Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Godwit Days Part II: Birding with Sibley

Just when you think birding life can’t get any better, you go on a trip with David Sibley.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

He is just as awesome as you think. Son of Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began watching and drawing birds at age seven. He’s an author (of my favorite bird guide), illustrator, ornithologist, and a down-to-earth nice guy. His favorite birds to draw are warblers. I tried to keep my inner fan-girl in check. (squeee!)

Birding with Sibley

We birded the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary a.k.a. Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s actually a pretty ingenious system. Part recreation, research, refuge, and part wastewater. Keeping it classy.

Arcata Marsh

The variety of sanctuary habitat is key for birds in this area: freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, ponds, etc. Shorebirds especially love it, but the first bird on this trip that caught our attention was the highly vocal Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wren

Sibley explained, though currently considered one species, Marsh Wren populations in the western U.S. are probably a separate species from the eastern populations because of the differences in songs (the eastern birds have about 50 “musical” songs, the western up to 200 “harsh” songs), and their slight variation of appearances.

We continued scanning the marsh and saw a White-tailed Kite, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a spring of Green-winged Teal. One teal stood out to Sibley as an “intergrade” with both a vertical white bar of the American subspecies, and the horizontal white bar of the Eurasian subspecies.

Intergrade Teal

Half a lifer

In another pond were American Coot, Gadwall, Eared Grebe, and Lesser Scaup. One unusually light-colored scaup was identified as a leucistic female Lesser Scaup. “Leucistic” is partial loss of pigmentation (not to be confused with albinism, a total absence of melanin).

Leucistic Scaup (far left)

Leucistic scaup (far left), normal scaup (far right), Bufflehead in the middle

Apparently, odd-ball birds show up when Sibley is around.

He has a profound scientific understanding the natural world around him. We watched the Least Sandpipers at the edge of the pond, while he described how hormones determine the melanin differences between the birds’ feathers.

The bird on the far left has more greyish-whitish edges on its feathers (like winter plumage), and the others have more rufous color and black in the centers of the feathers (closer to breeding plumage), therefore with more breeding hormones. Swoon.

Least Sandpiper

And these birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (not Short-billed) because they are sitting in a freshwater, non-tidal, muddy-bottom lagoon.

DPP_779

Sibley-vision

Sibley-vision is no joke

After lunch near the end of the trip, we spent some time watching a pair of Red Crossbills before finally moving on to book signing and gushing.

So much cheese. Photo thanks to Lee Brown.

So much cheese. Thanks to Lee Brown for the photo.

Sibley Signing

Good birding!

Audrey

Broughton Beach

All the cool kids headed to Broughton Beach recently to check out Lapland Longspurs. The beach is a quick drive from my house, so I thought I’d try my luck too.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a Least Sandpiper.

Least Sandpiper

A Great Blue Heron.

Great Blue Heron

An American Pipit.

American Pipit

A Savannah Sparrow taking a mud bath.

Savannah Sparrow

A Savannah Sparrow hiding in a shrub.

Savannah Sparrow

A talkative gull (“Olympic Gull“?) protecting its catch.

Gul

Gull

And a Lapland Longspur!

Lapland Longspur

This one camouflaged itself nicely among the flocks of Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows. I only got a brief look at the longspur and I missed its infamous flight-song display.

I had the most fun on this trip watching a flock of Horned Larks.

Horned Lark

I love the way they waddle along. Sibley calls it a “shuffling gait.”

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Horned Larks are found in wide open areas with sparse vegetation and they breed in the high arctic tundra. Eremophila alpestris is Greek origin, eremos, a lonely place, and philia, meaning love. They are named for their “love of lonely places in the mountains.”   

Cool birds.

Horns and spurs!

Audrey