Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

123 Species: A Birding Breakers to the Bay by Bicycle

written by David Wimpfheimer

There was a solid gray overcast sky on the morning of October 15. I had hardly moved from my car in the parking lot above Tomales Bay State Park. It was very quiet, not a coyote howl, nor a wood rat scurrying, certainly not a Great Horned Owl hooting. It was not a good start to my Point Blue Conservation Science Birdathon.

Then my luck changed, down below the entrance station I heard the odd barking sound of a Northern Spotted Owl. The gray dark soon faded into gray light. A Spotted Towhee called out, waaanngh, followed by the sounds of several Wrentits, a Fox Sparrow and Hermit Thrushes. It was good to be adding more birds, but it would be really bad if I couldn’t find a horned owl.

It was 7:05, I was eager to get on my bicycle, ride to the coast at Abbotts Lagoon and then the long ride back to Las Gallinas and Hamilton, a birding “breakers to bay.”

The mostly downhill ride was great as I passed the H Ranch. Over the years I had seen raptors perched in the large eucalyptus there. Now I was thrilled to see a Great Horned Owl on one of the branches.

Burrowing Owl

From the Abbotts parking lot I pedaled out the bumpy dirt track. I assumed I’d see the normally common Northern Harrier and White-tailed Kite in the gray, but good light, but neither of these raptors were cooperating. I was confident I would find those species later, but was ecstatic to find the Burrowing Owl that had been reported recently standing by a dirt mound to the south of the trail.

Near the end of the middle pond, I was happy to hear a Common Yellowthroat calling from the damp swale, but I was even more thrilled to see a flock group of Blue-winged Teal. A House Wren calling out from the moist north facing slope of ferns and coyote bush here was also a good find.

At the lower pond I quickly added new birds; Brown Pelican, Great Egret, wigeon, shoveler, Mallard and other ducks, but I wondered where the shorebirds were. At the beach a group of gulls included three species and then a fourth as a Herring Gull flew by.

The gray light was good and I could see a long way out over the ocean. It was a good plan to meet Ron here and I really appreciated using his scope. However, there were large swells which would make it hard to see any sitting seabirds. After searching empty ocean I was very glad to make out cormorants and Surf Scoters. Finally, after scanning over the turbulent water I found a Common Murre sitting on the surface. I was also able to see both a Red-throated Loon and Red-necked Grebe.

Marbled Godwit

A group of Sanderlings scurried up and down the wet sand to the north. Closer to the dunes I saw a group of several Snowy Plover, a bird I had missed on last year’s birdathon. There were also a few Black-bellied Plover. A group of Dunlin, Least and Western Sandpipers completed this shorebird bonanza.

Six Turkey Vultures stood on the beach while a more regal Peregrine Falcon sat on a driftwood not far away. At the southern end of the lower pond another unexpected predator was at work. Two River Otters were jumping on and attacking an unfortunate pelican. It was hard not to make a judgment about what was an “acceptable” meal for these efficient aquatic weasels.

Both an Eared and Horned Grebe swam by me as I quickly walked to the trail. However, It was 9:00 am and time for me to get on the move. I walked quickly back to my bicycle and rode the bumpy path back to the parking lot, pausing to avoid a covey of California Quail.

The clouds were thinning out and in the brighter sky a couple of Red-tailed Hawks flew by, while an American Kestrel perched on a wire. I expected those common raptors, but hoped for some rarer ones.

Ferruginous Hawk

A coyote wandered not far from the road while a flock of Western Meadowlarks darted through the brush. As I labored to pedal uphill a large hawk with a whitish tail and white on the wings was immediately obvious, a gorgeous Ferruginous Hawk. What a spectacular grasslands tableau. To complete that image a flock of birds flew above the bare ranch fields flashing their red and white wing patches, Tricolored Blackbirds, fantastic.

The advantage of biking over being in a car is obvious. Assuming it’s not a busy road, one can detect any bird movement or sound. Many times I was seeing the same birds; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Song Sparrow or California Towhee. I sped down the steep hill to Tomales Bay. The bay was calm and empty of birds except for a lone Osprey perched on a post. I was glad to see it.

Sometimes an all-day birding journey is a roller coaster of uplifting, wonderful discoveries punctuated by sadly missing a common species or just seeing empty skies. I soon would find out today was becoming one of those days.

A few years ago, the mention of the Inverness tennis court would mean little to most anyone, except local players. However, recently many birders have discovered that the large patch of stream loving alders and willows near the court can be a very productive resting and feeding area for a large number of vireos, warblers, flycatchers and other migrant birds. The tennis court was on my path and I had high hopes for it.

