Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Oct 5 and 6 (Days 278, 279) - Big Sur birding! ***NOTE - LONG POST!***

First, a special thanks to Queen Sonia for holding down the blog while I was out of range. I think she has you thinking that she is the "sanity anchor" in our relationship. This is far from the case; I spend WAY more time reigning her in than vice versa. God only know's where she would be without my level-headed guidance. See what happens when I am away!

Anyway, let's get on with the last two days starting with Sunday, Oct 5!

What an incredible ride! I knew Big Sur was going to be spectacular, but today’s ride outdid my high expectations. The riding is very challenging what with the continual ups and downs, but the constantly morphing views almost make a rider forget how much his legs and ass are aching. Almost. I started very early to ensure that I would make it to the best California condor viewing area at a decent time. The birds often roost on the cliffs along the coast, and they take to the air once the thermals and wind get going late in the morning or early in the afternoon. Today was going to be close to 90F, and I wanted to have the bulk of the riding done before the mercury reached these heights. Being that it was going to be hot, I also thought that the birds might get up in the air a bit earlier today. Condor viewing is best just to the south of the tiny town of Big Sur. I arrived at this area around 11am. I set up shop at one of the roadside pullouts high on the cliffs. I was perched above "Sea Lion Cove" for those that know the area.

Early morning view - note shadows as sun is low in east

Cliffs above "Sea Lion Cove", a known
Condor viewing spot (at @11 am)

I was joined for part of my condor vigil by Diane and David Tan. They live in Pacific Grove, and I crossed paths with them multiple time during my afternoon seawatches this past week. There was absolutely NO wind along the coast today. Condors are big, heavy birds, and they often use the winds off the ocean to aid their flights. With zero wind, I figured it could potentially be a tough condor day today. Everyone advised me to find vulture kettles and scan them for condors. The problem was that there weren’t even any vultures in the air. After 2 hours of zero activity, Diane and I noticed a few vultures soaring high above the steep hillsides to the east of us. Scoping the distant birds, we picked a single adult condor (#569!) that dwarfed the associated Turkey vultures. Over the course of the next hour, this bird made several attempts to soar, but it kept landing in snags as though soaring wasn’t going to work with the lack of wind. Even at distance, it was possible to appreciate the magnificence of this incredibly huge bird. It was too far away for a photo, unfortunately. It never hurts to have witnesses though.

While we were viewing the condor, a couple of other birders rolled up. I asked where they were from and they replied "Hatteras, North Carolina". I said I used to do a bit of pelagic birding down that way with seabirder and captain, Brian Patteson. The two birders just started laughing. I was clueless until Brian introduced himself - again. We have met several times before, but without any of the facial hair he usually sports, I did not recognize him behind the sunglasses! We had a nice time catching up, and he introduced me to his partner in crime, Kate Sutherland. The three of us had a nice time swapping recent bird stories, and I was able to put the two of them onto the condor. Over the years, I have taken 6 pelagics with Brian from Hatteras. These are very well run expeditions, and I would encourage anyone looking to test the waters off Hatteras for Black-capped petrel, Band-rumped storm-petrel, Sooty and Bridled terns, Fea's and Herald petrels, and anything rarer to check out www.patteson.com for all the details. Brian also runs winter trips to look for Great skua, so keep your eyes on his website as the colder months approach. My best trip with Brian yielded all the normal Gulf Stream birds plus Herald Petrel, plus White-tailed tropicbird, plus the only North American record of Swinhoe's storm-petrel - it was a pelagic for the ages!

Me, Kate, Brian

Later in the afternoon Tim, a volunteer condor tracker, appeared with his listening device. He said while he can normally locate several condors in the area, today was really slow. He hypothesized that the bulk of the birds had temporarily abandoned the windless coastal cliffs to head inland to look for stronger thermals to aid soaring. Knowing this, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have added this incredible bird on this less-than-ideal day.

