Thursday, December 29, 2011

Malibu Coastline

Malibu Coast
Western Grebe, Eared Grebe, Red-throated Loon, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Red-breasted Merganser.
Total: 6
Another trip to the beach laid ahead....

I was very keen to find some of the common shorebirds. Willet and Marbled Godwit were high on my list, and Western Grebe appeared to be very likely seeing the time of year. A Red-necked Grebe had also been seen far up the coast, but I had already seen this bird in Canada (it is a vagrant in California) so I wasn't too bothered.

I was a little reluctant to check the beach as we drove past because I would have no chance of getting photos due to the nature of houses and bushes inbetween glimpses of the sand. At one point I saw a flock of Sanderlings and a larger bird which could have well been a Willet. After that point I stopped checking the beaches!

Once we parked up I started to notice an almighty scattering of black dots far out to see. Of course, they were birds, but they were very far out, and this is one occasion where extra zoom is really needed! There was definately some Western Grebes out there, and I had high hopes for Clark's Grebe too though it was a needle in a hundred haystacks to try and pick out this bird from a flock of its close cousins even if it was close up! The fact they were all in non-breeding plumage would have made it much harder. Clarks' supposedly makes up about 8-10% of the white-necked sea grebes (of which Western is the only other member)  and seeing the amount of grebes surely there was atleast one. This other grebe is virtually identical to the Western save extra white feathers on its face and a slightly brighter bill; in winter they are even duller.
I can't even be 100% sure there isn't a Clark's here! Note: this is a crop of an image.

I could also see some Scoters, which are a group of marine ducks, all black. I'm certain that I saw a male Black Scoter in there at some point but it's a difficult call at such a distance with this image. I have put these up for debate on Birdforum.
A pair of Whimbrels were the first sign of shorebirds I encountered on the beach itself. They are a typical beach bird in California along with the Willet and Godwit. I would have rather seen the other birds, but the Whimbrels here are a different subspecies so I can't really complain, especially as there is a hint about the European and American (Hudsonian) subspecies being split into seperate species.

Offshore was a little grebe. I was hoping that it was not a Pied-billed and it just happened that it wasn't. It was a dark-hooded grebe. There are two different dark-hooded grebes, one of which (Eared) I had yet to see. The extent of darkness on their heads as well the head shape is the primary means of telling them apart in their boring and dull (but unique) winter plumage. This bird had almost zero white which could only mean it was an Eared Grebe. After doing some research I have learned that the other dark-hooded grebe (the Horned) is a very uncommon bird here, so it wasn't that surprising that it was an Eared, but its abundance meant little as I was simply glad to finally catch this long-awaited bird. Unfortunately it is impossible to see its blood red eye in my images. It was heavily backlit.

I don't know if this blog will let you zoom in that much when you open it,
so apologies if it just looks like a dark blob!
Up the coast was another USO (Unidentified Swimming Object). USO's are always fun because they can be a number of different birds (Cormorants, Grebes, Loons & Mergansers), all of which are the same basic shape, all of which dive underwater and all can be found in the same place. This one happened to be a Loon, and lo behold it happened to be the only loon I haven't seen, which was the Red-throated. Yes, that crimson throat is probably pictured brightly in your mind but this bird's boring winter plumage (there's a common theme here...) does not match that expectation.

Further up the beach with more Sanderlings were some Black-bellied Plovers. These birds are quite attractive with black underparts and silver backs. In the summer at least. In their boring winter plumage their warm splendour becomes diluted with the cold. But their winter plumage is not exactly something to ignore.

A black and white pattern over the sea caught my eye and it came from a shorebird. Only one shorebird has such extravagant colouring on its wings, and that is the Willet. On the ground the Butterfly-wing is just a typical sandpiper, but when it takes off it is much more spruced up.

Is it a bird? Is it a butterfly?...Yeah its a bird.

Perfect focus don't happen very often....This image is
not cropped at all.

The Willet is one of the few shorebirds that doesn't
change plumage at any time of the year.

"Hudsonian" Whimbrel
There were more shorebirds to be seen along the beach. At first I doubted there would be any shorebirds because of the presence of people on the beach, but there were, and they were tame to boot. They could tolerate approach within 3 or so metres, but any closer and they were off. 

Other Black-bellied Plovers and Whimbrels as well as other Willets and Sanderlings made up most of the shorebird population, but I was glad to see some slightly orange-tinted birds up ahead. I thought at first they might have just been more Whimbrels but they were in fact Marbled Godwits. Take a fat Whimbrel and straighten its bill and you will have a Godwit. The Marbled is the largest Godwit of the 4 that are known to occur, and it is one of the American Godwits, the other being the Hudsonian. The 4 Godwits are seperated into pairs (or at least I like to think that). The Marbled and Hudsonian are more or less the "American" equivalent of the Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits in Europe and Asia. This is my second Godwit; my first was a flock of breeding Bar-tailed in England a while ago. I also have memories of seeing Black-tailed on an RSPB trip but the memory is hazy, and either way I have no photos of the encounter!



