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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Day Three: Birding and Hiking Around SLO

Day three in Pismo Beach again dawned with blue skies, sunshine, and temperatures reaching the mid to upper 70s. It was another day for birding and hiking, and our first stop in the morning was to the Oceano Campground where a summer tanager has been seen recently. No luck with the tanager, but I did see my first tree swallow (139) of the year, with about a half dozen more to follow later in the day. The other interesting sighting at the campground was an odd trio of geese: a snow goose, a cackling goose, and a greater white-fronted goose, all hanging out together. There were some domestic geese nearby, but I thought it was interesting these three “loners” were hanging out all together:

Right across the street from the campground was the county park where we had a brief lunch on day one, and I wanted to go back and take a closer look at the bird life. That turned out to be a very good idea! One of the first birds I saw was an eared grebe (140), a species I tried and failed to get on the year list last year. It also turned out to be one of four grebe species on the same lake – there were also pied-billed grebes, two western grebes, and a single Clark's grebe (141). It was a nice opportunity to make a direct comparison between the western and Clark's – the most obvious distinction between them is whether the white on the face goes over or under the eye (click for larger view):

I found another great species in the scrub on the far side of the lake – an adult and an immature black-crowned night-heron (142). I always love seeing this species, and with the birds seemingly having deserted their former roosting site along the Columbia River in Portland, a this species was not a “gimme” this year.

Many of the birds from the previous visit were still there: hundreds of gulls (mostly western and California), mallards, Brewer's blackbirds, great-tailed grackles, and hundreds of coot. The coot were everywhere along the central coast, and it's easy to overlook a bird you see in great numbers. But when given a closer look, they're a pretty nice looking species too:

Next up we headed south to Oso Flaco Lake, where there's a boardwalk hike that goes through the forest, across the lake, and into the sand dunes that stretch along the coast south of Pismo Beach. Another rare bird had been reported here – a black-and-white warbler – but apparently I used up my twitching luck on the caracara the day before because this one wasn't to be either. There were some other species, however, that haven't quite made it to Washington on their northbound spring migration just yet. I saw a few more tree swallows, lots of yellow-rumped warbles, and my first orange-crowned warbler (143) of the season. There was also a single female American goldfinch (144), a large flock of chestnut-backed chickadees, and another Nuttall's woodpecker hanging out in the deciduous woods at the beginning of the trail.

Next, the boardwalk crossed the lake, where the most common species was the ruddy duck (about 75 of them), along with some northern shoveler, coot, gadwall, double-crested cormorants, and the only bufflehead we saw on the trip.

We wound our way through the sand dunes next, and I can only imagine what it must look like when all the lupine bushes on this part of the beach are in bloom. It was pretty quiet bird-wise, but we heard something when we stopped to look at a western scrub-jay, and it turned out to be a California thrasher (145)! This was a species we both especially hoped to see after reading about it on an interpretive sign at the Elfin Forest the day before, and with it's sharply down-curved beak it was an impressive bird to look at. In addition to being my 35th year bird of the trip (!!!) it was also a life bird for me.

The trail went over one last dune before going down out of the beach grass and lupine bushes and onto the beach itself. We walked a little in the deep sand, but it was slow and difficult going, and that along with the strong winds had us turning back before too long and back-tracking our way back to the car.

As we crossed back over the lake, I paused when I heard an unmistakable sound coming from the reeds. It was a yellow-headed blackbird (146)! I'm confident this was what I heard as nothing else sounds quite like it, but I found out later this is an unusual species to see here, and was likely only stopping over here while migrating further north.

From Oso Flaco Lake, we drove inland and up into the rolling green hills to Lopez Lake Recreation Area. The area is popular with campers and fishers, and with all its hiking trails we hoped it would be good for birding, too. The first birds we saw there were also there for the fish – a hundred or more double-crested cormorants, dozens of western grebes, 18 pied-billed grebes (the most I've ever seen in one place), and a pair of osprey (147).

There wasn't much in the way of walking trails along the lake, so we started following a trail up into the hills, the muscles in my legs complaining the whole way after the Bishop Peak hike of the day before. As the temperatures reached 80 or so, along with the lack of wind, it was pretty warm for this northwest gal, but in the shade of an oak grove in a valley between two hills it was the perfect temperature. While stopping to enjoy this break from the heat, we spotted the first of several acorn woodpeckers (148), and watched them as they worked acorns into holes in the trunk of the oak trees:

Continuing up the hill, we heard a band-tailed pigeon (149) calling, and saw lots of turkey vultures circling the bluff above. They must like to glide on the thermals created around such peaks? There were also a lot of them around Bishop Peak the day before.

