Raptors in Flight

In response to a question about hawk identification on nextdoor.com (a neighborhood-based social media site), I posted a long discussion about the status of various raptors in our neighborhood. Someone posted a follow-up question about how to tell hawks from falcons in flight. I thought the easiest way to do that would be to post the response on my site and point them here. Since this will gather up folks that didn’t see the original post I made, I will include that post and alter it to include some photos showing raptors in flight. I want to be clear here that the status discussion is relative to raptors in Mt. Washington, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. I also want to be clear that I don’t claim all of these photos are great, but do serve their purpose for documentation.

KITES, HAWKS, & EAGLES
The common resident ones in Mt. Washington are as stated: Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks (which are Buteos), and Cooper’s Hawk (which is an Accipiter). In the winter, there is usually at least one Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter) around. During migration, you may get lucky enough to see a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo) as they pass through to/from their breeding grounds farther north and their wintering grounds in Argentina. Several Ospreys (it’s own family – also called a “Fish Eagle” by some) winter every year along the LA River nearby and frequently (perhaps daily) fly over Mt. Washington, calling. I have observed both Golden and Bald Eagles as flyovers, but that is a rarity. I have recorded a White-tailed Kite once, flying around Cliff Drive. I’ve also gotten them at Rio de Los Angeles a couple times. This is always during migration. Any other kite species observation would be a significant unexpected find.

To further explain the Buteo vs. Accipiter paradigm, those are two different hawk genera and – in general – Buteos are chunkier with shorter tails and mostly eat small mammals. Accipiters are skinnier with longer tails and mostly eat birds.

Red-tailed_Hawk_2140
A Red-tailed Hawk soars over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on April 20, 2016. There is no more “typical” Buteo. Note the broad and rounded wings. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Red-tailed_Hawk_3005
A Red-tailed Hawk soars over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on May 5, 2016. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Red-tailed_Hawk_9733
A Red-tailed Hawk soars over Malibu Creek State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, California on February 5, 2016. Photo by Marcus C. England.
IMG_7266_Coopers_Hawk (4)
A Cooper’s Hawk take flight along the Santa Clara River near Santa Clarita, California in July 2015. Note the narrower and more pointed wings than a Buteo (but less pointed than a falcon), more slender body, and longer tail. Photo by Marcus C. England.
IMG_7266_Coopers_Hawk (3)
Different frame of the same Cooper’s Hawk from above, showing the wings in a different position.

 

White-tailed_Kite_4988
A very distant White-tailed Kite in hovering flight near Ontario, California on November 8, 2015. Note its pointed wings and slight build. While many kites are built like this, this isn’t always the case as shown in the next photo. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Hook-billed_Kite7
While this species would never occur within a thousand miles of Mt. Washington, this shows the flight shape of a Hook-billed Kite. Photo by Marcus C. England taken in 1999 at Las Cuevas Research Station, Chiquibul National Forest, Belize. 
Golden_Eagle_Red-tailed_Hawk_fight_2691
For fun: a Red-tailed Hawk (below) and a Golden Eagle (above) in part of a series of way-distant shots of an aerial battle between the two over the Tehachapi Mountains, California on May 3, 2016. Note the size difference. Photo by Marcus C. England.

FALCONS
Falcons used to be considered close relatives to hawks. They are now, based on genetics work, considered close relatives of parrots. They are still raptors, though. Anyway, American Kestrels (the tiniest of our falcons) are around, but I don’t see them in Mt. Washington regularly. There is a nesting pair at Rio de Los Angeles. A few Peregrine Falcons winter along our nearby stretch of the LA River and hunt over Mt. Washington. This is a regular occurrence in the winter months. Merlins, which are a little bigger than kestrels, are sporadic but I do see them from time to time in the winter months. There is no other falcon that would be expected here.

American_Kestrel_3430
An American Kestrel (our smallest falcon) in flight over Blue Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains, California in July 2016. The shape is typical for a falcon with pointed wings and a long tail. Photo by Marcus C. England.
DSCN2913
Another angle of an American Kestrel in flight, this time at Smith Rock State Park, Oregon in April 2017. Photo by Marcus C. England.
DSCN2914
Another capture of the same kestrel from the prior image, with the wings bent.
Peregrine_Falcon_9425
Peregrine Falcon in flight over Elyria Canyon Park in our neighborhood of Mt. Washington on December 28, 2015. While the photo is blurred (they are fast!), you can see it’s just a heftier version of the kestrel’s shape. Photo by Marcus C. England.

OWLS
The resident ones in Mt. Washington are Great Horned Owl (big) and Western Screech-Owl (little). Barn Owl (medium) is a species that I am unsure of the status of: they used to roost in the palm in our front yard. Now I see or hear them very rarely, but did hear one flying around and doing the horrid screech they do a few weeks back. No other owl species should show up here, however, I did have a Burrowing Owl once at Rio de Los Angeles park during migration.

Great_Horned_Owl_2937
While owls aren’t part of the flight discussion and I have no photos of owls in flight, I didn’t want to leave them out entirely. To make it pertinent to the original post, this Great Horned Owl was photographed from my front porch as it perched in a tree in my yard in 2015. 

My Big Day

[Featured image: An Ash-throated Flycatcher was species 75 for the day.]

It was just two weeks ago that I ran 26 miles in 90-something degree heat in the hills around Bouquet Reservoir in the Angeles National Forest. While that may sound laudable (or crazy), it was because I was running the Leona Divide 50 trail race, so I came up 24 miles short. To redeem myself, I entered the Wild Wild West 50 that is taking place today. Unfortunately, my nagging problem this training season has been my right hip, which got drastically worse following my attempt at Leona. When I felt crippled trying to walk the day after a ten mile run last weekend, I decided to scrap my racing plans.

Prior to start2
Me (part of a three man team) just prior to the start of a statewide Ohio Big Day in May 2002. I’m not clear on why the background looks so light. The photo metadata says it was taken at 11:45 pm. I believe the location was Big Island Wildlife Area. We were on pace to set a state record when vehicle trouble late in the day messed it up.

For some years, I have been mulling over the idea of doing a Big Day in a small area near my home in Los Angeles just to see how many species I can get. A Big Day, in birding parlance, is an effort to hear and see as many bird species as possible in a defined geographic area in 24 hours (usually midnight to midnight). I’ve done many, and was even part of a group that held the Big Day country record for Belize for a time. I considered conducting this effort in Elyria Canyon Park next to my home, but I wasn’t sure I could do significantly better than my previous 50 species morning I got lucky on one day. If I expanded my range a bit – my thinking went – and did it without the use of a car, a decent day could still be an interesting side note about how many species of birds you can find in a small area, even in a massive city like Los Angeles.

As I realized the day my race was originally scheduled was also Bird LA Day, I began pondering a Big Day effort associated with that. As the week went on, I established a one mile radius from my home as the area (covering all of my neighborhood of Mt. Washington, plus Rio de Los Angeles State Park where I walk my dog several days a week, as well as a slice of the Los Angeles River) and realized Saturday would not be the best day to do the effort because of rain in the weather forecast and more people out and about. I settled on Friday, May 5 as the date. I establishing hiking and biking as my modes of transport. I looked over bird lists and thought that 75 species was a possible total if I had a good day.

