Sunday, November 9, 2008

There And Back Again

The old bike creaked and complained as I labored up the hill. It endured several years of loving abuse by my eldest brother, followed by a couple years of dormancy in a dusty corner of the garage. I have recently begun using it instead of my newer mountain bike because it is a road bike with skinnier tires, which means there is less friction between the tires and the road, and as a result you can usually pedal the bike faster between birding spots. Plus, it has a back rack perfectly suited for carrying a tripod, binoculars, and other small items. It does, however, have its downsides. The whole thing seems to be slowing falling apart, one of the brakes hardly works (I'll have to invest in new brake pads), and the chain scrapes annoyingly against the gear shifter. Despite these shortcomings, the bike managed to carry me and all my birding gear forty miles to some coastal birding spots and back yesterday.

I left home early in the morning, gulping the chilly air as I zipped by Peters Canyon and down Jamboree Road. I reached San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in roughly an hour and fifteen minutes. I was mainly interested in finding the Pectoral Sandpipers that everyone except me seems to be finding there this fall - two had been reported earlier in the week. I stalked around the ponds, scanning all the shorebirds, but I was too late yet again. My only consolation was this lovely Northern Harrier that was coursing low over the water, harrying all the ducks and shorebirds.

Disgusted at having missed Pectoral Sandpiper for the fourth time this fall at San Joaquin, I continued on to Upper Newport Bay. My spirits rose as I arrived at the north end of the bay. Shorebirds and ducks were everywhere. I sat down to scope the flocks spread over the bay, ignoring the curious glances from the gaudily-clad bikers streaming by. Most of the common duck species were well-represented, as well as shorebirds. I was happy to note a single male Eurasian Wigeon mixed in with the hoards of American Wigeons in the shallow water of the bay. Interestingly, I also saw a completely albino American Coot and a weird American Wigeon with a very white head - "without a tan".

I continued on, hoping to reach the beach before the lighting became problematic. As I rounded a bend, I was presented with a familiar sight at Upper Newport Bay: a group of binocular-bearing birders. I slowed myself to a halt with my slightly-defective brakes and inquired if they had "seen anything good".

"Oh, we're watching birds," came the reply.

"Yeah, me too," I said, nonchalantly raising my binoculars to study some ducks out in the bay.

"Well, there are two Clapper Rails down there," a man replied, waving a hand in the direction of some cord grass by the road.

I peered down, and sure enough, there was a pair of Clapper Rails lurking in the thick cord grass, occasionally popping out into the open. The group wandered away, and I watched as the rails foraged briefly on an open path of mud. One of them began bathing in the shallow water nearby.

I turned to a birder I knew who had stayed behind to watch the rails with me and asked "So, have you guys seen anything else interesting around here today?"

"Not really, though there's a Loggerhead Shrike out there," he casually responded.

Wow. Wait. Loggerhead Shrike?! This species has declined because of extensive habitat destruction throughout the county over the last few decades to the point that it is quite rare. I never expected to add it to my Bigby list, yet there was one perched on a snag far out in the marsh, scanning for small rodents or other tasty morsels. I thanked the birder, and spent several more minutes watching the rails and the shrike before continuing on.

I managed to reach Little Corona City Beach unscathed a short time afterwards, barely avoiding a couple idiots who almost ran me down. I began scoping from the top of the bluff, searching for Black Oystercatchers, loons, or interesting gulls. A friendly old lady, a local most likely searching for conversation, came up to me and when I explained I was "birdwatching" told me she pitied those poor blind pelicans, gesturing towards about a dozen Brown Pelicans loafing on the rocks below the overlook. Blind pelicans? I inquired. Yes, she said, don't they become blind from the cataracts they get from diving in the water? I stifled a laugh and told her that the pelicans could see perfectly well. After a few more minutes of chatting, she left and I set about the serious business of scoping the ocean for seabirds.

This got boring after a couple minutes (and no, I don't even have A.D.D.) - there were hardly any birds. A few Black-vented Shearwaters were doing what they do best, shearing the water, a mile or two offshore. The only other bird of interest was a single Red-throated Loon that flew by, a new species for my Bigby list. I descended to the beach, toting my scope on my shoulder and nibbling on my lunch as I hopped and slid around the slick rocks in search of Black Oystercatchers. I walked down the beach quite a ways, finding Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Whimbrel, and Black-bellied Plover, but no oystercatchers. Huh, I thought to myself, I came all this way for a single lousy Red-throated Loon? Apparently so.

I began drifting home. I rewarded myself with a Coke and a candy bar (I enjoy eating healthy lunches when I go out for bike rides), and finished the rest of my lunch. I mostly ignored all the birds as I rode back around Upper Newport Bay, since I had already looked at them on the way and knew that they were all Marbled Godwits and Willets (well, mostly...). I debated stopping at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary again, but decided to let Pectoral Sandpiper go without a fight. I did, however, swing by Mason Regional Park, where someone had seen a Clay-colored Sparrow a few days before. It was just about the worst time of day to be looking for passerines - they all seemed to be taking a siesta. I wearily pedaled home, arriving late in the afternoon with sore muscles, sunny cheeks, and an appetite the size of my bird list of the day. Oh yeah, the bird list. Without really trying, I tallied one hundred and twenty-eight species. Not bad for a day of biking - it beats my previous record by about ten. One hundred and forty is possible with a bit of route-tweaking. That will be for another day, however.

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