On the move – Broad-winged Hawks in the TRV

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I visited the Dairy Mart Ponds at lunch time today and ran into visiting birder Jennifer Larson from Sierra Vista, Arizona. Together we checked out the two viewpoints over the main pond although not finding many birds. While we were walking back to the parking area I spotted two medium sized hawks, beating along against the wind, coming straight towards us and at low height. My first impression, looking at the leading bird, was they might be Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus. As they came by I managed to come to my senses and hoist the camera for some flight shots, just catching the second bird! I have been meaning to program a custom function button on my camera body to a setting where images are shot one-stop over-exposed – how I wish I had done that earlier now! The slightly under-exposed images show a well marked light colored first-cycle Broad-winged Hawk. The bird still retains all its very worn, tattered in places, juvenile flight feathers although perhaps molt has begun with one inner primary missing on the left wing. The first and second images below are identical but the second has brightness and contrast adjusted. The two birds appeared pretty much identical to me although I focused in on the second one as it lagged behind the leader.

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Broad-winged Hawk first-cycle – Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley, San Diego 30 Apr 2013

Spring records of Broad-winged Hawk in San Diego County seem to be much rarer than fall records, although even the latter have fallen off in number in recent years based on the San Diego County Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004). Only three spring records are documented in the bird atlas, all in April and with two late in the month, so this record would seem to fit quite well in this pattern of occurrence. San Diego Field Ornithologists considers this species to be a Category B rarity in the county.

Calliope capital – Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Today the flower beds of “Pride of Madeira” Echium candicans at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery were alive with hummingbirds. Numbers and diversity went up several notches in the last couple days. I found Anna’s, Costa’s, Black-chinned, and Rufous partaking of the purple boraginaceous flowers. There were probably some Allen’s mixed in there too. My clear favorites however were these Calliope Selasphorus calliope which dived in when the more aggressive species were off taking a break someplace. I photographed at least three different males and one or two females and suspect the true number I saw may even be higher.

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Female Calliope are certainly a bit tricky to pick out. Studying the structure and GISS (general impression of size and shape) of the males can be helpful to pick out a female. I think the real key is recognizing the tail size and shape, it looks like someone took a bite out of the middle, together with the impression of tail to body length ratio. They also hold the tail a little cocked some of the time appearing almost like a Christmas tree ornament hanging by a thread. The female photographed below rotated in flight around a flower head in front of me. It showed off the short squared-off tail which, apart from the bold white tips to the outer tail feathers, is mostly black looking. The shape of the central tail feathers (r1) is also diagnostic being wedge-shaped at the end. You might never see these features with the naked eye and binoculars but digital photography provides it!

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Calliope – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego 17 Apr 2013

Springtime crown color of Hammond’s Flycatcher?

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I have been looking out for migrant flycatchers lately and was pleased to find this characterful Hammond’s Flycatcher Empidonax hammondii frequenting the “wall” area on the east side of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Based on the San Diego Bird Atlas (Unitt, 2004) the Hammond’s Flycatcher can be found on spring migration here generally a few weeks earlier than the similar looking Dusky Flycatcher – the first clue to its identity!

In addition to the date of observation, several important field characters of Hammond’s Flycatcher can be seen in the photographs below which separate it from the closely similar, and rarer, Dusky Flycatcher. The condition of the plumage is very worn, particularly the wing and tail feathers, and these look faded, almost brownish in fact. This worn condition is characteristic of Hammond’s Flycatcher in spring, and contrasts the relatively freshly molted plumage of Dusky Flycatcher at this time of year. In addition the primary projection extends a great length beyond the secondaries, characteristic of Hammond’s versus a short primary projection of Dusky. Finally the bill is narrow at the base and fine shaped, quite weak looking in fact, and dark blackish colored, characteristic of Hammond’s, and unlike Dusky which has a stronger looking, broader based, and usually bicolored bill.

