Monday, January 22, 2018

ID: Hybrid California x Gambel's Quail

If you report sightings of Gambel's Quail to eBird on your visit to the mesquite Bosque in the Anza-Borrego Desert, you'll be prompted for details or photos. Why?

In most of their ranges California Quail and Gambel's Quail are strongly separated by habitat and don't overlap. There are a couple of places in the eastern parts of southern California where the ranges of these two quail do meet. The Anza-Borrego Desert is one such area, with the town of Borrego Springs right on the edge of this tiny area of overlap between the California Quail descending from the oak hills above to the west and the Gambel's Quail from the mesquite and cactus desert to the east.

When birding in this area one should record most quail detected as "California/Gambel's Quail" unless you get a very good look. Evidently, based on the reference below, there is no impediment to breeding between the two species. They interbreed freely. Gambel's Quail have a wider variety of songs and calls than California Quail, so in the area of overlap voice is an unreliable identification feature. Evidently the birds themselves don't care what calls and songs are given when choosing potential mates. Fortunately, the area of overlap is small and the hybrid region restricted to this small area of overlap.
"Quails are sedentary, and typically move less than 5 miles during the course of their lives." --Jennifer M. Gee. 2003. Causes and Consequences of Hybridization Between California and Gambel's Quail (Callipepla californica and C. gambelii). Princeton University Press.
Birders do not take DNA sequencers into the field. Even direct hybrids don't always show it--they can look like "pure" members of either parent species, or a mixture. So even though birds of many species probably have some hybrid ancestors somewhere in their past; go with what you see.

I searched The Birds of North America species account for Gambel's Quail and its references, Western Birds, and the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (SORA), as well as Google generally, and was unable to find descriptions or identification articles specifically separating California and Gambel's Quail from hybrids. There seems to be more identification material on gamebird breeding websites than on birding websites. Certainly someone must have covered this identification before? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you.

So, without an identification article immediately available, we'll go with the field guide descriptions and my recent photos to create a 5-criteria preliminary hybrid quail identification guideline:

1) Crown color on males (brown or rusty)
2) Forehead coloration on males (pale or black)
3) Upper breast/back color (dark gray or pale blue-gray)
4) Lower breast scaling (strong or nearly absent)
5) Belly patch on males (formed by dense brown scaling or more solid blackish)

Let's examine some photos I took recently at the Borrego Springs Resort on January 7, 2018. There were over 35 birds visiting a residential feeder that appeared to be both pure California Quail and Gambel's Quail, as well as apparent hybrids. About 15 of these birds I didn't get good looks at. All in all, though, under field birding conditions, plumage-wise this group of quail looked to be mostly Gambel's Quail and hybrids.

The lighting was overcast, creating slightly darker and duller colors without strong contrasting shadows. Some of the birds were under trees, others were out in the open.

Photo 1. Typical-looking male California Quail. 1) Brown crown. 2) Pale forehead. 3) Dark gray upper parts. 4) Scaled lower breast. 5) Brown scaling on pale belly converge to form rusty patch.
Photo 2. Typical-looking male Gambel's Quail. 1) Rusty crown. 2) Black forehead. 3) Pale blue-gray upper parts. 4) Rather clear cream-colored lower breast. 5) Dark belly patch with faint scaling.
The scaled hind-neck is supposed to be more defined on California Quail. Additionally, the flanks are supposed to be brown on California and rusty on Gambel's. Frankly, the viewing angle makes quite a bit of difference on birds in the field, so they are not as reliable or observable as the other marks. After looking at many photos online, I really can't see a difference.

Let's take a look at more of my photos from January.

Photo 3. Gambel's Quail. Though a bit distant as it ran across the road, this male has all the proper marks for Gambel's Quail, notably the rusty crown, black forehead, pale blue-gray upper breast, unmarked cream-colored lower breast and black belly patch.
Photo 4. A pair of Gambel's Quail. Both birds show the pale blue-gray upper breast and the unmarked cream-colored lower breast. There are only these two criteria on females. The male shows a blackish belly patch, but crown and forehead criteria are not visible in this view.
Photo 5. Gambel's Quail. Again, all 5 criteria point to Gambel's.
Photo 6. Apparent hybrid California x Gambel's Quail. At first glance this bird appears most-similar to Gambel's Quail. But all 5 criteria aren't unambiguous. 1) Crown is darker brown favoring California. 2) Forehead is paler than black face favoring California. 3) Upper breast half way between the dark gray of California the light blue-gray of Gambel's. 4) The pale cream lower breast has hint of scaling, but favors Gambel's. 5) The belly patch is not as solid dark as it could be but still favors Gambel's.
Photo 7. Apparent hybrid California x Gambel's Quail. At first glance this bird appears most-similar to California Quail. Again, the 5 criteria mix to favor different species. 1) Crown fairly rusty favors Gambel's. 2) Forehead is pale as California. 3) Upper breast rather pale blue-gray favoring Gambel's. 4) Lower breast heavily scaled as California. 5) Dark belly patch as Gambel's.
I'm glad I ran into this large flock of easily-photographed birds in a residential area. Most of my quail records here are of birds flushing away in a burst, or of single warning calls in the brush and maybe a glimpse running away. Based on current eBird filters, California Quail and hybrids are accepted without comment in this area but Gambel's require descriptions. So finding a preponderance of Gambel's was a bit unexpected. Then again, because it is so hard to get decent views of these sneaky birds, and the identification criteria is not easy to find, I wonder how many birders bother to separate them. Perhaps this post will help. I know researching this has helped me.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Humpback Whale off San Diego

On January 1st I participated in a pelagic birding trip from San Diego Bay traveling about 15 miles offshore from La Jolla, and back.

