Friday, January 19, 2018

Humpback Whale off San Diego

On January 1st I participated in a pelagic birding trip from San Diego Bay traveling about 15 miles offshore from La Jolla, and back.

We spotted a couple of whales--both Gray and Humpback. Here is a series of photos of one of the Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whale blowhole to dorsal fin
Upon surfacing the whale blows immediately with not much body visible above the water. This is a moment later. Blowholes visible on the top of the head (right), and the upper back to the dorsal fin (hump).
Humpback Whale dorsal fin
The rather sharp triangular peak of the dorsal fin on the back of Humpback Whale. Diagnostic.
Humpback Whale flukes
Strongly curved end of the flukes also identify Humpback Whales. It's not a tail... whales don't have tails. The underside of the flukes (not visible in this photo) are patterned white and dark, each individualized as a fingerprint. The flukes only rise above the water like this when the whale dives. It will remain down for 10 minutes or so after this view.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My 10 best bird photos of 2017

Capturing a good bird photo requires a close subject, good lighting, an uncluttered background, and a well-posed bird. A wildlife photographer doesn't often have very much control over the conditions and the subject. So, a bit of luck is also required.

Travel back in time with me to last year and view my best photos of the year...

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican. Mission Bay, California. January 1, 2017.
I started New Years Day 2017 with the annual pelagic trip sponsored by the San Diego Field Ornithologists. While the just-completed 2018 trip started in dense fog, the 2017 trip out of Mission Bay was sunny. This pelican caught the low morning sun in the harbor as we departed.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl. San Diego River mouth, San Diego, California. January 1, 2017.
After the pelagic trip I stopped nearby to look for the Burrowing Owl I had missed a couple of weeks earlier. It was right there in the ice plant where everyone else had reported it! Easy to photograph as it was not 8 feet off the road with bikers and dog walkers going by continuously all winter.

Western Bluebird
Male Western Bluebird. Escondido, California. January 3, 2017.
On the pelagic trip Nancy C. gave me a tip on where I might have a good vantage point to photograph Zone-tailed Hawks that roost in winter at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They roost with Turkey Vultures in the Park, then fly out with them in late morning. I arrived too early, and had to leave well before noon--a better time, perhaps. But this Western Bluebird was a nice consolation. It really wasn't; but it was a nice photo, nonetheless.

Mountain Bluebird
Female Mountain Bluebird. Ramona, California. January 29, 2017.
Near the Ramona Grasslands Preserve is a farmland road of exactly 1 mile that is always worth a stop in winter for hawks, geese, and rather rare Mountain Bluebirds. This makes a nice complement to the Western Bluebird from earlier in the month.

Male Ring-necked Duck. Escondido, California. March 28, 2017.
Female Ring-necked Duck. Escondido, California. March 28, 2017.
In late March I caught a sunny morning with numerous ducks at Kit Carson Park in Escondido. I couldn't decide whether the bright male Ring-necked Duck was my favorite, or whether it was the simpler brown female. So I present them both here.

Yellow-breasted Chat. San Pasqual Valley, California. April 5, 2017.
In early April I birded the Highland Valley Trail in the San Dieguito River Park near Escondido. I was surprised and delighted to find an early Yellow-breasted Chat singing away. It was even better to get several very good photos.

Marbled Godwit. Imperial Beach, California. July 16, 2017.
Marlene was missing the miles of nearly-empty beaches we formerly enjoyed in Oregon. That's a bit difficult where every day is a beautiful day, and most of the population lives within 15 minutes of the beaches. So I took Marlene to the beach at the mouth of the Tijuana River in Imperial Beach. Though it is about a 45 minute drive from our home, it is Marlene's favorite. There are very few people on the beach and there are usually some interesting shells washed up. We ended up visiting several times during the year.

California Gnatcatcher. Escondido, California. October 11, 2017.
Sometimes the secret of getting a good bird photo is just to take lots of photos. The California Gnatcatcher is an endangered bird of San Diego's coastal sage scrub habitat. This is a habitat that is being plowed under for housing developments. So I take photos every time I see and hear these birds. They are tiny and active, crawling through the brush and peeing out from the foliage. So I'm pleased with this photo without a distracting branch cutting across the face as is typical for most of my photos of this species.

Rock Wren. Ramona, California. November 26, 2017.
Another run out to Rangeland road in Ramona provided me with Mountain Bluebirds, a Merlin, and a Burrowing Owl. Plus, I got excellent photos of a Rock Wren that seemed as curious about me as I was about it.

This completes my favorite photos from the year 2017. I'm impressed that it includes none of the photogenic and abundant herons and egrets. Though I do have many photos of them, too. I think I attended 4 or 5 ocean birding boat trips last year. I didn't come up with any truly extraordinary at-sea photos this year. Though a Brown Booby off San Diego would probably make this list if expanded to the top 12 birds. And I didn't travel much outside San Diego County this past year, so all the best photos were near home. I hope you enjoyed these!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Rarity: Groove-billed Ani

On November 19th a visiting birder found a first-county record Groove-billed Ani in an infrequently-birded park in Encinitas. Word got out quickly and many birders saw the bird that first day.

I had the opportunity to chase it before work on the next day. I arrived just before 7:00 am, birded around the exact location and then birded farther away, up to a couple blocks into the nearby neighborhood. At 8:00 am I received word that the bird had just showed up sunning itself in the exact place everyone had been looking for it during the previous hour. I was able to watch the bird for another half hour before needing to return home to get ready for work.

Groove-billed Ani in Encinitas, San Diego County, California November 2017
Groove-billed Ani. Encinitas, California. November 20, 2017. Greg Gillson.
The first thing to get out of the way is the pronunciation of the word "ani." According to an article in Birding magazine (Birding 1990) it is pronounced AH-nee and not ANN-ee or AY-nee. Okay. Good.

Close up of the bill of a Groove-billed Ani

There are three ani species found primarily in tropical America. Two, Smooth-billed Ani and Groove-billed Ani, reach the United States. The photo above shows the grooves in the unusual deeply keeled bill.

Groove-billed Ani warming in the early morning sun

Anis, like roadrunners, are in the cuckoo family. The loose plumage and floppy tail is typical. These birds fly weakly and wobbly, and often run and feed on the ground. Indeed, some photographers got great pictures of it eating a very large grasshopper on the ground. During the time I observed this bird, however, it was content to sit still, fluff up, and soak up the warm sun while looking around at all the birders about 25-30 feet away.

Groove-billed Ani

Groove-billed Anis (Wikipedia page here) are found from southern Texas and southern Sonora southward to Ecuador and Peru. During winter the birds in Texas and northern Mexico retreat southward. While rare, they are known to wander widely in fall, from Florida to California, occasionally very far north of the normal range (Minnesota, northern Ontario, New Jersey).

Groove-billed Ani

Of course, this close to Tijuana (where all kinds of birds are sold as "pets"), one must always ask about the origin of this bird.

Fortunately, while a first record for San Diego County, it fits nicely in the pattern of occurrence of other California and Southwest records from early September through December, with a peak in October.

There are 12 accepted previous California sightings reviewed by the California Bird Records Committee. Eight (nine?) of the sightings are for fall (13 September-16 November). In addition, at least twice California birds have stayed through the winter. The most recent three previous California records seem to be 2015, 1998, and 1995. So this is only the second record in 20 years.

And the bird is still being seen, so maybe it will spend the winter!