Thursday, May 20, 2010

California, with Pelagic

California, with Pelagic

Monday, May 3, 2010

First order of the day was to find my friend Mariah's house near Sonora. She lived on Jackass Hill, overlooking a reservoir, and a little further along her road was an impressionistic "restoration" of the cabin the Mark Twain had supposedly lived in while writing the "Jumping Frog", or something like that. Neither the history nor archaeology were up to museum standards. I didn't know which house was hers, she wasn't home, so I birded around the cabin and along the road. Finally went back and deciphered mailboxes until I got the right one, and she arrived back from shopping before too long, driving a big 4WD pickup.

It was a pretty kicked back recovery day, went into town to mail off bill payments, made a reservation for a pelagic (offshore ocean) birding trip out of Monterrey, bought a few supplies, then went back to share stories and get the lowdown on her new property. She had just moved there after twenty plus years in Topanga Canyon north of LA. The old place was a unique PITA, a dome which needed lots of repairs which were never easy. The new place was more ordinary and rational, decent size house with a guest house, several acres with a garden and new fruit trees she had planted, older trees around the edge and in the yard, fair amount of bird action (I got several new California tics in her yard and on the lanes between there and the Twain place), great view, quiet and un-self-conscious neighborhood. She fixed a great supper that we ate on the deck overlooking the valley that had been dammed to make the lake. Later I fiddled with trying to get her wifi to work. We had a signal in the desktop computer, wired LAN, but nothing airborne. At least I could get my mail and schmooze on Facebook. Got a good night's sleep in a bed, true luxury.

Tuesday, May 4

I let the truck have a day off, and we took Mariah's truck to town for bunches of errands. Groceries, tile store, health food, nurseries, Wally for trail mixes, etc. I birded around her house and got three CA tics. Got up close and personal with an Emu that one of the neighbors had. I tried to get the wiring for her range to make sense, ie, first in the wall somewhere near the right place, but finally decided it was beyond the toolkit I had with me. She made a great steak dinner that we ate by candlelight as the evening darkened. More rest and recovery. I had escaped from mountains, dessert, and the edge of winter into the Blue Oak foothill country east of the Sierra.

Wednesday, May 5

I was set to get away early, but there was a refrigerator to move, plumbing to diddle with and after one thing and another we went to favorite restaurant of hers for a late grease-ball breakfast. Worth the wait. Then I had to cross the San Joaquin Valley through Modesto, then poke through the coast range on unpredictable roads until I came out south of Santa Cruz and headed for Aptos to find my friend Flo and her new husband Dave. She's a naturalist type too, focused on mushrooms, but also a former owner of parrots, and Dave had an African Gray. They have side-by-side RVs in a park that's walking distance down an immense set of stairs to an oceanside State Park.

I got there around three, quick contact and orientation, then drive south to Elkhorn Slough NERR, and some good birding at Moss Landing. Great wads of Sea Otters. Back to Aptos. I'm always nervous about parking the truck with all its gear, optics, and electronics in civilization, so called, especially if I'm not sleeping right next to it. The RV park seemed pretty safe though, lots of folks keeping an eye out. Had wifi too. I let it go and relaxed to a couple of good night's sleeps in her trailer.

Thursday May 6

My journal says, "a varied and successful day". First order was scoping out Monterrey, which was full of folks, some kind of festival or protest, very similar in California. Anyway, the traffic was bad downtown, so I went to Pt Pinos to spend an hour scoping seabirds, then drove back around the south way to avoid town and back to Moss Landing. It was excellent birding, found a couple of Pacific Golden-Plovers, several other good shorebirds, got good pics of a close-up Surf Scoter, and poked around on the beach looking for Snowy Plovers. Then went to Elkhorn, which was open, and walked their long loop trail, several good birds including the huge barn with a Great Horned Owl in a box at one end and a Barn Owl in a box at the other. You could stand in the middle and see them both from one spot. This is a great place, I had been there once before ten years earlier, but hadn't walked the loop. Also a good visitor center with a bookstore.

I was saving my book money for Santa Cruz, which was the next stop. First poked around the cliffs and beaches on the north end of town after dodging an serious puzzle of road repair. There was a small wooded park on the inland side of the cliff drive, and I poked around in there for a worthwhile hour. Then back to downtown and lucked into parking right in back of the target bookstore. Escaped with only about forty dollars worth of damage. The ticking meter was a great aid to discipline. Found the next to last missing volume of the Dover edition of Bent's Life Histories. It's taken literally years to find them all, and I carry a ragged little card with each noted as I found it so I wouldn't re-buy the same volumes. Happened anyway once or twice, but they make good presents. Back to Flo's for some visiting and getting to know Dave, whose EMT schedule is irregular, at least to me.

Friday, May 7

I headed back into Santa Cruz to check out a place called Terrace Park, home of the UCSC marine science labs. Good birding there, but didn't find the critter I'd read about on the listserv. Back to Flo's and we spent the rest of the day driving around, having lunch at the fish market restaurant, me showing her the birds at Moss Landing, scoping the inlets along the slough, her taking me to a hidden antique rose nursery hidden under a Redwood canopy. It was a wonderful way to visit and catch up.

