Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Armchair ticks: Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay and Townsend's Storm-Petrel

The American Ornithologists' Union made two long-anticipated splits this year in its annual report. As a result, I added two life birds to my checklist without going anywhere!

An overview of this year's changes, including re-ordering many family groups, is on the ABA blog.

A few years ago the Scrub Jay was split into Western Scrub-Jay, Island Scrub-Jay, and Florida Scrub-Jay. It took a while, but Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) finally has been split from Western Scrub-Jay. Therefore, Western Scrub-Jay received a new name: California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica).

California Scrub-Jay
California Scrub-Jay. Palomar Mountain, California. July 4, 2016. Greg Gillson.
The California Scrub-Jay is the form I'm most familiar with in Washington, Oregon, and California. Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay is an inland form. It's a bit paler with a shorter bill. I saw them on a trip to Colorado in October 1984: At Bright Angel Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, Dalton Springs, Utah, and between Cortez and Durango, Colorado.

In 2008 I photographed a smaller blackish storm-petrel at sea far off southern California. It had a white rump that wrapped all the way around and onto the the sides of the undertail coverts. After much research I found it was a subspecies of Leach's Storm-Petrel. Well, Leach's Storm-Petrel has now been split 3-ways, with Townsend's (Oceanodroma socorroensis) and Ainley's (Oceanodroma cheimomnestes) separated from Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa). Leach's is found from Alaska to Mexico, Ainley's only in Mexico, and Townsend's primarily in Mexico and rarely to southern California. [ID article here]

Townsend's Storm-Petrel
Townsend's Storm-Petrel. Tanner Bank, Ventura Co., California. November 2, 2008. Greg Gillson.
These "new" birds, plus a significantly re-ordered checklist are supposed to be incorporated into eBird about August 1st. Ducks and chickens are still first on the North American list, but everything else between there and woodpeckers is reshuffled--it's going to take me quite a while to get used to looking for pigeons, nighthawks, and hummingbirds at the beginning of the bird book, then shorebirds and gulls, followed by albatrosses, herons, pelicans, and hawks just before the woodpeckers, falcons, parrots, and passerines.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Today at Scripps Park, La Jolla

Marlene and I headed out early to the coast this morning to beat the last day of a week of 90-100F heat. We chose the cliffs overlooking La Jolla Cove to start the day. If you arrive at dawn you may be able to find a parking spot. [I wrote a birding site guide for this location here.]

It was 68F and trying to be foggy, but failing. Just perfect!

Sea Lions playing King of the Hill.
Sea Lions playing King of the Hill.
Sea Lion slumber party.
Sea Lion slumber party.
I know, they look so cute. But sea lions aren't potty trained. So, without a breeze, it was quite smelly.

A few common birds were along the walkway.

Western Gull
Western Gull
Rock Pigeon
Rock Pigeon
Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
After a short walk Marlene returned to the car to read her book in the sunshine and great view. I continued a few hundred feet to the west to the Children's Pool--never given to the children because the Harbor Seals took over and decided to birth their pups there.

Children's Pool
Children's Pool
The walkway around the Children's Pool gave close-up views of seals and other sea life.

Harbor Seals enjoying the tide pools
Harbor Seals enjoying the tide pools
Fishing boats offshore
Fishing boats offshore
You see the larger boat about 3/4 miles offshore in the photo above? That's the New Seaforth. Camera phone above, my birding camera below. Canon XTi with 100-400mm zoom lens, giving me about 13x magnification.

New Seaforth.
Actually, I can zoom in even further...

About 3500 feet away
There are a few birds found on rocky shores that are a bit harder to find in San Diego County. I found Black Turnstones and Wandering Tattler, but didn't find Pelagic Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, or Surfbird--they'll be here through the winter, so I have plenty of time to see them yet this year.

Wandering Tattler.
Sleeping Harbor Seal. F-I-R-M pillows are the best!
Harbor Seal pup
After this stop we continued down the coastal drive stopping at a few other places where Marlene could stick her feet in the water. There was no parking available by the time we reached the jetty area of Mission Bay, so we didn't stay. Then back home we went--a great morning!


