Winter Wren at the Gilbert Water Ranch

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I am a big fan of wrens so when a Troglodytes species was reported by local birder Magill Weber at the Gilbert Water Ranch, Phoenix, AZ I headed over there to see if I could relocate it. The directions were accurate and within a minute of getting to the Honeybee Camp, at the north end of pond 2, up popped this strident calling little Winter Wren Troglodytes hiemalis. It called almost constantly during the time it was visible. The call was the characteristic deeper and sharp cluck, repeated quickly when excited, of this eastern species.

The scold or alarm call of this wren species is distinctive and quite a bit richer in overall harshness, or complexity you could say, than its congener the Pacific Wren. To my ear the Winter Wren sounds more like a cluck sound than a chip sound. I found some good calls on Xeno-Canto that are well matched to the bird seen and heard today. Here is a very close match to the sound it made:

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Long range identification – McCown’s Longspur

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Back on Monday 19 Nov 2012 I made a trip out to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in the late afternoon. The light was fading quickly and the wind blowing cold from the north when I heard a strange flight call and spotted a passing bird way up high overhead. I trained the camera on it and took some photographs as it flew away strongly to the northeast into the twilight. At the time I could not really discern much viewing it on the camera back. I had forgotten about these photographs until I saw the eBird report of a McCown’s Longspur seen at Fiesta Island, Mission Bay, San Diego on Tuesday 20 Nov 2012. Sometimes the rare bird is already in your camera but you just don’t realize it! One could argue this is a stretch of the imagination, but when magnified – I agree they are horrible quality, I think it is possible to see the distinctive tail pattern and shape of a McCown’s Longspur!

What makes me think this is a McCown’s Longspur? Really? From these horrible photographs? I think the tail provides the most evidence – it is quite short, wide (bulges a bit wider even near the end, almost lobed you could say), has a graduated notch, and it is white with a black terminal band. The single pair of black central rectrices (r1) are visible, but only on the right side. The wing shape and size is also recognizable. I looked at a lot of longspur photographs lately and the long expansive wings are very distinctive in this group of birds. The wing shape also has a characteristic angle along the trailing edge near to the junction of the secondaries and primaries. I think this feature can be seen in the top photograph, as well as the great relative length of the primaries. The primary feathers of McCown’s Longspur are very long, almost reaching the tail tip in perched birds in fact. Hardly visible at all, are the pale margins to the greater coverts on the last photograph. Finally the bird is stout bodied and has quite a heavy looking bill from the angles which it is visible.

For comparison here is a link to a flock of McCown’s Longspur in flight. Picking among the birds frozen in flight you can find well matched examples of the general shape of the bird, the tail shape and color pattern and how it is notched.

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Weird warbler – hybrid Myrtle X Townsend’s?

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – This warbler was first found by Barbara Carlson and Christine Harvey at the junction of San Fernando and Lawrence Streets in the La Playa neighborhood of Point Loma, San Diego on 18 Nov 2012. Shortly after it was found I went over to the location and obtained some close photographs as it preened and then foraged in small pepper trees. The bird had a structure much like Townsend’s Warbler but looked a bit “off” for that species in my opinion. One immediate difference, apart from the obvious absence (mostly) of yellow in the plumage, was the well defined grey auricular coloration merging without interruption to the nape. It was not separated from the nape by a lighter colored posterior auricular frame, forming a dark auricular patch, like that of Townsend’s Warbler. Also the white throat had below it a dusky gray bib, sort of like a faded “Myrtle” (Yellow-rumped) Warbler. It does seem to have a faint yellow patch on the breast side too – weird. Perhaps the most noticeable difference though came from its call – a low and syrupy churp quite unlike the emphatic sharp chit call of Townsend’s Warbler. In my opinion it sounded very similar to the call of a “Myrtle” (Yellow-rumped) Warbler.