The Summary

Before I go into a narrative about how my day went, here’s a summary of the day for those who want to get to the point, have short attention spans, or both:

  • Total species: 81 (species list at the end)
  • Active birding time: 4:30 am to 6:00 pm (with one additional observed at home after dinner).
  • Total miles covered according to Garmin tracking: 33 (14 hiking, 19 biking)

And here is a map of the area birded (one mile radius from my home) showing open space areas from the California Protected Areas Database and a few other notable spots from my discussion for reference:

The Tech

All bird detections were recorded in the eBird app on my iPhone. I used the “My Maps” function on Google to store the one mile radius (created in Google Earth) and view it in the field using the Google Maps app on my iPhone to ensure I stayed within the boundaries. No birds were counted outside of the one mile radius.

The Narrative

Home

I awoke at 4:15. My first priority is always coffee and food. I ate breakfast and drank coffee next to my open screen door, deciding not to use the patio because the mosquitoes are bad right now. As I expected, two Great Horned Owls began calling shortly after I started listening. That was not my first bird, however, as Northern Mockingbirds apparently don’t sleep in the spring and sing all night long, ensuring everyone’s use of fans at night to drown out the noise. As sunrise approached, I started hearing the local ravens, California Towhees, and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I was getting worried that the resident Western Screech-Owls would be quiet, and I stepped out on the patio. They started calling late from somewhere near our backyard. One even flew overhead as the sky brightened. At 5:30, I gathered my stuff up and walked to Elyria Canyon Park with 9 species recorded a half hour before official sunrise.

Elyria Canyon Park

The day dawned overcast, the first morning with a substantive marine layer in quite awhile. I viewed this as potentially good: while cloudy days tend to reduce the intensity of bird singing activity (and, therefore, detectability) at sunrise, they also extend the active period until later in the day. This could help me get higher bird activity levels at more locations.

I entered Elyria Canyon via the Wollam Street entrance. Elyria Canyon is primarily dominated historically by California Black Walnut Woodland. While that is an important feature of the park still, the drought has decimated a large number of the trees and their crowns are barren. The trees are stump-sprouting after the rains this year. What remains is a patchwork of tall vegetation probably best classified as Mixed Chaparral (mostly Toyon, Laurel Sumac, Elderberry, and Cherry with the aforementioned Walnuts), with open grassland/ruderal areas and some pockets that vegetation splitters could maybe call Coastal Sage Scrub with a straight face.

While song levels seemed low compared to clear mornings, the important stuff I needed to get there (because they’d be hard or impossible to get elsewhere) made themselves known. At the end of the trail that heads up from Wollam, two of those important birds were California Thrasher and Wrentit. Both were singing (some days, they don’t), and both may not occur anywhere else in my Big Day area. They are both known-occurring species in the same canyon that have been there for years.

A Cooper’s Hawk called, later flying around the canyon with what I assume is its mate. One of the resident Downy Woodpeckers, another species that has been around for years but not necessarily reliable, also called (Nuttall’s Woodpecker is its common cousin here, and they are easy to get in the park). The Cedar Waxwing flock that was around the previous day was still present, but in smaller numbers. Somewhat surprising was a flyover by three Eurasian Collared-Doves: I only recently recorded this introduced species for the first time in the park, but they seem to be rapidly expanding their numbers in the area. I missed on the native Band-tailed Pigeon (a regular here), as well as Red-tailed Hawk. My only warbler was Wilson’s Warbler (I had a MacGillivray’s Warbler the previous day). I finished at Elyria Canyon with 29 species in the park, 31 overall for the day.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park

Rio de Los Angeles State Park rose from the ashes of the former Taylor Yard, a railyard near the Los Angeles River. It has a mix of uses, including ball fields (some of which are good for birds) and an artificial wetland area dominated by Willows and Cottonwoods. I don’t do a lot of serious birding there (despite being the lead lister for the location in eBird), picking up most of my species records while walking the dog. There are some interesting birds in the park, however, including breeding Blue Grosbeaks. It’s a good spot to see raptors, especially in the winter, including Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys that winter along the river. I found a Burrowing Owl there once. Endangered Least Bell’s Vireos sometimes stop there for a moment during migration.

I biked to the park, arriving at 7:39 am. Dawn song was still evident, but muted. Yellow Warblers were singing, as were the Blue Grosbeaks. They were even some Lazuli Buntings around. The resident American Kestrel pair was perched on a light post next to the baseball field. A few Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were flying around. Both of the expected goldfinches (American and Lesser) were present in the wetland area.

I walked around the Sycamores near the soccer fields. This is a good area to get winter sparrows (such as Savannah and Lark) and I was hoping a few stragglers might be hanging around. No such luck. I walked the barrier “woods” on the north end between the park and FedEx facility as that can be a good place for warblers and vireos, but there was nothing of any note. I left the park a little after 8:30 with an overall total for the day of 54 species. Of note here is that none of the species was unexpected, except for a calling Northern Flicker and a male Great-tailed Grackle. Flickers are common here in the lowlands in the winter, but much less so in the warmer months (but still easily found in the San Gabriel Mountains). Great-tailed Grackles are common locally, but this was only my second record for the park.

IMG_4685
Rio de Los Angeles Park wetland area trail on the morning of the Big Day.

Los Angeles River

After leaving Rio de Los Angeles, I biked down Cypress to Figueroa and took the new separated bike path on the new Riverside bridge to the Los Angeles River bike path. I pulled out my phone and kept watch on Google Maps until I reentered my Big Day circle. I then started walking my bike along the path, recording what I saw in the eBird app. I had some preconceived notions of what should be easy birds along the river. I don’t bird the river a lot, however, and those notions were based largely on what I’ve seen in the larger river area, and not specifically the portion in my Big Day circle.

Canada Geese and Mallards were immediately evident. Some pairs of both species had young. Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, and Double-crested Cormorant were also present and expected. A Green Heron flew by, a species that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to dig up even though I knew it was there. A few Spotted Sandpipers, also expected, were present. The same with Black-necked Stilt. I reached the north end of my survey area concerned that Green Heron was my only heron. I finally found a Great Blue Heron at the end. Killdeer? One finally called right after I turned back south. I began searching frantically for Black-crowned Night-Heron (expected), and finally got one back at the south end again. There was also a Snowy Egret.

I passed back and forth through the Los Angeles River segment four times. I did so because I felt the river was not being kind to me on this day. Here’s why:

  • Perhaps this was in error, but I really expected to get Great Egret. There were none to be found.
  • I expected to find some species of duck other than Mallard. While you can not point to any other single species and expect to get it this time of year, there is a sizeable suite of species that tend to have late stragglers (or breed in isolated areas) and I thought I’d find at least one. I didn’t.
  • Same with the shorebirds. I thought I’d get some other species than Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, and Killdeer. I didn’t.
  • I expected to get one of either Warbling or Least Bell’s Vireo. Again, I didn’t.

There are a few more such shortfalls, but I’m sure you get what I’m saying here. The only gift I did receive from the river was an unexpected Acorn Woodpecker calling from a grove of cottonwoods. It seemed like an odd spot, and that species wasn’t on my radar screen (even though they are common in a lot of nearby areas just outside of the Big Day circle), but I was happy to have it. I left the river a little discouraged with 69 species.

IMG_4687
Los Angeles River bike path during the Big Day.

