Friday, December 26, 2008


Oh boy... well since I last wrote, San Francisco has been graced by some really rare birds (locally at least). First a Black-throated-green Warbler showed itself near Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park in early November. Luckily I had good looks at it, a life bird for me, on my way to jury duty downtown. Then we had some really nice east winds which late in the season make for good waterfowl watching conditions on the coast. From the Presidio we saw a couple of mixed flocks of Snow and Ross's Geese in mid-November.

For the next month I did almost no birding in a last-minute, probably ill-advised, attempt to apply to graduate school (ugh..). I was roused from my bird-less period by the appearance of a real rarity, a Worm Eating Warbler in a tiny downtown park. (Walter Kitundu got some great photos: I also added a more regular winter rarities in Golden Gate Park, including a Swamp Sparrow at North Lake and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Hippie Hill. I pedaled off last week in search of a Long-eared Owl (very rare for the city) but struck out. So my BIGBY list now is 231 for San Francisco, and 292 in total, having dicided to count the Least Flycatcher from September. Christmas count season is well upon us. I would love to add some more species to the list but I'll have to bike.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Three Species, Three Days, One Field

For a Bigby-er, having rare birds show up in your home town a few miles bike ride from home and work is ideal. And this past week I've been blessed. Other birders around the city found FIVE species that I added to my San Francisco year list and three for my total list. My total Bigby list now stands at 283 (see the right side bar) and my list just for San Francisco is 224. What were these great new birds? Read on:

On Tuesday evening a RED-THROATED PIPIT was found by Hugh Cotter at Crissy Field. I rushed over as the sun was setting to see it. Unfortunately, it was dark by the time I got there. I found Hugh and Josiah standing in the field pointing about twenty feet in front of them. Apparently the bird was there hiding in the grass right under my nose.

I came back the next morning with a legion of other birders and had success seeing this first San Francisco record. I even go some photos:

Then believe it or not, another very rare bird for the city was found the next day with this same bird: a LAPLAND LONGSPUR. I rushed down after work to see this bird as well! To make matters more unbelievable, it turned out there was ANOTHER Red-throated Pipit. And finally to cap it all off, another very rare bird for the city showed up: a VESPER SPARROW--a new bird for my San Francisco Bigby list.

Earlier in the week I had added a couple of new species to both my year and my city-year lists. On Monday, there was a strange east wind and I went up to Hawk Hill with Josiah. We ended up getting close views at a Broad-winged Hawk, my first for the fall (though not the year). I looked into the pines and had my year Blackpoll Warbler. The next day at Lake Merced I saw another Blackpoll Warbler that had been found the day before by Dan Murphy. Here's a photo:

There was also a Common Moorhen. My first for the year. And a flyover Merlin: a new city bird. I leave you with another rare bird for the city (not a year bird though) this Green Heron at Lake Merced:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another Big Day

Well we did another big day by bike on Wednesday October 1st, with an unofficial total of 140 species of birds seen in Marin County between 5:30 AM and 8:30 Pm. We had a couple of good fall specialties including 2! Palm Warblers, one above Stinson Beach on Highway 1 and another at Pine Gulch Creek at Bolinas Lagoon. We added one new year bird as well: Black Rail at Corte Madera Marsh. It was a fun, less exhausting, edition of our spring big day. We didn't break our spring record (not surprising) largely because we couldn't find very many species of ducks: no mergansers, scoters, Buffleheads, goldeneyes, scaup or Ring-necked Ducks. Thanks to everyone who contributed to PRBO this fall.

Since my last post we (Josiah and I) have added a few new birds to our respective year lists. I added Gray Catbird, rushing to Golden Gate Park moments after Brian Fitch found it. I also rushed to see other pre-found rarities includinging a Tropical Kingbird at Lake Merced and an Orchard Oriole at North Lake.

Today I was lucky to get a call from Dominik Mosur, who directed me to a waiting Blackburnian Warbler at Fort Miley at Land's End. That's the last new species I've added. What's next? Maybe something really rare.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Back on the mainland

After five days of chasing mega-rarities all over Southeast Farallon Island, I'm back in SF proper. Friday morning at Sutro Heights Park one of the first birds I looked at was a basic plumage American Redstart (a lot of those around!). Overall things seemed pretty quiet though. I went to work in the Presidio. Just as I was about to leave the office at Fort Scott, I glimpsed a little bird hovering below a pine. I got my binoculars and checked it out--a dull emidonax flycatcher. I followed it around and got some pretty good looks. Notoriously difficult to identify, North American empidonax flycatchers comprise around 10 species of non-descript neo-tropical migrants best id'd by their calls. This one was grayish and silent. Having just seen a few Least Flycatchers on the Farallons I thought this was a good candidate. Pacific-slopes Flycatchers are the most common around here and this bird did not look like one to me. It was dull grayish green, not the bright yellow and olive of a Pac-slope. And it's eye ring was not tapered to a point in behind the eye. Neither did it look right for a Hammond's or a Dusky Flycatcher, both of which have a mostly dark lower bill and a grayer head that contrasts with a green body. Also the pale edging on the wing feathers, best seen from behind, contrast markedly with the overall dark color of the wing feathers. So I guess it could have been a Least. I'm going to let some folks weigh in on the photos before I call it. Click on images for a larger view.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Magnolia Warbler

After that last weekend's spate of good birds I seem to have worn out my birding mojo, and I was unable to add a new bird to the list since Monday. This despite going out of my way to check for the Northern Waterthrush that Josiah found at Mountain Lake every day before and after work. Today the drought finally ended when I saw a MAGNOLIA WARBLER at El Polin springs in the Presidio. The famous Black-throated Sparrow of last weekend is still around too!