We came to a lot of broken rock that fell across the trail, and it was cool to see the fossilized remnants of shells on a lot of the pieces – evidence of a very different variety of fauna that inhabited this region in a bygone era:

The trail looked like it continued back into the hills and away from the view, so we stopped to take in the vista of Lopez Lake before heading back down to the car:

We stopped in the oak grove again on the way back down to take another look at the acorn woodpeckers. While there, I heard a different call that sounded like an off-kilter chickadee. It took a moment to locate the source of the sound: an oak titmouse (150)! My second life bird of the day. Unfortunately they were too far away for pictures, but there were at least three of them up among the upper branches. It was cool to see both acorn woodpeckers and oak titmice in the oak grove, species that are known for associating with that particular tree.

By this point, it was late afternoon, and we were warm and thirsty. We headed back to San Luis Obispo where we went to the tasting room at Tap It Brewing and enjoyed their IPA and APA (American Pale Ale) offerings along with a sneak preview of their summer seasonal ale. Then, it was back to the hotel in time to continue happy hour on the deck and take in another spectacular central coast sunset. Life is rough, eh?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Second Day: Elephant Seals, Birds, and Bishop Peak

We decided to drive north on the morning of our second full day in SLO county. We drove straight up to Piedras Blancas Light Station, in part to see the nearby elephant seal colony and in part to look for a crested caracara that had been reported there over the last couple of months. The last report came from the day before, but the birder who reported it said she had to try four times before she was successful, so I wasn't too hopeful. When we pulled up to the light station, there was hardly a bird in sight. I finally spotted something perched way in the distance, and though my brief hopes of it being the caracara were dashed, I was still thrilled to see it was a white-tailed kite (132).

We slowly drove back towards the elephant seal colony, and I scanned the hills as we went. I couldn't believe my eyes when right in the middle of a field sat the crested caracara (133). What a find! This is the first time I've seen this species in the United States - I saw them once before in Mexico, where it is far more likely to be encountered. As we sat and watched, the white-tailed kite came over and dive-bombed the caracara a couple of times (click to see a larger view):

Next, we stopped at the elephant seal colony. There were lots of males, females, and youngsters, which made for some interesting interactions to watch. Quite a few males were sizing each other up, but only one altercation reached this posturing stage:

The largest males were in the middle of the packs of lounging females, with the smaller and younger males around the periphery. Several smaller males in a row tried to pursue this female, who wasn't the least bit interested:

All the big male had to do was lift his head and look at the younger males, and they all turned tail and scampered back to the surf. The female rejoined her companions further up on the beach.

The males, with their large snouts and enormous size, look otherworldly. Most of them are battle scarred and not all that pretty to look at, but even they can look kinda cute when at rest:

Not as cute as the weaner pups, though:

The elephant seals weren't the only mammals around. I haven't mentioned some of the other mammals we've seen - while watching the kite and caracara I spotted a coyote running across the hills in the background. While on the train, I saw a jackrabbit. And the ground squirrels are everywhere around here:

The elephant seals were the main attraction, but of course I was looking at the birds, too. There were horned grebes, brown pelicans, surf scoters, and black oystercatchers nearby, but the highlight was a brandt's cormorant (134) in breeding plumage.

We didn't get too far south of the elephant seal colony when I had to pull over at a viewpoint after seeing a flock of large shorebirds come in to land on the beach. Some of them were whimbrel, but there were also about ten long-billed curlews (135) in the mix. Just before getting back on the road, Keith spotted a hawk in the distance on the other side of the road. It turned out to be a ferruginous hawk (136), only the second time I've ever seen this species.

After picking up and eating another picnic lunch, we went for a hike in Los Osos at the Elfin Forest Preserve. The best part of this walk were the overlooks of Morro Bay. The tide was low and the mudflats were FULL of birds - I can only imagine what all I would have seen if I'd had a scope! The birds close enough to ID were still impressive, including lots of green-winged teal, northern shovelers, willets, and American avocets (137). While scanning the flats I also heard my first marsh wren (138) of the year.

