[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I found this first winter male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius at the junction of Silvergate Ave. and Warner St. in Point Loma. In the cool temperatures and windless conditions today I could hear about every bird movement and leaf falling from the trees. Sure enough, a crackly sound overhead quickly revealed this sapsucker looking down at me from a pepper tree. After some hide-and-seek photography it then moved off to a mostly leafless maple tree (how convenient!) before flying away. Usually sapsuckers give me the runaround, but this one played friendly for the “flaparazzi”! This is a first winter male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and it appears very characteristic for this species at this time of year. It retains extensive golden spangled juvenile feathers on the nape and much of the back of the bird, kind of forming a brown back panel. These juvenile feathers would be replaced by adult feathers (black blotched with white) in any age or sex Red-naped Sapsucker at this calendar date. It also shows no sign of red feathering anywhere in the nape. On the bright red throat the black border appears wide and continuous as a frame running to the black chest band. Winter birds seem to have increased a bit in numbers in this neighborhood, just around the corner I also found two new Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Brown Creeper!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – First spotted by Dean DiTommaso, flying almost straight towards us, this first winter Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla ventured towards us over the kelp beds but then veered south and did not approach the point closely. The best photographs I could obtain were very distant as it flew just above the horizon and turned. This species has a buoyant almost tern like flight and appears very “white” or ghostly looking to my eye. The black smudgy marking on the nape, black markings outlining the letter M on the upperwing, and black tail tip can be seen as it turned and flew south away from us.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – It was barely getting light this morning when I spotted a small white-bellied duck careening wildly along the edge of the kelp beds at Pt. La Jolla. It looked interesting so I leveled the camera on it and snagged a dozen shots as the duck pulled up and stalled to sit down on the water outside of the kelp. It was 7:01 a.m. to be exact and my Canon 7D camera sensor was having trouble capturing images at all, even at ISO 3200! From the camera back the duck appeared white collared and distinctively white bellied. It also had a dark crown and cheek patch kind of extending as a rear strap behind the face. Finally, the wings were entirely blackish both on the upper and under surface, in particular the striking dark underwing coverts were noticeable. Evidently my hoped for Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis had appeared as early in the day as possible! I guess I should not complain about poor lighting for photography, birds just come by you when they want to as a rule! This is my first Long-tailed Duck of the 2013-2014 winter period. Unfortunately, given the very choppy water conditions and poor lighting, other birders were unable to relocate the stationary duck in the immediate vicinity with their field scopes.
Buoyed by the early morning success I waited out the seawatch a few more hours but could only add a very nice looking adult basic plumaged Mew Gull Larus canus to the list. The Mew Gull flew south around the point just a short distance from the rocks and almost escaped attention. Actually this individual appears to be in fresh looking “adultlike” plumage having completed third cycle prebasic molt with just a few black feathers in the upperwing marginal coverts and slightly reduced white tips to the outer primaries.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Right now, late November to early December, it seems about every thousand or so Surf Scoters I see pass by Pt. La Jolla in San Diego County there will be a Black Scoter Melanitta americana tucked in with a southbound group. These individuals can be difficult to discern if the scoters pass by in a tight visually stacked (some in front of the others) flock. But often the scoter flocks have to turn slightly in their flight path to navigate around the point and this is when the small groups “string out” and some nice views, and photographs, can usually be obtained. This adult female Black Scoter passed by accompanying eleven Surf Scoters and came moderately close right over the center of the nearer kelp bed off the point. It shows off a full dark belly unlike juvenile/hatch-year males and females of this species which have a paler colored belly patch. In addition to the distinctive buffy cheek patch the Black Scoter also differs characteristically from the Surf Scoter by having a slimmer bill profile and more squared off or steeper forehead.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I made a quick sweep of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery late afternoon 02 Dec 2013 on the lookout for unusual winter birds. Numbers of birds seem to have diminished here, even the Yellow-rumped Warblers were down, but I did find a couple of mixed flocks with some nicer birds present. In the pines just north of the west side administration building (main entrance) I located the previously reported “doublet” of Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa which were easily located by their high pitched calls. Inquisitive as ever they both came very close to me in the low branches of the pine tree. In the same mixed flock a Brown Creeper Certhia americana also gave me a close pass and played hide-and-seek behind the pine tree trunk in front of me – always nice to see this species! Finally I checked around for “crowned” sparrow flocks but without much success. But a small gathering of sparrows in the far southwest corner of the cemetery did contain a single first-winter White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis which proved quite shy but eventually emerged at some distance for a couple photographs.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I have been out testing my new Canon 500 mm f4 lens and it can really pull in excellent quality images from great distances. With the addition of the 1.4X teleconverter attached it comes out with an 1120 mm effective focal length on the 7D body “cropped” APS-C sensor size. Add to that the Image Stabilization (IS) and I think I will be documenting a few more good birds seawatching out there soon! I found this adult female Black Scoter Melanitta americana cruising at the front of a small flock of Surf Scoter heading south. As I have mentioned in previous posts on this species, it often seems to head up the front of the flock when among Surf Scoters. Perhaps the slightly smaller size allows it to travel faster than its congeners? I photographed this flock from quite an extreme distance – these ducks were just beyond the Pt. La Jolla kelp bed and can still be easily identified from the image crops.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I made it down to Pt. La Jolla this morning at dawn to see what ducks and loons might be passing by on migration south. Overall there was little movement of birds and only a few groups appeared from the north. In addition the absence of any onshore wind kept everything at a considerable distance. But checking through the ducks carefully I came up with some unusual finds!