I got a surprise call from the Farallon Islands today. They need temporary help doing bird monitoring and banding for the next five days--a short stay like that is almost unheard of. So that's where I'm going. I won't be able to add any new birds to my BIGBY list from the trip because we'll be motoring out there in a boat. I'll bike to the Marina to catch the boat if that helps though--if it's not carbon free birding it's at least very carbon efficient.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Urban Birding

The great thing about San Francisco is that it's small enough to cover by bike and for birding the natural areas are so limited they really compress the birds into a few spots. The terrible thing about San Francisco is that biking across vast stretches of it is like biking across a terrible bird desert where House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons and increasingly Eurasian Collared Doves are the only species you are likely to see. And there are big hills and exhausting wind. I charged into this inhospitable realm today, as I have many times this year and rode from my house in the NW part of the city to the SE part of the city. I even went into San Mateo county for a brief few blocks.

I did pick up some birds eventually. I spent an hour watching the sea at the southern edge of San Francisco near Fort Funston. It was fairly clear today so I thought I had a decent chance of spotting a distant shearwater. There were good flocks of Elegant Terns, Heerman's Gulls, Brown Pelicans and even a Common Loon--but nothing new.

I moved on to Lake Merced which always has good birds but I never really enjoy being at. This is mainly because they built major traffic thoroughfaires all around the lake so anytime you are listening for or watching a bird you have about a dozen cars 15 feet behind you zooming by. And of course, there's the shooting range, yep even in San Francisco; so you have to filter out the noise of gunfire. Nevertheless, there were a lot of birds, mostly Yellow Warblers a few Townsend's. After looking through about 100 Yellow Warblers I did eventually find a single hatch year Black-throated Gray Warbler. I looked a little harder in that area and out popped a hatch year Chestnut-sided Warbler. An expected, but pretty rare fall migrant. And a new year bird! They are irresistably cute with a white eye-ring and a bright irridescent green cap and back.

The next part was the hardest: I crossed the breadth of the city from Lake Merced on the west to Heron's Head on the east. I always get lost out there and it ends up taking me a long time. Really about the least appealing landscape for a birder too, barely any vegetation let alone birds, just cars, garbage cans, densely packed houses, bright stucko walls, freeway overpasses.

It was like a breath of fresh air to see the open bay and the sliver of marsh at Heron's Head. It wasn't very birdy though, I hit it on to high of a tide. I was about to leave when I checked one of the last little ponds and found two long winged sandpipers--possible Baird's? They were always a pleasure to see these super long-distance migrants. These two birds were juveniles or hatch year birds (had hatched that spring). They had never before been this far south, they were hatched all the way up in the high arctic, maybe even the eastern tip of Siberia. Now they are heading south site-unseen to Chile and Argentina.

Now I had to slog back home through the urban maze of traffic and potholes to the other corner of the city.

Hey the little Black-throated Sparrow is famous, it's on the whose who of hot birds at Joseph Morlan's recent rarities page.

Good Birding

The fall migration is really starting to kick in here in San Francisco. On Saturday I found the bird above, a BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, above El Polin in the Presidio. It turns out this is a new record for the city of San Francisco! It's definitely the best vagrant I've ever found--and it's a new year bird by bike! It's actually shown up on the Farallons (in SF county) 24 times in the fall, I saw one there last fall, but never in the City proper. It spent all morning hopping around a three year old's birthday party including giant inflatable castle. Very odd how it was not scared off by all the little kids.

Later that afternoon I checked back in on the Rose-breasted Grosbeak spot and found instead an adult male AMERICAN REDSTART--another new year bird!

Yesterday I travelled around San Francisco and found another American Redstart at Lilly Pond, more common than I thought I guess. I heard about a Pectoral Sandpiper on the rare bird alert found by William Legge up on Rodea Lagoon in the Marin Headlands. So I decided to make my first bike trip outside of the city since our big tour to Mono Lake. Sure enough, I did find the bird and got some digiscope photos. PECTORAL SANDPIPER: another new year bird!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Migration Begins

Fall migration is well under way here on the West Coast. August brought a steady trickle of common western species including this Western Tanager (left) at El Polin Springs in the Presidio.

I added some new birds to my San Francisco Bigby list including House Wren, Lark Sparrow, and White-breasted Nuthatch. I also added a few new species to the year list. First was an early migrant, or summering Black-and-White Warbler in the Presidio in mid-August. Then I added a Parasitic Jaegar dramatically swooping down on the flock of Elegant Terns on Ocean Beach. I made it out to Land's End to see one of the three (!) Eastern Kingbirds that showed up in San Francisco in August. I also rushed down to Lake Merced right after work to find a Solitary Sandpiper that was reported last week. When I arrived it was already in the air calling loudly and circling above the small beach north of the concrete bridge. I checked back in a few minutes and there it was on the beach. I tried to get a little closer and take a photo but it flew off and again circled above me. Unfortunately this time it didn't come back to the beach.

Yesterday I added my first new birds of September. There was a Willow Flycatcher at North Lake in Golden Gate Park and another at the Presidio Community Garden. At the Buffalo Paddock in Golden Gate Park I had close looks at a really cleanly marked Clay-colored Sparrow. No luck scanning the ocean for shearwaters or jaegers in the afternoon.

