Thursday, November 26, 2015

ID Challenge: Mew Gull NOT!

I photographed this small gull in Oceanside a few weeks ago. The tiny bill and round head made me seriously consider this as a possible rare Mew Gull, rather than the common Ring-billed Gull. I did observe Mew Gulls here last winter, and one was reported nearby recently, so I was on the look-out.

Small gull. Oceanside, California. November 8, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I remember an identification article that appeared in American Birds March 1980: "A method for separating juvenal and first-winter Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delewarensis) and Common Gulls (Larus canus)" by Anthony J. Lauro and Barbara J. Spencer. (pdf here)

This article was the first to show that the wing covert tip shape and color is the key to separating these very similar-looking birds in immature plumage. The wing coverts of immature Mew Gulls have medium dark solid rounded centers with pale edge. The wing coverts of immature Ring-billed Gulls have darker pointed centers with wider whiter tips.

Though the wing covert feathers are worn and faded, the photo below shows the pointed dark tips on the individual wing covert centers consistent with Ring-billed Gull, and not Mew Gull.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hooked! Brandt's Cormorant at Oceanside

This Brandt's Cormorant was in the Oceanside marina recently. It was acting a bit dumpy.

Brandt's Cormorant
Brandt's Cormorant. Oceanside, California. November 8, 2015. Greg Gillson.
As is the case for many fish-eating birds near such busy fishing harbors, it grabbed a baited hook and now wears it as "jewelry." As you may imagine, such a hook may become infected or otherwise fatally injure a bird.

Brandt's Cormorant

A web page on how to best free a bird from a fishhook is here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Scaly-breasted Munia in Carlsbad

"Where do I find Scaly-breasted Munia?" Visiting birders have asked this question since late 2013 when the bird's status in California was officially changed from feral escaped cage bird to wild naturalized resident ("established population"). Scaly-breasted Munias can now officially be counted on your ABA list (American Birding Association).

According to eBird, Scaly-breasted Munias have been found in the last month in California from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border near Tijuana.

Scaly-breasted Munia
Scaly-breasted Munia (thick bill partially hidden by leaf). Carlsbad, California. October, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Scaly-breasted Munia
Juvenile male Scaly-breasted Munia.
Scaly-breasted Munias are known in the pet trade as Nutmeg Mannikins or Spice Finches. It is endemic in Asia from India to the Philippines.

I've seen these birds just about 5 times now in San Diego County. They are truly tiny birds, only 4-1/2 inches long--about the size of a goldfinch, though a bit pudgier with shorter tails. They form small flocks that give finch-like twittering calls. Though I am very good at identifying birds by their calls, I still haven't learned this bird's vocal differences--perhaps because they are in flocks and I haven't really heard just one bird call distinctly.

In San Diego County they seem to like brushy river bottoms at lower elevations. When the San Diego Bird Atlas was written in 2004, this species was "sporadic" in the county. They are now found in river bottoms near the coast the entire length of the county. They also follow the San Diego River from Mission Bay to Santee. If I had to name one location where they are most frequently encountered it would be Lake Murray. Over 100 individuals have been seen lately, though I have never seen them there. Another place where they are frequent is Batiquitos Lagoon.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cassin's Kingbird at Poinsettia Park, Carlsbad

As do most birders, I like to see birds I've never seen before--especially birds rare to an area. There are several rare birds in the San Diego area now, including many returning for multiple winters. I'll go see them if I have available time; but some are rather distant for a quick trip. Frankly, I'd rather find my own rare birds. But that means I don't see rare birds as often as if I chased after rare birds that others have already found.

Thus, I was exploring a new park I noticed on the map in Carlsbad. Poinsettia Park is quite large--perhaps a half mile to walk around, rimmed with trees and paved walkways. It is 42 acres, has 3 baseball fields, basketball court, and 10 tennis courts. (website here). The west side is along an ungroomed wet canyon with many trees. It looks like a great place for migrant or winter rarities to be found. It has food, water, and shelter. Less than a mile inland, it will have mild temperatures that should provide insects for food all winter .

I found several flocks of birds, but didn't find anything rare. I did get a couple photos of a cooperative Cassin's Kingbird on a fence.

Cassin's Kingbird
Cassin's Kingbird. Carlsbad, California. October 25, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Cassin's Kingbird

Last year I wrote an identification article on identifying the "yellow-bellied" kingbirds: "ID: Western, Cassin's, and Tropical Kingbirds."

