Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Week 5: Southbound Baby/With a Little Help from My Friends

Y’all I’ve been moving. I’m writing from California after a seven day, 160 mile marathon. I’m trying to revert my mind to a time when the sun was just a three letter rumor that I vaguely remembered from another time and place.

As of Week 5, I’ve been out of a car for a month! It’s a strange feeling, being surrounded by cars around the clock but refraining from entering them. I suppose it’s only just retribution that I am subjected to constant inhalation of their exhaust fumes, having driven over 100,000 miles without really being the subject of any consequences of this mileage. I honestly can’t even think of a time that I stayed out of a fuel-powered vehicle for even a week. It is amazing that we have come to develop such a dependence upon something that did not even exist on a large scale just 100 years ago. This principle of my adventure has become so important to me that I’ve come to the point of having nightmares about accepting rides. As if I’d let my guard down in some casual situation and realize that I had tarnished my most sacred commitment just minutes into an insignificant Uber ride. Ha! Yeah right... Fat chance I’d ditch the one-wheeled life for that.

In other news (pun intended), my undertaking made the Augusta Chronicle! I owe a huge shoutout to staff-writer Miguel Legoas, who investigated all facets of this Big Year to produce a very well-rounded and well-written article. He interviewed my Dad and one of my WarmShowers hosts as well, and the result is a great combination of perspectives.



Couldn’t have ditched that motel sooner. After a Pig n’ Pancake breakfast, I took to the road and headed for Lincoln Beach. The ride was quick and easy. Aside from rainy conditions and a minor headwind, I had no troubles.

I was at my Warmshowers stay by lunch. After meeting, Tricia and George walked me down to the hotel restaurant by the house and treated me to lunch. From there, I made my way on foot to Boiler Bay to take advantage of the remaining “daylight” in the afternoon. I was drenched by persistent rain by the time I made it, but it paid off. Horned and Eared Grebes were quick year birds. The crowned jewel were the Ancient Murrelets that were visible with binoculars in the bay. The third bird that I happened to check turned out to be one of these unusual critters. Between bins and the scope, I had wonderful lifer looks at the goofy little guys. I could clearly see the pale bill and breeding ear tufts, key field marks. It would be my first ever Alcid. I watched as one flew in and transitioned straight into a dive. These birds behave so weird; they’re truly from another world. Floating on the water’s surface, they look like insects that met their unfortunate demise in a pool: trapped to the water by the force of adhesion, uncomfortably out of their element. It seems ironic that their life is the water. And watching them dive was hilarious. They basically flop to propel themselves below the surface in a graceless and awkward act. But they’re cute little guys, and they’re hard not to like.

Deciding against pushing onwards in the poor weather to Depoe Bay, I set my sights back on Lincoln Beach. The evening spontaneously cleared up, and I took in some impressive overlooks.

Once back at the house, I shared a meal with my hosts and learned all about their massive bicycle tour back in the 70’s. Back then, they didn’t even bother to wear helmets! Can you believe that?


A stunningly beautiful day. It was one of those mornings that you walk out and the Rascals just start to sing about this beautiful morning in your head. I had a pretty early start from Tricia and George’s and made it back to Boiler Bay in no time. Conditions were ripe for scanning. The light was from the rear, the atmosphere was clear, and the birds were out. Mighty breakers collapsed upon themselves, shattering against the crushing weight of air-assisted gravity, their frustrations epitomized by thunderclaps that cut to the core. And amid this chaos were birds, sprinkled like pepper grains in a washer machine. They thrived on the riches below and begged to be investigated by the patient observer.

Gulls coursed casually over the fellow members of their class, celebrating their place along the shoreline and away from the hostile and uncaring sea. I surveyed the scene with a similar sentiment. At this distance, the Pacific’s ferocity registered as less of a threat than a spectacle.

The most notable addition from this visit was a pair of Pigeon Guillemots, a fairly benignly-colored, yet distinctive, seabird. Up until yesterday, I had never seen an Alcid in my 22 years. And now I’ve seen two species in two days!

I lingered on, pushing two hours of stay. There was just so much to sift through, and the conditions were amazing. I felt like I hadn’t totally covered the area. But as the morning wore on, more visitors arrived, prompting more questions about my undertaking. Soon I was doing more of a Q&A than birding.

So, at the next opportune moment, I mounted up and headed to Depoe Bay, hopefully to get some food and a shot at Rock Sandpiper. After descending the hill, I was there. I walked along the shore, scanning the rocks for a shorebird flock. The area was crowded and not conducive to my needs. I could’t see anywhere to eat where I could keep an eye on my unicycle. I felt like I was behind schedule. I walked right past the sea spouts and the vehicle tourists and decided to ride out of town.

