“Western Grasshopper Sparrow”

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – This delightful looking Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum was out on the open short turf at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and allowed some detailed photography of its amazing plumage coloration. This is the western perpallidus form of Grasshopper Sparrow, first described by army surgeon and field ornithologist Elliot Coues from the western US in 1872. This form of Grasshopper Sparrow breeds from western Canada south to San Diego and across east to Texas. It has sometimes been called the “Western Grasshopper Sparrow” to separate it from other forms of this North American species. It has never been elevated to separate species level but always considered a form of the widespread Grasshopper Sparrow.

The richly colored dark buffy-orange supraloral spot, just ahead of the eye and above the pale straw colored loral region, is a distinctive character of this form of Grasshopper Sparrow. In addition the rich buff colored wide margin of the underparts, with blurred chestnut brown short streaks included (only found on this form of Grasshopper Sparrow), is another good field character when encountering this small Ammodramus. The pale buffy-white belly patch, surrounding the legs and on the fore-belly, is also distinctive, particularly when the bird stands up high on its legs looking straight at you or when seen taking a short flight.

Everywhere you look on this sparrow there are dark chestnut, gray, blackish, and buff colors changing abruptly across the feathers on the upperparts. The pale feather fringes add to the complexity of the overall pattern, almost too many details to absorb at first sight.

The underparts appear richly buff colored, almost glowing gold colored from a distance. It can be told from its congeners by the gray supercilium, or eyebrow, to the rear of the eye, the buffy auriculars and the complete and bold eye ring. Personally I think the head looks large and rounded with a large eye although it can flatten the crown feathers to appear flat headed as in the photograph below. I also think the spiky raised gray and chestnut peppered feathers of the crown are a neat field character, with the paler straw colored median crown stripe contrasting prominently.

The neatly colored tertials are pretty amazing on this sparrow – dark chestnut and black with a pale whitish margin to the complete feather. They form a unique looking twin set of ladder markings up the back of this colorful sparrow. One of my absolute favorites and always a pleasure to study up close!

Ovenbird in cooking hot San Diego

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I was out at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery again before dawn in search of nighthawks but with no luck. It was just getting faintly light when the warm Santa Ana winds picked up again from the east around 5:45 AM. I could tell this was going to be another scorching hot day here in San Diego and in fact temperatures did exceed 100°F later on. After searching favored spots in the south and east sides of the cemetery I started walking over to the northeast section.  As I got near to the small road loop a small warbler flew up onto a low branch of the first large Torrey Pine, letting out a loud strong “chip” call. As I got it lined up in my binoculars I could see that it did not hop, but walked slowly along the branch! Sure enough it was boldly streaked underneath and had a large pale eye-ring – Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla!

The Ovenbird paced carefully along the branch looking down at me allowing a few more photographs. In some respects it almost looked like an Olive-backed Pipit from Asia walking along the branch, and for a split second the thought crossed my mind it might be that species, until I saw the very bold black streaks – a bit too strong! After just a few seconds of presenting itself the Ovenbird flew off over the east perimeter wall and away.

Ovenbird is a rare visitor to San Diego County with about one record per year. Some individuals have stayed for long periods at favored localities. The species is considered a Category B rarity by San Diego Field Ornithologists which denotes about one record annually.

The call of this species is quite distinctive, a loud sharp “chip”. Looking through online resource Xeno-Canto there are several good recordings of the call. The recording below is of two birds calling together. The louder voiced individual in this recording is a good match to the bird I saw today.

Early fall vagrant Dickcissel

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Cool cloudy conditions with a good southerly breeze felt promising this morning, 11 September 2012, at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I arrived before dawn hoping to connect with a migrant nighthawk but the only crepuscular activity was a Great Horned Owl barking loudly from a nearby cypress. I had looked around for a couple hours finding plenty of migrants and then had the good fortune to find a Dickcissel Spiza americana in the northeast loop section of the cemetery. The heavily streaked chest indicates this early migrant is a juvenile.

It was quietly tucked in with a handful of House Finch feeding on the short turf grass when I first found it. However this situation did not last very long. The resident Western Bluebirds seemed to recognize the Dickcissel as something different and dive-bombed and harassed it off the ground and off it flew!

I waited around for a while and was just about to leave when I heard the distinctive sputtering buzz flight call of the Dickcissel returning. I watched it fly in and repeatedly fly back and forth in front of me attempting to settle in to the open lawn. Each time it tried the other birds were on to it and harassed it away, much to my annoyance. In flight it appeared shorter tailed and quite stout bodied – a solid looking strong flyer. Overall it looked a buffy straw color viewed in flight. Finally it landed just a short distance away from me and I managed to obtain a few more photographs of this very nervous bird.

