Friday, February 27, 2015

San Diego Bird Finding: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Imperial Beach, California. February 7, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are rare residents in the San Diego area. Since 2012 there are 3 areas with multiple reports: San Diego River/Sea World, Tijuana River Valley, and Imperial Beach.

Currently, the only reliable place to find these birds in San Diego is at the Imperial Beach Sports Park, on Imperial Beach Blvd, right next to 4th Street.

Since January 2012 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been regular at the Imperial Beach Sports Park. They roost during the day in the trees over the parking lot. One or two nests have been active in June and July since their discovery.

Black-crowned Night Herons are also regular here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Birding Site Guide: Bayshore Bikeway, Imperial Beach

Bayshore Bikeway, 13th Street access heading northeast toward the Salt Works, Imperial Beach, California.
[2018 update here]

Imperial Beach is at the south end of the San Diego Bay. The town is literally squished between the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the north and the Tijuana Slough NWR a few blocks south and the ocean on the west. This site guide is to the 7th Street and 13th Street access points to the Bayshore Bikeway.

I must say that this is not a birding "destination." This is just a place to stop and see if any good birds are obvious on your way to the Tijuana Slough NWR or the mouth of the Tijuana River at the end of Seacoast Drive. This site guide is based on parking your car at these two points and walking about a half mile down the bike paths at each area. Thirty minutes at each location is probably sufficient; up to an hour if you walk farther or see good birds. Dodging bikes is one problem. Birding while walking and looking through the chain link fence on 13th Street is almost nausea-inducing (see photo above). However, there are several unique species here and nearby. Good birds are also reported here regularly, but I think many are reported by biologists surveying on private property of the Salt Works. If I find out differently, I'll update here.

One species found here (and pretty much only here) that I have yet to encounter is Reddish Egret. Other birds pretty much restricted to this area are Gull-billed Tern (summer) and Common Goldeneye (winter).

Getting there: I-5 south 15 miles from I-8, take the Palm Ave exit and head west 2 miles to 7th or 13th Streets. Follow these north to the edge of the bay. Parking: Free street parking at both locations. There is a dirt parking area at 13th Street. Hours: Daylight hours. Map navigation: 301 7th St., Imperial Beach, CA 91932 and 440 13th St., Imperial Beach, CA 91932.

Where to bird: At 7th Street (A on the map below) walk 1/8 mile west on the Bikepath. At 13th Street (B on map) there is a small little park area along the Otay River. Otherwise, one may walk the bike path NW 1/2 mile to C.

A scope will bring more of the distant birds into view.

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter
Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit
Eared Grebe
Eared Grebe. Imperial Beach, California. February 7, 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

San Diego Bird Finding: Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird (male). Highland Valley Road, Ramona, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Mountain Bluebirds are rather scarce and local in winter in San Diego County, even if they winter into central Mexico. However, they are regular in the Ramona Grasslands Preserve.

Here are some photos from a couple of weeks ago.

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Friday, February 20, 2015

Fish Tacos and Fish 'n Chips Pubs/Markets

Marlene and I have had a bit of a hard time finding good fish 'n chips in the San Diego area. And Marlene wants dark beer on tap. We like the pub/fish market atmosphere of some such places, but we'd take a fancier restaurant, if we could find one.

But of course, it is hard to compete with the fresh fish tacos with fennel slaw and the grilled albacore tuna kabobs with rice noodles at Local Ocean, 213 SE Bay Blvd, Newport, Oregon. I can never decide which I like better, so I usually have both!

Also, if in Newport, Oregon and you want the traditional fried fish 'n chips, then order the halibut fish 'n chips at Lighthouse Deli/South Beach Fish Market, 3540 S Hwy 101, South Beach, Oregon.

But that was Oregon. This is now San Diego.

We tried Joe's Crab Shack in Oceanside, California but it was rather expensive and messy (crab legs) and nothing special for us.

We've found two local places that are good for seafood and other items...

The Harbor Town Pub, 1125 Rosecrans St., San Diego (Point Loma)
Seared Ahi or mahi mahi tacos. I think I had the Ahi Club once. They don't have fish 'n chips; Marlene had the Cobb salad.

Pacific Beach Fish Shop, 1775 Garnet Ave., San Diego (Pacific Beach)
I had the mahi mahi fish tacos with mango salsa, Marlene had the shrimp 'n chips--just what she was hungry for and it was on the menu!

Pacific Beach Fish Shop
Pacific Beach Fish Shop. Notice the TV news says "Millions in Cross-hairs of Winter Blast." February 15, 2015.
Pacific Beach Fish Shop
Fresh fish in market.
Pacific Beach Fish Shop
Sidewalk seating. A different meaning to "Winter Blast."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hooded Merganser at Lake Hodges

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser. Lake Hodges, California. January 25, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Hooded Mergansers reach their southernmost wintering range in San Diego County and are noteworthy. However, I have found several this winter, starting in January (none earlier in fall).

