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


hillsy said...

Wow Andy, quite an incredible adventure! It is beautiful to read about Jessiah and your commitment, excitement, dedication and passion. It helps me believe that humans have an enormous capacity for endurance, understanding, and connection with our surroundings. So many places to enjoy, bird, explore . . .
Where are you headed next?

Becky said...

Hey Andy. Pretty amazing. Thanks for including photos! Good ones, too. BK

Deborah Bayer said...

I cannot believe you biked all the way up the mountains! Did you get off and walk sometimes? What a wonderful way to travel and a great way to actually experience the land you are traveling through. I am knocked out impressed, by your energy and tenacity and knowledge of birs. Loved the pictures, too. Debbie

billy said...

I'm bike-birder live in San Jose. Your incredible biking story to the Sierra has inspired, and I'm thinking about attempting to ride bicycle and bird someday from San Jose to Yosemite Valley via Mt. Hamilton-Puerto Canyon Rd and CA 120. May I ask for your advice regarding what kind of basic provisions I should bring on my bike, and how steep Puerto Canyon road and the roads into Sierra foothills are?