I found a couple of “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow Passerella [iliaca] megarhyncha at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery today 26 September 2014. This one popped up and started singing in response to my pishing along the fence line! Rich rufous wings and tail and “grayish” head and back. The very large bill, particularly swollen looking at the base of the lower mandible, looks almost grosbeak-like.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This first winter male Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus flew across the path in front of me at the Bird and Butterfly Garden in the Tijuana River Valley on 25 September 2014. In the late afternoon sunlight the red underwing coloration was unmistakable. Quickly relocating it in a nearby tree I trained the camera on the stationary bird and inched closer until it flushed off the branch. A quick burst on the camera shutter button and I captured a few easy photographs of the underwing! In addition to the red underwing the rich buffy underparts are noticeable on this bird. I was surprised by the extent of buff coloration extending down the flanks which I guess you would not notice if the wings were closed. It was exceptionally dry in the garden and this bird was taking a drink from a running irrigation line sprinkler, underneath a pomegranate bush, when I happened to walk up on it.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This first fall female Blackburnian Warbler Setophaga fusca was found by Mark Billings on 21 September 2014 in Friendship Park, Chula Vista. I made a quick visit the next day and connected with the warbler after a tip-off from Curtis Marantz and Matt Sadowski. I arrived to find them watching the warbler but as soon as I got out of my car it bolted into the interior of the tree! It was lost for some time in the dense pine tree needles but eventually reemerged working along lower branches of the tree.
In several of the photographs the tidily streaked brown back can be seen along with the distinguishing paler tram lines also running down the back. It appears to be a first fall female, not heavily marked about the head, with wishy-washy yellowish-buff coloration suffusing the throat and upper chest, and dull brown coloration about the crown, nape, auricular, and shoulder. On a couple occasions we heard its buzzy flight call as it flitted around the pine tree harassed by an intolerant male Townsend’s Warbler.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I always thought the southwest corner of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery looked nice for a good Empidonax find and sure enough today it delivered with a vocal, and occasionally showy, Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus! I first heard this bird from some distance away making a repeated “pwit” call 5-10 times but then it fell silent. I hung around catching glimpses of a small Empidonax with very contrasty black-and-white wings. It started up calling again every few minutes and made some brief appearances on the cemetery fence line. I managed to get some nice photos with the Canon 400 DO lens before quickly returning to my car to fetch the big glass as well as a shotgun microphone. Patience waiting around eventually paid off and I got a nice recording of the repeated “pwit” calling and some super close photos on the fence line with the Canon 500 f4 lens.
The repeated bouts of “pwit” vocalizations, quite sharp sounding, are distinctive for this species which differs from Dusky and Gray Flycatcher both of which make a single softer “whit” call usually well spaced. I obtained a recording in which the bird calls a few times, it can be listened to below. The sound of Point Loma Water Treatment Plant is in the background!
An almost identical calling bird, recorded by Andrew Spencer in New Hampshire, can be listened to at Xeno-Canto here:
This small Empidonax fits well the classic field marks for Least Flycatcher with very contrasty black-and-white wings, brownish gray (and olive?) upperparts, whitish throat, some gray on the chest sides, pale underparts with a faint yellow wash on the lower belly and undertail coverts, and a narrow but prominent looking equal width white eye ring. The lower mandible has patchy dusky markings on the distal sides and tip but is otherwise a rich orange-yellow color all around the base. I think the narrow “skinny” tail and black legs are also quite distinctive looking!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – My golden rule at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery paid off today – stick around until mid morning to see what unusual birds suddenly appear! For some reason mid morning seems particularly “hot” for rarities at this peninsular migrant trap. I had just been walking south along the west side with Pete Ginsberg when we came across a nice Sage Thrasher moving across the cemetery. A little while later Pete, who had walked over to the east side, waved me over in the southeast section where he had just found an Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus loosely associating with a mobile band of Cassin’s Kingbird. Nice! Many birders had already walked over this area earlier in the morning, so clearly it had appeared in the last hour.