This morning I refound the Black-and-White Warbler in the Presidio at Kobbe and Upton. I haven't seen it, despite checking this same spot, for three weeks! It's really been hiding.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Birdathoning By Bike

We did it. We have entered the PRBO Fall Birdathon. It's an annual event that raises money for PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) research and conservation. PRBO is one of the premier conservation organizations on the west coast, and its birdathon is one of the best fall events in birding. A birdathon, by the way is a competition, or birding spree, the goal being to find as many species as possible in a 24 hour period. It's just like the big day we did back in May. Organizations and individuals can pledge a certain donation per bird species observed, say $1 or $2 per bird. We plan on finding well over 100 species (we'll see). If you think about it, this is really a car driven event: every year teams speed across Marin Co. back and forth between outer Point Reyes and the Bay, driving hundreds of miles. This is the first time, as far as we know, that a team has attempted to do this by bike. We may not get as far, but the quality of each minute of birding will be higher: on a bike you are exposed to the sounds and sights of birds around you. Who knows, its a long shot, but maybe we can beat our May big day record set last year.

In any case, I hope we can get the support of friends, family and birders who want to change business as usual and put an emphasis on green birding and birding locally. Support us at the link below:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

All The Way to Mono Lake and Back!

Well I had mentioned a big ride to Mono Lake. And we did it. Josiah and I biked all the way from San Francisco, east across the width of the state of California to Mono Lake. We crossed San Francisco Bay, the Coast Range, the great Central Valley, the San Juaqin River and the Sierra Nevada. And then we did the whole thing back again. All on our two bicycles. Check out this map of our route and all the new year birds we added:

View Larger Map

DAY 1 - - June 15 -- San Francisco to Redwood City, 45 miles.

We left on June 15th at around 6pm from San Francisco. By 10pm we were camping right along the Bay in San Mateo County.

Day 2 -- June 16 -- Redwood City to Patterson, 108 miles.

We woke up early to the sounds of an Ash-throated Flycatcher above our tent. It was only a few miles south to the Dumbarton Bridge, one of the few places a cyclist can cross San Francisco Bay. Northern Harrier, Song Sparrow, Marsh Wren and a strangely out of season Greater Yellowlegs, were all seen around the edge of the marsh.

On the other side of the Bay, we were now further from San Francisco than we had been all year. When would we start getting into new habitats with new birds? We made it to Sunol for lunch and ate at the lovely Jazz Cafe. The Chilean owner told us about the Golondrinas (Barn Swallows) that remind him of home, and that nest under his eves.

We kept on after lunch passing through the oak woodland habitat of the East Bay. We found our first Yellow-billed Magpies of the trip.

Outside of Dublin we ran into, Wyatt, an endurance cyclist with giant home made lights mounted on his bike. He said he know the area better than anyone. We told him we were headed for Sonora Pass in the Sierra. "You guys are nuts," he said. "I used to do stuff like that when I was your age, but now I know better." He rode with us for a while and we talked about his long distance bicycling adventures around California. He helped us find the start of Mines Road, outside of Livermore, our route into the Central Valley.

We climbed from the dry vineyards and pasture up Mines Road in the afternoon. The sun was in our face and shining on our right side--it would result in a pretty bad sunburn for me, but I didn't know it at the time, I was busy looking for new birds. Roadrunner, Costa's Hummingbird, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren and other dry country birds are known from this area. It didn't take too long for Josiah to hear our first new bird, a singing California Thrasher. And soon after he found a male Phainopepla eating elderberries in the arroyo above us. We were on our way now! I would add House Wren down in the canyon, a bird I had somehow missed on the coast this spring. At the highest pass on the road we stopped, thick chemise habitat suitable for Bell's Sage Sparrow. Josiah spotted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I played the song of the Sage Sparrow from my iPod. We waited. There! A hundred yards away Josiah saw a bird flying level across unbroken chaparral. I was barely able to make out any features on it, but Josiah was confident. We waited longer, there, and there, they were darting across the hill. I had enough views to satisfy myself that I had seen it; a year bird for us, and a life bird for me.

We ate dinner now at the Junction Roadhouse, a place with bird and motorcycle books stacked on the bar, cater to the most frequent patrons. We left and made a quick successful stop for Lewis's Woodpecker on San Antonio Road. Then we headed down Del Puerto Canyon road, into the heat of the Central Valley. We added Rock Wren and Canyon Wren. Where should we camp? It was dark now and we had to figure this out. We ate at down at the I-5 wayside of Patterson. And then we headed back up into the ranch land to find a place to camp. We found an old abandoned windmill, with some flat ground, and a hill screening us from the road--it was good enough. As we fell asleep we heard a Barn Owl calling above us.

DAY 3 -- June 17th -- Patterson to Knight's Ferry, 63 miles.

We woke up in the dry field hoping to find a Blue Grosbeak nearby. Instead we heard a strange clicking call. It took us a while to figure out but eventually a Loggerhead Shrike flew by. We were camped right near it's nest. Another year bird for both of us.

On to the farms and orchards beyond Patterson. We were headed NE straight for the junction of the San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers. In the acres of open land around us we ran into our first Horned Larks of the year, singing and foraging right around the road. We also found more Yellow-billed Magpies, Western Kingbirds and Lark Sparrows. Josiah added Swainson's Hawk as a year bird as well.

