Thursday, October 9, 2014

Oct 9 (Day 282) - Things are looking the ground

Yesterday's hot, ugly, 96-mile ride positioned me in Taft, CA at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley where I planned to look for Le Conte's thrasher and Bell's sparrow. "Not pretty" would be the kindest way one could describe this part of the world. However, there are a few patches of intact habitat between the oil rigs and pipes, and it was in these low, scrubby bushes that I planned to look for these two extremely dry-habitat specialists. Both of these birds are known to spend their time foraging and running along the ground between the sparse scrubby bushes. I would have my eyes trained on the ground during my morning search.

The habitat from this morning

12 miles for 2 birds - can't beat that!

This place looks like some post-acopalyptic, scorched-earth nightmare. Knowing how fast this area would heat up after sunrise, I made an early start to beat the onset of the 90 degree temperatures. I reached Petroleum Club Road just before sunrise. I slowly biked along the road listening for any bird-like noises that might emanate from the surrounding habitat. This is where the bike really excels; It permits a birder to move much faster than walking while still allowing the birder to hear what's going on around him/her. At one of my earlier stops, I saw a sparrow in a bush. I got excited, but it turned out to be a White-crowned. A few minutes later I heard a funny song that I did not recognize. I saw the bird singing from a very low stick. Binocs revealed the bird to be a Bell's sparrow. I tried to position myself for a photo, but the bird fly/ran away before I could get anywhere close to it. This was far from the only encounter I would had with this species this morning though. I ran into more sparrows at each stop I made. I finally got a decent, photo-friendly view of one in the top of a bush. As this is a recent split from Sagebrush sparrow, this is actually a life bird for me! Woo hoo!

Bell's sparrow for #571 and 680-something (4?) for 
my lower 48 list!

I had only been out for an hour, and already it was heating up. I hopped back on the bike and continued along the road. Le Conte's thrasher is a bird that I have seen only once before (a bit south of here in Maricopa), so I had familiarized myself with its song and call in my hotel room last night. Cruising along, I heard a distinctive two-sylable "Suu-weeeep" from the right hand side of the road. I immediately stopped, dropped the bike, and briskly walked out into the area from which the call came. I walked around for 5 minutes before I saw a larger bird (larger when compared to the ever-present Bell's sparrows) sprinting across the dry ground. I immediately gave chase. Eventually the bird popped out to reveal a beautiful Le Conte's thrasher! I chased it around for a bit and was eventually able to grab a few photos. The miserable ride from yesterday was actually worth it. This was a lot easier than I expected it to be. I really earned this bird after yesterday, so this victory felt incredible today. The bird streak remains intact!

Le Conte's thrasher for #572!

Characteristic high-tail posture as 
this species sprints away

Later, what I think was a second bird did perch out in the open.
I guess its only appropriate given the setting......

I hung around a bit longer to look for additional thrashers. I did heard a presumed third bird call further down the road, but I didn't chase it down. With both of these birds bagged this morning, I decided to use the rest of the day as rest and recovery from yesterday before attacking the near 100-mile ride to Ventura tomorrow. There was a report of Yellow-green vireo from that area today, so that will provide additional motivation for me! As my right calf was very tight and sore this morning, I did about 30 minutes of leg stretching when I returned to my room. This felt very good. I will get a very early (~6:30am) start tomorrow to beat the heat that had rolled in full forced by the time I returned to my hotel at 10am this morning. Beyond Ventura, then it's onto LA to search for Spotted dove. This will require some diligence, but, luckily, Sonia's family lives not far from the best spot to look for it. I'll hopefully get the family and the dove!

I do want to mention that I have had a very nice stay here at the Holland Inn and Suites here in Taft. Since there isn't a Best Western in town, I figure that plugging this place isn't a conflict of interest. My main reason for doing this is that Mike, the guy who runs this hotel, really took an interest in my journey. He wanted to hear all about it, and he even helped carry my stuff up the stairs when I arrived yesterday. Additionally, he gave me a break on the rate for my second night. If you ever find yourself in Taft (looking for thrashers or otherwise), I would highly recommend a stay here. Most of the accommodations in town are fairly basic, but from what I can surmise from riding around, this place is as good as any!


  1. If you find yourself in LA with all your main targets crossed off and time to spare, will you consider multi-day, higher-risk twitches throughout southern California? That would probably be what I'd do. Otherwise, I'm sure you've thought about Lesser Prairie-Chicken in NM or a Yellow Rail retry in Texas. And did I hear correctly that Aplomado Falcon is on the table now as well? - Dave

  2. Aplomado falcon is in play!

    These other birds that you mentioned, along with Harris's sparrow and Smith's longspur, are all definite possibilities.

    I don't think I want to get involved in multi-day chases here in CA. I would rather have that time to look for birds that are where they are supposed to be (like the birds listed above!). I just hope rarities show up close to me (i.e. 1-day away) for the next 2-3 weeks!

  3. I also believe Black Storm-Petrel is gettable from land in SoCal -- but haven't checked to see if it's regular from shore this time of year -Dave

  4. Congratulations! I know the area around Taft and how emotionally and physically exhausting birding in that region can be. Those birds are very well deserved! - R.J.