Next up was a climb to the top of Bishop Peak. We knew it would be a somewhat strenuous hike, and the view from the bottom didn't look too bad:

It turned out to be a bit more strenuous than I was anticipating! It was just over two miles more or less straight uphill for a 1500 elevation gain, with the middle stretch more like bouldering than hiking. Add the unaccustomed warm temperatures, and my heart was beating hard and the sweat was pouring. It was also a little disheartening to see some of the local college kids RUNNING up and down the hill for exercise (there were some others huffing and puffing along like me, though).

The near 360-degree view from the top was pretty darn impressive, though. Here's a three frame panorama that only captures a fraction of the view - click to see a larger version:

Here's Keith taking in the view well over halfway back down:

The rum and coke that awaited me at the hotel was well deserved after that excursion! 

So many great sightings and experiences in two days, but still another full day to go. Next up: more hiking, more exploring, and more birding.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Day in Pismo Beach

A good night's rest after a somewhat fitful night's sleep on the train made us ready for our first full day in Pismo Beach. While there were lots of places we wanted to check out, the first thing we did was walk along the bluffs in front of our hotel again, as the views and birding were so good the night before.

In addition to Eurasian collared doves, which now seem to be everywhere, Brewer's blackbirds, white-crowned sparrows, and a few white-throated swifts, we also found a Bewick's wren (122) and a pair of California towhees (123) right in front of our hotel. The tide was high, so there weren't any shorebirds or much of a beach to walk on, but we did get some closer views of black phoebes.

First up for the day was one of the major reasons I wanted to come to Pismo Beach: the monarch butterfly grove. From October through February monarch butterflies overwinter in California, and Pismo Beach has one of the largest congregations at anywhere from 20,000 to over 100,000 a year.

Monarch butterflies are remarkable insects, and thanks to arriving just in time to hear the park docent give a talk about them, I finally understand their migration a little bit better. We got to witness several pairs of monarchs mating. They're all breeding now just before they leave their wintering site. From here, these butterflies will move north anywhere west of the Rocky Mountains, from elsewhere in California all the way into Canada. They will lay their eggs, then die. Their offspring, which require milkweed as caterpillars, will grow, mate, and die within 4 to 6 weeks. This will be the same for the following generation as well, all the way through four generations. Then, in the fifth generation, the caterpillars will be born with larger stomachs. They won't mate, but will begin to feel the urge to migrate based on the shortening days. They will eat much more, which is necessary to fuel them for their migration back to the wintering grounds in places like Pismo Beach. This fifth generation will live for 8 or 9 months, and will return to the same site their ancestors five generations ago came from. It's amazing!

Equally amazing to the feats they undertake was the experience of standing in a grove of eucalyptus trees with hundreds of butterflies flying around and perching on branches all around you. There were probably several thousand there yesterday, short of the 20,000+ they had during the peak season in December and January. Already some are starting to disperse, and most all of them could be gone in as little as a week. I'm so glad we got here in time to see them!

There was a lot of bird activity at the butterfly grove as well (though not to feed on monarchs - the milkweed they eat makes them toxic to birds). The first thing we noticed were several hawks flying overhead and calling. It took a bit to identify them as red-shouldered hawks (124) - not a common sight in the Pacific Northwest but as I'm finding out quite a common sight around here! I've probably seen close to ten already. The best view was a little later in the butterfly grove, where one was perched right out in the open. I would have missed it entirely if it hadn't been calling, and even then it was Keith who found it!

There was a lot of warbler activity in the grove, too. They were mostly yellow-rumped warblers, but with a fair number of Townsend's warblers (125) mixed in, too. Then, a woodpecker flew into view. I was about to call it a hairy woodpecker but something made me stop short - it looked different. Luckily I took a closer look - it was a Nuttall's woodpecker (126)! Not only a year bird but a life bird to boot. At the same time I was looking at the woodpecker I saw my first common yellowthroat (127) of the year, but he mostly got ignored in favor of the woodpecker.

The grove, part of Pismo Beach State Park, opened up right onto the beach, so we headed out that way. The transition from grove to beach was a beautiful one:

A small lagoon right near the path was a foraging spot for a flock of least sandpipers (128). I took my shoes off and left them here while walking on the beach - when I got back the least sandpipers were right near my shoes! They didn't mind at all when I went to put them on; I'm always amazed at how bold they are for being such tiny birds. There were lots of sanderling and a flock of about 20 whimbrel out near the surf line, and a brown pelican (129) flew by, too.

