Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Wild Ride

I had the crazy idea to ride my bike to Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach on Saturday, a sixty-something mile round trip. I did this once before, and it almost killed me. However, the allure of new Bigby birds attracted me, so I set off at dawn on Saturday.

The ride takes me down the Santa Ana River. It goes right through some of the sketchiest parts of Orange County; thus, birds are scarce. The only notable bird I saw in two hours of riding was a Baird's Sandpiper in a small puddle in the riverbed. I arrived at Bolsa Chica in the late morning after a stop at Harriet Wieder Regional Park, where I saw nothing interesting save a Pectoral Sandpiper (my first new Bigby bird of the day.)

It didn't take me long to find two more new Bigby birds once I arrived at Bolsa Chica: Reddish Egret and Sanderling. Hundreds of shorebirds were around, most of them roosting up on the dry ground of the tern colony (it was high tide.) No matter how attentively I scanned, I couldn't pull out a Pacific Golden-Plover or a Snowy Plover. After several minutes of squinting at distant shorebirds, a chip note brought my attention to a life bird practically at my feet: a "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow.

Though not its own species (yet), the "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow is a very interesting and distinctive bird. It breeds along the shores of the Sea of Cortez and wanders northward in the winter, showing up at coastal places like Bolsa Chica and also at the Salton Sea.

A heavy fog bank that descended onto Bolsa Chica put an end to my birding. I grabbed some much-needed lunch at Subway before continuing on to Huntington Central Park. Once there, I pulled out my phone to find that I had a new voicemail. Hmmm...

Turns out it was my friend Doug Willick. He had found a Great Crested Flycatcher along the Upper Santa Ana River, a good twenty miles from where I was in Huntington Beach. Shoot! I had been considering birding the river on Saturday, but I had decided on Bolsa Chica instead. I briefly considered birding around Huntington Central Park for the rest of the afternoon and trying for the flycatcher the next day; however, the flycatcher was just too good of a bird to pass up, so I hopped on my bike, cranked it into high gear, and pedaled like a maniac upriver.

It took my only an hour and ten minutes to reach the flycatcher location, a line of trees along the bike trail just downstream from the Glassell crossing. In only a couple minutes I was looking at the bird as it flitted around some of the eucalyptus trees overhead. It was surprisingly unwary, allowing for some decent photos.

I watched it for about forty minutes. This is an extremely rare bird for the county; it is only the third to ever have been recorded. It was a very common bird in Michigan where I used to live, but this is California; I was very excited to see the bird. It was also a very nice addition to my Bigby list!

I had a couple hours of daylight left for birding after losing the flycatcher, so I called Doug Willick and arranged to meet him for some birding a bit farther upriver. On my way, I noticed a sparrow diving into the vegetation in the riverbed adjacent to the bike trail. I screeched to a halt and was quickly looking at a Brewer's Sparrow! My third for the fall! I didn't get any photos, but here's a picture of the one I found in my neighborhood last week.

Doug and I worked the row of trees and shrubs lining the bike trail, coming up with some common migrants. As we stood pishing at a clump of cottonwoods, I looked up and saw a Plumbeous Vireo staring right back down at me. While an annual migrant through the county (this bird is actually returning for its fifth winter in the same area along the river), it was yet another new Bigby bird for me.

We continued farther downriver (Doug wanted to see my Brewer's Sparrow.) A flash of yellow caught my eye in a flock of cowbirds in the riverbed. A Yellow-headed Blackbird! Yet another surprising new Bigby bird! I was beginning to wish that I had simply birded the Upper Santa Ana River instead of Bolsa Chica... unusual birds were coming out of the woodwork!

I finally headed home late in the afternoon so I could get home before dark. While pedaling downriver toward Katella Avenue I couldn't help but notice a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper in the river. Wow. A great couple hours of birding along the river!

I ended the day with six new Bigby birds: Pectoral Sandpiper, Reddish Egret, Sanderling, Great Crested Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. I rode sixty-five miles. An epic day.

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