[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I decided to try my luck aboard a whale watching trip today 06 July 2014 out of San Diego and did not come away disappointed. A little over a mile outside Point Loma I quickly spotted a subadult Brown Booby Sula leucogaster ahead with many Elegant Terns marking a fish shoal. The booby circled a few times in the distance but never approached closely so photographs are only documentation worthy. An hour or so later, approximately five miles due west of Point Loma, we motored right by two small black-and-white alcids sitting on the water with giveaway small cocked up tails. As they took flight parallel to the boat the dusky blackish marked underwing and black chest side spurs could be easily seen on this pair of Craveri’s Murrelet Synthliboramphus craveri. Not a bad find from a whale watching trip! The underwing of this species is somewhat variable in extent of black markings and these two birds showed one dark and one lighter example. The lighter underwing individual may be in active molt of its wing coverts which might explain the patchy appearance. Certainly they have darker underwings than either Scripps’s or Guadalupe Murrelets and both these species appear very much whiter on the underwing. The “Blue Whale Watching Adventure” lived up to its name too with good looks at 8-10 individuals of this whale species, some at close quarters.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This Yellow-throated Warbler Setophaga dominica was first found by Ed Ervin on 09 June 2014 in the University City neighborhood of San Diego. Luckily the bird stuck around and news came out that it was still present on 18 June 2014. I drove over to the location on Genesee Avenue, between Nobel Drive and Decoro Street, and sure enough it could be heard singing from the Torrey Pines outside the apartment complex. I quickly tracked it down singing intermittently from both the pine and other ornamental tree tops in the area. It was remarkably aggressive and sometimes kept busy attacking its own reflection in apartment windows! This bird appears to show characters of the western type albilora with the white supraloral stripe and extensive black coloration of the fore crown.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Catching many seasoned observers by surprise, this very early calendar date pair of Craveri’s Murrelets Synthliboramphus craveri were passed off as Scripps’s Murrelets while being watched at close quarters aboard a pelagic out of San Diego on 07 June 2014. Steadfastly avoiding flight, the two murrelets paddled away from observers and did not reveal their characteristic darker underwing pattern. However the detailed examination of photographs, after the event, revealed all other characteristic field marks of this rarely seen enigmatic Southern California alcid visitor. Note the longer and thinner bill, with tweezer like mandible tips, the solid black face marking under the eye conjoining the chin, and the black colored spur on the breast side. In addition around the eye can be seen two very small white eye arcs, which I find from close up photographs are characteristic of this species. In general it is possible to see a small white fleck in front of the eye in many Scripps’s Murrelets. This white fleck mark is usually more pronounced in one individual in pairs that are seen together (I think there is perhaps a slight sexual dimorphism in the extent of white face coloration in Scripps’s Murrelets). No such mark exists on these birds, they show an evenly black marked face in front of the eye.
These Craveri’s Murrelets are well in advance, by some two months, of the more normal calendar date of first occurrence in Southern California for this species. But 2014 is shaping up poorly for breeding seabirds in Baja in general with several species now documented to have abandoned nesting rookeries and islands. Perhaps there is a failure of food stocks for many seabird species in the Gulf of California and we are just beginning to see this develop in our local area as failed breeders exit Baja and disperse more widely.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – An early evening walk around Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery paid off when I caught sight of this stunning male Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea passing behind me and into a cypress tree. Backlit by the sun, as it flew by me, I immediately noticed the shiny looking high gloss plumage which is unusual on such a small bird. Sure enough, as it twisted in flight, the blue body was easily visible just with the naked eye. I hurried uphill to get ahead of the fast moving bunting as it traveled from tree to tree staying well concealed. Finally I made it in front and heard it calling from inside a flowering eucalyptus tree crown. I waited a few minutes but it would not emerge by itself and I figured it would be off flying soon! So I switched tactics and coaxed it out by playing a recording of the typical repeated “spik” call, to which it responded vigorously calling and then finally emerged from hiding. But after a couple seconds off it flew westwards never to be seen again despite considerable searching! This is a very fine looking male with indigo head and blue body – I wish it would have sat out in the open!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I thought I was imagining things early this morning when a solid dark gray bird flew between bushes just outside the perimeter fence of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Could that really have been a catbird? A few minutes later an unmistakeable dark capped Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis popped into view allowing one awful photograph of itself obliquely through the fence! Not happy at all with that image I waited around for quite a while grumbling to myself how skulky this species can be. I was about to give up hope when the catbird hopped out on to the grass in front of me, just for a few minutes, allowing some distant photography as it hopped closer to the many Memorial Day flags stuck in the grass!
This species has been quite rare in the last few years with a well watched individual most recently noted in Borrego Springs in the fall of 2013. Most records of this species here in San Diego County occur in the fall but it has also been noted on occasion in spring. Remarkably enough, Richard Webster found one here in Point Loma on the exact same date 27 May 2002! And another was seen in Point Loma the year before on 28 May 2001. I am not sure what is going on with this date but it would seem to be a very opportune time to look for Gray Catbird in Point Loma!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This yellow-bellied kingbird alerted my attention at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery early this morning as it flew silently overhead. The kingbird exited a pine tree top and headed over me towards the east perimeter fence in the southeast corner of the cemetery. I hustled after it and soon found myself looking at a nice Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus perched on overhead wires. I patiently waited around and sure enough it started up the familiar accelerating trill of this species confirming its identity. It did not allow too close an approach for photography so these images are quite distant and cropped. The occurrence of Tropical Kingbird in San Diego County in the spring is rather unusual since most records occur here from the fall and occasionally into the winter months. The San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt 2004) lists only one April record and none from the month of May. Hopefully the Memorial Day events at the cemetery today will not scare it off and other observers get a chance to see this colorful kingbird.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I spotted this interesting looking dark-rumped storm-petrel relatively close to Point La Jolla on the morning of 26 April 2014. Quite a crowd of birders were assembled there, because of the windy conditions, and watched it pass by with their field scopes. I obtained these photographs using my full frame Canon 1Dx and an effective focal length lens of 1000 mm – it was 7:09 am so the light was not great. The storm-petrel headed into the prevailing southwesterly winds and slowly made its way across the near shore kelp bed before disappearing. It stayed close to the water while in view and often dabbled its feet along the surface.
