Saturday, January 31, 2015

When Greg met Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe. Tijuana River Valley, San Diego, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
There are over 400 species of New World Tyrant Flycatchers, most in the tropics. Of these, only 3 are named with the Greek woman's name of Phoebe. Lacking eye rings and wing bars (except for 2 South American subspecies of Black Phoebe) as many other flycatchers, the tail wagging behavior and sweet "fee-bee" (Phoebe) calls make identification fairly straightforward. Phoebes nest commonly around people--often on back porches and out buildings.

On January 18, I made a successful effort to find and photograph a rather rare Eastern Phoebe that was fairly reliable down at the Bird and Butterfly Garden [site guide] in the Tijuana River Valley. As it turned out, I happened to photograph all three species of Phoebes this day! I present them here. Plus, I tell you the story of the very first time I met each species.

Eastern Phoebes breed from the Atlantic to the edges of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the United States. In winter they move south to extreme southern US south into Central America. They are olive above with whitish breast and faintly yellow belly.

I first met Eastern Phoebe: January 9, 1982 at a golf course in Ventura, California. Discovered originally by others in December, but I didn't know about it. I found and identified this bird myself, independently--and took really good notes.

Say's Phoebe
Say's Phoebe. Tijuana River Valley, San Diego, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Say's Phoebes are found in drier lands of western North America--from the 100th meridian westward, and reach all the way to Alaska in summer. In winter, northern birds move south as far as northern Central America. Vagrants can reach the East Coast in winter. They are grayish-brown with a black tail and buffy cinnamon colored below.

I first met Say's Phoebe: November 20, 1972. Albany, Oregon. This was one of the first birds I identified when I began recording birds in my backyard as a school project.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe. Chula Vista, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black Phoebes are less migratory than the other species. They are resident from SW Oregon, through California and Arizona all the way to Argentina in South America. They are almost always found near water. They are blackish except for striking white belly and undertail coverts.

I first met Black Phoebe: March 22, 1976. Death Valley, California. I spent a week in Death Valley with my parents and grandparents during spring break.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life Bird: Thick-billed Kingbird

Thick-billed Kingbird
Thick-billed Kingbird. Chula Vista, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
In December 2010 an adult female Thick-billed Kingbird was found in an apartment complex bordering the Poggi Creek Greenbelt in Chula Vista. It has returned for each of the past 5 winters.

Last week I took a trip down to the south end of San Diego Bay and the Tijuana River Valley with this bird one of several on my list. After a half hour wandering through this apartment complex and disturbing most of the dogs more than once, I gave up. As I was driving out of my parking space, I spotted it in the top of a sycamore behind one of the apartment buildings. How many times does this happen, that you give up on a stake-out rarity and view it from your car as you are leaving? [This reminds me that Robert Mortensen claims adding 6 life birds while peeing in the woods. Conversely, I know many birders bemoan how the call of nature has robbed them of life birds that showed up for the group while they were momentarily away....]

Where does this individual bird go in summer? Probably Mexico, as birds breed along the western Mexico mainland and reach up to SE Arizona in summer. They also occur at the very tip of Baja. (Map)

They seem to really like sycamores and lowland stream canyons in desert habitat.

Thick-billed Kingbird

Thick-billed Kingbird

Sunday, January 25, 2015

South End of the Salton Sea: Day 2

Bobcat. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
My report from Day 1 is here.

While Marlene slept in at the motel in Westmorland, I rose at dawn and drove to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge again. The species at the Visitor Center were about the same as the previous afternoon--including Abert's Towhees, Common Ground-Doves, and a Verdin, along with lots of flyover waterfowl, gulls, and blackbirds.

From the parking lot at the Visitor Center the Rock Hill Trail leads out to the Salton Sea shoreline. It's probably a bit over a mile out-and-back.

Almost immediately I came upon a mother Bobcat and her two nearly fully grown cubs--the same size, just a bit thinner and paler colored. Mom didn't seem too concerned with me as she sat in the sun under a mesquite tree watching her young ones try to hide from me.


