Tuesday, July 22, 2014

San Diego Year Bird #234: Gull-billed Tern

Gull-billed Tern
Gull-billed Tern. Imperial Beach, California. July 4, 2014. Greg Gillson.
One of my target species at Imperial Beach two weeks ago was Gull-billed Tern. Among the many thousand terns were a few Gull-billed, including one close enough for photographs.

I've only seen Gull-billed Tern 5 previous times. The first was in 1978. Our family was visiting relatives in Long Beach, California. My dad and I drove over from there and spent a long day at the Salton Sea. I photographed a Gull-billed Tern flying by at Salton City, very similar to this one. I was shooting slide film at the time. In one of my recent moves I decided I didn't need all those slides. The photos were not as good in those days as is possible now, and converting to digital just didn't make sense. I'd been hauling that box of slides around for years. Dumping them seemed logical. Copies of any rare bird slides had been given to the Records Committee, so any noteworthy documentation was saved that way. I don't think I made a mistake.

Marlene and I lived in Ventura, California from late 1979 through 1984. I saw more Gull-billed Terns at the Salton Sea in 1982 and 1983.

Tim Shelmerdine, David Smith, and I traveled together to North Carolina in 2005 to attend a couple of pelagic birding trips from Manteo with Brian Patteson. I spotted Gull-billed Terns from the ferry to Ocracoke on the Outer Banks.

Marlene and I, and daughter Leslie and husband Daniel flew from Portland to Phoenix and drove 5 hours to My sister's home in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Sonora, Mexico for my niece's wedding in 2007. While there I also spotted Gull-billed Tern.

This tern has more leisurely flight than most other southern California terns (Least, Common, Caspian, Royal, and Elegant). It is perhaps even more relaxed in flight than Black and Forster's Terns. I hope to see it more regularly now.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Little Blue Herons at Famosa Slough

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron. Famosa Slough, San Diego, California. July 4, 2014. Greg Gillson
This small little urban wetland reminds me of Koll Center Wetlands in Beaverton, Oregon. It is in the middle of traffic and small businesses and apartments. There are cattails and shallow willow-lined puddles and mudflats. In both locations there is a surprising diversity of birds over time, but not necessarily at once or in large numbers. Twenty minutes is ample time to view all birds present.

In January I photographed Little Blue Herons at nearby Mission Bay and the mouth of the San Diego River. They are regular here, as well. The pale-based bill and green legs are different from the all black bill and black legs and yellow feet of the otherwise very similar Snowy Egrets.

These young birds are white for their first year, but really are blue-purple as adults. They are about 1/2 the size of Great Blue Herons.

Little Blue Heron

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Palomar Mountain State Park

Bobcat at Palomar Mountain
Bobcat. Palomar Mountain State Park, California. July 13, 2014. Greg Gillson.
The nearest conifer forests to my home in San Diego's North County is Palomar Mountain. A little over 35 miles away, it takes about an hour to reach the mile-high summit, through Escondido.

It was a very pleasant 65F as I pulled away from home in San Marcos at 4:00 am. As I started gaining elevation on the mountain I was expecting it to get much cooler. I was wrong. There was a temperature inversion. It was 80F at 4,000 feet as I pulled over to listen for owls. I heard none, but enjoyed a full moon and the hot night-time air. I reached Palomar Mountain State Park at dawn.

The bottom of the mountain starts in chaparral and grasslands. Canyon Live Oaks and Black Oaks gradually were joined by conifers. The three primary conifer species found at the summit here are Incense Cedar, Big Cone Spruce, and White Fir. [To read a bit more about Palomar Mountain, read this blog post at the Anza Borrego Foundation: "The Forests of Palomar Mountain."]

Palomar Mountain

The most common bird here is Acorn Woodpecker--they are everywhere in the oaks and cedar trees. Perhaps second most common was hummingbirds. Most were young of the year. I noted primarily Rufous/Allen's Hummingbirds, but also a single Black-chinned. The road edges were adorned with these red flowers similar to a columbine (but my grasp of flower identification pretty much stops at dandelion). Bees and hummingbirds were a-buzzing.

I walked 2 miles on the park road from the entrance down to Doane Pond,... and back up. Other common birds included Western Scrub-Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Purple Finch, Band-tailed Pigeon, Western Wood-Pewee, Western Bluebird, Spotted Towhee.

