Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Peek-a-boo with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Ramona


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Ramona, California. December 25, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Two weeks ago I swung by Collier County Park in unincorporated downtown Ramona, California (population 20,000 to 34,000 depending upon what is included), a rather rural farming community east of Escondido. Over a million chickens are raised at one of four egg ranches (there used to be 50 egg ranches in the 1970's). One dairy remains. Wine grapes are a popular new crop. There are many avocado and citrus orchards. And Thoroughbred horses are raised.

I was seeking a reported vagrant woodpecker--the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the form of sapsucker found primarily from the Rocky Mountains eastward. I did not find it, primarily because there was some kind of memorial or public speaking going on right in the middle of the park by what appeared to be 60-year-old hippies. (I'm much better at identifying birds than people--I wonder who they really were!).

The disappointment of not finding the sapsucker was more than made up in my mind by having a Zone-tailed Hawk dive into a Eucalyptus after House Sparrows and then be escorted out of town by a group of crows. Zone-tailed Hawks look--and fly--uncannily like Turkey Vultures, and even fly with them! It happened so fast I didn't get a photo (again!). It was my second sighting of a Zone-tailed Hawk--a rare annual winter visitor here.

So I made another stop this week and "found" the sapsucker. It was very wary, and did not want to be spied upon. The photo above is all I got as it peeked around the trunk of a California Pepper Tree (native to the Peruvian Andes, so how did it get this name?) and kept hiding from me. Still, it is identifiable from this photo. The most similar species is Red-naped Sapsucker. It is told from that species by lack a red nape, which would be at the back of the head where it is white in this bird. Also, this bird has a red throat (not visible) completely surrounded by the black border (which is visible). If this was Red-naped Sapsucker, the red of the throat would bleed through the black border onto the white cheek.

This is my third sighting of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The first was another vagrant in Bay City, Oregon on January 12, 2002. The second was at an expected location, Walker Valley, New York on October 14, 2004.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Red-shouldered Hawk in Ramona


Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk. Ramona, California. December 25, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Red-shouldered Hawks are probably the most-common hawk in residential shade trees, riparian woodlands, and agricultural edges of California. At least, they are not any less common than Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels, though not as widespread into open areas and grasslands. They are a bit more tolerant of people than many other raptors.

I found this handsome adult in Collier County Park in Ramona. The breast and belly is finely barred with rusty orange; the back and wing coverts are strikingly barred black and white.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Monday, December 29, 2014

Winter Sage Sparrow identification dilemma: Sagebrush or Bell's Sparrow?

Bell's Sparrow
Presumed Bell's Sparrow (canescens). Borrego Springs, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Note the sharply-defined black malar and unstreaked back.
In 2013 the American Ornithologists' Union split the Sage Sparrow into Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) of the Great Basin and NW states, and Bell's Sparrow (A. belli) found in California and western Nevada.

The Bell's Sparrow includes the dark nominate form (A. b. belli), a resident of coastal California, and the migratory "Mojave" form (A. b. canescens) of eastern California and western Nevada--a "tweener" population, genetically more similar to Bell's than Sagebrush. But ID can be tricky, especially in winter when both forms (nevadensis and canescens) mix together on the wintering grounds in the American SW deserts (from central Arizona west to SE California, and NW Mexico).

This past week I had the opportunity to observe over 50 birds in 3 locations around Borrego Springs in eastern San Diego County. Well, I saw that many birds, but certainly not very well--they prefer low scattered creosote and other desert bushes in the sand. I tried photographing as many as I could during my (unsuccessful) search for LeConte's and Crissal Thrashers. The desert at dawn was just below freezing, but warmed quickly to about 60 degrees by late morning.

When submitting my reports to eBird of Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows from this field trip, I received this reply: 
Despite recent papers describing A. b. canescens (Bell's Sparrow) and nevadensis (Sagebrush Sparrow) in museum trays, many Southern California experts feel strongly that such winter birds cannot be diagnosed to species in the field without a strongly supportive series of photos.  Phil Unitt wrote in the San Diego Bird Atlas: "Patten & Unitt found too much overlap between nevadensis and canescens for the latter to be distinguished.” 

