Friday, October 31, 2014

Oct 30 and 31 (Days 303 and 304) - Goodbye Cali, Hello 'Zona!

After covering 541 miles with > 11,000' of climbing in the past week, I figured it was time for a break. Yesterday I moved just 15 miles south from Brawley, CA to El Centro. This short day set me up nicely for the run into Arizona today. 

15 miles yesterday - straight chillaxing!

A couple of people have inquired if I was planning on going to Lake Havasu to look for Nutting's flycatcher. The answer is no. I am going to go to Seattle to get Eurasian Hobby and then Sacramento to get Falcated duck. Just joking, although both of those birds were actually seen in those places in the last 3 days! While there has been a Nutting's at the south end of Lake Havasu the past few winters, I am not aware of any reports from this winter yet. 95% of the sightings in eBird from the last few winters have been from Dec-April, so it looks as though I am at least a month early. Unfortunately, I really need other people to do the dirty work and find birds for me. Riding up there to look for a bird that 99% isn't there (yet?) is not something I want to do. If someone reported it today, I'd at least think about it, but really I want to focus my efforts on the SE AZ area at this stage of the game.

Right now the plan looks like this:

Today     El Centro, CA > Wellton, AZ              93 miles *moderate S crosswind

Today - had to use car feature since I was on interstate

Nov 1      Wellton, AZ > Gila Bend                     87 miles *big W tailwind forecast for this day

Nov 2      Gila Bend > Casa Grande or Eloy       59 miles (74 to Eloy) *moderate W tailwind this day

Nov 3      Casa Grande or Eloy > Tucson            75 miles (from Casa Grande) or 60 miles (from Eloy)     

Nov 4      Tucson > Green Valley                         30 miles *This day could be folded in Nov 3 depending on where I start, how my legs feel, and what the wind does on that day.

I am looking for people (birders, cyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, former/current Playboy Playmates, anyone) to host me in any of the towns listed above. I am all set in Tucson. A place near the wren in Tubac would be ideal as well. If you, someone you know, or someone you know knows might have a place in any of these places, please email me at

Fro Green Valley, I will head south to Tubac to search for Sinaloa wren. This bird has been seen for weeks now. It was seen yesterday (the 29th) by several observers. I will spend as many days as necessary to find this bird. Once this is done, I will ride down to Nogales and then back up to Patagonia/Sonoita. This would likely take a day, 2 at most. I will then look for wintering Baird's sparrow in the Sonoita grasslands. This is a longshot, but it would save me from riding way the hell up into the San Rafael grasslands on dirt roads to look for this bird. If I spent some time in later area I should have a decent shot at the bird. Wintering birds have been photographed at San Rafael already this year, so I know they're present.   

I am looking for any and all help in locating these two species. EXACT directions and/or extra eyes to aid in the search would be fantastic if you want to join me.

Beyond these two species, there is not too much I need/expect to squeeze out of SE AZ. It is totally possible that I could get Sprague's pipit in searching for the sparrow, but I do not want to sink too much time into a dedicated search for the pipit before I knock out the other 2 species. I will have additional chances at the pipit moving east where as it's Arizona or bust for the wren and the sparrow. Well, I actually have a backup spot in New Mexico for the sparrow, but I am going to play it as though as must get the bird in AZ. 

It's going to take much luck to add any other bird(s) in AZ. Should any of the normal winter rarities like Ruddy ground-dove or Rufous-backed robin show up, I would take time to chase them. OH SNAP! That's right I already have the robin! Hollah! Lean Back! There haven't been any reports of the ground-dove yet, but maybe someone will find one in the next week. If anyone can dial up something really crazy like Yellow grosbeak or Crimson-collared grosbeak, feel free to do so. Believe it or not, I have not seen a Snow goose yet this year. There are late arriving to the Salton Sea this year (i.e. they haven't arrived yet). I expect to get this bird in Texas, but if there's one floating around SE AZ, I'll grab it on the way through. 

Oct 30 - Will the real story please stand up?

Well, as I'm sure you could have predicted, I certainly couldn't let you all think that the Cool Joe tale you read last night was the actual story of how Dorian and I met. Therefore, allow me to set the record straight. I present to you Sonia's story (aka the real story) of the fateful night I met the biking birder:

As you now know, it was the night of Game 5 in the 2008 World Series. As Dorian said, I'm a baseball fan so I really wanted to watch the completion this game. Since my roommate was spread out on the couch at my apartment watching a Romantic Comedy, I was forced (what a pity) to go to the local pub where I knew the game would be on. When I arrived, I bellied up to the bar and settled in for a couple hours of baseball watching. Sitting next to me was an middle aged man. He was super nice and I enjoyed exchanging pleasantries in between pitches. This carried on for some time until I finally went to the bathroom (TMI alert: I have a ridiculously large bladder so it takes several pints before a nature break is necessary). When I returned from the bathroom I walked back to my seat to find that this "super nice" gentleman had intentionally removed himself from the seat next to me and chose another seat that was completely at the opposite end of the bar. I looked over in a bit of confusion. "What did I do?", I thought. I must have either said something to offend him or I maybe I had really bad BO. <Quick armit sniff>. Nope. Ok, I must have offended him. Oh well, back to the game.

