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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.


Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

138 - blimey, slow down will ya!!!

That hike would probably just about kill me off now - long gone are my days of running up n down mountains

Looks like your having a ball



The K said...

Looks and reads like an ideal vacation. Glad you two are having a blast. Can't wait to hear more stories this weekend.

Vera said...

Once again your photos are superb. You gotta love those elephant seals! I hope your last full day in Pismo Beach is as exciting as the first two.

eileeninmd said...

Awesome critters and birds. Great post, thanks for sharing your trip!

Monika said...

Dave - It was an awesome trip for sure! Sorry, I couldn't slow down at 138 just yet (see upcoming post).....