Through Modesto and on to the towns east up the Stanislaus River. We made it out of the flat valley and into the rolling foothills. Along Orange Blossom Road we stopped at Valley Oak Park along the Stanislaus and
went swimming and listened for birds in the thick riparian woods. Josiah got his camera out to shoot a pair of goldfinches that were drinking from the river. "Lawrence's Goldfinches," he said, as he snapped the pictures. I ran over to look and another species we had not laid eyes on all year was added to the list.

We ate in Knight's Ferry, a little further up the road. The owner of the resteraunt suggested that we stay at the adjoining RV camp. We took him up on his hospitality and he didn't charge us a dime.

DAY 4 -- June 18th -- Knight's Ferry to Frasier Flat, 57 miles.

We began climbing in the morning, the dry foothills stretching in front of us. We quickly added Vesper Sparrow and then a Yellow-breasted Chat calling from a willow wash. We eventually came to Sonora and found our way to a little sporting goods store to buy some sunscreen. What was to be a short stop became an hour long chat with an enthusiastic mountain biker who recommended an unmarked dirt road beyond Sonora that followed the Stanislaus for over 20 miles. As Josiah would say, this guy was a real "bro." This was very exciting. We could get away from the traffic on 120 and be in more remote, easier to camp, easier to bird terrain. On our way we went, but just outside Sonora I got our first and only flat tire.

From there, with our new friend's directions, we found our way down to Lyons Reservoir and the old dirt road that runs along it. I added my first MacGillivray's Warblers and Josiah added his first Nashville Warblers. As it became dusk, we picked up Mountain Chickadees, Mountain Quail and finally a singing Townsend's Solitaire. We biked into the darkness hoping to hear an owl, but the noise of the river drowned everything out. In the dark, we set up camp across the river from the lights and voices coming from the Frasier Flat Campground.

DAY 5 -- June 19th -- Frasier Flat to Pickel Meadows, 53 miles.

We woke up early and forded the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. We biked up and out of the canyon and through the town of Strawberry, where a pair of Cassin's Finches were eating at a feeder. From their we climbed, and climbed. Coming eventually to the real high Sierra. Right before the stunning Donnell Lake overlook, we added a flyover White-headed Woodpecker and at the overlook we had our first Red Crossbills of the trip.

The climbing was getting really tough here, maybe Wyatt was right, maybe we were nuts. Of course we were. We started at less than 5000 feet had climbed to around 6500 and then dropped back down to 5800 before starting up again towards the pass of 9600 feet. From all we heard this was going to be one horrendous climb. Check out this webpage to see what other cyclists think of Sonora Pass:

Keep in mind, however, that we started lower, further away, with heavier bikes and many pounds of stuff strapped on. Anyway, eventually we climbed our way to a new year bird Clark's Nutcrackers flying on the ridges above.

Next we dropped... no actually we kept climbing. Until, unbelievably we were there. And who's there to greet us but Zoner from Ashland Oregon who takes a couple pictures of our triumph. Also we see our first Mountain Bluebirds of the trip!

Now we drop fast. I clocked myself at over 40mph at several spots. Soon we were hearing new songs, Green-tailed Towhees, abundant here on the east side of the pass. We rolled off the highway just up the road from the US Marines Winter Warfare Training Center. This was our nicest camp are by far. Josiah went out and quickly caught two nice rainbow trout which we immediately ate. As the sunset we heard the calls of Common Nighthawks flying above.

DAY 6 -- June 20th -- Pickel Meadows to De Cham Beau Creek, 52 miles.

Weird noises all night. We later figured out it was probably the sound of Wilson's Snipe nocternal winnowing, or display diving, a mellow hooting they produce with their tails. Frost covers everything.

We head out in the bright high mountain summer sunlight. And quickly hear Brewer's Sparrows singing from the sage hills.
Then a Sage Thrasher.

When we get to a little marsh we find Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Wilson's Phalarope a little ways further.

It feels like we really have entered a different zone. On a bike, exposed to the sun, without an air conditioner, inhaling the smells of the land, you can really experience how a landscape changes from coast to mountains. And this felt like nothing we had felt before on the trip. It was wide open. Wet meadows were lined by thousands of irises. The bird species punctuated this continuum of habitat. Now it was Black-billed Magpies.

Actually we first found a dead Black-billed Magpie and then saw a live one.

In fact, we saw a lot of dead birds on the road. Symbols for us at least, of why we were biking. We found Wood Duck, California Gull, Barn Owl, Great-horned Owl, Cliff Swallows, Bewick's Wrens, Scrub-jays, American Crows and Bullock's Orioles among others. When you bike you notice these tiny casualties of business as usual. In a car you are oblivious, both to life and death around you.

On to Bridgeport in the sweltering heat. Good food at the Burger Barn. Despite the heat we stop at the nearby hot springs and sink into the sulfuric mud. Then we climbed to another small pass, and got our first views of Mono Lake. Our end goal laid out before us in all its briny glory. I pause for a photo with my SF Bicycle Coalition card.

From here we zip down to the lake and then follow directions carefully up a dirt road to a friend's homestead on Dechambeau Creek. On our way in we get another look at Sage Sparrow, but this time its the very different interior population. We arrive at the verdant oasis where two small cabins hug the willows and aspens.