A few minutes later the bluebirds attacked again and up went the Dickcissel. This time it called repeatedly and gained some higher elevation before flying off strongly towards northeast Point Loma. I waited around but there was unfortunately no further sign of it. Here is a good example of the sputtering buzzy flight call which this individual frequently made while flying around (the call can be heard at the start and end of recording).

In a comment on this post, shown below, Paul Lehman points out that early September is a good time for finding vagrant Dickcissel in California. One was heard flying over Mount Soledad, La Jolla by Jay Keller on 12 Sep 2011 and the year before Matt Sadowski had discovered one on 29 Sep 2010 in the Tijuana River Valley. The spread of reports continues into the month of October. I had actually found another Dickcissel here at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery almost one year ago on 14 Oct 2011. The short turf grass of the cemetery would seem to be the best place to try and connect with this species with several other records here from earlier years. Listen out for that characteristic sputtering call and chase down anything being mobbed by bluebirds!

Migrants arriving – Willow Flycatcher “brewsteri” form

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The weekend of 09 September 2012 turned out to be a hot one and my destination at Borrego Springs, San Diego County was cooking. I tracked around a few locations but ended up at the Roadrunner Club where at least there were some shade trees to hide under. I soon found out that the mesquite trees, particularly larger ones, were where all the bird action was happening. Migrants were about including small numbers of Warbling Vireo and Yellow Warbler but I also had success here finding several of the northwestern form of Willow Flycatcher Empidonax traillii brewsteri.

I found several Willow Flycatchers in the resort, they are usually quite easy to approach, but the silhouettes in late morning sunlight were tough to draw conclusions about how dark or pale individuals looked. Reading the literature it seems evident that most, if not all, Willow Flycatchers you might run in to on fall migration here in southern California are probably the more abundant and darker colored northwestern form brewsteri and not the Federal and California listed Endangered paler colored form extimus known as “Southwestern Willow Flycatcher”. Each individual I saw here appeared to be the darker brown brewsteri. The bright buffy wingbars on the greater and median secondary coverts indicated these were juveniles.

You might be forgiven thinking this bird resembles a Western Wood-Pewee Contopus sordidulus at first glance but several visible features are diagnostic for Willow Flycatcher. The primary extension is short. In the first photograph the closed wingtips meet above the upper tail coverts (rump) unlike the much longer wingtips of the pewee. That silhouette view from below gets you a look at the very wide, almost spade-shaped, bill profile unlike the finer tapered profile of the pewee bill. In my GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape) birding mind the Willow Flycatcher often looks as if it has “solid square shoulders” and a tapered body profile to the rear which accentuates the quite large long dark tail. The Willow Flycatcher has a smoother looking rounded head profile and concolorous breast, all features unlike the pewee. Finally behavior is different, although no strict rules apply! Willow Flycatcher is generally quite retiring, for example under mesquite canopies or along shady hedgerows (oleanders here in the desert) like these photographed individuals, while the pewee can be found perched prominently on fence-lines or exposed snags sallying out to catch flying insects. The audible bill snapping of both species is a good clue to search around for their nearby presence.

The temperature topped out at about 105F by 11:30 AM and my resolve to keep looking for birds collapsed so I headed out toward the cooler coastal mountains. Thunderheads were brewing on the horizon, away to the south coming up from Mexico, and the locals told me they were feeling earthquakes!

Northern Waterthrush in Jacumba

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – After a long and hot circuit of the San Diego desert environs on 08 September 2012 I ended up in the borderlands settlement of Jacumba. The riparian area at the west end of town is so lush I thought I would take a look there first. I walked under the large fallen down willows, shading the emerging water sources and old pump, and startled a Red-shouldered Hawk. Birds came in from all over the place scolding the hawk. Then I distinctly heard the repeated “spik” call of a waterthrush from behind the largest willow trunk – loud and strident! A few seconds later I caught just a glimpse of it strutting along pumping its tail. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting it appeared again and I managed to obtain some reasonable photographs as it picked its way over the watery mud surface and hopped up to look at me.

The small finely shaped bill, narrow unflared buffy supercilium, and complete heavy streaking of the yellowish toned underparts all distinguish this Northern Waterthrush Parkesia noveboracensis from its similar looking congener Louisiana Waterthrush Parkesia motacilla.  A nice discussion of the differences between these two species, with some great photographs emphasizing bill morphology and throat coloration and markings, can be found here.

I got some extended binocular views as it fed at some distance away. Through the dead branches and willow twigs it was difficult to see the bird let alone photograph it. The light was slipping quickly around 5:30 pm and I managed one last photograph as it walked a bit closer.