The trail led out past some fields where a flock of Snow Geese was resting. There were several smaller Ross's Geese in the flock, and Cattle Egrets were working some of the furrows. A Ross's Goose shows well in the photo below on the back left, facing left. Look for the tiny bill and little round head.

Snow Geese
Do you spot the Ross's Goose among these Snow Geese?
The wind was blowing pretty good, unlike the previous day. When I reached the shoreline there were a couple thousand birds in the shallows. Pintails, Shovelers, and Ring-billed Gulls were most abundant. In an adjoining compound were 1500 Double-crested Cormorants.

Salton Sea
Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
A few shorebirds were present, including American Avocets, a couple Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, and several Least Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers, and about 20 Black-necked Stilts, including this one:

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
It was soon time to retrieve Marlene from the motel and continue on our journey. One the way back I stopped along a newly plowed field near Brawley to see if I could get better looks at yesterday's life bird: Mountain Plover. However, just as I got ready to scan the field a raptor came screaming by. I managed to get this photo out the car window:

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon. Brawley, California. December 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.
After this disruption passed by it wasn't long before the little white specks in the field started walking closer. A little patience, and some repositioning of the car I used as my portable blind and, yes!

Mountain Plover
Mountain Plover. Brawley, California. December 27, 2014. Greg Gillson.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

South End of the Salton Sea: Day 1 (Looking back)

Abert's Towhee
Abert's Towhee. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
It had been 30 years and 2 months since I last had seen the black-faced Abert's Towhee. Guess what? It was right here on the south end of the Salton Sea.

It was October 6, 1984. Eldest daughter, Leslie, had just turned 4 years old only 3 weeks earlier. She and I headed out for 2 days at the Salton Sea--600 miles round trip. Leslie's mother and 2 younger sisters remained behind at home in Ventura, California. The temperature was over 100 degrees. The Salton Sea rotting smell pervaded everything, coming off the algae-bloom-strewn beach made primarily of dead fish bones. We ate cereal and sandwiches from the cooler, and slept out on the ground on a tarp at Finney Lake, watching the stars. We drove and walked, watched birds and had a wonderful time. I suspect that Leslie was too young to remember, but it is a fond father-daughter memory for me. (I'm hoping that Marlene doesn't remember, being left behind, as she was, with a 2 year old and newborn. I was only 26--What did I know? At least I think we were in an apartment then, and not still in the school bus we lived in for a year on the beach.)

So here I was on December 26, 2014, a mere 30 years after my last visit. This time with Marlene on a 4-day driving vacation. We had spent the previous night and this morning in Borrego Springs in eastern San Diego County. After lunch we drove farther east through the desert into Imperial County to Brawley at the south end of the Salton Sea.

By 1:30 pm we were driving north from Brawley on Lack Rd, past irrigated fields of spinach, cauliflower, onions, and broccoli. At one smoothly plowed and disced field I spied about 65 pale Killdeer-looking shorebirds way out in the field, about 1/4 mile distant. Good and bad. My life Mountain Plovers, but so far away I really couldn't make out field marks--I mean, really, how could I explain to someone why they weren't Black-bellied Plovers? Not how you want a life bird.

Snow Goose
Snow Goose. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Slowly driving the farm fields we spotted over 500 Snow and 50 Ross's geese. There was even one blue-phased Snow Goose. Cattle Egrets were plentiful. One field had about 45 Sandhill Cranes.

Gambel's Quail
Gambel's Quail. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
At 3 pm we finally entered the parking lot of the Visitor Center at Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (it's hard to get this image out of my mind). That's where I photographed the Abert's Towhee that begins this article. The Abert's Towhees were at the bird feeders with Mourning Doves, Common Ground-Doves, and Gambel's Quail. Oh, and a newly naturalized species which wasn't present in 1984--the Eurasian Collared-Doves.

Common Ground-Dove
Common Ground-Dove. Salton Sea NWR, Calipatria, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Just before dusk we drove down Garst Rd to the Red Hill Marina....

