Friday, November 8, 2013

Marina/Playa del Rey revisited on 3rd

Marina del Rey is one of the most reliable sites I have ever visited. The site is composed of Playa del Rey, Ballona Channel, and Marina del Rey itself. Starting from the sea, two separate estuaries split into the marina on the north side, and Ballona Creek on the south. Playa del Rey forms the southern side of Ballona Creek, and is linked up to the beach and wetland areas.

On the sea end, this location is made of breakwaters and rocky shores. For whatever reason what is usually a vagrant to California waters has become rather abundant this autumn. That bird is the blue-footed booby, one of the gannet's tropical relatives. Typically the birds are further south beyond the North American border, and these irruptions only happen every so often so naturally I felt like trying to see one while they were not in the "only-one-in-California-per-year-if-you're-lucky" routine. At least 7 birds were present on Marina del Rey's breakwater a month ago; Los Angeles is lucky to see them annually at all.

I immediately found about 20 surfbirds on the middle jetty, a long-wanted bird of mine. Accompanied by a duo of ruddy turnstones, a single black turnstone, a dunlin and a least sandpiper, the breakwater was quite a bustling place. As for the blue-footed boobies, I eventually picked out two but it was not an easy task. These "dark blobs" sat among countless over cormorant and pelican blobs and the closest range permitted by land was within the 300 meter range.

Blue-footed booby. If you were hoping to see the blue feet you would be better to try google images or consult
a field guide...

An added bonus was this belted kingfisher. Another common bird that has taken me far too long to bump into:

Belted kingfisher.

The fourth (optional) target, cinnamon teal, did not feel like making an appearance.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lewis' Woodpecker

Lewis' woodpecker is a fairly erratic winter visitor to Los Angeles, and as far as I'm aware its usually a mountain bird. However they have been seen on passage around here so it wasn't surprising when two were reported at a location within walking distance of Agoura at Cheeseboro Canyon. I have only been here once before and it certainly didn't fail to impress.

Only one of these woodpeckers stayed, and I immediately saw it when entering the parking lot. A long-awaited bird and a very unique woodpecker. No other species resembles its colouring, and its one of those odd flycatching woodpeckers that also pecks trees.

Unfortunately the colouring, while pretty, is rather odd in an indescribable way, so its very hard to get a good look at it and in most views it just looks black. Its like how a hummingbird's iridescence is black one way, but brilliant and resplendent when it simply turns its head an angle, but its a different concept of colour visualizing altogether.

In the best possible position it can look like this.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Laguna voyages

In the recent past I have managed to convince my parents to take me on two separate visits to the Laguna Rd. tamarisks. For those who don't know, this road, set in the middle of the rural farmland, is home to a line of trees known as tamarisks. For some reason, they create a migrant trap for birders (and for farming they create a windbreak to stop soil erosion). Also, blogger seems to decompress photos now so they won't look as high quality as they should be. Not sure what changed but you'll probably not notice anyway.

A migrant trap is best described as follows: You are walking in the middle of a desert, thirsty and starving. Suddenly you see a bench with a cup of water and a pizza. Clearly you'll instantly gravitate towards this place. And that is how the migrant traps work; birds from all over congregate in these traps, and thus it is basically a way to see all birds within a many mile square area in a small place. Naturally, all the rarities within the many mile square area place will also come, so as you can imagine these migrant traps become rather lucrative. Its nice to spend 10 minutes checking all the local birds, rather than over 40 minutes as is the usual case. Of course, birds do like to hide, so you will always miss some.

On September 28th was the first visit. The target was a vagrant yellow-green vireo and a vagrant American redstart which had been present in the days following up. Yellow-green vireos are a pretty big bird anywhere in North America, as shown by  this map. The pink shaded areas are all in Mexico, with a tiny region dripping over the right-hand side into North America. The red dots represent random vagrant sightings, such as the bird at Laguna.

I'd say that this first visit was the first time I've really encountered a "twitching party". Twitching parties are groups of people standing in one place with binoculars and stupidly long lenses focused in one place. There were probably only 13 people here but that is still a fair amount. I guess you could say the migrant traps are people traps too since similarly people are drawn in to these places from all over. There are two behaviours of twitching parties, which is either that they are standing in one place with all the lenses focused in one place (good) or they are all wandering around like lost sheep (bad). Fortunately behaviour #1 was being exhibited, and naturally they had already found the bird and saved me about 10 minutes+ of searching and possibly not finding it.