My OCD was kicking into overdrive, and I was getting scattered. I began to sweat as my mounting attempts failed repeatedly between bouts of traffic. Food, scheduling, crowds, it was all working against my psyche.

Eventually I took off my jacket and rode with the intent of sorting out this bird’s nest in my head, keen on finding food.

I made it to Otter Crest Loop, a detour from 101, but had to start walking after the road turned to one lane. The grade was steep, but the effort produced incredible views. A Peregrine Falcon, the connoisseur nature’s most impressive vantages, made his place up top.

From there it was down the hill for smooth riding to Newport. As I departed 101 and entered town, I passed by a skatepark and got a funny salute from its patrons. Finally I stopped at an Irish pub and chowed down on a burger.

But the real attraction to Newport was waiting for me on the other side of the river: local specialties and a local with some know-how. That local was Steve Holzman, a dedicated birder and member of the Georgia birding community. Steve rapidly put me on two life birds in the smorgasbord of birdlife at the south jetty. One was a Western Grebe imposter: a Clark’s Grebe disguised among his more prevalent brethren. With the Clark’s in the bag, Least Grebe is the only remaining regularly occurring Grebe that I expect to get this year. The other lifer was a continuing stakeout immature Glaucous Gull, and the looks at this guy were ideal. Steve pointed out key characteristics as we picked through the regular gull flock at close range. With two life birds in five minutes, Mr. Holzman was setting a high standard for himself.

Following an failed attempt at rustling up a Wrentit in the fading light, we headed for the Holzman residence, Steve in his vehicle with my gear, and me trailing behind on the uni.

We arrived to a very artsy house, complete with spinning mosaicked disco balls that were attached to the ceiling. There I greeted Steve’s wife Rachel, another skilled birder and member of the Georgia birding group. I had first encountered the two five years prior at a stakeout Harris’s Sparrow in Columbia County, and it had been since then that I had seen them.

We enjoyed a wonderful pasta dinner as we filled in the gaps.


It was the last day of January, and it would not be wasted. I got up when I got up. Steve had already headed to work, leaving Rachel and me to enjoy the feeder show. Rachel tossed out some peanuts to incite a feeding frenzy of Stellar’s Jays, Pine Siskins, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Good luck finding better breakfast entertainment on TV.

Then I mounted up and rode to the USFWS office to meet Steve. Rachel followed directly in an unsuccessful search for a Nashville Warbler that the two had seen days prior. Rachel did point out an American Goldfinch, a year bird and “easy tick” in her words.

From there, I crossed the bridge to take care of some errands: a post office package pickup from home and a visit to the Newport bike shop. The guys at the bike shop fixed me up good, gifting me a portable bike pump and bleeding the brake to return it to working condition.

Over lunch, Steve and I talked strategy as he presented my most likely year pickups, according to a spreadsheet that he generated from eBird sightings and my year list. Steve’s technological contribution to the Big Year would play a large part in the success that’d I’d experience in Newport.

Following Steve’s recommendation, I checked out the Sea Lion haul-out by the river for close-up looks at these hilarious beasts. The scene can be summed up by a conversation that I overheard between a mother and daughter. The daughter exclaimed that the Sea Lions looked lazy. To this, the mother replied, “They are lazy.”

Now, with my business in Newport complete, I crossed the bridge for the last time. Steve and I met at the jetty again for Groundhog Day: a hopeful repeat of yesterday’s route. Our follow-up efforts were rewarded with a Herring Gull sighting, another new one for the year.

Back at the house, the three of us enjoyed tasty turkey burgers and fixins while watching Jason Ward’s Birds of North America and Documentary Now’s Blue Jean Committee.


Rachel and Steve were truly the perfect hosts. Not only did they look after my basic needs, they took my year list seriously and wanted to do all that they could to boost it. And they worked around my transportation limitations seamlessly, developing a game plan that checked all the boxes. January brought me 123 species, and if Steve and Rachel had anything to say about it, February would bring more.

So the plan was to hit Beaver Creek State Park. I would ride light, and the Holzman’s would be my support vehicle for the time being. In our sweeping coverage of the area, the three of us managed to locate three species that were new on the year for me: Mourning Dove, Barn Swallow, and Virginia Rail. The Rail was the real draw, and the views were BBC quality-a rare thing for this skulking denizen of temperate wetlands.

Photo by Steve Holzman 

My fantastic run with the Holzman’s would end on this high note. Their efforts revitalized my status, from my diet to my list to my gear (I was heading onwards with a sturdy dry bag!). Thank you for everything Rachel and Steve! You have no idea how good it felt to bird as part of a group again!

