Well hidden – “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow in Point Loma

[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.

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

“Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow – Point Loma, San Diego County, California 19 April 2015

Trailside raptor – Mississippi Kite in the TRV

[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.

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Mississippi Kite – Tijuana River Valley, San Diego County, California 04 April 2015

Wading raptor – Crested Caracara at Lake Henshaw

[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.

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Crested Caracara subadult – Lake Henshaw, San Diego County, California 18 March 2015 (© Gary Nunn)

Diving duck hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir

[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!

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

Ring-necked Duck X Scaup sp. hybrid – Upper Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista, San Diego County, California 10 Feb 2015

“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker – Tijuana River Valley

[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.

“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker – Bird & Butterfly Garden, Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, San Diego County, California 03 Jan 2015

“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker – Bird & Butterfly Garden, Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, San Diego County, California 03 Jan 2015

“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker – Bird & Butterfly Garden, Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, San Diego County, California 03 Jan 2015

“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker – Bird & Butterfly Garden, Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, San Diego County, California 03 Jan 2015

Large-billed Sparrow in Mission Beach

Image

[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”.

Large-billed Sparrow – Mission Beach North Jetty, Mission Beach, San Diego County, California 30 Dec 2014

Large-billed Sparrow – Mission Beach North Jetty, Mission Beach, San Diego County, California 30 Dec 2014

Large-billed Sparrow – Mission Beach North Jetty, Mission Beach, San Diego County, California 30 Dec 2014

Large-billed Sparrow – Mission Beach North Jetty, Mission Beach, San Diego County, California 30 Dec 2014

Large-billed Sparrow – Mission Beach North Jetty, Mission Beach, San Diego County, California 30 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelets exiting La Jolla Cove

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – With almost windless calm conditions at Point La Jolla this morning the outlook did not look promising for seabirds. But around 7:45 a.m. I suddenly caught sight of a very close Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus passing south around the point. I almost missed it looking farther away out on the ocean! With barely a north breeze blowing the Ancient Murrelet flew by relatively slowly and I managed to train the camera on it quite quickly. The cloudy light conditions were not fantastic but the gray back and darker upper wing can be seen nicely as well as the black and white bicolored face and under parts. The pale bill tip is clearly visible. A short while later, at 8:30 a.m., a second individual came flying out from the cove on an almost identical track to the first, going west. The second individual looked more clean white plumaged on the underparts than the first individual and lacked the spotty dark under part feathers like the initial bird. Both of these Ancient Murrelets were much closer to the point than others I have seen here this winter. It appeared to me they were exiting La Jolla Cove and they passed only 30-40 yards from the rocky point. Clearly the incursion of this species into southern California is continuing and there appears to be good chances of close views from headlands along the coast if one has patience!

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 28 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover at the Tijuana River mouth

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – I discovered this Pacific Golden-Plover Pluvialis fulva accompanying a small band of Black-bellied Plover near the Tijuana River mouth in Imperial Beach on 26 Dec 2014. In the warmly colored afternoon sunshine the yellowish-gold feathering about the face, and “gold” spangles on the back, show very well in the photographs. This species was last reported at this location a few months ago in the first week of October. So this would appear to be a new bird in the area.

The abundant large gold spots on the back, golden-yellow washed face with a noticeable “ear-spot”, absence of a prominent white supercilium and not having really a capped look, and the long tertials with only three primary feather tips clearly emerged beyond, all point to this bird being a Pacific Golden-Plover rather than a much rarer American Golden-Plover. It was noticeably smaller than nearby Black-bellied Plovers and looked relatively “lanky” on its long legs compared to this species.

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover – Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach, San Diego County, California 26 Dec 2014

Dark pool – Tufted Duck on Upper Otay Lake

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – This superb male Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula was found by Matt Sadowski and Lea Squires on 24 Dec 2014 at Upper Otay Lake in San Diego County. By the time I arrived there, around 11:30 a.m., it was drifting around, and on-off sleeping, in the middle of the small lake with many other diving ducks. I photographed it at some distance using the Canon 1Dx with 500 mm/f4 IS II lens and Extender EF 2X III combo. This combined 1000 mm focal length, on the full frame camera sensor, leads to some image quality loss but the results at least allow you to pull in birds from a great distance away. Tufted Duck is particularly attracted to semi-wooded, dark freshwater pools and this small lake seems an ideal location you could at least wish to encounter this very rare duck species here in southern California! The San Diego County Bird Atlas describes three previous records from San Diego County, the last seen in 1998 at Famosa Slough (Unitt 2004). An early Christmas present for avid county listers here in San Diego County!

Tufted Duck – Upper Otay Lake, San Diego County, California 24 Dec 2014

Tufted Duck – Upper Otay Lake, San Diego County, California 24 Dec 2014

Tufted Duck – Upper Otay Lake, San Diego County, California 24 Dec 2014

La Jolla seabirds and unusual clifftop visitor

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Today the weather cleared, after some local dawn rain showers, which made seabird photography easier from Pt. La Jolla compared to yesterday. The undesirable wind, however, continued from the eastern sector, at least until the early afternoon when it finally went around to the west! Some high quality bird sightings were made today by the assembled crowd of birders. “Booby mania” got off to an exciting early morning start with a Blue-footed Booby Sula nebouxii, called out by Paul Lehman, cutting it’s way diagonally in flight across the kelp bed and headed away from the point. Wow! Some time later I was lucky enough to catch sight of a smaller sized white bellied alcid careening out of the cove and I quickly swung my super-telephoto camera lens combo onto it. All those practice shots on fast moving birds, with 1000 mm lens focal length, paid off and I quickly locked onto a fast moving Ancient Murrelet Synthliboramphus antiquus!

Looking over photographs later of some scoters which had passed by very close, right in front of us in fact, I realized there was a first winter male Black Scoter Melanitta americana tucked away among the immature Surf Scoters! A nice surprise and a lesson to look over the scoter flocks more carefully next time. Adding to the waterfowl collection, I followed up on reports of a Ross’s Goose Chen rossii seen on the La Jolla clifftop path earlier in the morning. Bizarre but true, not far along the popular footpath, there was a hatch year Ross’s Goose grazing on fresh green grass right beside the path and just feet from the precipitous cliff edge. A nice bird and so confidingly close I had problems backing up to get it all in the camera frame!

Blue-footed Booby – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Blue-footed Booby – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Blue-footed Booby – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Blue-footed Booby – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ancient Murrelet – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Black Scoter first winter male with Surf Scoters – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Black Scoter first winter male with Surf Scoters – Pt. La Jolla, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ross’s Goose – La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ross’s Goose – La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ross’s Goose – La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014

Ross’s Goose – La Jolla Cove, La Jolla, San Diego County, California 13 Dec 2014