Monday, June 29, 2015

Lesser Nighthawks on Rangeland Road

Nancy Christensen reported at least 30 Lesser Nighthawks at dusk on Rangeland Road, near the Ramona Grasslands Preserve (site guide here) on June 25 and 26, 2015. I had not yet seen this species in San Diego County. So I drove out the evening of June 27 to see for myself. I went early because she had also reported Grasshopper Sparrows and Cattle Egrets--not rare, but they had eluded me so far this year.

I arrived on Rangeland road at 7:26 pm. It was overcast and muggy, about 81F. The first bird was a singing Blue Grosbeak on the fence line which then flew across Highland Valley Rd and into a lone oak. Scanning westward I noted 3 Cattle Egrets flying northward over the fields. I drove about 1/2 mile north, past two other cars full of birders waiting on the top of the hill east of the Ramona Water District reclamation pond (18022 Rangeland Rd, Ramona, CA 92065). Unfortunately, the nearby pond is not visible from the road.

Just beyond this, at the bottom of the rise, I stopped next to a longer-grass field, near a riparian area. It looked good for Grasshopper Sparrows, but I heard none. I could hear birds at the hidden pond--Great-tailed Grackles and Killdeer. Four White-faced Ibis flew north away from the pond. Three Black-necked Stilts flew in and descended into the pond area.

Right at sunset, however, (8:01 pm) two bird species became active. Some sparrow movement in the grass for the past few minutes finally gave a weak, barely audible, insect-like chirp-trill: Grasshopper Sparrows! And, over the ponds a couple of Lesser Nighthawks began flying around!

I had fortuitously positioned myself with a view of the sky above both the hidden pond to the SW and the other pond NW, visible westward from the end of Rangeland Rd. Since I was looking toward the setting sun, through clouds, the conditions were good for looking for silhouettes of flying nighthawks against the dimming sky.

Scanning and counting over both ponds, I reached the peak count about 8:15 pm. Off over the northwest pond a half mile were a maximum of 23 Lesser Nighthawks. Over the near pond, less than a quarter of a mile to the WSW I counted a maximum of 30 nighthawks in a continuous sweep of the skies with my binoculars. By 8:20 pm it was too dark to see nighthawks in the sky. The nighthawk show was over. But the Grasshopper Sparrows were now singing continuously in the near-dark.

I attempted photos of some of the nearest nighthawks, but it was just too dark for the camera to provide sharp pictures. Below, on photos I brightened, you can see the large head and crop, longer notched tail, long wings with a bend at the wrist that is held forward, slightly rounded wing tips, and a white wing patch just back from the tips.

Lesser Nighthawk at dusk
Lesser Nighthawk at dusk. Ramona, California. June 27, 2015. Greg Gillson.
These 53 birds are the second highest count of Lesser Nighthawks recorded for San Diego County, at least, up to 1999 (San Diego County Bird Atlas, Philip Unitt, 2004).

Additionally, for being so many summering birds, this comes from an area without previous local sightings of Lesser Nighthawks! Does that mean they were here all along, unseen? Or is this a new area for them? You can bet birders are going to return next year to see if they are here again.

Lesser Nighthawk at dusk

John Bruin's eBird checklist from June 27, 2015 with photos of nighthawks.

Nancy Christenen's eBird checklist from June 26, 2015 with photos of nighthawks.

Friday, June 26, 2015

American Avocet at San Luis Rey River Mouth

The American Avocet is frequently described as graceful and stately. This shorebird does seem to have an elegantly dignified manner as it feeds along the shores of lagoons or alkaline desert lakes.

Its upright posture, long legs and neck, upturned bill, and cinnamon head in breeding plumage make it a favorite of mine to photograph. That, and it is not too difficult to find and photograph in its open shoreline habitat.

American Avocet
American Avocet. Oceanside, California. May 24, 2015. Greg Gillson.
American Avocet

American Avocet

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Great-tailed Grackle at San Luis Rey River Mouth

Great-tailed Grackles were first discovered visiting California in 1964. Of course, now, they are widespread and common in southern California around lake shores and river bottoms, from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean. Even as recently as 1990, they were more restricted to desert ponds and streams: Colorado River Valley, Salton Sea, Death Valley (California Wildlife Habitat Relationships System, S. Granholm).

Great-tailed Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle. Oceanside, California. May 24, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Their calls are varied and loud, interspersing musical whistles and squeaks. The words raucous ("disturbingly harsh and loud noise") and cacophonous ("a harsh discordant mixture of sounds") are often used to describe this bird's calls.

Great-tailed Grackle

These birds are in the blackbird and oriole family (not the crow and jay family). Males of all grackles have a large wedge-shaped tail that they hold in a folded 'V' shape, rather than flat as other blackbirds.

Sexually dimorphic, males are much larger and glossier bluish-black than the grayer females, such as the female below.

Great-tailed Grackle

Because they are loud and bold, they are considered pests in many areas, such as campgrounds where they raid garbage cans and steal food from picnic tables (not to mention waking campers at  God-awful early morning hours... oops, I did mention it after all).

Thank goodness for the crop feature in Photoshop Elements. See the original photo below of the introductory photo above! I was able to remove the Barq's root beer can and some other shoreline trash.

Photoshop Elements

See a previous post where I kept the garbage in the photo with the birds.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Finding Gray Vireos on Kitchen Creek Road

From San Diego at sea level it is 54 miles east on Interstate 8 to Laguna Summit at just over 4000 feet. Now exit at Hwy 8 mile marker 54 on Kitchen Creek Road and it is 2.5 miles to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) parking area. This is the most reliable spot in San Diego County, indeed all of California, for finding Gray Vireos.