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Birding Site Guide: Tijuana River mouth--Seacoast Drive

When birders refer to the Tijuana River mouth, they are likely speaking of this location--the north side of the river reached via the south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach. On the other hand, perhaps they are speaking of the south side of the river at Border Field State Park--so make sure if you are chasing a rare bird.

Load 1699 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach into your GPS map navigation program. Find a free parking space as near to the end as you can. Get out and walk the dike southward.

This dike/beach walk isn't really a scenic walk, and there aren't a lot of different species. However, it is a place to go to search for specific birds at specific times of the year. I recommend a scope to view seabirds and also to enlarge the shorebirds, terns, and egrets you may see at quite a distance on the Oneonta Slough and later at the Tijuana River mouth itself.

Tijuana River mouth Seacoast Drive
The south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach looking northward across Oneonta Slough. At the horizon on the right is the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge visitor center and start of the McCoy Trail--a site for another time.
The photo above is looking north at the parking area. The photo below is looking south following the dike trail. Though the small cobble is rocky and uneven, it is slightly easier to walk than the loose sand beach. Don't worry, you'll get to do both.

Tijuana River mouth

It is exactly 1 mile from the parking area to the river mouth. The first 1/2 mile is on this dike. It disappears and then the final 1/2 mile is on the beach sand.

From the dike look east along the slough for egrets and herons--Snowy Egrets are abundant; Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Little Blue Herons are frequent; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a specialty and may be slightly more expected than Black-crowned Night-Heron here; and Reddish Egret is a regular rarity. Perhaps a Ridgway's Rail will venture out of the marsh vegetation for a moment or give its loud grunting series of calls.

You can see for yourself in the photo above that shorebirds would be difficult to identify along the slough with only binoculars (you must stay on the dike or beach). Willets, Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts are identifiable, but you'll likely need a scope for smaller sandpipers and plovers.

Stop periodically to scan the ocean to the west for Surf Scoters or rarer kin. You may be able to see Brown Boobies from shore here though, again, a scope to look out 2-3 miles takes your vision out where it needs to be for these birds, and perhaps jaegers or shearwaters in fall.

You may hear Western Meadowlarks singing and there are Horned Larks on the dike and behind the foredune, such as it is. Look for Northern Harriers (they nest here) or other hawks, especially in winter, working the slough.

After the rocky dike dissolves into the beach you are at the sandy breeding grounds of Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. In summer the breeding area is roped off, but you can still walk around it. Both species breed here from April to July, but you may be able to find the Snowy Plovers on the adjacent beach all year. I've found this location to be the most reliable place to find Snowy Plovers in the county, but maybe I just don't know where else to look--others find them on many other beaches.

Least Tern
Least Tern
Snowy Plover
Snowy Plover
Tijuana River mouth
Tijuana River mouth looking south toward Tijuana, Mexico on the hill.
Tijuana River mouth
Tijuana River mouth looking southwest toward Islas Coronados offshore.
Once you reach the mouth of the Tijuana River you may be closer to shorebirds again. Pelicans, Heermann's Gulls, and cormorants roost and feed at the mouth (as above photo). Elegant Terns can number into the thousands in summer.

Brown Pelicans
Brown Pelicans and friends
Heermann's Gull
Heermann's Gull
There are two other birds of note here to look for. Black Skimmers may roost and fly around in the lower river mouth. Gull-billed Terns may work the slough like the Forster's Terns, but are larger, with a thick black bill. Elegant Terns fly over, commuting from just offshore to the south end of San Diego Bay, but the Gull-billed fly along the river channel and out to sea--not quite as high and direct. And Caspian Terns may roost.

Gull-billed Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Forster's Tern
Forster's Tern
Snowy Plover
Snowy Plover

Sunday, July 17, 2016

ID: Leach's Storm-Petrel Split: Ainley's, Leach's, and Townsend's

So, in July, the Checklist Committee of the American Ornithologist's Union made its annual update to their "Check-list of North American Birds." This is the official body for naming birds in North America and is responsible for the names and order of birds in your birding field guide. One recent major change was to split the Leach's Storm-Petrel into 3 species, now named: Leach's, Ainley's, and Townsend's storm-petrels.

Townsend's Storm-Petrel
Townsend's Storm-Petrel. About 70 miles due west of San Diego, California. November 2, 2008. Greg Gillson.
Are you planning a pelagic birding trip from San Diego to search for these species? Let me help you.