What happened next is a tale to which most women in any bar can relate. One guy leaves a bar seat next to you and another slithers over. And this guy?!... Oh boy. This guy had an afro about a foot in diameter and 4 empty pint glassed in front of him with 2 more on the way. Even more hysterical? He was trying to tell me that he was a scientist!! Hahahahaha! Oh brother, now I had heard it all. 

The evening carried on as an evening at a bar typically does. His 4 pints turned into 10 and my 2 pints turned into 4 (alright...5). Perhaps it was the additional pints, but this crazy afro guy turned out to be a rather entertaining bar mate. We exchanged a lot of laughs and some jabs at each other's hockey teams. Since I was recovering from a 6 month disastrous stint with, I really didn't have any interest in deep conversations or long walks on the beach with any guy. Therefore, this harmless exchange with Afro man was just fine with me. He was a bit of a spaz and when he asked me for my name I had to yell it out like 18 times. "Sophia?" "Silvia?"! "Shaquanda???"....ok, that was funny. Eventually he figured out that I was Sonia.

The game ended and the Phillies won. I high fived my bar stool neighbor who was obviously very excited. When he took to the street for a celebratory cigarette, I closed my tab and walked out. As I was leaving, I high fived him again and then turned left toward home. When I was about 2 blocks away, I heard the sound of someone running up behind me. Seriously, they were right behind me. I grabbed my purse with one hand and then quickly turned around to face my attacker. When I turned, I saw the Afro man slightly out of breath and mumbling something about "you seem really nice. I think you are fun. Do you like Cheetos?" and other such nonsense. At some point he asked me if he could have my number. I hesitated for a moment but then eventually thought "what the hell." If I survived the dates with a jobless stoner and the creepy stalker guy, I could obviously stomach hanging out for a few more hours with this fake scientist dude. So, I started to give him my number: 

Awkward moment when Fake Scientist
asked for my number

Me: "Sure, my number is 5-6-2..."
Fake Scientist (with flip phone in hand): "5-6-2"
Me: "6-8-6..."
Fake Scientist: "Ummm... 562? Waaaaaiiit, are you giving me a fake number???"

HAHAHAHAHA! Spoken like a guy who must have experienced that before. I assured him that I was, in fact, giving him my real number and that the 562 area code was from my hometown in CA. After giving him my full number we said our goodbyes once again and he promised to call in 3 days. 

"Ok, Dorian. It was nice to meet you."

Truthfully I thought this would end the same way most bar exchanges do and I figured I would never hear from the guy again. When he didn't call for 7 days*, my suspicions were confirmed.

*ok, it really wasn't 7 days. I give him a hard time about that. It was at least 4, though. However, the next day he did send me a cute text that said something along the lines of:

"When I woke up this morning, I was hoping that 3 things were still true: 
1) The Phillies are still the World Champions; 
2) You can actually skate as well as you converse and 
3) You are as beautiful as I remember you"

I responded with a picture of the front of the NY Times declaring the Phillies World Series Champs and said "well, at least one is". ........ugh, gross. Ok, cheese alert. And to think I rolled my eyes when I saw my roommate watching the RomCom.

Anyway, so began the 6 year journey with the afro guy who turned out to be a real scientist. And as Dorian mentioned in his post yesterday, it was pretty incredible to find out that for the 6 years prior to our meeting, we had essentially lived less than half a mile from each other in two totally different cities. He likely came into Grafton Street, the bar where I worked. On Tuesday nights we hosted free apps for obnoxious Harvard kids who thought they were better than everyone else. Guaranteed if I met him then, I probably rolled my eyes and walked away. But isn't it crazy to think just how small the world is sometimes?!

Where we lived in Boston 
from 2002 (ish)-2004 

Where we lived in NYC
from 2004 (ish)-2008
The star shows the bar location.

All joking aside, the past 6 years have been filled with so much joy, adventure, love and laughter. We have had some incredible highs and some devastating lows; through it all I honestly wake up every day ever so grateful that on Oct 29, 2008 my roommate was watching TV and I was forced to watch a baseball game at a bar.

I love you Dorian. crazy adorable bird-watching, DJ playing, afro-scientist bicyclist. Here's to 60 more.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd share some fun pics...     

