[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – It is almost mysterious the absence of birds around Point Loma. Even compared to a few days ago, it just emptied of birds. I was about to leave Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on 30 Oct 2013, as it was getting towards dusk, when a familiar sparrow “seep” call caught my attention. Sure enough I had flushed a White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis out of the Pride of Madeira plants and it teed up perfectly on the wall in front of me! After posing for a few photographs it took off with a band of Dark-eyed Junco picking over the roadside debris. This appears to be a first-winter individual still retaining considerable juvenile streaked feathers on the underparts. I think by this date last year I had found half a dozen White-throated Sparrows around Point Loma, so 2013 has been really thin pickings for even the more commonly expected eastern birds.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I definitely jumped when a short-tailed green bird with a prominent white wing bar hopped out in front of me late this afternoon in a tiny planted cedar tree at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I ditched the binoculars immediately in favor of the camera, who knows where this thing might go next! As it turned out this was a smart move. After showing itself in the tiny cedar for a minute it took off through the cemetery fence. Resurfacing beyond the fence for a few seconds it then just vanished. I did not see it again in spite of considerable searching.
This bird appears to be an “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo most likely of the nominate V.b. bellii form. It is certainly much brighter colored than the arizonae form and, so far as I can tell, also the intermediate colored medius form. Features of plumage coloration matches the detailed description of the nominate bellii form of Bell’s Vireo in Pyle (1997), Identification Guide to Passerines, and the photographs also match very closely the color illustration of a bright “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo shown in The Sibley Guide to Birds (the illustration is presumably of the nominate bellii form, although it is not labeled with a scientific name).
Elements that jumped out at me about this bird included; the much shorter tail compared to our local breeding pusillus form of the species (“Least” Bells’s Vireo), the olive-green coloration of the upperparts, the strong bright yellow wash on the underparts, the bright yellowish uppertail coverts (seen in flight), and the striking white wing bar on the greater coverts. In addition behavioral characteristics support the identification as “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo. This bird flicked its wings and pumped its tail continuously like the eastern birds. Examination of many of the photographs below show the wings in semi-raised (“flicked”) poses, including one shot with one wing flicked up, as well as various shots of the tail pumped upwards.
The “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo is a very rare vagrant to San Diego and California as a whole in fact. There are two previous reports from San Diego County including one found at Point Loma 10 Oct 1988 by Richard Webster and another found more recently in the Nestor neighborhood of Imperial Beach on 02 Nov 2012 by Paul Lehman. I believe this is the first “Eastern” Bell’s Vireo to be photographed in San Diego County and certainly a very nice looking vireo to encounter.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – While watching the very camera friendly Hammond’s Flycatcher at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery another dull olive-gray Empidonax, agitated and a lot more frazzled looking, suddenly came flying into the scene next to it. Interacting briefly with the Hammond’s, the new flycatcher then moved off to a distant isolated pine tree before finally returning briefly to feed along the fence line. At first I thought it might be another Hammond’s Flycatcher but its longer tailed look, different head shape, and strong looking bill, made me think again. After examining detailed photographs that show its very short primary projection, relatively scruffy looking plumage, strong bill, and mostly absent yellow coloration on the underparts, this does appear to be a Dusky Flycatcher Empidonax oberholseri.
The photographs below show very well the short primary projection characteristic of Dusky Flycatcher. One can compare it to the the rakish, extremely long, primary projection of Hammond’s Flycatcher (for example, see my previous blog post). In addition the pale whitish patch around the lores area is very evident along with the stronger bill and more rounded head shape. This individual has just begun molting with some patchy new and stronger colored plumage (more olive) scattered around on its body. Much of the underpart feathers appear to be worn looking.
Viewed in ideal lighting conditions the outer edge to the outer tail feather (r6) appears distinctly white in Dusky Flycatcher. The short primary projection and long tail creates the relative impression of about the longest tailed Empidonax there is in my opinion.