We spotted a couple of whales--both Gray and Humpback. Here is a series of photos of one of the Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whale blowhole to dorsal fin
Upon surfacing the whale blows immediately with not much body visible above the water. This is a moment later. Blowholes visible on the top of the head (right), and the upper back to the dorsal fin (hump).
Humpback Whale dorsal fin
The rather sharp triangular peak of the dorsal fin on the back of Humpback Whale. Diagnostic.
Humpback Whale flukes
Strongly curved end of the flukes also identify Humpback Whales. It's not a tail... whales don't have tails. The underside of the flukes (not visible in this photo) are patterned white and dark, each individualized as a fingerprint. The flukes only rise above the water like this when the whale dives. It will remain down for 10 minutes or so after this view.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My 10 best bird photos of 2017

Capturing a good bird photo requires a close subject, good lighting, an uncluttered background, and a well-posed bird. A wildlife photographer doesn't often have very much control over the conditions and the subject. So, a bit of luck is also required.

Travel back in time with me to last year and view my best photos of the year...

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican. Mission Bay, California. January 1, 2017.
I started New Years Day 2017 with the annual pelagic trip sponsored by the San Diego Field Ornithologists. While the just-completed 2018 trip started in dense fog, the 2017 trip out of Mission Bay was sunny. This pelican caught the low morning sun in the harbor as we departed.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl. San Diego River mouth, San Diego, California. January 1, 2017.
After the pelagic trip I stopped nearby to look for the Burrowing Owl I had missed a couple of weeks earlier. It was right there in the ice plant where everyone else had reported it! Easy to photograph as it was not 8 feet off the road with bikers and dog walkers going by continuously all winter.

Western Bluebird
Male Western Bluebird. Escondido, California. January 3, 2017.
On the pelagic trip Nancy C. gave me a tip on where I might have a good vantage point to photograph Zone-tailed Hawks that roost in winter at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They roost with Turkey Vultures in the Park, then fly out with them in late morning. I arrived too early, and had to leave well before noon--a better time, perhaps. But this Western Bluebird was a nice consolation. It really wasn't; but it was a nice photo, nonetheless.

Mountain Bluebird
Female Mountain Bluebird. Ramona, California. January 29, 2017.
Near the Ramona Grasslands Preserve is a farmland road of exactly 1 mile that is always worth a stop in winter for hawks, geese, and rather rare Mountain Bluebirds. This makes a nice complement to the Western Bluebird from earlier in the month.

Male Ring-necked Duck. Escondido, California. March 28, 2017.
Female Ring-necked Duck. Escondido, California. March 28, 2017.
In late March I caught a sunny morning with numerous ducks at Kit Carson Park in Escondido. I couldn't decide whether the bright male Ring-necked Duck was my favorite, or whether it was the simpler brown female. So I present them both here.

Yellow-breasted Chat. San Pasqual Valley, California. April 5, 2017.
In early April I birded the Highland Valley Trail in the San Dieguito River Park near Escondido. I was surprised and delighted to find an early Yellow-breasted Chat singing away. It was even better to get several very good photos.

Marbled Godwit. Imperial Beach, California. July 16, 2017.
Marlene was missing the miles of nearly-empty beaches we formerly enjoyed in Oregon. That's a bit difficult where every day is a beautiful day, and most of the population lives within 15 minutes of the beaches. So I took Marlene to the beach at the mouth of the Tijuana River in Imperial Beach. Though it is about a 45 minute drive from our home, it is Marlene's favorite. There are very few people on the beach and there are usually some interesting shells washed up. We ended up visiting several times during the year.

California Gnatcatcher. Escondido, California. October 11, 2017.
Sometimes the secret of getting a good bird photo is just to take lots of photos. The California Gnatcatcher is an endangered bird of San Diego's coastal sage scrub habitat. This is a habitat that is being plowed under for housing developments. So I take photos every time I see and hear these birds. They are tiny and active, crawling through the brush and peeing out from the foliage. So I'm pleased with this photo without a distracting branch cutting across the face as is typical for most of my photos of this species.

Rock Wren. Ramona, California. November 26, 2017.
Another run out to Rangeland road in Ramona provided me with Mountain Bluebirds, a Merlin, and a Burrowing Owl. Plus, I got excellent photos of a Rock Wren that seemed as curious about me as I was about it.

This completes my favorite photos from the year 2017. I'm impressed that it includes none of the photogenic and abundant herons and egrets. Though I do have many photos of them, too. I think I attended 4 or 5 ocean birding boat trips last year. I didn't come up with any truly extraordinary at-sea photos this year. Though a Brown Booby off San Diego would probably make this list if expanded to the top 12 birds. And I didn't travel much outside San Diego County this past year, so all the best photos were near home. I hope you enjoyed these!