Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Magical Moment with a Redstart-320 species and counting (or not)

  I knew it was going to happen this week sometime, I just wasn't sure when. 
  I left my house before dawn on Saturday.  I wanted to get some riding in while it was still dark so that it would still be early-ish when I reached the bay.  I was headed to Sunol to stay with a friend after birding a few SF Bay locations.  The difficult thing was that I was hoping to get down to the Bay's southern tip-Alviso. A Bar-tailed Godwit had been reported from there a few days before.  I felt like I had a shot at this bird, plus, I'd never seen one before.  Maybe I'd see another new bird if I rode the shores down there anyway.  Tundra Swans had been seen near Sunnyvale and a random Snow Goose could pop up anywhere.  I got down to the bay around 11 am and headed south.  Unfortunately, when I ran into another birder and asked, I missed the spot from where the Swans could be scoped.  I decided to not turn around for them due to the fact that some Mute Swans had also been seen in the area and I hadn't, at the time, heard whether the Tundras were still there.  I biked on.  I still had a long day ahead.
  I finally got to Alviso at 1pm after getting a little turned around on the maze of levees out on the Bay.  A quick call home to my roommate Claire, who was serving as map and bird location support, and I was off to the spot where the Bar-tailed had last been seen.  It was a several mile ride over soft muddy levees, but I found a couple large collections of shorebirds in the right spot.  Being near 2pm, most of the birds had their heads tucked down for an afternoon of rest.  The lighting was less than ideal.  The task of finding a shorebird that had a Marbled Godwit shaped bill with a more Willet coloring in a flock of 1000s of mostly Godwits and Willets proved to be too large.  I spent maybe an hour and a half birding there.  With more time, who knows (though as it turns out, a number of birders did not find it that day). 20 miles to ride to Sunol.  I tried not to think about how much shorter the ride would have been if I had taken the Dumbarton Bridge instead of trying for the Godwit.  It had been a chance worth taking, but a miss none the less.   I made it to Sunol just as it was getting dark.
  After staying with my friend Aspen in Sunol (thanks Aspen!!!), I left the next morning for Berkeley.  The 30 miles felt like a lot more after such a long day.  I was feeling rough!
  Along the way I stopped at a Farmers Market somewhere in the east bay hills.  I strolled the market looking for something to get my blood-sugar to a reasonable level.  Both body and mind were feeling a bit taxed.  Suddenly, a friendly voice called out and asking if I was on a bike tour.  Holding a chocolate chip cookie in front of me was Kate, who worked for a bakery at the market.  She saved the day.  Long trail hikers call this kind of thing "Trail Magic".  The gesture was incredibly rejuvenating, and the cookie...perfect.  Thanks Kate!
  I was going to be staying with my friend Bay that night. As it happened, she lived just five blocks from where the Painted Redstart had been found 11 days before.  Being a naturalist herself, she met me at the spot and was looking at the bird when I arrived!
  It was a magical experience.  11 years ago, I took the name "REDSTART" as my nature name working with kids at San Mateo Outdoor Education.  Everyday since then, I have been called Redstart, whether at work or not.  Nearly the only people who call me Mark besides my parents are ironically, birders.
  So there I was, staring at a PAINTED REDSTART, which just happened to be the bird that tied the North American Green Birding Record at 318.
  At that point, I mostly felt relief.  The past few months have been very intensive in the biking and birding department.  It has been a great challenge in so many ways.  I took a deep breath and realized the pace could now lessen.
  Bay and I relaxed at her house while I chugged water and took a break.  We left for Lake Merritt in Oakland a couple of hours later.  Breaktime was over.  Time to find a Tufted Duck.
  Bay and I began scanning the massive scaup flock.  Greater and Lesser Scaup look very similar to a Tufted Duck.  Tufteds have a darker back and what looks like a rat tail. 
  Arriving on the shores, we started scanning for the bird.  Bay called out, "BARROW'S GOLDENEYE". Yup, three in fact.  I had forgotten to keep an eye out for those.  Great spot Bay!  On to the Tufted, which I found within 25 feet of the shore.  A nice dinner and a couple of couple of beers to celebrate before the 70 mile ride home the next day.
  I made it home.  320 birds and counting, though I'm not sure I'll find anymore.  The big trips are likely all done as this week was my last major break in work to go out looking.  Birding trips will have to fit in a weekend from here on out.  I'm relieved about that.  Coasting.
  Life is good.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tracking down the last few