Halloween 2009
Dressed as "Swine Flu"

Halloween 2012
Dressed as Hurricane Sandy
(prior to knowing the damage it would really cause)

Fall 2013. 
Because Dorian will never make
this face again if I make this photo public.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Oct 29 (Day 302) - 6 year anniversary with Sonia today! A story of baseball and how we met.

I didn't do a whole hell-of-a-lot of exciting stuff today, so I'll take a step back from biking and birding for a day to give you a bit of a personal look into my life with Sonia. I did ride 79 miles to reach Brawley today. Tomorrow I am going to ride 15 miles to El Centro. This will function as an off day after 3 hard days of riding. Friday I'll go ~65 miles to Yuma. There is supposed to be some big west wind (15-20 MPH) on Saturday, so I hope to use this to put down 100+ east to Gila Bend. 

As most of you know tonight is Game 7 of the World Series between the Kansas City Royals (Yeah!) and the San Francisco Giants (Boo!). Many of you know that I am a huge baseball fan, but few of you know what a huge role baseball played in how Sonia and I met. I will take a few hopefully informative and humorous moments to fill everyone in. Note, there are 2 versions of this story: mine and Sonia's. Her version might appear as a complement to this one sometime in the future. My tale will take a few minutes to spin, so grab a beer (or a coffee if its before noon), and settle in.

I am a huge sports fan. I follow the Philadelphia Flyers, Phillies, Eagles, and even the Sixers religiously. The Phillies won the World Series in 1980, and the Sixers won the NBA Title in 1983. As I was born in 1978, I was clearly not old enough to appreciate either of these triumphs. Over the next 20+ years, despite my best efforts to will my hometown teams to victory, a long championship drought struck the City of Brotherly Love. It was tough, but I stuck with my teams through it. I knew, one day, one of the teams would finally take care of business and bring the city its first professional championship in decades.

Fast forward to 2001. I had just graduated from Stanford and moved to Boston. Being from Philly, I despised and all any sports teams from New York, and, being a true baseball fan, there was no team I hated more than New York Yankees. I had to watch the Yankees win 4 World Series titles in the 5 years from 1996 to 2000. The New York Yankees biggest rival has been, is, and always will be the Boston Red Sox who, until 2004, 2007, and 2013, were the lovable losers and foils to the winning Yankees. Despite their history of miscues, I knew the Red Sox had an incredibly loyal fan base. This resonated with my own loyalty to my Philly teams. As a result I decided I would start rooting for the Red Sox just so I could fight with Mets AND Yankees fans! I spent the years of 2001- 2004 in Boston cultivating my newfound relationship with the Red Sox.

Jump to 2008. I was living at 14th and 1st in the East Village in New York City while I worked on my PhD at NYU (I started in in Sept 2004). Coincidently, there was a fantastic Red Sox theme bar right around the corner form my pad. Professor Thom's was my literal home when I was not in my lab. I was like Norm from "Cheers"! In fact, I am sure I spent more time at the bar than at my apartment. As a broke graduate student, I had neither television or air conditioning in my basement studio apartment (thankfully, landlords must provide heat in NYC). Coincidently, the bar had both of these in addition to a copious supply of beer and other spirits. I am sure what money I saved by dispensing with TV and air conditioning at my apartment ended up in the Professor Thom's till, but that's besides the point. The bar was a great place to watch sports since they actually piped the game sound into the bar. Most places just showed the game on the screen and then blasted bad/moronic top 40 through the bar.

Professor Thom's at 13th and 2nd in NYC
Yes, those are the "Lost" numbers

In October of 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies had made it all the way to the World Series where they were matched against the AL Champs, the Tampa Bay Rays. With the Red Sox eliminated by these same Rays in the ALCS, Professor Thom's had been taken over by Phillies fans hoping that the team could end the long, painful, Philadelphia championship drought. The Phillies took a 3-1 lead in games going into Game 5 on October 27. The weather deteriorated during this 5th contest and forced the suspension of play after the top of the 6th inning. This was the first time a World Series game had ever been suspended midway, and the decision to do this probably changed the course of my life for ever. Rain continued to fall on the 28th, and play was resumed on the 29th.

On that fateful night I assumed my usual seat at the Professor Thom's bar. Excitement was running high, and beers were being consumed at a furious pace. After all, I did not have a 5-inning lead up since play was resumed in the bottom of the 6th inning. At some point, into the bar walked Sonia. Being a big baseball fan herself, she wanted to watch what she correctly thought would be the conclusion of the series. She had planned to watch it at home, but one of her roommates had already staked claim on the TV for the evening. As a casual patron at Thom's, she knew the bar would have the game (with sound!) showing. We eventually ended up next to one another talking baseball and life in New York. As it was rather loud in the bar, and I was rather drunk, it took me a few tries to get her name right. At first I thought is was Silvia, then Sophia, and finally Sonia. I guess I was just that good looking that she was willing to forgive these slips.