3cy Ring-billed Gull
The typical 3 gulls were present, that is the Western, Heerman's and California, as well as a couple of Ring-billed Gulls which are solely winter visitors to these parts. 2 of those 3 were adults too (3rd calendar year birds), which meant they actually showed features that seperated them from the typical brown immature gulls. I always thought of the Ring-billed as the typical American gull, and it is in most of North America, but here on the Pacific coast it isn't so common.

I started to turn back here, but I was stalled by a black and white flash. It was unmistakably a little gull, but which gull was left for debate until I could get a better look. I was absolutely hoping for a Black-legged Kittiwake which is a common, mostly pelagic winter bird that occasionally flies along the coastline, but in the end it was simply a juvenile Bonaparte's Gull.

They are very pale but I didn't realize juveniles were
completely white under the wings.

Marbled Godwit a little closer than before.

Another USO made an appearance just as the journey was about to end. The silhouette was unmistakably a Merganser, and on the sea a Red-breasted Merganser was the only like option. Just to make sure it wasn't a Common Merganser I positioned myself on its sunny side so I could check the neck colouring, and the test came out positive. This was yet another bird I had been after for a long time. 
Apparently when flying horizontally the Red-breasted Merganser is one of the world's fastest birds. Ducks are surprisingly fast flyers, and they do sometimes set off speed cameras when they pass over the road, but I certainly didn't think they would set this kind of record.

The pair of Eared Grebes were in their original position and I took the time to improve my shots. I then realized that the other bird was infact a Horned Grebe, which meant both birds must co-exist here. This birds plumage completely lacked the crimson and black feathers as well as the golden ear tufts on the birds I had seen in Canada, but of course that was because of their (boring) winter plumage.

I made some further attempts at trying to identify birds in the offshore flocks, and this post may be updated in the future.

For a casual beach trip this was exceptional. With the two Grebes, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Red-throated Loon, Red-breasted Merganser and the possibility of a Scoter that has pushed my bird list over 500, and I wasn't expecting to get this milestone until next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Oak Canyon Community Park Yesterday and Today

Oak Canyon Community Park

Total: 1

This park still had quite an appeal and I wasn't surprised because it had quite a range of habitats that spread out over a large region. In fact the question was not whether the place had the birds; it was finding them. While it is true that the larger the habitat the more birds, it isn't an equal equation. In such places the birds scatter themselves and it takes more time and luck to locate a "good" count.

The duck pond still continued to live up to its name, though it did seem that there were less Mallards than normal. What was more surprising was the Ring-necked ducks literally pecking around my feet at crumbs. About a month ago when I saw my first Ring-necks here they were very skittish and did not have a wide radius of tolerance for people. If the food (provided by the local people) was enough then surely they would return as a regular visitor to this spot, and I don't think it would be at all farfetched to consider that they may become a late winterer and stay into spring outside the typical stay of this species in Los Angeles.

A flash of white; whatever could it be?
However I was more interested in the flash of white at the back of a pond. I didn't need the camera or any pair of binoculars, because a male Hooded Merganser in its peak plumage leaves no doubt. They are a very uncommon bird and a consistent delight to lay eyes upon. Their "role" had been reversed somewhat; in Canada they were a summer duck, but here they were strictly a winter passage.

Jasper NP, Alberta. November '09

I had only seen this bird twice before; once in a waterfowl collection in England and my first "tick" in Alberta, where my parents stopped off the side of the road so I could look through the massive flocks of ducks on one such large lake in the Rockies, and I ended up being rewarded with speck-sized glimpses of the males white hood that were only just identifiable (and when you are discussing the identifiable-ness of the world's most distinctive duck it certainly means something!) through full zoom, in only one of the photos I took.

Beady yellow eyes....

This sighting was not distant at all. But it was skittish, and even more so than the Ring-necks. As soon as I started to make my way around the lake it had its beady yellow eyes on me. Fortunately for me the middle of the lake was considerably thinner and the bird was forced to traverse this narrow stretch to "escape", giving me good looks of its plumage. They say birds that flee have had bad encounters with humans in the past, but I can't imagine that this bird would have seen many people (let alone hunters) though perhaps its ancestors have, and passed those memories down the line. The duck was pretty confused when it was nearly a metre away and was frantically turning backwards and forwards trying to get as far away as it could until it eventually took off to the back of the pond. Surely someone must have pointed a gun at it, because it was possibly one of the most anxious birds I have encountered.

