[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).
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I found this male “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga (coronata) coronata on 05 April 2014 hiding out in a large flowering eucalyptus tree in Westminster Park, Point Loma. This is a well wooded park and was loaded with birds during my visit just after lunch. The large sycamores, leafing out nicely, and many flowering exotic trees were pulling in lots of birds. I picked through many common migrants and winter residents before suddenly spotting this nice looking male Myrtle Warbler. It appears to be almost in full alternate plumage which made it stand out from the dozens of accompanying “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler. Features which distinguish this male Myrtle Warbler from the Audubon’s Warbler include the white throat (yellow in Audubon’s), blackish colored auricular (gray in Audubon’s), white supercilium (concolorous gray in Audubon’s), white tipped greater and median secondary coverts (a more extensively white “panel” look here in male Audubon’s), and the more extensive white underside to the outer tail feathers which extends to the tail tip on the inner feather vane (there are more extensive black tips in Audubon’s). It was a nice surprise although it proved difficult to photograph in the thickly foliaged eucalyptus! While trying to attract the warbler into view I also had close approaches by a couple of inquisitive male Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus that were very interested in the commotion of warblers darting around me.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Frequenting wires and tree snags around Famosa Slough, Ocean Beach, this Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus has been seen on and off at this location for several months. This was the first time I had ran into it, so I stayed around the willow riparian south end of the slough and obtained some nice photographs. I was about to get in my truck and leave when it flew into small trees on the west side of the parking lot. I wandered back over with my camera and was pleased to catch some photographs of the kingbird dispatching a Polistes paper wasp. A few whacks on the branch and some tight squeezes of the wasp’s abdomen soon arranged the insect for consumption. The kingbird threw its head back and gulped down the wasp for breakfast!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I spotted this male “Brewer’s Duck” (Mallard X Gadwall hybrid) at Lindo Lake on 08 March 2014. It was associating with mixed dabbling ducks on the shallow east lake. It is certainly an interesting looking interspecific hybrid. This type of hybrid duck is most famous for being painted by John James Audubon who named it in honor of his friend and fellow ornithologist Thomas Brewer. Audubon clearly suspected there might be something awry here and noted in his description the similarity of the male bird he painted to the Mallard but added “It may possibly be an accidental variety, or a hybrid between that bird and some other species, perhaps the Gadwall, to which also it bears a great resemblance”. I couldn’t agree more!
This individual appears to be a different one from another male “Brewer’s Duck” found by Bruno Struck at Santee Lakes on 29 Nov 2013. The Santee Lakes bird had larger yellow cheeks. The extent of the yellow face marking does seem to vary in this hybrid although both these examples match closely those documented elsewhere on the internet.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – A heavy rain front was coming through Pt. La Jolla late this afternoon when I spotted a “light action” tern making its way through the precipitation southwards. I had seen many Royal Terns already but this one was definitely a lightweight example. I quickly whipped the rain cover off the camera lens and fired off some photographs through the opaque rain. Sure enough it was my first Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans of the 2014 season! It is always nice to see the first arrivals of this well named very elegant looking tern. In fact the species has been observed in San Diego County in the last couple of days by a few lucky observers. The San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004) notes typical arrival around the third week of March with reports as early as the first week of March. In recent years this seems to have pushed ahead in the calendar. Evidently in 2014 they have made an early arrival again in San Diego County.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This first cycle Mew Gull Larus canus brachyrhynchus surprised me at Pt. La Jolla this afternoon when it suddenly appeared coming around the point. The misty conditions made photography problematic and I was impressed with the performance of my new Canon 1Dx camera body. The full frame sensor of the 1Dx, paired with the 500 mm f4.0 and 2X teleconverter, admirably pulled off this image acquisition at the 1000 mm effective focal length in spite of poor light and the considerable distance.
This first cycle Mew Gull has molted into some first prealternate plumage revealing newer white feathers about the flanks and chest as well as a light gray mantle. Some juvenile feathers remain, for example the brown feathers of the belly as well as the faded and mismatched looking upperwing coverts. I find the easiest way to tell this species from Ring-billed Gull, potentially confused with Mew Gull at this age and plumage, by the bill shape. Mew Gull has a thinner bill with a more shallow curvature to the culmen tip providing a more gentle looking bill. Ring-billed Gull on the other hand is deeper billed with a strongly decurved culmen tip which contributes to its more aggressive and substantial looking head morphology. The dusky underwing, particularly darkish around the axillaries, and brownish “scarf” around the neck are also characteristically good field marks for an immature Mew Gull.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – There is something a bit mythical about Clark’s Nutcracker in San Diego County. This species has been seen here during a few winter corvid southward irruptions (movements) in years gone by, but the only other records are odd singletons seen and gone the same day. A real county nemesis bird! I was just driving home on the coast today when news came that Dan King had spotted one in the Laguna Mountains! I wasted no time getting in the eastbound lane of Highway 8 and heading up there! After searching around at the original location suddenly we heard one individual calling and it came flying back to the original tree where Dan had made the first observation. A little later, together with Matt Sadowski and Paul Lehman, we watched three Clark’s Nutcracker Nucifraga columbiana regroup themselves and fly off east a short distance.
I trekked off following the nutcrackers and finally caught up with them quietly harvesting pine nuts. In the photos below you can see the nutcracker prying open the scales of the pine cone with its powerful saber shaped beak. The three birds then moved off to a sickly live oak where they removed large pieces of bark in search of invertebrates. I watched the three nutcrackers at close quarters for almost an hour by myself. It was a wonderful experience watching the nuances of the three birds interacting as a group and the clever means by which they explored their environment for food. Silent for long periods of time they would suddenly begin cawing with bill held high in the air when they lost track of one another among the pines and oaks.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – On 18 Jan 2014 I ventured offshore San Diego with Dave Povey, Tom Blackman, and Mike Goldhamer in search of seabirds. Sea conditions were calm and with only a slight breeze the seabird action was a bit slow. However we were able to spot alcids at some distance particularly in the glassier looking areas of water. On this trip we found a total of nine Rhinoceros Auklet Cerorhinca monocerata which is a high count here so far for the 2013/2014 winter period. In amongst the largest group, of three individuals together, we observed a peculiar behavior as one bird appeared to be actively carrying around a few strands of Eelgrass. I thought maybe it was tangled in the stringy vegetation but close examination of photographs seem to show it is actually gripping the vegetable matter at the mid point of its mandibles. We followed these three Rhinoceros Auklet around for several minutes and this bird refused to drop the vegetation eventually flying off with it! Searching around on the internet I found a photograph of an Atlantic Puffin carrying vegetation in a similar manner. Evidently these alcids bring nest lining material, such as grasses and feathers, to their burrows and can be seen flying around holding such things. Based on current knowledge we are some considerable distance from known nesting areas of Rhinoceros Auklet, which may breed as close as the southern California Channel Islands to the north. Perhaps this individual just has the uncontrollable urge to collect nest lining material? We were also in sight of islands to the south, Islas Los Coronados in Baja California, Mexico. Could this be a colonizer headed to those islands?
We came across another Rhinoceros Auklet by itself which allowed quite a close approach for photography. This individual already has a fairly large grown horn at the base of the upper mandible and small yellowish-white plumes on the face.