The flight photograph below shows what appears to be three colors to the body upper parts with the rump (yellow-green) contrasting with both the back (olive-green to brownish) and upper tail coverts (bluish-grey). I was concerned the back color was an artifact of the light, but it does also contrast with the bluish-grey scapulars that kind of muddle in to the back color if you look carefully. To my eye also the lower back looks green where it borders the rump – that’s four colors on the body upper parts! Many of the feathers of the upper parts appear to have small dark centers. Also visible on the left wing in the flight photograph are the freshly molted greater and median coverts, with just a few retained and more faded looking greater coverts.

The photographs below of the closed left wing show quite well a couple of the freshly molted median coverts poking out from under the fluffy scapulars. The median coverts have wide black bases but the black tapers quickly to a fine central streak. Based on Pyle 1997 this would seem to indicate this is a hatch year (HY) female, or possibly a second year female Townsend’s Warbler.

Perhaps the bright greenish-yellow rump and yellow feathers on the flank sides point to some type of Yellow-rumped Warbler parentage. If this were the case I think the white throat and white supercilium most strongly suggests “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler as one parental species. Other features clearly resemble Townsend’s Warbler although the face pattern is different from that species in my opinion. The almost complete absence of yellow coloration would also need to be explained.

Could this be a hybrid “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler X Townsend’s Warbler? Many features of the bird fit one or other of this species pair. In some of my photographs it looks like a Myrtle and in others a Townsend’s Warbler! On several occasions it sat around upright on long legs and preened its chest feathers and I thought it looked just like a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The posture in the photograph above looks just like that species and the stoutness of the bill is striking too. Quite unlike the perched horizontal posture and finer more delicate bill of a Townsend’s Warbler. Very baffling!

I would be interested in hearing what other people think about this warbler. Perhaps someone even encountered a similar looking bird before. So far, my searches on the internet have not yielded anything that looks quite like this bird!

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Swamp Sparrow in Jacumba

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The wind and cool weather kept the birds quiet at the riparian area on the west side of Jacumba late this afternoon. So I explored a bit downstream from the hot water seeps, getting out of the wind, and found some nice stands of bulrush backed by willows. I made a few pishing sounds and immediately heard a phoebe like call coming from low down in the vegetation. A couple seconds later and up popped just what I was searching for – this richly colored Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana.

The clean gray nape and supercilium and well marked rufous in the crown indicates this is an adult Swamp Sparrow. The small finer looking bill, pale brown upper back color, and brightly colored flanks, point to this being the expected form “Northern” or “Western” Swamp Sparrow to be found wintering in California M.g. ericrypta.

This would seem to be a banner year for this delightful sparrow in San Diego County. The first record of the fall came back on 31 Oct 2012 when one was found by Paul Lehman at Famosa Slough. By coincidence, another individual was also found by Jay Keller today, 17 Nov 2012, at the Bird and Butterfly Garden in the Tijuana River Valley. This brings the Fall 2012 total to three records so far in the county. Perhaps there are more Swamp Sparrows out there to be found!

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“Atlantic Brant” flyover at La Jolla Cove

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – This morning I spotted a lone pale looking Brant making a wide circle into La Jolla Cove. Lucky for me it came back directly over the assembled birders and I obtained these flyover shots as it passed closely overhead. The pale belly contrasting with the dark chest and very small separated white markings only on the neck sides, not forming a collar, indicated this was an adult “Atlantic Brant” Branta bernicla hrota. Not a bad find here in Southern California as it turns out!

Our regular migrant and winter resident form “Black Brant” Branta bernicla nigricans have been arriving into San Diego Bay and Mission Bay where I have lately seen small groups assembling. This is the first “Atlantic Brant” that I have seen in San Diego County and this eastern form of Brant appears to be very rare here in Southern California. In a post to SDBIRDS about this morning’s “Atlantic Brant”, which Paul Lehman also observed, he mentions that there were previous San Diego County records of this subspecies back in the 1970s in the large wintering Brant flocks on SD Bay. Paul only recalls several reports since that time from southern CA, “those coming from spring seawatches in the Santa Barbara area–though worn “Black” Brant at that season are always a possible confusion factor”.