Heidelberg Park and Mt. Washington Neighborhood

At this point, having hit the major spots before noon, my goals changed to targeting my efforts toward getting species that I still needed. I still needed Cliff Swallow, and I knew there was a breeding colony of Cliff and Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the side of a house on Kite Hill in my neighborhood. The birds were easily viewable on arrival, and Cliff Swallow was species 70. I guess if I stopped here, most folks would think I had a great day, but there were still some common species I was missing (some I couldn’t believe I didn’t have yet) and half of the day to go.

I headed next to Heidelberg Park. Heidelberg is on the opposite side of Mt. Washington from me. I’ve only birded there a few times. It is on a very steep slope with some difficult trails to traverse, but it also contains a lot more oaks than Elyria Canyon and I’ve had some different birds there. I thought the different habitat could potentially help me turn up different birds, some wishful-thinking species being Dark-eyed Junco and Hutton’s Vireo.

Surprisingly, the moment I arrived, there were a couple Dark-eyed Juncos chipping up a storm in a fracas with other birds in a front yard across the street from the park. I locked up my bike and immediately found an Orange-crowned Warbler. That species is not surprising, but I was somewhat surprised it was feeding recently-fledged young. 72 species. Now, it was a matter of making my way through the park and hopefully finding the three “guarantee” species I was still lacking (Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, and Ash-throated Flycatcher), and maybe something else. I was also hoping to find a Turkey Vulture now that the sun was fully out and there should be enough uplift for them to soar around.

Walking around Heidelberg was rough. The trails were badly overgrown with dry grasses and entirely invisible in many areas. As happens when walking through that stuff, the sharp grass seeds poked through my shoes and socks everywhere, stabbing my ankles. I discovered that walking on those grasses could be like ice. I fell several times as the flattened grasses made an ice-slick surface. I felt I could have used crampons and an ice axe.

While I found birds there, obviously, there was nothing new pertinent to the park itself. I did, however, have a flyover flock of Ring-billed Gulls. I left Heidelberg Park with 73 species and a need for a change of shoes and socks.

IMG_4690
Unintended brush clearance work at Heidelberg Park.

Home Again & Elyria Canyon Part II

My immediate goal after Heidelberg was to head home and eat some real food. As I rode my bike down San Rafael just past Mt. Washington Elementary, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks was soaring overhead and calling for species 74. I decided to veer left and ride down Mt. Washington Drive as this is often a good area for the still-needed Ash-throated Flycatcher. I was correct: I had two of them on the ride down. Species 75. I was at my goal for the day and it wasn’t even 1pm.

I decided to walk my bike back uphill and slowly take in the sky, hoping to find something new. Nothing showed itself on much of the walk. As I got to the top and finally within view the Fellowship property, there was an American Robin singing from the top of a tall conifer. Species 76. Shortly thereafter I saw a couple Band-tailed Pigeons (finally) flying overhead. Species 77.  As I neared San Rafael, there was an entirely unexpected Hutton’s Vireo singing away from the Self Realization Fellowship property. Species 78.

Diminishing Returns

I finally made it home and put on fresh socks and shoes. I had some lunch. I left my phone to charge while I walked the dog in Elyria Canyon for visit number two. From here on out, I didn’t keep full lists of all birds detected and just recorded new things in eBird as incidentals. The dog walk finally turned up White-throated Swift for species 79. Now I had to get to 80.

I saddled back up on the bike and rode to Rio de Los Angeles again. One of the first birds I saw was a Turkey Vulture flying overhead. Species 80. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, with four hours of daylight left.

To someone not familiar with birding, they may think with all of that time left that I could reasonably hit a much larger number. Things don’t work that way, though, especially within the constraints of such a small area. There are only so many species of birds in an area. As your number of species detected gets larger, the number of species remaining to be detected gets smaller. Every new species found makes upping the total again that much more difficult.

I thought my best chance for upping my species count was to stay near the river. I spent the rest of my time walking around Rio de Los Angeles, sitting and watching the sky at Rio de Los Angeles, walking and biking the east side of the Los Angeles River, and again walking around Rio de Los Angeles. Two and half hours later with no new species observed and tired from biking and walking around for 33 miles, I messaged my wife and told her to expect me home for dinner.

I was ending the day at 80.

Or was I?

Once home, I showered and ate dinner. I had a beer on the patio. I heard White-throated Swifts screaming overhead. I decided to grab my binoculars and check out the swift flock circling over our house as they often do in the evenings. Sure enough, there were several Vaux’s Swifts with the White-throated Swifts. That was species 81.

I kept an eye out hoping to get 82. A lot of birds like to visit our fountain (chosen specifically to attract birds as it dribbles water over a rock), including a MacGillivray’s Warbler every year. That didn’t happen this day. We sometimes have a Barn Owl flying around at night, as I did a few days prior. I didn’t hear it, though.

I would officially end at 81 species. While that was six more than I optimistically hoped for, you always feel you failed somewhere when there are species you didn’t get that seem easy. There’s always next year.

The List

(Note: this is copied and pasted from the output from eBird)

Species Name May 5 May 6 May 7 May 8 May 9 May 10 May 11
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 10
(1)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 20
(2)
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) 1
(1)
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 4
(3)
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 2
(1)
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) 1
(1)
Green Heron (Butorides virescens) 1
(1)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) 1
(1)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 1
(1)
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) 2
(2)
Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) 1
(1)
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 2
(3)
American Coot (Fulica americana) 2
(1)
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) 8
(1)
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) 1
(1)
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) 2
(1)
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) 10
(1)
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 1
(1)
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 25
(3)
Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) 1
(1)
Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) 3
(2)
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 16
(6)
Western Screech-Owl (Megascops kennicottii) 1
(1)
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 1
(1)
Vaux’s Swift (Chaetura vauxi) 4
(1)
White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis) 2
(1)
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) 6
(4)
Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) 6
(3)
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) 1
(1)
Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) 1
(1)
Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) 3
(3)
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) 1
(1)
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
(1)
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) 2
(2)
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (Brotogeris chiriri) 2
(2)
Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis) 3
(2)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) 1
(3)
Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) 20
(5)
Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) 1
(2)
Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) 1
(1)
Cassin’s Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans) 1
(2)
Hutton’s Vireo (Vireo huttoni) 1
(1)
California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) 10
(4)
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 6
(2)
Common Raven (Corvus corax) 6
(6)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) 4
(3)
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 8
(3)
Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) 2
(1)
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) 10
(5)
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) 1
(1)
Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) 3
(3)
Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) 2
(2)
Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) 1
(1)
Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) 2
(2)
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 1
(1)
California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) 1
(1)
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) 6
(5)
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 8
(2)
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) 30
(1)
Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) 1
(1)
Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata) 3
(1)
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) 12
(2)
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) 16
(3)
Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla) 2
(1)
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 2
(2)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 30
(3)
California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) 12
(3)
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) 1
(2)
Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) 1
(1)
Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) 2
(1)
Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) 1
(2)
Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena) 1
(1)
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 9
(1)
Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) 1
(1)
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) 10
(4)
Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) 2
(3)
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 40
(5)
Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) 6
(5)
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 6
(3)
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 20
(4)
Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) 6
(2)

Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology

A friend and fellow ultrarunner covered me in her series on artists who are also athletes.

#ArtistAthlete

I can’t get these artist athletes stories posted fast enough. This artist athlete is super busy with her own graphic design biz (me in case you’re already confused).

