Birding by Bicycle from the Breakers to the Bay
November 4, 2020
One of our top fundraisers of our 42nd Annual Bird-A-Thon, David Wimpfheimer shares his day of birding for conservation below. Thank you, David and all of your sponsors!
The stars were brilliant at 5:45 on the morning of October 13. Orion stood out in the southern sky while in the opposite direction an incredibly bright planet, Mars, glowed above a crescent moon. The celestial show was even more special in this fog prone coastal zone. I was thrilled to be starting my Point Blue Conservation Science(PBCS) Birdathon in such a dramatic fashion.
Aside from the sky display, several coyotes howled and called out in stereo all around me, adding to the sensory show. In the background a Great Horned Owl also called. I had hardly moved from my car in the parking lot above Tomales Bay State Park,
I walked down the Jepson trail, hoping to hear a less common owl. Fortunately I did, the barking sound of a Northern Spotted Owl. The stars were fading as the predawn light brightened. I was already thinking about the day ahead of me; heading to the coast at Abbotts Lagoon and then the long ride back Las Gallinas and Hamilton, a birding “breakers to bay” on bicycle. My thoughts were interrupted by the soft, but distinctive staccato whistling of a Northern Saw-whet owl., what an incredible bonus.
It was 6:50 am and time to get on my bike. I rode down to the main entrance to the state park as the “dawn chorus” started above the sound of the still yipping coyotes. A Spotted Towhee called “waaanngh,” quickly followed by a Pacific Wren, then Song and Golden-crowned Sparrow.
I enjoyed the mostly downhill route to the Abbotts Lagoon parking lot. A male Northern Harrier, glowing almost orange in the early sunshine, cruised over the coastal shrubs. A flock of blackbirds in the bare ranch fields were mostly Tricoloreds, fantastic. I couldn’t find a cowbird, but maybe a smaller number of these parasitic birds is something to rejoice at after all.
Patty was at the parking lot with my scope. I biked with it over the dirt path. A distant White-tailed Kite disappeared into the ground fog. The air was already warm and although the fog was beautiful I was concerned that it would hamper my visibility.
At the lower pond I quickly added new birds; Brown Pelican, Great Egret, wigeon, mallard and other ducks, but the shorebirds that I had read about on ebird must have been at the southern end, too far for me to see.
The early morning light was bright on the close waves, but the fog I feared made it hard to see much further offshore. There were some moderately large swells which would make it hard to see any sitting seabirds. A group of gulls way to the north on the beach included the usual Westerns, but also both Heermann’s and Glaucous-winged Gulls. After seeing mostly empty ocean I was very glad to make out loons and cormorants flying by and a couple of Common Murre sitting on the water.
I was disappointed not to see any Snowy Plovers that often frequent the beach to the north. I then saw the probably reason for their absence. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon stood on the sand. It seemed to be pondering the breakfast that got away. Finally I saw a lone Sanderling flying by. It was 8:30 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.
I told Patty that I had heard about an owl that was seen near a badger burrow. After scanning the brown dirt field I was very happy to see the Burrowing Owl, a bird we never get tired of seeing. Several American Pipits flew overhead and it was time to start heading inland.
Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel were likely raptors, but I had hoped to see the less common ones too. I now had to bike up the hill I had enjoyed cruising down a few hours before. Back at the entrance road to the state park I stopped and added several more land birds; Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I hoped this would be a good morning to see or hear some migrants, but nothing here was unexpected.
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 towhee, but now in the top branch of a Bishop pine was the crested shape of a Cedar Waxwing and then there was another and six or eight more. Although these beautiful fruit eating birds can be common their nomadic behavior often makes them unpredictable to find. Discovering them boosted my confidence and the long downhill to the shore of Tomales Bay made me feel even better.
It was already quite warm and in the harsh light there were no diving ducks that I was hoping for. A few Eared Grebes dotted the surface of the glassy bay and a lone Surf Scoter, but disappointingly no scaup. In another few weeks there would be thousands of these diving ducks, but I was too early for them. Another disappointment was the empty perch where the previous day I had seen a Bald Eagle. At least a few American White Pelicans ere across the bay. They’re the second largest bird in the country so mssing them would be embarrassing.
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 birders or most anyone else. However, recently many birders have discovered that the large riparian patch of stream loving alders, willows and other plants near the court can be a very productive resting and feeding area for a large number and variety of vireos, warblers, flycatchers and other migrant birds. The tennis court was right on my path and I had high hopes for the spot even though the date of my birdathon was at least two weeks after the peak of migration.