Everything here is based on the references below. I've tried to simplify and summarize all the material.

First of all, you'll be happy to know that the birds you will see in the US are all illustrated in your most-recent favorite field guides:

The Sibley Guide to Birds (Second Edition). 2014. David Allen Sibley. Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Sixth Edition). 2011. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer. National Geographic. Washington, D.C.

The identification of these birds is thoroughly covered in:

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide. 2012. Steve N. G. Howell. Princeton University Press. New Jersey.

The chapters of the above book were taken nearly verbatim from an article in the magazine North American Birds, Volume 63 (2009) Number 4, pp 540-549. The article is "Occurrence and Identification of the Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) Complex off southern California," written by Steven N. G. Howell et al.

Here is a web link to a pdf file of that article:

As you can see, these "new" birds aren't really all that new. In fact, David Ainley published his research on the variation of Leach's Storm-Petrels back in the 1980's. Among other things he noted that there was both a summer-breeding and winter breeding type of Leach's Storm-Petrel on Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Besides breeding at different times of the year on the same island they had a different "song" that was also quite different from other Leach's Storm-Petrels breeding to the north. Well, if they occur together and don't breed, and have a different song, then that meets the definition of a distinct species. Even though we "knew" that different species must be involved, it took some time to study all the populations and for the study to be published, before the AOU would act to officially recognize the new species.

Leach's Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel. 60 miles west of Newport, Oregon. August 2, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Now that the new species is recognized and you can mark it on your bird checklist, how do you find them and what do they look like? First, let's discuss their range and seasonal occurrence.

Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa): At least two white-rumped northern subspecies of Leach's Storm-Petrel. Breeds in the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the Aleutian Islands to off San Francisco. From San Francisco to Mexico, breeding Leach's Storm-Petrels seem to gradually change from predominately lighter rumped to darker-rumped. Also breeds in the Atlantic Ocean from Labrador to Massachusetts, Iceland. Winters to Midway and the Galapagos in the Pacific, and to the equator and South Africa in the Atlantic. Off southern California: April-October.

Chapman's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa chapmani): Not a separate species, but a dark-rumped southern subspecies of Leach's Storm-Petrel. Breeds off Baja California and occurs regularly north to about San Barbara. Off southern California: April-October.

Townsend's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma socorroensis): A newly minted species, smaller and blacker than Leach's, with an extensive white rump. Breeds in the summer on Guadalupe Island off Baja California and ranges to Santa Barbara in the fall. Off southern California: July-October.

Ainley's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma cheimomnestes): A recently described species with a dusky rump. Breeds in winter on Guadalupe Island off Baja California and ranges south farther into Mexican waters. Not likely to occur in US waters, but if it did it would be difficult to tell from Chapman's form of Leach's Storm-Petrel. Off southern California: Not discovered yet.

Identifying Storm-Petrels in Southern California

From Alaska to Oregon there are only two species expected--Leach's and Fork-tailed. But in southern California waters there are 4-6 species expected on every spring or fall trip. A pelagic trip from San Diego from May-October is most likely to find Black Storm-Petrels, sometimes in dense flocks of thousands of birds. A few Ashy Storm-Petrels maybe mixed in. In late fall of warm-water years there may be large flocks of Least Storm-Petrels. A few Leach's Storm-Petrels may be spotted; some of these may be identified as Chapman's or as the northern white-rumped forms, but many will not be further identifiable. Among the rare storm-petrels you may find a spring Fork-tailed or summer Wilson's,... or a fall Townsend's Storm-Petrel.

Frankly, watching storm-petrels can be frustrating. They are perhaps most like a mixed flock of swallows flitting across the waves, constantly changing directions and fleeing from the boat and any gulls. They hide behind the swell and appear as black silhouettes against the harsh reflected light off the waves. They are best initially identified by flight-style, and finally confirmed by a series of photographs. [See West Coast Storm-Petrel Flight Style Identification]

In general, the Leach's-type storm-petrels (Leach's, Chapman's, Ainely's, Townsend's) are different from all other West Coast storm-petrels in the following ways. They hold their pointed wings forward at the wrist, often held above the horizontal, and have a strong bounding flight with their flapping rather deep and jerky--very like a Common Nighthawk. The tail is obviously forked and the pale carpal bar on the upper wing is obvious and reaches the leading edge of the wing. [Black Storm-Petrels are darker, with long wings and deep languid flapping. Ashy Storm-Petrels are over-all paler with shallow, rapid flapping on straighter wings, and direct but twisting flight. Wilson's has obvious white rump and undertail coverts, shorter wings, short square tail, long legs trailing, and swooping flight like Barn Swallow over a pond. Least are tiny, tailless appearing, with rapid deep wing strokes and direct flight.]