The warmth, the bare feet in the sand, the great birding, the thousands of butterflies....I was so happy!!

The day was far from over, though. After spending several hours at the grove and on the beach, we picked up some snacks and had a quick picnic lunch at a little county park. There was a lot of duck and gull activity there, and they were clearly used to being fed. Most exciting to me, however, were the great-tailed grackles (130), though it was also nice to find some California gulls (131) in with the ring-billed and westerns. And I couldn't believe how many coot were there! Hundreds, all on land grazing in the field. This big flock must have decided the grazing was better across the street:

Why did the coot cross the road?
Then, we headed off to do something I have always wanted to do - horseback ride on the beach. Of course, it just reminded me how much I miss being around horses after riding a lot growing up, but it was nice to be back in the saddle again, if only for a short time. The horse I rode was Rooster - Keith was on a furry horse named Stu. It was just us and the guide and was a beautiful ride along the beach and through the dunes.

We got back in time to enjoy a glass of California red wine on the porch of the hotel and take in our second stunning sunset of the trip:

Next up: our second full day features elephant seals, mountain climbing, and of course, more birds!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Coast Starlight: Southbound

On Sunday afternoon we took off from Union Station in Portland heading south on an Amtrak train along the Coast Starlight route. The first part of the trip traversed territory I'm pretty familiar with, but as we got further south in Willamette Valley we entered more rural country and ended up seeing just about every possible farm animal. The highlight was a newborn sheep that was too young to even stand up yet!

We headed through the mountains in the dark, though I could tell there was snow on the ground. I look forward to seeing that section of the trip in the daylight when we head back north. In the morning, I woke up as we pulled out of the Sacramento station. We had breakfast along San Pablo Bay, where there was lots of bird activity. I saw my first year birds of the day - a turkey vulture (111 - they'll be reaching Oregon and Washington soon!) and a western grebe (112). 

One reason train travel is so fun is because you get to see things you otherwise wouldn't be able to see - the train often travels where roads don't. I've taken the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago three times, and you get to see a lot of stunning scenery with no roads in sight. On this trip, one thing that stood out as we traveled through several big cities was the human side of things that are often out of sight: homeless camps, trash, and graffiti - everywhere.

Not exactly the most pleasant thing to look at (though some of the graffiti is pretty impressive), but interesting nonetheless. After getting through the Bay Area, there were more natural areas to take in, and that meant more birds.

Near San Lorenzo I saw a pair of snowy egrets (113), near Morgan Hill I saw a flock of wild turkeys (114), and then as we traveled along the Elk Horn Slough (pictured above) I added willet (115), black-necked stilt (116) and western gull (117).

As we continued south, the sun came out and the climate became more arid. Between Salinas and Pasos Robles I saw an immature golden eagle (118) riding the thermals over a cliff. That was the last year bird for the train ride, but I was pretty amazed I added eight year birds while traveling at such speeds!

Here are a couple more pictures from the train before we pulled into San Luis Obispo - our stop:

When we stepped off the train, the sweatshirts came off, the sunglasses came on, and I could almost feel my body sighing in relief as it soaked up the sun for what felt like the first time in months. It was warm! This is what we came for. And this - the view from our hotel room porch:

After settling in, we had time before sunset to go for a walk and explore the trail down to the beach. In half an hour I added three more year birds - black phoebe (119), white-throated swift (120), and a single whimbrel (121) down on the rocks with two pairs of black oystercatchers. The swifts were the biggest surprise, and it took me a moment to identify them. I first detected them by their descending call, which I finally located as coming from up overhead. There was a flock of about fifty of them swarming around, I'm assuming gathering up before roosting for the night. They look like ants in this photo, but it was impressive - you'll have to take my word for it!

There were lots of surfers enjoying the last few waves before sunset:

And it was a very spectacular sunset!

Next up, our first full day at Pismo Beach: butterflies, birds, and horses!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sightings Update

I had a few sightings I wanted to log here before leaving on the main part of my trip.....

Last weekend J-Pod made a trip around San Juan Island, and I got a very distant look at them for my first orca sighting of 2012. While looking for them, I also saw my first Pacific loon (108) of the year.

