Friday, January 31, 2014

San Diego County Bird #219: White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove. Borrego Springs, California. January 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I always think of this dove as endemic to the deserts of the Southwest. However they are more widely distributed, occurring from Texas to southern California, south to northern south America. It also is found in the Caribbean--Cuba, Bermuda, and recently to Florida. And it is expanding its breeding range. These birds frequently show up in fall well north of their normal range--I've seen singletons twice on the southern Oregon Coast.

White-winged Dove is the 219th species of bird I've seen in San Diego, County.

Additionally, as part of my goal to see 300 species of birds in San Diego, County in 2014, this is San Diego County Year Bird #152. This is my final new species of the year for January. I still have a long way to go to reach 300--I'll need to see over 80 species I've never yet seen within the county, plus almost 70 species I've seen before. Interestingly, though, according to eBird reports, over 275 species have already been seen in San Diego County in January 2014. So there are many species for me to see yet this winter.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird. Anza-Borrego Desert, California. January 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Some color for your enjoyment.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Anza-Borrego Desert: Cactus Loop Trail

Teddy Bear Cholla, Ocotilla, Buckhorn Cholla
Teddy Bear Cholla, Ocotilla, Buckhorn Cholla
The desert is full of life and full of birds. You just have to work at it a bit to find and appreciate them.

Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, Cactus Wren, Costa's Hummingbird, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Rock Wren, Roadrunner, White-winged Dove, Gambel's Quail, Le Conte's Thrasher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Ladder-backed Woodpecker. These are some of the regular desert birds. Add water and migration and over 100 other species can be found at various times during the year.

Yesterday Marlene and I drove to the eastern edge of San Diego County to The Anza-Borrego Desert and the town of Borrego Springs.

There were just too many places to stop and we didn't get to half of the places I wanted to explore. That's all right. We'll do it again soon.

One place with a big list of birds is Tamarisk Grove Campground. We spent about an hour there at noon and encountered about 20 species of birds. Across the street is Cactus Loop Trail. I only went a couple hundred feet finding many of the species of birds in the first paragraph.

My grandparents were snowbirds, spending the winters in the sun. They often stayed near Quartzsite, Arizona, only a hundred miles or so to the east in the Sonoran Desert. I visited when I was in my teens and twenties. So these cacti were mostly familiar to me from 30+ years ago.

I ended up not getting photos of Barrel Cactus and Desert Agave (Century Plant), which were especially plentiful entering the Desert from the west as we descended from 4000 feet.

I also didn't photograph any of the trees--palo verde, tamarisk, and various mesquite. These trees are much more abundant in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and NW Mexico.

Enjoy these cacti!

Gander's Cholla
Gander's Cholla
Hedgehog Cactus
Hedgehog Cactus
Teddy Bear Cholla and Brittlebush
Teddy Bear Cholla and Brittlebush
Ocotillo and Creosote
Ocotillo and Creosote
Fishhook Cactus
Fishhook Cactus
Beavertail Cactus
Beavertail Cactus
Buckhorn Cholla
Buckhorn Cholla

Saturday, January 25, 2014

ID: Female Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal

ID: female Cinnamon Teal
Cinnamon Teal female. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Female ducks are generally rather hard to identify. Many birders look around until they can find a drake they can recognize and just assume the hens are the same species. On my Pacific NW Birder blog several years ago I wrote a dabbling duck silhouette quiz. And provided the answers.

That quiz was based on shape. Many hen ducks can be identified by shape alone, while the brown camouflage plumage isn't all that distinctive and can be confusing. Two ducks that are very similar in shape are Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal. Both have blue wing patches and the brown-patterned females are very similar. The subtle pattern on the face is the best way to tell them apart.

The face of the Cinnamon Teal is buffy-brown and rather plain. The crown and lower cheek is slightly darker. There is a hint of a broken eye ring, but it is not obvious.

ID: female Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal female. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
In contrast--pun intended, the face of Blue-winged Teal is grayer with more contrast. A dark eye line goes from bill to back of head. Broken white eye rings are obvious. There is often a large pale spot at the base of the bill extending down onto the throat.