A sapsucker flies up to a tree, its a Red-naped Sapsucker. Before it enters a hole in the tree another sapsucker, its mate, flies out, it is a Red-breasted Sapsucker. The two species living together on the edge of their ranges, demonstrating for us why hybrids occur. The trees are filled with Yellow Warblers and our hopes are high that we will find a rare eastern migrant.

As we set up camp we here Common Poorwills calling from the hills above us.

Day 7 -- June 21st -- Dechambeau and Mono Lake vicinity, 17 miles (loop).

Today we had no travel planned. We just wanted to bike around the area and come back to camp. No doubt we hoped to add new species. We started by following a tip that Virginia's Warblers bred way up a couple hundred feet above the creek on the mountainside, favoring the zone where the mountain mahogony and pinyon pine meet. After a trudge up through the thick wildflowers and butterflies I played a song for the Virginia's Warblers. There it was, a response. I had to make sure it wasn't a Nashville Warbler. I tried again. It got closer. Josiah climbed up here to join me. The little gray yellow bird was agitatedly zipping between the trees above us.

On our way down we heard a strange rattling call from the aspens high above us. "Tanager," Josiah said. It sure didn't sound like a Western Tanager to me. "Sounds like a Summer Tanager," he added. We searched hard but couldn't find the source of the calls. We had almost given up and were walking away when it flew over us like a brick red brick. A Summer Tanager for the first day of summer, it was the out of range "vagrant" we had hoped for.

Now we would try for the the desert birds. The Juniper Titmouse and the Sage Grouse. We undertook a 15 mile ride around the desert near Mono City. We stopped at the County Park along Mono Lake and were shown, by another friendly birder, a scraggly first summer Franklin's Gull feeding on brine flies with the avocets and phaleropes. Another unexpected year bird!

Into the desert we found nothing new for miles. In fact, few birds at all. A thunderstorm began overhead, the rain evaporated before hitting the ground. There we were the furthest east we would be by bike all year. We heard a grating laughing call in the distance. It got closer. Pinyon Jays! We had barely heard these before but I almost didn't feel like calling them they were so distant and the sound so weak. But this time one flew right in front of us and perched on juniper. Another life bird for me.

From their we headed back to camp. We hadn't found our target titmouse and grouse--maybe next year.

Day 8 -- June 22nd -- Dechambeau Creek to White Wolf Camp in Yosemite, 61 miles.

I was antsy to start heading back fast. I had to go back to work in a few days. From our camp we headed south to Lee Vining and then up Lee Vining Creek towards Yosemite. We made stops to try for Cordilleran Flycatcher at Poole Power Plant Road--but no luck. We were climbing again now. It was hard after a day of relative rest. Tioga Pass would be the highest point on our route, and we hoped to climb up from there a little ways to try for Grey-crowned Rosy Finches. Climbing among the Green-tailed Towhees and Rock Wrens we were making good time. When we got to the Yosemite gate at Tioga Pass an ornithologist who worked in the Park that we had just met down at Lee Vining was there to let us in. Everyone wants to do you a favor when you go by bike. From near the Tioga Pass station we climbed a few hundred feet up to the snowfields at tree line. There we waited and hoped for rosy-finches. Twenty minutes at least we hung out and contemplated being at over 10000 feet. No rosy-finches. Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cassin's Finches were abundant though.

We cruised through the Yosemite high country. No new birds. We had decided to camp near White Wolf which is smack in the middle of the
Park and has some large meadows around it that could have Great Gray Owls. We set up camp and walked around the meadows at dusk--a good time for Great Grays. We added singing Lincoln's Sparrows to our trip list. But no owls. In fact, this would be the first day we did not add a single bird to our year list on the whole trip! Surprising considering the habitat we covered.

Day 9 -- June 23rd -- White Wolf to Oakdale, 96 miles.

We birded around White Wolf early in the morning and eventually found a year bird: Williamson's Sapsucker. Josiah, on the other side of the meadow from me, found a Black-backed Woodpecker in a burn, which I rushed over to see. But it was gone by the time I got there.

We were reaching diminishing marginal returns on new high country birds at this point. We rushed through the rest of the Park. The air was smoky from dozens of nearby forest fires.

We zipped down through the pines, then the oaks, then finally back into the open chaparral near the Priest Grade--one serious down hill.

We rode back onto Hwy 120/108 retracing our path back through the Central Valley. We passed the spot where we heard the Yellow-breasted Chat a week earlier, then we passed the Vesper Sparrow Spot. By nightfall we were in Oakdale and we decided to get a hotel. The only night we stayed indoors (or payed for lodging) the whole trip.

Day 10 -- June 24th -- Oakdale to San Francisco, 148 miles.

Well San Francisco seemed a world away from this small highway town in the heat of the Central Valley, but we were trying to get there by tonight. I thought that it could be done, but maybe I was in denial. We got up early and rode out of town without breakfast or even coffee. We made it all the way to Manteca, about 22 miles, in a little over an hour. We had breakfast at one of the greatest taquerias known to man--La Estrella. Giant fruit juices, big coffees, breakfast burritos.

Refueled and already well on our way, we headed south along the San Joaquin River--getting lost along the way at Weatherbee Lake. As we neared interstate-5 I spotted a distant flock of large birds that looked like cormorants. Josiah pulled out his binoculars, neither of us expecting to see anything new, but then he said "White-faced Ibis!" Another year bird we would not likely add anywhere near San Francisco.

Now we skirted the edge of Tracy. Two guys drove up in a truck and we told them where we had been. They couldn't believe it. They drove off and came back with half a dozen ears of sweet corn they had just pulled out of the field, "you tell them folks in the City that us country boys ain't so bad." And they weren't.