After living in San Diego County now for 21 months, I finally made the rather long trip (80 miles, 1 hour and 20 minutes from home) specifically to see this bird. 

Pacific Crest Trail on Kitchen Creek

On June 14, 2015 I rose at 4:30 a.m. and left home in San Marcos a bit after 5:00 a.m. I filled with gas then headed south on the 15 to the 8 and up, up, up. The June Gloom overcast stayed with me until I neared Pine Valley at about 3000 feet elevation. Then the newly risen sun shown directly in my eyes as I continued east. I arrived at the Pacific Crest Trail pullout at 6:30 a.m. and it was very birdy. In fact, I found 28 species here over the next 2 hours, as the temperature steadily climbed from 60F to 90F.

Map to Kitchen Creek Road

Within 15 minutes of arrival, between 500 and 1000 feet west on the PCT (Southbound) I heard my target species. There were 2 singing Gray Vireos and I photographed one of them at quite a distance up the hillside.

The bird was rather all-over gray. The under tail coverts and lower belly whiter. There was a thin white eye ring and a single faint wing bar.

Gray Vireo
Gray Vireo. Kitchen Creek, Pacific Crest Trail, San Diego County, California. June 14, 2015. Greg Gillson.
My 300th San Diego County bird!
The voice was a loud repeated series of 4 well-spaced sweet sliding whistles, one slightly buzzy, one higher: "suweet,  dzuwee, suweet, suwee." It sounded quite similar to Cassin's Vireo.

Compared to surrounding areas that don't seem to have Gray Vireos, the chaparral here is thicker and taller, interspersed with more boulders, and in a steeper canyon. There was a little creek down a couple hundred feet, but the vireo was up in the dry chaparral.

Looking down on Kitchen Creek
Looking down on Kitchen Creek
Chaparral was composed of dozens of species of large shrubs, smaller shrubs and flowers. Some I saw and think I may have identified correctly (guessed by picture-matching) using this website are: Big Berry Manzanita, Common Sagebrush, Golden Bowl Mariposa, Indian Paintbrush, Fringed Spineflower, Yucca, Toyon, Cholla, Chamas. Here is another page on common plants and animals of California's chaparral.

Typical birds included Wrentit, California Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Costa's Hummingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Black-chinned Sparrow. A Mountain Quail squawked once early.

Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
One bird here that I rarely see is Scott's Oriole. It sings like a Western Meadowlark... or maybe like two meadowlarks harmonizing together--such a rich bright song coming from a dry, dull landscape.

Scott's Oriole
Scott's Oriole
Way down on the creek I saw a couple of California Quail and some Lawrence's Goldfinches. The calls of both Rock and Canyon Wrens echoed down the canyon. Not really the best habitat--a Cactus Wren chugged away across the canyon, unseen. That made 5 wren species within a quarter mile!

Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
Birds of Kitchen Creek Road are on this hotspot list from eBird. It includes 143 species from the first 5 miles, from Interstate 8 to the gate.

Horned Lizard
Horned Lizard
At mile post 4.5 on Kitchen Creek Road is Cibbets Flat Campground. The oaks here add Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, House Wren, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Lawrence's and Lesser Goldfinch, and Steller's Jays to the other chaparral birds.

Oak Titmouse
Oak Titmouse at Cibbets Flat Campground
Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker at Cibbets Flat Campground.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Black Phoebe at San Luis Rey River Mouth

Here are some shots of the photogenic Black Phoebe. They like to sit out in the open, over the water, and are not very timid around people. So the challenge becomes to find interesting behaviors and backgrounds. Otherwise they become BOS ("bird on stick")--a rather dull photo.

Well, I didn't do any better with the background on these, but here they are anyway. The perch seems to be a dead stick and pickleweed (Salicornia). This individual has clean wide white fringes on the wing feathers, and pointed buff tips to the greater and lesser secondary coverts--forming the wingbars. Thus, I believe this is a juvenile bird just a few weeks old. Adults would have older, faded, worn wing and tail feathers that grew in last fall.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe. Oceanside, California. May 24, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black Phoebe

Monday, June 8, 2015

Ruddy Duck at San Luis Rey River Mouth

This mother Ruddy Duck and her charges were swimming under the bridge at the San Luis Rey River mouth. The little puff balls--only a few days old--are already excellent divers.

Ruddy Duck family
Ruddy Duck family. Oceanside, California. May 24, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Friday, June 5, 2015

June Gloom

The semi-arid climate of San Diego is very different from the temperate rainforest climate of western Oregon. But the weather in May and June is often very similar--frequently overcast in the mornings and highs in the 60s or very low 70s.

This "May Gray" and "June Gloom" in southern California comes off the ocean at night and results in overcast, morning fog, and sometimes drizzle, usually clearing in the late morning or early afternoon.

There are more cloudy, overcast days (or partial days) in San Diego during this late spring time than in winter.

Although I prefer full sun, the June Gloom period is a favorite of many locals.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Black-necked Stilt at San Luis Rey River Mouth

During Marlowe's visit last week she mentioned that she had spotted some distant stilts while traveling over the rice paddies near Sacramento. Actually, that's where I saw my first stilts, too--in 1977.

She was talking about making sure to stop on the way back so she could get better looks. I had heard reports of stilts with chicks at San Luis Rey River Mouth in Oceanside (site guide here). I asked if the family wanted to go there and the beach after lunch. It didn't take much convincing.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt. Oceanside, California. May 14, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The stilts and the chicks were right there and obvious, observed from the sidewalk. Do you see the little guy hiding in the following photo?

Black-necked Stilt and chick

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt and chick