Not all individuals are as obvious as these two, And birds in their first year are much more similar. But with practice, you should be able to identify these look-a-likes more frequently with increasing confidence.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Birding Site Guide: Crown Point Park

Low tide at Crown Point Park.
White manicured sandy beaches, calm blue waters, warm sunny skies,... and birds! Something about this peninsula on the north shore of Mission Bay attracts shorebirds, terns, and the local Black Skimmers. There they coexist with picnickers, dog walkers, bicyclers, and others enjoying Mission Bay--the largest man-made aquatic park in the nation. You'll probably spend an hour here if the birds are present and also visit the Kendall-Frost Marsh (see below).

Getting there: Take I-5 to I-8 and turn west for 1 mile turning right on W Mission Bay Dr across the bridge and turn right onto Ingraham St. Cross over Vacation Isle and turn right onto Crown Point Dr. Then turn right onto Corona Oriente Rd. Parking: Free parking; the south lot is closest to the beach and birds. Hours: Dawn to 10 PM. Map navigation: Corona Oriente Rd, San Diego, CA 92109

San Diego birding site guide

Where to bird: Shorebirds are on the beach or mudflats nearest the South Parking Lot. You'll have to share the beach (see photo below), but much of the use is joggers and bicycle riders on the paved trail on the upper beach. I assume summer use is higher.

Crown Point Park at high tide
Crown Point Park at high tide. December 22, 2013.
Just past the North Parking Lot is the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve. With a scope you may be able to see interesting marsh birds here, including Little Blue Heron. At high tide rails and perhaps Nelson's Sparrow (winter) may be forced out of the marsh and up nearer the road.

eBird shows that just over 100 species have been recorded at Crown Point Park. Most birders apparently visit from late fall through early spring and avoid the summer. In the photo above note Black Skimmers, Black-bellied Plovers, Black Turnstones, Red Knots, and Royal Terns.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

San Diego County Bird #211: Lewis's Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker
Lewis's Woodpecker. Ramona, California. January 19, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Last weekend I decided to explore Pamo Valley, north of Ramona. It is about 15 miles to the east of San Marcos. The area is a lush oak valley on the edge of the dry wilderness area. It is owned by one large ranch with the county road transecting it.

There were scores of Acorn Woodpeckers in the valley--in fact, I tallied 45. Lark Sparrows were abundant. A large flock of Western Meadowlarks flew around. Western Bluebirds flitted among the tree tops. New for me in the County were Wild Turkeys (#210) and two Lewis's Woodpeckers (#211). This valley seems a good place to find these rather nomadic woodpeckers in winter.

As I was taking the photo above my camera seized up and gave me an Error 99. Do you know that sickening feeling of dread you get when an expensive piece of equipment malfunctions? Well, I tried to put that feeling behind me. But my photography was definitely over for the day. Fortunately, I later learned that this generic error is often caused by tarnish on the gold contacts between the camera and lens. Indeed, a pencil eraser to the contacts later seemed to fix the problem. Whew.

After visiting Pamo Valley I went over to Lake Hodges and added Rufous-crowned Sparrow (#212) to my San Diego County list. This rather common bird of chaparral was one I just kept missing since moving here in September.

I added a life bird here--Zone-tailed Hawk! (ABA bird #517; San Diego County Bird #213) Oh, if only my camera had still been working! This long-winged Buteo is shaped and colored just like a Turkey Vulture. It soars on dihedral wings just like a vulture, too! The adult male I saw has one white tail band; females have two and immatures have several bands on the tail. I had been keeping an eye out for this species, as one had been seen not too far from here regularly since October at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park east of Escondido, and there were a couple of reports from Lake Hodges. The photos I've seen look like the same bird I saw.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Redheads. Mission Bay, California. January 12, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Mission Bay is a great place to see Redheads in San Diego County. It is not unusual for 100-200 to be sighted in winter. They are a handsome duck--one of my favorites.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. San Diego River Mouth. January 11, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Snowy Egret is rather a rare bird in Oregon. I've seen them there at least 21 times over a period of 40 years, according to my eBird records. The first was at Pony Slough, Coos Bay, Oregon in December 1977. The most recent was at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, Oregon in August 2004. Most were at Malheur NWR on annual spring pilgrimages to this birding mecca.