I will confess that the details her are a bit fuzzy since Mike, the bartender and lifelong Phillies fan, was "forcing" shots into me every time the Phillies recorded an out on the Rays. Sonia seemed to know quite a bit about baseball, and when we moved onto hockey talk, I realized she was almost as much of a sports nut as I was. I thought she was really attractive, but apparently I wasn't the only one. There was another guy, Ray, sitting next to us who had been periodically chiming into the conversation. I think he was also interested in Sonia, so I had to start scheming to shed this chump. I didn't want to break out my "A game" on Sonia with some other dude watching. I had worked hard to perfect my patented, secret moves, so when Sonia got up to go the the bathroom, I had my chance to take care of the situation. I turned to Ray and said, "Look man, I think I have a good foot in the door here. How 'bout I buy you a beer and you go sit over there and give us a few minutes?" I am not sure what it says about him (or Sonia!) that he was willing to give up the chase in favor of a $2 Bud Light, but I guess you gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em!

Once I shed the dead weight that was Ray, I was in top form. Every joke landed with pinpoint accuracy and corresponding laughter from Sonia/Sophia/Silvia. It turns out she had been living in Boston for the previous few years where she had become a big Red Sox fan. Nice! Something else we had in common! The conversation built nicely, but got tabled as the Phillies sealed the deal to win the series. I was temporarily distracted by the celebration, but I managed to keep on eye on Sonia through the high-fiving and shots. At some point I retired out front to have a celebratory cigarette. During this time Sonia had gathered up her stuff and started out of the bar. She passed me out front as I was having my smoke. She explained she was tired and needed to head home for the night. We exchanged a few more pleasantries before we said goodnight and she walked up the street (she lived right around the corner). I had had a nice time with her, but I wasn't exact sure how to proceed. I had hoped to get her number in the bar, but since as I was distracted by the end of the game I wasn't able to do this before she left. 

Our outfits at Red Sox games.
We moved back to Boston together in 2011.

I knew there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner where she was headed. I put out my smoke and set off to kill two birds with one stone. I caught up to Sonia on the street and got her attention. I told her through a Budweiser-induced slur that I had had a good time and asked if she would give me her phone number so I could call her. What happened next was like that scene from Good Will Hunting when Minnie Driver had her number written on a napkin all ready to give to Matt Damon. She handed it right over, and I promised to call her in a few days. Booyah! I told here I was going to go to Philadelphia for the parade but would call her in 3 (THREE, TRES) days when I returned. We finally said goodbye, and I rolled into KFC to chow down before returning to the bar for a few more hours. I did call her when I got back from Philly 3 days later. She always insists it was a week later. Rubbish.

Clearly, things built nicely from that night, and 6 years later we are still together. We actually discovered that, unbeknownst to either of us at the time, we lived about 6 blocks from one another in Boston (actually Cambridge) from 2002-2004. She even worked out a restaurant/bar, Grafton Street, where I went every once in a while. It took until 2008 when our lives finally intersected at a Boston Red Sox Theme Bar in New York City! Crazy!

"I got her numbah, how 'bout dem apples!"
The most incredible part of this story might be
the fact that this scene was shot in a Harvard Square
Dunkin' Donuts that was later converted to 
Grafton Street, the bar where Sonia worked!

Besides sports, Sonia and I share a huge interest in the outdoors. I am not so sure what she thought of the whole birdwatching thing when she meet met, but she has since taken a moderately strong interest in birds. The first time I took her birding in Central Park we saw a Red-tailed hawk kill a pigeon right in front of us and a group of ~25 Northern shovelers turning circles as they foraged together. I think she understood right on that first day what it was about birds that I loved so much. I will say that I have never coming closer to killing anyone than when she saw, and I missed, what was supposed to be my lifer Kentucky warbler - also in Central Park. She rubbed that in until I finally got my lifer Kentucky this year! It is great to have a partner who is so supportive of this crazy interest. She encouraged me to take the leap to get on the bike this year, and she has been a tremendous source of support this entire year. Its been 6 great years, and I expect many more moving forward. I guess I've already found the best bird out there! 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oct 28 (Day 301) - The chase is on, part 2!

After covering 111 miles to North Palm Springs yesterday, I still had to cover the remaining ~45 to the Rufous-backed robin spot the morning. The bird has been seen four days running (as of yesterday) on the grounds of the 29 Palms Inn. The inn is a collection of cottages surrounding a small, tree-lined lagoon. This riparian/wet spot in an otherwise surrounding dry desert is a well-known migrant trap for local birders. The inn has apparently always permitted birders to walk the grounds provided that they don't pester guests. It is really nice to see an establishment allow birders access to such a nice good birding spot.