As I walked away from my bike I made a few pishing sounds, but no birds responded. Disappointedly, there were hardly any birds there. At last a Pacific Wren piped up from a tangle of branches. I was stunned to see five Anna’s Hummingbirds cavorting around one tree.

I kept biking on and stopped before downtown Inverness. A bit more pishing produced a flock of birds. Finding a flock of birds, whether it’s here or in the tropics, can be the best way to see the full diversity of species in the area. I pursued this flock, ignoring a couple of kinglets and then saw a Hutton’s Vireo, Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warbler.

Pygmy Nuthatch

Riding that rush of excitement I continued on, pausing at various patches of willows and alders. Mostly I found common birds; a flock of sparrows darting through branches while Pygmy Nuthatches called overhead. There were plenty of Acorn Woodpeckers, but I couldn’t find a Pileated Woodpecker or a sapsucker.

The Giacomini wetlands, which is just below our house, was my next stop. The fairly reliable Greater Yellowlegs were feeding in a marshy puddle while a Marsh Wren climbed to the top of a cattail. The ever present Red-shouldered Hawk shrieked out overhead while finally I heard a Virginia Rail.

In Point Reyes Station, Patty had my lunch and a cold drink waiting. As I rested a Downy Woodpecker called out from the nearby pines while bluebirds hovered over the field. Much less expected were a group of White-fronted Geese, a fairly uncommon species along the coast, that flew overhead.

The morning overcast cleared off to a stunning blue sky, fortunately with cool temperatures. Despite missing a few common birds, I figured my day was going pretty well. At least I felt stronger than last year when the heat and my lack of training took its toll on me. I knew there were only twenty more miles to go to the productive wetlands further east.

Up on the Point Reyes mesa, a Hairy and two Nuttall’s Woodpeckers called as I biked under the cool shade of several large eucalyptus trees. The night heron pond didn’t have any, but an Orange-crowned Warbler fed on a willow branch and an American Robin flitted about. Strangely this was the only robin of the whole day. A nice surprise, a Green Heron, stood by the dry pond near Highway One. That completed my local area, it was 1:30 and time to move east.

I figured it would take two to three hours to get to Las Gallinas. Fortunately, a tail wind helped get me around Nicasio Reservoir. There were some Canada Geese along the side of the reservoir, but hardly any water after two drought years. I methodically looked over some soaring vultures, but could not find any eagles. At last there was a Northern Harrier soaring high over a hillside.

I kept looking for a Mourning Dove. Near the Nicasio School I was glad to see a Lark Sparrow on a wire. This species is usually in the area, but it can be elusive. A bit further east in town a White-breasted Nuthatch called from the stream side oaks.

I enjoyed a long rest in the shade near the Nicasio post office before heading east on Lucas Valley Road. The ride past tall redwoods was great as I listened for creepers or big woodpeckers, but did not hear any.

Getting to the top of the road was a great feeling. From this spot I could see all the way to San Francisco Bay. I enjoyed the downhill ride and was able to maintain a lot of momentum all the way east past Highway 101 to the Las Gallinas Treatment ponds. A Killdeer flew around before I even got off the bike.

My support team, aka Patty, was there with a much-needed cold drink and snacks. I wolfed them down as I walked up to the edge of the first pond. The water level was too high for shorebirds, but even the Common Gallinule, Cinnamon Teal and coots were new for the day. Scanning the sky produced a swarm of Vaux’s Swifts flying overhead and both Violet-green and Tree Swallows.

The second pond had Ruddy Ducks and American White Pelicans. Off to the side a White-tailed Kite hovered in the sky. Sitting on the fence near some machinery was a Loggerhead Shrike, an uncommon and declining species.

It was 5:30 and I knew I had to move on to my last stop.

Riding over the bumpy, gravel road I flushed several Savannah Sparrows. It would have been great to find some pipits and larks, but they were not cooperating. Pickleweed and other salt marsh plants at my feet bordered the waters of San Francisco Bay. I was hoping to hear a Ridgway’s Rail, but did not. Still, I had seen an amazing variety of habitats on my journey from the ocean.

There were several more birds to find before calling it quits.

The Hamilton wetlands were the bonanza as I had hoped for even though the low tide was not optimum. Many birds were far away on the mudflats. It was great to end the day at a place that still had many new birds for me; avocets and stilts, Long-billed Dowitcher and Marbled Godwit.

I could have waited until dark and tried for a more owls in the oaks, but I was exhausted, more importantly I knew that my sponsors would generously support me no matter what total I had amassed. We drove home.

My total of 123 species really pleased me considering that I missed some common species. It’s hard to believe that I never saw a Mourning Dove or a Bushtit. No matter the total, it was a wonderful day exploring the varied habitats from the coast to the bay. Spending a whole day totally immersed in the natural world is always a great experience.

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With gratitude,