While there is much overlap, some expert feel that with excellent photos of the front, back and sides that it *might* be possible to assign a species to limited birds.  Therefore, each observation of wintering Bell's (A. b. canescens) or Sagebrush (A. nevadensis) must to be carefully supported with a good series of photos per individual before record confirmation is considered in eBird.
This is certainly commendable restraint to the data integrity of eBird. However, I've never been one to shy away from bird identification when it was difficult. In fact, just the opposite.

One of the "recent papers" in the eBird reply is probably Peter Pyle's preliminary ID discussion based on museum specimens. (pdf here)

My summary of his findings...
"It appears a combination of bolder back streaking and reduced malar can be used to separate most or all nevadensis from most or all canescens....I did not find any intermediates in fresh plumage [September-December] that could not be placed to species."
On the other hand, Patten and Unitt's paper (pdf here), not only argued that nevadensis and canescens weren't good subspecies (before the split), they argued that the definition of subspecies was too broad. They argued against mean differences as the determining factor for subspecies recognition and for diagnosability exclusively.

Patten and Unitt looked primarily at mantle shade, wing cord, and back streaking. However, their definition of back streaking was in an all-or-nothing manner, not degree. Thus, they said belli has a streaked back, when other authors use the unstreaked (or faintly streaked) back as an identification mark for belli to separate it from the significantly streaked back of nevadensis. They used wing cord for size determination and found more overlap than previous authors between nevadensis and canescens, and showed a cline for this measurement.

So, with eBirds warnings and Pyle's encouraging words, I dove right in. The top photo I believe is Bell's (canescens) and the photo immediately following I believe to be Sagebrush (nevadensis).

Sagebrush Sparrow
Presumed Sagebrush Sparrow. Borrego Springs, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Note the striped back and paler more diffuse malar.
For comparison, below are two photos of breeding Sagebrush Sparrows (A. nevadensis) from SE Oregon. The first shows a stronger malar (lateral throat) stripe than typical. And you can't see back stripes from this angle. There are dark interior shaft streaks on the lesser coverts and scapulars--these are wing feathers, though, not back feathers.

Sagebrush Sparrow
Confirmed Sagebrush Sparrow. Malheur NWR, Oregon. May 26, 2007. Greg Gillson.
This individual has a stronger darker malar than most.
This second photo of Sagebrush Sparrow (below) is typical, showing a weak malar and strongly striped back.

Sagebrush Sparrow
Confirmed Sagebrush Sparrow. Malheur NWR, Oregon. May 27, 2009. Greg Gillson.
Note the densely streaked back and weak malar, typical of this species.
So now, for eBird documentation, I will show a series of photos of the best photographed presumed Sagebrush and Bell's (canescens) Sparrows.

I photographed 9 different birds. Of these I believe 3 show characters of Bell's (canescens) and 3 show characteristics of Sagebrush. Three others don't show the right angle or are out-of-focus enough that I can't tell, though 2 of them I lean towards Bell's. All non-photographed birds, as well as ambiguous ones go down on my eBird list as Sagebrush/Bell's Sparrow (Sage Sparrow).

I have selected the 2 best series of photos of both presumed Bell's and presumed Sagebrush sparrows.

Bird A, presumed Bell's (canescens): Photos 9784, 9786, 9787, 9788
Old Springs Road Open Space Preserve, Borrego Springs, San Diego County, California
December 26, 2014.
[Click photos for full-sized view.]

Bell's Sparrow

Bell's Sparrow

Bell's Sparrow

Bell's Sparrow

Bird B, presumed Sagebrush: Photos 9790, 9791, 9792, 9794
Old Springs Road Open Space Preserve, Borrego Springs, San Diego County, California
December 26, 2014.
[Click photos for full-sized view.]

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Eurasian Wigeon at Lake Hodges

Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Wigeon. Lake Hodges, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
The Eurasian Wigeon replaces the American Wigeon as a common duck in Europe and Asia. Some of the Arctic Asian breeding Eurasian Wigeons, however, migrate south via Alaska to winter along the West Coast of North America. Likewise, a smaller number of European breeders make their way via Greenland to winter along the Atlantic coasts of North America.