Friday, November 6, 2015

California Flying Fish

When the ocean waters are especially warm in southern California one can view California Flying Fish. They are really more "gliding" fish than flying fish, as they don't flap their "wings" (pectoral fins). They gain speed under the water and then jump out, gliding on large pectoral fins. They frequently glide 150 feet before touching the water--and even then, their flight is not necessarily over.

Flying fish have forked tails. The lower lobe of the tail is much longer than the upper. As their glide slows and they drop closer to the water's surface an amazing thing happens. Rather than splash back into the water, they may vibrate their lower tail lobe in the water to pick up speed and extend their flight! Thus, a fish may combine several glides into a single flight reaching several hundred feet! They may stay out of the water for more than 30 seconds.

Up to 19 inches long--California Flying Fish are the world's largest.

California Flying Fish
California Flying Fish. Off San Diego, California. October 11, 2015. Greg Gillson.
California Flying Fish
Vibrating the lower tail lobe for another bout of gliding.
California Flying Fish
Off it glides again!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Green Heron in Encinitas

This Green Heron was at a small pond in Encinitas recently. It was an overcast day so the maroon and greenish hues are quite muted. Egrets and herons are photogenic birds. They are large and often allow close approach. So, after the first half-a-hundred photos of each bird it's hard to get something unique to get excited about. However, I thought the rusty grate to the large drain matched the heron's colors nicely and provided an interesting artistic accent that is lacking in many of my "documentary style" bird photos. Plus, it kind of follows the Rules of Thirds.

Green Heron
Green Heron. Encinitas, California. October 25, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Red-throated Pipit at Carlsbad, California

Yesterday when I posted about the grassland birds I saw last week at the Fiesta Island Dog Run, I didn't know I'd be going out this morning to look for the same birds. However, I went to a nearer location where Red-throated Pipits were reported. So, here's another post showing some of the same species reported in yesterday's post. But this time, I was successful in locating a Red-throated Pipit--a life bird!

A grassy field on Ponto Road in Carlsbad is also used as a dog run by local residents. It's a much smaller area with a dirt path/road around it. The field has scattered ice plant and other small weeds among the dirt--perfect for grassland birds such as pipits (70), horned larks (30), Say's phoebes (3), and meadowlarks (7). Since it was closer to home I could spend more time here.

American Pipit
American Pipit taking flight.
The pipits were very flighty. When the dogs came by they all took flight, circled around and landed out away from everyone. As they chased caterpillars they'd spread out. Eventually, they'd all end up in the same general area, even out on the open dirt. By just standing patiently, they'd creep by or be flushed near over time.

American Pipit
American Pipit showing rather dull, plain solid brown back.
The locomotion of pipits on the ground is rather steady walking with jerking head and bobbing tail. They stay pretty low and creep along horizontally as they walk, but then pull up suddenly to stop and look around before continuing on.

American Pipit
American Pipit with streaked breast and dark legs. Weak head pattern.
The Horned Larks were actually much less wary. They would often surprise me by flying up from underfoot--even though I was going incredibly slow and taking a few steps and stopping to scan around. They wouldn't fly around as much as the pipits when disturbed; more often they would just walk away.

Horned Lark
Horned Lark.
Finally I spied the target pipit with the striped back and more contrasting plumage! The view was brief and rather distant. I never did hear it call, or if I did, it was not noticeably different from the American Pipits.

Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit showing dark-and-buff striped back and pink legs; yellowish throat of immature or winter adult.
When other birders came I spotted it again--finally 4 times and over a minute! Peter Ginsburg showed up with his scope and I did get a distant scope view--just before the dogs chased their ball right through the flock and they flew to the opposite side.

Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit. Carlsbad, California. November 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
The Red-throated Pipit hid more in the thicker vegetation and little ruts and swales than the American Pipits did. So it was often many minutes between sightings. I was there for 2 hours and 40 minutes and saw the bird 4 times for less than 5 minutes total. I only moved a hundred feet or so across the field and back.

Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit showing strongly patterned facial markings; heavily streaked under parts.
At first when you look over the sparsely vegetated field it doesn't appear as if there are any birds out there. But by concentrating on a more distant spot you catch the birds scurrying along in your peripheral vision. This type of birding requires patience and slow, methodical scanning of each bird, over and over again. It's not as exciting as other forms of bird watching, but the rewards can be worth it!

Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit showing strongly striped back and affinity for thicker vegetation.
A bonus rare bird--a Sage Thrasher--also showed up. It's not as unusual as the Red-throated Pipit, but more regular in the Anza-Borrego desert in migration and winter, rather than along the coast. It had also been spotted by others earlier in the week.

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher. Carlsbad, California. November 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.