Just as I was leaving the thicker willows, and emerged out onto the path, I literally stumbled upon a large California King Snake. It was not too bothered by my presence and continued catching some final rays of sunshine!

Here is an excellent recording of the typical call of the Northern Waterthrush matched well to the Jacumba bird.

Pectoral Sandpiper on the San Diego River

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – It has been pretty quiet lately in San Diego County on the shorebird scene, so it was a nice surprise to hear that Dave Povey had discovered a Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos on 07 Sep 2012 feeding along the edge of the San Diego River flood control channel at Robb Field, Ocean Beach. I was in the neighborhood and went right over there to find the bird was quite close, feeding on the algae mats, allowing some detailed photography.

The close views allowed careful examination of the rich rufous fringed plumage of the upperparts of this juvenile. It also has some buffy wash to the breast sides. The bird let out a couple of characteristic “trreeett” calls as it made a few short agile flights when the main group of Least and Western Sandpipers flushed.

Distinguished from the much rarer Sharp-tailed Sandpiper by its neatly defined complete breast and neck streaking, less capped appearance of the head, and a marginally longer bill. A nice bird to see close up!

This location, accessed from Robb Field in Ocean Beach, is a good shorebird spot with some excellent previous recorded species including Bar-tailed Godwit and Baird’s Sandpiper. Some disturbance occurs from fishermen collecting bait from the mudflats here, but birds seem to tolerate this presence and some species, for example Snowy Egrets and Marbled Godwits, even follow the fishermen around picking over the muddy excavations.

Many thanks to Dave Povey for getting the news out quickly because this species can disappear in a second, as I witnessed in 2011 in South San Diego Bay. Detected in flight by its call, an individual touched down on the mudlflat right in front of me, I spun my ‘scope around and it had gone!

Crested Caracara just inside California

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I spotted this Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway at the A&G Sod Farm on 02 Sep 2012, it was literally flying just fifty yards north of the Mexico border fence. I was investigating passerines in the moist river bottom herbage when I looked up and it had just flown right by me heading west! I managed to scramble for a couple of distant documentation photographs as it veered around north and headed directly to the main Dairy Mart Pond. I last saw it disappearing behind the willows with a small explosion of corvids exiting the area.

This individual is most likely the same one I observed here almost one year ago on 25 Sep 2011. As it turned out only one of two records for the state of California in 2011, the other record coming from Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Ventura County, first seen on 19 Dec 2011. This raptor is quite a rarity to connect with in California, at least in the last couple of years.

The very dark coloration, black really, shows this is an adult Crested Caracara since the juvenile plumage is more pale barred and grey-brown overall. The white primary patches, “windows”, can be clearly seen in flight of this long winged powerfully flying raptor. The black capped head with pale cheeks and pink facial skin set off the pale horn, or bluish, colored bill. Noticeable also are the prominent yellow legs and long black tail accented with the white narrow band on the upper tail coverts.

Later in the day it was seen again by additional observers at the Dairy Mart Pond perched on a dead snag. This bird may be the same individual seen on-and-off over several years by many observers between 2006-2009 favoring the same area of the Tijuana River Valley.
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Coastal migrant Swainson’s Hawk

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – While searching for migrant buntings at the Tijuana River Valley Community Garden, just off Hollister St. and Sunset Ave., a shout came from Paul Lehman a few allotments behind me and he pointed out a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk Buteo swainsoni headed my way. Nicely done! It was about 8:45 AM, the morning had really begun warming up, and the hawk was quartering around buoyantly, in typical dihedral manner, and was headed south towards me at low elevation.

The Swainson’s Hawk came flying over the weed field west of the community garden where it was set upon by a horde of American Crow, some more daring than others! Lucky for me the harassment party steered it away from the riparian areas, right on cue, and back directly over my head toward more open country to the east.

Swainson’s Hawk is a rare fall migrant with perhaps only one or two recorded each year here in San Diego County along the coastal belt. There are however growing numbers that now stage in the east county Borrego Valley on spring migration, lifting off there in the mornings to continue migration to northern grasslands. By all accounts a notable sighting here in the Tijuana River Valley.

Mississippi Kite in the TRV

[All photographs copyright, Vic Murayama 2012] – The extensive weed and brush lands of the Tijuana River Valley (TRV) attract an impressive array of raptors both on migration and as breeding residents. This year the numbers of White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus seem to have skyrocketed with many juveniles around “getting their wings”.  News came however, late on 01 August 2012, that Paul Marvin, birder and part time San Diego resident, had discovered and photographed the much rarer Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississipiensis, perched on a snag no less, at the Dairy Mart Ponds. Now that is a real find!

