bird #330 and can be identified in the rather poor photo below. These were two birds that I was starting to worry I might miss, so getting these nailed down today was a big relief. Warbler activity remained high throughout the afternoon and peaked right at sundown. When all was said and done, I racked up a very good list of warblers for a day that started off so slowly. This is just another example of how it pays to keep pounding the trail knowing that eventually you'll find something. I also tacked on Western kingbird for #331. I will surely see thousands more of these as I move further west.

Dennis and Victor in action!

A treetop Bay-breasted warbler!

Blackpoll warbler - Taken in Newfoundland last year.
Note the bright orange legs on this guy!

My warbler list for the day (20 species)
Common yellowthroat
Northern waterthrush
Worm-eating warbler
Kentucky warbler
Hooded warbler
Tennessee warbler
Black-and-white warbler
Magnolia warbler
Yellow warbler
Black-throated green warbler
Blackpoll warbler
Bay-breasted warbler
Chestnut-sided warbler
Blackburnian warbler
Golden-winged warbler (at least 3)
American redstart
Cerulean warbler (1 male)
Prothonotary warbler
Northern Parula

One thought that I had today was the possible use of birding as a therapeutic for various physical, mental, or emotional abnormalities. For example, I know that art has been used to help people improve their emotional states, and I understand that animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a recognized treatment option in some instances. I feel like birding could be used to accomplish similar ends as some of these practices. Birds are beautiful, and they are certainly a living, animate part of almost every landscape on the planet. I find birding in its most basic form to be incredibly relaxing. I feel more connected to the natural world, and I generally feel less stressed when I am in the outdoors. Birding also provides a moderate amount of exercise, and exercise is well-established practice for the attenuation of both physical and emotional states. This is not coming from any sort of professional opinion on my part. I was just wondered what affect a really good introduction to birding might have on folks who are unfortunate enough to be afflicted with either physical or emotional challenges. Learning about birds, their identification, and their life histories would be a tangible and structured project that might actually benefit some people. I have no idea if this is completely crazy, but I do know that birding is like therapy for me. It reminds me that material things and just that, and that I am part of a living planet that stretches far beyond other human beings. Just how far is what I think birding can start to show people.

How birding makes me feel!

I will be pounding the trails at High Island all day again tomorrow. I am hoping to find Black-billed cuckoo or Yellow-bellied flycatcher. I thought I had found the latter bird at the end of the day today, but I think the setting sun made the Empid appear artificially yellow. I did not have time to go through the other marks before it disappeared, so this bird will remain as 'unidentified'. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Apr 23 (Day 113) - A Veery nice day on the Bolivar

Today I leisurely pedaled the 28 miles from the southwest end of the Bolivar Peninsula back to High Island. I made several birding stops that yielded the expected terns and shorebirds, and it was an altogether enjoyable morning despite the very humid conditions. The south wind picked up over the course of the day which meant that High Island was on the quiet side this afternoon. I was able to scrape out 15 warbler species including Kentucky, Cerulean, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian. Numbers of cuckoo and orioles were certainly down today, but I did notice an increase in Empid numbers.

28+3 unmapped = 31 total today

"Empid" is an abbreviation that birders use for the 11 flycatchers of the genus Empidonax. To the amateur eye, members of this group of flycatchers will look essentially identical. Even many accomplished birders must rely on their distinctive calls to distinguish them. I have been able to track down Acadian and Least Flycatchers so far in 2014. I am also hoping to find Yellow-bellied, Willow, and Alder Flycatchers. These last 3 birds birds migrate very late, so I may to leave the Texas coast before the birds arrive. All 3 of these birds fall into the late migrating "northern migrants" category that I described yesterday.

I did find a lone Veery near the end of the day for species #328. It took a bit of patience to cull through endless wood thrushes (and a single gray-cheeked) to find this bird, but as usual my persistence paid off. Veery is also a late migrant, so I imagine I will see a few more of these in the next few days. Regardless, it was a nice addition to the year list! Tomorrow I will hunt for Blackpoll, Bay-breasted, and Mourning warblers. I also need to find Black-billed cuckoo, but this is a notoriously difficult bird to locate. I think birding tomorrow will be very slow, but Friday looks a bit better. I'll just have to get out and repeatedly pound the same trails until I find some of these birds. I am staying in High Island for tonight and the next 2, so I am positioned right next to the prime birding areas for tomorrow and Friday.

Lunch on the road....yummy.

