Sunday, May 31, 2015

Common Gallinule at San Luis Rey River Mouth

Les and Marlowe visited us for lunch last weekend on their road trip from Oregon. Afterwards we made an impromptu trip to the beach at the San Luis Rey River Mouth in Oceanside. While Marlene and Sabrina took Daphne to play on the nearby beach, Marlowe, Les, and I walked around the river mouth and Marlowe and I photographed some of the birds.

Marlowe just started birding a couple of years ago. Her life list was sitting at 199 after I showed her where to find a Hooded Oriole and Cassin's Kingbird in San Marcos. She was about to add several more species she had never seen before.

Marlowe's photos can be found on her blog: Marlowe's Bird Lists and Photos: "Trip to Southern California."

We spotted a duck-like bird with a red bill swimming in the river. Marlowe wasn't sure what it was, and I didn't tell her.

Common Gallinule
"What in the world could THAT be?"
I had her pay special attention to the shape of the bill and the feet. Hmm... it had a pointed bill that extended up the forehead. And look at those long toes!

Common Gallinule

If it doesn't have a flat bill like a duck, and doesn't have webbed feet like a duck, it must not be a duck! Marlowe then decided it might be in the rail family. But I didn't help her any more than that. The ID would be her homework. I do that sometimes.

Common Gallinule

This wasn't her only new bird. But I bet she remembers this first sighting for many years.

Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule. Oceanside, California. May 24, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

BirdLog to become FREE eBird Mobile

eBird is the indispensable tool of today's birders. Binoculars, field guide, eBird. There are some "that's not the way I watch birds" holdouts, but by and far, over the past 15 years or so, bird watching has come to be synonymous with eBird.

eBird logo

eBird is a free real-time online checklist program with powerful tools that let you keep track of your own bird lists. Its power comes from its ability to also see the range, frequency, and abundance of birds around the world as entered by tens of thousands of eBird users. On a recent "Global Big Day" on May 9, 2015 there were 13,664 eBird users that submitted 42,920 checklists that contained 6,013 different bird species. One. Single. Day.

For entering your eBird lists in the field, there is nothing better than the BirdLog smart phone app by Birds In the Hand, LLC. It first hit the market in March 2012. Frankly, it was the reason I purchased my first smart phone.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the host of eBird, recognizes the great utility of BirdLog, calling it "critical to eBird." Thus, the Lab obtained the rights to BirdLog and will make some changes and offer it FREE as eBird Mobile.

eBird Mobile is now in beta testing for iOS phones and will likely be available for Android phones soon. Since I have an Android phone I do not have a personal review for you of the beta version. In fact, I cannot find a review online... yet.

Keep watching!

See older posts of mine about eBird and BirdLog on the now-idle "Pacific NW Birder" blog:

"What is eBird?" November 15, 2010

"BirdLog 'Killer App' for eBirders" March 19, 2012

"eBird Best Practices: Using Birdlog" July 26, 2013

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Trip report: San Diego pelagic: May 16, 2015

In the past 40 years I have been out to sea looking for birds about 200 times--150 of those on organized tours I set up and ran myself from Oregon for 20 years. The tour on May 16th was run by the Buena Vista Audubon Society and I served as one of the guides. My assigned duty was keeping the official eBird list in the pelagic protocol. We ended up with 18 lists from each separate trip segment. Each checklist is a different area, direction, or hour-long segment. Links to each trip segment are included in the narrative below.

I'm still excited to join these pelagic birding trips. Having attended so many trips, though, it's hard for me to remember the excitement of my very first trip. Thus, I recommend also reading an account of this very same trip by a first-timer. Tommy DeBardeleben shares his excitement and mal de mer worries (The Big Year movie clip: "pitching and tossing") on his "Tommy D's Birding Expeditions" blog with the post: Deep Sea Birding -- The Grande Way.

Grande -- Point Loma Sport Fishing
The adventure begins! Birders aboard Grande in the Point Loma marina at dawn.
The boat left the marina about 6:00 a.m. and made its way out of the bay, leaders calling out the numerous water birds as they flew or swam by. A large flock of Western Gulls and Brown Pelicans accompanied us, enticed by the popcorn chum we threw out.