This morning I headed out to the coast before work. With the rain and wind that just came through this week, I thought clearing conditions might produce some bird movement out over the ocean.
  I wasn't disappointed.  Two female LONG-TAILED DUCKS led the way for a line of cormorants who were making their way towards a large feeding frenzy north of Pescadero Creek.  My first two Long-taileds that I have ever found myself.
  Tomorrow I am taking off on a try to the South Bay, then Sunol, and then the East Bay.  I may even make it out to the Central Valley.  I'm going to try to leave at about 5am.  That ought to give me a good headstart before first light.  I'm trying to get down to the South Bay fairly early to look for a Bar-tailed Godwit that has been seen down there lately.
  Some other birds I have a chance at include:

 Snow Goose- on the bay somewhere or in the Central Valley
 Tundra Swan- one was report recently somewhere in the South Bay
 Tufted Duck- A bird has shown up on Lake Merritt in Oakland for about 5 winters in a row.  Someon           reported in the other day.
  Barrow's Goldeneye-various SF Bay locations
  Painted Redstart-  Unbelievably one has been in Berkeley  for about a week now.  I sure hope it will stick around a few more days!

 I'll report more when I get back.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Point Reyes trip success, but still a few birds away

  This whole year, I've felt endlessly pessimistic.  I didn't think I'd break 300 birds, didn't think I'd get close to 318, didn't think I'd see this or that bird, and on and on.  It's partly my nature and partly that this whole year has been really crazy and at times, very difficult.  So, when I left my house a couple of weeks ago to bike to Point Reyes National Seashore, I had a few target birds in mind, but didn't know what I would actually see.  I took the week off of work, but I was so nervous that I wouldn't see any new birds.     Pessimistic.
  I mentioned this to my boss before I left. He has been incredibly supportive of my Big Year and this trip.  He told me to visualize positive results.  Now, when most people tell me this kind of thing, I just blow them off, because, well, I think that kind of thing is stupid. However, coming from my boss, I actually tried to take it to heart.  Funny how something that is said by the right person can leave such an impression.  
  As I rolled into Half Moon Bay a few hours after I left my house, I had with me some very vague directions to a Black-and-White Warbler that had been seen by Ron Thorn the day before.  Fortunately, I had a couple of friends (Malia DeFelice and Chris Hayward) meeting me at the Half Moon Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant (birding is so glamorous).  All we had to do was walk, fortunately, upstream from the plant for what appeared on maps to be a couple of miles and we might run into the bird.  Seemed like a long shot, but I hadn't seen a B+W Warbler yet this year.  I had to at least try.  I thought about my boss. 
   We walked through the water.  Malia and Chris had their "wellies" on and I was in some oversized flip-flops I desperately bought in a Mammoth Lakes thrift store on this summer's bike trip when my Tevas died. There was a little bird activity including both a Barn Owl and a Great Horned Owl that we spooked.  We were encouraged, but still kept asking each other where the heck Ron was when he found the bird.  Finally, Malia, who was birding more slowly, which is to say being more thorough, found the bird.  As, it turn out, this bird was not the same bird that Ron had seen.  
  That BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER was one of the more relieving birds of the year.  My eight day birding trip was not an absolute failure.  At least I had found one and it was the first day.  Leaving Half Moon Bay, I felt grateful to Malia, Chris, and my boss Mark.
  Friends put me up in San Francisco that night (thanks Samanellen!).   And thanks to Dominic Mosur for letting me in on a little BURROWING OWL secret that I found the next morning.  Unbelievable, but I was sworn to secrecy about the birds location.  Two new birds in two days.  
  I birded Marin County a little that day.  I tried the Hawk Watch in the Marin Headlands, but it was foggy and cold.  No Broad-winged Hawk for me this year.  A couple MERLINS were fun to watch, and it was great to practice IDing accipiters.  I spent the night with friends in the Marin Headlands.  Bioluminesence on the beach that night.  
  The next day I climbed the massive Mount Tam, and dropped down to Bolinas Lagoon and Stinson Beach.  Fell asleep on a friends porch to the sound of waves crashing.  
  I met up with Keith Hansen at his studio in Bolinas.  For those who are familiar with his work, check him out at:  http://keithhansen.com/    He was very welcoming, offered great bird finding info, some recent sightings, and great encouragement in my Big Year.   Now I had some new target birds.
  I missed Black Rail.  Like most who try, especially out of breeding season when the birds are more vocal, but did find the SWAMP SPARROW Keith had clued me in on. 
  My friend Fiona Firefly, who lives in Point Reyes Station, put me up for the next two nights.  I couldn't be more appreciative for the royal treatment I got there.  The next two days continued to be pretty grueling, so dinner and a couch felt absolutely divine.  Sure, I missed the Pacific Golden Plover, Lapland Longspurs, AND Red-Throated Pipit that Keith had mentioned, but did see a RED-NECKED GREBE and three FERRUGINOUS HAWKS.  Marin was a great success.
  I hauled down to SF the next day and back into San Mateo County the following day.  No new birds, but got to see the Marin BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY (my sixth BOOBY of the year) and a pair of ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS.  Waking in San Mateo, I decided to take my chances at Coyote Point.  Who knows, maybe I could spot a rare Long-tailed Duck out on the bay.  I wouldn't say it was a complete bust by any means.  And while it wasn't a new bird for the year, I found a SAGE THRASHER out on a jetty near the harbor.  This was a rare bird for sure- one that I had never seen in San Mateo County.  I made some calls and several birders came immediately.  I was so happy to see Jennifer Rycenga, Peggy Macres, Ginny Marshall, Leslie Flint, and Ron Thorn all able to get there in time to see the bird.  What felt even better was that Malia and Chris arrived. They had helped me see the Black-and-White Warbler less than a week earlier, so it was nice to pay them back with a rare bird.  
   The next day was epic.  60+ miles.  I rode San Mateo City to Palo Alto to find a lingering NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH and a COMMON GALINULE then home to Pescadero.   And despite the fact that I probably averaged about 40 miles/day on the eight day trip and that most of the big climbs were at the end of the day, the ride home was very, very sweet.
  It was an end to the pessimism that plagued this Big Year.  Thanks to everyone for all the support and encouragement.
  Pictures to come.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Making a Run on the Record