It is difficult to capture images from below of Empidonax bills and usually the coloration is next to impossible to see. My only advice is keep taking photographs from all angles underneath the bird! The following images show the characteristic narrower spear-shaped bill and extensive darker coloration of the lower mandible of Dusky Flycatcher. It really only has a pale base. The Gray Flycatcher has a fully pale lower mandible with a small dark tip, while the Pacific-slope Flycatcher is wholly pale and in addition of greater width with a spade shaped morphology.
One novel field character which I believe can differentiate Dusky Flycatcher apart from the confusion species, Hammond’s Flycatcher, is the small overhanging hooked tip of the upper mandible. To my eye it looks like the small hook seen on a vireo bill and is noticeable in the close-up head-shot below. Certainly this hooked upper mandible feature is very difficult to see with binoculars! But I feel I can always notice this hooked tip in photographs of birds that I believe are Dusky Flycatchers. Hammond’s Flycatcher has a smaller bill with more closely meeting mandible tips without the hook present on the upper mandible like Dusky Flycatcher. Maybe a “birding photography” strategy here is to “get as close as you can photographs of the bill tip”! I think it could be very useful for differentiating the two species apart. The hooked tip of the upper mandible can also be clearly seen on photographs of a Dusky Flycatcher that I found at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery earlier this year. In my opinion Dusky Flycatcher is under reported in San Diego County due to the difficulties of identification. Look for the hook!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I am beginning to think video could be a great aid to teaching Empidonax identification. There is just a look-and-feel of each species in my opinion. I put together some high definition video clips of the Hammond’s Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii found by Sue Smith on 20 October 2013 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, California. This flycatcher was very approachable and you can hear the “flaparazzi” in the background. Yes, that noise is Matthew Binns’ Canon 1Dx shooting at a full 12.5 frames per second!
All the field marks appropriate for this species can be seen in the video including, most importantly I think; the extreme long primary extension beyond the tertials (start of the second clip, for example!), the strong yellow wash on the freshly molted plumage of the underparts, the small dark bill, and the light gray throat (tricky to see I agree, but it is actually not white). Digital photography, or videography for that matter, can be extremely helpful but lighting is a very important factor. To observe many of the subtle plumage coloration characteristics of Empidonax species avoid strong sunlight and follow a bird around into more shaded light conditions if possible. Also, obtaining truly representative images of primary extension can be frustratingly difficult. The best documentation photographs require the bird to be at camera height straight ahead of you standing with its side facing you. Photographs taken from above or below, or at an oblique angle, will be inferior and more difficult to interpret.
In addition the following still photographs show more of the field characters of this delightful small Empidonax species. Primary extension beyond the tertials is strikingly long in this species and presents a very good field mark if seen well at close enough range. Digital photography of course makes this much easier to study, but practice really helps when looking for this field mark. To photograph the flycatcher Mathew Binns let me try out his Canon 1Dx and 500 mm II lens and the first two shots below reflect this!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Just before leaving Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery today I heard an unfamiliar, but quite pleasant, bird song just outside the east fence line south of the eucalyptus grove. I walked over and, from some distance, caught sight of the bird singing atop a bush behind the perimeter fence. But then it immediately hopped down out of sight! Viewed from behind the sparrow shaped bird had a large gray head, gray back, rich rufous wings, a long rufous tail, and, particularly noticeable, rufous upper tail coverts demarcated against the gray back. Hmmm, to be honest I was a bit puzzled!
I walked down to the fence and decided to give the “Universal Bird Attractor” (Wrentit chatter call!) a go. I waited a few minutes and was about to give up when, sure enough, out hopped the bird I had just seen. I was impressed to see it was a Fox Sparrow of the megarhynchus group of forms, more commonly known as “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow! There were in fact two birds traveling together, one with a real honking grosbeak sized bill and the second a bit smaller billed.
It seems most likely both these birds are of the Passerella iliaca stephensi form found breeding in Southern California including just a handful found summering on the highest mountain tops in San Diego County. “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrows are only known to migrate a short distance moving to lower elevations in the winter near to their breeding range. So most likely these two birds originated nearby or from the southern Sierras.
