[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – After receiving a somewhat blurry cell phone picture from John Bruin of his camera back this morning, showing a dark spotted thrasher that had been found by Lisa Ruby, I raced over to Famosa Slough to see if I could refind it. Whatever the dark spotted blur was it was bound to be of great local interest! Just as I arrived at Famosa Slough John emailed me over a much more detailed photo of a pale bellied thrasher with blackish chevrons smothering the underparts! I thought “there’s no way!” but following John’s detailed directions I soon refound the bird feeding by the pathway and it does indeed appear to be a Gray Thrasher Toxostoma cinereum! A detailed series of photos below show the field marks well of this species. The bird was happily feeding (“thrashing”) on the bank side under a willow tree over the path. In the photos you can see it probing deeply in the leaf litter and tossing leaves over its shoulder every now and then. It flew a little away along the path revealing pale corners to the tail. The bird is an overall dull biscuit brown color, a little warmer colored on the rump perhaps, with pale buffy white underparts boldly marked with blackish chevrons throughout. The median and greater coverts are tipped with fine pale edges. The eye is a mid yellow-orange color. The tail, concolorous with the upperparts, shows some evidence of mud sticking to it, but since we have had a recent deluge of rain a couple weeks ago it seems reasonable the bird might have ventured into muddy conditions in its normally dry desert habitat. Various reference texts state the bird can be found as far north as 31°N on the west coast of Baja California, Mexico. Reports in eBird show the presence of this species southeast of Ensenada along Mexico Highway 3 in Baja California. I mapped it out in GoogleMaps and it is 128 miles between this bird and the nearest reports, “as the thrasher flies”. So they are not so far away from San Diego! To me it appeared to be feeding very much like a wild thrasher would, excavating deep among leaf litter and tossing debris everywhere in search of invertebrates. In my opinion the plumage looks a little evenly worn throughout and there do not appear to be any particular broken feathers or signs of captivity.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – First spotted about 4 pm on 05 July 2015 by James McDaniel, the owner of the sport-fishing vessel the Grande, this subadult brown morph Red-footed Booby Sula sula proved elusive until I managed to relocate it sitting, almost out of sight, on the front of another fishing vessel, the Dominator, several hundred yards from the original location. I had already been down this dock and stood just a few feet from the booby without spotting it! Only when I walked over to the next more distant dock, extending further south, and looked back could I just see it tucked away on the front of this boat. Easily missed!
The last time a Red-footed Booby was discovered here in Point Loma, also at the sport fishing marina, was back on September 29, 2008! There was one photographed offshore here in September 2012. These are the only recent records from the county that I am aware of. Clearly this bird may have made its way into the marina on board a fishing vessel returning to the marina although it now seems mobile enough to move some distance between boats moored at the docks. I couldn’t help myself and snapped a photo of Stan Walens with his nemesis booby in San Diego County! I know that Stan narrowly missed seeing one sitting on a bush at La Jolla Cove almost twenty years ago!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – The potential diversity of storm-petrels to be found in San Diego County waters is a bit dizzying so this small boldly white-rumped individual certainly grabbed our attention on a pelagic trip here on 14 June 2015. Just when the bird looked like it was going to make a close pass by our boat the Grande, nope, it would turn away again flying some distance ahead! Watching it from the bow however the views were very good, and, with a long lens, the photographs documentation worthy.
We could see the extensive white rump that wrapped underneath the tail and the dangly legs looked very long indeed as it pitter-pattered frequently along the water surface with its feet. No real sign of a notched tail, quite fan like in appearance really, and the bird seemed to be in active molt of secondaries and inner primaries, with a molt gap in the right wing. This was indeed what we had hoped for, a very rare migrant to San Diego County waters Wilson’s Storm-Petrel Oceanites oceanicus all the way from the southern hemisphere.
We carefully eliminated one other species from consideration, the Townsend’s Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma (leucorhoa) socorroensis (currently considered a form of Leach’s Storm-Petrel by the AOU) from nearby Guadalupe Island, Mexico, but this species has a smaller tail with minimal white wrapping underneath, and lacks the characteristic extreme leg length which causes the feet to project clearly past the end of the tail as in Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. Close examination of the many photographs taken show the trailing feet poking out beyond the tail, super long legs, extensive white rump which wraps under the tail, and the active wing molt typical of Wilson’s Storm-Petrel at this date in the northern hemisphere.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – Today 02 June 2015 I decided to go and look for the singing Northern Parula Setophaga americana reported by Matt Sadowski yesterday in the wooded neighborhood of far Point Loma. Following the directions Matt gave, searching just east of Catalina Blvd. in the unpaved alley south of Dudley St., I soon heard the distinctive song, a buzzy trill, high up in a large eucalyptus tree. I attracted it down a little closer with some low volume playback and managed to get a few photographs before it shot off behind me at high speed. A nice addition to the assortment of eastern vagrant birds in Point Loma over the past few days! The alleyways of the wooded neighborhood in Point Loma can be productive for birders to investigate and numerous vagrants have surfaced here in both spring and fall migration seasons. If you have time it is definitely worth the effort to walk these back alleys and listen out for unusual birdsong!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – Things were going pretty slow at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery this morning until I reached the southeast corner. This part of the cemetery has delivered many rare birds and my ears pricked up when I heard a Chestnut-sided Warbler Setophaga pensylvanica singing from the far corner! I quickly located it as it moved around inside a twiggy Myoporum bush. I only managed a few photographs as it peered out and, after returning with my 500 mm lens, could not refind it. I continued working around the large evergreen Ficus type trees when suddenly out hopped a Yellow-throated Vireo Vireo flavifrons right in front of me! There was no missing this colorful vireo which traveled below the canopy through a few trees before being lost northwards. I’ve been searching for this vireo species for a long time here in San Diego and these days nothing beats a self-found new county bird!