Yellow-green vireo.
Unfortunately they were all so in awe of the bird that no one even bothered to look for the other vagrant bird which was the Redstart. I didn't find it when I searched the far end of the trees, and no one had seen it that day (however it was found on the next day, so it must have been somewhere). Something else happened today, and its a rare thing to see. So there were two "twitching parties" here. One, which I was in, had the bird and yelled to the other group to get them over here. However, the second group yelled back, also saying they had the bird, which confused everyone. Behaviour #3.

The source of the confusion? There were actually two yellow-green vireos! The chances of even one appearing is pretty low so it was rather comical when people were running back and forth and switching "teams" constantly. I also picked up on a yellow-faced warbler which was my long-awaited hermit warbler, an uncommon migrant though regular through the state, which instantly disappeared and could not be refound. Its unusual how birds can just turn invisible in a single tree.

Fortunately I did refind it, and others confirmed my identification. However they weren't even looking at my bird, and it then occurred to me that there was another hermit warbler about 3 metres from my head just beside me, and sat in the open rather puzzled.

Hermit warbler in basic plumage.
Otherwise, the tree row was full of Townsend's warblers, along with a few black-throated grey, orange-crowned and yellow warblers. I understand some readers won't know what a Townsend's warbler is so I will post an image. They are fairly common and definitely under-rated.

The second visit was today. With the yellow-green vireos and redstart long gone (along with a few other nice vagrants which I missed out on being sat at home) there were some new birds to seek. I had to choose between going to Marina del Rey for blue-footed booby and Laguna for Prothonotary warbler. I couldn't resist the Prothon. There was a bit of a second motivation, with a nearby park holding recent sightings of a magnolia warbler, one of my all-time wanted birds.

Prothonotary warblers, as their latin name citrea may suggest, are rather yellow. They have a slightly different beauty that the yellow warblers that are common around here. Prothons are vagrants, as shown by this map. The map is actually rather old and doesn't even show any records for California, though there have been many. For those outside North America, California is that diagonal south-east facing region just above the red dot on the left-hand side. Its a fairly uncommon bird to see even in its natural range so there was not really a fear of wasting my time. In this sense I mean something like the following situation: let's say I dedicated all this time to finding a rare bird, but at some time in the future I end up in a country where the beaches are covered in them. Though there is something special about seeing a bird in a place where it is unusual, there is always a feeling of trying to prioritize species that you probably won't see at all in your future life.

So like last time, there was a twitching party, slightly smaller. They had the bird about 5 minutes before I arrived (generally the last thing anyone wants to hear) but were sure it was still present. You could tell how bored they were by their incessant pursuit of a Macgillivray's warbler, a generally regular migrant to the area. The tree row was flooding with birds this time, I'm not sure what it was that increased their numbers so much since last time. Townsend's was the majority, with well over 20 individuals, about 11 Wilson's warblers, followed by about 4 black-throated greys. Pacific-slope flycatcher was rather abundant also.

Macgillivray's warbler

Wilson's warbler; mostly included this image just to show the colour of them.

It took about 25 minutes to refind the prothonotary warbler; it was in the same place, and right above the party the whole time yet it still managed to hide itself all that time. It was rather tricky to find the bird among the just-as-yellow Wilson's. In the middle of this sighting was a surreptitious Tennessee warbler which I only barely saw behind all the cover. Only a few others actually saw the bird so it was a good sighting. Tennessee warblers are another vagrant from the east.

Prothonotary warbler.

Tennessee warbler; you may be wondering how anyone can identify a bird as obscured as this,
but there are really only two birds that this could be. The white eye-ring and overall dull yellow colour are fairly unique. Orange-crowned is the other species, a common species in California, but that white area just visible under the tail instantly rules that out, leaving the vagrant Tennessee. Kudos to whoever managed to ID this bird when
it was hopping around though.

I could have stayed longer for better opportunities on the above two birds, though I wanted to check the other park nearby. Someone told me that the magnolia was seen this morning so that made me feel positive about it, though since it was nearing midday it was possible that it had moved off. With the car parked along the Eston street side of Pleasant Valley Park, I started walking along the tamarisk row. It took 10 seconds from leaving the car to see a flash of yellow between the lower branches, and that was the bird. A record time for finding a rare bird! 3 rare birds within an hour isn't bad at all.