On the running campus, especially the ultra running campus, we meet people along the way and become facebook friends. Show up for the same races, don’t recognize one another, then post race we see on facebook that we were at the same race. I feel like I know Marcus but I really don’t. When he posted his pointillism work of an owl, my eye balls be buggin’. I love pointillism. It’s my weird thing. I like any kind of art that takes lots of tiny repetitive actions to make. My OCD finds this process very calming. So I hit him up with some Qs. Now I know Marcus England better – like him, I don’t take ultra running races serious and I am currently…

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Running Charlton Flats to Three Points

My first run of greater than twenty miles in length since the HURT 100 hurt way more than I’d like it to. The plan was to run the Angeles Crest 100 route from Charlton Flats to Three Points and back. Things didn’t entirely go as planned.

Despite the ultimate treachery of this run, I was reminded again how beautiful the Hillyer area is despite being the site of two years’ worth of broken dreams. As shown in the featured image, the area features giant boulders galore, with what are often twisted and gnarled trees popping up between them.

After two nights of subpar sleep, I felt pretty horrible when I got to Rosenita Saddle (mile 7.5 for me and site of the Hillyer Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100). I fought the urge to turn around for a 15 mile day. I then made a huge mistake and ran DOWNhill following the original Angeles Crest 100 course as I’ve always run it, and didn’t realize the error of my ways until about a quarter mile past the Pacifico road (the course was rerouted because of permit issues last year). Curse words were shouted. I REALLY wanted to end it then. I slogged my way back up the hill and fought the urge to turn right at Rosenita and head back to my Jeep. I soldiered on. I checked my GPS (with the new course on it) right before Bandido Camp and thought it confirmed I go straight up the road. Checked it half mile past Bandido and found out I had to go back. My second off-course error of the day.

I made it to Three Points, eventually, and sat for awhile to take in some calories and hydration, fighting the urge to ask returning hikers for a ride to Charlton. I felt pretty bad physically and wasn’t in a good head space. Nevertheless, I went on. The remainder of the run was painful, but uneventful, except for catching a broken branch from a fallen tree below my eye, knocking my sunglasses off and drawing blood. I have a knot there now. It looks like I got into a fight.

I was glad when I was done, and felt accomplished for 23.5 miles. I think this is the most I’ve had to draw on some kind of fortitude to get a run of this distance done.

This run took me to over 500 miles for the San Gabriel Trails Project. You can see the route here: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1627846168

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Rains brought the first flowing water I have ever seen near Horse Flats.

 

The Cross Town Loop

This 13 mile loop route with 2,854 feet of gain barely qualified for the San Gabriel Trails Project. It does, however, include several miles of trail that are, indeed, within the San Gabriel Mountains. Those several miles of the Cross Town Trail in La Cañada’s trail system are what this loop is named after.

The idea for developing this loop route came to me two days ago on a run with my wife at Cherry Canyon Park in the San Rafael Hills. I decided to start that run from near Descanso Gardens on the north side. This area was new to me, and I noted that a trail continued on the opposite side of the street northward through a powerline easement toward the mountains. I wondered then whether I could take that trail and connect the San Gabriels to the San Rafael Hills. Using Google Earth, I ended up planning a route that started and ended by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, using the Flint Wash Trail to get to the San Rafael Hills, the La Cañada Trail to get to the San Gabriel Mountains, the Cross Town Trail through the San Gabriel foothills, and a fire road to take me into the Angeles National Forest near Gould Mesa Campground where I’d take the familiar Gabrielino Trail along the Arroyo Seco back to JPL. Things ended up not quite working out the way I planned.

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Hahamongna Park with NASA JPL in the background.

I started the run a little after 8:00 am from the Windsor lot overlooking Hahamongna Park and NASA JPL. From there I headed south, eventually crossing over Devil’s Gate Dam. Just past the dam is a pedestrian bridge, and just past that (and easily missed) is the Flint Wash Trail entrance. This trail winds through an easement for a little over three miles between houses in an overall very wealthy residential neighborhood. Many of the homes have horse stables and, of course, horses which are sometimes ridden on the trail. While it does wind through residences, the trail is actually an enjoyable one with some rollercoaster-like up and down sections and a lot of woodsy shade.

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Stream crossing on the Flint Wash Trail.

At roughly mile 3.1, you cross Hampstead Road and enter Cherry Canyon Park. There are a lot of trail options here and you can run around for miles and miles. The park is within the San Rafael Hills between La Cañada and Glendale. While the terrain does not go that high (thus the lack of a “mountain” moniker), many of the trails are very steep and sometimes technical. It’s a nice place to run for a change of pace from the bigger mountain climbs and descents. On this day, however, I simply followed the Cherry Canyon Motorway (a fire road) uphill to a ridgeline where I turn onto the Descanso Motorway (also a fire road). Following the Descanso Motorway gradually takes you down into the La Crescenta/La Cañada area.

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View toward the San Gabriels from Descanso Motorway in Cherry Canyon Park. You can see the La Cañada Trail just left of center as it follows a powerline easement toward the mountains.

At mile 5.4, you cross Descanso Drive and catch the La Cañada Trail, which will take you north via high voltage powerline easements to the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of this pathway is very open with limited shade. The path alternates between standard dirt road and an artificially-constructed decomposed granite surface. Your route is well-marked. Just look for the signs. The only confusing location is at Foothill Boulevard (mile 5.8) where you have to cross Foothill and walk a little ways up Indiana Avenue to find the trail behind a garden center. There is no sign directing you. I had to use Google Maps on my phone to locate it.

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The La Cañada Trail follows powerline easements toward the mountains.

 

After a lot of street crossings (and a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 210), you eventually reach a small park and the start of the Cross Town Trail (mile 6.7). From here, the trail switchbacks steeply up into the foothills gaining 800 feet in 1.2 miles. The trail is fairly wide and appeared to be usually well-maintained, but many areas were pretty bad during this outing (rock slides and washouts) because of the recent very heavy rains. Nothing, however, seemed remotely problematic.

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Trail map sign at the start of the Cross Town Trail.

Today was a clear day, and the views from the trail were really nice.

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Climbing on the Cross Town Trail looking east toward Mt. San Jacinto in the distance.

The trail tops out at about 2,600 feet. Right after hitting the mark, it descends steeply down. I recommend having shoes that do well on angled decomposing granite. Some of these sections would have been difficult to hike down, but I made it down running with relatively few slips.

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Just before the steep descent on the Cross Town Trail.

My intent, as noted in the opening, was to take the Cross Town Trail to where Google Earth said it ends along Angeles Crest Highway. I did note when researching the route that I could not actually see a trail at the eastern end on the aerial photo. I checked a few websites from one or two years ago that said following the route involved bushwhacking and they didn’t do it. On this day, I saw no visible route. Apparently, the trail used to head that way, but now dumps out further southwest in a residential neighborhood. I was momentarily confused, but a sign at the trail’s end came to my rescue. It gave specific directions to the Gould Canyon Trail. I hadn’t taken that trail before, but I remembered seeing signs for it at Hahamongna Park so I figured it must get me there.

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The unexpected end of the Cross Town Trail, with a sign directing foot travelers to the Gould Canyon Trail.

The Gould Canyon Trail was much like the Flint Wash Trail. It also winds around through residences, crossing many streets along the way. It does drop several times into a v-shaped drainage that winds between neighborhoods. This drainage did appear to be a type that likely has fairly high and fast flows for short periods during heavy rains, so this trail may not be a good option during significant rain events as the drainage probably can’t be safely crossed. The trail eventually dumps you out across the street from Hahamongna Park near the spot that used to be Oak Grove Park. From here, I crossed the Arroyo Seco back to where I started.