[eBird checklist for the marina]

[eBird checklist for lower San Diego Bay]

We passed close by Ballast Point and spotted the frequently-present Black Oystercatcher on the cobble beach. Then we headed out into the ocean toward the "whistle buoy" that often serves as a perch for Brown Boobies. But none were here today. Not to worry, we saw several throughout the day.

[eBird checklist for mouth of San Diego Bay]

The mouth of San Diego Bay faces due south. So our course continued SSW about 6 miles until we neared the Mexican border. We followed the border westward another few miles, finding a couple nearshore-loving Black-vented Shearwaters. In this area we also picked up our first Pink-footed Shearwaters and Scripps's Murrelets--birds that we would see occasionally throughout the day.

[eBird checklist southwest from the whistle buoy]

[eBird checklist following the border west]

Pink-footed Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater over Nine Mile Bank.
When we reached the south end of the Nine Mile Bank (an underwater mountain range) we followed it north about 5 miles, which took a bit more than half-an-hour to travel.

[eBird checklist WNW on Nine Mile Bank]

We dropped off into deeper water on the seaward side of the Nine Mile Bank and proceeded NW about 15 miles across a deeper plain known as the San Diego Trough.

[eBird checklist San Diego Trough]

Scripps's Murrelet
Scripps's Murrelet with chick over the San Diego Trough.
Bird numbers were rather scarce during the hour-long trek over the San Diego Trough. We did see quite a few Sooty Shearwaters, and Black Storm-Petrels flitted about, and we saw more Scripps's Murrelets and a few distant fly-away Cassin's Auklets.

After an hour we started up the shallower slope of the underwater mountain range known as the Thirty Mile Bank. There were more Black Storm-Petrels here, and a few of the guides spotted a couple of Ashy Storm-Petrels, too. The rapid shallow wing strokes and direct but twisty flight was noticeably different from the leisurely deep wing strokes and long wings of the Black Storm-Petrels, whose flight reminds me of Black Terns. Against the strong harsh sunlight, all the storm-petrels looked quite blackish, so flight style was a much more reliable way to identify these birds (and, indeed, the alcids and shearwaters, too).

[eBird checklist onto Thirty Mile Bank]

Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel as we neared the Thirty Mile Bank.
Sooty Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater as we neared the Thirty Mile Bank.
Sooty Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater as we neared the Thirty Mile Bank.
We then turned and followed the ridge line of Thirty Mile Bank northward.

[eBird checklist north on Thirty Mile Bank]

Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel over the Thirty Mile Bank.
Elegant Tern
Elegant Tern over the Thirty Mile Bank.
And we kept heading north until we eventually reached a point on Thirty Mile Bank where we were half way between Point Loma and the island of San Clemente--the imaginary line between San Diego County and Los Angeles County (San Clemente Island is part of Los Angeles County). There are often rafts of storm-petrels in this area, but none were found. This was the end point of our trip. We turned around and headed back into San Diego County waters again and toward the Nine Mile Bank.

[eBird checklist northern portion of San Diego County on Thirty Mile Bank]

[eBird checklist Los Angeles County on Thirty Mile Bank]

While heading back east across the San Diego Trough, we found a trio of Brown Boobies, and then another singleton.

[eBird checklist from Thirty Mile Bank east across the San Diego Trough]

Brown Booby
Brown Booby over the San Diego Trough.
Brown Booby
Brown Booby over the San Diego Trough.
It was another hour and a half across the San Diego Trough heading toward shore. We reached the "182 spot." This is the shallowest point on the north end of the Nine Mile Bank--182 fathoms x 6 feet = 1092 feet deep. We didn't stay long, though; there just weren't any birds here.

[eBird checklist another hour east across the San Diego Trough]

[eBird checklist chumming at 182 Spot]

It was 4:00 p.m. We'd been out 10 hours and our trip was nearly over. We were due back in port in just a little over 2 hours. And nothing of note had really been seen.

So we continued southeast on Nine Mile Bank. Two minutes later "Black-footed Albatross!" was called out on Grande's public address system. And as everyone was still excitedly scrambling to get good looks as it circled the boat a couple of times, another announcement screamed out on the PA: "Laysan Albatross!" -- a very rare bird indeed!

