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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?


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

150!!! Good to see you're picking up lifers too.
Can't beat a refreshing celebratory pint of IPA after a long hot successful day in the field...served cool but not chilled over there I hope...shouldn't be any condensation on the side of the glass - cold ruins the flavours



The K said...

I have yet to find an IPA served without condensation or even ice on the glass in US. Horrible, I know.

Patricia Lichen said...

Oh, I do so love acorn woodpeckers!

What a wonderful trip you're having!