This appears to be a hatch year bird with a more smoothly rounded outer primary (P10), tapered outer tail feathers, mixed, sort of brownish, feathers about the back, and I believe some slight orange gape coloration still visible at the base of the bill. The primary feathers also look glossy and in particularly fine condition without any visible wear. Whether or not it is the same Eastern Kingbird found one week ago a little ways north, in the wooded neighborhood of Point Loma, is anyone’s guess. I know I was very happy to cross paths with this one – a difficult bird to see in San Diego County! There seems to have been very few reports of this species in recent years. The San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt 2004) already noted that reports seemed to be on the decline. This trend seems to have continued unfortunately. San Diego Field Ornithologists considers this a Category B rarity in the county.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I quickly reacted to this large, all dark, swift crossing in front of me just a short time after dawn on 08 Sep 2014 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I was walking into the northeast section of the cemetery at 7:03 a.m. when it appeared flying west to east across the highway. Luckily it veered southward and came right by me and at fairly low elevation. It was clearly larger than any Chaetura species and with much longer saber shaped wingtips and very broad bases to its wings. Finally my nemesis county sighting of a Black Swift Cypseloides niger on migration! It pumped its slightly crooked held wings deeply a few strokes and then glided right by me on locked wings. Amazing! Unfortunately it then went behind a tree and I could not relocate it on the other side! I drove down to the south terminus of the cemetery but no sign anywhere.
This is a large bodied, long-winged swift by my standards and to my eye looks intermediate in appearance, and flight style, between a larger Eurasian type “needletail” and the slimmer profiled genus Apus. Scrutinizing the photographs very closely it is actually possible to see some lighter feathering about the eyes and bill, as well as a few white feathers around the lower belly. The wing feathers look quite worn and tattered which fits with this species pattern of molt on the wintering grounds. The San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt 2004) notes that Black Swift is decidedly less common here in the county on fall migration compared to spring migration. From 1997-2001 there was only one report in fall. Outside the atlas period the fall records of this species occur from 23 August to 24 October. Good locations to search include mountain tops in the county as well as Point Loma.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Bird numbers and diversity changes from one day to the next at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, San Diego County, California. After spending the final days of August not seeing many birds I thought September would have to be a change for the better! In my head the 1st of September marks the start of passerine migration season. So I truly intended to find something of note today! Things actually took a bigger turn for the better than I expected, and I seemed to be running into good finds everywhere today at the cemetery.
Exciting migrant discoveries topped out with a lightning quick look at a nice first fall Prairie Warbler Setophaga discolor in the southeast section of the cemetery in the late afternoon. It would not keep still for a second working the tops of Lemonadeberry bushes behind the fence. So I played some wren scolding chatter calls and out it zipped stopping for just a couple of seconds on the perimeter fence top in front of me! A split second later it took off flying northwards and I lost sight of it.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I found this very interesting, but silent, “yellow-bellied” kingbird at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on 23 August 2014. I watched and photographed it for about thirty minutes as it moved between trees in the northeast section of the cemetery. After losing sight of it I could not relocate it again despite many hours searching. Unfortunately it did not vocalize during the time that I watched it – a bit frustrating as I would really liked to have heard it calling!
This seems a bit early to see a Tropical Kingbird here in San Diego County although a quick check through eBird revealed some late August records from further north in California. Certainly based on previous records in the state it seems very much more likely to be a Tropical Kingbird than the exceptional rarity Couch’s Kingbird. However the bill does look very deep and wide at the base. Could it possibly be a Couch’s Kingbird?
The bird appeared to have some disease, possibly a mite infection, in the base of the upper left mandible. The bill base here looks slightly deformed or eaten away a bit behind the left nostril. The feathers around the base of the bill do look to be in poor condition. One other observation I noted when I saw it in flight, and visible in some photographs, is that it has just molted its central rectrices (r1). In fact the bird seems to be in the process of molting. The back and upper chest appear quite faded grayish but with new and much more colorful green feathers coming in on the upper back and breast sides. Similarly the underparts have strongly yellow feathers replacing the older whitish feathers throughout. I believe the photographs of the bird preening under its left wing show a single adult type notched P10 while the P9, and possibly other primaries beneath, appear to be of the rounded juvenal type in shape. Quite noticeable in several of the photographs are orange colored crown-stripe feathers visible among the gray head feathers.
I need to do some more research into aging and molt of Tropical and Couch’s Kingbird to see if this might help in the identification. I believe the two species differ in molt strategy with Couch’s completing prebasic molt on the summer grounds while Tropical completes prebasic molt on the winter grounds. I think without vocalizations this bird might be tough to identify – how I wish it had just called once!
[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.