In San Diego the Eurasian Wigeon is a rare bird, but not overly so. It averages up to about 10 reports per year. I actually saw one in January, so this is my second of the year. Both birds I had heard about in advance. This bird, however, was only reported once, in late November, without any follow up. So I decided to see if it was still around.

For identification comparison, here is a recent photo of American Wigeons at Woodland Park in San Marcos.

American Wigeon
American Wigeon. San Marco, California. November 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Wigeons usually occur in large flocks consisting of bright adult males and duller immature males and brown females. Rather than concentrating on finding that cinnamon head of Eurasian Wigeon in all those many gray and brown-headed ducks, it is easier to scan for the pale gray sides among all the pinkish-sided American Wigeons.

Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Wigeon. Lake Hodges, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Don't make this ID mistake, though! The duck below is Green-winged Teal. It is smaller than a wigeon, but has gray sides and chestnut head. I've seen beginners misidentify the abundant teal as the rare wigeon.

Green-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal. Hillsboro, Oregon. February 16, 2009. Greg Gillson.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Birding Site Guides to San Diego, California

This post will serve as an index to all the birding site guides to San Diego County that I write--past and future!

There are several lists and site guides to the best bird watching locations in San Diego. The most comprehensive is that by Mary Beth Stowe. They are a little dated (last updated about 2008) but still excellent. What I found for me, though, was that the textual directions really needed maps. And with everyone now having GPS to direct them, exact addresses were also needed. Other bird finding site guides to San Diego may list birding hotspots but didn't really explain exactly where to park and if there was a fee to do so.

So my site guides have maps (regional and trail), directions and exact addresses for GPS driving to the parking lot. Fees and access times are listed. Then, for each site, these guides give the best suggestions for how and exactly where to find birds in San Diego.

Here then is the list of my birding site guides (and trip reports) to the San Diego region. New site guide links will be added to the top as they are written.

* Los Jilgueros Preserve, Fallbrook (November 2016) site guide

* Hiking Palomar Mountain (September 2016) site guide

* Famosa Slough (September 2016) site guide

* Tijuana River mouth from Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach (July 2016) site guide

* Dixon Lake, Escondido (June 2016) site guide

* Highland Valley Road: Coast-to-Crest Trail (June 2016) site guide

* Pelagic trip: May 21, 2016 (June 2016) trip report

* Cuyamaca Peak (May 2016) site guide

* Kit Carson Park, Escondido (May 2016) site guide

* A visit to La Jolla Cove (May 2016) scenic trip report

* San Dieguito River Park--Coast to Crest Trail (April 2016) site guide

* All day birding the Tijuana River Valley and Imperial Beach area (April 2016) trip report

* Black Canyon Bridge (April 2016) mini site guide

* All day birding San Diego's North County (March 2016) trip report

* Old Mission Dam and Kumeyaay Lake (September 2015) site guide

* Finding Gray Vireos on Kitchen Creek Road (June 2015) site guide

* Trip report: San Diego pelagic: May 16, 2015 (May 2015) trip report

* Birds of Black Canyon Road, Ramona (May 2015) site guide

* Some birds of Stonewall Mine (April 2015) trip report

* Palomar Observatory (April 2015) trip report

* Borrego Springs (3 parts; April 2015) trip report

* Guajome Regional Park, Oceanside (March 2015) site guide

* Bayshore Bikeway, 7th & 13th Street, Imperial Beach (February 2015) site guide

* Lake Hodges--Bernardo Bay area (February 2015) site guide

* South End of Salton Sea--Imperial County (January 2015) trip report

* Mesquite Bosque and Borrego Springs WTP (January 2015) site guide

* Point La Jolla Seawatch (December 2014) site guide

* Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery (September 2014) site guide

* Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument (September 2014) trip report

* Pelagic trip from San Diego: What's it like? (September 2014) trip report

* Palomar Mountain State Park (July 2014) trip report

* Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center (May 2014) site guide

* San Elijo Lagoon (April 2014) site guide

* Tijuana River Valley Regional Park: Bird & Butterfly Garden (March 2014) site guide

* San Diego River Mouth (February 2014) site guide

* Crown Point Park (January 2014) site guide

* Ramona Grasslands Preserve (January 2014) site guide

* San Luis Rey River Mouth, Oceanside (January 2014) site guide

Monday, December 22, 2014

California Thrashers at Lake Hodges

California Thrasher
California Thrasher singing at dawn. Discovery Lake, San Marcos, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
California Thrashers are not abundant, but rather widespread, in brushy chaparral throughout most of California and NW Baja. As with most thrashers, they stay rather low to the ground and hidden for the most part, only choosing a perch higher in a bush to sing at dawn. My previous photos of this species have been partial views through the bushes.