Otherwise, it had been 5 years since my last visit to San Diego when I last saw these birds,... until we moved here last fall.

Now I see Snowy Egrets nearly every time I go out to watch birds--any place there is water. They are the most widespread and common of the egrets in the San Diego area. All large bodies of fresh water have a Great Egret or two. And there are a few areas that have flocks of Cattle Egrets. But Snowy Egrets are more widespread and common--not huge numbers, just widely distributed on the shores of marshes, lakes, estuaries, and marinas.

They also seem less wary than other egrets. That makes them irresistible photography subjects!

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. Lake Murray, La Mesa, California. October 6, 2013. Greg Gillson.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pale Eurasian Collared-Doves

Pale variant Eurasian Collared-Dove
Pale Eurasian Collared-Dove (right) with two normally-colored ones. Encinitas, California. January 1, 2014.
Among the swarms of Eurasian Collared-Doves colonizing the North American continent there is a small percentage of pale variants. Actually, these pale birds are also seen in populations in the Old World.

Most field guides do not mention these paler birds, misleading observers into reporting them as "Ringed Turtle-Doves" (domesticated form of what is now classified as African Collared-Doves).

The description of Eurasian Collared-Dove and the pale variant is as follows: "A large, pale gray-buff dove with a black collar, noticeably larger than the Mourning Dove. There is also a naturally occurring cream-colored variant, and this species is known to hybridize with the Ringed Turtle-Dove, so plumage variation will occur." -- National Geographic Complete Birds of North America (2006)

The National Geographic Complete Birds of North America is an expanded version of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America--5th Edition. Now, the 6th Edition (2011) of the field guide is much better than the 5th Edition. Nevertheless, the Complete Birds is worthy to own because of the expanded species accounts, occasional large maps, ID tips, and family overviews.

Eurasian Collared-Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Funny old man in golf cart

Yes, that's me. As maintenance manager for a mobile home park with over 170 coaches (see previous post about this job), there is a lot of ground to cover. I have a golf cart to carry tools around the park, which is situated on a hill.

A lot of the work involves keeping the sprinklers up and running--quite a job in itself--they want to clog and break continuously. So I get covered in mud on a regular basis. I've never really had a job that was so much  physical labor. It's a long ways from my 25 years of work as an electronics engineering technician (see my LinkedIn profile). I don't know if I'll grow up to be big and strong with all this manual labor, but I sure wash my hands a lot!

I get to be outside in the sunshine, help people and solve problems. It's hard work, but it is a fair and good company to work for. And they give me a place to live and pay me too! And my wife is my co-worker (she says boss). What more could one ask for in their job?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Birding Site Guide: Ramona Grasslands Preserve

Desolate short grass prairie and boulders make up this unique area. Birders visit mostly for raptors. Ferruginous Hawks are common in winter. A pair of Bald Eagles nest, as do Burrowing Owls.

Getting there: Ramona Grasslands Preserve is about 35 miles north of downtown San Diego, east of I-15 about 10 miles on scenic and winding Highland Valley Road. From I-15 take the W Bernardo Dr/Pomerado Rd exit, turn east on Pomerado Rd, then take the first left onto Highland Valley Rd. Parking: Free parking in a gravel lot obvious on the north side of Highland Valley Rd. Hours: 8 AM to 5 PM (winter) or 7 PM (summer). Map navigation: Approximate address: 17464 Highland Valley Rd, Ramona, CA 92065.

Where to bird: From the parking lot on Highland Valley Rd (A on the map below). Walk west and slightly uphill to a regrowing brushy area that was burned over a few years back. This trail loops around back to the parking lot about 0.8 miles. You will likely want to walk a bit farther to the start of the 2-mile Wildflower Loop Trail. Turn west into the oak woodland to the small pond there (1 on the map below).

This is a multi-use trail used by equestrians, dog walkers, and families.

Parking lot (staging area) on Highland Valley Rd.
I found winter grassland birds such as Western Meadowlarks, Say's Phoebes, Lark Sparrows, Ferruginous Hawks, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Mountain Bluebirds on my visits thus far to the Ramona Grasslands Preserve.