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

I was lucky enough to obtain more photographs of this Hammond’s Flycatcher from different angles under cloudy late afternoon lighting. In fact it was raining lightly some of the time. This flat lighting helps illustrate some other important field characters. The overall grey coloration of the face and plain grey lores, giving it an “emotionless” staring appearance, also separates it from Dusky Flycatcher, which has pale-colored lores and a more aggressive appearance. The underparts are also a cool grey color throughout with perhaps only a hint of yellowish wash at the rear, unlike Dusky which is more yellowish in spring. Also important is the grey throat color, again unlike other species with throats that appear whiter. Really, only the back of this bird has a different color – a green tone – being olive in coloration. And there is, urm, maybe the hint of something in the crown color…

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Hammond’s Flycatcher is about the second most likely Empidonax to be encountered in San Diego County, after Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I would say around 95%, or more, of Empidonax flycatchers that I find here on the coast are the latter species. There is always something new to learn or questions to be asked about this difficult to identify genus! Which in fact brings me to my question – maybe it is an artifact of lighting or the feathers are wet, or I am losing my marbles – does the bird shown here have dark reddish coloration in the crown feathers?

Hammond’s Flycatcher – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, 14 Apr 2013

Bright contrast plumage – Red-necked Phalaropes

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Today the winds picked up around San Diego and I made a quick visit to Point La Jolla to see what seabirds might be blown onshore. The main spectacle was the incredible number of Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus flying strongly south. These phalaropes appeared to be on the move and had traveled deep into the cove. In order to exit south many skimmed above the breaking surf passing close around the point. Flocks a hundred or more strong followed one after the other. Streams of phalaropes further out kept coming too. I probably saw 2000 Red-necked Phalarope easily in 30 minutes! I am usually frustrated by the Canon 7D’s autofocus behavior, which pulls focus on contrast edges, it always locks on to distant ocean waves! But the crisp fresh plumaged phalaropes, flying over the breaking whitewater surf, provided a contrast edge the 7D could identify and focus on.

Red-necked Phalaropes – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Red-necked Phalaropes – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Red-necked Phalaropes – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Red-necked Phalaropes – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Red-necked Phalaropes – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Red-necked Phalarope – Point La Jolla, 08 April 2013

Sandwich Tern candidate – San Diego River

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I’ve been observing the growing “tern show” spectacle at the San Diego River flood control channel for a few days. Viewed from Robb Field in Ocean Beach the numbers peak late morning and late afternoon. Numerically dominated by Elegant Tern, there are also good numbers of the stocky looking Royal Tern, and a handful of demure Forster’s Tern nervously putting up with the racket. Spooked by raptors – Osprey, Merlin, and Peregrine all made a pass – the noise from the erupting 400-500 Elegant Terns is pretty intense right in front of you viewed from the bike path. But my main reason for visiting twice a day was to look for terns with dark bills. After photographing several Elegant Terns with “parti-colored” black marked bills I finally hit upon a serious candidate for an American race of Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis acuflavida. This species of tern is headed for radical taxonomic changes and we will all, most likely, know it as Cabot’s Tern by year end.

Sandwich “type” Tern – San Diego River at Robb Field, 31 March 2013

Sandwich “type” Tern – San Diego River at Robb Field, 31 March 2013

Sandwich “type” Tern – San Diego River at Robb Field, 31 March 2013

Recent research has shown that the North American acuflavida tern is virtually indistinguishable genetically from the Caribbean-South American eurygnatha tern known as Cayenne Tern. This makes a lot of sense considering the mixed breeding colonies of these two forms known in the Southern Caribbean. What we know as Sandwich Tern in North America is actually not most closely related to the nominate sandvicensis tern from Europe. Nineteenth century taxonomy was actually pretty good in many respects and it looks as if, based on precedence, we will again be using the delightful patronym Cabot’s Tern, which will comprise the New World nominate acuflavida (black-billed) and the southern eurygnatha (yellow-billed) forms. Interbreeding of these two forms at breeding colonies, and the myriad black and yellow bill color patterns produced, will be the subject of another post!