We found the back road that would cut through the hills to Livermore. More climbing now. But nothing like the Sierra. It was hazy from all the forest fires. Was it safe to be biking in this air? Once we got to the crest of the hill we could feel a change in the air. It was the coast--still many miles away--but exuding its cool influence all the way out to the edge of the Central Valley.

Back through Livermore, Sunol, Fremont, Newark, the Dumbarton Bridge. Back on the other side of the Bay in the cool coastal air. It was dark now we had pedaled over 100 miles and we had dozens of miles yet to go. We did make it, in fact it wasn't even 10:00pm when we got back. Our longest day yet. Amazing to think of starting in an anonymous hotel on the east side of the Central Valley only about 16 hours ago. And yet it would have only taken a couple of hours in a car. Imagine that.

And that was it about 700 miles in 9 days. We ate a lot of food. Much thanks to all the great people who helped us out along the way. Here's a list of what I added (Josiah added most of the same stuff but already had some of the stuff):

Mountain Quail, South Fork Stanislaus River, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
White-faced Ibis, W. Durham Ferry Road, San Joaquin Co. 6/24/2008
Wilson's Phalarope, Sonora Junction, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Franklin's Gull, Mono Lake County Park, Mono Co. 6/21/2008
Common Nighthawk, Pickel Meadows, Mono Co. 6/19/2008
Common Poorwill, Dechambeau Creek, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Black-chinned Hummingbird, Paradise Road, Stanislaus Co. 6/17/2008
Lewis's Woodpecker, San Antonio Valley Road, Santa Clara Co. 6/16/2008
Red-naped Sapsucker, Dechambeau Creek, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Red-breasted Sapsucker, Dechambeau Creek, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Williamson's Sapsucker, White Wolf, Yosemite, Tuolumne Co. 6/23/2008
White-headed Woodpecker, Hwy #108, Lake Donnell Overlook, Tuolumne Co.6/19/2008
Loggerhead Shrike, Patterson, Stanislaus Co. 6/17/2008
Pinyon Jay, Hwy. 167, Mono Co. 6/21/2008
Clark's Nutcracker, Hwy #108, Sonora Pass, Tuolumne Co. 6/19/2008
Black-billed Magpie, Sawmill Creek, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Horned Lark, Patterson, Stanislaus Co. 6/17/2008
Mountain Chickadee, South Fork Stanislaus River, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
Canyon Wren, Del Puerto Canyon Road, Stanislaus Co. 6/16/2008
House Wren, Mines Road, Alameda Co. 6/16/2008
Mountain Bluebird, Hwy #108, Sonora Pass, Mono Co. 6/19/2008
Townsend's Solitaire, South Fork Stanislaus River, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
Sage Thrasher, Sonora Junction, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
California Thrasher, Mines Road, Alameda Co. 6/16/2008
Phainopepla, Mines Road, Alameda Co. 6/16/2008
Virginia's Warbler, Dechambeau Creek, Mono Co. 6/21/2008
MacGillivray's Warbler, South Fork Stanislaus River, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
Yellow-breasted Chat, Yosemite Junction, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
Summer Tanager, Dechambeau Creek, Mono Co. 6/21/2008
Green-tailed Towhee, Hwy #108, Sonora Pass, Mono Co. 6/19/2008
Brewer's Sparrow, Sonora Junction, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Vesper Sparrow, Keystone, Tuolumne Co. 6/18/2008
Sage Sparrow, Mines Road, Alameda Co. 6/16/2008
Yellow-headed Blackbird, Sonora Junction, Mono Co. 6/20/2008
Cassin's Finch, Strawberry, Tuolumne Co. 6/19/2008
Lawrence's Goldfinch, Valley Oak Recreation Area, Stanislaus Co. 6/17/2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

May Migrants, Sonoma and Pt. Reyes

Well I'm slowing adding to the list. Since my last post about a month ago I've added 10 new birds. After many mornings of steep climbs up Mt. Davidson in San Francisco with no new birds on top, we finally had a couple of very good migrant days around May 15th. That morning I added three new species. Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers at Mt. Davidson and then a fly over Broad-wing Hawk over the Presidio. The Broad-wing Hawk is quite a rare bird in San Francisco, but hundreds are recorded migrating south in the fall over Hawk Hill on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a great day for raptors along the coast because hot weather and northeast winds pushed them west until they had to make their way north along the coast passing right over the San Francisco and the Presidio. I also had an adult Swainson's Hawk that same day and heard reports of another Swainson's Hawk and Golden Eagle over the City.

After that a vagrant Indigo Bunting was found in the Presidio near El Polin springs. I successfully chased it down a few days later. Then I found another uncommon spring bird, a singing male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Glen Canyon Park. From here I had to get out of the City to add new birds. I did a big bike ride along the Bolinas Ridge with Josiah and I added Ash-throated Flycatcher (a bird I missed by bike during the migrant wave in the City), and Grasshopper Sparrow.

Last weekend I rode up to Santa Rosa with my girlfriend Hillary. This was a 70 mile ride and the first time I'd biked up to Sonoma this year. On the way back I was able to stop at Bodega Bay, where out 0f season loons, grebes and waterfowl and very early fall migrant shorebirds were hanging out including over 30 Marbled Godwits. Scoping from Bodega Head I found a pair of Rhinoceros Auklets. I had hoped to see my first Sooty Shearwaters of the year, but no luck. Oh and on my way to Bodega I spotted these guys near Sebastopol.