   My goal, as I mentioned in my last post, was 300 birds for the year.  It felt like a nice challenge considering my attempt in 2011 turned up 276 species.   I have to admit though, in the back of my mind, I wondered but didn't actually believe I would get this far. Sometime about a month ago now, I decided to fully commit to trying for the GREEN BIG YEAR RECORD.
  Jim Royer holds the record right now.  He saw an amazing 318 species in 2010!  He set up what became an amazing blog about it too. Check it out at:  greenbirding.blogspot.com    It's the blog I wish I had created this year.  He highlights not only birds that he's seen, but also talks about butterflies, plants, and other aspects of natural history.  I consider myself a naturalist first, then a birder, so I love it.
  Jim sent me an email a little over a month ago and mentioned that I was beating his pace.  I was touched by his kind words and encouragement, but I didn't really think I had a shot at the record at that point.  My summer of bird finding was great, but starting work again in September meant a lot less birding time.  However, I have to admit now that my life since work started back up has been crazy.  Eat, sleep, work, bird.  That's it.  At least it sure feels that way.
  October was a fantastic month.  Are there any birder's out there that don't like October?  So many birds on the move and it's also the month where lots of rare birds start showing up.  I ended up seeing 12 new birds in October, despite the fact, that at least central coastal California has had a dismal warbler migration show this year.  Where did they all go?  This year I missed several migrant warblers, that last year were showing up literally right outside my front door.  Missing warblers in October probably means that I'll have missed them for the year.  Drat.
  Despite this, I had some good luck out over the ocean.  BULLER'S SHEARWATERS and POMARINE JAEGERS can be birds that are easily missed in a year, but I saw both in early October.  A first for me was a pod of RISSO'S DOLPHINS that I got to see from Pescadero State Beach.  So cool.  Have I mentioned how much I love living in Pescadero before?
  In mid-October, I took a weekend bike-camping trip up to Half Moon Bay to track down a couple of birds that had been seen there and to hopefully find a few of my own (as chasing birds really isn't nearly as fun as finding your own).  I lucked out and ended up finding a CLAY-COLORED SPARROW that had been seen a few days before and found a couple of CACKLING GEESE flying above the airport at the north end of town.  Yahoo, the trip was worth it!  I also birded Fitzgerald Marine Reserve for the first time on that trip.  It's one of those places that birders talk about being so great for rare birds, especially back in the day.  Well, that day there happened to be an ORCHARD ORIOLE present.  Not a new bird for the year, but a sweet bird for sure!
  Our local Sequoia Audubon Society put on a Big Sit event on October 13.  If you are not familiar with the concept, it is a fundraiser and  "competition" with other Audubon Chapters where birders spend all day in one 17 foot diameter circle and count how many species that they can see from that spot.  We racked up 99 species that day thanks to a lot of great volunteers coming out and helping.  During the event, I was able to add a SORA, PALM WARBLER, and GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE.  Alas, I missed another BALTIMORE ORIOLE that showed up while I was taking a lunch break.   Nemesis bird!
  Well, that doesn't quite catch yall all the way up, but it'll have to do for now.  More soon!