To reach the inn, I would have to climb nearly 3,000' over the course of ~44 miles this morning. I figured I could do this ride in under 4 hours. I left my motel at 6:20am and arrived at the inn at 9:45am - just as figured. From what I had been able to piece together from the posts about this bird, it looked as though the prime time was going to be 10am-noon. Over the past 4 days, the bird has been seen feeding in the tops of palms, drinking from the edge of the lagoon, and wandering about on the lawn adjacent to the lagoon.  I was willing to take whatever look I could get today.

When I arrived, there were several other folks milling/walking about the the ground looking for the bird. The area was pretty small so if one person found the bird, it would be essay to tell others. I decided to start out under a group of fruiting palms adjacent to the lagoon. Not ten minutes after I had set up shop, a robin of some sort flew into the palm tops. It immediately disappeared into the fronds without being identified. After staring into the palm tops for ten minutes, the robin reappeared long enough for me to identify it as the Rufous-backed. Incredible! 14 hours of biking and a 15 minute search produced perhaps the most well-earned bird of the year. The bird moved around a bit, but, with a bit more patience, I was able to get a few decent shots of it. Year bird #583 was documented! Whew - this would have been an incredibly painful miss. I'm not sure if I was more relieved or excited, but I'll take it either way. This was not a lifer as I saw 2 of these in Arizona of few winters back.

Lagoon at 29 Palms Inn

Other birders enjoying the robin

The star of the day, Rufous-backed robin for #583!


There was also a White-throated sparrow hanging around the lagoon

I kicked around the ground until around 11:30 or so. I had several other views of the robin before it disappreaed into a thicket off inn property. At this time I decided to hit the road. I had a long way to get back onto my original track, and, the more distance I could make today, the less distance I would have to cover back to Brawley tomorrow. I spent the next 5 hours backtracking to Indio. I thought about trying to ride through Joshua Tree NP, but it would have required more climbing than my legs could have handled this afternoon. I was able to make it all the way back to Indio - just in time for the first pitch of Game 6. As it was, I ended up riding 114 miles today. That means I've done 225 miles in the last 2 days - ouch! I am now completely wiped out, but I can take solace in the fact that I "only" have 75 flat miles to reach Brawley tomorrow. I should have platy of energy for Game 7!

114 miles today for back-to-back 100+ mile days

The road today

Lots of hills today. I'm descending west in the afternoon here.

OK, that's it. Time for bed. I'm going to sleep like a rock.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Oct 27 (Day 300) - The chase is on!

Despite all the reasons that I articulated yesterday NOT to chase the Rufous-backed robin, this is exactly what I decided to do. There have been several nights this year when I made a decision how to handle the following day only to change the plan once I actually got on the bike. The day that I finally found Greater sage-grouse was one example of this. I think this can be attributed to how I feel at night versus the morning. I was very tired last night (like every night!), and I had no desire to ride 150 miles one-way to chase a bird. I think the tone of the yesterday's post reflected my lack of excitement. However, once I go on the bike this morning, I felt great. I decided that I would take a run at the robin; Even if I missed it I would have the story to tell. Ten years from now, I would rather know that I chased it and missed it than bypassed it to take the easier route. Plus, the bird is in an area near Joshua Tree National Park that I have not visited, so at least I will see yet another new area of the country. The trick with chasing birds is that you have to be willing to miss. It's the same as in life. Its impossible to be successful unless you are willing to fail along the way. 

The robin was seen in at the 29 Palms Motel and Cabins in Twentynine Palms, CA on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I could not do the 150-mile ride (and ~4500' of climbing) to Twentynine Palms in one day. It would have to be split into two days. I decided to do the first, relatively flat ~110 miles today. Along this route I would slowly climb ~1,500'.  Tomorrow morning, when it is nice and cool, I will tackle the remaining, big climb into the mountains. During the first 21 miles, I will climb 3,000'. I will then give back 1,500 feet over the next 23 miles to reach Twentynine Palms. I think this ride should take about 3.5 hours. If I leave at 6 am or so, I can be there by 9:30-10am and spend most of the day looking for the bird. 

111 miles today. I felt great all day. Less wind than forecast too.

Skirting the Salton Sea (love the slant!)