My dodgy photos don't do it justice.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A short post (1)

The quantity of work these photos inflict is a bit time-consuming. These posts will be short until I get the time to revisit them. This post involves birds seen at Portland during mid-July.

Lodmoor, 12th July 2013.
This "reed warbler" that posed fairly well is a Cetti's warbler. A noisy bird that travels around in silence, so not too easy to see, though it is fairly common in the right environment. It is far more rufous in colouration and displays its tail differently than a reed warbler. It was too far away for me to see this myself, however.

This duck hiding in the background of one of my gadwall photos is a female pochard. Its a winter bird, so quite early, but distinctive so it is certainly that. Didn't notice this bird at all until I went through my photos. Maybe I really should get some binoculars some day.

Also had a singular female bearded reedling doing its plink call at the far end of the reserve. It was the target bird of my stay in Portland, though I'll post the better pictures from Radipole further down.

Radipole, 13th July 2013.
Young male. It popped out of the reeds very close to the path and I happened
to be near a suitable gap in the bush that is obscuring most of this photo.
It took many attempts but I finally found a lesser whitethroat. I have been checking many whitethroats in search of this bird. The pictures were awful but enough for recognition.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Titchfield Haven 8th July 2013

Some quick posts coming up, I can always edit them later.

Mediterranean gull


Monday, July 29, 2013

Cardigan Bay by Sea (5th July, 2013)

I didn't imagine that I'd get on a boat any time during my stay here, since pelagics tend to be quite booked up in advance and not many places in the UK offer them to begin with. Yet, that prediction was quite false. The Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre offered survey trips for Cetacea out in Cardigan Bay. Originally I wasn't really enthusiastic since I sought volunteer work and experience rather than sitting in the sidelines, though in the end the former was also achieved.

There was a 8-hour survey trip for the "determined" people. Though some people on the boat were the sort of people that wanted guaranteed sightings of dolphins and nothing more, but its probably unfair to judge that. I still sought a few birds, namely kittiwake, puffin and manx shearwater which occurred off shore. I was informed that it was a possibility to see any or all of those birds, but it was by no means guaranteed. I was also told it went quite a bit off-shore into fairly deep water so that was also promising.

As we drove into New Quay I found a pale tussock moth on the window of a cafe (yes, while the car was in motion). As soon as the car parked I rushed off down the road to relocate it. It was indeed a pale tussock moth, and not a species I had seen before though they are supposedly fairly common.

Their caterpillars are quite often seen though.
The boat left at around 9am and there were bottlenose dolphins in the harbour before anyone even got on the boat.  It was not the closest of encounters and though it would be amusing to think that some people regretted spending money on an 8 hour trip for them when they were just here, I imagine it only inspired them to stay on board. The captain struggled to get in the health and safety lecture as people were far too absorbed with other things.

A few cormorants lingered in the waters here, but they would undoubtedly be replaced later on by shags, or at least I thought so. Alcids started making appearances. You could just about make out some of them from shore if you squinted hard, but out here they were hard to miss. Both razorbill and guillemot were present.

Within only minutes of the harbour was this funny gull called a kittiwake. (It turns out that some of the shots I took of gulls well off-shore a few days ago were kittiwake, but at the time I could not see enough details in the photos to confirm the ID then). 

Some of you may be wondering "What? It's just a seagull. What's the difference?".
It is the only small gull (i.e. black-headed gull) with a white head. Its the only
UK gull with a short all yellow-bill. And its the only gull that has these two
features along with black legs and a wingtip dipped in black without
any white spots.
Nearly all the gulls out here were kittiwake, save the odd herring or great black-backed. Alcids continued, and the manx shearwaters were soon all over the place. A "possibility", they said. They were flying everywhere. (In a similar fashion to the kittiwake, I had images of one shearwater in my multiple "photograph dark specks far out to sea on the horizon and pray you can identify them" shots from up on the cliffs a few days ago, so this is not my first sighting of the bird).

Eh. I have better pictures. You'll see them later.
Not many minutes after that a dark bird flew across the front of the boat, and that was an Atlantic puffin. Apparently no one else was aware of it, since the survey team (the people who wrote down sightings) gave a confused look and demanded to see photos as proof. After that I was uncertain how much I could trust the completeness of the sightings they wrote down, but to be fair birds were not the main focus of their surveys.