This way.
No this way!



Meanwhile in the background was a young Green Heron which didn't move an inch for the fifteen minutes I was around.

Oh, he's definately there.
Down near the creek area I located a Hermit Thrush in the same spot I found my first, but if it was the same bird as before I could not tell. This meeting was quite different because the leaves were pretty much completely absent. It tried very hard to hide and skulk but its lack of cover gave it away constantly, and while the first time I walked into the area it was difficult to locate once I got sight of it it was hard to miss until it flitted off between the trees.

Up at the other region of the park was nothing extraordinary, but there were more Hermit Thrushes just beyond the road that led down a ramp and across the creek into the dog park area. And there was quite a lot of them. In the end I believe there was about 4 - 6 birds. In one area many birds flocked together (which I found odd as I never pictured the Hermit Thrush as a sociable bird) and were gleaning red berries, much like my memory of Song/Mistle Thrushes back in the U.K., but they still were persistent in being ubiquitous and only made brief appearances, most of which consisted of the below category:

Compared to the single bird before this was quite something for me. I guess they were common after all.

There was nothing else worth mentioning, but on Boxing  Day (today) a lust for getting fresh air returned me to this spot.

On the duck pond side of things, the Hooded Merganser was not present, and there went the thought of it staying the rest of the winter.

Up at the other side, a familiar but unnameable (I always forget this one!) twanging call showed me the presence of a male Common Yellowthroat a few metres ahead foraging in the leaf little...and entirely in the open! You may or may not know, but this dense cover specialist rarely flashes more than a trace of its yellow chest as it mysteriously poofs into thin air. This was by far my best sighting of this bird, far excelling shadow-dappled figures I had managed to photograph in the past, and guess what. The pictures were focused. Nothing else to ask other than a better background....

Unfortunately the meeting was short when a Ranger's truck happened to drive very close to our position. The bird disappeared entirely after that.

I was *this* close to getting a shot of this bird in the sun....
It was the camera shutter that made it flip.
Ahead the Hermit Thrushes persisted in the same spot.

Nothing else was worth mentioning, but a dry rattling trill did catch my attention. I heard it in various places in the stay, but only in one place at a time; assumably it was a single bird. It sounded woodpeckery (could have easily been a Ladder-back or a Sapsucker) but I could have easily imagined it coming from a Yellowthroat. I managed to trail the source into an especially thick clump of shrubs and when I got into a place where I could see it the bird flushed into the wilderness. I still don't know what it was, but I will we scouring Xeno Canto tonight to see if I can put a name to it.

A party of White-crowned Sparrows numbered in the twenties and I did my best to check for other sparrows before they all vanished into the undergrowth but I didn't see anything strange.

The subtle presence of a Red-shouldered Hawk was perched on a very low branch just over my head. It took me a while to notice it, even though I was in the immediate area for a while.
Another statue.

On command.
With that ahead I decided to take a less familiar path into the hills. I say into the hills, but it was no more than the back of the car park. Now at this point I had one of those strange birding moments. I was thinking about how perfect this habitat would be for a unique little desert bird called a Phainopepla, which is when a black, long-tailed bird popped up on the height of a shrub.
The Phainopepla is more-or-less a chaparral specialist, and they had been reported in the near vicinity (less than a mile away), so why had I not seen one here? I hear Wrentits at this location often, and if you are hearing those then you know that you are in chaparral habitat and nowhere else. I guess I will no longer be wondering about that.

This glossy (male) or dusky (female) bird is a close relative to the Waxwing(s) and you could see it in the face as it turned its head. From the side it looked completely unique, but a little tilt and you could see the resemblance, especially in the crest and the bridled "eyeshadow". I assumed the bird was a female because it seemed rather dull, but its red eye suggested otherwise. It was clearly an immature, which was pointed out by its pale edging to the wings. Adult males are entirely glossy black with no impurities.

You're not seeing things. This strange creature
is trying to talk like you.
It was one of the few birds that could be attracted by something related to pishing. It's simply mimicry. The Phainopepla has a very simple whistling call. If you can whistle then you're sorted. The bird never actually whistled itself but whenever I did it would shoot up from its cover and cock its head at me, so it was clearly paying attention. Strangely the nearby Yellow-rumped Warblers also seemed to be attracted by it. I guess it was just warbler curiosity. I was not sure if whistle-pishing would work that frequently, so it was something to experiment with in the future I guess.

The sound of Waxwings and a Red-tailed Hawk over the hills near the car park held the final avian traces on today's visit.