Link to Garmin info here: https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1599844310

Hawaii: History, Honeycreepers, and the HURT 100 – Part 2

For part 1 of this trip and race report, see here.

Two days before the race, we took a trip to Pearl Harbor to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. While Google Maps did a good job of getting us temporarily lost on Honolulu’s confusing roads, we still arrived early and only had to wait a half hour for our slot to see the Memorial’s movie and take the boat trip to the Memorial itself. I grew up enthralled with my grandfather’s stories from his service on the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens in World War II, but I don’t think such a background is a prerequisite to get emotional and shed a tear during the moving film presented at the Memorial. Likewise, seeing the wreck of the Arizona itself was a nearly overpowering experience, though somewhat sullied by being herded onto the Memorial like cattle and all-too-quickly being herded back off again. I understand that there are a lot of people that need to be efficiently moved through what is basically a small island, but I would have loved to have more time to process what I was seeing.

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The USS Arizona Memorial.

With the start of loop 2 of the HURT 100, I finally got to see the climb that we did in the dark on loop 1. The hogsback is a fairly narrow and very steep ridge that is heavily wooded. Copious roots form uneven steps that seem to climb forever, almost like a real stairway to heaven or, at this point, a stairway to hell if hell were skyward. Indeed, I had my first real difficulties in this section and struggled to pass a barefoot (yes, barefoot) elderly lady who was out for a stroll. A runner passes me heading down, returning to the start/finish, saying he’d had enough on loop 2 and that it wasn’t his day. Stinging sweat poured into my eyes. My heart rate increased significantly. I had to stop several times to let my body settle. As I neared the top, I felt the extra calories and hydration from the start/finish area finally kick in and my condition improved.

Much of the rest of this section between the Nature Center and Paradise Park was uneventful. As before, I opened up my stride in the last couple of miles to Paradise Park. Unlike before, it suddenly felt unrelentingly hot and, of course, very humid. As I entered the station, they asked immediately what I needed.

“I need to get my body temperature down before I climb back out of here.”

Less than five seconds after that request, I had iced towels on my head and my neck as they refilled the water in my running pack. I had a cup of soup and a SPAM/wasabi rice cake. I had a realization that my plan to immediately get in and out of aid stations was not going to work here, as I needed to get my body temperature down before I started climbing back out again. If I didn’t, the climb would destroy me. I stayed there as long as it took to feel like I was no longer red-lining, as the volunteers kept replacing the iced towels on my head and neck. It may have been five minutes. It may have been twenty. I really don’t know. I was certainly cognizant that time was of the essence and got out as soon as I felt manageable.


The day after my race was an important one: it didn’t matter how I felt, I needed to get out and do some kind of activity to get blood flowing in my legs for recovery. It also wasn’t fair to my wife to spend a day in Honolulu just lying around and doing nothing. As she slept in, I walked a half mile to McDonald’s (I am against going to chain restaurants in general while traveling, but my options that morning were limited) and ate a bunch of stuff with eggs and sausage in it. I walked across the street to Starbucks to get a coffee. I returned to find her awake and ready to do something. We headed to Waikiki (not our kind of place because of the crowds) and walked a bit on the beach. We had lunch at Duke’s. I offered to take her hiking to see Manoa Falls and a small part of the HURT course.

“Are you sure you’re up for that?”

“I’ll bring my hiking poles. I’ll be slow, but I’ll manage.”

We got to the parking area for the hike to Manoa Falls right as the last Paradise Park aid station volunteers were leaving with about two hours of daylight left. The opening part of the hike was relatively flat and easy to traverse, though I’m pretty sure my wife could’ve visited the falls and returned to the car three or four times in the amount of time it would take me to do it once with the pace I could manage. As the trail steepened to seemingly endless stairways, I struggled mightily to press onward. The extent and locations of my chafing from the race didn’t help things. My wife was surprised to see me drenched with sweat. Hikers going the other way saw me struggling along on poles and looked at me in a manner that made me think they felt I had a physical handicap. It made me feel uneasy. Finally, we reached the falls.

To be honest, while Manoa Falls is pretty, I’ve seen hundreds of falls that are far more spectacular. While the falls are very tall, the volume of water is relatively small. The area, in a way, reminded me of the Chantry Flats area in the San Gabriel Mountains where I live: beautiful and enjoyable if there were nobody around, but the volume of people (many of whom have no respect for other people or natural resources whatsoever) completely ruins the experience of the place. The base of the falls was like a frat party. There were clear markers and signs telling people not to go to the base of the falls, but there were people climbing past those anyway. There were people playing loud music. There was a girl on the rocks primping her hair and taking a selfie. There was trash everywhere. There was no opportunity to photograph the falls itself without a crowd in the photo.

This was not why we were really here. I wanted my wife to see a “real” trail of the sort that forms much of the race course. I also wanted her to see the giant Banyan trees that were somewhere up the trail, not too far, I think. We climbed over the rocks (in my case, very slowly) to get to the trail and started making our way up. Finally, the trees were in sight. It was nice to stay there for a few minutes and fully appreciate them, as I couldn’t during the race. We went a bit farther up the trail so she could traverse a steeply-angled root section and get some of the “HURT experience”. I stayed and watched. We then slowly made our way back to the car.

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My wife amongst the Banyan trees.

I felt much better heading out of Paradise Park than I did going in. My body temperature was down. My stomach was full. I had a bag of ice strapped to my chest to help keep my core temperature down. My biggest issue was that my legs were starting to tire, a lot, and more than I’d typically expect for being 30 miles into a race. I needed to keep up a decent pace on this loop, and I was starting to struggle with doing so. Near the top of climb the race leader (and eventual winner) Mike Arstein, dressed in a sleeveless Rambo shirt, caught up to me. I was nearing mile 30. He was at mile 50. He slowed a bit as I let him pass.

“Man, this is really hard.” (or, something to that effect).

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve never felt so tired this early in a race before,” was my reply.

We wished each other good luck and he continued on.

When I reached the flatter sections at the top of the ridge I needed to run. I had difficulty doing so. My lower back started to hurt. A lot. I hit the steep drop past Bien’s Bench. On loop 1 I just ran down it even though there is a rope to assist climbing and descending. This time, I decided to back down with the rope, mostly to try to stretch my back out. It helped, for a little while at least.

As I made my way down the steep descent into Nuuanu, I could feel my quads weakening. This was not a result of any deficit in hydration or calories. My stomach was working well all race and I was eating and drinking like a glutton. My head was completely clear (which would not be the case if I was short on calories or water), and I was still positive about being out there. My legs were simply tired and not functioning as they should, and it was a gradual and seemingly inescapable phenomenon. I leaned more and more on my poles for support, and obstacles on the trail seemed to get larger and larger. I arrived at Nuuanu way beyond any reasonable time to meet the time goals I needed to finish the race. It was theoretically recoverable if this were a situation where I was having a bad patch and I had hope of coming out of the bad patch and speeding up my pace, but this seemed like pure physical deterioration that was likely irreversible. Whether it was because of my training level, being sick at the start, or whatever it was, I did not know. I arrived at Nuuanu feeling like finishing the race was likely impossible, but there was no way I was ending my day without finishing the loop. Taking the easy way out was not an option.