The Dairy Mart Ponds, a last chance exit off of Highway 5 before the Mexico border, support an abundance of dragonflies and have lots of dead tree snags, so this insect-snatching aerial predator was in the right place for a secure meal! In fact this area, a wide swath of mixed riparian land included in the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park, has a history of attracting this rare eastern raptor with several earlier records here of Mississippi Kite.

San Diego resident, and bird photographer, Vic Murayama, took these detailed photographs on 02 August 2012, the morning after it was first discovered. A smart move since this was the last day it was seen and with an early departure! Photographs taken in flight reveal this is a first year bird retaining juvenile flight feathers, for example the barred tail feathers, which can be seen with many tattered or missing pieces. It has molted some fresh new inner primaries which appear darker than the remaining juvenile outer primaries and secondaries. The body appears completely molted to fresh adult type plumage.

The California Bird Records Committee has accepted 19 previous records of Mississippi Kite from the state including three from San Diego County. Mississippi Kite is considered a Category A rarity in San Diego County by the San Diego Field Ornithologists. The species was last reported in the county in September 2008 at Point Loma.

One rare pipit in July

I made an early start and drove out to Lake Henshaw, northeast San Diego County, making good time and arriving before dawn. It was surprisingly cool, in the 50s Fahrenheit, and looked dead still across the lake. Blue Grosbeak Guiraca caerulea were calling, “chinking”, from perches on the grassy slopes, and Band-tailed Pigeon Columba fasciata were making their early morning flights over the oak trees. I quickly called in at the Lake Henshaw Resort and paid for my small skiff which was waiting down on the lake shore with Ruben the boat master. The sun was not yet above the mountains to the northeast when he cheerfully cast me off and I headed out, slowly going west, just after 6 am.

I had not motored far, in fact just over to the dam area, when I spotted a small pinkish-buff colored bird walking daintily along the lake shore. A couple of Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla were nearby but this bird was clearly smaller in size. Intrigued, I approached and was surprised to find a striking looking plain-colored alternate (breeding) plumage American Pipit Anthus rubescens alticola. This form of American Pipit, sometimes called the “Rocky Mountain” form, is found only in the Western US excluding Alaska, where it is a high elevation breeding species. As far as I am aware, it is practically unknown here in San Diego in the summer months. The warmly colored pinkish-buff underparts had no streaking that I could discern, although later examination of photographs that I took revealed a few tiny dark flank streaks. The upper-parts, including the crown, were a pale grey, with darker grey streaks on the mantle. I managed to get a few distant photographs of this delightful looking bird.

The Sibley Guide does in fact illustrate this striking looking alticola form of the American Pipit, although without describing distribution or taxonomic details. It is quite unlike the dark-streaked basic (winter) plumage individuals we see lots of here in winter which are thought to comprise the A. r. pacificus form which breeds from the Oregon Cascades north to Alaska. Excellent illustrations of this “Rocky Mountain” American Pipit alticola form can be found in the Helm Guide by Alström and Mild – Pipits and Wagtails. In addition an online article at Surfbirds also has precise illustrations by Brian Small.

The San Diego Bird Atlas does not document any records from the county in July but mentions the nearest summering grounds can be found in the San Gorgonio Peak summit area of the San Bernadino Mountains, as well as the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir plateau of Baja California, Mexico. After searching around on the internet I did find an excellent photograph, taken by Tom Benson in June 2011, of the alticola form of American Pipit from San Gorgonio Peak summit area.  This location is just 60 miles away from Lake Henshaw as the crow flies. So perhaps this is a post-breeding wanderer from these nearby higher elevations.

The superficial resemblance of this bird to Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta of Eurasia, in particular the northeast Asian A. s. blakistonii form, is quite remarkable. In fact it was not until the 37th Supplement to the AOU Checklist of North American Birds, published in 1989, that American Pipit Anthus rubescens was recognized, or split, from this widespread Eurasian species. Evidence gathered by Russian biologists pointed to overlap of the two species without interbreeding in the Transbaikal region where they prefer different habitats. Notable field character differences that separate the two include the pale buff colored lores, buff colored fore ear-coverts, weaker bill morphology, and the more gentle looking rounded head of the American Pipit.  The latter field character markedly contrasts with the flatter, more aggressive looking forehead shape of Water Pipit which is also accentuated by this species darker lores.

After posting the report on our local SDBIRDS distribution list, I received an email from Guy McCaskie, CBRC Secretary, noting the extreme rarity of this species away from high elevation areas of California in July.  In fact he could not recall a similar record.  Clearly one rare pipit in July in San Diego County.