After the condor triumph, I headed to the Fernwood campground where I am staying tonight. I am actually in a tent/cabin hybrid thingy. It’s actually quite fun. I had planned on going to Andrew Molera SP in the afternoon, but I was so wiped from the ride and standing in the hot sun that I just couldn’t do it. On the bright side, 15 Purple finches were eBirded today from Andrew Molera at 7:30am. I passed the park at 10:30am but kept moving to reach the condor spot. The park was also jammed with unbirders by this time. I am going to head to the park very early tomorrow morning to try for the finch. If I find it quickly, I will probably attack the very challenging ~70 mile ride to Cambria, CA afterwards. Should I struggle to find the finch, I am prepared to spend another night here to repeat this same strategy the following day. I want this finch done ASAP!

My tent-cabin thingy

OK, now for today, Monday Oct 6.

Knock knock.....Who's there......Purple frickin' finch! I was finally able to tick this jinx bird this morning at Andrew Molera State Park! With the park to myself, I was easily able to locate a dozen of these at the top of a sycamore. I can only assume that this is the same group that has been eBirded from this same spot over the past few weeks. This bird represents a bit of closure for me. I have now found every possible/probable species for which I have looked since May! The last holes in my list were the birds that I left on the table when I elected to leave the Texas coast a few days early. The winds at the end of April favored riding over fallouts, so I checked out. Since I had the camera out this morning, I snapped a few quick shots of a few of the other birds at Andrew Molera SP. 

Purple finch for #570!

Another purple finch

Oak titmouse

Hutton's vireo

Golden-crowned sparrow

After the finch triumph, I migrated back to my tent-cabin, packed everything up, and hit the road for a very challenging ride south the San Simeon. My legs felt absolutely fantastic today. I scaled the steep drainages along Highway 1 without much difficulty. The views today were equally incredible to yesterday. The temperature was 10-15 degrees cooler today than yesterday which made the riding very comfortable. It was crystal clear for the first half of the ride, but some marine fog rolled in for the later part of the afternoon. At least it helped keep it cool!

A tough 74 miles today

Elephant seals near San Simeon

I think seals are the bomb. I don't think they get enough props (i.e.  respect). They seem to thrive in many different ocean habitats, they appear very playful and intelligent, and they are super cute. I had a fun time watching these guys loaf around on the beach and play with one another in the surf. I think a Pinniped big year could be in order in the future......

Tomorrow I will head to Paso Robles. The ride is short (~35 miles), but will require close to 5,000 feet of climbing. After today, that could put a hurt on my legs. From Paso Robles, I will head east to the Carrizo Plain (near Taft and Maricopa) to look for Le Conte's thrasher and Bell's sparrow. These will be the hardest to find of my 8 remaining expected species. I have plenty of time right now, so if it takes me a few days to nail these birds down, it's not a problem. From there I will likely head south to Ojai, Ventura, and Oxnard. I hope to spend a few days loafing in that area with that hope that a rarity or two will show up. I hope to be in those areas right as the weekend arrives and the local birding community mobilizes for weekend excursions. It when local birders turn up rarities that I plan to strike like I did on the Red-throated pipit!

OK, I need one last minute snack before bed. Peanuts and cold Chef Boyardee lasagna out of the can it is!


  1. Congrats on the Purple Finch, Dorian! It was so nice to encounter you on Sunday - thank you for the use of your scope!! See you when you make it back to Hatteras someday... Kate Sutherland

  2. For the Bell's Sparrow, don't be misled by their former name of Sage Sparrow. In this area, you'll likely find the birds in chamise, maybe with some manzanita interspersed. Slopes of pure California sagebrush are less likely to have a Bell's Sparrow.
    Good luck!

  3. Congrats on the Condor and Purple Finch. Such wonderful news.

  4. Let me know when you're getting close to Ventura/Oxnard. If you need a room, I'll make sure you have a place to stay at least for a night or so. No other rarities around here that you haven't already picked up.

  5. I sent a donation to ABA today in honor of Biking for Birds. Nice work, Dorian. And great fun to follow!

  6. Ojai is a fun community. I will be spending Thanksgiving there with my Grandma and family. My mom grew up there. Could I make a request for you to include each birding spot/park/etc you visit