Leach's Storm-Petrels are brownish-black, larger with longer, more pointed wings, and a grayish head and back. The brownish upper wing has an obvious contrasting pale cream-colored bar from the body to the leading edge of the wing near the bend of the wing. Typical northern birds have long white rumps divided by a thin line. The center dividing line is gradually wider to the south.

The southern Chapman's subspecies of Leach's Storm-Petrels have a variable amount of dark smudging on the rump; most birds have significantly more dark than light on the rumps, and the light may be on the sides of the rump. Many birds seem intermediate with northern Leach's. They are slightly smaller than the northern white-rumped Leach's, with slightly more rounded wing tips.

At this time there doesn't seem to be a reliable way to tell Ainley's Storm-Petrels from Chapman's in the field. We'll just say they don't occur in US waters, so you don't have to worry about it in southern California. Ainley's has a shallower notch in the tail and the middle of the rump is white--opposite of Chapman's. Some at-sea research off Baja is definitely needed.

Townsend's Storm-Petrels are definitely smaller and blacker than Leach's Storm-Petrels. The rump is often entirely white (though some are dark-rumped); the white wraps around onto the sides of the under tail coverts. Wings are shorter and more rounded at the tip. The pale upper carpal bar on the wing is not as obvious and contrasting as on Leach's or Chapman's.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Pair of Book Reviews: Woodpeckers

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. Stephen A. Shunk. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston. 2016.

Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide. Gerard Gorman. Firefly Books. Buffalo, New York. 2014.
[Also the same as Woodpeckers of the World: A Complete Guide. Gerard Gorman. Bloomsbury. London. 2014.]

Steve Shunk is a personal friend of mine. He lives in Sisters, Oregon among the huge ponderosa pines in the middle of the "Woodpecker Wonderland," where he leads tours locally and throughout the world. He has a very engaging and enthusiastic personality. I knew he'd be the perfect author for this subject. When I heard it was ready to be printed, I pre-ordered my copy.

Thus it is that this new Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America is chocked full of very informative material presented in a very conversational style. I especially enjoyed the introduction--40 pages of facts, figures, and photos on the amazing anatomy, behavior, and conservation of North American woodpeckers.

Then comes the species accounts. Shunk covers 23 woodpecker species found north of Mexico in great detail. Each account starts with a delightfully intimate and friendly 3 or 4 paragraph introduction to the bird--perhaps its initial discovery, former abundance, or a unique aspect of its biology.

Major headings in each account are Distribution (including maps), Habitat, Detection, Visual Identification, Behavior, and Conservation. Plumages and molts, subspecies (including those found outside North America), courtship, parenting, and foraging behaviors are some of the subtopics under the main headings. Each account then concludes with a list of references that one can cross-reference to the extensive bibliography.

The book ends with acknowledgements; several appendices with tabular data of physical measurements, nest site data, etc.; a glossary, that bibliography I mentioned, and an index.

This 308-page book is brimming with photos--not just identification photos of adult birds, but nests and nestlings, habitats, and interesting behaviors.

This book is thoroughly researched and well-planned and executed. It is a joy to read. I think it will become a true reference work and be popular for the everyday reader, as well.

Now we switch gears to Gerard Gorman's Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide. Gorman, a world renowned woodpecker expert, covers all of the world's wrynecks, piculets, and woodpeckers--239 species--in 528 pages. Thus, compared to Shunk's work, Gorman has only 1/5th a much room to devote to each species.

In order to accomplish this feat, Gorman's text is necessarily brief, almost telegraphic in places. There are nearly as many photos per species, but they are 1/2, 1/4, 1/6th page, rather than full and 2/3rds page in Shunk's book. The 22-page introduction covers pretty much the same material as Shunk's first 40 pages, but is less conversational, it's more a concise listing of the facts.