California Thrasher

How exciting it was, then, to have a pair of these birds out in the open feeding on the ground only 15 feet away! This was at Lake Hodges in Rancho Bernardo, just south of Escondido.

California Thrasher

Rather more brownish than gray, the dark eye helps separate it from other similar long-billed, paler gray, desert thrashers of the American Southwest. The under tail coverts are described as the color "tawny," which is a pale brown or brownish-orange. Okay, butterscotch colored maybe.

California Thrasher
California Thrasher. Lake Hodges, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
These are fairly big birds--12 inches long--an inch longer, bill tip to tail tip, than a Western Scrub-Jay. They have ample tails. And that bill! Quite the eating implement--curved tweezers that it swings from side to side turning over the leaf litter, or probes down into the soil, to find insects and seeds.

California Thrasher at Lake Hodges, photo by Greg Gillson

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Northern Shoveler at Woodland Park, San Marcos

Northern Shoveler
Adult male Northern Shoveler. San Marcos, California. November 27, 2014. Greg Gillson
Here is a common local bird. The drake Northern Shoveler is quite a striking duck. The photo above is commonly called the breeding plumage, though some have argued that the drake's breeding plumage is actually the camouflage-brown coloring similar to the female, the so-called "eclipse" plumage.

Below is an immature male Northern Shoveler, very similar to the adult male's eclipse plumage. Note the yellow eye and black bill of the male.

Northern Shoveler
Immature male Northern Shoveler. San Marcos, California. November 27, 2014. Greg Gillson
For comparison, here are a couple female or hen Northern Shovelers from Oregon a few years ago. Note the orange bill and brown eye of the female.

Northern Shoveler
Female Northern Shovelers. Forest Grove, Oregon. October 19, 2010. Greg Gillson.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red-eared Sliders

red-eared slider
Red-eared Sliders. San Marcos, California. November 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
These turtles were sunning themselves at Woodland Park in San Marcos on a recent visit.

Native to the SE United States and northern Mexico, they are the most-common turtle pets in the US, and popular as pets in the rest of the world, as well. Unfortunately, they escape or are released into the wild and out-compete native turtles. They are listed as one of the 100 most-invasive species in the world--not a good list to be on. (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

eBird: Target Species

I don't know when it appeared, but a new function on eBird, "Target Species," has some really exciting applications.

If you don't know about eBird, I wrote 20 posts about eBird, and how to get the most out of it, from 2010-2012 on my (now inactive) Pacific NW Birder blog. Suffice it to say, I said, without hyperbole: "eBird is an absolutely indispensable real time world-wide bird status and distribution tool."

I've been living in San Diego County, now, for just over a year. Here's a question I want to know: What species that I haven't seen yet are the easiest to find in the county? Even more practical: What birds that I haven't seen yet in the county are the most likely for me to find next month?

Those questions are answered with the Target Species function in eBird. What did I learn?

The top 5 reported birds in the county, for the entire year, that I haven't seen yet are these:
1. Snowy Plover
2. Lawrence's Goldfinch
3. Red-crowned Parrot
4. Hermit Warbler
5. Canyon Wren

Well, it's winter now, so I'm not going to see some of these birds as easily now as later in the year. So, how about I use this eBird function to plan birding trips next month to look for some of these "easy" ones? What are the top 5 reported birds in January that I have yet to see in San Diego County?

