Saturday, September 20, 2014

12th September

The darker morning hours meant that the later it was on the calendar, the more sleep we would all get. For instance, most boat survey departure times were now beyond 6 and 7am compared to the 5am and earlier routine earlier interns had to follow. I don't think it really meant a difference, but there did seem to be some psychological appreciation by the other interns, who seemed much more enthusiastic at getting an extra hour of sleep. It does seem true that getting up at 5am sounds much earlier than getting up at 6am.

12th September was the Aberystwyth survey. The primary benefit was that the boat here, Ma Chipe, was much faster, reaching 14+ knots, in contrast to the 5-6 knots capability of the Dunbar. This meant that it was easier to reach the outer transect survey areas. The relevant SAC areas offshore, both the Cardigan Bay and the Pen Llŷn a'r Sarnau, were split by the Sea Watch Foundation into inner and outer transect regions. The outer transect surveys were just extended versions of the inner, encompassing both the inner and outer areas.

Inner and outer transect maps, courtesy of Sea Watch Foundation.

On board Ma Chipe, there was a bit of misinformation on what area we were surveying however. Whatever the case, we ended up just randomly surveying the Pen Llŷn SAC instead, even though it wasn't strictly part of our main research focus. I don't have a map showing the route we took that day, but I could probably borrow the GPS coordinates for the day if I needed too. There were pessimistic rumours spreading that there were little or no dolphins around this area, supported by the facts that there were far fewer fish than usual. However, of all the recent surveys, I don't think we've ever recorded so many dolphins before.

I'm just going to post head shots because everyone likes those.

An odd thing to note were these random swarms of flies far out to sea. They were mixed swarms of a whole variety of flies, midges, gnats, crane flies and other oddities. We all ended up covered in them whenever we stopped in those areas.

But a small selection of flies present, including the late-flying cranefly Tipula confusa on the far right minus one leg.
Other than that, and the assumption that the top left is some relative of a St Mark's fly, I have no clue what any of these
A shallow reef halted our progress on one of the transects, so we had to take a different route. The clouds started pouring in but some unique sky on offer.

The reef is visible as the calm section between two slightly rougher tides.

Same copyright as other images, just forgot to add watermark.

 A dunlin flying out to sea towards Ireland seemed to serve as an omen to the coming fall migration in the area, and common scoter was relatively common. The weather is starting to drop and it's getting colder by the day. Better get that winter coat out...

Saturday, September 6, 2014

4th September

I never found the decently early time of 5am to be either a nuisance or a surprise. I had been up earlier before for pelagic trips, or mere walks, well into the 4am realm. Today was the spontaneously planned Dedicated Search survey, my first real trip with the Sea Watch Foundation. Dedicated Search was a noun that as I learned has become synonymous with "erratic", "irregular" and "impromptu" at the same time. Such a survey erased everything on the schedule for that entire day, summoned all volunteers regardless of what they were doing or where they were, and combined all resources into a (dedicated) search for marine mammal activity. The primary goal was to cover a random line transect point, which offered its own data in terms of spatial use and population density in the local 3 mammal species.

The early start was intended to get all of us on the boat by 6:20am--as it happened it was running a bit late and did not really come until about 6:40, but at least the sky was nice this morning.

Dawn over New Quay harbour.

The sea was thankfully quite flat this morning, with few ripples and remaining mirror-clear for a great portion of the initial few hours. The first 2 bottlenose dolphin sightings preceded the boat boarding and therefore did not make it onto the official sightings forms as more than a notation at the top of the sightings sheet.

A pair harbour porpoises around 7:10am were the first officially recorded cetacean sightings, though 2 grey seals, one hauled on the rocks and a second in the water were seen before hand. Perhaps my only fear was finally seeing a harbour porpoise and not having a camera on hand, which happened in the first 30 minutes! I could, however, be content that at least there was little that could have been "worse" from that point on. A cliff pass added a few land birds to the daily "list" including 2 chough, 3 ravens, jackdaws and 2 red kites, though the Sea Watch Foundation does not keep records of anything avian, and neither does the Marine Wildlife Centre for that matter.

An initial bottlenose dolphin sighting was had at 7:40am along the coastline of Llangrannog of 2 individuals, though we were just over 2km out at sea but Dr. Dussán-Duque judged them to be too far. Yet 10 minutes later the next pair, just over 600m, was selected for photo-ID and behaviour recording purposes. The initial pair revealed other pairs, and then others, totaling 7 adults and 3 calves, perhaps including the 2 individuals that we did not approach earlier. The 4 subgroups merged and split as the encounter came and went, and both feeding behaviour, as well as one adult that was, in all decent terms, punting a jellyfish out of the water. The jellyfish itself was most likely Cyanea lamarckii, a regular species in Wales. There was plenty of photo opportunity if you were lucky to catch them fast enough.