Roadside scenery

As I rode today, I kept a very vigilant eye on the SoCal rare bird alerts. I was hoping to see a post early in the day that the robin was being seen just as it has been the last 3 days. Knowing the bird was present today would really help to buoy my spirits as I pedaled north.  However, I did not see any mention of the robin this morning - or this afternoon. This does not mean that the bird is gone. It is a Monday today, and presumably fewer folks were able to make it to Twentynine Palms today than on either weekend day. I was going to try for the robin regardless of what came across the posting wire today, but it would be nice to hear something. Finally, after I had arrived at my spot for the evening, a post came in that said the robin was seen as per usual this morning in its usual spot. YES! Now I just need the bird to stay put for one more night (Everyone say your prayers!). It has both food and water at the pseudo-riparian motel grounds where it has been seen. There isn't much of either beyond the motel grounds, so hopefully he'll realize how good he has it and stay put!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Oct 26 (Day 299) - BIG, BIG BIRD news from the Salton Sea!!! Very long entry!

OK, I have to be honest with you. I left a big chunk of what happened yesterday out of the blog for reasons that I will explain. I am actually taking it easy this afternoon (after a nice morning of birding), so I have plenty of time to explain what's happening. 

The reason that I almost didn't find the Yellow-footed gull yesterday was that I got sidetracked by another very exciting bird earlier in the afternoon. Here again, I need to take a step back and explain a bit further. 

In chatting with Paul Lehmann and Guy McCaskie last week, Guy mentioned that he had found a very exciting bird at the Salton Sea last week. For now, let's call it "Z". Many things would have harmonize for me to add Z to the year list this weekend. First, the bird would have to stay put for the intervening week. Second, I would have to find this single bird among the thousands of birds in the area where it was seen (assuming it stayed in the same general vicinity at all). Third, I was going to need a very good look at the bird to identify it. Fourth, given difficulties associated with identifying this species, I would need photos of the bird to run past experts to confirm my diagnosis. Given these parameters, it seemed incredible unlikely that I would be able add Z to my list. However, Z would be a high quality addition, and I figured that it would be a good test of my birding skills to see if I could relocate the bird (again, if it was even present at all)

At this point I will tell you that Z = Thayer's gull. This is a species that, like Ancient murrelet, I thought I would miss this year; I assumed I would be moving south through and out of California before individuals of this species arrived on their West Coast wintering grounds. This bird is rarely seen at the Salton Sea, and most of the sightings are from much deeper in winter. In fact, there is only a single eBird record from the Salton Sea in October and 7 total for Southern California in October.

Thayer's gull records - all months, all years.
Notice, there are ZERO sightings in the last month (no orange pins)
Thayer's gull is a VERY good find down here at any time of year.

Here are the October records. 6 of the 7 pins represent single
sightings of single birds.

From this you can see that adding Thayer's gull would be an incredible win for me. I did have one piece of very helpful information. The bird that Guy found was a juvenile/1st winter bird. This would help me refine my search image to narrow down the birds at which I would have to look. The problem with Thayer's gull is that it is, like most gulls, highly variable in its plumage. So is Herring gull, the much more common bird from which I was tasked with separating the the potential Thayer's.  I headed to the area where Guy reported the bird and started the search after lunch yesterday. Luckily, gulls tend to be very loyal to the areas where they winter, so if in fact this represented the final stopping point for this gull there was at least some chance the bird would be in the area. 

Basically, I was looking at every 1st year Herring gull for a bird that looked a bit smaller, and had a  more rounded head, a smaller beak, and lighter primaries. I spent about 45 minutes trying to turn each Herring gull into the Thayer's without success. Eventually I noticed an interesting bird sitting by itself on a little rise out in the water. It seemed to meet the criteria above, so it had my attention. Just as I got excited, the bird flew about 15 feet, and in so doing, revealed its pale upper/underwings. I was sure this had to be the Thayer's as the paler wings are a really good field mark for separating this species from Herring gull. However, given complication surrounding the ID of this bird, I really wanted to get upper/underwing shots of this bird to show experts and to please blog readers. After it flew, the bird landed on another little island that I could not approach closer than say....100 feet. I tried to get the bird to fly by jumping up and down on the shore. I tried, yelling, clapping, and arm waving. Nothing would spook this guy. I resigned myself to waiting for spontaneous flight. I stood with camera at the ready; I would get only one crack at this. Luckily, I only had to wait about 20 minutes. The bird flew directly away from me, but I managed both my upper/underwing shots that were enough to convince all local experts to whom I sent them. After getting confirmation from these folks, Thayer's gull will be entered as year bird #581. This bumps Yellow-footed gull to #582! WOW WOW WOW! If you would have told me that I would get both Ancient murrelet AND Thayer's gull at the latitude of San Diego in the same week in October, I would have told you to put down the crack pipe!

The bird was craning his neck up in this shot. Most of
the time he looked much squatter (i.e. shorter necked).
Small dark beak, smallish round head, dark brown 
primaries - check! As one expert noted, "This is a 
first winter Thayer's gull retaining some juvenile 
plumage in the coverts as is typical in early winter"

No black in primaries like a typical Herring gull.
No levels adjusted on this image - right out of camera.