Instantly I was a lone wolf again, or so I thought. While recalibrating my balance and relearning the mounting process on the weighed-down uni, a car passed by, and from this passing vehicle came an exclamation: “JP!” Out stepped two unfamiliar faces onto this backroad, and I was a bit confused. But the suspense keeled over and died when the two introduced themselves as Walt and Rebecca Cheek, my birder hosts for the night. How is it that my hosts always get the jump on me!?

My new friends were glad to lighten the load so that I could ride on to Seal Rock a bit easier. I would rendezvous with them at their place later in the evening, but only after trying once more for Rock Sandpiper at a historical location. My hopes were also up for shots at Black-legged Kittiwake after hearing that the Cheeks had seen them a few days before.

Despite clamoring all over those confounded rocks at Seal Rock and frequently scanning to sea, my targets were not acquired. So I sat up on the guardrail and snacked, casually scanning the surf for odd gulls. But the odd gull had been right under my nose the whole time. While scanning the roosting gulls below, I realized that there were two California Gulls beneath me, my fourth year bird for the day!

On that note, I headed to my host’s residence, where I was put up in a guest cottage stocked with snacks for late-night cravings.

Over a rich seafood chowder dinner, Rebecca, Walt, and I talked birds, Peru, and the South (the three of us having all originated there).


It was a crisp north Georgia mountain day. From Rebecca and Walt’s kitchen, a Caribbean-like view of the yard and commanding Pacific lay before us like an ultra-vivid film hybridizing the two distinct landscapes. Rebecca and I could not resist becoming part of the equation, so we headed out for a quick bird check in the yard. Our route culminated at their hummingbird feeder setup. The liquified energy frenzied hordes of Anna’s Hummingbirds. The activity of their complicated and rapid maneuvers would have driven a Hartsfield-Jackson air traffic controller into a state of panic. I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like their hummers. Rebecca confessed to having to supply liters of sugar water a day to these thirsty little buggers (without any dyes of course)!

Soon I was down on the road, intending to ride off picturesquely down the highway as Rebecca and Walt spectated. It ended up being quite the letdown. After multiple failed attempts, I was forced to walk a ways down the road to take advantage of a negative road angle. You’d think by now that I would have learned to arrange the perfect factors for a successful exodus, but I guess I’m just a wishful thinker. To Walt and Rebecca, I owe you two more than just a mounting demo! Thank you for having me!

I was so determined not to have to mount again that I just rode all the way to Yachats. En route, I rode over the Alsea River, on a bridge very conducive to riding. With wide shoulders and sidewalks, I christen this bridge “the People’s Bridge.” The Alsea entered the Pacific with a bit of timidity, an attitude reflected in the complexity and sinuosity of the estuary. Unlike the mouths of most other rivers that I pass by, this one was jetty-free, and it showed. Sediment sculpted the river’s last bit of channel into a maze of fans and sandbars. I caught a glimpse of the Harbor Seals basking below.

Yachats soon arrived into a view. Proclaimed as “the Gem of the Oregon Coast,” it inspired high expectations. I have to admit that the scene was pretty nice, though it was no Astoria. The weather was spectacular that evening, so I walked along the coastline. Meanwhile the Chiefs etched their name into history.


A rest day for this traveller. I did do a little bird walk to try for Rock Sandpiper, but I just turned up its entourage of usual suspects (Black Turnstone, Surfbird) as they scoured the rocks like a cleanup crew following a music festival.

Since I didn’t do much to write about, here are a few thoughts from the road of late:

The road is impersonal. I like that. I like its anonymity, its coldness, and its objectivity.  The only expectations related to the road are self-imposed. It doesn’t keep tabs, and it’s not superficial. The road is a means, nothing more. It may be tough, but its hurdles are meant to be overcome.

Another feature of life on the road is observing license plates. It’s a solid form of entertainment, and I don’t have to divert my eyes very far from the surface of the road to see what state these people are repping. One nefarious figure continues to provide a grimace when I see his visage on these metal identifiers: Smoky Bear. This loser sure does have a strong presence here. Oregonians totally object to burning woods but apparently not burning weed... I guess I should have come prepared with some Burner Bob stickers to slap in visible locations.


The road called. During my now familiar packing session, two young guns drummed up a conversation with me. Their names were Nicole and Bryce, and they were staying in the same hostel. I was surprised by their curiosity about my trip and their friendliness in general. Since I’ve been underway, I haven’t really interacted with many people in my generation.

The two were on a six-week ski tour as a celebration for finishing their masters and rightfully so! That’s no small achievement. Speaking of achievements, Bryce has been the only King Arthur to successfully ride the Battlestar. Very impressive! Although everybody that I encounter seems to have some sort of personal connection to unicycling, Bryce has been the only individual to actually put his money where his mouth is.

Bryce and Nicole, if you happen to be reading, congratulations being masters, and thanks for being the friendly and cool people that you are!