1. Snowy Plover
2. Reddish Egret
3. Green-tailed Towhee
4. Red-crowned Parrot
5. Virginia Rail

Now, I have a reasonable list of target birds to look for in the next month or so. I can use eBird Needs Alert and the San Diego Region Birding email list to learn of recent reports of these birds. I can also use the eBird map function to map all previous reports and look at only winter.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Birding Site Guide: Point La Jolla seawatch

Point La Jolla, California. Looking west-southwest. December 7, 2014. Greg Gillson.
In the northern part of the metropolis of San Diego is the affluent seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. It had the highest home prices in the nation in 2008 and 2009, where a standardized 4-bedroom home would sell for over 2 million dollars. This hilly community overlooks the ocean and rocky cliffs and tide pools. The average daytime temperature is 70.5 degrees Fahrenheit (Wikipedia).

This is a popular tourist destination with a sidewalk on the bluffs along a half-mile or so of the coastline, with two small sand beaches and some tide pools.


Scripps Park is a popular grassy area to picnic (or have your wedding). It also serves as the base for watching seabirds from shore on the west edge of La Jolla Cove ("A" in satellite photo below). The far left sandy beach in the photo ("B" below) is the Children's Pool near Seal Rock. It was taken over by Harbor Seals and they now "own" the beach, and people are not allowed. There is a walkway here down to the tide pools.


Getting there: From I-5 Northbound out of downtown San Diego take the Torrey Pines Exit. Or, from Hwy 52 go west to La Jolla Parkway, which becomes Torrey Pines Rd. Then head southwest on Torrey Pines Rd, right on Prospect, right on Coast Blvd to Scripps Park, La Jolla Cove, and Childrens Pool on Coast Blvd.  Parking: Very limited FREE street parking along Coast Blvd. If you arrive at sunrise, especially on a weekday, you shouldn't have trouble finding a close spot. Hours: Seabirds are best from dawn to as late as 9:00 am. After that you may find rocky-type shorebirds, gulls, cormorants, crowds, and not much parking. Map navigation: Scripps Park is 1133 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, California. Children's Pool is 303 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, California.

Where to bird: The main seabird watching spot is the farthest north portion of Point La Jolla on the sidewalk adjacent to the grassy Scripps Park area ("A" in satellite photo above). If you go at dawn, chances are good that Stan Walen--as he has for over a quarter century--will be sitting on the bench there scoping out seabirds that fly west past the Point (see photo below).

You can scan the open ocean for seabirds from near the Children's Pool ("B" in photo above) if winds blowing offshore and no birds are near or inside Point La Jolla. 

Notes on seabirding: This is a good place for seabirds during late fall migration and winter [November-December seem especially good]. You MUST be there at dawn. You also MUST watch birds primarily with a spotting scope.

Look again at the two accompanying photos. The large research boat in the photo below is about 1 and 1/2 miles north. One Brown Booby flew just in front of that boat and was the closest booby of the 8 seen that day. Loons and other birds flew much nearer. Gary Nunn's camera (on tripod with him below) has a 500mm lens and a 2x converter, giving his camera the equivalent of about 25x magnification. My scope there, left of Gary, is 20-60x zoom. Most of the time I set it about 40x and looked 2-3 miles west in the direction it is facing below.

Gary Nunn (standing, left) Stan Walens (sitting on bench, right) at Point La Jolla. Looking north.
Now go back to the very top photo. This is the view looking westward. The smooth water just about to the horizon are the kelp patties. I don't know if you can make it out, but just a bit right of center, 3 miles away at the horizon, is another smaller white boat, just beyond the kelp paddies. That is where many of the seabirds (boobies, shearwaters, and auklets) were flying by. With 8x binoculars I could sometimes make out the white headed and two-toned brown wings of adult Brown Pelicans at that distance. But I couldn't identify any other birds at that distance with just binoculars (except a couple of white egrets standing on the kelp).

Seawatching is often best during nasty weather with onshore winds blowing in your face, and blowing the birds closer to shore. A strong offshore breeze will have no nearshore birds. Fog is just as bad. Look for birds with naked eye or binoculars and switch to your scope when you see them.

To summarize
1. Dawn
2. Spotting scope
3. Patience and Practice

[For a post I wrote several years ago on this same topic, but from a different location, see Virtual Seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon.]