Here are my encounters this winter:

2 birds at San Elijo Lagoon on January 11, 2015
7 birds at Lake Hodges on January 25, 2015
1 bird on Bayshore Bikeway, Imperial Beach on February 7, 2015

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sooty Fox Sparrow at Lake Hodges

Sooty Fox Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow (possibly unalaschensis). Lake Hodges, California. January 25, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The Sooty Fox Sparrow is the least common of the 3 expected forms of wintering Fox Sparrows in San Diego. The eastern Red Fox Sparrow is a rare winter visitor (there is only one San Diego record in eBird, though more must have been seen over the years).

Exactly a year ago in February I wrote of the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow that I had photographed. It is the most frequently encountered Fox Sparrow here. The Thick-billed Fox Sparrow also occurs, but I have been unable to get a photo, as of yet.

The Sooty Fox Sparrow is identified by the rather plain grayish-brown head and back that doesn't contrast strongly with the reddish-brown wings and tail. The breast is densely marked with wide brownish spots, converging on the upper breast. The bill is of average width with a yellow lower mandible. It gives a hard check or chap call. The winter habitat is dense riparian tangles, rather than chaparral.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Identify this tree!

Tree Cell Phone Tower
Zombie Tree. Guajome County Park, Oceanside, California.
"The funny thing about camouflage is that, if done poorly, it actually draws attention to what one is trying to hide." -- Pete Brook, Wired Magazine.

It kind of looks like a tree--in the way that a zombie looks like a real person--but grotesque, hideous, deformed.

Of course, those were also my thoughts when I saw my first cell phone towers, sprouted up overnight like giant ominous mechanical beings from outer space. Images of War of the Worlds.

This tree won an award for innovative design? You've got to be kidding me! On the other hand, Alien won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. That monster has nothing on this "tree"!

If you think this zombie pine tree is weird, you should see the palm tree cell towers!

Here are some more examples.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Intergrade American x Eurasian Green-winged Teal

intergrade or hybrid American and Eurasian Green-winged Teal
Intergrade drake American x Eurasian Green-winged Teal. Tijuana River Valley, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The American Ornithologists' Union currently differs from the British Ornithologists' Union in their treatment of two forms of Green-winged Teal. The AOU says that the American and Eurasian forms are just subspecies of the same species (Anas crecca carolinensis for American Green-winged Teal and Anas crecca crecca for the Eurasian Green-winged Teal (also called Common Teal or just Teal)); the BOU classifies them as separate species (Anas carolinensis and Anas crecca).

The Eurasian form of Green-winged Teal "Common Teal" breeds as far east as the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. While most of this population winters southward in Asia, some individuals are regular vagrants that are found annually in winter south to California amid flocks of American Green-winged Teal. Additionally, intergrades (if one considers them subspecies, or "hybrids" if one considers them the same species) are equally frequent--rare, but if you look, you can often find some annually.

Drakes of the American form have a vertical white bar on the side of the breast. The Eurasian form lacks this vertical bar and instead has a white horizontal bar at the edge of the wing. Additionally, the green eye/ear patch on the Eurasian form is surrounded by bolder white lines.

I photographed an intergrade at the Dairy Mart Road "Stick Pond" at the Tijuana River Valley recently. The out-of-focus documentation photo is above. It shows both the vertical and horizontal white bars, and the face markings are midway between the American and Eurasian populations.

Field guide author and artist David Sibley wrote an identification piece and drew artwork on his blog in 2011 about the two forms and intergrades between the two. If you look at his references, he used my earlier photos and discussion from my web site in 2004. Pretty neat!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Red-throated Loon in Chula Vista

Red-throated Loon
Red-throated Loon. Chula Vista, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
This Red-throated Loon in non-breeding plumage was swimming in San Diego Bay at Chula Vista's J Street Marina last month.

I really don't have that much to say about it, except that I find the 5 species of loons easier to identify in their gray and white winter patterns than in their more colorful breeding plumages. In this case, the gray of the hind head and neck merge smoothly into the white throat and fore neck without a strong line of demarcation. The bill is thin compared to other loons and often held at an upward angle while swimming.

And, as long as long as I don't have anything to say... Loons in Great Britain are called "Divers," a very apt name. So this would be the Red-throated Diver there. Our Common Loon gets the fantastic name of Great Northern Diver. It's a little ostentatious, especially considering there isn't any Lesser Northern Diver nor a Great Southern Diver.