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Seaduck bonanza – La Jolla Cove

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The stormy weather brought a big movement of birds on the ocean close to shore this morning at La Jolla Cove, San Diego. Just after dawn, in among a large flock of Surf Scoters, the call came out for two White-winged Scoter Melanitta fusca deglandi approaching from the north. Tucked in among Surf Scoters, they skimmed by in the early morning light. These photographs are the best I could obtain at high camera ISO and fast shutter speed in the low light! The two birds appear to be an adult male on the right, the left hand bird could be an adult female in fresh plumage or an immature male, the face is poorly lighted to discern whether it has any pale markings.

This magnified view of the male White-winged Scoter shows off its size, the largest of the scoters. The white patch beneath the eye can just be made out in the photograph and of course the white secondaries are prominent.

Not long after the White-winged Scoters went by I was looking north when a line of Surf Scoters came flying straight towards us with a smaller greyish-white duck in the center – Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis! It passed by at fast speed allowing just a few photographs but luckily it can be seen clearly among the larger scoters. The nice white face with a darker rear cheek patch seems to indicate this is an adult female in winter plumage.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – This hatch year male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius was discovered by Guy McCaskie on 01 Nov 2012 in the Silver Gate neighborhood of Point Loma, San Diego. It was frequenting several gardens on Albion St. but looked settled on a single cedar tree with a nice array of sap workings already established. Quite difficult to catch out in the open the sapsucker went about its business with dogs, landscapers, and remodeling projects going on all around it!

This Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has quite a lot of retained juvenile plumage which is characteristic of this species at this date on its wintering grounds. In particular the golden tinged feathers on the back creating a “dirty and messed up” look. The body plumage is transitional with a mixture of mostly juvenile and some adult plumage. It will continue first prebasic molt into complete adult plumage by around December. The first prebasic molt of Red-naped Sapsucker is not protracted like that of Yellow-bellied, and is completed on the summer breeding grounds before migration. The nape of this bird clearly has no red feathering which would be expected on any Red-naped Sapsucker at this date.

Some adult feathers are already visible on the face, a kind of colored peppering, including the red throat indicating this is a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The wide black frame on the side of the red throat also points to this being a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and not a Red-naped Sapsucker. One thing in common between the two species – the primaries and tail feathers are all newly molted adult feathers.

Sapsuckers are usually pretty quiet in the winter but at one point I clearly heard it making a quiet “mewing” call as it hid behind the cedar trunk. It will be interesting to see if this sapsucker sticks around over the winter and completes first prebasic molt into its more dazzling adult plumage.

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Scarlet Tanager in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – This Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea was found by Sue Smith at the junction of Dudley and Albion St. in the Silver Gate neighborhood of Point Loma, San Diego. The lush trees and dense fruiting hedges are perfect here for tanagers and a male Summer Tanager was also seen in the same area. Luckily I was nearby and arrived quickly to find the Scarlet Tanager sitting on an overhead wire right at the street junction.

In the photograph below the retained juvenile greyish wing feathers can be seen on the left wing. This would indicate the bird is a hatch year (HY) individual. This is also supported by the strongly tapered ends of the juvenile tail feathers which would be more square or truncate shaped after first prebasic molt. The bright greenish yellow of the body plumage seems to indicate this is a male.

This is the first Scarlet Tanager reported in San Diego in Fall 2012, unlike last year when we had several reports of different birds beginning around late October.

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“Pacific” or “Northwestern” form of Western Meadowlark

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I’ve become a bit obsessed lately with meadowlarks. They are abundant here in San Diego and it is easy to trip over ten or twenty of them without too much trouble. But their diversity presents many challenges to identification. Peter Pyle’s 1997 Identification Guide to North American Birds stated “this is one of the most difficult in-hand species identification problems”. So what hope do we have looking at them in the field?! Well here’s one I photographed on Fiesta Island, Mission Bay, San Diego that seems like a good “starter meadowlark”. I don’t see any pitfalls identifying this one as the darker plumaged “Pacific” or “Northwestern” form of Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta confluenta.