Two days after the race, we drove from Honolulu to Punaluu on the northeast side of the island. This cottage rental and location were much more our style than the crowds and chaos of Waikiki. The cottage was on a quiet stretch of beach with reef snorkeling just a few steps outside and rainforest mountain hiking just behind. We slept on a bed in a glassy, airy room that jutted out toward the ocean. It may have been the neatest sleeping experience of any place we’ve traveled to, and we travel a lot.

Our first full day at Punaluu began with a breakfast at a locally-owned restaurant nearby. I had the “special”, comprised of eggs, sticky rice, and SPAM. We then hiked at Ahupuaa O Kahana State Park. My legs felt a bit better (though I still needed poles to get around), and I really hoped to find one of the native Hawaiian honeycreeper species, something that had eluded me so far. We didn’t do much, though, but get lost on the park’s not-so-well-maintained trails and eaten alive by mosquitoes.

I went snorkeling as soon as we returned to the cottage while my wife napped on the beach. The variety of fish was phenomenal, especially around the pockets of living coral. There were small and mid-sized colorful ones. There were single giant fish, some as much as two feet long. A school of large (greater than one foot in length) fish swam by quickly and I wondered if they were being chased. I saw nothing. I swam a ways up the coast along the coral line and I saw a large dark mass appear. I swam closer. I later posted about what happened on Facebook.

“OK… I think I just had the most amazing magical wildlife experience in my life a few minutes ago. I swam about a tenth of a mile up the coast (with a snorkel mask and fins on) with a sea turtle! It let me follow it up the coastline, swimming directly 1-3 feet over it in water that was less than five feet. It then surfaced for air right in front of my face and headed toward deep water. If only I had a camera…”

I will never forget that experience. I will also never forget a friend’s response to my post:

“Turtle on Turtlebook: I just had the most fucked up human experience!… I was swimming along in like 5 feet of water and this human had one of those scary masks and chased me up the coastline!”

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The bedroom of our rental cottage in Punaluu.

I struggled mightily on the climb out of Nuuanu. I felt fine, but my legs just wouldn’t move. I gradually deteriorated to the point I was moving at about an hour per mile pace. I topped out on the ridge at sunset. It was excruciatingly beautiful, and I reminded myself how lucky I was to be here in this moment, despite the self-imposed pain and suffering that had brought me here. As I reentered the forest for the long descent back to the Nature Center it was necessary to turn my headlamp on. As it got darker, I felt a real sense of loneliness as I hobbled along, slowly, struggling to get past the slightest obstacles. As runners passed me, as they do in ultras, not a single one neglected to ask if I was OK and whether I needed anything. My standard reply was that I felt fine, but my legs just couldn’t move me fast. “I’m on a casual night stroll.”

I reached Manoa Cliffs Trail. The numerous signs warn you of the dangerous drop-offs. I took my time, not really able to see much except for the small circle of rocky, muddy, root-laced trail in my headlamp, the rocks to my right, and a black abyss to the left. The tip of my left pole slipped off the edge of the trail and I fell over, slamming my right knee hard on a root, and catching the root with my hands as the left side of my body hangs off the trail. Adrenaline helped pull me back up. I continued to move slowly along.

I ran into another example of ultra-selflessness: A runner that was at least one loop ahead of me and with his pacer was hunched over, puking on the side of the trail. I could hear his retching well before I saw the headlamps. As I approached to where I could see their forms I saw him puke once more. The puker immediately turned around after emptying his stomach and asked me if everything is OK. I gave the standard reply I had been giving, and would have countered but I had to assume he was fine with this pacer there. I have no idea who it was. I hope he finished.

The remaining miles to Nature Center seemed like the longest in my life as I passed the nine hour mark on this loop. I knew it was over. I had previously proclaimed that I would not drop and would have to be pulled from the course, but that was before considering how the race and its cut-off times were structured: Unlike most non-loop hundred mile races where there are aid station cut-offs generally commensurate with whether you can finish the race on time, this loop course did not have any aid station cut-offs until late in the race, which meant you could continue to keep pointlessly abusing yourself long after you had no chance of succeeding. I had no chance of succeeding. Going beyond loop 2 seemed like a pointless exercise in self-abuse. My biggest concern was going to be explaining it to my wife.

I finally reached the start/finish area at Nature Center. It was fairly quiet. There were a few distraught-looking runners in chairs. My wife was there to greet me, dressed in her running clothes and ready to pace me. I told her I was out. We had some back-and-forth about it. I had some with the race director as well, though he didn’t fight too hard as he had to know that finishing when I came in that late would be fairly unprecedented. I got a few calories in me and waddled my way to the car.

Our night ended with me screaming in the shower (the chafing was epic), some frantic searches for a place to get food at that late hour, a drive to Pizza Hut, and a stop for beer. I slept hard.


Our final full day on the island started with a breakfast at Hukilau Cafe. I had more local goodness, but replaced the SPAM with Portuguese sausage. The food was a definite improvement over the previous day.

We visited the Hauula Forest Reserve and hiked the Hauula Loop Trail. There was a lot of climbing and descending but the trail was mostly wide and in excellent condition. My legs had healed a lot by this point and I was able to hike without poles. Slowly. I spent a lot of time looking for birds. Like pretty much everywhere else in Oahu, I was restricted to non-native species. There were no honeycreepers to be found. We enjoyed the hike, though. It got cloudier as the hike went on and it began raining as soon as we returned to the car. It was raining hard when we got back to the cottage, and continued to do so most of the afternoon. This was the first real rain we saw on the entire trip.

We ventured out to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in the afternoon despite the downpour. I was hoping to see a flock of Bristle-thighed Curlews that had been reported there the previous day. The refuge was closed to the public, and we were left to viewing things around the perimeter. My “rarity” was restricted to a flock of Bufflehead (ducks) that I photographed, a species requiring additional documentation in eBird. We went back to the room to relax for the evening, electing to have dinner at the “shrimp truck” across the street from our cottage.

We headed back to Honolulu Airport the next morning, the day before the inauguration (entirely unplanned), for our flight home.

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I first attempted the 100 mile distance in 2013, completing the Zion 100 in 30:32. Since then, I’ve DNF’d the Angeles Crest 100 twice because of stomach issues (quitting once with time on the clock, i.e., not forced off the course), and once at mile 75 because of an injury. Two years ago, I ran the Mohican 100 through mile 55 and ended it there, despite everything going OK, because course conditions were going to make a finish tremendously difficult and I didn’t want to trash myself physically for the Angeles Crest 100 (which I then DNF’d). For the record, I now recognize what I did at Mohican was a mistake and I would never do it again. My point here, however, is that I thought 100 miles was the distance for me after my Zion finish. It’s hard to think that with continued struggles. My future at that distance is unknown. Regardless, I am entered in the Angeles Crest 100 this year and I need the finish.

Training for and completing a race of this distance is incredibly difficult. It is made doubly-so because of the time involved, which conflicts with time spent working, time spent with the family, and time spent doing other recreational things. With my recent career change, I feel it’s made even more difficult. I am well aware that many others succeed in this sport with just as many time constraints. It’s something I need to figure out. Priorities.

As far as HURT is concerned, I began to understand during the post-race awards dinner the concept of community and family with this race, and that I am a part of that by virtue of having run it, despite the fact I didn’t finish it. Indeed, the majority of runners don’t finish it. Many return to try again. Will I? Time will tell.