Species accounts headings are Identification, Vocalisations, Drumming, Status, Habitat, Range (including a map), Taxonomy and variation, Similar species, and Food and foraging. Much of the behavioral section so emphasized in Shunk is absent in Gorman, including breeding biology, courtship, parenting, and territory defense. Other topics that had to be left out include plumages and molts, conservation, and population changes.

It's hard not to compare the two books directly, but Shunk's work is a reference guide to well-studied species, while Gorman's is a photographic guide that includes 10 times as many species, many of which are rare or poorly-known. Indeed, there are a few species in the book that are so poorly known that there are no photos.

One appreciated addition to Gorman's work is an introduction and overview to each new genus of woodpecker. This primarily discusses taxonomy, which helps in the understanding of how the many species are grouped together and are different from other groups.

This book is also well-researched and ends with an extensive bibliography.

The variety of woodpeckers and their kin in the world is truly amazing. Mr. Gorman gives us a glimpse into that diversity. Blond-crested Woodpecker. Is that not the most magnificent bird? Wait! Maybe it's the Red-necked Woodpecker....

Both of these books have something wonderful to offer those specially intrigued by this marvelous group of fascinating birds.

If you wish to view or purchase these books from Amazon and give me a few cents off my next book purchases, here are the links:

Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America

Woodpeckers of the World: A Photographic Guide

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

San Diego Alligator Lizard

I found this beauty on the Santa Margarita River Trail near Fallbrook. It is a subspecies of Southern Alligator Lizard Whiptail. It is fully grown, about one foot in length.

San Diego Alligator Lizard
Whiptail. Fallbrook, California. July 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

New eBird Media Search

Last November eBird allowed photos, video, and audio to be uploaded with your eBird checklists and stored on the Macaulay Library archive. So, when you take a photo and add it to your checklist you add to the scientific collection. By May of this year over a half million bird photos have been uploaded. Numerous video and audio files have been stored, too.

And now you can search these photos!

Each photo becomes what they call a "digital specimen." What does that mean? Well, it allows scientists and anyone interested to view rare bird records, for instance, and actually see the bird. In the not-so-distant past, rare birds had to be shot, killed, skinned, and sent to museums where the specimen was kept forever as verifiable physical evidence supporting an identification. These archived photos kept at the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology now do the same things with digital evidence, and no birds were killed!

But it doesn't have to be a rare bird, such as a first state record, or something like that. It can be a common bird. Did you get a really great photo of a bird common to your area? Add it to your eBird checklist. Birds vary across their range--they may not all look exactly alike everywhere they occur. Your photo could be used to find heretofore unknown variation. Even more exciting, such variation may even reveal cryptic, or "hidden," species--a new species hiding among some common bird that we didn't even know existed. These cryptic species are not just found in some far-way, never-birded, jungle somewhere. New species are being described from well-birded areas all the time--birds that look alike but don't breed with each other when they meet because of song or courtship differences (take for example the recent splitting of a former single species of small little brown Holarctic wren into three species: the European Wren, Winter Wren, and Pacific Wren). Your photos could be valuable for discovering some of these. And even if not, just having your bird photos put in a digital museum is kind of neat, isn't it? You can be the local collector for a notable museum! How cool is that?!!! ("Cool" and "neat"? Yes a child of the 60's.)

Here is a recent checklist with photos that I submitted. ("Yes, I'm a local collector for the museum at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology." Ooh, I like it!)

So, besides storing your own bird photos with your checklists, what do you do with this new feature?

Well, here's a link that takes you to the most recent photos of San Diego County birds. Change the filter to search your own county or state,... or somewhere else, even far away.

How do I use this? I check out the new photos added recently from my area. ("Oh, the rare bird that's being seen nearby is a dull first-year bird and not the full adult male as in the field guide?") That helps me form a search image when I go look for the reported rarity... or just keep my eyes open for finding my own rarity in my own patch. Or, perhaps you note the unique habitat ("Oh, it's on the ground in the cattail marsh. And here I was looking for it in the tops of the spruce trees."). There's no limit of what you might learn just by looking at recent photos of birds in your own area.

