Sunday, February 1, 2009

Roaming Orange County

Given ten and a half hours, I can cover a decent amount of ground on my bike. I proved this yesterday, pedaling 48.52 miles total. I am fortunate to live very close to the mountains-to-sea trail that leads to Upper Newport Bay, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, Mason Regional Park, and other great birding spots. I planned on targeting a few choice birds - Burrowing Owl, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, and Palm Warbler.

All was going well (I even saw a pair of Hooded Mergansers in the Peters Canyon Creek) until I reached Mason Regional Park, my first destination. I thought to call my mom to let her know I had arrived safely - but after digging through my affects, I could find neither my phone nor my wallet. My wallet contains my bike lock key and money (duh), and it would be nice to have my phone if I found a first state record or ended up bleeding on the edge of the road. I asked a few people walking around the park if I could borrow their phones - the first two were very nice, but neither owned a phone; the third glared at me with suspicion and then walked in the opposite direction without responding. The nearby San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary hadn't been on my original route, but I figured I could use the phone at the Audubon House to call my mom.

After successfully contacting my mom, I puttered around San Joaquin until she swung by to give me my phone and wallet. I managed to narrowly miss two Ross's Geese and a Northern Waterthrush seen by others. However, I suppose the theory that there is a silver lining in every cloud is true, as I found two new Bigby birds - singles of Mew and Herring Gulls - among the numerous California and Ring-billed Gulls in Pond Two. A Western Gull was also present, making for an interesting and diverse mix of gulls at this inland location! I was really kicking and cursing myself for taking my scope and little digiscoping camera instead of my Nikon, as there were cooperative birds everywhere. I managed to capture a couple half-way decent digiscoped images, however.

Upper Newport Bay was next on the agenda. Several Burrowing Owls allegedly winter around the bluffs on the west side of the bay every winter (in fact, SIX were found on the Coastal Christmas Bird Count), but no one seems to know where they hide out, myself included. I wandered through the bluffs, carefully scanning the cliffs and open areas with my scope and trying to turn odd lumps of dirt and California Ground Squirrels into owls. After half and hour of this, I grew bored and quit, beaten by those wily owls again.

My next stop was a little vegetable garden in the middle of some parking lots at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Huh? What's so attractive about this?

Well, there's a special bird there. For some reason or another, a Palm Warbler has chosen to spend the winter in this ugly little patch of "habitat." Upon arrival, I walked up to the fence and spewed forth a half-hearted string of pishes. Within seconds, a small brown bird popped up on the fence, giving husky check calls. That was easy. I watched the Palm Warbler bounce around the garden, bobbing its tail constantly, for several minutes before it disappeared under some enormous tomato plants. This bird was not only a new Bigby bird - it also was a new state and county bird. Interestingly, it was the only bird in the garden apart from a couple White-crowned Sparrows. Here's what the garden looks like on the ground.

Otherwise, the campus was free of birds. I raced back to Upper Newport Bay and sketched and watched shorebirds and ducks while sitting in the mud. Lovely. The sun was out, and it was very pleasant and relaxing to sit there with the sun shining on my back while I watched the birds. I finally tore myself away and continued on to Mason Regional Park. Earlier this year, I saw a good bird there - a White-throated Sparrow. Two other eastern birds are wintering there - an American Redstart and Black-and-white Warbler. I had vague directions to their locations, but neither had been reported for roughly a month. Somehow I managed to miraculously find both. I was bushwhacking through the thickets and brambles along the creek on the west side of the lake when I noticed a bird creeping around the large limbs of a nearby willow. A quick binocular check revealed it to be the Black-and-white, a smart-looking little warbler striped with black and white. Later I found the redstart flitting through the brush along the creek near the entrance. Both these warblers were new for my Bigby list.

By now it was late afternoon and I knew I should head homeward if I wanted to get home before dusk. I took a quick side trip to North Lake in Irvine in hopes of finding Cackling and Ross's Geese there (I saw them in late December), but only the usual Mallards, American Coots, and Ring-billed Gulls were around along with some Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, and others. I also got stung by a bee here, so this little deviation could be called a total flop.

It was a fun day despite the low points. I found only five new Bigby birds, but these were good ones - I didn't see four out of the five last year. My schedule for the next couple months is pretty hectic - taking the ACT, going to youth group winter camp, birding the Salton Sea, among other things, so I don't know when I'll be able to get out next for a long bike ride. Soon, hopefully!

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