Observers quickly eliminated Black (this species is larger and with longer narrower wings), Least (this species is smaller and with different tail shape) and Ashy Storm-Petrel (this species has a pale panel on the underwing and is grayer toned in color) from consideration and it appears to best fit what we know as Chapman’s Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma (leucorhoa) chapmani (Howell 2012, p. 423). However a couple things seem a bit different to my eye. I am not sure I can see any visible white, or paler colored, feathers in the upper tail coverts. Usually some white dots are at least visible on the sides. But the thing that strikes me as most unusual about this storm-petrel is the substantial length of the nicely notched tail. When fanned out this bird has a very generous sized tail. Perhaps it is the behavior of the bird, flitting along, using the tail often in fanned and twisted actions. It is not often that you watch a storm-petrel from land after all! I can’t really tell what is up with this storm-petrel and I am not 100% settled in my mind about its identity. The tail just looks a bit big! If anyone has an opinion about the identity of this storm-petrel please leave a comment below!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I made a quick dawn patrol at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on 22 April 2014 and enjoyed seeing many nice migrants including multiple Hammond’s Flycatchers, Hermit Warblers, and Vaux’s Swifts to name some highlights. Along the west fence line, near the southwest corner of the cemetery, I came across this shy Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii. It was very wary to my approach staying well out at long telephoto distance! I decided to train the big glass on it and hauled my 500 mm f/4.0 lens after it along the fence line. These were the best images I could obtain! Among the western Empidonax species I think the Gray Flycatcher is the most pleasant looking with its cooler colored, sort of blue-gray, plumage, its nicely rounded features, a strong bill, and elegant proportions, particularly looking at the short-winged appearance due to the short primary projection. This bird “tail-dipped” constantly, see last two images below, and did make short bouts of calling “whit” or “whip” as it moved through small trees and bushes along the fence line. To me the Gray Flycatcher seems to have a calmer demeanor than other Empidonax. It remains motionless for longer periods and then makes very direct forays for prey items returning to the same or a similar perch just a short distance ahead. These are very subtle behavioral cues to the identity of Empidonax in general but after studying many individuals you can build an understanding of who’s-who in this genus just by how they do things!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I followed up on a report by John Bruin of an interesting gray Empidonax flycatcher he found in the Crown Point neighborhood of Pacific Beach. It seemed like a long shot since he saw it the day before, but sure enough after a little searching I found this Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii furtively hiding in a dense patch of trees in the open park like habitat of Crown Point. This flycatcher species can be detected from a distance by its voice, a soft muffled repeated “whit” or “whip”, as well as its behavior since it prefers feeding from perches just under the edge of small tree canopies about 5-10 feet off the ground, from where it sallies down to the ground to capture insect prey. This individual stayed well hidden in the small patch of trees but would occasionally venture out to a small Torrey Pine nearby affording easier views.
Gray Flycatcher is pretty straightforward to identify by its unique tail-dipping behavior which distinguishes it from other Empidonax species. In addition it has a characteristically strong looking quite long bill with a bold yellow-orange colored lower mandible contrasting with the dusky blackish upper mandible. Also noticeable is the long hooked tip to the upper mandible and a darker tip to the underside of the lower mandible. Gray Flycatcher has a relatively short primary projection which accentuates its long tailed look. In addition the tail has a noticeable white edge to the outer tail feather. Under the right light and camera exposure conditions a faint yellow wash can be seen on the underparts as well as a slight vested appearance to the chest and flanks.
The following two photographs show the extent of the tail dipping action. In the first photograph the tail is in the “normal” position, with the wing tips (primaries) resting on the upper tail coverts. In the second photograph the tail has dipped below its normal position leaving the wing tips sticking out above. This is an easy movement to recognize since the tail motion is relatively slow compared to many other “twitchy” movements of flycatchers!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Late in the afternoon 11 April 2014 I rented a small boat from the Lake Henshaw Resort and set off, with my brother accompanying me, on a “pelagic” tour around the lake. The wind had picked up to a strong breeze, on-and-off, which made for a few waves as we puttered around in the small boat. Overall there were not too many birds present on the lake but we were treated to a spectacular Bald Eagle show with three immatures and two adults seen, including some very close overhead passes by the young eagles. Best find of the trip was a lone adult Heermann’s Gull, in pristine alternate plumage, bobbing around square in the middle of the lake. Heermann’s Gull is unusual anywhere away from the coast in San Diego County. This species mostly exits Southern California in spring heading for its Gulf of California nesting grounds in Mexico. Post breeding wanderers, presumably heading cross-country from the gulf across the county, have been found at inland lakes, including Lake Henshaw, in late summer. It would seem that a springtime wanderer here is more unusual still with none reported found inland in April based on information from the San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt 2004).