Pale underwing too (see right wing).
This is the next frame from the above
shot, but I added some light in post 
to show the underwing better. 
This is why the image is much lighter even 
though the frames are consecutive.

Hopefully you understand why I omitted this from yesterday's entry. I really wanted to be sure before I added this bird. I had seen enough to convince myself that this was a Thayer's, but I really wanted to have the evidence to convince blog readers and experts. This is an example where having photos really, really helps my cause. I did not feel terrible about my failure to photography Yellow-footed gull from yesterday since its a fairly easy ID (more on this shortly), but for these tougher birds, I want to show you that I am doing everything I can to properly identify birds and make my photos available so that others can corroborate. I have to be very mindful of observer bias (i.e. it's easy for me to see what I want to see), and getting photos really helps me stay honest. For example, I clearly was not able to photograph the putative Manx shearwater that I saw in La Jolla last week. I got a decent view, but without photos for me to look at in detail or send to experts, there was just too much doubt for me to count what could have been a bona fide Manx Shearwater. 

OK, now for today - finally! I had budgeted 2 days at the Salton Sea, so I decided to simply enjoy a casual day of birding around here. I must confess that despite the associated nastiness, I really enjoy birding at the Salton Sea. There is never a shortage of birds, there are never other people/kids/dogs to scare birds, and rarities seem to turn up with decent frequency. The light is normally very good for photography as well. With yesterday's gull triumphs, I just wanted a low key day of hanging out at the sea. I thought I might be able to add Snow goose, but it appears as though they are a bit late arriving this year. This bird will have to wait until Texas. I did, however, succeed in finding not 1 but 2 Yellow-footed gulls. Although not super close, I was able get a few record shots for you. I will admit that not getting a photo of the bird yesterday stuck in my craw a bit, so getting serviceable shots today was redemption. 

47 mellow, flat miles

Yellow-footed gull A

Yellow-footed gull A after it joined B

As another holdover from yesterday, I also found a few "Large-billed" Savannah sparrows running about on the deck. I managed a good shot of one out in the open.

As for the next few days, I think I am going to head towards Yuma tomorrow. I have not made this decision final yet for one reason: a Rufous-backed robin has appeared for the last 2 days in Twentynine Palms, CA. My head tells to me to ignore this bird, but my heart tells me to chase it. The problem is that Twentynine Palms is 150 miles from here by bike. It is also in exactly the opposite direction that I ultimately need to go. It is northwest of here, and the wind will be from the W/NW the next 2 days. This means it would be at least a 2 day ride to get to the area, and likely another 2 to get back on track. I am not sure I want to push 4 long days into one bird. Missing it would be a complete disaster. Given how well I have done in the last 2 weeks, I can say with confidence that as long as I make it to the Rio Grande Valley, I will most certainly reach 600 species for the year. I will even go so far as to say that 605-610 is distinctly possible. Riding an extra 250-300 miles for this one bird might actually decrease my chance to reach 600-610 since it increases the chance that something could go wrong with the bike or my body during the long, hard, remote ride. These 250-300 extra miles represent ~10% of the total distance I will likely ride between now and the end of the year (assuming 1,500 miles/month or 50/miles a day. My average for the year right now is 48 miles/day). I guess I feel a bit like the investor shifting his money from growth stocks to dividend-yielding stocks as retirement approaches. Right now the most important thing is to get my species and finish in one piece. Then again, the robin would make for a hell of story!

Oct 25 (Day 298) - Sweating at the Salton Sea

Yesterday I did over a mile of vertical climbing to reach Jacumba, CA. Today I was able to reap the benefit of this climbing as I dropped 3,000 feet to the east to reach the Salton Sea. 

88 + 2 unmapped for 90 miles today

Border fence outside Jacumba

The descent out of Jacumba

Looking back east at the mountains out 
of which I descended

The Salton sea actually sits well below sea level (~230') and has a very interesting history (Salton Sea Wiki) Since the sea is so far below sea level, it can literally get hotter than hell around here. My first visit to this area was in July of 2007. What a disaster. I got my lifer Yellow-footed gull on that trip, but I almost died of heat stroke in the process. The temperature was something like 115F! I have since returned to the Salton Sea on 2 additional occasions - both in the winter (that makes this year's visit #4). I was actually at the Salton Sea in mid-October last year. On that trip I was able to get my lifer Blue-footed booby, or should I say boobies. Here are two photos I took at Obsidian Butte on Oct 11, 2013. The first is a side view of the same rock shown in the second shot. The first shot shows birds on the back of the rock that can't be seen in the second. A perfect count of all birds was difficult, but I estimated that there were at least 30 Blue-footed boobies on this rock during the time I took these photos!