Black-footed Albatross
Black-footed Albatross with Western Gulls over Nine Mile Bank.
Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross over Nine Mile Bank.
Soon thereafter, I spied a second Black-footed Albatross at the horizon over a mile a way, winging toward the boat, low over the water. It took a few minutes to come, and eventually everyone was on it. It flew right up to the boat and joined the gulls feeding on popcorn.

[eBird checklist Nine Mile Bank Laysan Albatross location]

We spent about a half an hour stopped with the albatrosses around the boat. then we had to hurry back to port. We motored east. The albatrosses followed, falling back to inspect something, disappearing, then appearing minutes later to circle the boat and head away again.

[eBird checklist East from Nine Mile Bank toward shore]

I had noted a couple of Common Terns flying over a few times during our trip, but views were distant and brief. Finally we got close views of two sitting on floating seaweed.

Common Tern
Common Terns between Nine Mile Bank and Point Loma.
[eBird checklist within 3 miles of shore]

[eBird checklist back in the bay]

Trip Highlights

Greater White-fronted Goose 1 (harbor fly-over p.m.)
Laysan Albatross 1 (4th live county record?)
Black-footed Albatross 2
Black Storm-Petrel 84
Ashy Storm-Petrel 7
Brown Booby 10
Black Oystercatcher 1 (Ballast Point)
Royal Tern 6
Least Tern 24
Black Tern 2
Scripps's Murrelet 11
Cassin's Auklet 22
Rhinoceros Auklet 2

Map track of our route provided by Dave Povey.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Phainopepla at Mission Trails Park

I know, more Phainopepla photos...

But they are just so sleek and shiny, with that red eye, and imitable whistled "whit!" call. And, of course, they have a crest!

Phainopepla. Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, California. May 10, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tyrant Flycatchers at Mission Trails Park

Tyrant Flycatchers are the largest family of birds in the world with over 400 species in 97 genera. A New World family, most are found in the tropics of the Americas. Less than 50 species are found north of Mexico, and about half of those are rare visitors to the southern states bordering Mexico, and also Florida.

I photographed locally common representatives of 3 different genera of Tyrant Flycatchers recently.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego, California. May 10, 2015. Greg Gillson.
There are 15 species of Empidonax Flycatchers in the World, 11 are found north of Mexico. They are small and greenish with eye rings and wingbars. They are notoriously difficult to tell apart but the songs of males on the breeding territories are diagnostic, once learned.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe
There are only three flycatchers named Phoebe. All occur in North America.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Myiarchus Flycatchers are grayish-brown with rusty wing and tail edgings. There are 22 species in the world and 6 occur north of Mexico.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rare Bird: Laysan Albatross

On May 16, 2015 I was aboard Grande for a pelagic trip from San Diego. We were fortunate enough to encounter a Laysan Albatross--very rare in San Diego County waters.

Actually, Laysan Albatrosses aren't overly rare in deeper waters starting about 35 miles west of San Diego. Unfortunately, because of the nearest-point-to-land rule, 35 miles west of San Diego is either in Los Angeles County or the state of Baja California, Mexico. That's because of San Clemente Island, Los Angeles County (75 miles WNW of San Diego) and Los Coronados Islands (9 miles off Tijuana, Mexico and 15 miles south of San Diego). Once you leave San Diego harbor and then find yourself closer to either of those islands than you are to shore at Point Loma, the island's jurisdiction takes over, and your wonderful bird is now in a different county. This is a very serious topic for many birders--especially those known as "County Listers"--who are very interested in keeping exact track of personal bird sightings in each county. Yes, guilty as charged.

Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross. Nine Mile Bank, San Diego County, California. May 16, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Laysan Albatrosses nest in the outer Hawaiian Islands, including Midway and Laysan. They first breed when 5-8 years old. Most of the population chooses to spend the non-breeding time in the Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska. A few visit the West Coast in winter and spring.