CATTLE EGRETS! Hooray. 9 of them foraging around there name sake.

So after Bodega Bay I headed south trying to make it to Pt. Reyes. On my way around Tomales Bay I saw my most exciting mammal sighting of the year, a Gray Fox that bounced in front of my bike at dusk. By nightfall I had made it to Marshall but I hadn't eaten dinner. I heard there would be food down at Pt. Reyes Station. But I got there 20 minutes too late and the restaurants were closed. So resigned to going to bed hungry I figured I could get up early and have a big breakfast. I pulled off the road in a secluded spot and layed out my sleeping bag and bad. It was a beautiful spot to sleep and I heard N. Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl and a distant Spotted Owl during the night. I awoke at 5Am to the loud chips of Tree Swallows above me and Swainson's Thrushes singing all around. I decided to head for Inverness to get breakfast. I was heartbroken however to find that the cafe didn't open for another three hours. The nearest town was a back track to Pt. Reyes Station like a dozen miles which may not have had food either. I was starving and had hoped to make it out to outer Point Reyes, the mecca for migrating birds along the California coast. The whether was nice, and I was closer than I had been. I decided I had to go out to the point--breakfast or no breakfast, dinner or no dinner! It's about 17 miles or so I think from inverness to the Point. And it was a really gruelling up and down ride over the rolling headlands. I finally made it to the lighthouse. I scoped the ocean and saw again Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots and other sea birds that nest in profusion out there. But nothing new. I checked all the trees that migrants tend to stop in if they get stuck out at the point. Nothing. All that hungry riding and no new birds. It was a beautiful morning nonetheless.

So here I am one big bike misadventure later and 10 species richer. I now must announce my latest adventure plans for the BIGBY: a bike ride to Mono Lake in the Sierra. It will be around a 700 hundred mile ride round trip and I think I could add over 30 species! I'm leaving in a few hours in my revamped touring mt. bike set up. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spring Update.

Long time, no blog. No excuses really, just birding too much. Actually, birding a little and biking a lot--new bird species are becoming fewer and farther between. I have ridden my bike over 375 miles since April began and added 28 new species to my year list. That's about one new species for every 13 miles. And that's not counting the many days I bike 6 miles to work and back and see nothing new. It's only going to get harder to see new birds as the year goes on! I can only reasonable expect to add a couple of dozen more bird species for the rest of the year--but hopefully they will be exciting ones.

So where did all those Bigby miles take me. The majority come from two and a half Big Days I did this spring. The first on April 14th logged over 110 miles in Marin County with Josiah. Pretty exhausted after that one. We came one shy of besting our own Marin County record by bike of 151 species. We started in Tennessee Valley in Southern Marin at about 4:00 AM. We made it halfway up Mt. Tam by day brake and had added Great-horned, Western Screech, and Spotted Owls--also strangely, night calling Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Brewer's Blackbirds and Wild Turkey. By 6:30 AM we were off to a great start but right then Josiah would brake his bike chain climbing the rugged Old Railroad Grade fire road on Mt. Tam. No chain tool. Prime dawn chorus. Were our hopes of a truly 'big' day dashed? We walked our bikes on heartbroken. An hour later we flagged down some early morning mountain bikers and were amazed to meet someone with the chain tool that would rescue our day. Josiah fixed the chain and we were off again.

Josiah holds up broken chain at 6:00AM. Luck on the trail: mt. bikers with tools at 7:00AM, thanks Gregor

A little further on the trail and then we raced down to Bolinas Lagoon on the west side of Marin County for sea and shorebirds. In Bolinas a quick stop at Keith Hanson's studio for lunch and then on the road again. Five Brooks, Olema, Nicasio Reservoir, and Lucas Valley Road. Twilight at Las Galinas. Now we just had to ride the 30 or so miles back to San Francisco. We were no longer concerned with new birds, we just wanted to survive and find a place to sleep. In the dark we half-heartedly picked up Virginia Rail north of San Rafael and then Northern Mockingbird in Mill Valley. It was almost exactly midnight when we reached the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. We had been riding for 20 hours and seen 150 species. Needless to say I had had my fill of biking and birding for the day.

Upper, Lucas Valley Rd. Lower, Burritos in San Rafael at 10pm

The next big ride was two days later. This time San Francisco County. Our team included Dominik Mosur, Matt Zlatunich, Josiah Clark and top county lister and Northern California legend Alan Hopkins. We started at Golden Gate Park before dawn. No luck with Barn Owl. Then we biked to Lake Merced and picked up some very good birds for the City including Great-tailed Grackle, Sora, and Wood Duck. We were off to a really good start and the weather was fantastic. All three scoter species at Ocean beach portended a very good day. Next Land's End and Golden Gate Park where our luck with the ducks continued. Now we pedaled across the city all the way to the southeast corner at Candlestick Point. We added new shorebirds and continued up the Bay shore around the Embarcadero to Fort Mason and the Presidio. We picked up Wandering Tattler, Hairy Woodpecker, Spotted Towhee, Wrentit and finally a Hermit Thrush in the Presidio to end the day. 138 species recorded in SF in one day. Only 11 species away from the all time SF Big Day record of 149--and no gasoline!