Runaround Laughing Gull – San Diego River

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I first spotted this Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla from quite a distance away standing by itself in the San Diego River flood control channel due south of Seaworld, San Diego. I quickly skirted around the bird and crossed W Mission Bay Drive Bridge, to get a better look. But after a couple photographs it vanished into thin air when a Red-tailed Hawk spooked the nearby Caspian Tern flock. A little while later I spotted it circling at high elevation with a flock of California Gulls. Then it dropped quickly into the east end of the channel, where I followed after it in vain, just when I ran over there the gulls flushed again! I finally found it back where it began, near the bridge, where I obtained some nice photographs of it standing in shallow water on the mudflat – quite the runaround!

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

It appears to be a first summer individual with a black tail and faded primaries and greater coverts on the upperwing. There is just a small dark coloration showing on the head, not really hooded at all, which extends mostly back from the eye joining at the rear crown. The bill is dark and heavy, typical for this species. The legs are also dark and long, giving the bird an overall tall, long-winged, and skinny appearance when seen standing. In flight the long wings and very buoyant flight are also characteristic. In addition to the size and structural features, the grey wash on the chest sides separates this species from Franklin’s Gull which is boldly white in these areas.

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

Laughing Gull – San Diego River flood control channel, 30 March 2013

In spite of seasonally large numbers to our east, at the Salton Sea, the Laughing Gull is very rare in San Diego County found here only once or twice per year. Long staying individuals have occurred in the past along the San Diego River flood control channel and in Mission Bay. So hopefully this bird will stick around for a while for more people to enjoy!

Tijuana River Valley expanding exotic – White-collared Seedeater

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – Finding the introduced exotic West Mexico “Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater Sporophila t. torqueloa is now quite easy to do at the Dairy Mart Ponds, Tijuana River Valley Regional Park in San Diego County. This location, right on the Mexico border with the hillside slopes of Tijuana looking down in the distance, has harbored small numbers of this species for a number of years. The birds are assumed to have originated from escaped cagebirds brought to Tijuana since the nearest location they occur is Sinaloa, Mexico. This species is not on the California bird list. On a recent visit I found at least six males singing on territories around the ponds, as well as east across Dairy Mart Road following the riparian corridor towards San Ysidro. No doubt more birds exist further afield in the expanding willow scrub edging the drier areas. In this area the species can be found most often singing from quite well hidden perches between 15-25 feet up in willow trees. Look 5-10 feet below the top of the tree for the preferred hidden perch. They can be remarkably hard to see even when closely approached. Early spring, when the trees have not leafed out too much, is a good time to locate the singing males like the one below.

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

“Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater – Dairy Mart Ponds, TRV, San Diego County 22 March 2013

The song of the “Cinnamon-rumped” form of White-collared Seedeater is fairly easy to pick out among the usual Southern California riparian bird species. Listen particularly for the beginning “sweee-sweee-sweee” phrase, which then goes into a fast tumble of varied notes, and ends with a couple more, less hearty, “tuweee-tuweee” calls. Parts of the song, particularly the middle portion, sound quite similar to Lesser Goldfinch, which is also commonly present around the Tijuana River Valley. A nice recording by Mexican birder Manual Grosselet, well matched to the Tijuana River Valley birds, can be listened to below.

Surfbirds living up to their name – in the surf!