Waving hello?

Does anyone remember the game Ecco the Dolphin where you headbutt blue jellyfish?
With that aside, there was little of interest for the rest of the 7 hours! A 1cy Mediterranean gull was the only notable bird in this first hour, the only of its species recorded throughout. A fairly recent traveler to the south coast, this gull is still relatively uncommon this far north but it is spreading quite rapidly and can't really be called rare any more.

The only other two events of interest was a dead seal, and a "sunfish" which revealed itself to be a quite lost and deflated balloon about 2km out to sea. The balloon, whose design featured Elsa from the near-viral Disney film Frozen, was perhaps owned by a child who quite literally "Let it go". The balloon was, naturally, rescued to save any environmental harm it may have caused.

In other notes, the usual birds were present in small numbers, including kittiwake, guillemot, fulmar, manx shearwater and great black-backed gull. A few swallows, a crane fly, small tortoiseshells, and some other miscellaneous insects seemed to be oddities this far out to sea. It is possible to see migrating birds fly towards shore from over the sea, as these swallows did, but the species only flies towards the UK in the spring when they fly up from continental Europe. I can only guess that they flew over from Ireland, intercepting Wales as they headed towards France.

Great black-backed gull exhibiting the reasoning behind its name.
All in all it turned to be not a bad trip. Those on photo-ID, behaviour and observer duties were left without anything to do beyond those first encounters, save the necessity of having to remember to write down boat data every 15 minutes (this task is done by both primary observer, independent observer, and effort collector to ensure that measurements are consistent and, most importantly, correct).

And, just because I thought it was cool, here is a variant of the common field grasshopper from the Cwmtydu segment of the coastal path above New Quay. This is a hugely variable species, that can be coloured anywhere from green, brown, orange, beige, grey and...apparently pink! I once heard the probability of such a erythristic individual is estimated at 1 in 500. Either way, they are quite uncommon.

Pink variant common field grasshopper.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Leo Carrillo

It was somewhat nostalgic to hear a family beach trip was being planned today. A few years ago, such a family beach trip found me a rarity in Australia which brought about, in Melbourne's terms, a serious twitch.

Like Mordialloc, there was nothing of interest recently reported (or ever, too be quite honest), but there was something compelling about a bit of seawatching. There was also a hiking trail in the back, though not a long one as I soon found out.

I saw my first breeding plumage Brandt's cormorants today, intermingled with a scattering of pelagic and double-crested cormorants as well. All of the aforementioned birds were located on this rocky outcrop a few metres out to sea. My first surprise was a grey wader that flew by and hopped onto the rocks, a wandering tattler, which was a new tick for me though it did not stay for long. Cruising past the rocks were a few royal terns, a lone caspian tern, the typical gulls and pelicans, and an probably black-vented shearwater that was too far out to identify.
Wandering tattler with double-crested cormorant (left) and Brandt's cormorant (right). Don't ask what
the background cormorant is, no idea!
On the start of the hiking trail I noticed some odd checkered-style butterflies in the genus Pontia. From afar they were just white, nothing more could be seen, but closer to their "flight snapshot" was undeniably odd*.

*(flight snapshot is a term I've developed referring to the "frozen" images you see of butterflies in flight when they are nearby. Presumably because the human eyes cannot detect the swift motion of the butterfly wings in flight properly, there is often some "lag" in what is seen. Such snapshots allow the observer to see "flashes" of the markings and colouration of the upper wings as if it was perched still. Otherwise the blurring motion of white butterflies would be just that, a white blur.)

When they finally landed the mystery was resolved; they were Becker's whites, a very localized species that I had only seen once before. Though similar to both checkered and western whites, the markings, particularly the underside ones, are much bolder and the central spot on the front wings is bigger and wider.

Male Becker's white.
On the sage I saw a fluttery, dull, moth-like...not-moth. It was a tattered Behr's metalmark, a common but localized species in this area that I had not seen before. This is the first time I have ever observed a species of the metalmark family Riodinidae as well, giving me a chance to see their unique behaviour that is not mentioned in textbooks. Apart from their odd flight, they are unique in other ways as well. At flowers they have a specific behaviour cycle, starting with spread wings, with a few wing flaps to about 45 degrees, before completely closing their wings for a few seconds. Then they completely spread out again, and repeat. Most butterflies are quite motionless at rest, so it was odd to see. I saw others as well, and it seemed that the more I saw the more pristine they looked. At first they were a bit tattered, but the final one I saw was very immaculate.


I was able to spot some nice bee flies as well. I usually only see 2 or 3 varieties per outing, but I had at about 6-7 species here, many of which I have never seen before.

One of many bee flies, this one is the relatively distinctive Poecilanthrax arethusa.