In any case, the scientific names are always the same, regardless of local vernacular names or languages. For instance, some local American names for Red-throated Loon include Little Loon, Pegging-awl Loon, Pepper-shinned Loon, and Sprat Loon. On the other hand, Gavia stellata is the scientific name of this bird throughout the world in any language. Gavia is a Latin name for Smew (a Eurasian sea duck), and stellata or stars, a reference to the white speckling on the back of the bird in non-breeding plumage, such as our bird under discussion.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Roadrunner at Tijuana River Valley

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner. Tijuana River Valley, California. January 18, 2015. Greg Gillson.
A few weeks ago Marlene and I drove down to the border with Mexico and birded the Tijuana River Valley. We drove out the road to Border Field State Park, but it was closed to vehicles. There is a $5 fee to drive, and only open on weekends, but often closed for 3 weeks or more after the latest winter rains, due to road flooding. The park is open to pedestrians and equestrians, though. But we didn't really feel like walking on this day.

As we turned around and pulled over to decide our next area to explore, a roadrunner scooted across the road. It took a bit to get my camera out of the back seat. By the time I was ready to shoot a photo, the bird was walking behind a chain link fence and "hiding" behind additional weeds (top photo).

The bird stopped at a dirt track and began singing--a soft series of low descending cooing notes, similar to other closely related cuckoos. It also snapped its mandibles together rapidly to make a rattling sound. Marlene was somewhat surprised, expecting more of a "beep! beep!" as one would infer from watching Acceleratti incredibilis as a child.

Greater Roadrunner

A few moments later, however, it appeared on the top of the fence--of course, on the opposite side of the car. So I crawled out the window partway to shoot across the car to obtain these additional photos.

Greater Roadrunner

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Birding Site Guide: Lake Hodges (Bernardo Bay area)

Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges looking west from Bernardo Bay.
Lake Hodges is just south of Escondido on I-15. The Bernardo Bay Trailhead on the east end of the lake and the footbridge is a popular hiking and biking destination, with lots of birds.

Lake Hodges map

Getting there: Lake Hodges is 25 miles north of San Diego on Interstate-15 at the Pomerado/W Bernardo Dr exit. Follow W Bernardo Drive west about 1/2 mile. Parking: There is a FREE dirt parking area on W Bernardo Drive for the Bernardo Bay Trailhead ("A" on the 2nd map below). Alternatively, continue on to Rancho Bernardo Community Park ("B" on the 2nd map below), and park in one of the FREE paved spaces. Hours: Dawn to dusk. Map Navigation: 18402 W Bernardo Dr, San Diego, CA 92127.

Where to bird: From the parking lot ("A" or "B") I bird clockwise around the loop trail, though either way would work. It is sparse grassland as one heads for the creek crossing ("C"). Say's Phoebes, California Towhees, sparrows, and the occasional Greater Roadrunner may be found here. A few weeks ago I found 7 Hooded Mergansers in the creek--a large number for San Diego County.

Lake Hodges
The start of the trail. Looking west from Bernardo Bay Trailhead.
The Bernardo Bay arm of the reservoir ("D") has many American Coot and other ducks and grebes.  White-tailed Kites frequent this area. Swallows and Cassin's Kingbirds roost in the drowned trees. Western Grebes are very common in the lake here, and a few Clark's Grebes can always be found.

Lake Hodges site guide

It is along this section (near "D") that both California and Blue-gray gnatcatchers may be found. Shorebirds aren't frequent, but you may find them here in fall.

Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges looking west from Bernardo Bay.
As you approach "E" more ducks may be found, often Northern Shoveler and American Wigeon. Many egrets are here, including Cattle Egrets at times. American White Pelicans often rest in the shallows.

Lake Hodges
Bernardo Bay looking south.
The area between "E" and "F" have more songbirds, including warblers and sparrows. When the lake was first created this was deep water, but it has been a couple of year since the lakeshore reached the footbridge ("F").

The footbridge is worth walking out, at least half way, to observe the winter sparrows (Lincoln's Sparrow can be quite common). White-tailed Kites also frequent this arm of the lake. White-throated Swifts are often seen high in the sky here. And one should keep a look out on the ridge to the north for the rare Zone-tailed Hawk in winter.

Lake Hodges footbridge
Lake Hodges footbridge.
By this time you have walked about 2 miles. I usually head back to the parking area from here. But I have walked across the footbridge and gone another 1/2 mile in both directions. Specifically, if one goes west along the lake you will approach the prickly pear cacti patches where you can find Cactus Wren. But I have actually heard them from across the lake when between "D" and "E" on the map.

Here is the weekly abundance chart of 175+ birds found here as listed in eBird.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Taverner's Cackling Geese on Rangeland Road

Taverner's and Aleutian Cackling Geese
Getting my ducks in a row (okay, fine, geese). Front three geese, left to right: Taverner's Cackling Goose, Aleutian Cackling Goose, Western Canada Goose. Ramona, San Diego County, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
[Click all photos for larger view.]