I am sorry for the short post, but I have a number of administrative things to which I must attend tonight. I will hopefully get these done so that I can have a more involved post tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Apr 22 (Day 112) - Friendly birding on the Bolivar Penisula

Birdwatching is largely about birds. However, many people outside the birding community do not realize to what extent that birding is also about people and friendships. Today was a shining example of this. I spent last night on the Bolivar Peninsula with Victor Emanuel at his small cottage. Over dinner last night the conversation swayed from birds, to politics, and to family. The birds provide the connection between Victor and me, but the friendship is free to roam to wherever it may. We see each other very infrequently, so we always have many things to discuss when we finally do reunite. 

We spent the first part of this morning birding from the deck of his house that overlooks the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. This is a fantastic place to view many types of shorebirds, but it was the American avocets that really dominated. Thousands of these birds have gathered in front of Victor's house, and we spent the first part of the day in awe of their numbers. We also had a large flock (~75) of Franklin's gull cruise over the house at one brief point. Many of these birds showed the characteristic pinkish bellies they develop during their breeding period. 

The view from Victor's deck (Taken this 
afternoon when the sun was out)

A sample of the avocet flock during this cloudy morning

Rose-breasted grosbeak in the mulberry bush
next to Victor's deck

Victor's cottage as seen from across the flats.
No shortage of birds (skimmers, avocets, herons)

After our stint on the porch, we headed over to the very long (~4 miles) north jetty that extends out from the southwestern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. The primary purpose of this structure is to prevent silt from filling in the main shipping channel into Galveston (TX) that lies just behind it. From this jetty we spent the next several hours scanning shorebirds and swapping birding stories. At one point we just sat on the rocks and studied the avocets feeding behavior. It was incredible to see so many of these birds sweeping their up-curved bills back and forth in the water in unison. We found a number of other common shorebird species, but  it was the 5 Hudsonian godwits that made a brief appearance on the flats that got us most excited. We were also particularly excited when we found a female Black scoter floating around in the shipping channel. This is a very good bird this far south. What we found out later in the day was that this scoter has been here for several weeks. While we were apparently the last to know about this bird, it does not diminish the excitement we experienced when we "found" it. It was just as much about the teamwork to find and identify the bird as anything else.

The rest of the day was a hodgepodge of neighborhood birding, napping, and shorebird viewing. We found a number of the usual migrants (buntings, tanagers, flycatchers) today, and I was able to add my FOY (that's "First of Year" for the unbirders) Magnolia warbler for #327. This was a bird I fully expected to see, but is one of our most attractive warblers irrespective of the circumstances in which it is viewed. The highlight of the afternoon was certainly the pair of Buff-breasted sandpipers I found in the mowed fields around Ft. Travis. I phoned Victor who was off grocery shopping at the time, and he raced back to see them. Dinner was pasta and shimp that I helped (at least a little) to prepare. We will spend the remainder of the evening just hanging out. It should be nice.

Magnolia warbler from my stock. This was
taken in Newfoundland last July.

Tomorrow I will bird the Bolivar Peninsula as I head back up towards High Island where I will be staying for the next 5 days. There are a number of migrants that I still need to find before I move out of the area (Blackpoll and Bay-breasted warblers, Black-billed cuckoo, Veery, others). Interestingly, these birds are some of the most northern nesters of the neotropical songbirds. These birds return later the southern nesters since the northern breeding grounds take longer to thaw out than their southern counterparts. Thus, spring songbird migration tends to happen in 2 waves. A wave of southern nesters in the first part of April, followed by a second phase in the later half of the month that brings with it the northern nesters. It is amazing how evolution has tuned each species to its particular circumstances. For the northern nesters, it is a delicate balance. If they arrive too early, a late cold snap could be lethal. If they arrive to late, they could find the prime nesting territories already claimed. Its amazing to know that the first Magnolia warblers come through here on or around the 20th of each year. It like clockwork and its incredible.

Apr 21 (Day 111) - Back on track!

The plan for today was to spend a few hours kicking around Anahuac NWR (TX) before heading down to High Island for the afternoon. I figured that a few relaxing hours of morning birding would be a nice change of pace from the high energy rail walks from the past two days. However, the morning was not without excitement as I was able to tack on two good birds to the year list. The first of these was Nashville warbler (#323). This bird normally migrates along a more inland route, so finding this lone bird this morning was a good find for Anahuac. I was also able to find a Bobolink (#324) which is a very good find for this area (but not as good as Black-throated blue warbler from last week). The normal migration route of Bobolink carries is mainly east of where I am at the moment. They are seen in Eastern Texas with some regularity, but there is no single spot to which a person can go at this time of year in Texas and expect to see the bird. I figured I would get this bird in Colorado during the summer. After today, this is no longer a variable that I need to consider in my travel equation. Just as a note, Bobolinks are closely related to meadowlarks, blackbirds, orioles. Together these birds form the family Icteridae. 

Bobolink from today - headed directly to the website!

