[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.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – I rushed down to the Tijuana River Valley in the morning today, 04 April 2015, to see a Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis found by Guy McCaskie about 8:15 a.m. at the main Dairy Mart Pond. I was in far Point Loma at the time but hit the road fast making it there in record time in the Subaru. Lucky for me the kite sat tight in the dead tree snag as the temperatures began to rise. I figured it would lift off around 9:30 a.m., in search of flying insects, so that gave me some leeway. Lucky for me it remained in the tree snag, and even better it was right beside the main trail! I managed to capture a few images before it moved to a more distant tree. Here it continued preening and stretching, both wings and tail, allowing some nice photos. Sure enough it suddenly took off right around 9:30 a.m. and headed off low in rapid flight to the northwest where we lost sight of it behind the willow trees.
This appears to be a second calendar year (SY) bird retaining juvenile body feathers mottled with generous rufous or white blotches. Some of the visible rectrices appear freshly replaced and glossy looking, quite darkly colored with nice looking squared off truncate ends and bright white banding on the inner webs.
UPDATE: The Mississippi Kite did stick around, at least for a couple more days, being seen early and late in the day at some favorite tree snags near to the main Dairy Mart Pond.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – I find it hard to resist looking around Lake Henshaw. It just seems to have such great potential for rare and unusual waterbirds. So when passing nearby the lake with my wife Leslie on 18 March 2015, on our way to Palm Springs, I suggested we rent a boat and look around. We set off clockwise around the lake in the small fishing skiff rented from the store. It was looking pretty blank for birds on the lake, except for the large number of Western and Clark’s Grebes, when I spied a familiar outline in the distance. Standing up in the boat I trained my eyes on a very distant bicolored bird at the waters edge. There’s no way! But sure enough, as we puttered over in the skiff, it became apparent that a subadult Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway was wading around in the shallow water of the north lake shore! I could hardly believe my eyes as the wading raptor looked around lifting up some kind of dead prey item from the water. I have noted before that this species can often be seen around water bodies, poking around with its long bare legs so I guess its presence here should not be such a big surprise. I was just not ready mentally for a Crested Caracara tucked in with a flock of American White Pelicans standing in the shallows!
This appears to be a second year subadult bird with buffy coloration about the lower neck with some horizontal dark barring. The wings and upperparts appeared faded looking and dark brown. The face actually became more strongly pinkish as we approached closer in the boat. The legs were a quite bright yellow coloration. We edged the boat as close as we could in the shallow water, eventually stalling the small outboard motor in the mud. The Crested Caracara flew up a few times moving short distances but seemed all the while intent on feeding in a quite small area of water just a couple inches deep. So far as I can tell it was picking up various dead animals, one looks like a wading bird with its legs hanging down.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – This interesting hybrid Aythya diving duck was first reported by Elias Elias at Upper Otay Reservoir on 09 Feb 2015. I made a trip out there late in the afternoon the next day and found it was still around mingling with the large number of Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup on the reservoir. It appears to be a hybrid Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. and has intermediate physical characteristics of these species. It’s rather chunky large size, and very fat cheeked lower face, makes me think it could perhaps be a hybrid with Greater Scaup. In direct sunlight the head appeared to have a mixed purple and green gloss. However the sun sank behind a nearby hill just after I arrived, so no colors were apparent after that.
The back color appears to be a very dark gray. When viewed from the rear the back actually does look mostly blackish and very cleanly demarcated from the white looking flanks. In the bright sunlight the flanks appeared white but after the sun went down it became apparent they were actually a very pale gray. The flank coloration can be seen when the bird lifts its white belly out of the water. In several of the photos posted below the shape and color of the flank feathers can be seen clearly in comparison to nearby Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup.
I think the bill is the most interesting feature of this duck. It is a typical bright scaup blue but has a large black nail at the end much like that found on a Ring-necked Duck. It also has a broad white banding around the nail again like Ring-necked Duck. However at the base of the bill it lacks the obvious looking white facial border banding found in Ring-necked Duck. The head shape looks plain weird to me kind of a muscular and more oval version of Ring-necked Duck? The large nub sticking out the rear crown looks more Ring-necked Duck than Lesser Scaup to my eye. An interesting creature for sure!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – This female “Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker came late to the party, so to speak, as it alighted in a dead tree at the Bird & Butterfly Garden only to see four “Red-shafted” Northern Flicker, already in the tree, all take flight immediately and fly away. The red nuchal patch on the lower nape can be seen as well as the yellow colored remiges. The absence of a black “whisker” on the face indicates it is a female.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2015] – I think the Large-billed Sparrow Passerculus (sandwichensis) rostratus is perhaps one of my favorite North American sparrows. Personally I would like to see a more progressive taxonomy of the genus Passerculus which elevates this distinct form to species status, or at least “allied” with Belding’s Savannah Sparrow in a larger billed “species”. It is currently treated as a form of Savannah Sparrow by the AOU. As for a common name? Why not call it the “San Diego Sparrow” since the type specimen came from “Sea shore at San Diego, California”.