In spring I will look for Grasshopper, Black-chinned, and Rufous-crowned sparrows.Summer birds include Blue Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings. Roadrunner is resident, as is a pair of nesting Bald Eagles east of Rangeland Rd. eBird checklist.

San Diego birding site guide

On your visit you'll want to drive the 1 mile of publicly accessible Rangeland Rd (from 2 to 3 on the map above) and pull over on the broad shoulders to check the boulders for Bald Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Burrowing Owls.

Oak woodlands around the small pond at the start of the Wildflower Loop Trail.
The Nature Conservancy has more information.

Friday, January 10, 2014

San Diego County Bird #206: Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird. Ramona Grasslands Preserve, Ramona, California. January 1, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Mountain Bluebirds have been recorded in winter in San Diego County in each of the past 5 years. The numbers of birds this winter is the highest of the past 5. Here is where they are being seen.

Mountain Bluebird

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren. Escondido, California. January 1, 2014. Greg Gillson.

I revisited the San Pasqual Battlefield monument. This time I was able to get a couple of photos of Cactus Wrens just as the sun was setting. This was the 104th bird species for the first day of 2014, birding San Luis Rey River mouth, San Elijo Lagoon, and Romona Grasslands Preserve.

The mechanical, rolling, and accelerating "chug, chug, chug-chug-chug-chugchugchugchug" song (listen on YouTube) is associated most closely with Arizona. It is the State Bird, after all. But sci-fi fans will know this song from the soundtrack of the TV series Stargate SG1 (1997-2007). Every time the SG1 Team traveled to another inhabited planet, you would hear Cactus Wrens singing. It seems the Ancients that built the Stargates must have transplanted those birds all over the galaxy! (Since the show was filmed in Burnaby British Columbia it was not natural ambient local noises. It was purposely added.)

[Coincidentally, last night I was watching Guilt Trip with Marlene. I noted the distinctive song of a Cactus Wren inserted into the soundtrack--guess what? They were in the American SW. Congratulations to the Sound Editor!]

Cactus Wren

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Singing Mockingbirds

Northern Mockingbird
Singing Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds really started singing today. They're always present here, and make some chattering noises, but in the last day or two they've started singing little refrains, and now steady all morning. One bird was right outside my door and didn't give up its perch as I went inside and came out with my camera for the photo above.

Interestingly, it is just whistled notes, warbles, and harsh notes--I haven't heard any mocking or imitating.
 I suppose as the breeding season nears there will be more variety in the songs.

Other common yard birds include American Crow, Mourning Dove, Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler, Black Phoebe, Lesser Goldfinch, Eurasian Collared-Dove, House Wren, Anna's Hummingbird, Cassin's Kingbird, California Towhee, House Finch, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, and several other single wintering birds like an Orange-crowned Warbler and a male Phainopepla.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

ID: Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher in winter

Long-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher. San Elijo Lagoon, California. December 15, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Dowitcher identification is one of the keystone species challenges separating advanced birders from the pack. Now I don't want to start a "beginner versus advanced birder" debate, or "there's nothing wrong with just enjoying birds even if you can't identify them all." There's nothing to be gained from such a discussion.

But even wanting to identify dowitchers to species level indicates reaching a certain level of seriousness in bird identification that many bird watchers simply never attain.

I created an identification page for dowitchers that is now about 7 years old. If I was to recreate the page today I'd use Humphrey-Parkes molt terminology, but the pages are still valid. Short-billed Dowitchers do not winter as far north as Oregon, so previously I didn't have any basic-plumaged birds to compare. But with these photos I now do!

Again, ignore the bills (because there is a bit of overlap; although admittedly no Long-billed Dowitcher would ever have a bill as short as the assumed male Short-billed Dowitcher below). Look at the smooth gray breasts of the Long-billed Dowitchers above, and the speckled breast of the Short-billed Dowitcher below. It's that simple in winter!