Finally the "half a Big Day" was a solo effort I made a week ago in San Mateo Co. I couldn't get started early so I only just began the day at 10:15 AM (ghastly late for a birdwatcher) in the definitively un-birdy concrete neighborhoods of Daly City. I made my way down the coast into a SW head wind, and finally came to Princeton Harbor. The birding was great, and despite the late date there were still Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Brant, Sanderlings, and even a White-winged Scoter. It was past noon now though and I had barely any terrestrial birds. I headed up the beautiful Las Tunitas Rd. past farms and dense alder groves were. I heard my first Swainson's Thrushes of the year. Soon enough I was up in the Redwoods in the breeding territory of Hermit Thrushes, Hermit Warblers and Pileated Woodpeckers. Finally, the climbing done I coasted to the Bay at Redwood Shores and excitingly picked up my life Black Skimmers at Radio Road Pond.

Spring is in full swing, which in San Francisco, means cold temperatures and strong westerly winds. Unfortunately this makes for difficult biking and poor birding. Any break in the wind, however, and the migrants come spilling into the City. I check the weather online every morning and observe the giant flag on the building out my back window. If it's slack I head to Buena Vista Park and Golden Gate Park to see if any new migrants are in town. If it is blown by a hard westerly I cancel my birding for the morning and try to bike to work without freezing to death.

As of 5/11/08 my list stands at 219 species (see sidebar).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New Birds--Sunday 3/23

A belated post from Sunday 3/23/08: I took the always welcome opportunity to join a bird walk led by San Francisco birder Dominik Mosur at Land's End. On the way I stopped by 'Lily Pond' a tiny little pond known for its surrounding forest of tree ferns across the way from the Conservatory of Flowers. There on the water, a new bird for the year, a female Wood Duck that had been reported a few days earlier, swam with Mallards. The small, sheltered and tree lined pool seemed a natural spot for this species and it's strange they are a rarity in SF and don't breed more regularly here. Only a few a feet a way, I didn't even need to get binoculars to see the Wood Duck, but I got them out anyway to look through the huge flock of Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Townsend's Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers that was flying about above me. I pecked through the flock looking for an early season migrant. No luck. But the number of Cedar Waxwings was impressive. That morning and for a few days before, there numbers had amassed in the City, to the point that fifteen minutes spent in any park or residential neighborhood would be rewarded with at least one small flock flying by and calling "seee-eee see-eeee".

I quickly pedaled through Golden Gate Park now, late for Dominik's walk. At Land's End I joined Dominik and the crowd on the concrete shell of deserted old Battery Chester. Gradually we made our way down to Mile Rock overlook and scoped for sea birds. I was hoping to find a White-winged Scoter to add to my list, but we saw only Surf Scoters, Red-throated Loons, Western Grebes and cormorants. Then Dominik did spot a Pigeon Guillemot close to the rocks. Another new one for the day: 176 for the year. After this, we hiked back through the willows hoping to hear or see another first of season bird, but any such sign of the season had not arrived, or if it had it was keeping itself secret.

I biked back to Golden Gate Park and made a walk around the south west side of North Lake where a Nashville Warbler had been reported all winter. Finally, after many unsuccessful trips this year I found the bird. It was arrestingly bright. Its head was a smooth grey and its back and wings were vividly green crisply contrasting with a bright yellow throat and breast. It also had the characteristic thick white eye line that make this species seem almost like a painting of an imagined song bird. But there it was in the feather, real. I could see that the cap of this one was a little bit mussed up, perhaps it was a male molting its characteristic bright red cap feathers.

I got word that White-winged Scoters were still reliably being seen from Fort Funston a few miles south of Golden Gate Park. I biked there through the sunny and decidedly un-birdy outer Sunset Neighborhood. At Fort Funston, legions of dogs accessorized their sunglass clad, plastic bag toting owners. I trudged up the iceplant slopes to the overlook and could see a large flock of scoters out on the water. They were quite far off but if I lay down and propped my elbows on the iceplant, careful to avoid the ubiquitous dog debris, I had quite a good view with my 8x32s. I scanned through about fifty scoters, but lighting and distance made it hard to verify any white wings. Then one bird stretched up out of the water and flapped--there! Bright white secondary feathers towards the inside of the wings. I watched for another 10 minutes or so. Every bird in the flock that did this was a White-winged Scoter, there must have forty or so. Another new bird for the day and year! 178. A hang-glider passed a few feet over my head.

3/23/08, new species:
Wood Duck
White-winged Scoter
Pigeon Guillemot
Nashville Warbler

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Big Green Big Year

So far, using my own physical energy to transport myself (and the help of a bicycle), I have seen 174 species of birds this year. That's pretty much a one sentence summary of what a Big Green Big Year or BIGBY is. It's a birding big year without using fossil fuels to get you to the next bird.

Birders in search of a Big Year have set some pretty admirable records in the past. But at what cost? Literally thousands of dollars spent on gas and airline tickets and tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. In this new century, let's try something different, let's find birds closer to home, and get there by different means. Let's reduce the impact that a big year has on the environment that supports the very birds we love to seek. But let's not forsake the car and jet solely out of guilt: let's go green because a BIGBY is a whole new way to bird, a more fun way and a more challenging way. Check out my links to other BIGBY birders, and see the original BIGBY page <>.

So far a pretty good first quarter of the year--you can check out my list on the right.
I've gotten to know the birdy spots around San Francisco a lot better, I've added two new life birds: Harlequin Duck and Glaucous Gull. And spring is just beginning to bring more birds to the Bay Area!