From afar its easy to mistake them for razor/mot.
So far this blog is looking rushed. There is a flurry of photos, information about where they were found on the trip, and without the (meaningless) backstory/story I tend to compose in blogs. But it was true that these birds came very fast. I don't think I have had that rate of new birds/minute before. If you payed attention earlier on you would have noticed that I had seen all my target birds within half an hour of leaving the shore, which I must say was quite impressive. And by noting how I had not included a backstory/story, I have. There.

Since there was a long long time of nothing but two things beginning with "s", I'm going to skip between encounters that should have photos included. First up is this gannet, one of many, but it was very close to the boat.

Close gannet is close.

Next up was this European storm-petrel  Well I say this storm-petrel, but I have no photos so you'll have to imagine it instead. (Hint: Its small, and dark.   AKA almost impossible to see when the water isn't perfectly smooth because the reflections of the wave are also dark and it blends in)

In fact I didn't even see the bird. I considered the possibility of a storm-petrel, and after about an hour of scanning the sea I just kind of sat down and waited for the next exciting event to happen. The "expert birder" on board just casually said, "Oh, there was a storm-petrel about 30 seconds ago." about 30 seconds too late and no one else ended up seeing it. Again, since birds were not the focus I suppose all can be forgiven, but still. There were a lot of jellyfish, mostly moon, across the passage.

But I did manage to find another one. The water was thankfully calm, so there was no need to strain one's eyes trying to pick out a small dark bird that was most likely very far away from the boat. A bit late though cause I already had spent the past hour (plus the past past hour) searching until my eyes were sore. But at least now I could finally sit down and stop scanning. It was highly highly unlikely there would be any other seabird to locate here, since Ireland blocked the open sea (and with it any super rare mega birds).

I quite nearly missed it, since I was looking for a tiny dark bird and this bird looked
a bit too big. I can't remember what made me change my mind, but I'm glad I did.
You can see the white rump and short bill in this image.
Since there was nothing of interest between this point and the next 3 hours except the giant bomber plane I will skip to the next point. Giant bomber plane? Oh yeah, that. Supposedly they do missile testing around the coastline here, and this giant bomber plane was the only visual evidence we saw of it. The captain told of stories when they were out and sea and the missiles would fly over the boat.

Ok, even I'm not that clueless. It probably isn't a bomber plane, but it sounds
dramatic so let's go with that.
PS: its a RAF Hercules C-130J, thanks Ryan.

Right, now I can commence the 3 hour skip. The out-to-sea part of the trip was now over, so the boat passed along the immediate coastline now. Cardigan Island had a lot of life resting on its shores, ranging from grey seals to shags. The boat also passed by Bird Rock, a location where a mini-rookery of Alcids can be seen. A pair of shelducks with ducklings in tow was not exactly expected here at sea. It was almost comical how the captain said "There's a duck with ducklings over there."  The rest of the journey was back across the coastline, past Llangrannog, and back.  A few pictures from here:

There aren't too many places where you can be in close
proximity to shags.
Grey seal.

Shelduck with shelducklings...or something.

I only recently (as of this posting, about 20 days after the actual
boat trip) learned how to disable mirror lock-up on my camera.
If I knew that at the time I'd have more photos that looked like the above.
Mirror lock up means it only takes one photo when the shutter is held down,
as opposed to many.
Bird rock rookery.
Pomarine skua off Llangrannog! A hard bird to find in the UK, though
apparently a few individuals are regular in the summer off the west.
The birder on board said it was an Arctic skua, but the differences
are clearly seen in the above image.
And that commences the Cardigan Bay trip report.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Red Kites

The red kite is a bird that has rapidly increased in population since my last visit to the UK in 2009, and as it happens is quite well known in the culture of Wales. It is now commoner than the common buzzard over much of its range. For those who don't know what a red kite is see this image.

What? It's not like you specified what kind of red kite you didn't know about.

