Crested Caracara lazing around in the Tijuana River Valley

[All photographs, movies copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I was making a quick circuit of the Sod Farm, down on Dairy Mart Road, when I noticed the Tijuana River was actually flowing with water! Evidently the entire river bed had recently been closely mowed of all tall herbaceous vegetation and now the river itself could be easily seen. In fact, it looked as if the recent rain storm had flooded the river bed which was now a patchwork of muddy pools. The smell was not great but there were shorebirds and raptors all over the place. While scanning for shorebirds I was quite shocked to find this fantastic looking adult Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway sitting like a big chicken in a pile of dried brush! It actually looked pretty comfortable! Caracaras are just weird whatever way you look at it!

This is the third occasion I have found a Crested Caracara frequenting this area over the last couple of years. One was last seen here just over a year ago in early September 2012. When the bird is around it seems hit-and-miss to locate it, but it can be seen anywhere from the Dairy Mart Ponds all the way east, along the river bed, as far as the back lot of the Las Americas Premium Outlets Mall at the west end of San Ysidro.

On the move – Broad-winged Hawks in the TRV

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I visited the Dairy Mart Ponds at lunch time today and ran into visiting birder Jennifer Larson from Sierra Vista, Arizona. Together we checked out the two viewpoints over the main pond although not finding many birds. While we were walking back to the parking area I spotted two medium sized hawks, beating along against the wind, coming straight towards us and at low height. My first impression, looking at the leading bird, was they might be Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus. As they came by I managed to come to my senses and hoist the camera for some flight shots, just catching the second bird! I have been meaning to program a custom function button on my camera body to a setting where images are shot one-stop over-exposed – how I wish I had done that earlier now! The slightly under-exposed images show a well marked light colored first-cycle Broad-winged Hawk. The bird still retains all its very worn, tattered in places, juvenile flight feathers although perhaps molt has begun with one inner primary missing on the left wing. The first and second images below are identical but the second has brightness and contrast adjusted. The two birds appeared pretty much identical to me although I focused in on the second one as it lagged behind the leader.

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Spring records of Broad-winged Hawk in San Diego County seem to be much rarer than fall records, although even the latter have fallen off in number in recent years based on the San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004). Only three spring records are documented in the bird atlas, all in April and with two late in the month, so this record would seem to fit quite well in this pattern of occurrence. San Diego Field Ornithologists considers this species to be a Category B rarity in the county.

Crows hate them – Zone-tailed Hawk

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Grabbed a quick lunch today at the Fresh & Easy supermarket in Oceanside where the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been reported. While sitting back in my camp chair munching on an egg-salad sandwich I noticed some larger diurnal migrants using the updraft from the ridge behind the store to travel south. First surprise were two American White Pelican booking south cross-wind. Then a few minutes later things got really interesting when a Zone-tailed Hawk Buteo albonotatus came by with a cawing American Crow tied on its tail. I managed a few documentation photographs as it circled higher over the mobile home park south of the train tracks.

When I first saw this large black avian object coming towards me I thought it might be a Turkey Vulture but the general impression of the bird was not right. The body was too large in the rear and the tail too stout looking. In addition the aggressive mobbing of the crow was a dead giveaway that this was something else a bit more dangerous to smaller game. Going by me overhead it showed off the wide white bar on the mid-tail and contrasting paler coloration of the secondaries and primaries. Also very noticeable were the powerful large yellow feet, got to have something to crush to death those poor ground-squirrels, and the yellow cere on the bill was visible as it veered around circling.

Finally I did get to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at this spot a little while after the hawk came by. A fine looking pink and grey long-tailed missile, it flew right by me coming from north of the store and then landed on the wires going down the hillside. Sometimes waiting around in one spot can be rewarding. I began to sense a bit of a Patagonia Picnic Table Effect kicking in, when finding one rare bird leads to the discovery of others at the same location. Who knows what else might be flying down the coastline?

