[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.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2014] – Visiting birding guide James Smith, on tour here with a group of clients, had the good fortune to spot two Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana on 11 Jan 2014 at Tecolote Canyon Natural Park. He also successfully found the Nutmeg Mannikins at this location which I had tipped him off about. I made a brief stop this morning 12 Jan 2014 and quickly refound one Swamp Sparrow near the entrance to the park (about one hundred yards from the entrance). It was easily located by its loud and flat sounding chip call as it moved through the Lemonadeberry bushes along the north side of the trail. However it proved difficult to entice into the open and photograph. For the most part it stayed well hidden, though often close to me, in the bushes beside the drainage culvert. I managed to get a few photographs from which the bird can be pieced together! Swamp Sparrow is about the most striking rufous marked sparrow we have here in the west I think. The rich rufous on the scapular feathers and wings looks eye popping in any light conditions! This would appear to be a first winter individual with generous yellow coloration of soft parts around the base of the bill and gape. Plumage characters of first winter birds like this one include only a little rufous color streaked into the crown, predominantly buffy auriculars and supercilium, and buffy flanks marked with thin but bold streaks.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – On 28 Dec 2013 I ventured up Hot Springs Mountain in northeast San Diego County in search of winter visitors. Overall the birding was pretty quiet up there around 6000-6500 feet elevation. A few mixed flocks of smaller passerines, dominated by Mountain Chickadees, and an occasional woodpecker. I quickly heard the unmistakeable call of a White-headed Woodpecker Picoides albolarvatus at the usual spot where I have previously found a pair of this species on Hot Springs Mountain Road (elevation about 6100 feet). I could only detect one individual however, an adult female, which was actively feeding at large pine cones in the tree tops. It came by overhead and investigated me for one or two minutes before noisily exiting the area. This is the third occasion in 2013 I have seen this species at this location (including during the summer). It would seem to be the only reliable place remaining in San Diego County where this species can be encountered with some regularity. Other woodpeckers in the area included calling Hairy Woodpecker and an inquisitive Red-breasted Sapsucker.
I can’t quite put my finger on it but there is something a bit strange about the Townsend’s Solitaire Myadestes townsendi. They always look a bit inanimate, but then suddenly spring to life swooping around gracefully! The favored mountain top location adds to the mystery factor (the occasional coastal wanderer excepted). I have seen quite a few singles in the mountains here in San Diego County in previous winters, but this was my personal best high count of three seen together at the top of Hot Springs Mountain on 28 Dec 2013. Hot Springs Mountain tops out at about 6500 feet elevation and holds plenty of large White Fir. Townsend’s Solitaire enjoys feeding on the berries of the Fir Mistletoe found living on this tree species. The solitaires were enjoying bush-top perches low down as well as frequent visits to the mistletoe laden crowns of the mature fir trees. At the mistletoe I watched them fluttering forcefully and pushing themselves into the thick yellow-green leafy clumps to retrieve the berries. Presumably all the exposed berries had already been picked off earlier!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Amid the excitement of finding a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker yesterday morning in Point Loma I forgot about this interesting bluebird that I sighted at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I found it in the far southwest section of the cemetery and thought it looked a bit strange all alone. I immediately noticed the plain monotone color of the bird overall and its upright stance with a kind of “stretched out” appearance. I approached from the front and snapped a few photographs. I hoped to skirt around and observe the back of the bird but it flew off towards the point, into the sun, and was gone! I suspected it might be a Mountain Bluebird and a view from the back would have been beneficial because this species typically shows off characteristic large black markings on the primary and tertial feathers forming black bars up the wings.
But I think the photographs from the front show pretty readily this is in fact a female Mountain Bluebird Sialia currucoides. It has white undertail coverts and lower belly, unlike the darker gray color shown by a female Western Bluebird. To my eye the bill has a slightly longer and thinner look to it than Western Bluebird and is completely dark colored with no sign of any pale marking near the base. Importantly it shows pale whitish feathering on the forehead, forming a little band over the bill, which gives it a sort of annoyed spectacled look when staring at my camera! Although hard to make out, viewed from the side angle, the greater and median coverts on the wing also have generous white edges. I would probably have passed over this Mountain Bluebird among the many Western Bluebirds that are usually around the cemetery. But the Westerns have dwindled in numbers here as we have gotten into the winter months, it is tough finding even a couple in the whole cemetery. It often pays to check out lone birds that seem a bit out of context! This is the first Mountain Bluebird I have encountered in Point Loma.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I found this first winter male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius at the junction of Silvergate Ave. and Warner St. in Point Loma. In the cool temperatures and windless conditions today I could hear about every bird movement and leaf falling from the trees. Sure enough, a crackly sound overhead quickly revealed this sapsucker looking down at me from a pepper tree. After some hide-and-seek photography it then moved off to a mostly leafless maple tree (how convenient!) before flying away. Usually sapsuckers give me the runaround, but this one played friendly for the “flaparazzi”! This is a first winter male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and it appears very characteristic for this species at this time of year. It retains extensive golden spangled juvenile feathers on the nape and much of the back of the bird, kind of forming a brown back panel. These juvenile feathers would be replaced by adult feathers (black blotched with white) in any age or sex Red-naped Sapsucker at this calendar date. It also shows no sign of red feathering anywhere in the nape. On the bright red throat the black border appears wide and continuous as a frame running to the black chest band. Winter birds seem to have increased a bit in numbers in this neighborhood, just around the corner I also found two new Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Brown Creeper!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – First spotted by Dean DiTommaso, flying almost straight towards us, this first winter Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla ventured towards us over the kelp beds but then veered south and did not approach the point closely. The best photographs I could obtain were very distant as it flew just above the horizon and turned. This species has a buoyant almost tern like flight and appears very “white” or ghostly looking to my eye. The black smudgy marking on the nape, black markings outlining the letter M on the upperwing, and black tail tip can be seen as it turned and flew south away from us.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – It was barely getting light this morning when I spotted a small white-bellied duck careening wildly along the edge of the kelp beds at Pt. La Jolla. It looked interesting so I leveled the camera on it and snagged a dozen shots as the duck pulled up and stalled to sit down on the water outside of the kelp. It was 7:01 a.m. to be exact and my Canon 7D camera sensor was having trouble capturing images at all, even at ISO 3200! From the camera back the duck appeared white collared and distinctively white bellied. It also had a dark crown and cheek patch kind of extending as a rear strap behind the face. Finally, the wings were entirely blackish both on the upper and under surface, in particular the striking dark underwing coverts were noticeable. Evidently my hoped for Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis had appeared as early in the day as possible! I guess I should not complain about poor lighting for photography, birds just come by you when they want to as a rule! This is my first Long-tailed Duck of the 2013-2014 winter period. Unfortunately, given the very choppy water conditions and poor lighting, other birders were unable to relocate the stationary duck in the immediate vicinity with their field scopes.
Buoyed by the early morning success I waited out the seawatch a few more hours but could only add a very nice looking adult basic plumaged Mew Gull Larus canus to the list. The Mew Gull flew south around the point just a short distance from the rocks and almost escaped attention. Actually this individual appears to be in fresh looking “adultlike” plumage having completed third cycle prebasic molt with just a few black feathers in the upperwing marginal coverts and slightly reduced white tips to the outer primaries.