Sunday, January 11, 2015

Antique Roadshow

In other notes, I embarked on a little adventure today to cover some local interests. The first stop was the all-too familiar Marina del Rey, a coastal estuary location that has proven itself many times before. My last visit here was to view the vagrant blue-footed boobies that had set up on the outer breakwater.

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The target for this location was the "penguin"-like seabird better known as the ancient murrelet, a member of a small group of oceanic seabirds. If you thought that was hard to pronounce, try its scientific name Synthliboramphus antiquus! The name murrelet is an expanded term that originated from murre, the American name for guillemot (similar to auk and auklet). What I can't tell you is what the name "murre" actually means. I also can't tell you why the ancient murrelet got its name, whether it is because it is a member of a fairly primitive group of diving birds or whether it is the "elderly" markings on the head as Wikipedia might suggest. All I can tell you is that "auk" is thought to come from an ancient Norse word! 
Though ancient murrelets are annual winter visitors in this part of California, they are incredibly erratic, often rare, and well, well out to sea. The finding of just one this close to shore, let alone several hundred metres from the sea in a marina was a spectacle. The "twitchability" of the bird in that it stuck around in one place for a rather long time made it rather popular. In a matter of days this bird, a star performer by itself, has been accompanied by 6 others of its own kind. 
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I approached Marina del Rey in the usual fashion, walking from Pacific Avenue (the "Playa del Rey" side) and over the bridge to the cycling path. A preening male bufflehead had caught the light perfectly, its usual black hood lit up with a seldom-seen iridescence. 

Along the bike path I asked birders along here if they had seen the birds, and some said they had, albeit distant hazy views deep into the marina itself. The troubling part was that these views were from some serious looking scopes, a certain league of equipment that I did personally carry, nor did I come close to matching with my current camera. The birds were a good kilometer away from my current position, an impossible distance to see such a minute creature. 

Summary map of the area in question. Parking at the white circle. Yellow square indicates viewing point
of 1km to birds. Dotted yellow rectangle indicates the ideal viewing location in the circumstances, with
the white line detailing my eventual path to reach this location.
An escapade through a labyrinth of apartments, closed off coastguard areas and dead ends later and I was finally in place to see them. They were quite obvious once in range, with a group of 3 at first followed by a group of 2. As time ticked on the groups seemed to split and reform so it did get a bit confusing as to how many birds were actually present, but I can vouch for at least 5! The nearest views were about 40 meters before a kayak-er ignorantly passed right through the center and shooed them off much further out. I was impressed how close the kayaker got before they dived away! He must have been only a few meters off them. Now if only I had a kayak...






One of the more abundant residents in the Marina today was the surf scoter, a type of ocean-going duck. It is a rather uncommon bird for me so I always appreciate seeing them, though they are not too rare overall. Here is the female which traveled beneath me while I was watching the murrelets:



In comparison the male is far more striking:



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This would-be series of paragraphs featuring missed birds in boring nondescript locations is not interesting enough to type.
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The other success of the day was searching for the continuing Pacific wren at Alma Park near Long Beach. Unlike the common Bewick's wren and house wren it is a stubby compact little bundle of feathers that pays better homage to the "original" European wren. The song and calls are quite similar as well! The bird was camping out in a corner of the park, a small shady corner no bigger than 2 meters or so squared. The park itself was tiny as well, it took about 20 seconds to walk to the other side from the car. An unfortunately placed bush obscured viewing, and you could only watch a fraction of the area at a time.

It took nearly 30 minutes before the bird was heard. A few observers saw a silhouette from their side of the bush for about 2 seconds. About 5 minutes later I then saw a little rusty figure from my side pop out of the lower hedgerow. I managed one single shot out of my camera before it flew up into the honeysuckle. I didn't have the zoom set at all, and all the settings were whatever they were before, but fortunately something decent came of it. Though a second picture later was a bit more interesting, and a little closer, so I'll show that one instead:

See if you can find it.

This remains one of two photographs I managed of the bird, here is the other one. It is frustratingly good at zipping in and out of cover! It even crossed the open twice but it was so fast that no one managed to raise binoculars in time. During this madness a white-throated sparrow briefly stopped by, a bird which is actually rarer than the Pacific wren. I took a few poor shots of it before returning to the wren, and unfortunately I did not see this newcomer a second time. I had seen the species before in Canada so it wasn't such a big deal.

All in all a decent day out, and a good start for 2015!

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