While observing the large goose flock on Rangeland Road, near Ramona, California, last week I found and photographed the previously reported Snow Goose, two Greater White-fronted Geese, and 4 Cackling Geese.

Not one to leave well-enough alone, I observed that of the four Cackling Geese present, only one was the expected Aleutian form with dark breast and wide white neck ring at the bottom of the black neck stocking.

It has been 11 years now since the AOU split the white-cheeked geese formerly known only as "Canada Goose" into Canada and Cackling geese. In western Oregon I was used to commonly seeing 3 types of Cackling Geese and up to 4 types of Canada Geese, fall through spring. It just so happens that Aleutian Cackling Goose is the rarest of the 3 types of Cackling Geese I would see in Oregon. It is, however, the only expected form in San Diego County.

As a former eBird Reviewer, I was a bit sensitive about correctly reporting Canada and Cackling Geese, writing one blog post about it (for instance, check out: "Greg's white-cheeked goose rant--I mean, primer").

I will admit that only a few birders care about various races (subspecies) of geese. But think about this: Goose hunters, shooting at dawn on dark, foggy mornings--without binoculars--are expected to shoot only the allowable subspecies of geese. If not, they can be fined. I'm sure, if you wanted to, with your binoculars and spotting scope, you could correctly identify the various races of white-cheeked geese better than these hunters, couldn't you?

For southern California, south of the Central Valley, only the Western Canada Goose (Branta canadensis moffitti, also known as Great Basin Canada Goose or Moffitt's Canada Goose) and Aleutian Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia) are expected in winter.

Which brings us back to last week's birds. Below is another photo of the three forms in question. The big Western Canada Goose is on the right and all around behind. Large size, pale breast, long bill, long neck.

In the center is the Aleutian Cackling Goose. Small size, dark breast, square head, tiny triangle bill, wide white collar at bottom of black neck stocking.

On the left is another Cackling Goose. It is slightly larger than the Aleutian, but still only 1/2 the size of the big Western's. And look at that silvery breast! Ridgway's (B.h.minima) is the smallest and darkest breasted. This is not that subspecies. That leaves the smaller and square headed Richardson's (B.h. hutchinsii) of the East and larger Taverner's (B.h. taverneri) of the West with more sloping forehead. Everything points to these pale breasted Cackling Geese as being Taverner's.

Taverner's and Aleutian Cackling Geese
Another view.
Here are two more Cackling Geese, below. The bird on the left is slightly larger, paler, and thicker-necked than the bird on the right. The left bird is definitely Taverner's. The right bird shows some attributes tending toward Ridgway's (smaller size, slightly darker back, frosted wing covert stripes) but has the head of Taverner's (shallower forehead, rounder, crown, less stubby bill). Plus, the breast on the right bird is not purplish-brown as Ridgway's. So, I'm calling both these birds Taverner's Cackling Geese. (But I could be talked out of making any definite subspecies identification of the right Cackling Goose--intergrades are known.) [Update: 1/19/2018: I have recently heard (though not confirmed) that first-year Aleutian Cackling Geese may lack the darker breast and white neck ring. If true, the slightly smaller and darker bird below on the right may be Aleutian.]

Taverner's Cackling and Moffitt's Canada geese
Two Taverner's Cackling Geese amid Moffitt's Canada Geese. Ramona, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Note that the wing tips extend past the end of the tail on the Cackling Geese, while the wing tips fall short of the end of the tail on the Canada Geese. Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes) may be the size and color of Taverner's Cackling Goose, but has the short wings of Canada Goose. Thus, that left bird is a Cackling Goose and not one of the smaller subspecies of Canada Goose.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ramona Grasslands Preserve

Ramona Grasslands Preserve
Ramona Grasslands Preserve, Ramona, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
 I visited the Ramona Grasslands Preserve on February 1 [birding site guide here], and walked the Wildflower Loop. This is a 2 mile loop that starts about 1/4 mile from the parking lot. It is a popular horse riding trail, shared with dog walkers and other hikers.

The first part of the trail is grassland. Then it goes through an oak woodland. The farthest portion climbs up slope into chaparral.

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird. Ramona Grasslands Preserve, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The grassland has many singing Western Meadowlarks, flitting American Pipits, and a few rather rare Mountain Bluebirds. Rock Wrens were singing from the scattered boulders. Oh, and some rather tame cattle were there which, along with now rare fires, help keep the grasslands from growing into brushy chaparral.

The oak woodlands has Acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, Red-shouldered Hawks, White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds, and Oak Titmouses.

This early in the winter the chaparral was almost devoid of birds, though a few Spotted and California towhees were calling, even if not seen.

Ramona Grasslands Preserve