Hawaii: History, Honeycreepers, and the HURT 100 – Part 1

We look out over the vast Pacific that forms our temporary backyard and watch the sun set as large waves break on the volcanic rock in front of us and Brown Boobies fly northward just offshore. This is our first of ten nights on the island of Oahu. It’s my first time in the state of Hawaii, but not my first time in a state of contemplation as I ponder the reason I am here. I am here, after all, to run the seventeenth edition of the HURT 100 mile trail race. I wonder if I am prepared for as much as 36 hours of rocks, roots, steep climbs and descents, mud, and probable misery that I had volunteered for.

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Sunset on the Waianae coast

My path to this evening on the Waianae coast was an unusual one. HURT is one of the “classic” hundred mile races, known as much for how well the race is operated and its community as for how difficult it is, consisting of five twenty-mile loops with roughly 5,000 feet of gain and a ton of rocks, roots, and mud per loop. While I’ve had so little success at the hundred mile distance past my first race, I’ve still had the goal of running as many of the older races as possible as those races were what drew me to the sport to begin with. I entered the race while on a long-term injury layoff, and was fortunate enough to get selected to run it during their lottery. My wife was somewhat aghast that I had even entered when I couldn’t run at the time, but a trip to Hawaii does much to smooth things over. We ended up building a vacation around this race, with ten total days on the island and the race stuck right in the middle.


My wife and I arrived at the race start at Hawaii Nature Center outside of Honolulu with plenty of time to spare on Saturday morning. Like every race start, there was a lot of nervous energy. A lot of talking. A lot of runners that hadn’t seen each other outside of Facebook in awhile catching up. For whatever reason, I felt no nervousness at all and didn’t feel intimidated by the task at hand. I slept well the previous night, except for waking up with coughing fits. That, in fact, was my only concern: I had some kind of respiratory issue that started on the third day of the Hawaii trip and wasn’t sure how it would affect my day, if at all.

I talked for awhile with some of my friends from the southern California running community. My wife and I then wandered to the bathroom. The line wasn’t too bad. I barely finished when the race director called us over to the start line just inside the forest edge.

“Runners only.”

I kissed my wife and told her I’d see her in 20 miles. At 6am we set off through the dark rainforest.


We planned to spend the early parts of our trip doing our usual active stuff, with a lot of hiking and seeing as much as we can see. We headed a little ways up the road on our first morning to hike to Kaena Point at the westernmost tip of Oahu. The hike was approximately three miles each way, and we had no real expectations out of it. It followed the rocky coastline and featured a number of majestic and wave-battered stone arches. The hike ended in a fenced-off area, intended to keep terrestrial predators away from nesting seabirds. There were several Laysan Albatrosses sitting on their nests. Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals basked in the sun.

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Laysan Albatross on its nest at Kaena Point.

As the race started, I settled in about three quarters of the way from the front of pack. It opened with what is known as a brutal climb (the “Hogsback”), but with fresh legs, nearby runners to chat with, and total darkness with no visibility of the terrain, the climb didn’t seem difficult at all. My lungs seemed to be functioning well, though that may have been the result of using my asthma inhaler before the race. I chatted for awhile with a runner from Kentucky, discussing the difficulty of preparing for a hot and humid race during a cold winter at the northern end of the South. We reached a few spots with some wet rocks to climb. A local runner in our pack pointed out the best path through. About an hour and half into the race, with a lot of climbing already under our belts, we finally started to get some sunlight through the forest canopy. We traversed a ridge where the canopy opened a bit and I was finally able to shut off my headlamp.


Our host in Waianae offered to drive us to a nearby beach on our first afternoon there. It was a beautiful hidden cove with spectacular rock formations. It was also known for its frequent sea turtle sightings. Despite my years of working as a biologist in the tropics, including several visits to Tortuguero, Costa Rica, I’d never seen a sea turtle. It was pretty much a “jinx animal” for me.

We followed a nondescript, narrow, walled path between two houses that opened to the cove. Immediately in front of us were a couple of older folks basking in chairs in the sun. In front of them were three Green Sea Turtles also basking in the sun. I was excited. I was very nearly emotional, as I often am when getting to see spectacular wildlife that I’ve wanted to see for so long for the first time. I snapped a lot of photos and even shot a few videos.

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My first ever Green Sea Turtles.


The descent into Paradise Park Aid Station, about seven miles in, was a long one. There were steep sections with a lot of wet rocks. There were flatter sections with a lot of gnarly roots. As often happens to me when I’m spending more time hiking than running, I started getting pains around both of my knees. We finally reached Manoa Falls, with the last stretch to the aid station being a mostly gradual descent and a wide graveled trail suitable for the throngs of tourists that visit the falls. I was one of several runners that took the opportunity to go all out here. Opening up my stride felt good on my legs and the pain melted away. The aid station had a pirate theme, a lot of cheering supporters, and tons of food. I was in and out quickly, as I planned, and headed back up the trail the way I came.

As it was still early in the race I felt pretty good on the climb. I caught up to a runner I know and hung with her for awhile, just chatting about how the day was going. Conversation makes the miles go by faster and, before I knew it, I was on top of the central ridge in the race. The canopy is open here, and there are excellent views of the coast and the City of Honolulu before dropping steeply down the west slope toward Nuuanu, the second aid station on the route.

The descent to Nuuanu was far steeper and wetter than the descent to Paradise Park. There were short runnable sections, with sudden muddy steep rocky sections, often narrow and with treacherous drop-offs. A bad step here could be problematic. Hands were necessary in many places, and I often struggled with what to do with my hiking poles, which were otherwise useful. The trail flattens into mud and roots at the bottom. There’s a stream crossing with rope support, then the Nuuanu Aid Station.


Day two on the island began with me feeling remarkably tired, far more than I should for a flat six mile hike. My plans to stay physically active went out the window as my legs had to feel well-rested for the race. We decided to take the rental car out and circle the island, just to get the lay of the land.

We opened by heading north toward the famous North Shore. We drove back-and-forth through the area, not really certain exactly where we were going. We eventually settled in on the beach at Banzai Pipeline. I photographed surfers taking on the huge waves. I watched Brown and Masked Boobies make their way over the wave tops through the surfers. Eventually, a Humpback Whale breached behind the surfers. I was fortunate to catch it with my camera as it rose out of the water.

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A Humpback Whale breaches at Banzai Pipeline, Oahu.

I started feeling the first hints of being tired on the steep climb out of Nuuanu. It wasn’t a big deal, as I had traversed some pretty difficult miles by that point and I’m certain many felt the same. I settled in for awhile with another runner that I knew, again chatting about how the day was going and how “crazy” some of the terrain was. We discussed the various ways we trained for it, and how we’d do things differently now that we had seen the course.

We separated on the long descent back to the start/finish at the Nature Center. While I retained a good attitude about the race, I was anxious to get a loop done. I had no idea how much distance I had to go as my GPS, which I was running for the first time in UltraTrac mode, was not measuring the distance correctly. I often thought I was close to seeing my wife again when I still had miles remaining.  I eventually got there, a little over six hours into the race and later than I thought, but feeling pretty good. I elected to sit down for a bit and change my socks as they were soaked and I was feeling hot spots. I also decided to reapply my anti-chafe protection. My clothes were soaked with sweat, and I would’ve loved to change, but couldn’t do that on every loop. I told my wife that had to be the most difficult twenty miles of trail I had ever done, gave her a kiss, and headed back out on loop 2.

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Still feeling good at the end of loop 1, 20 miles in.

Please follow my blog to be alerted when I post part 2 of this report.