Saturday, May 7 The Great Pelagic

Up really early and down to Monterrey. I was one of the first folks in the parking lot, and got to hang around on the wharves before the birding boat office opened. The boat was one of the smallest I'd been on with very little inside space. The shorter hull made it more lively on the water, which to me was pretty rough, but the crew called it fairly smooth. There were about thirty birders, maybe four crew, and about six spotters, experienced sea birders who could find and identify things that always start out looking like blurs to me. The ability to "get" the image improves pretty quickly, but it never has carried over from one trip to another. They're usually more than a year apart.

Out of the harbor with the usual seals and gulls, then after a few miles we start getting Sooty Shearwaters and Red-necked Phalaropes. The Red-necks are joined by a few Red Phalaropes, but I couldn't pick them out at first. The trick is finding the bigger ones, rounder. Very few of them had well developed color and it wasn't until near the end that I got the $100 look at a really red breeding plumage female. They was lifer number one. A little further out and we started getting dolphins, four species by day's end and some gull variety. We also started to get Black-footed Albatrosses, and later four Laysans, which the spotters considered a big deal, and lifer number two for me.

We tried to get out twenty miles, almost made it, the sea was pretty dramatic, and I was worried about my tendency to sea-sickness, but this time the double dose of Dramamine and an almost empty stomach did the trick and I was mostly comfortable. I also stood up most of the time which put some disconnect between stomach movement and boat movement. When we had made it out about as far as we went that day we came into great flocks of Red Phalaropes, thousands at a time. We also found, the spotters that is found, a Sabine's Gull. That was nemesis bird for me for years. I had probably made ten trips over a couple of hundred miles or more looking for reported individuals, without success. This one was way out there, and though I could see the silhouette, it wasn't really an image. Lifer number three sort of, but not very satisfying.

Somewhere around ten miles out we started seeing occasional Humpback Whales, and they were around from there on occasionally. As we were returning from our furthest excursion we came into something that both the crew and the spotters said they had never seen the likes of in their lives. The largest "bait-ball" ever. A bait-ball is a concentration of small fish and such that draw a concentration of larger critters looking to eat. It seemed to emerge from thin air, not like "look over there", and motor over, but more like waking up and being in the middle of it. It stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, and attracted thousands of gulls and Shearwaters, hundreds of Albatrosses, thousands of dolphins of four kinds, white-sided, dorsal finless, about forty whales, one of which I actually saw jump clear of the water, turn over, and land on its back with it's flippers extended in the air. Saw it live, not a magazine picture. There was so much activity that it was almost impossible to focus on individuals, the water was frothy white with all the surface and below surface action, and the action started at the edge of the boat and just extended out. The event lasted about fifteen minutes, then faded as smoothly as it had emerged, and we all just gaped at one another slack-jawed grinning.

It was an image from the beginning of the world, before the oceans had been mined for two or three hundred years.

Further on the way back in was when I got the great look at the Red Phalarope, and as I sat in a daze one of the spotters said, "look at that Sabine's". Me - where? He points, less than fifty yard out, all markings distinct and ten seconds to take it in. Mad me feel a whole lot better about that tic. I had forgotten that I was looking for it, even though I'd noted it as a possibility while prepping for the trip. That happens a lot, finally finding something when hope is not just abandoned, but forgotten.

It always seems to take a long time to get back to port, debark, tip the crew, find the truck, start driving. When I got to Flo's I was whooped and jazzed, started working up the narrative of the bait-ball. It seems to take a few re-tellings to get the image beaten into shape for a good story. Sure did sleep well that night.

Sunday, May 9

Flo and Dave treated me to a French toast breakfast, nice change from fast food or just nothing. Then I was off for Oregon, target state number two of the hundred species project. I skirted around San Francisco, which has terrible traffic no matter what, and there was rain spitting all day. Got into the valley and headed north for Sacramento and beyond. There are several refuges north of there, but I only stopped at Sacramento NWR, and that only for about an hour. It was dried out mostly and only a few passerines could be found in the trees along the muddy irrigation canals.

Headed on up the valley, then veered north-east from Redding into the Pit River valley. Very attractive area, I'd never seen it before, and birdy too, had more of an eastern prairie feel, Red-wings and Meadowlarks on the wires, Sandhills in the wet pastures. I drove on into Alturas looking for Modoc NWR, but was running out of daylight. Back-tracked and took Rte 138 up into Modoc NF, some snow cover and drizzly, found a side road and just parked on the shoulder and went to sleep. Not a single vehicle went by the whole night.

Monday, May 10

Woke to snow, a couple of inches on the truck but wet and melting fast. Back on the highway and further north turned off for Clear Lake NWR. It's one of those western lakes in the middle of a shallow depression, and since it had been dry there was no water anywhere near the loop road, so I headed on to the Klamath Lakes refuges, tule country, historically a great wetland, now mostly drained for agriculture, but a small part protected for migratory waterfowl along the CA/OR border. I drove down the highway that runs on the border and started racking up Oregon tics on one side and California on the other.


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