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.

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