Rubble of Red Hill Marina
This rubble is all that's left of Red Hill Marina--a once rather famous birding location. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
The Salton Sea was created accidentally in 1905 by a breach in an irrigation canal bringing water from the Colorado River into this valley. It took 2 years to stop the breach. During that time all the water of the Colorado River flowed into this low sink, 277 feet below sea level, and created this lake, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.

The Salton Sea was a popular vacation spot in the 1950's, but the hot sun and fertilizer run-off from the farm fields, regularly created algae blooms that sucked all the oxygen out of the water, causing mass die-offs of fish,... and a stink that eventually turned all the vacation resorts into ghost towns.

And, evidently, the Red Hill Marina also succumbed to lowering water levels and fewer and fewer visitors. There is a 14-day stay free county park here; but it looks like most of the residents are more or less permanent campers.

The Salton Sea is dying. Each year this lake increases its salt content by 1% from irrigation runoff. Already it is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. In a few years it will be too salty for any fish to live. And the lake is evaporating faster than water is entering. Fresh water from the Colorado River into the Sea is supposed to be suspended in 2017, and the lake is expected to shrink rapidly. Plans are being made for a very small fresh-water Salton Sea in the north and salt marshes in the south by 2035. Some are fighting to save the Salton Sea. But it is very likely that it will soon be a very different place.

There were still birds to be found along the canals and shore of the Salton Sea on the way in to the former Red Hill Marina. There were 5000 Ring-billed Gulls, and lots of Double-crested Cormorants and many ducks. A Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were standing side-by-side on one dike for comparison.

Herring Gull
Herring Gull. Red Hill, Salton Sea, Calipatria, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
We spent the night back south 10 miles at Westmorland at a very fine Americas Best Value Inn. Then we had a nice steak dinner at the Town Pump Steakhouse.

Then we made our plans for Day 2....
Continue on to Day 2, here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Nuttall's Woodpecker in Coral Tree

Nuttall's Woodpecker in Coral Tree
Nuttall's Woodpecker in Coral Tree. Encinitas, California. December 29, 2014. Greg Gillson.
There are many species of coral trees, often sporting huge groups of flaming red flowers. One species, the Coastal Coral Tree, native to southern Africa, is the official tree of the city of Los Angeles. (See Coral Trees in Wikipedia).

Many birds are attracted to the nectar of the flowers, including, evidently, this Nuttall's Woodpecker. This photo was taken at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Angry Bird: Anna's Hummingbird at San Diego Botanic Garden

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird. Encinitas, California. December 29, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Four inches from the tip of that sharp pointed bill to the end of the stubby tail--four tiny inches of pure raging fury!

O pity that poor little Ruby-crowned Kinglet who accidentally ventured into the territory of this possessive tyrant!

Marlene and I used a day off from work to visit the local San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. This pugnacious little guy was on the upper overlook trail.

Anna's Hummingbird
Master of all he surveys.
Showing his true colors
The shiny, iridescent colors on the throat of hummingbirds, heads of some ducks, etc. are caused not by pigments, but primarily by feather structure causing light refraction. Refraction also gives color to all blue-colored birds feathers, even those without iridescence. If you find a feather from a jay, you will notice it turns from blue to dark gray at certain angles. The iridescent color on the back of the hummingbird above is caused by the combination of yellow pigments and blue refraction. And as you can see, the true color of the throat of the breeding male hummingbird is black.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Birding Site Guide: Mesquite Bosque and Borrego Springs WTP

Mesquite Bosque, Borrego Srpings, California
The Mesquite Bosque at the end of Yaqui Pass Rd, Borrego Springs, California. December 25, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Previously, I wrote a birding site guide to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center. Here is another nearby area for desert birds.

Borrego Springs birding map
Borrego Springs birding map.
Mesquite Bosque

The birding location known as the Mesquite Bosque is in the Borrego Sink. It is easily reached from the end of Yaqui Pass Rd in Borrego Springs.

Honey Mesquite trees used to flourish here in this low area where infrequent rains brought water. Most are dead now, a result of a lowered water table. Nevertheless, what trees remain are especially attractive to desert birds such as Gambel's Quail (or hybrids with California Quail), White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Costa's Hummingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy's Warbler, and Black-throated Sparrow.