The afternoon was spent birding at High Island. High Island sits on the Texas coast about 30 miles east of Galveston and is probably the most famous migrant trap in North America. Every April hundreds (thousands?) of birders, well-seasoned and novice alike, descend on this area to witness the spectacle of spring migration. The boardwalks are jammed with people spotting warblers, vireos, cuckoos, thrushes, and tanagers. It is a time for the birding community to come together, exchange birding stories, and spend time celebrating the birds as they return to their summer homes in North America. The birding today was fairly decent. Birding with Victor Emanuel, we were able to tease out a number of nice birds including Canada warbler, Hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and most notable, my year Philadelphia vireo (#325). Today's visit was just a preview as I all be returning to the area on Wednesday for 4-5 additional days of birding.

56 miles today (54 + 2 unmapped)

After my High Island visit, I headed southwest to the Bolivar Peninsula where I will be spending the next two nights. This visit to costal cottage of Victor Emanuel is as much a social call as it is a birding endeavor. Victor and I have been friends for 23 years (we met when I was 12!), and I always enjoy hearing about the great things to which he is currently devoting himself. He has been birding the Bolivar area for many years, so I will have a very knowledgable guide for our outing tomorrow. I was also able to add Black tern (#326) on my ride to the peninsula this afternoon. I was just amazed by the number and diversity of terns I observed at Rollover Beach on the peninsula. At one point I had Caspian, Royal, Sandwich, Gull-billed, Common, Forster's, Black, and Least terns all visible at the same time. This was a real treat and demonstrated why this area is a top birding destination at this time of year. Tomorrow should be very exciting!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Apr 20 (Day 110) - Derailed.....

I am exceptionally tired after today. I woke up very early to reach Anahuac before sunrise. I was hoping to hear Black rail, but was unable to do so. I also attended 2 rail walks today, but we did not find either Black rail or Yellow rail on these outings. I had allocated 2 full days to find these birds, and I struck out on both. I will have other chances for Black rail in Northern California, but Yellow rail will most certainly not be on my list this year despite the time and effort that was spent searching for  it. Yellow rail and Mangrove cuckoo have clearly been the biggest disappointments of the trip, but I knew going into this that I could not find every bird I wanted to see. My year is not like a normal big year where I can just fly up to Canada to get them on their summer breeding grounds. When I miss a bird, that's generally it. Maybe Yellow rail will surface in some unexpected spot; Black-throated blue warbler did just that!

There were 3 things that really helped to soften the disappointment of being "derailed". First, I did find some other good birds at and around Anahuac. Ruff was a fantastic find, and ticking Buff-breasted sandpiper on Friday opens up time to look for other species in upcoming days. Second, I met many, many interesting people. A large proportion of these folks had heard about my adventure, and the support and encouragement that they provided this weekend will help fuel me long after I depart Eastern Texas. Lastly, Anahuac is a fantastic place that is packed with birds. While I did not pile up year birds this weekend, do not let that mislead you into thinking that Anahuac isn't a top birding destination. I am sure I found well over 100 species in my 2.5 days of birding. A special note should me made of the Friends of Anahuac NWR. These volunteers lend their own time to help make Anuhuac the amazing place it is. This group performs any number of functions to ensure that everything at the refuge functions properly and in the best interest of visitors. It was the Friends that sorted me out with my lodging during my visit, and I want to publicly thank them for their generosity and hospitality during the last 3 days. You guys rule!

I am still trying to figure out how I am going to handle tomorrow morning. I should go to another area of the refuge to listen for Black rail, but I really need a decent night of sleep tonight. Tomorrow I head to High Island for the late morning and afternoon. I will kick around that area before I bike an additional ~30 miles down the Bolivar peninsula where I will be staying with long-time friend and Texas birding icon, Victor Emanuel. I will spend Tuesday and Wednesday on Bolivar before returning to High Island on Wednesday night. I will be at High Island from Wednesday night (the 23rd) to Monday morning (the 28th). After that it's off to Austin and then across Texas.

I am sorry for the lack of photos today, but I really need to keep this short to get some sleep. Here are two Common nighthawk photos from yesterday. I normally try to avoid man made posts in my shots (barbed wire is the worst though), but I simply love this shot as it is. Can't beat end of day light!

***click for bigger images***

Head detail extracted from another frame

I biked ~32 miles today, just for the record. I should cross the 5,000-mile mark sometime before the end of the month!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Apr 19 (Day 109) - Ruff day for rails, a personal milestone

First, we have cleared $10,000 raised for bird conservation! I will update the fundraising counter on Friday as per usual, but I wanted to let everyone know what great progress we have made. If you want to donate to bird conservation, please click on the BIG GREEN DONATION BOX at the top right of this page.