At about 2pm back along the coast a "probable feral rock pigeon" flew over my head, easily told from the small, long-tailed mourning dove by its large size and short tail. A few seconds passed and it flashed white in its wings, something not originally visible from the underside view I first observed when it flew overhead. That changed everything; this common bird often considered a pest quickly morphed into a rarity for this area in the form of white-winged dove, a desert bird usually found quite far to the south from here. While rare, multiple records exist of its wandering along this coastline, so it is clearly quite migratory in nature, albeit in the wrong direction. This bird landed on the west cliff, about 2 metres from people on the beach (you bet I wish I was standing there) before flying off around the coastline again before I could walk more than 3 steps.

The white wing patch on this white-winged dove is quite visible even with the naked eye. The long bill (for a dove)
is not seen here but it is obvious in other images.

No, not a bad trip at all. I'm starting to like these family beach trips.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Corn Creek revisited

On the annual Las Vegas trip, faced again with an hour time frame in which to visit the local wildlife, I opted again to check out the Corn Creek field station, both a migrant trap and a regular site for a few local specialties. I did not post my last visit, but Corn Creek quickly became one of my favourite birding spots. I like to think of Corn Creek as a bit of a "wildcard", since it is totally random what is seen (and what isn't seen!) on a visit to this location on any given time of the day at any given time. Last visit I found Nevada's 9th NBRC endorsed record of purple martin which was quite something.

It was good to see that the heavy construction setup had vanished, along with the rather obnoxious clamour it threw up if you were standing in the immediate vicinity. In its place was the new (but closed) visitor center, a car park, and toilets, which was exactly 300% more facilities than the last time I visited. There was a fair bit of weather nearby, rain and thunder/lightning, which fortunately had diminished prior.

I first visited the "orchard" area. I don't actually remember this area so I think I missed it last time. There was quite a tremendous amount of activity here, mostly western tanagers but also orioles (hooded, Bullock's) and a lone (but attractive) male indigo bunting. The fence was occupied throughout by about one black phoebe every 10 metres, vigilantly keeping to their invisible territories. I also played an Abert's towhee recording to remind myself of their vocalizations, and was sure I heard a reply far off but I could not be sure. Other than this I did not encounter such a bird during the trip.

For the next few minutes or so I checked up on calls to make sure I knew what I was hearing--Nevada, though it is not too far from California, has a wealth of new possibilities. I was perhaps a bit out of my element here, so I didn't discount a new bird hiding behind a familiar sound. For instance, I had heard a sort of metallic "chik" call; what I assumed was a bunting, probably indigo or lazuli, from within a dense patch of undergrowth nearby a little creek. Wait, dense undergrowth? Buntings live in the open, perched on exposed branches, or even hopping along open grasslands, so this instantly raised a red flag. I took one step and a dark bird dashed out and landed on a branch a couple of trees down the creek. I could see a white supercilium line and pale underparts from where I was standing, the rest shrouded by leaf cover. I thought perhaps it was a black-and-white warbler, a bird that would have those sort of features, but a little repositioning on my part revealed some interesting streaking and a face that looked like it came from a thrush.

It was now very obvious that I had a waterthrush on my hands. The waterthrushes were odd thrush-patterned warblers known for their love of water--a bird that could not be named in any better fashion. Only two waterthrush species exist: the northern waterthrush and the Louisiana waterthrush. So here is what I was thinking right at the time, to give an idea of the situation for a non-birder:
Erm, hang on a minute...Neither of these maps are even close to where I am.
Often in birding the common conundrum is deciding between a regular species and a rare species. Rarely is it that the conundrum is deciding between a rare species and a rarer one! I tested the calls of both species, and it sounded thinner than northern waterthrush.

The bird then, as its habits would dictate, flew into the water of the creek and hopped along the stones perfectly at home. Exposed in the open, the bird really stood out in its high-contrast dark-brown back and clean white underparts. Another feature that stood out here was its rather bright pink legs. Typical of waterthrushes, it flicked its tail regularly at increments of about 7 seconds+. Along with its unmarked white throat and lack of buffy colouring overall, it was quite clear I was dealing with a Louisiana waterthrush, by far the rarer of the two this far west. Update August 5th: this bird was refound by others today and confirmed as the 3rd-4th NBRC record, what a great bird to find.

A bit lost would be a bit of an understatement I'd say, though Nevada
does seem to be a bit under birded, so perhaps it is more common than it is thought.

In other parts of the park I located a Virginia's warbler foraging silently in some low trees. This is a mountain species at this time of year so here in the low desert it is another good bird but not necessarily rare. I did not have any luck with Lucy's warbler at the site. I picked up 2 black-throated sparrows on my way out of the park and along with 2 loggerhead shrikes on the drive out, this concluded the visit. I definitely do not regret coming here.