While photographing the vireo my attention was drawn to a loud “bip” or “kip” call in the same tree as the Yellow-throated Vireo. It basically sounded like a louder and faster repeated version of a Hammond’s Flycatcher. I was shocked to see the call coming from a “Traill’s” type flycatcher flitting around madly under the canopy of the Ficus tree! Other birders came over and listened to the flycatcher above our heads. The analysis of recordings of the calls will be the subject of a follow up blog post.
I did make a late afternoon return visit but could only add an Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea to the eastern vagrant mix! Not a bad haul for one day in spring migration at the cemetery!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – Late afternoon on 18 May 2015 I caught sight of this colorful small passerine flying overhead into Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery from the east fence line. By it’s size and color, as it flew overhead, I thought it might be a Western Tanager. But as it went over me the tail looked kind of short and thin, not so lobed like a tanager, and the bill was small and sharply pointed. Luckily it landed on a nearby pine tree snag and showed quite well. A tiny oriole! I managed to keep up with it in the next eucalyptus tree and watched it for a few minutes. It’s diminuitive size, short squared-off tail, vibrant yellow coloration, nice white contrasty wing-bars, and the peculiar tail flicking to the side (!) all point to this being a female Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius. I was not familiar with the tail flicking behavior but it can be seen in the fourth photograph below where it moves its tail to the left! I researched the tail flicking behavior a bit more and found some excellent information in Jon Dunn’s summary of immature oriole identification in FIELD NOTES at the LAAS website. Apparently the tail flicking to the side is a characteristic of Orchard Oriole and the behavior is not found in other species such as the Hooded Oriole.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – It took us nearly a whole day at sea earnestly searching, but suddenly, at 4:22 pm on 16 May 2015, there it was, a Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis in San Diego County waters! I had almost given up hope, and we were well into the return leg back to San Diego, when a Black-footed Albatross appeared out of nowhere about eight miles from shore. Then a second Black-footed and suddenly in came the Laysan Albatross right under our noses. Cameras whirred and people were yelling. A series of photographs below of this fantastic looking seabird.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – Black-headed Grosbeaks travel through San Diego County on migration quite early in the year and I have only seen one here on the coast in recent days. So a grosbeak in full song at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma today 13 May 2015 caught my attention as worth investigating. After locating the eucalyptus tree it was singing from, and carefully searching the canopy, I eventually spied this first summer male Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticis ludovicianus singing away heartily. It moved off pretty quickly but I caught up with it a couple more times again by detecting the song or call. To my ear the “spik” call of Rose-breasted Grosbeak sounds slightly more piercing, or squeaky, compared to the call of Black-headed Grosbeak. This individual appears to be a second year (SY) male retaining lots of worn looking very faded brown wing feathers. The contrasting greater secondary coverts and one or two tertials on each wing are freshly replaced looking richly black with tidy white spotted tips.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – As I walked around the fence line of the southeast section of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery this morning, 12 May 2015, there was no mistaking the song of this colorful eastern warbler. The loud “cheery-cheery-cheer-swip” coming from deep in the bushes could only be a male Hooded Warbler Setophaga citrina. I quickly sat down on the grassy bank and played some song recordings and within a couple of minutes out popped this stunning colorful male hopping around and singing beside me. This Hooded Warbler was more cooperative than the one I found last year here at the cemetery, 01 May 2014, which showed for a few seconds before burying itself in the bushes. Photographed the nemesis bird at last! It moved off quickly back deeper in the bushes but continued loudly singing revealing its presence just outside the fence line.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – I discovered this “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow Passerella (iliaca) megarhyncha on 19 April 2015 furtively scratching among leaf litter inside a thicket at the south end of Point Loma Nazarene University, Point Loma, San Diego County, California. The lighting was awful for photography but I wanted to document this localized form of Fox Sparrow here in San Diego. It gave a subdued song phrase several times while I watched it moving about under the thicket. The massive bill structure is obvious on this bird, the bill being mostly bluish-gray in coloration with a barely discernible patch of pale yellow remaining on the lower mandible. Other useful field marks include the mostly whitish underparts only lightly patterned with small well defined dark blackish chevrons, grayish head and back, and wing and tail feathers generously edged with bright rufous coloration contrasting with the grayish body color. The very large bill appears strengthened by a pronounced ridge along the culmen, visible when it looks directly at the camera, and it shows a very swollen lower mandible structure. I did get too close, startling the bird, and it gave the loud “chink” call characteristic of this form of Fox Sparrow and which sounds remarkably similar to California Towhee.
My impression is that Thick-billed Fox Sparrows appear here in San Diego in a southbound wave in the fall, with a small number remaining in the winter, followed by a smaller northbound wave, probably less easily detected, in the spring. As far as is known they are short range migrants moving south and back north to their higher elevation breeding grounds in the Sierras and local southern California mountain ranges. Birds of this form are already singing on higher elevation mountaintops in Riverside County being reported on 18 April 2015 as close as Santa Rosa Mountain.