As I walked away from my bike I made a few pishing sounds to see if any birds other than the resident chickadees were about. After the first chickadee arrived I saw the silouette of a larger bird. Through my binoculars I saw that it was a Warbling Vireo, a common breeding bird here, but mid-October was a fairly late date to be seeing one. Finding a flock of birds, whether it’s here or in the tropics, is 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 bird with a bright yellow belly. My mind went to Yellow or Wilson’s Warbler, but I was pleasantly surprised to see its grayish hood and a broken white eye ring identifying the bird as a MacGillivray’s Warbler, a great find.
Riding that rush of excitement I continued on, pausing at various patches of willows and alders along Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Mostly I found common birds; a flock of Bushtits 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. However, it was hot and still. Not wanting wait any longer, I clapped my hands a few times and was thrilled when a Virginia Rail cackled back.
In Point Reyes Station, Patty had my lunch and a cold drink waiting. Despite missing a few common birds, I figured I was doing pretty well. I had originally planned on doing this effort the week before, but a forecast for foggy, cold and overcast weather prompted me to reschedule. Now the weather seemed just the opposite, quite warm, but I knew I only had about twenty more miles to go and I was confident I could still manage that distance.
Up on the Point Reyes mesa two Nuttall’s woodpeckers called as I biked under the cool shade of several large eucalyptus. Even better, a Belted Kingfisher clattered as it took off from a perch above a small usually empty pond.
It was 1:45 pm. A few common birds awaited me at Las Gallinas, but I would still have to bike at least two hours to get to them. Fortunately, a tail wind helped get me around Nicasio Reservoir. I finally saw a Mourning Dove sitting on a wire. That’s the way some of these big days can be, finding uncommon birds, but sometimes missing the ones you take for granted a lot. I methodically looked over some soaring vultures, but could not find any eagles or other raptors.
I needed a long rest in the shade near the Nicasio post office. I hadn’t bargained for such a warm day in mid-October. My phone read 86 degrees. I drank a lot of water and was reminded of bike rides across the Mojve desert on the way to Mono Lake, but that was a long time ago when I had a younger, stronger body. Lacking a gym to work out in during this covid year clearly had an impact on me.
I walked a short distance from the shade and was happy to hear an Oak Titmouse. I was much happier to see a Lark Sparrow up on a wire where I’ve seen them over the years. I wasn’t expecting too many birds as I headed est from the sleepy town of Nicasio. It was the warm part of the afternoon and although I needed a rest or two I mostly enjoyed the ride past redwoods and oak trees.
Getting to the top of Lucas Valley 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 and to the Las Gallinas Treatment ponds.
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 Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler paddled about. A week before we had enjoyed the view of hundreds of Vaux’s Swifts flying overhead in this same spot. Now they were nowhere to be found, except for one that I finally managed to find. Suddenly a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by low over a group of blackbirds that took cover. It was 5:20 and I knew I had to move on to my last stop
I was very happy to hear a Ridgway’s’ Rail as I rode the bumpy, gravel road between the two wetland areas. Pickleweed and other salt marsh plants at my feet bordered the waters of San Francisco Bay. I had seen an amazing variety of habitats in my journey from the ocean, but I had several more birds to find before calling it quits.
The Hamilton wetlands were a bonanza as I had hoped for even though the low tide was not optimum. Many birds were far away on the mudflats. Thank God for Patty and the scope. It was great to end the day at a place that still had many new birds for me; avocets, stilts and Long-billed Dowitchers. Marbled Godwit and many smaller shorebirds were feeding in the shallow water here. I added at least ten species. I could have waited until dark and tried for a more owls in the oaks, but I had had enough, more importantly I knew that my sponsors have generously supported me no matter what total I had amassed. We drove home.
I was very happy with my total of 121 species. Next year I’ll try to do the ride about two weeks earlier so there will be more swallows and migrant land birds. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of training so my body will hold up through twelve hours of biking and walking. No matter the total it was a wonderful day exploring the varied habitats from the “breakers to the bay.” Spending a whole day totally immersed in the natural world is always great.
Thanks for your support of Point Blue Conservation Science.
David Wimpfheimer is a naturalist and a biologist with a passion for the birds and natural history of the West. During his twenty years of expeditions, he has imparted much knowledge from his own studies and shared a great deal about all aspects of nature. In addition to local classes for the California Academy of Sciences, Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Point Reyes Field Seminars, he has led numerous tours throughout California. He has also led tours to Mexico, Scotland, Spain, Alaska, and Arizona. He has been the naturalist for groups including the Smithsonian Institution, Wild Wings, and Road Scholar. Learn more at www.calnaturalist.com.
David’s Bird-A-Thon List:
Geese, Swans, and Ducks
Pelicans & Cormorants
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Vultures, Hawks and Falcons
Northern Spotted Owl
Great Horned Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Jays, Magpies and Crows
Titmice and Bushtits
Fringillidae-Finches and Allies
Eurasian Collared Dove