Second, if you are visiting for the first time and use Facebook, feel free to "Like" Biking for Birds. There is a link to the Biking for Birds Facebook page on the right hand side of this page.

The focus of today was rails - specifically Yellow rail and Black rail. These are two very small, very sneaky birds that spend most of their time buried out of view on the ground beneath dense marsh grasses. Both of these birds can be seen on the famous Anahuac rail walks which take place each spring on the National Wildlife Refuge. These walks have traditionally been the best place in the country to see Yellow rail away from its northern breeding grounds. Black rails nest on the refuge and, occasionally, they too are seen on the walks. I spent some time this morning listening for Black rail before the rail walk but did not hear any. I did, however, this afternoon hear a mockingbird on the refuge giving the classic "ke-ke-ker" Black rail call. It was very strange to hear this call coming from the top of a tree! This year has been a bit of a down year for these rails at the refuge, so I planned on attending the morning and afternoon walks today and an additional two tomorrow. This will be my only shot at Yellow rail this year, but I may be able to squeeze out Black rail somewhere down the line (SF Bay area, for example).

The general idea of these walks is as follows. Participants form a tight phalanx behind a weighted rope that is pulled through the marsh. The combination of the weighted rope and crashing footsteps cause a disturbance that is usually sufficient to flush these furtive birds out of the marsh. Most of the views of these rails are very brief; after the rails flush they dive back down into the dense grass to hide once again. These birds are basically never seen in this area without these tactics. It may seem a bit extreme, but by having a few scheduled and organized walks, disturbance is actually minimized since individual people are not continually stomping through the marsh without supervision.

The birder phalanx

The rail walks are very popular and attract birders from all over the country. This morning I met Big Year legends Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel. Sandy set the North American Big Year record in 1998 with 748 species. John gave this a good run with his 744 species in 2011 (http://www.bigyear2011.com). Sandy's epic year was the subject of Mark Obmascik's book, "The Big Year". This book was eventually made into a major motion picture of the same title. It was great to meet both of them today!

Me, Texas birder Bill Sain, Sandy Komito.
Bill has been incredibly helpful in organizing 
the Texas legs of my trip. Notice Sandy's Attu hat!
Note also facial hair variants.

Despite some very heavy birding firepower present at both rail walks today, we did not find either Black or Yellow rail on either the morning or afternoon walks. However, there was a HUGE consolation prize that appeared right as the morning walk ended. We received word of a Ruff on the refuge, and so everyone went tearing off to try to refind it. Ruff is a European shorebird that often wanders to North America. Female Ruffs are called Reeves. This will become relevant in a moment. 

As soon as I heard about the Ruff, I took off at a dead sprint to where it was reported. This was a bird that I did not expect to see this year, and this would likely be my only shot at it. It would also help soften the blow of a rail-less morning. I arrived just behind the car crowd. Armed with spotting scopes, everyone started combing the area where the bird had been reported. John and I were apparently both watching the same suspicious bird through some grass. As soon as it finally popped it, both he and I shouted, "There it is!". We got confirmation from other birders, and all in attendance were treated to decent albeit distant views of the bird (hence no photos, sorry). 

John and I celebrating after simultaneously
relocating the Reeve (Ruff) late this morning

The rest of the day was filled with continued shorebirding, and, after a bunch of 2pm arrivals, decent landbirding. Landbirding was highlighted by Worm-eating warbler and lots of Scarlet tanagers. I also saw a few nice King rails today which is always a treat.

47 miles today (44 below, plus ~3 unmapped)

I now want to leave the birding discussion for a bit to address something a bit more personal. Today I had a personal affirmation that I think will prove invaluable for the rest of my life: I can accomplish anything to which I completely devote myself. This is a cliche that I have heard often, but today I finally believed.  When I took the risk to swap my life as a scientist for the life of a biking birder, I had no idea in what form personal growth might come. Today it came in the form of an absolute and unwavering belief in myself. No matter what discovery I could have made in my lab in the last 4 months, it would have been dwarfed by the personal insight that I had today. I have no idea what the rest of 2014 may hold for me, but I can say without hesitation that even if I do not see another bird for the rest of the year, it will have been an incredible success. I have challenged myself in ways I never thought I would, and I have been propelled in large part by the thousands of people around the world who are as excited about this project as I am. Perhaps these feelings have been precipitated by the huge number of people who have passed along kind words to me in my last few days of Texas birding. This adventure is for everyone, and I hope that people are as excited for the rest of it as I am. One of the reasons I left my old career was that I felt I did not have the chance to sufficiently inspire other people. After speaking with many of you today, this is apparently exactly what Biking for Birds is doing for birders around the world. As of today, I know that I can transfer this inspiration to whatever I chose to do when this amazing journey finally does conclude. Watch out world......