I was confused by the bill color of these two individuals which both show some orange-yellow coloration on the lower mandible, and in one bird the upper mandible. What’s puzzling is that Thick-billed Fox Sparrows are illustrated in field guides with uniformly gray-colored bills. However after researching this point a bit further, including Jim Rising’s excellent The Sparrows of the United States and Canada illustrated by David Beadle, I discovered that outside the breeding season the bill can be more orange-yellow, and was in fact illustrated this way in older descriptions of these large-billed forms of Fox Sparrow. The Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 16, already treats the four natural groups of Fox Sparrow as full species and also mentions the bill coloration being more orange-yellow outside the breeding season for the “Thick-billed Fox-sparrow” (note the logical new common name).
The Fox Sparrow complex is almost certainly headed towards a more progressive taxonomic treatment when it will be subdivided into its four natural groups – Red, Sooty, Slate-colored, and Thick-billed. This could prove interesting for San Diego County birders since all four have been found here in the county! I would recommend keeping a careful note of when and where you have seen these very different looking forms of Fox Sparrow.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I thought I was imagining things today when a rufous bird with bright yellow underparts flew into a cypress tree in front of me at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Did I just see a Great Kiskadee? But then a single loud call came out of the cypress tree, “huu-ipp”, and I knew immediately it was in fact the Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus I had just seen dive in to the tree with its glowing yellow belly. I ran over but the bird had vanished. Not again! This reminded me of what happened the other day!
After alerting birders to the presence of the flycatcher only Barbara Carlson made it down to the cemetery. I have to admit against my advice since it was getting so late. However I decided to wait for Barbara to make sure she knew which tree I had seen the elusive flycatcher dive into. Barbara arrived at 6 pm and not more than 30 seconds later the flycatcher suddenly started calling again repeatedly from the cypress tree. We ran around the wall to get on to the highway and, sure enough, there sat the Great Crested Flycatcher on a Cape Plumbago bush consuming an enormous green katydid! It then flew over to a large flowering eucalyptus where I obtained some more nice photographs. Evidently this very rare flycatcher had been hidden away since I first found it on 09 Oct 2013 and was located just a few hundred yards away from the original location.
The call of Great Crested Flycatcher is quite easy to recognize and monotonous enough not to be confusing in my opinion. A very well matched recording to the call of the bird today in Point Loma can be found at this link below.
[All photographs, movies copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I was making a quick circuit of the Sod Farm, down on Dairy Mart Road, when I noticed the Tijuana River was actually flowing with water! Evidently the entire river bed had recently been closely mowed of all tall herbaceous vegetation and now the river itself could be easily seen. In fact, it looked as if the recent rain storm had flooded the river bed which was now a patchwork of muddy pools. The smell was not great but there were shorebirds and raptors all over the place. While scanning for shorebirds I was quite shocked to find this fantastic looking adult Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway sitting like a big chicken in a pile of dried brush! It actually looked pretty comfortable! Caracaras are just weird whatever way you look at it!
This is the third occasion I have found a Crested Caracara frequenting this area over the last couple of years. One was last seen here just over a year ago in early September 2012. When the bird is around it seems hit-and-miss to locate it, but it can be seen anywhere from the Dairy Mart Ponds all the way east, along the river bed, as far as the back lot of the Las Americas Premium Outlets Mall at the west end of San Ysidro.
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I have been anxiously monitoring the first “winter” storm to move in down here in Southern California with the hope it might steer some wayward vagrants our way. But after getting to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery at dawn this morning for a quick walk around it seemed like the high winds and rain might, literally, put a damper on everything. Add to that the virtual darkness under the thick, damp cloud cover and I was not hopeful!
Then one of those “uh-oh” moments! Here sat a perfect candidate – on the ground at the base of the fence in front of me was a very exhausted looking Myiarchus flycatcher! A bird that is tired looking, semi-moribund, tells me one thing – it probably came a long way! This needed checking out very carefully! I approached a bit closer but the flycatcher came to life and flew off low through the fence. I played cat-and-mouse getting looks at a bright yellow blob moving ahead of me with a shocking dark red-rufous tail. The bill did appear pinkish at the base and bright white markings stood out edging the tertials. Then it just flew out and flopped down on the grass in front of me about twenty yards away! I managed to get a nice series of photographs at this point, phew. I really thought the bird would just continue to hop around on the ground in front of me, but no, it flew up a small height and was whipped away by the strong winds! Aaarghh! I ran over to the pine tree, where it was blown to, but there was no sign of it in the noisy rustling canopy. That was it – the last view I got!