The destination today was Gigrin Farm. Though I had now seen quite a few red kites, and though I would definitely appreciate getting closer looks at these now ubiquitous birds, my main intention was to see a "shooting star" of nature. Not only was this specific kite "a shining white flash across the sky" but it, like all things, would eventually die and disappear from the sky, though once it is gone I doubt it will return predictably in a certain hundreds of years. Red kites, depending on circumstances, apparently live anywhere from about 8-20 years. As it happens, pure-white mutations are awfully uncommon and hard to come by, and I do have an interest in unusual colourations in species so I was keen on finding this bird.

The kites were wild, but the feeding was anything but wild. At 2:30pm each day food, consisting of various meat-type meat (I'm really feeling creative today) was thrown into a field where the kites would promptly "kite" down within metres of the bird hides. Of course, this sounds a little silly and many critics would consider it to be too "fake" to be worthwhile, but in reality its no different than feeding birds with a seed or nut feeder in your garden. The kites congregate well before the feeding time, so even without paying entry you can still get good looks at the birds when they soar overhead.

Since I haven't sorted through all the images yet you'll have to cope with these randomly selected ones.

Isn't this a good place to make a joke about fast food?

This is one of the kites with more subtle leucism. I didn't notice
it until I looked through my photos actually. 

So you've seen lots of kite pictures, and the end of this blog is only seconds away. So where is the real white kite? Apparently the white kite always comes in much later to join the feeding frenzy, and that is true. We left at about 3pm, and only then did I see a flash of white across the hills. It was flying towards the feeding station, but a bit too late unfortunately. You'll have to live with the distant shots.

Its quite interesting how dark it can look it certain areas, depending on the angle and lighting.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Wales (again) 3rd July 2013

This is the last you'll have to endure in terms of moths in Wales so hang on there.

Time: 10-12am
Species recorded: 23+
Individuals recorded: ...

Common-----Brown China-mark
Common-----Udea olivialis
Common-----Green Carpet
Common-----Sandy Carpet

Nb-----------Waved Carpet
Common-----Yellow Shell
Common-----Flame Carpet
Common-----Toadflax Pug
A small pug (top) that's larger an a small carpet (bottom) ,
 doesn't get any stranger than that. Pugs are usually always
smaller than carpets, but this flame carpet is a very small carpet indeed.
It's nice to have a colourful moth that is common and
Common-----Grey Pug
Common-----Mottled Beauty
Common-----Willow Beauty
Common-----Light Emerald
Common-----Small fan-foot
Common-----Common marbled carpet
Common-----Riband wave f. remutata'
Common-----Burnished Brass
Common-----Double Square-spot
No, its not related to the Square-spot. That would
be too easy.

Common-----Purple Clay

Common-----Beautiful Golden y
Common-----Plain Golden y

Wales Moths (2nd July 2013)

The moths, they continue. A very busy night, even though it was very damp from a continuous flood of rain all day.

Time: 10-12am
Species recorded: 20+
Individuals recorded: ...

Common------Udea olivialis
Common------Silver-ground carpet
Common------Common marbled carpet
Common------Common carpet
Common------Green carpet

Common------Grey pug
Common------Small fan-foot
Common------Brimstone Moth

Common------Flame Shoulder
Common------White-pinion Spotted
A worn one, only just identifiable. The dust is the scales from
all the noctuids that didn't want to sleep.

Common------Small magpie
One of the biggest micros, and one of the few micros with a
name that can be remembered.

Common------Beautiful Golden y
Common------Silver y
Common------Peach Blossom


Common------Clouded-bordered Brindle

Wales Moths (1st July 2013)

Yet more moths. I'm getting more each night which must be a good sign.

Time: 10-12am
Species recorded: 19+
Individuals recorded: ...

Common-------Ghost moth
This is the biggest moth I recorded.
You may be wondering why it is called a ghost moth.
Its named for the white male which flies with an odd pendulum-like hovering motion.

Common-------Udea olivialis

Common-------Silver-ground carpet
Nb--------------Waved carpet

Common-------Grey pug
Common-------Currant pug

Common-------Mottled beauty
Common-------Willow beauty
One of the few "beauty" moths that you don't
dread when it flies into the trap. Easily recognized by those square-
shaped spots (squint harder if you can't see a square).
Common-------Small fan-foot
Common-------Common marbled carpet
Common-------Clouded border
Common-------Riband wave
Common-------Riband wave f. remutata
Common-------Common white wave
Common-------Buff ermine

Common-------Burnished brass

Common-------Heart & dart