Thursday, March 29, 2012

Umber Skipper at SeaWorld

Outside Mama Stella's Pizza Kitchen at Sea World San Diego was this delightful Umber Skipper. It is one of the butterflies I most wanted to see in California.


San Diego
The previous night I decided it would be a good idea to check the local bird sightings, just because we happened to be in the area. A recent report from the San Diego River (which we had to cross in order to get to Seaworld) was that of a Reddish Egret. Typically this is an eastern US bird, with a few populations in Baha California, and nevertheless it was the last bird I expected to see during my stay here. It was said to have been around all winter, and these are the best kind of birds. After all, if its been here all winter, the chance of it suddenly disappearing on this exact day is pretty low. The nearest parking was along a road called Bacon Street.

Ocean Beach
Along Bacon St. was a beach featuring a pier and a brief stop-off was made just to have a look around.The tides were very rough here, and the waves crashed through the gaps in the wooden planks of the pier at times. There were a lot of surfers here too.
The pier.

As I approached the pier I saw some little shorebirds that were unmistakable Turnstones even from a distance. All it took was a few steps and I had great views of my first Black Turnstones amongst the seaweed; there were 6 in total. Unlike the Ruddy Turnstone of the UK, this turnstone is completely dark on top, but that doesn't mean it is less attractive. These birds did not seem to mind human presence and didn't budge an inch when approached. Black Turnstones are a winter vistor to rocky coastlines; I was sure that now the warmer weather had come that it was too late. 

 On the pier itself I could see a pretty well-sized Western Grebe flock in the surf underneath, about 20-30 birds. Usually Western Grebes are far out to sea, and these ones were no exception. They just happened to be within reach due to the presence of the pier. Naturally I sped up my pace to reach them as the current was pretty strong and they were drifting away slowly. My purpose in getting to them was not because of the Western Grebes themselves, as I already had a fair amount of good photos of these birds. I was more interested its look-alike cousin the Clark's Grebe. Clark's Grebe is nearly identical to the Western Grebe in all but abundance; less than 5% of the Aechmophorus grebes in California (and probably the whole of the US as well) are Clark's. With a loose social behaviour they frequently hung around flocks of their more widespread brethren. It was still a bird I was missing, so any Western flocks were worth a look.

Might even be a Clark's in here that I missed.

What I did notice were the regular Double-crested Cormorants. Difference being there were in full breeding plumage, something I had never seen before. The white feather-crests on each side of the head (which gave them the name) and the green iridescence can only be seen for a short period of each year. The average cormorants looked quite a bit more interesting with this bit of sprucing up.

Both Western and Heermann's Gulls were pretty abundant here, and the wind kept them suspended in the air long enough for some good shots.

A young Heermann's.

I was a bit paranoid that even if there was a Clark's I would overlook it. Birds were diving all the time, so it wouldn't have been that hard to miss an odd bird. However when I did actually find my first Clark's it was stark obvious, at least to me.

Now we have the two together, can you work out the differences? There are two reliable features in the head.
If you thought that the Clark's on the right A. had more white on its face (compare around the eye) and B. had a brighter orange bill (pale yellow-green on Western) then you would have been right. Knowing this, they don't seem that bad, but it takes a very good look at a bird to check these features. Remember that as they typically appear far out to sea (an obstacle fortuitously removed by the pier) these close views are very rare without the aid of a great telescope.

Royal Terns were sporadic here, but I did manage to get far better images of them this time.

While checking the waters off the end of the pier (and only finding some Bottlenose dolphins) I had a bird that I previously dismissed as a Cormorant due to its flight (low over water, rapid wingbeats) but I soon found it had white underwings which was something none of the locals had. It had a dark spot at the end of the wing and it suddenly looked a lot like a juvenile Masked Booby, which would be quite a rarity over this way. Of course it could have simply been a Common or Pacific Loon, which is superficially similar, but the distance was too great to differentiate these two birds that are not even remotely alike.

Another Heermann's ruffled up by the wind. I never knew they were white under their throat.

San Diego River
After that detour it was time to look for the Reddish Egret on the River a few minutes up the coastline.

A large flock of shorebirds was the first thing to catch my eye. It was mostly Willets and Marbled Godwits but foraging inbetween were 3 Short-billed Dowitchers. They were much tinier than I expected. I thought they were Least Sandpipers (another bird I am missing) until they extracted their beaks from the mud, allowing observation of its true length. Contrary to their name the bills of this species are actually pretty long, as is the Long-billed Dowitcher's which is only a little bit longer (though typically indistinguishable in length from the Short-billed unless side-by-side).
All three are in here; small and long-billed. Can you find them all?
On the sand banks up the river I started to have more birds. In this area I had 2 Long-billed Curlews as well as the typical Marbled Godwits. Checking the image now, I also see 4 Dunlins in the center of the image (including one breeding adult denoted by the black belly).

These Long-billed Curlews have an extraordinary long bill even for a Curlew.

Some terns started to appear just a little further up the river. While mostly Royal there were some other hidden birds in there including 2 Common and 2 Forster's Terns.

