Bike Touring Orcas Island

We were warned about Orcas Island. Per the Cycling Sojourner guide, Orcas is “the most challenging for cycling. Prepare for lots of hills, dramatic coastline, and picturesque harbors.” Lots of hills. With that threat and more rain on the way, we made an executive decision to get a hotel room.

Fake blue skies

Fake blue skies

Orcas Hotel is charming and historic. We picked the cheapest room, but the check-in clerk said she didn’t like that room and because it was a Wednesday and the hotel was basically empty, she upgraded us. Harbor view and candy-striped peach wallpaper? We’re in!

While splurging, we also rented a car for four hours (small island-style) from the local gift shop owner. After several days of bike travel, driving feels like flying. We were excited to scout out the bike route and find the Country Corner laundry mat. Because priorities. Once laundry was finished we had just enough time to drive to Mt Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands (2398′) and reputed as one of the best maritime views in the USA.

Not this day. And where are the birds you ask? I asked that too. All I could come up with was Dark-eyed Junco and Red Crossbill, and poor photos. We returned to the hotel, grateful we hadn’t biked the 2300′ of elevation gain in under 5 miles. Maybe on a clear day.

The next day was rainier than expected, but rested and refueled, we were ready to climb back on the saddle.

Orcas

While driving we learned that the main road (Orcas Rd) is narrow and has heavy traffic. And like all the islands we figured out, the heaviest traffic coincides with ferry arrivals and departures. But because Tomas is super resourceful he found an alternate bike route with less traffic along Dolphin Bay Rd.

I love this road.

Dolphin Bay Rd

Yes, there were hills. Even gravel hills.

Dolphin Bay Rd.

But it was quiet with very little traffic. We had the best silliest time.

Dolphin Bay Rd.

I birded along the way, hearing typical NW forest birds, Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Song Sparrow, and Kinglets. The best I got during the ride was an Osprey. Once we linked back up with the main road we were back to traffic and a pink flamingo farm? Weird.

Flamingos

We made it to East Sound and checked out the bike shop, the local brewery, and indulged heavily in pastries and the best chai tea I’ve ever had at Brown Bear Baking. Seriously, that place is good.

Just after East Sound we passed Crescent Beach, where I found the most birds on this Island.

Shoreline Preserve

There were Mew Gulls and Canada Geese.

Canada Goose

White-Crowned Sparrow and Northern Pintail.

Northern Pintail

Bottoms up

Bottoms up

Biking the 5 miles from East Sound to Moran State Park was the most challenging part of the whole trip. But eventually we made it.

Moran State Park

And we were rewarded with some of the nicest hiker-biker sites I’ve ever experienced. Far from car-camping and roads, lots of privacy, and plenty of hammock trees.

Moran State Park

And when it poured rain, we set up under the nice pavilion. Not a bad plan B.

Moran State Park

The rains came and went, the birds were pretty quiet, and the deer were abundant.

Black-tailed Deer

One last island to go.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

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 IV: The Finale

What better way to end Godwit Days than with a Shorebird Spectacle at the marsh?

Shorebirds

Not a bad idea. Led by David Fix, author of Birds of Northern California, the spectacle trip started at the mudflats at Humboldt Bay. Unfortunately, the tide didn’t cooperate and most of the birds were pretty far in the distance.

Poor attempt at digiscoping

Poor attempt at digiscoping

The view was challenging especially for someone with limited shorebird experience, but I managed to at least identify a few Black-bellied Plovers in the faraway mix.

Black-bellied Plover

We moved to the nearby marsh for closer shorebird views.

Two godwits and a willet

Two godwits and a willet

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

And Semipalmated Plovers were a nice surprise! I wish I had gotten closer views, they’re so freakin cute.

Semipalmated Plover

I’m learning shorebirds, slowly but surely. Okay, way more slowly than anything. Their subtleties are overwhelming. I thought if I left this trip learning one new thing, I’d be happy.

So, the thing I picked up was that as with many birds, a trick to distinguishing Long-billed vs Short-billed Dowitchers, is with their distinctive calls. Long-billed has a short flight call (high-pitched keek), Short-billed has a long flight call (mellow tu tu tu). Here’s a video from the trip of those calls in action:

Whew, that’s tough. Taking it one peep at a time.

After my last official Godwit Days trip, Tomas and I had an entire afternoon free and we made the most of it. We first went to the North Jetty to look for Black Turnstones. We picked them out easily. Pretty bird.

Black Turnstone

We crossed Humboldt Bay to King Salmon and watched Pelagic Cormorant, Brant, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser feed in the bay.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

We also watched crabs battle on the rocks. Just as fun as you think.

Krabby Patty

Krabby Patty

It was around this time that I realized I hadn’t seen a Wrentit yet. It was one target speices I’d hoped to see while in California. So, we left to try our luck at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

On the drive there I read up on the bird, “common but difficult to see in dense brushy habitats,” the song an accelerating “bouncing ball.” I was excited to meet this bird. We turned onto the visitor center access road, drove slowly with the windows rolled down, and almost immediately, as if we’d somehow summoned the bird, we heard the bouncing ball!

Named appropriately, this bird looks like a mashup of a wren and a bushtit. And it’s just as energetic as both. I was stoked when I finally got a look at this sneaky little bird.

Wrentit

Wrentit

Mission accomplished.

The rest of our mid-day walk consisted of Song Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Black Phoebe, and I even got a quick look at a Merlin!

Merlin

A little later, I mentioned to Tomas that I hadn’t seen a hummingbird yet on this trip. To which he replied, you mean like that one there? And pointed to an Anna’s Hummingbird right next to us.

Anna's Hummingbird

Well, hello there

Poof, just like that. Hummingbird, check!

We walked and birded until the blazing heat forced us to retreat back to the local brewery where we toasted to all the fun times we had exploring Arcata. Cheers to a fantastic trip! Spotted owlSibley, Wrentit!…and of course godwits!

godwit family2

How cute is that?

Tweets and chirps!

Audrey