I expect to discover even more uses for the photos, video, and audio in this digital museum. What will you use them for?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Birds to know in San Diego: any city park with a pond

We continue our monthly series of common San Diego County birds. This month we choose a city park with a pond--any city park with a pond will do. It could be anywhere: Lindo Lake at El Cajon, Santee Lakes at Lakeside, Lake Murray near La Mesa, Dixon Lake in Escondido. It just needs a pond, lawns, palm trees, and hedges and you'll find these common San Diego birds. In fact, all these species have increased in population due to the urbanization of the former native chaparral and sage-scrub landscape in the county. City parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and greenways are where you'll find these birds.

Kit Carson Park
Kit Carson Park, Escondido.
Grab a picnic lunch and visit a nearby park and find these birds. If you need a couple of suggestions, I have written birding site guides to Dixon Lake and also Kit Carson Park.

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Black Phoebe
The perky little Black Phoebe darts out to catch a flying bug, then returns to its perch with a bob of the tail. While often found on fence lines along grassy residential lawns, they are just as likely at the edge of a small pond or ditch. They are "preadapted to urbanization" according to Philip Unitt (2004 San Diego County Bird Atlas), and San Diego is a "Black Phoebe paradise," the population tripling in San Diego in 40 years from the 1960's. They are quite talkative, singing a "fee-bee, fee-bew" song and giving a sweet sharp "chip" call note. Similar San Diego County birds: none.

Great-tailed Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle. Santee Lakes, California. October 11, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Great-tailed Grackle
Large, loud, bold, and slightly obnoxious, the Great-tailed Grackle is at home in city parks and strip mall parking lots within a short commute from fresh water. Nearly as long as a crow, this large Mexican blackbird was first found in San Diego County in 1977. It spread quickly during this time. For instance, it reached Oregon in 1980. Distribution is still spotty, but it continues to increase. Similar San Diego County birds: Brewer's Blackbird, American Crow.

Cassin's Kingbird
Cassin's Kingbird. San Ysidro, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Cassin's Kingbird
Here is another bird that has increased in numbers over the past 50 years. Cassin's Kingbird is more common on the coastal slope than Western Kingbirds; Western Kingbirds are more common in the drier inland valleys and desert. And, unlike the Western Kingbird, Cassin's Kingbirds are common all year round. They are found in tall open trees (palms and eucalyptus), thus are found in ranch areas, golf courses, and parks. Similar San Diego County birds: Western Kingbird.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 6, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Hooded Oriole
Perhaps no other bird in California is so associated with palm trees. These birds arrive in San Diego county in late March and remain through August, returning to Mexico for the winter. Because the non-native Mexican fan palms are planted in coastal slope residential areas, this is where the birds are most common. However, there are also a pair or three of Hooded Orioles at each oasis in the Anza-Borrego Desert that contain California fan palm--the only native palms in California. They strip the fibers from the fan palm fronds and weave a basket nest in the tree. The San Diego Bird Atlas (1997-2002) found 39 nests, 28 were in fan palms, 1 in Canary Island date palm, and most of the rest in eucalyptus. See my previous post on palm trees in San Diego. Similar San Diego County birds: Bullock's Oriole.

American Coot
American Coot. Dos Picos Park, Ramona, California. November 28, 2014. Greg Gillson.
American Coot
These waterbirds (not ducks) are found across North America south of the taiga (boreal forest) wherever there are shallow vegetated ponds. They nest in San Diego County, but even more are found in winter. At that season they especially congregate where they can graze on grass. So city parks and golf courses with ponds are favored or even overrun, turning the lawns to mud and filling the air with their grunting calls. Similar San Diego County birds: none.

California Towhee
California Towhee. Palomar Mountain, California. July 13, 2014. Greg Gillson.
California Towhee
You'd think that a species apparently so dependent on coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats wouldn't do so well with urban sprawl and habitat fragmentation. But this large brown sparrow adapts well to residential life, as long as there's open ground to scratch for food and dense hedges to hide and nest in. Rather reclusive, the loud, hard "chink!" call gives its presence away. It feeds on the ground often out in the open near a dense tangle of shrubs where it scoots away at the first sign of danger. Similar San Diego County birds: Rufous-crowned Sparrow, California Thrasher, juvenile Spotted Towhee.

Birds to know in San Diego: introduction

Next: Birds to know in San Diego: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park