An interesting sighting off the front porch this week was of a nudibranch species I hadn't seen before. My memory of the field guide told me it might be a sea peach - I was close, but when I looked it up it was actually called a sea lemon! (A sea peach is in a different marine invertebrate family entirely). It's a poor picture, but here it is:

Yesterday was the first leg of our trip - the drive to Portland. I made a side trip through Fir Island in Skagit County to see the flocks of snow geese (109), and was successful in finding a flock of about 1000!

Then this morning, I got to see the impressive flock of 60+ pine siskins (110) that visits my parents' bird feeders. Here's a portion of them:

Next up, we're getting on a train and heading south to California! It should bring plenty more sightings to report, and hopefully some better photos than the ones posted here!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sad Story of L112

L112 was first seen off Depoe Bay, Oregon in January 2009 during a rare winter Pacific Coast encounter with the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Many calves are born during the winter months, but they often aren't seen until the whales return to inland waters in the spring, so it was exciting to get the news of her birth in what for many orca lovers is a relatively whale-free month in January. 
L112 Sooke with mom L86 Surprise in 2009, the year Sooke was born

L112, later named Sooke through The Whale Museum's orca adoption project, was the second surviving offspring of L86 Surprise. Her brother, L106 Pooka, was four years her senior. The subgroup of L-Pod her matriline belonged to, a group of about 10 whales descended from the late L4 Sonar, is probably the one group of Southern Residents I'm least familiar with. Part of the reason is because it's a group made up entirely of females and juveniles with relatively indistinct saddle patches, so there's no "keystone" whale that makes it easy to identify the group as a whole. Another reason is because they also tend to spend a lot of out in the open ocean, even during the summer months, so they spend much less time in inland waters than most of the other whales. The new little calf Sooke, however, definitely stood out in the summers of 2009 and 2010.

L112, the smallest whale in the photo, surrounded by her L-Pod family in 2010

L112 tail slapping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca
All calves born to this endangered population of whales are a cause for celebrations, but there was an extra special reason to be thrilled about L112's birth: she was a girl. While the sex ratio of juvenile whales in J-Pod is even, there's a strong male-bias in K and L Pods. As of July 2011, there were 8 juvenile males, 2 juvenile females, and 4 juveniles of unknown gender in L-Pod. Sooke was one of the two females.

Sooke also gained some attention in the summer of 2010, when she became one of the first whales to receive two names as the whale naming disagreement between The Whale Museum and the Center for Whale Research came to a head. The Center named her Victoria.

One and a half year-old L112 swimming among her immediate family

Early in the morning of February 6th, 2012 ear-piercing sonar pings began being heard over the hydrophones on the westside of San Juan Island. It was mid-frequency active sonar being emitted by a Canadian naval ship. A full recap of the incident can be read here. It is not believed any killer whales were in Haro Strait at the time of the incident, though there had been several nighttime recordings over the preceding couple of days indicating Southern Residents had been in the area.

L112 (right) with L86 (middle) and L27 Ophelia (left)

On February 11th, a 12-foot female orca washed up dead on the shoreline of Long Beach, Washington. As a necropsy was performed the next day, it was confirmed that this whale was L112, and that she had died from massive trauma surrounding the head. It is rare for a killer whale to wash ashore, and even rarer for it to be a Southern Resident. Currently, it is unknown what caused the massive trauma, but the evidence doesn't suggest a vessel strike or predation. You can read Cascadia Research's necropsy report for more details. 
This has left the whale world wondering if the recent sonar incident might have played a role - cetaceans have shown massive head trauma as a result of sonar before. It's believed she was dead for about three days when she washed up, and it would take about two days for the whales to travel from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Long Beach, which adds up to the five days that span the sonar incident and when she was found.
One thing that's amazing to me in the following photo of her is how big she is compared to the people around her. She looks so small in the pictures above, alongside her adult family members. Distance and size can be hard to judge for us humans on the water where there aren't many reference points - but a three year old killer whale is a pretty darn big animal!

As sad as her death is, it does provide a huge opportunity to learn about things like genetics, contaminants, disease. Until the cause of death is determined, however, I'm especially concerned for her family members - hopefully it wasn't the sonar, so they aren't experiencing any adverse affects from it. If it was the sonar, however, hopefully this will become a rallying point to help keep these exercises out of critical whale habitat.