Virginia's warbler. The diagnostic yellow undertail is only just visible through a gap in the leaves.

Black-throated sparrow

Sunday, July 27, 2014

America's 2nd most ridiculous tail

In North and Central America is a normal bird with a ridiculous tail, which from this point on will be called bird B. Bird B is grey, with a white throat and a black patch around the face. If it is an adult male it has a bit of peach colour on the underparts. Sometimes they have a red patch under the wing, but it is not always evident.

In many ways this bird is exactly the same as this boring western kingbird:   *
*I've actually seen less than 10 of this bird so they aren't boring yet, but, you know, let's keep the mood going.
In comparison to the boring western kingbird, the bird in question, if you were to make a black-and-white picture out of the two, would be identical. Remembering that the only difference is it has more orange colour as opposed to yellow. However, the bird in question elicits a much greater reaction with "oohs" and "aahs". To be honest, the boring western kingbird would only come close to bringing in as much attention if it were to randomly turn up in England (which chances are it won't given its distribution, so don't count on it. though its even more boring cousin the eastern kingbird has).  And consider this: the female I was looking at didn't even have the orange-peach colour and was completely grey.So you might be wondering why bird B, since it is pretty much identical to the western kingbird, is even worth looking at. Well the answer to that question is one thing: its tail.

Scissor-tailed flycatcher.

Whether you are a birder, a non-birder, a lost traveller who randomly found my blog and wanted to read the first post, chances are even you are looking at that going "that's a long tail". And you wouldn't be exaggerating, as well over half of this bird's length is tail. And if it was a male, that tail would be about 20% longer.

Scissor-tailed flycatcher and western kingbird.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher is also a vagrant to the state of California so there's that too. As it happens, the female above is paired with the (male) western kingbird. The two species are quite closely related, hence their overall similarities, notably in the head. But there are quite a few notable differences too, the kingbird is much chubbier, the wing shape is a little different, etc.

Scissor-tailed flycatcher and western kingbird.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher x western kingbird hybrid offspring! R1 "Medial-shafted king flycatcher" Tyrannus x ferticalus. I made that up.
So you might be wondering what the 1st most ridiculous tail is. Well that belongs to the relatively related fork-tailed flycatcher.

Monday, July 7, 2014


1340 was the number of images I shot today while on a mini birding tour through Angeles Crest with Dan Cooper and Dean Schaff. The trip consisted of stops at various places along the San Gabriel Mountains, and since I was rather lacking in montane species it would have been about as hard as seeing a Lawrence's goldfinch in terms of not to add anything to the list.

Speaking of Lawrence's goldfinch I think this is a tad better than the speck I posted before.

There were a few casual birds throughout the trip that managed to vanish before our eyes various times. Story of my life. No wonder I can never see them, they just teleport all the time.

Since I don't have a huge amount of time because of sorting through 1340 pictures, don't expect too much creative writing from the remainder of this post. Most of these pictures suffer compression as a result to being uploaded on here, so don't point fingers if they don't look as sharp as they should be.

Switzer Falls
Western grey squirrel

Charlton Flat
White-headed woodpecker
White-headed woodpecker

Eriastrum densifolium
 Buckhorn Campground
Merriam's chipmunk. Damn birds can't pose this well can they?
Brown creeper. (It's there somewhere, I promise).
Lilium parryi
Dusky flycatcher. This wins the sarcastic reward for "Best Placed Branch".
Green-tailed towhee
Green-tailed towhee
Green-tailed towhee

I may add more photos later, I just picked some random highlights off the top of my head.

Monday, June 30, 2014


This image will forever pay homage to the one day I left my telephoto lens in the car for 3 minutes so I could chase a butterfly, and then have my lifer Lawrence's goldfinches fly over my head. Annoying is an understatement, but I suppose I can say I've seen them now.

This was the butterfly responsible.
Hedgerow hairstreak

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Birds Do Forget

When you've been around birds enough you have some odd experiences. Here is one of them.

So there's a Bullock's oriole up in a tree. It very clearly sees me walk up to the tree, in fact it interrupts its feeding to glare at me for a few seconds (and trust me its pretty obvious when a bird is looking at you and knows you are there). So then it continues feeding, [insert 4 minutes of observation here] and then it apparently forgets I'm there.

I say that because it flies down to a branch right in front of my face, freezes, freaks out because it sees me close, and darts off a few trees down and then never lets me get close ever again. But it knew I was there originally, so surely this never should have happened. If you are picking weeds from the garden and see a bee's nest in the tree nearby, you are not going to get up after picking the dandelions and then walk straight into the bee's nest because you forgot it was there. (And yes you'd probably run away as soon as you saw the bee's nest but still).*

 Happens this one is a pretty bird to look at too.

It's an earwig. Yum.

*I was previously going to use an adder on a path as an example but no one in California knows what that is so...