Short-billed Dowitcher
Short-billed Dowitcher. Mission Bay, California. December 22, 2013. Greg Gillson.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

ABA area bird #516: Nelson's Sparrow

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson's Sparrow. San Elijo Lagoon, Encinitas, California. January 1, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I found and photographed quite a surprise at San Elijo Lagoon on January 1st--a Nelson's Sparrow. The tide was extremely high forcing numerous Savannah Sparrows and Marsh Wrens right up onto the path. I glimpsed one small, short-tailed orange-looking sparrow flit through the low vegetation. This was by the bench out in the marsh on the north side-path heading west from Rios Avenue entrance to San Elijo Lagoon.

Mistake 1: I didn't have a field guide with me. Though I knew I was seeing one of the smaller orange-faced sparrows from the Midwest or Southeast, I thought I was probably viewing a Le Conte's Sparrow. Le Conte's is very similar but has a white stripe down the center of the crown. This Nelson's Sparrow has a gray median crown stripe (see photo below). I haven't carried a field guide with me when birding in over 35 years--I've memorized all the birds I am likely to see. Well, maybe I better re-think that.

Mistake 2: I didn't have any phone numbers for local birders to come and see such an exciting and rare bird. The other thing I will do is add the email address of the San Diego bird list to my smart phone. That way I can send reports of future rare birds I see right from the field!

Fortunately, at least two other birders were able to come on subsequent days at high tide and see this bird forced out of the thick marsh grass by rising water.

Nelson's Sparrows are very rare annual winter visitors to coastal California. Gary Nunn tells me that they were not found in San Diego County at all last year. But it takes being at the right place at the right time to find one. It was an accident that I arrived at the marsh during super high tide.

This was my 516th countable bird species I've seen north of Mexico. It is my San Diego County bird #205.

Nelson's Sparrow

Friday, January 3, 2014

Birding Site Guide: San Luis Rey River Mouth, Oceanside

Mouth of San Luis Rey River at dawn. January 1, 2014. Greg Gillson
Habitat update: August 2017

The ocean builds a sandbar that usually blocks up the mouth of the San Luis Rey River. In the small lagoon formed gulls, shorebirds, ducks, and herons gather. It's not much, but sometimes unusual gulls may be found there in winter.

Getting there: Oceanside is about 40 miles north of downtown San Diego on I-5. When on the north side of Oceanside, take Exit 54-C for Oceanside Harbor Drive. This gets you directly onto Harbor Drive. Follow Harbor Drive west and then south to the harbor. Parking: Directly across from the harbor and Joe's Crab Shack (reputedly the best seafood around) turn left (east) through a tunnel under the railroad tracks into a free public parking lot. Map navigation: N Pacific St & Harbor Dr, Oceanside, CA 92054.

San Diego birding site guide

Where to bird: From the parking lot (1, on above map) walk west on Harbor Drive to the river mouth (2) observing birds in the channel. You may also wish to walk the beach north to examine and gulls, terns, or shorebirds. The jetty here may have some shorebirds--it's worth a shot. There is another jetty down the sand spit at the mouth of the harbor. This sand spit includes a pay ($) parking lot. When done here walk across the bridge (N Pacific St) and follow the San Luis Rey River Trail for a ways east along the south shore of the river. There is a storm water catch basin (3) along this trail that may attract smaller songbirds.

I spent an hour here at dawn (6:45 am) on January 1, 2014 and recorded 39 species. Highlights were a stake-out Glaucous Gull, several Mew Gulls, 2 Herring Gulls, and 1 Glaucous-winged Gull in the river mouth. Near the catch basin was a Wilson's Warbler and a White-throated Sparrow. My eBird checklist.

142 species are recorded in eBird for this location. Interestingly, it doesn't get birded very regularly, mostly only fall and winter (no doubt by local birders looking for rare shorebirds and gulls). View the eBird bar chart.

Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull. San Luis Rey River mouth, Oceanside, California. January 1, 2014. Greg Gillson.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron
Adult Little Blue Heron.

On December 22, 2013 I saw three Little Blue Herons in coastal San Diego County. The adult above was at the Tecolote Creek mouth into Mission Bay. The white immature bird below was at the San Diego River mouth. Another adult was on the north end of Mission Bay at the Kendall-Frost Marsh.

All these birds were within about 4 miles of each other and Sea World, where (2000 San Diego Breeding Bird Atlas information) they have nested since 1992.

Little Blue Heron
First-year Little Blue Heron.