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Prairie Falcon on Rangeland Road, Ramona

Prairie Falcon

I drove down Rangeland Road outside Ramona 2 weeks ago and spotted this distant falcon on a rock. I had only binoculars and camera, not spotting scope. So, though I wanted it to be a Prairie Falcon--because I hadn't yet recorded it in the county--I couldn't immediately eliminate Peregrine Falcon.

While wishing doesn't make it so, desire does play into bird identification if one is not careful about poorly seen birds. Not wanting to make a mistake, I took several photos, moving the car to get different views and backgrounds.

When the bird flew it was pale brown with the dark wing-pits of Prairie Falcon--or so I convinced myself--but I waited until returning home to review the photos, before deciding for sure. It was just so far away. I just couldn't tell the exact shape of the cheek mark that would clinch the ID.

Prairie Falcon
Prairie Falcon. Ramona, Oregon. November 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Prairie Falcon is certainly not rare in San Diego County, but not as common as I would have thought. But this location, adjoining the Ramona Grasslands Preserve, is a favored spot.

This was my San Diego County Life Bird #269 and County Year Bird #259.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ferruginous Hawk on Rangeland Road

Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk. Rangeland Rd, Ramona, California. November 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
On the edge of the Ramona Grasslands Preserve is a dead end road through pastureland with large scattered boulders. It is a great area for raptors and grassland birds. [Birding site guide here.]

On a quick recent visit I found this Ferruginous Hawk on a power pole. This is a regular wintering species here, October to March.

I love the rufous leg feathers and wing coverts on this prairie loving hawk.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I went birding at San Diguito Lagoon... and all I got was this lousy photo

Red-breasted Merganser. San Diguito Lagoon, San Diego Co., California. November 16, 2014. Greg Gillson.
A couple of weeks ago I visited the San Diguito Lagoon for about an hour. There had been a Pacific Golden-Plover reported there. It is a fairly common rarity--if that makes any sense--reported an average of about 10 times per year.

Well, I didn't see the plover there when I looked. And this merganser pic was the only photograph that was any good of only a very few I took. A female Red-breasted Merganser, a fairly common common bird, rather than a fairly common rare bird.

I had spent the early morning hiking up the Way Up Trail at the Elfin Forest. I don't have to do that again. It was a steep and rocky mile long trail gaining 500 feet elevation with chaparral--a rather common habitat. And fairly birdless. I did manage to hear a Varied Thrush in the parking lot. I should have spent the morning there, along the creek. Varied Thrush is also a rather rare bird with an average of about 10 reports per year. This year, however, they are being reported widely--as are Pine Siskins, though I haven't heard or seen any of these latter birds yet.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Palm trees in San Diego

Fan Palm
The ubiquitous and iconic palm trees that line the streets of towns in southern California are not native. Requiring access to water, they were not widely planted in California until the 20th century.

About 40% of the large ornamental palm trees in the San Diego area of California are Mexican Fan Palms (Washingtonia robusta). The fan palms have large fan-like leaves. The old dead fronds form a skirt that must be cut from the trunk, leaving a rough spiky trunk.

Another 40% are Queen Palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana), native to South America. Queen palms have a soft look due to the droopy leaves. The dead palm fronds trim off completely, leaving a smooth trunk.

Queen Palm
About 10% of large palms in San Diego are Canary Island Date Palms (Phoenix canariensis). The Canary Island date palms have very thick trunks and long, thin, stiff fronds. They are often trimmed so they look like a pineapple. Some of the streets in neighborhoods close to the ocean in San Diego are lined primarily this species.

Canary Island Date Palm
The final 8% or so are King Palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), native to Australia. King Palms look similar to queen palms but have stiff, flat leaves. The dead fronds trim completely, leaving a smooth pale trunk.

King Palm
There are over 2800 species of palm trees, but the 4 species above make up about 98% of all the large palms found in and near the city of San Diego.

Out at Borrego Springs in the desert they grow a lot of edible Date Palms (Phoenix dactylifera). And there is a rare native California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) in some of the nearby desert oases canyons in the Anza-Borrego Desert--the only native palm in California.