Getting there: From San Diego take I-8 east to Descanso Exit (Hwy 79) through Cuyamaca State Park to Julian and then right on Hwy 78 and left on S3 (Yaqui Pass Rd) following the signs to Borrego Springs. Total time is just under 2 hours; distance about 88 miles. The Mesquite Bosque is at the very end of Yaqui Pass Rd.

Parking: Park (FREE) in the dirt at the very end of Yaqui Pass Rd. Hours: Dawn to just after sunrise is best, especially in spring, as temperatures rise fast. Once the sun is up and heat rises, the birds stop singing and hide in the shade. Map navigation: Approximately 3300 Yaqui Pass Rd, Borrego Springs, California.

Where to bird: From the end of Yaqui Pass Rd, walk the dirt track "road" that starts west and then immediately turns NE about 1/2 mile to an abandoned cabin. From there follow the dirt road another 1/2 mile East to the densest part of the woodland. Here, somewhere, is an abandoned yellow van that is in the best birding spot. It often requires going this far to see Crissal Thrashers and Lucy's Warblers, March through May. The other desert birds listed 3 paragraphs above may be found more easily, and are more widespread into other dry habitats, including the creosote/ocotillo/cholla desert.

Borrego Springs Waste Treatment Ponds

The wet grassy "ponds" may attract sparrows in winter, and thirsty migrants in spring and fall. Look for Common Yellowthroats, Black Phoebes, Northern Mockingbirds, and Marsh Wrens. Hybrid Gambel's x California Quail are regulars here. Otherwise, some desert scrub may have the common birds found in the Mesquite Bosque nearby. Shorebirds are possible, as are vagrants.

Getting there: Back at the intersection of Yaqui Pass Rd and Borrego Springs Rd, turn SE on Borrego Springs Rd and go about a mile. You are looking for a dip through a wash (dry creek bed) and the unmarked dirt road leading off to the left (north). It is at the 2nd set of power lines heading north. I knew about where it was the last time I visited but still drove past the inconspicuous road twice before finding it. The sandy dirt road then leads about a mile to the waste treatment ponds. Note: This is NOT the sewage treatment plant that is only 1/2 mile from the intersection of Yaqui Pass Rd and Borrego Springs Rd. Map navigation: Approximately 4990 Borrego Springs Rd, Borrego Springs, California.

Parking: Park (FREE) near the waste treatment ponds.

Where to bird: Walk the road around the ponds and more widely through the mesquite trees and desert nearby.

Cautions: You may find quail or dove hunters here at dawn, in season. The dirt roads may be impassible to passenger cars after a rain. Exercise caution, and stay on the packed road surface, and don't get off into the loose sand.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

New Year's Day Pelagic Trip

Point Loma
Point Loma, San Diego, California. January 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The San Diego Field Ornithologists have been holding annual January 1 pelagic trips for many years. This trip went out over the Nine Mile Bank and back. [Trip report]

Next trips are April 25, May 16, and June 14. [Schedule on]
These 10 and 12 hour trips are certainly the least expensive pelagic trips in North America.

Highlights from January 1 included about 10 Ancient Murrelets.

Ancient Murrelet
Ancient Murrelet
Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Black-vented Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater
Common Dolphin
Common Dolphin
Brown Booby
Brown Booby
Cassin's Auklet
Cassin's Auklet
Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican
Pomarine Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger
One interesting bird was this partially leucistic Black-vented Shearwater. I had heard about such birds, but I believe this is the first shearwater that I've seen like this.

leucistic Black-vented Shearwater
Leucistic Black-vented Shearwater. Off San Diego, California. January 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sage Thrasher at Borrego Springs

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher. Borrego Springs, California. December 26, 2014. Greg Gillson.
While searching unsuccessfully (again) for Crissal Thrashers in the mesquite trees near the Borrego Springs waste treatment plant, I spotted this Sage Thrasher. This species can be found from fall through spring here in the Anza-Borrego Desert, but most frequently are seen in March and early April on their northward migration.

Sage Thrasher
The rather short, straight bill (for a thrasher), yellow eyes, and the streaked breast makes identification of this species easy, compared to some of the other desert thrashers.

