Sunday, May 1, 2016

Birds to know in San Diego: Crown Point and Mission Bay

We continue our monthly series of common San Diego birds by visiting Mission Bay, including Fiesta Island and Crown Point Park. At Crown Point Park on the north side of the bay, you drive into the parking lot and walk the manicured sandy beaches. On Fiesta Island, on the south side of Mission Bay you drive almost 2 miles around and pull over on the edge of the road anywhere to scope out the birds on the more muddy shores.

I wrote a birding site guide to Crown Point Park in January 2014. You might want to view that, too.

Crown Point Park
Crown Point Park
Here are some of the common birds you should know on Mission Bay in San Diego.

Brant
Brant. Chula Vista, California. January 30, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Brant
About 750-1500 of these small marine geese wintered in Mission Bay and San Diego Bay at the end of the 20th century (Unitt 2004). To my eye, there are at least that many birds now. In the photo above you can see their favorite food--eel grass--as one blade dangles from the bill and another is draped across its back. They are present here from November through March, though a few individuals fail to migrate in spring to their breeding grounds to the Arctic coastline. Similar San Diego birds: Canada Goose, Cackling Goose.

Osprey
Osprey. Rocky Point, Sonora, Mexico. May 11, 2007. Greg Gillson.
Osprey
These fish-eating hawks are regular year round in small numbers at coastal estuaries and inland lakes. They make very large stick nests on tall platforms near, or over, water. They may be seen hovering over water and making strafing runs with talons cutting the water, then carrying their prey away on long bent wings. Similar San Diego birds: Red-tailed Hawk.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron. Lake Henshaw, California. December 27, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Great Blue Heron
This tall gray heron is familiar to most people in North America. Numbers remain similar in San Diego County all year, but they spread out in winter, farther away from their limited number of nesting colonies. They are found near fresh water shores, but also hunt for rodents and amphibians in bare or short grassy fields. Similar San Diego birds: Little Blue Heron.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover. Crown Point, Mission Bay, California. February 16, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black-bellied Plover
Found on tidal mudflats and even open beaches, Black-bellied Plovers are rather common from fall through spring. Even summering non-breeding birds are not unusual. They are especially numerous in August and September when juveniles arrive from the Arctic. The eponymous black belly, chest and face is a feature of the spring adult breeding plumage. Similar San Diego birds: Red Knot, Killdeer, Short-billed Dowitcher.

Black Skimmer
Black Skimmer. Crown Point, Mission Bay, California. February 16, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black Skimmer
This is one odd bird. They are superficially gull-like, with long pointed wings, short legs, and webbed feet. Males are about 20% larger than females. The knife-like lower mandible is much longer than the upper mandible. They skim the quiet shallows of the bay with the lower mandible partially submerged, snagging fish near the surface. Unique in the bird world, their pupils are cat-like vertical slits, perhaps to provide exposure protection from the sunny beach sand. They were first recorded in San Diego County in 1971, expanding their range from Mexico. 300-400 pairs nest at the salt works in south San Diego Bay in May and June. At other seasons these birds hang out on Mission Bay. Similar San Diego birds: None, really.

Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull. Lindo Lake, California. February 9, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Ring-billed Gull
This rather small gull is widespread near water in the county, west of the desert and below the mountains. While common in estuaries along the coast, they avoid the open ocean. They are regular July-April, though some non-breeders also spend the summer along the coast. Similar San Diego birds: California Gull, rare Mew Gull. Immature gulls of most species have ringed bills at some point in their development (see adjacent immature Ring-billed Gull in above photo).

Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew. Coronado, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Long-billed Curlew
The long bill on this largest of North American sandpipers is truly amazing. The male may have a bill of only 4-1/2 inches, while the female may have a bill 8-1/2 inches long (like the bird in the photo above). Crabs and marine invertebrates are its preferred food, so they are found primarily in the lagoons and bays. These cinnamon-colored birds nest in grasslands in west-central North America. A very few non-breeders spend the summer. However, as short-range migrants they are found commonly from July-May, so it seems they are here year-round. Similar San Diego birds: Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit.

Birds to know in San Diego: introduction

Next: Birds to know in San Diego: Palomar Mountain