Small palms

Not included in the above list of large palms are the Pygmy Date Palms (Phoenix roebelenii), native to Southeast Asia. It is as numerous as all the other palms combined. A cute little palm that barely reaches 7 feet tall is perfect for residential landscaping. They are easy to trim and the seeds aren't as messy as the larger palms--or, rather, the berry-like seeds do not get scattered as widely as the tall palms.

Pygmy Date Palm
Finally, there is the fairly popular Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta), which isn't really a palm at all, but a cycad--an ancient plant form--a gymnosperm related to conifers. Most are smaller, but some reach over 8 feet.

Sago Palm

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving visit to the beach: Oceanside, California

Oceanside, California
Oceanside, California.
I have today "off" from work.... Well, except for opening the clubhouse this morning and then cleaning and opening the pool. And, of course, locking it all up tonight. And then I have to be available for the party in the clubhouse this afternoon and evening. And I have to be reachable in case of any emergencies. Other than that, I mean, I have today off from work.

As proof, I submit the photo above that I took on the beach about 10 o'clock this morning. The beach wasn't crowded even though the temperature was already almost 80 degrees. Seas were very mild, but the young surfers were in force in the shallows.

A group of Royal Terns (below) shared the beach with the morning beach goers.

I'm back home now at noon, listening to the Lions show up the Bears. It is 90 degrees, here, 15 miles inland. Boy, I love living in San Diego!

Royal Tern
Royal Terns. Oceanside, California. November 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Marbled Godwit at San Elijo Lagoon

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit. San Elijo Lagoon, San Diego Co., California. November 9, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I haven't had much time to watch birds in recent weeks. I did get out for an hour a couple of weeks ago while Marlene was getting a haircut! The low afternoon light was pleasant for this shorebird near the nature center.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Saturday, November 15, 2014

ID: Elegant, Royal, and Caspian Terns

Elegant Tern
Juvenile Elegant Tern. Oceanside, California. September 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Black hind crown feathers encircle eye. Thin, yellower bill.
Royal, Elegant, and Caspian terns are three of the larger, common terns, on southern California beaches. They are quite similar. Recently I photographed both Elegant and Royal terns at the pier in Oceanside and I show them here, along with older photos of Caspian Tern.

Caspian Terns are regular throughout the year, especially common in summer. Elegant and Royal terns were formerly more restricted in timing. Elegant Terns were most common from July through October and Royal Terns were most common from November through February (Birds of Southern California: Status and Distribution. 1981. Kimball Garrett and Jon Dunn).

But in more recent years both Elegant and Royal terns have expanded their presence. eBird data for San Diego County (below) shows Elegant Terns occur from March into November and Royal Terns are expected throughout the year, though slightly less common in spring.


Caspian Terns are larger than Royal and Elegant terns. The length (bill tip to tail tip) shows some difference (Caspian 21 in., Royal 20 in., Elegant 17 in.), but wing span gives a better idea of the size difference (Caspian 50 in., Royal 41 in., Elegant 34 in.). The smaller Elegant Tern is more delicate, quite obvious in flight.

In flight, the undersides of the primaries are mostly black in Caspian Terns. In Royal Terns the outer primaries are black underneath, but the base is pale. The undersides of the primaries of Elegant Terns are mostly pale with only black tips.

The bill of Caspian Tern is red-orange and heavy. The bill of Elegant Tern is yellow-orange, rather slender and slightly down turned. The bill of Royal Tern is orange, in between Caspian and Elegant in thickness.

Royal Tern
Adult non-breeding Royal Tern. Oceanside, California. September 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Eye separated from black hind crown. Stout orange bill.
The black crown on these terns important to note. In breeding plumage (April to June) the black cap covers the entire crown of all three of these terns. But non-breeding birds and juvenile Royal and Elegant terns have the black cap reduced to the hind crown.

Non-breeding Royal Terns have the most reduced black crown, with white around the eye and a short black crest on the hind crown. Elegant Terns have black feathers around the eyes and a longer black crest on the hind crown. Caspian Terns in non-breeding plumage never show a fully white forehead as do the other two terns. Instead the fully black crown is streaked with white.

Caspian Tern
Adult Caspian Tern. August 7, 2009. Newport, Oregon. Greg Gillson.
Note Heavy reddish bill.