Soon I was southbound in the clean and crisp air, heading straight into the climb at Cape Perpetua. Traffic was light, and I stuck with it, tackling the mountain and feeling pretty proud of it.

I was starting to notice a transition along the Oregon coast. This southern half was characterized by less traffic, fewer tourist attractions, and less civilization in general. At some point I entered Lane County and found myself walking through a tunnel that was under construction (or reconstruction).

I continued on foot to the Sea Lion Caves, a definite tourist attraction in the aforementioned dearth of tourist traps. I enjoyed the wailing and barking of these celebrities while others handed over a few greenbacks to get a closer look. The ocean stood in stark contrast to the cacophony of these irritable mammals, appearing as placid as a pool on this stunning day. Nicole and Bryce caught me off-guard as they passed me by.

Shortly thereafter, I was riding the downslope down to Florence. Florence was soon to see its machine. The city of Florence and its immense dune system stretched out before me, providing a view that recalled a descent in an airplane. I soon realized that I was not in an aircraft when two countersinging Wrentits registered on my auditory radar. I couldn’t miss these Field Sparrow-like vocalizations after listening to it time after time again as Steve and I tried for them in the Newport dunes.

I stopped to see if one of these holdouts would show. It was another species to receive the rare designation of being a year bird that I actually got from the unicycle. Once one appeared, I was stunned by how rufous the plumage was. This didn’t seem like the grayish Wrentit that I had last seen in SoCal in 2015. This guy seemed more deserving of the name Ferruginous Wrentit. As I watched it fly floppily across the highway, I realized why the Columbia River was a barrier to their dispersal. Wrentits do not occur north of the Columbia, apparently bound by the fear of such expansive open water. That river crossing gave me hell too, little buddy.

Back at sea level in Florence, I felt as though I’d entered the familiar realm of the Florida scrub. Rolling dunes with exposed sand and lichen patchwork were capped with a monoculture of Shore Pines. In Florida, they’d be Sand Pines, but the visual effect was the same. Check out this satellite image of the sweeping dunes around Florence:

No doubt I was entering a new phase of my Oregon trip.


Rain again. Today would bring a 3.5 mile relocation south to Honeyman State Park, one of the few landmarks that I had actually scheduled to see before coming out to the Pacific Coast. The plan was to baptize my uni here in the waters of the great Pacific in a nod to Jedidiah and Weston of to Shake the Sleeping Self. Their epic trans-hemispherical bike trip began at this location. I wasn’t going to let it pass by unnoticed; homage is due to pedal-and-wheel powered globetrotters like these.

Arriving at noon, I ditched my stuff in a damp yurt before striking out across the impressive dune system that lay just beyond the trees of the campground. I was grateful in a roundabout way for the comparable discomfort of the yurts. I had no interest in seeking shelter from the rain in that musty hut.

So I took to the dunes with the uni, intending to cover the 2 miles to reach the ocean’s realm.

Upon arriving at the proper dunes, I was awestruck. It was like looking at Tatooine. The environment was so harsh and shifting that even the European Dunegrass, the champion of domination, couldn’t keep hold. ATV tracks dotted the expanse, and I was grateful to have the whole view to myself and to be spared of the whining of four-stroke engines.

Crossing these dunes reminded me of the meditation tapes that my mom used to watch. Except it wasn’t tranquil, sunny, or warm out. Just gusty and bleak.

I was gunning for the road access to the beach, but I quickly became lost in the labyrinth of flooded ATV trails jut behind the foredunes. With the sound of the waves and Google Maps as my guide, I wiggled my way out to the beach.

The figure of a lone shorebird at the water’s edge immediately became apparent. I dismissed it as a Sanderling before the bird’s erratic run-stop-wait-ambush pattern of foraging suggested otherwise. It was a Snowy Plover!

It would be the only witness to the baptism ceremony.

Despite having lost the key to the yurt in the dunes, the park host did not chastise me. In fact, he brought me some hot lasagna for dinner. Many thanks to you Brian! What a way to end the week!


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  2. Keep on truckin, JP. As usual, your updates are great reads and thought provoking. I am sure I am not alone in saying that I wish I had the guts and wherewithall to have done something like this when I was your age. Maybe when I retire... Dr. C.

    1. Dr. C, it is so great to hear from you and to know that you are keeping up with the travels! I had no idea how amazing cycle touring was and have a whole new appreciation for this new way of life. There was a student at orientation my first year that brought you up and said that you were always cruising around campus on a road bike. Now you’ve got something to scheme up!

  3. Love reading about your adventures, JP!

  4. Getting to follow you along on your trip through your writing is such a gift! Your insights into your personal growth are priceless. Xxoo

    1. Thank you Mrs. Murray! I am glad that the writings hit home. It is a growth process, that’s for damn sure. I’ll do my best to keep y’all in the loop!