Looking north I saw a flock of ducks coming towards me, some quite large, that appeared definitely reddish around the head. My first thought was Redhead since we have some good wintering numbers of this species around Mission Bay. But as they came into better lighting the rufous turned to a nice chestnut and revealed eleven Canvasback Aythya valisineria mixed in the flock! Canvasback really dwarf most other diving ducks when seen flying together in mixed flocks. Canvasback can be told apart from Redhead by their larger size, sloping forehead to a black bill, chestnut head color, and the gray upperwing panel shown in flight (this panel is paler gray and more prominent in Redhead).
A little while later, after some flocks of Surf Scoter had passed by, I spotted three dark ducks coming from the north. Ranging just outside the kelp beds, to my surprise, the middle bird had a nice pale buff cheek patch and offwhite belly patch. It was a juvenile/immature type Black Scoter Melanitta americana and the first of this species for my 2013-2014 seaduck-watching winter period here in San Diego. Nice! The Black Scoter was tucked in between two other ducks, the leading bird being a Surf Scoter. The third bird also looks to be this latter species.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – The exciting news of a Blackpoll Warbler Setophaga striata, found by Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson in Coronado, San Diego, lifted me out of a dull early-morning blur checking through endless Yellow-rumps at Mission Bay. I jumped in the car and soon made it over there to check it out. While I was picking over warblers shooting in and out of several favored Melaleuca trees, Paul and Barbara came back over and helped me look for the Blackpoll. Sure enough, two minutes later Paul pointed to the left side of the tree and there was the bird! Harassed severely by Yellow-rumps, the Blackpoll was very flighty and only settled for a moment in view, disappearing around the back of the tree into more quiet tangles. It then hopped trees and showed itself atop the opposite Melaleuca tree where I obtained a nice series of photographs.
This appears to be a diffusely marked first fall individual with a nice yellow coloration and indistinct streaks. The golden-yellow lower legs and particularly the feet, characteristic of Blackpoll Warbler, can be easily picked out in many of the photographs below, especially the final image. A very nice wood-warbler find and a new San Diego County bird for me that I had hoped to come across this fall.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – It is almost mysterious the absence of birds around Point Loma. Even compared to a few days ago, it just emptied of birds. I was about to leave Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on 30 Oct 2013, as it was getting towards dusk, when a familiar sparrow “seep” call caught my attention. Sure enough I had flushed a White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis out of the Pride of Madeira plants and it teed up perfectly on the wall in front of me! After posing for a few photographs it took off with a band of Dark-eyed Junco picking over the roadside debris. This appears to be a first-winter individual still retaining considerable juvenile streaked feathers on the underparts. I think by this date last year I had found half a dozen White-throated Sparrows around Point Loma, so 2013 has been really thin pickings for even the more commonly expected eastern birds.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I definitely jumped when a short-tailed green bird with a prominent white wing bar hopped out in front of me late this afternoon in a tiny planted cedar tree at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I ditched the binoculars immediately in favor of the camera, who knows where this thing might go next! As it turned out this was a smart move. After showing itself in the tiny cedar for a minute it took off through the cemetery fence. Resurfacing beyond the fence for a few seconds it then just vanished. I did not see it again in spite of considerable searching.
This bird appears to be an “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo most likely of the nominate V.b. bellii form. It is certainly much brighter colored than the arizonae form and, so far as I can tell, also the intermediate colored medius form. Features of plumage coloration matches the detailed description of the nominate bellii form of Bell’s Vireo in Pyle (1997), Identification Guide to Passerines, and the photographs also match very closely the color illustration of a bright “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo shown in The Sibley Guide to Birds (the illustration is presumably of the nominate bellii form, although it is not labeled with a scientific name).
Elements that jumped out at me about this bird included; the much shorter tail compared to our local breeding pusillus form of the species (“Least” Bells’s Vireo), the olive-green coloration of the upperparts, the strong bright yellow wash on the underparts, the bright yellowish uppertail coverts (seen in flight), and the striking white wing bar on the greater coverts. In addition behavioral characteristics support the identification as “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo. This bird flicked its wings and pumped its tail continuously like the eastern birds. Examination of many of the photographs below show the wings in semi-raised (“flicked”) poses, including one shot with one wing flicked up, as well as various shots of the tail pumped upwards.
The “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo is a very rare vagrant to San Diego and California as a whole in fact. There are two previous reports from San Diego County including one found at Point Loma 10 Oct 1988 by Richard Webster and another found more recently in the Nestor neighborhood of Imperial Beach on 02 Nov 2012 by Paul Lehman. I believe this is the first “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo to be photographed in San Diego County and certainly a very nice looking vireo to encounter.