Blue-footed boobies from my last trip to the Salton sea

There were no boobies here today (or at this fall), so my attention was focused on the main, resident attraction of the Salton Sea, the Yellow-footed gull (YFGU). This is a Mexican species that ventures into the US only at the Salton Sea. During the summer months, there can be hundreds of YFGUs present, but their numbers dwindle in the "cooler" months as most birds head back to Mexico. This year has been particularly thin from a YFGU standpoint, so I have planned on spending 2 days in the area should I have difficulty locating one of the few birds that are hanging about. 

The area immediately surrounding the sea is flat, flat, and flat!

Salton Sea shoreline

 There are fish carcasses everywhere around the sea.
It smells awful, but the birds make up for it.

I reached the sea at around 1pm. The mercury had already climbed to 92F at this stage, and it eventually topped out a bit later at 95/96F. It was very hot, but at least it was birdable - barely. Armed with loads of water, I slowly poked my way along the southeast shore of the sea. It can often be difficult to know where to start since there are a mind-boggling number of birds present at this time of year. Thousands of pelicans, cormorants, grebes, ducks, gulls, terns, shorebirds, and herons are visible at almost any point along the southeast shore of the sea. My search image was rather refined though as I was very focused on the YFGU. As expected, I struggled to find a YFGU. I did, however, for the first time in my four trips to the Salton Sea find double digits of Western gulls. Previously confined to the coast, it appears as though this species has encroached inland to (become resident at?) the Salton Sea. Identifying YFGU in the past has been easier than it is now since previously YFGU was the only regularly occurring darker backed gull in the area. With Western gulls now present, extra care must be taken to identify YFGU. 

I spend the whole afternoon searching. I had several false alarms triggered by the aforementioned Western gulls, but no YLGUs. Finally, at 5:15 or so, I saw a distant YLGU on the eastern side of Obsidian Butte. The bird was a long way off, but its very dark back, thick yellow bill, and bright yellow legs were a dead giveaway. YES! Bird #581 and my biggest reason for coming to the Salton Sea had finally materialized! I tried to ride around to a better viewpoint, but by the time I managed this (it took 20 minutes to get back to the bike and ride on the dirt tracks), the YLGU and the birds it was with had moved - UGH. I really wanted to get a photo for you, but such is life. I still had a 17-mile ride to where I was staying for the night, so I had to hit the road. I have had much better luck finding and photographing YLGU as the sea previously. Here is a photo taken on the same day as the booby photo above. Who knows - maybe today's was the same bird!

YLGU from my Salton Sea trip last year

Levitating YLGU from last year (same bird as above)

I am now in tears watching Chris Rock's old standup special "Bigger and Blacker". Time for a few more laughs before bed. Later!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Oct 24 (Day 297) - An incredibly challenging bout of border biking

I am so glad that I decided to pass on looking for Blue-footed booby this morning. Had I added 15 miles to today's ride, I am not sure that I would have been able to make it. The chances of actually finding the booby were so small that I just did not feel like it was worth it. Booby chasing would have meant I would have left the coast later, and, a result, I would have had to do more riding in the heat of the day. As it was, I really struggled with the heat today, and at one point actually felt as though I was going to vomit in the middle of the road. No matter how much water/Gatorade I drank today, it just didn't seem to do the trick. I was fighting what I assume was a dehydration-induced headache for most of the afternoon. It was not fun.

65 hot, hellish miles today. Over a mile of climbing, ugh.

What really made today tough was the continual climbing. Save for a few downhill miles here and there, I was essentially climbing for the better part of 58 miles. The heat made this ride as exhausting as any that I have done this year. I am hoping that today was the last day of ridiculous climbing that I will see in 2014 (and hopefully beyond!). There might be a few days with tough, 10-mile stretches here and there, but all-morning or all-afternoon climbs like today should be behind me. 

Terrain from today

I climbed up into the lowpoint at dead-center

Unfortunately, since today was so incredibly miserable, I do not have anything terribly astute or enlightening to share with you. I basically just though "Get me the hell out of here" for 6 hours straight. Tomorrow I will ride downhill to the Salton sea. It is going to be almost 100 degrees down there tomorrow. I will be staying in Brawley, about 15 miles south of the Obsidian Butte birding area. Depending on how I feel tomorrow, I will do 1 of 2 things. Option A is to ride the 60 miles to Brawley in the morning and spend the afternoon relaxing. Option B would be to ride to Obsidian Butte in the morning, bird (and try not to melt/die) in the afternoon, and then bike back to Brawley in the evening. To be honest though, biking 90 miles in such extreme heat sounds really shitty. Either way, I will get up early on Sunday, ride to the sea, and bird it all day on Sunday. Sunday is also supposed to be 10 degrees cooler than tomorrow, so this sounds like a much better option that tomorrow. I'll just have to see how I feel as tomorrow progresses.