Laysan Albatross

About 1983 Laysan Albatrosses began breeding on islands off Mexico. eBird shows a growing count of 288 birds on Isla Guadalupe, about 260 miles south of San Diego, on April 14, 2013. Certainly, these birds transit into the California Current off the West Coast. With these birds adding to the millions already in the North Pacific, one can't help but think that these Mexican breeders may be increasing the likelihood of spotting this species on future West Coast pelagic trips.

Laysan Albatross

The dusky marks on the under wing are variable and serves as a "fingerprint" for identifying individuals.

Gary Nunn blogs about this sighting (San Diego Birding -- Nemesis county seabird – Laysan Albatross in San Diego).

And so does Tommy DeBardeleben (Tommy D's Birding Expeditions -- Deep Sea Birding-The Grande Way)

San Diego County records of Laysan Albatross (based on my own very limited research)
1. One on Thirty Mile Bank 8 January 1998 (Brennan Mulrooney, eBird).
2. One found dead on Torrey Pines beach 8 Mar 2000 (Unitt, 2004).
3. One found dead at Camp Pendleton 13 Jun 2007 (NAB, McCaskie & Garrett).
4. One photographed at Nine Mile Bank 27 Aug 2008 (NAB, McCaskie & Garrett).
5. One found dead in the Split Mountain area of Anza-Borrego Desert 26 June 2013 (Steve Bier).
6. One at Nine Mile Bank 3 May 2015 (Dave Povey).
7. One photographed at Nine Mile Bank 16 May 2015 (this bird! Perhaps the same individual as previous sighting?).

Friday, May 22, 2015

Blue Grosbeak at Mission Trails Park

This male Blue Grosbeak was singing away at Mission Trails Regional Park. They are quite common after mid-April in the grasslands towards the Grasslands Crossing Trail north of the main one-way Park road called the Father Junipero Serra Trail near Kumeyaay Lake.

Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak. Mission Trails Park, San Diego, California. May 10, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I believe this is a 2nd calendar-year bird. The ends of the primaries are brown and worn, rather than fresh and black. They are left over from the previous year when the bird was a juvenile. Otherwise the wing feathers are replaced every year in the fall and would be blacker if this was an older bird (like the upper wing feathers which are black with pale brown fringes). This is the first time the bird has been in its blue spring plumage--it was hatched a little less than a year ago. That's my best guess, anyway.

Blue Grosbeak

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Psychotic Roadrunner

Usually I only get brief looks at Greater Roadrunners. They are generally quite wary and run away quickly. So when I spotted one ahead, sunning itself on a log, I took a photo or two. I took 10 more steps, took a couple more photos, took ten more steps, and then took a few more photos. By this time I was getting quite close.

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner. Mission Trails Park, San Diego, California. May 10, 2015. Greg Gillson.
In fact, after a few more steps I was so close now that I couldn't get the whole bird in the frame.

Greater Roadrunner

I moved around to get better light on the bird.

Greater Roadrunner

Well, it was obvious the bird didn't want to move. It was warming its backside toward the new sunrise. And since I didn't want to disturb it any more, I stepped back and went around. That's when weirdness happened. The bird followed me!

First it ran along the log, following me.

Greater Roadrunner

Then it jumped down on the road behind me, followed me a ways, and then ran around ahead of me and stopped, examining me closely. Turn about is fair play, I guess. Since I approached it closely, now it did the same to me!

"Often it seems curiously unafraid of humans. Trotting up close to peer at us, raising and lowering its mop of a shaggy crest, flipping its long tail about expressively, it looks undeniably zany." -- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Greater Roadrunner

Okay, now what? "Look what followed me home, Marlene. Can I keep it?"

Finally, it got tired of playing with me and started to behave more like a Roadrunner. It ran in front of me and off the side of the road.

Greater Roadrunner

Monday, May 11, 2015

Birds of Black Canyon Road, Ramona

After living here a year-and-a-half I am closing in on 300 bird species for San Diego County. If I lived a bit closer to downtown, and had more mornings off from work, I could chase all those fall and winter rarities visiting the vagrant-attracting parks right along the coast, some individuals returning to the same parks and favorite tree for several winters in a row.