The Year That Was, The Year That Will Be

Two days short of one year ago, I wrote a post about my goals for 2016. As often happens, life takes unexpected twists and turns, sometimes rendering goals difficult if not impossible to reach within the time period you planned for. For example, there was no way I could know that I would be out with a knee injury for a significant chunk of the year affecting my running, nor did I originally plan for being an independent biological consultant in October. Regardless, let’s see where I stand relative to my goals, and set some new ones for 2017.

Birding

I wanted to focus on becoming an expert in my “patch”. While I did not spend a significant amount of time in the entirety of my patch, I did go out a lot in Elyria Canyon and Rio de Los Angeles Parks.

  • Elyria Canyon – I pushed the eBird checklist for the park to 101 species, with 12 new species documented for the park in 2016.
  • Rio de Los Angeles – I pushed the eBird checklist for the park to 94 species, with 4 new species documented for the park in 2016.

I also wanted to expand my Los Angeles County and California lists in 2016. While I could have done better, I did fairly well:

  • California – 218 species for the year, with 15 new species added to my state life list in 2016.
  • Los Angeles – 195 species for the year, with 14 new species added to my county life list in 2016.
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This Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in the Los Angeles River on November 14 was a county, state, and all-around life bird.

For 2017, I still want to focus on being “king” of Elyria Canyon. Let’s add a few more goals since my independence as a consultant gives me a bit more time flexibility:

  • Increase my shorebird and gull expertise. These are two difficult groups that I was formerly expert on (before I moved to California and focused on my consulting career). To do this will mean more time reading the relevant resources and heading out to the coast to go birding.
  • Take a few solo birding weekend trips within California. I love traveling with my wife and will, of course, continue to do so, but solo trips where I can just spend all my time birding are a lot of fun.
  • Take a May trip to the Lake Erie shore. I really miss the grand spectacle of the warbler fallouts during migration. I need to see it again.
  • Complete the eBird checklist-a-day challenge.

Running

I wanted to get my weight down this year, and I did that with my average weight hovering around 10 pounds lower than a year ago. Beyond that, I haven’t done much. I ran one significant race all year (setting a 50 mile PR) and got injured later, pretty much ruining 2016 for running races. Let’s set some moderate goals for 2017:

  • Finish the HURT 100 next month. On January 9, my wife and I will be flying to Hawaii to take a vacation and so that I can run the HURT 100. While I feel pretty well-prepared, the DNF rate for that race is ridiculously high, and I am currently sick in what is an important training week and can not run. I will do what I can, though.
  • If I don’t finish the HURT 100, run a 50-mile race somewhere to qualify for the Angeles Crest 100.
  • Finish the Angeles Crest in August.
  • Don’t get injured again.

Art

Let’s look at how I did with the goals I announced at the time for art:

  • Complete pen-and-ink works of every major species group: I completed representative pen-and-ink works of everything except a mammal. I started a Bobcat, then decided I didn’t like how the piece looked and gave up on it. I then got distracted by my unplanned forays into digital vector art.
  • Complete more graphite pencil work: that’s a negative. In fact, I did zero. The main reason I wanted to do that, however, was to complete more work, and I found other outlets for that.
  • Begin working more in color: I have, through digital color of pen-and-ink originals, and new stuff I’m doing in vector art.
  • Begin marketing myself more fully and get my first illustration contract: I did not succeed in the latter. In the former, I have established wildlife.graphics and am represented on Society6. I am selling work on both sites.
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This piece featuring Keel-billed Toucans is one of my newer vector pieces available in my store.

So, let’s set some goals for 2017:

  • Establish a more consistent style for non-technical work. In other words, I can do ultra-realism in pen-and-ink just fine. That is established. With the new world of vector art open to me, I want to establish a style that I’m excited about and I don’t feel it needs to be realism. I’m happy with the toucan piece above, but I’m not sure how that style will translate to other wildlife species. I also struggle with my inherent urge to keep adding detail, when the real goal of what I did with the piece above is “less is more”. In the example above, every component except for the background started as a square, with the minimal amount of new vertices and curves added to get that animal part look like what it was supposed to represent. I really like the look and was excited about it. Does that translate to mountain lions, warblers, or hummingbirds? Do I want to stick with the vector shading? I’m not sure until I get into it.
  • More maps. I’ve always thought of maps as art. I have my first one up for sale, and would like to do more topical ones this year.
  • Get my art published somewhere. At least once.

Photography

My only stated goal was to get better (read: digital SLR) camera equipment. While that may someday happen, I’ve gone away from that as it is not affordable for me at the moment, and the equipment isn’t practical for what I’m doing when I shoot wildlife and other nature scenes because of how bulky it is. I broke my Canon camera in the field this year and replaced it with another superzoom, this time the newest Nikon. Perhaps it’s an improvement on this goal that I have several hundred photos on stock sites and make sales on a regular basis.

I have no real goals here for 2017, other than to get more pictures up on stock as greater volume = greater sales. Doing that will be pretty straightforward as I take a lot of pics when I am out in the field, and I now have a system for efficiently managing stock submissions.

Writing

I had hoped to publish at least one peer-reviewed paper and one popular article. I have done neither as writing has not been my priority (I do a lot of it in consulting work). I do have many articles started, however, and should get something done this year. That is my only real goal.

Ecotourism

I had hoped to have a birding tour finalized and marketed. I had also hoped to represent a lodge somewhere for birding activities. I have done neither, but I am now officially involved with Friends for Conservation and Development in Belize which has an ecotourism component. I’ve also set up a birding tours section on my website. Let’s add a goal or two for 2017:

  • Spend a week at Las Cuevas Research Station in Belize.
  • Get a tour organized and available for sale.

Consulting

I had established a few goals last year, but I will choose to ignore them as I didn’t foresee being independent by end of the year. In fact, I won’t set any for this year, other than to stay busy and enjoy my work, hopefully filling out my schedule with projects that are great to work on.

Land Use Changes in the Antelope Valley

[Featured image: A Northern Harrier flies over a solar farm outside of Bakersfield, California in May 2016]

Google Earth’s time feature allows you to easily take a look at how land use changes over time. I produced this video, without commentary, showing land use changes in the western Antelope Valley from 1985 – 2016.

A Rare Asian Visitor

[Featured image: A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, photographed by the author in the Los Angeles River just south of the Willow Street bridge on November 14, 2016. Behind it and to the left is a Black-necked Stilt. In the front are American Coots.]

I got my first new life bird in quite awhile today: a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, which was discovered in the Los Angeles River in the vicinity of the Willow Street bridge on November 11, 2016. The bird has remained for several days in the same general location, and I decided to head over there myself after the first verification of its presence today was made online. Finding the bird myself was easy, as such a rare bird drew a large number of birders to the location. I didn’t have to search the large shorebird flocks that were present, as another birder who was already watching it offered to point my spotting scope to the bird. I shot 50 or so photos, which were distant but clear. It was noted by another authoritative observer that this is probably the first well-documented occurrence of this species in Los Angeles County in 34 years. The species  normally breeds in northeast Asia and winters in southeast Asia and Australasia.

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The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was located on one of the small “islands” on the right side of the photo. Thousands of other birds were also present, including a living “island” comprised of several hundred dowitchers, visible to the left. Numerous waterfowl and other shorebirds were scattered throughout.

Want to learn more about shorebirds?

I recommend these books, available on Amazon.

         

Disclaimer: Marcus C. England is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.