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Crested Caracara just inside California

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I spotted this Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway at the A&G Sod Farm on 02 Sep 2012, it was literally flying just fifty yards north of the Mexico border fence. I was investigating passerines in the moist river bottom herbage when I looked up and it had just flown right by me heading west! I managed to scramble for a couple of distant documentation photographs as it veered around north and headed directly to the main Dairy Mart Pond. I last saw it disappearing behind the willows with a small explosion of corvids exiting the area.

This individual is most likely the same one I observed here almost one year ago on 25 Sep 2011. As it turned out only one of two records for the state of California in 2011, the other record coming from Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Ventura County, first seen on 19 Dec 2011. This raptor is quite a rarity to connect with in California, at least in the last couple of years.

The very dark coloration, black really, shows this is an adult Crested Caracara since the juvenile plumage is more pale barred and grey-brown overall. The white primary patches, “windows”, can be clearly seen in flight of this long winged powerfully flying raptor. The black capped head with pale cheeks and pink facial skin set off the pale horn, or bluish, colored bill. Noticeable also are the prominent yellow legs and long black tail accented with the white narrow band on the upper tail coverts.

Later in the day it was seen again by additional observers at the Dairy Mart Pond perched on a dead snag. This bird may be the same individual seen on-and-off over several years by many observers between 2006-2009 favoring the same area of the Tijuana River Valley.
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Coastal migrant Swainson’s Hawk

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – While searching for migrant buntings at the Tijuana River Valley Community Garden, just off Hollister St. and Sunset Ave., a shout came from Paul Lehman a few allotments behind me and he pointed out a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk Buteo swainsoni headed my way. Nicely done! It was about 8:45 AM, the morning had really begun warming up, and the hawk was quartering around buoyantly, in typical dihedral manner, and was headed south towards me at low elevation.

The Swainson’s Hawk came flying over the weed field west of the community garden where it was set upon by a horde of American Crow, some more daring than others! Lucky for me the harassment party steered it away from the riparian areas, right on cue, and back directly over my head toward more open country to the east.

Swainson’s Hawk is a rare fall migrant with perhaps only one or two recorded each year here in San Diego County along the coastal belt. There are however growing numbers that now stage in the east county Borrego Valley on spring migration, lifting off there in the mornings to continue migration to northern grasslands. By all accounts a notable sighting here in the Tijuana River Valley.

Mississippi Kite in the TRV

[All photographs copyright, Vic Murayama 2012] – The extensive weed and brush lands of the Tijuana River Valley (TRV) attract an impressive array of raptors both on migration and as breeding residents. This year the numbers of White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus seem to have skyrocketed with many juveniles around “getting their wings”.  News came however, late on 01 August 2012, that Paul Marvin, birder and part time San Diego resident, had discovered and photographed the much rarer Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississipiensis, perched on a snag no less, at the Dairy Mart Ponds. Now that is a real find!

The Dairy Mart Ponds, a last chance exit off of Highway 5 before the Mexico border, support an abundance of dragonflies and have lots of dead tree snags, so this insect-snatching aerial predator was in the right place for a secure meal! In fact this area, a wide swath of mixed riparian land included in the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, has a history of attracting this rare eastern raptor with several earlier records here of Mississippi Kite.

San Diego resident, and bird photographer, Vic Murayama, took these detailed photographs on 02 August 2012, the morning after it was first discovered. A smart move since this was the last day it was seen and with an early departure! Photographs taken in flight reveal this is a first year bird retaining juvenile flight feathers, for example the barred tail feathers, which can be seen with many tattered or missing pieces. It has molted some fresh new inner primaries which appear darker than the remaining juvenile outer primaries and secondaries. The body appears completely molted to fresh adult type plumage.

The California Bird Records Committee has accepted 19 previous records of Mississippi Kite from the state including three from San Diego County. Mississippi Kite is considered a Category A rarity in San Diego County by the San Diego Field Ornithologists. The species was last reported in the county in September 2008 at Point Loma.