Canyon Wren
Canyon Wren. Black Canyon Bridge, Ramona, California. April 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
But, I'm still getting the lay of the land--even nearer my home in North County (northern San Diego County). Thus, when Nancy Christensen reported Bell's Sparrows nearby in Ramona, I passed up a nearly sure-thing Mississippi Kite reported down at the border at the Tijuana River Valley, to look for sparrows closer to home. Spectacular Lifer raptor or local form of a gray sparrow? I chose the sparrow--probably not the decision most birders would have made. After all, this kite was only the 4th San Diego County record and is a California listed rare bird as well. Did I make the right decision? That's the thing about birding. There is no wrong choice. So while you can read about Gary Nunn's experience chasing the kite, I'll share my experience searching for the sparrows.

My choice.
Black Canyon Road
Dawn on Black Canyon Road.
Bell's Sparrow is the southern California breeding form of what was formerly the Sage Sparrow, one of the typical birds of the Great Basin desert and chaparral. The northern interior form is now called Sagebrush Sparrow--a very apt name. I had recorded "Sage" Sparrows once in Ventura County, California in 1984. The summer date would indicate these were Bell's Sparrows. But I have no photos or written descriptions, no real memory of the event--just 5 birds recorded in the "general Mt. Pinos area."

Last winter I went over to Borrego Springs and closely documented the wintering "sage" sparrows there and came away with photos of both the Sagebrush Sparrow and the "Mojave" form (canescens) of Bell's Sparrow. These two are very similar. So now I wanted to document the nominate (belli) form of Bell's Sparrow.

There are some Bell's Sparrows just south of San Marcos up on a ridge of the Elfin Forest. One must hike the Way Up Trail. The hiking guide for this trail says it is "moderately difficult," and suitable for children--mountain goat children, perhaps. 1.5 miles over rugged dirt/rock and an elevation gain of 876 feet. When I reached the top I did not find Bell's Sparrows, or anything that would entice me to repeat that ordeal. I could only hear the rapid pounding of my heartbeats in my ears and my gasping breaths. There must be a place closer to San Marcos where I can find Bell's Sparrows closer to the road, perhaps something with only a half mile of hiking on relatively flat landscape? Enter Black Canyon Road.

Black Canyon Road
Black Canyon Road. Hills, rocks, dead tree tops--Black-chinned Sparrow habitat.
Black Canyon Road
Bare soil, sparse sage, yucca--perfect Bell's Sparrow habitat.
The birding I did on Black Canyon Road is only the first 3 miles. You access it from Magnolia Avenue, just as you pass through the small rather rural town of Ramona heading east on Hwy 78 toward Julian. Magnolia Avenue turns slightly and becomes Black Canyon Road. At Black Canyon Place the road leaves the last residential homes and turns to gravel. It winds up over a hill and comes out at the Black Canyon Bridge. That's it. Rather than turning left and continuing across the bridge on Black Canyon Road, stay right on Sutherlin Dam Road for about a mile to come into the back side of Lake Sutherlin.

Black Canyon Rd is accessed north of Ramona on Hwy 78 from Magnolia Avenue.
I heard a few singing Bell's Sparrows between 1 and 2 miles after the road turned to gravel. At one pull-out there is a fire road leading out west just south of a high bluff. Bell's Sparrows want widely separated small bushes on bare soil. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of the Bell's Sparrows, nor any really decent looks. But I did record several other species, both on the way in at dawn, and later on the way out in late morning.

Black Canyon Bridge
Black Canyon Bridge.
The riparian area at the Black Canyon Bridge was especially productive, giving me several new birds for the year back on April 5th. These included Cliff Swallow, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting. Birding was so good there I remained 1.25 hours.

And the Canyon Wren was a new County Bird for me (#294).

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rock Wren
Rock Wren. Black Canyon Bridge, Ramona, California. April 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black-chinned Sparrow
Black-chinned Sparrow
Orange-crowned Warbler
Migrant Orange-crowned Warbler on Black Canyon Road.
Lincoln's Sparrow
Migrant Lincoln's Sparrow at Black Canyon Bridge.
Then I drove the mile over to Lake Sutherlin and birded around there for an hour.

Lake Sutherlin
Lake Sutherlin
Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow at Lake Sutherlin.
Western Kingbird
Western Kingbird at Lake Sutherlin