Unfortunately, I spent most of my early morning here trying to keep out of shotgun range from a couple of hunters chasing quail around this area of only about 10 acres. When they'd go around the waste ponds one way, I'd go the other way. I mean, I had traveled 80 miles the previous day. Marlene and I spent the night in a motel. I arose very early to get here at dawn to search for thrashers. I didn't want to go elsewhere, as this was my one chance during this trip.

It was 29 degrees at dawn, but the sun warmed me. By 10 o'clock the temperature would peak for the day at about 65 degrees. And there were good birds here, including a few Sagebrush/Bell's Sparrows, a calling Virginia's Rail in the ponds, and many, many Phainopeplas.

Sage Thrasher

Monday, January 5, 2015

Mid-December birding at Discovery Lake and Lake Hodges

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush. Discovery Lake, San Marcos, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Some of my birding days this summer and fall resulted in very few photos. However, that wasn't the case in December. I am now very backed up. Hmm... that doesn't sound quite right. I have many photos I wish to show and am getting behind in doing so. There, that's better. Maybe.

Back in mid-December I took a day to visit a couple of local lakes. First I went to Discovery Lake Park in San Marcos. It is a small tree-lined lake with paved path around it. I thought arriving at dawn on a brisk winter morning I would have the place to myself. Half-a-hundred hikers, joggers, baby stroller-pushers, and dog-walkers didn't agree with my logic.

After walking a mile loop around the lake I continued on to Lake Hodges a couple of miles south of San Marcos and Escondido. This area is more rugged than Discovery Lake, but there were still many hikers and mountain bikers enjoying the increasingly pleasant temperatures around this large reservoir.

I've already discussed some of the individual birds I saw this day, including...

Photogenic California Thrashers at Lake Hodges and Discovery Lake
California Thrasher

A somewhat rare Eurasian Wigeon at Lake Hodges
Eurasian Wigeon

Some Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows at Discovery Lake
White-crowned Sparrow

Now I present additional birds seen that day.

At Discovery Lake several migrant Hermit Thrushes were hiding in the dense foliage, but one came out to perch on the fence rail to allow a photo showing its tell-tale reddish rump and tail (opening photo, all the way to the top).

Other skulkers included...

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow
However, some birds were strikingly obvious...
Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird
Continuing on, then, over at Lake Hodges I found many more birds...
Say's Phoebe
Say's Phoebe

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
White-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kite
Cassin's Kingbird
Cassin's Kingbird
Plus, I took some scenic photos that I will share sometime in the next months as part of a site guide to Lake Hodges. So you have that to look forward to (this is called a teaser!).

And that catches me up to mid-December's photos and I can now move on to more late December and January photos!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

White-crowned Sparrows at Discovery Lake

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow
Adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow. San Marcos, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
White-crowned Sparrows show subtle but definite geographic differences across North America. Along the immediate West Coast (west of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevadas) there are three forms, or subspecies. The Nuttall's White-crowned Sparrow is a resident race along the central California coast. The Puget Sound White-crowned Sparrow breeds west of the Cascades from SW British Columbia to NW California, and winters south along the California coast. The Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow breeds in Alaska and across Arctic central Canada and Canadian Rocky Mountains, and winters furthest south, leapfrogging the other populations to winter from the central and western United States south well into mid-Mexico. This type of leapfrog migration is common in other species as well, where the northernmost breeding population is also the southernmost wintering form.

So here in San Diego, I have only seen the Gambel's form, October to April. Any other form would be rare here.

The 5 different recognized forms of White-crowned Sparrows across North America differ slightly in whether the black stripe continues through and in front of the eye, the dinginess of the underparts, the brightness of the back streaking, the color of the bill, and in song structure.

Five years ago I wrote about telling Puget Sound and Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows apart from an Oregon perspective.

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow
Immature Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow. San Marcos, California. December 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Even the immature is identifiable to subspecies. The orangish bill, pale lores, and tricolor back (white, gray, brown) all indicate Gambel's, whether immature or adult.