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – After not finding too many new migrants around Point Loma this morning I decided to switch gears and take a look along the Mission Bay Jetty. The north side can be good for shorebirds so I decided to start there. Hopping rocks along the jetty is quite dangerous, so I was glad to find most birds right on the north side close to, or on, the beach. In addition to one Wandering Tattler and four Black Turnstone, a good find was a group of fifteen Surfbird together, excitedly milling around, yes, in the surf! They appeared to be searching for invertebrates as the waves receded, oddly keeping their distance from one another. This species does winter in small numbers on the jetty, with eight being found there on the SDFO 2013 New Year Pelagic. This group seemed a bit larger however, possibly including early migrants stopped off here on their journey north. Most of the group were advancing into alternate plumage, but one or two birds were still in basic plumage. As is usual for this species, they were very tame, allowing me to approach closely and obtain these photographs.

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Surfbirds – Mission Beach Jetty and shore, 23 March 2013

Double take – Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – I spotted this interesting looking Golden-crowned Sparrow at the south end of Famosa Slough, Point Loma on 13 March, 2013. It appears to be in prealternate molt showing off plenty of black feathering in the cap. Nice dark colored feathers are growing in about the head, and new, darker, central rectrices appear to be growing in also. In addition the tertials and inner greater secondary coverts, at least four, look very fresh and richly colored, particularly compared to the worn and faded primaries visible in the folded wing.

The mix-and-match feathering of the head really creates a striking looking pattern – I had to take a second look just to convince myself what was going on here! In the lateral crown stripes the mixture of brown and black colored feathers looks pretty unusual. Maybe there is only a short time-frame here in Southern California when we would see such a head pattern in this species but an appearance worth keeping in mind. Golden-crowned Sparrows seem to be thinning out in numbers right now at my favorite spots in Point Loma. At places where I had seen 4 or 5 individuals before, now there are just odd ones and twos present.

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow in molt – Famosa Slough, Point Loma 13 March 2013

Nature Blog Network

Borrego “Sink” – songster Lucy’s Warbler

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – After hearing reports of abundant Lucy’s Warbler returning this spring to the deserts of Arizona, I decided to search through the Borrego Valley “Sink” mesquite bosque for this species. Although more common further east, this is the only known breeding locale for Lucy’s Warbler in San Diego County and a tenuous one at that. With usually only a handful of pairs in a 2500 acre habitat the search could be lengthy! Looking at previous year’s arrival dates into the Borrego Sink it seemed reasonable they could be around by this time although I had heard no reports thus far this spring. I set off at 6:45 am, just before dawn, from the north terminus of Yaqui Pass Road and headed northeast into the pitiful looking mesquite bosque. There were some early morning clouds and I thought it might stay cool for a while. About 0.5 miles in, at exactly 7:00 am, a singing Crissal Thrasher Toxostoma crissale was a nice find, another specialty species of the area.

Crissal Thrasher – Borrego Valley “Sink”, 16 March 2013

The only other birds to materialize from the mesquite bosque were Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Black-throated Sparrows, Verdin, and Bewick’s Wrens, the last species seemed to be following me everywhere. Also a few flyover species including Lawrence’s Goldfinches making their twinkly flight call. Unfortunately the clouds cleared quickly and it started warming up. After continuing northeast, and zig-zagging around all over the place, I decided to pack it in and turned south to walk to the perimeter dirt road. Just then I happened on a male Lucy’s Warbler Oreothlypis luciae singing loudly from a mesquite tree.

Lucy’s Warbler – Borrego Valley “Sink”, 16 March 2013

Lucy’s Warbler – Borrego Valley “Sink”, 16 March 2013

Lucy’s Warbler – Borrego Valley “Sink”, 16 March 2013

Lucy’s Warbler – Borrego Valley “Sink”, 16 March 2013

The mesquites everywhere were leafless and this was one of only a handful that I found that was getting into leaf. I estimate it was about a mile in from the parked car, time was 8:39 am. Moving around a small territory, the Lucy’s Warbler continued singing for about five minutes before taking a longer flight north over the mesquites and out of sight. The mercury was rising fast so I headed back to the car via the south perimeter dirt road. An example of the song, identical to the bird seen and heard, can be listened to at the Xeno-Canto link below.

Nature Blog Network