Audio and visual – Least Flycatcher in Point Loma

[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!

Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus recording, Point Loma, San Diego 20 Sep 2014

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!

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Least Flycatcher – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 20 Sep 2014

Mid morning arrival – Eastern Kingbird in Point Loma

[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.

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Eastern Kingbird – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 13 Sep 2014

Nemesis county bird – Black Swift in Point Loma

[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.

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Black Swift – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 08 Sep 2014

Exciting migration season starts – 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.

Prairie Warbler – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Prairie Warbler – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Prairie Warbler – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Rose-breasted Grosbeak – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

American Redstart – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

American Redstart – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Northern Waterthrush – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Northern Waterthrush – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Brewer’s Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Brewer’s Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Brewer’s Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 01 September 2014

Silent “yellow-bellied” kingbird in Point Loma

[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!

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 23 August 2014

More Craveri’s Murrelets in San Diego County

[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.

Craveri’s Murrelets – 5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Craveri’s Murrelets – 5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Craveri’s Murrelets – 5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Craveri’s Murrelet – 5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Craveri’s Murrelet – 5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Brown Booby – 1.5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Brown Booby – 1.5 NM west of Point Loma, San Diego County, California 06 July 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler close approach

[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.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler – University City, San Diego County, California 18 June 2014

Very early occurrence of Craveri’s Murrelets off San Diego

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Catching many seasoned observers by surprise, this very early calendar date pair of Craveri’s Murrelets Synthliboramphus craveri were passed off as Scripps’s Murrelets while being watched at close quarters aboard a pelagic out of San Diego on 07 June 2014. Steadfastly avoiding flight, the two murrelets paddled away from observers and did not reveal their characteristic darker underwing pattern. However the detailed examination of photographs, after the event, revealed all other characteristic field marks of this rarely seen enigmatic Southern California alcid visitor. Note the longer and thinner bill, with tweezer like mandible tips, the solid black face marking under the eye conjoining the chin, and the black colored spur on the breast side. In addition around the eye can be seen two very small white eye arcs, which I find from close up photographs are characteristic of this species. In general it is possible to see a small white fleck in front of the eye in many Scripps’s Murrelets. This white fleck mark is usually more pronounced in one individual in pairs that are seen together (I think there is perhaps a slight sexual dimorphism in the extent of white face coloration in Scripps’s Murrelets). No such mark exists on these birds, they show an evenly black marked face in front of the eye.

Craveri’s Murrelet – San Diego pelagic, San Diego County, California 07 June 2014

Craveri’s Murrelet – San Diego pelagic, San Diego County, California 07 June 2014

Craveri’s Murrelet – San Diego pelagic, San Diego County, California 07 June 2014

These Craveri’s Murrelets are well in advance, by some two months, of the more normal calendar date of first occurrence in Southern California for this species. But 2014 is shaping up poorly for breeding seabirds in Baja in general with several species now documented to have abandoned nesting rookeries and islands. Perhaps there is a failure of food stocks for many seabird species in the Gulf of California and we are just beginning to see this develop in our local area as failed breeders exit Baja and disperse more widely.

Indigo Bunting on the move

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – An early evening walk around Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery paid off when I caught sight of this stunning male Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea passing behind me and into a cypress tree. Backlit by the sun, as it flew by me, I immediately noticed the shiny looking high gloss plumage which is unusual on such a small bird. Sure enough, as it twisted in flight, the blue body was easily visible just with the naked eye. I hurried uphill to get ahead of the fast moving bunting as it traveled from tree to tree staying well concealed. Finally I made it in front and heard it calling from inside a flowering eucalyptus tree crown. I waited a few minutes but it would not emerge by itself and I figured it would be off flying soon! So I switched tactics and coaxed it out by playing a recording of the typical repeated “spik” call, to which it responded vigorously calling and then finally emerged from hiding. But after a couple seconds off it flew westwards never to be seen again despite considerable searching! This is a very fine looking male with indigo head and blue body – I wish it would have sat out in the open!

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting male – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 29 May 2014

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting male – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 29 May 2014

Not imagined – Gray Catbird in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I thought I was imagining things early this morning when a solid dark gray bird flew between bushes just outside the perimeter fence of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Could that really have been a catbird? A few minutes later an unmistakeable dark capped Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis popped into view allowing one awful photograph of itself obliquely through the fence! Not happy at all with that image I waited around for quite a while grumbling to myself how skulky this species can be. I was about to give up hope when the catbird hopped out on to the grass in front of me, just for a few minutes, allowing some distant photography as it hopped closer to the many Memorial Day flags stuck in the grass!

This species has been quite rare in the last few years with a well watched individual most recently noted in Borrego Springs in the fall of 2013. Most records of this species here in San Diego County occur in the fall but it has also been noted on occasion in spring. Remarkably enough, Richard Webster found one here in Point Loma on the exact same date 27 May 2002! And another was seen in Point Loma the year before on 28 May 2001. I am not sure what is going on with this date but it would seem to be a very opportune time to look for Gray Catbird in Point Loma!

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 27 May 2014

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 27 May 2014

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 27 May 2014

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego County, California 27 May 2014