While looking through the viewfinder I saw a dark egret like shape amongst the terns, and there was my Reddish Egret. To be honest I was beginning to think it wasn't here. But I was mistaken. It was infact a [Little Blue Heron] (thanks Liam!), another vagrant egret to the region.

Would still rather call it a Blueberry Egret.

To finish things off I found a black beetle on the sidewalk. And I was quite surprised; it was a Darkling Beetle. Not a Darkling as in Mealworms, but a true desert Darkling beetle like those you see on National Geographic. Not something I expected to see.

The actual Reddish Egret was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps if I knew that was a Little Blue Heron then I would have searched further up the river.

Monday, March 26, 2012

San Diego I

San Diego
In store this weekend was a return visit to San Diego, the second such journey that I have been on so far in California. The previous visit (that was not mentioned in this blog for lack of birds & interest save Black-crowned Night-herons) was purely oriented on Seaworld, and so was this one.

Of course this time was different, because otherwise this post would not exist. The previous visit was a one-day trip; drive there in the morning, return at night. This time there would be a stay at the hotel on Saturday night, making a two-day trip.

Liberty Station
The hotel was supposedly perched on the river, but unfortunately not the San Diego River, which holds a multitude of specialities at numerous times. But it did look somewhat promising, save the complete lack of undergrowth and trees save a little corner.

I gave the corner a run through because it looked good for spring migrants and found a few Yellow-rumped Warblers (which was unsurprising) and a single Black Phoebe. Some movement and a yellow flash at the back revealled itself to be a FOS male Western Tanager, which while not unusual was indeed a spring migrant; exactly what I was looking for (can't complain).
Not good views, but its enough. It's the only medium-sized yellow bird in the US like this.

Can't stop taking pictures of these Willets.
Shorebird-wise the river only held a few Willets and Marbled Godwits, with the odd Killdeer heard off in the distance. Gull-wise it was almost purely Western Gulls except for three Ring-billed Gulls (1 2cy, 2 adults). On the water itself there were several Snowy Egrets, one Great Blue Heron, a female-type Bufflehead (seemed to be a young male by extensive white on face) and an Eared Grebe.

Y halo thar
 The only other birds were all non-native; European Starlings, Rock Doves and House Sparrows.

And yes, that was all there is to Liberty Station.

Can't deny that Starlings are pretty though, even without good sunlight.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Marina Del Rey, February 18th

Marina Del Rey
Bird activity here always seems to be constant, but its the type of birds that fluctuate. Last time it was an all grebe show, but today it was other waterfowl. While driving to the location I had an interesting falcon fly over. It was not a Kestrel or a Merlin and it had no black "armpits" and it was fairly large. I could only assume it was a Peregrine, but I have no clue what they look like other than in the stereotypical perched pose since I had never seen one before.

In the car park I noticed a far-off shorebird which seems to be undeniably a Long-billed Curlew, but hazy and uncertain opinions from other birders puts me off. The bill seems far too long for a Whimbrel to me.


At the location I noticed some new ducks. Bufflehead had taken up residence on Ballona Creek, as had some Red-breasted Mergansers. Both little grebes, though mostly Horned, were still prevailing, but there was not a sign of the Western Grebes, and with the absence of Western Grebes went my hope of finding a Clark's. A flyby Willet was appreciated; you can never get bored of these attractive waders.

Eared Grebe

Next was another Willet, or so I thought. I passed it off as it had black and white wing markings (which I considered all varations of to be stereotypical to the Willet) but then I remembered that the Surfbird sported similar markings. The stubby bill seemed to match, but then I had a recollection of the Pluvialis plovers (i.e. Pacific Gold) having this wing pattern. In the end it turned out that it was a Pluvialis; a Black-bellied Plover. I was really hoping for one of the other two birds.

This gull is not yet identified. Its probably a California or a Herring.
And for the first time ever I had a male Red-breasted Merganser. I have probably seen about 15 females by now.

Royal Tern:
I had several other interesting gulls here, but I cannot get any ID for them, so I will exclude them from this report for now.

Backtracking, I found an interesting low-flying duck-like dark bird.
It was undoubtedly a Brent Goose (*cough* Brant *cough*) and it was completely unexpected. There had been previous reports of a single  Brant Brent Goose at this location for a while, but there was a fair gap between the last report and now. I wasn't looking for it because I already had decent Brent Goose pictures from SeaWorld in San Diego, but it wasn't something to ignore.

FYI I dislike the name Brant, which seems to have occupied the minds of birders outside of Europe. There is no "Brent Goose" in North America.

It flew out to sea and disappeared again, but later when I was walking down the rocks it flew over and landed right beside me. I can't think of any other place where you could get within 2 metres of a Brent Goose. They are just never this tame and even if they are they tend to be out at sea or in marshy wetlands which are downright unaccessible.

This picture was taken at 0% zoom just to show how close it was. If it helps, putting your hand so it
aligns with mine gives a better impression of distance.

And still no Surfbird. Someone who had visited on the same day as me had 80 of them. Where are an earth are they?