There were 3 new species for the year for me: 2 Red-breasted Nuthatches and 1 Brown Creeper, which I heard but didn't see. And a pair of Purple Martins flew over with many Violet-green Swallows. Really, if I hadn't heard the martins I wouldn't have identified them either, with the brief view I got.

I'll save some bird photos for future posts.

Palomar Mountain

Evidently I missed quite a view when I decided I didn't have time to visit Boucher Hill and lookout (pronounced "booker").

Boucher Hill
Boucher Hill.
Finally, I didn't have time, either, to visit the Palomar Observatory, about 2 or 3 miles from where I spent the morning.

I'll have to come back in the later autumn when it's not quite so hot and search for more mountain birds and explore more so I can do a proper birding site guide to this area. After all, mountain forests are my favorite places to watch birds--even if all my leg muscles still ache from the 5 miles down and up hiking I did!

Update: September 2016: I have written a new birding site guide to hiking Palomar Mountain.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Forster's Tern

Forster's Tern
Forster's Tern. Imperial Beach, California. July 4, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I visited San Diego Bay NWR last week. Both 7th and 13th streets in Imperial Beach dead end into the south end of San Diego Bay. From there a bike path encircles the south bay. About a half mile (or more) out into the salt marsh on the sand flats was a huge nesting colony of terns. Most (8000+) appeared to be Elegant Terns, but there were some Caspian, Royal, Gull-billed, Least, and Forster's terns too. And a couple hundred Black Skimmers were about.

Most of the birds were far away across the heat-shimmering shallow ponds. Many of the terns were commuting out to the anchovies in the ocean across the narrow Silver Strand Beach to the west. The Forster's Terns, however, were hunting along the shore of the bay. Such was the one photographed above as it flew over me, back-lit in the harsh sun.

Many people say "Forester's," but this is not correct. In 1834 this tern was named by Thomas Nuttall after Johann R. Forster, a German naturalist who accompanied Cook in his second voyage around the world in 1772.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt. Imperial Beach, California. July 4, 2014. Greg Gillson.
It was spring break of my senior year in high school. There are lots of teen movies about this time of life (none worth seeing based on their descriptions--but maybe that's just me). My experience was a bit different than most of my peers, I suspect.

My grandparents were snowbirds, camped out in the Arizona desert for the winter. They'd be coming home to Oregon soon. Could I take the bus from Oregon to Arizona, spend a week in the desert watching birds and exploring with my grandparents, and then return with them? Yes!

So I embarked on a 25-hour Grayhound bus trip from Albany, Oregon to Quartzsite, Arizona. I spent the week with my grandparents, camped out on the desert at Crystal Hill. We explored the desert, did some rock hounding, viewed Indian petroglyphs, and watched birds.

The trip home took a couple of days, my grandfather driving his red pickup and pulling the travel trailer. As we traveled Interstate 5 over the flooded rice paddies outside of Sacramento, I spied my first Black-necked Stilts, March 24, 1977.

Stilts have long necks and bills, and these impossibly long, coral pink legs. They look fragile--ready to break at any moment. Yet they aggressively protect their favorite nesting beaches. With loud chattering screams, starting a couple hundred feet away, they fly directly at the back of your head, gaining speed, veering off only at the very last second. "Please don't hit me. I'm afraid you'll crumple like a crêpe paper kite."

Black-necked Stilt

Friday, July 4, 2014

San Diego Year Bird #233: Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher. Carlsbad, California. June 8, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I hadn't come across any Willow Flycatchers on my own yet this spring, so sought out some birds reported in a little wetlands in the coastal town of Carlsbad.

Willow Flycatcher

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. Carlsbad, California. June 8, 2014. Greg Gillson.
This photogenic bird is the most common heron in southern California. See a previous post on Snowy Egrets.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole. Immature male. Carlsbad, California. June 8, 2014. Greg Gillson.
This immature male Hooded Oriole is quite similar in appearance to the greenish-yellow female (but see a few black feathers poking in around the throat). The fully black throat is acquired during the first winter, but they retain the greenish cast for the first year. During the second year the adult males become more yellowish with a slight orange cast.

Photos of a male from this spring are here.