This form of Western Meadowlark was first described by S.F. Rathbun in 1917 from a specimen he collected on April 4, 1895 from Seattle, Washington. In fact he collected a whole series of thirty from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, described in Volume 34 of The Auk in 1917. He noted the upper parts were darker than the nominate neglecta form, most noticeably with dark markings “confluent” (blending or running together) on the central rectrices, hence the origin of the latin trinomial. This feature can be seen in the spread tail of the bird shown above and is particularly pronounced on the inner webs of rectrices 1-3.

Interestingly the dark upper parts and confluent dark markings on the tail are in fact field characters found also in the Eastern Meadowlark! They just happen to be shared with the confluenta form of Western Meadowlark. But the bird shown here has a full suite of other diagnostic features of Western Meadowlark – limited white in the tail on the outer three rectrices only, yellow coloration extending from the throat plentifully onto the malar, and darker contrasting mottled cheeks on the face.

The confluenta form of Western Meadowlark breeds from British Columbia south through Washington and Oregon to southern California. Its eastern boundary seems truncated by mountains of the Cascade Range. It can be found as a winter resident in San Diego County and may in fact breed close to or even in the county along with the nominate neglecta form. Our location here in southern California seems to be at a meeting point for the two forms of Western Meadowlark.

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FRNC – October 27-28 weekend highlights

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I am reckoning at least two, and possibly three, White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis have arrived at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The first one I encountered on Saturday, a nice “tan-striped” color morph with streaked flanks, shown below entering through the fence, was traveling with a band of Dark-eyed Junco. On Sunday I saw at least one brighter “white-striped” color morph individual that alighted in a small pine at dawn. Later on a very brightly plumaged bird came out on the grass in front of me. Here are three photographs from different times over the past few days and different locations at the cemetery.

A “warm biscuit” colored Catharus thrush hiding behind the south fence on the east side got my pulse going. Repeatedly scared off by a Hermit Thrush, it eventually plucked up courage to reveal itself – a getting late Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus. This bird only shows a weak buff eye ring and supraloral. Although a nice warm overall color on the upper parts, and with a buffy bib across the upper chest (not visible in this photograph), the clearly buff flank color points to Swainson’s Thrush and not a much rarer Veery.

This shaggy maned Western Scrub-Jay Aphelocoma californica shows off the dark purplish blue of the local obscura race found here on the southwest California coast. Freshly molted, I think the local jays look spectacular at the moment. I only noticed later that this individual is sporting “jewelry” on its left leg!

I only detected the first Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca yesterday behind the southeast section south fence. It was joined today by a second identically warm brown colored individual. Both birds had a slight reddish hue to the warm brown upper part color, evidently part of the “Coastal Northwest Sooty” unalaschcensis group of Fox Sparrows. Difficult to approach they remained so well hidden that I only managed this wary photograph through the fence.

The diversity of types of Dark-eyed Junco is climbing steadily at the cemetery. Over the weekend this nice “Pink-sided” Junco Junco hyemalis mearnsi appeared among the more numerous “Oregon” type. Without even looking through your binoculars this type of junco stands out by its size, it is quite a bit larger than the “Oregon” type.

This Pink-sided Junco may be a hatch year (HY) male – it appears to have completed first prebasic molt but retained what looks like a couple of juvenile tertial feathers on each wing (brown edged and tattered looking when magnified). The new molted smallest tertial (s9) matches the color of the other freshly molted greater secondary coverts (pale grey new feathers).

I sat down next to this puddle in the early morning and waited as Yellow-rumped Warblers came to drink. I caught this one alighting at the puddle edge. You can see many plumage details in the reflection as clearly as the actual bird image! In fact if you look closely parts of the reflection show feathers not visible on the bird itself, for example the underside of the tail!

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