Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mission Impossible

I’m a creature of habit. Most of my Bigby rides are to places I’ve visited many times before—San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary or Upper Newport Bay, for example. Very few potential Bigby birds remain to be found in the county, and most of them are in out-of-the-way spots, not my patches. In particular, the Santa Ana Mountains housed several birds I needed for my Bigby list, so I finally bucked down on Christmas Eve and biked up there.

My fear of big hills has previously prevented me from Bigbying in the mountains. As I discovered, they’re not called mountains for nothing. Surprisingly, I survived.

I embarked early on the morning of Christmas Eve. I pedaled out of my normal biking range when I continued past Jamboree Road onto Santiago Canyon Road. The hills began, but I pressed on. After six miles of very hilly and cold (there was ice and frost along the road!) riding, I made it to the Silverado Canyon Road. The real hills began.

My first target was Canyon Wren. A couple had been found in lower Silverado Canyon on the Christmas Bird Count. I barely had to pull off the road to hear one’s spiraling whistle drifting down from an imposing cliff face overlooking the town of Silverado. Check.

The real climbing began once I entered Silverado. Santiago Canyon Road had been an almost pleasant ride, with its mix of up-hills and down-hills. Silverado Canyon Road, on the other hand, was one brutal, continuous climb. I arrived, panting, at the gate into upper Silverado Canyon after several miles of climbing through the charming town of Silverado.

My plan was to lock up my bike at the end of the pavement (my hybrid really isn’t intended for heavy off-road use, and the road gets even more steep once the pavement ends) and continue up for a few miles on foot. The three miles to the end of the pavement from the end of the gate was simultaneously arduous yet tremendously fun. Unlike the other places I bike, there were no cars zooming past me, leaving me in clouds of hot, reeking exhaust. Instead, a crisp mountain breeze whisked down the canyon, Hermit Thrushes darted across the road in front of me, and only the occasional dirt biker roaring past marred the experience.

Miraculously, I made it to the end of the pavement without losing my breakfast (it almost happened… once.) I quickly gathered up the essentials (bins, camera, water, Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bars) and began hiking up the road. Within fifteen minutes I had found my second new Bigby bird of the morning: a Lewis’s Woodpecker puttering around some burned-out Coulter pines, which I found when I drove up there on November 20th.

Lighting never strikes twice…and neither do Painted Redstarts. You may recall that I also found a Painted Redstart up there on November 20th. It was seen the next day, but never again. Instead of refinding the bird, I loitered near the place, enjoying the usual nuthatches and chickadees while reminiscing about the redstart.
The only two remaining targets I had were Townsend’s Solitaire and Hairy Woodpecker. Once again, the Christmas Bird Count tipped me off to the solitaires’ presence. Unfortunately, they were much farther up in the canyon—at least a couple miles beyond the redstart place. I plodded uphill, enjoying the scenery and the occasional bird that flitted across the road ahead of me (Silverado Canyon can be incredibly barren for long stretches.)

I did not have very precise directions to the solitaire spot, and I was just thinking of giving up and heading back down when I rounded a bend and flushed a gray bird from the roadside. It landed in a nearby pine—a Townsend’s Solitaire! I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, since a second solitaire quickly chased it off. Several more showed up and began feeding in a couple Toyon bushes near the road.

Engrossed in the solitaires (a new county bird in addition to being a great new Bigby bird), I barely noticed when a Hairy Woodpecker called from the nearby stand of burned pines. When the call finally registered, I quickly located the bird working a charred pine. I could barely believe my luck. Both these species are very scarce in the county, and they certainly justified the pains I suffered to find them.

After drinking in my fill of solitaires, I turned around and wearily began the descent. One favorable aspect of birding this area is the friendliness of the other people—nearly everyone, whether biker, hiker, or driver, exchanged a friendly wave, greeting, or smile. No fewer than three people in cars offered me a ride down the mountain, but that would violate the rules of Bigbying, so naturally I refused.

When I finally reached my bike, patiently waiting for me at the base of the mountain, I thought my adventures for the day were over. They weren’t. After only about a quarter-mile of coasting down the hill, I noticed a strange knocking sound coming from my bike. I slowed to investigate, and—BOOM! My rear tire exploded, nearly knocking the entire bike over. Hmm, that’s not good. After a minute of inspecting the situation, I found the culprit of the explosion—one of the brake pads. Somehow, it had slipped slightly and had been rubbing against the tire until it became so hot the inner tube exploded.

Replacing the inner tube only took a few minutes (I carry several spare inner tubes and the trappings to replace one at all times.) Fixing the brakes, however, was tricky. I still hadn’t gotten them adjusted perfectly after fifteen minutes of wrestling with them, but I tightened the pads enough so they wouldn’t hit the tire and cause another blowout. That done, I hopped back on my bike and coasted the entire way down. I barely had to pedal at all!

The odyssey had a happy ending. I safely returned home without being crushed by a truck, as my parents had been so convinced would happen. In retrospect, the ride was one of my favorite Bigby trips I’ve ever taken. It combined great birds with beautiful surroundings (oh, and the blowout added some adventure, too.)


Bosque Bill said...

Congratulations on a successful and productive Bigby adventure.

Cathy Carroll said...

Very enjoyable blog entry, Neal. I'm very envious of your Lewis's Woodpecker. I travelled all the way to Idaho this summer with Lewis's Woodpecker being one of my target birds. No luck despite serious searching. I did find Clark's Nutcracker, however. Anyway, what a great way to spend Christmas Eve.

Alf said...

Have I still seen more Lewis's Woodpecker than you? Townsend's Solitaire has proved ever elusive on my annual New Mexico pilgrimage.

Oh, and I'm in Phoenix right now and saw Black-throated Sparrows and an inordinate amount of Cactus Wrens.

I also, while going to Tucson, talked to a lady who got Yellow Grosbeak a year or two ago in a Sonoran Desert Museum.