My gut feeling, looking at the bill size and color, yellow underparts up to the lower chest, dark gray throat and face, and dark (olive) brown back and crown, was that this was probably a Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus. On my way home I called Paul Lehman for some advice on the flycatcher. In addition to the olive-brown upperparts, he also reminded me that this species shows off a large crisp white outer edge to the innermost tertial on the wing. At home, scrutinizing the photographs, this bird does indeed show off all the credentials of a Great Crested Flycatcher.
Looking to refind the flycatcher on the east side of the cemetery I then also found a Yellow-green Vireo Vireo flavoviridis actively moving along just behind the fence line in the southeast section. In fact from a distance I saw a yellowish-green bird perched on the fence top and thought it might be a small oriole! But a quick look through binoculars and I was soon running towards the vireo! It was hard to see in the gnarly Myoporum bush tops but I finally managed to obtain some reasonably good photographs of my second Yellow-green Vireo of Fall 2013!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Pelagic trips are always so unpredictable off of San Diego. After a “here-one-minute, gone-the-next” experience earlier in the day (what was that dark blur on the camera back?), everyone finally connected with a superb Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes that was tracking a large pod of Common Dolphin over the Nine Mile Bank. Careening around at high speed after the dolphins, along with twenty or so Pink-footed Shearwater, the Flesh-footed played a wild game with us before settling down on the water a couple of times. Snappily reversing course, the captain of the sport-fishing vessel Grande had managed to catch back up with the rapidly passing dolphins that were heading “uphill” into the wind and small swell. The pack of large shearwaters were excitedly staying with the wide swath of active dolphins and the Flesh-footed was soon picked out again as we caught up. Amid some chaos, and hollering out where the bird was located, it showed off very well to the 56 birders crowded near the bow. At least twice it settled down on the water for a few minutes and allowed a close approach by the boat and the birding paparazzi got to work! Everyone on board, birders and bird photographers alike, came away satisfied with the fantastic experience of seeing this very sought after tubenose seabird. The beaming smiles and cheers all around ended a classic day at sea for the SoCalBirding 12-hour pelagic out of San Diego, California.
San Diego Field Ornithologists (SDFO) considers Flesh-footed Shearwater a Category B rarity occurring here in the county perhaps one or two times a year. The species was high on the wanted list following several reports from further north in California this year. Earlier in the day another Flesh-footed Shearwater had been spotted by keen observers at the back rail of the Grande. That bird moved away quickly and was only seen by two lucky observers, keeping us all on tenterhooks until we found our much wanted quarry later in the day!
[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I spotted this ghostly looking Gray Flycatcher Empidonax wrightii in the early morning at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego. The flycatcher was working along the chain-link fence on the east side of the cemetery, occasionally flying down to the ground on the lawn to pick up insects. It called just once while I watched it, a quiet, almost muffled “whit” as it startled and flew to a new perch. This individual appears to be an adult with white wing bars on the greater and median coverts. In fact the entire plumage is well faded, hence the ghostly gray look! This is expected in the fall since this species molts on its wintering grounds further south of here in Mexico. When you look closely at the plumage of this bird the worn edges can be seen on many of the feathers. I am also always impressed with the intense orange color of the lower mandible of this species. Hard to see, but it does have a small dark tip to the lower mandible which can just be seen in these photographs.
As seemingly all Gray Flycatchers do, this one showed off that characteristic tail-dipping behavior which can be seen in these last two photographs. The dipping motion is slow, almost pendulum like. The bird makes no other movement except the tail dipping – almost clockwork!
Maybe there is a reason so few small birds are around the cemetery – hawks everywhere! I have seen many migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks lately around the cemetery as well as what seems to me like an increase in Cooper’s Hawks. This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, perhaps from one of the nesting pairs nearby, watched me approach and acted quite tame!