The classy Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2013] – In the last couple of years of looking at wintering ducks on Mission Bay I do not recall seeing a Canvasback Aythya valisineria before so this was quite a nice local patch find! There are many ritzy looking Redhead on the bay right now but the shape and deep chestnut head of the Canvasback is just so classy looking in my opinion. The negative tide, about minus 1.4 feet, had drawn down the water in Rose Creek substantially, and many diving and dabbling ducks had collected there milling around feeding in the shallows. I spotted this splendid male Canvasback paddling toward the bikepath bridge over Rose Creek (west terminus of North Mission Bay Drive). It looked quite edgy by itself and suddenly took off flying strongly toward the bay, but then veered directly around and flew back right over me on the bridge! I last saw it cupping its wings as it settled in to Rose Creek, just north of Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach. A tiny area of open water so it should not be difficult to relocate!

Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay 09 Jan 2013

Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay 09 Jan 2013

Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay 09 Jan 2013

Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay 09 Jan 2013

Canvasback – Rose Creek, Mission Bay 09 Jan 2013

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Warbler madness at Lower Otay Lake

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I almost went early this morning to Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista, to look for the Blackpoll Warbler reported yesterday, but decided to go birding later once the temperature warmed up. As several very experienced California birders pointed out, this is a very unusual winter date for a Blackpoll Warbler and worth investigating. So when word came out that the identification had been revised to a much rarer Bay-breasted Warbler, along with the discovery of a Prairie Warbler no less, I jumped in the car and headed down to the lake! By the sound of things a posse of local birders had been picking over the rare warbler finds!

This adult male Praire Warbler was discovered by local birder BJ Stacy in the small willows along the edge of Lower Otay Lake just on the north side of the boat ramp. It was very mobile while I watched it move among willow trees dotted along several hundred yards of shoreline both north and south of the boat ramp. It even flew out to the submerged willow islands near the end of the jetty at one point! It did occasionally come very close and, since it was feeding low in the bushes, provided excellent photographic opportunities.

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Prairie Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Originally reported on 30 Dec 2012 as a Blackpoll Warbler, this bird is perhaps the most difficult identification challenge among the Parulidae Wood-Warblers. The next day local birders Jay Keller and BJ Stacy relocated the warbler, joined later by Paul Lehman and Guy McCaskie, and revised its identification as a much rarer Bay-breasted Warbler! There are several key diagnostic features that contribute to its identification including most importantly the evenly blue-grey colored legs and feet (including soles of the feet) which can be seen in the photographs below. I also think the undertail coverts have a slight buffy coloration, at least at the sides where they meet the flanks, which is another feature of Bay-breasted Warbler. Looking at details of the plumage from the photographs this appears to be an adult female. Only the outer two rectrices have white markings, and the white mark on r5 is small. In addition the rump has a noticeable lead grey coloration that contrasts with the yellowish-green upperparts.

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

Bay-breasted Warbler – Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista 31 Dec 2012

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Leading the pack – adult female Black Scoter

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Amid the excitement of finding and photographing San Diego County’s first Great-winged Petrel I had forgotten about this nice adult female Black Scoter Melanitta americana that was spotted by local birder Jay Keller. Jay arrived just twenty minutes after the petrel came by the point and he immediately picked out the Black Scoter among a pack of fast-moving Surf Scoter while waiting patiently to see if the petrel would return. The buffy cheek, throat and neck, clearly demarcated from the completely dark brown upper and underparts indicates this is an adult female Black Scoter. This bird shows off some interesting paler edges to the primaries as well as whitish “dots” on the tips of the secondaries, the latter particularly visible from beneath. Adults undergo definitive prebasic molt by November so perhaps this is a feature of the new plumage.

Black Scoter adult female – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, California 18 Dec 2012

Black Scoter adult female – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, California 18 Dec 2012

Black Scoter adult female – Point La Jolla, La Jolla, California 18 Dec 2012

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Magic moment – Great-winged Petrel at La Jolla Cove

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Sometimes there are just magic moments birding. Today I was thinking it was all so ho-hum when along came this beautiful sooty-brown tubenosed seabird making agile sweeping arcs in flight over the kelp beds of La Jolla Cove. I took one look at this bird making switchbacks in front of me and new immediately it had to be photographed!! Close examination of the photographs reveals this is a Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera. It can be distinguished from the closely similar Providence Petrel P. solandri (also known as Solander’s Petrel) by the fully dark underwing including completely dark underside to the primaries and underwing primary coverts. Other distinguishing features include the saber like wing shape, bulky “fat” medium length wedge-shaped tail, and the overall dark brown concolorous plumage except for the pale peppering around the bill base. The strong black bill is also noticeable. This bird flew in agile, graceful high arcs interspersed with slower wingtip touching the water style flights. It circled several times among other birds collected over the near shore kelp bed before disappearing to the south. Based on time stamps from my 118 images it was in view for less than two minutes! All photographs below are shown without adjustments to original color or contrast.

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

Great-winged Petrel – La Jolla Cove, 18 Dec 2012

There are currently five accepted records of Great-winged Petrel in California with another one under consideration, the nearest to San Diego coming from Monterey County in 1998. Great-winged Petrel was seen as recently as September 2011, pending acceptance by the California Bird Records Committee, from a Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County pelagic run by Debi Shearwater. This bird would seem to be somewhat later than previous California records which occurred during July through October. The pale peppering around the bill base, in particular the chin, may indicate this is a form of Great-winged Petrel known as “Grey-faced” Petrel P. m. gouldi although juveniles of the nominate macroptera are noted as having pale feathering of the face also. Certainly the gouldi form has been positively identified in California previously and this bird could well be that form also. It seems most likely this is an adult bird because juveniles are only leaving their nests in the Southern Hemisphere in early December.

In the ABA area Great-winged Petrel has only been recorded from California and is currently categorized as a Code-5: Accidental which means there are five or less records in the ABA area. This record would constitute the 6th or 7th record dependent on the acceptance of the September 2011 record. It is the first Great-winged Petrel to be seen from shore anywhere in the ABA area.

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Ross’s Geese at the baseball field!

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I was driving out of Robb Field, Ocean Beach when I noticed two suspiciously small white birds feeding on the short turf of the main baseball pitch. Dwarfed by nearby Western Gulls there was no mistaking two white morph Ross’s Goose Chen rossii feeding happily on the tender green grass shoots. Occasional batted balls went flying by and a dog flushed them but they kept on coming back for the good grazing! In one of the flight shots you can see the dark marked secondaries of the hatch year bird in the background and the white secondaries of the adult in the foreground. The hatch year bird also has greyish legs while the adult has pink legs and shows a more wrinkled look to the bill.

Ross’s Geese – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Goose – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Goose – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Goose – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Goose – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Geese – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Geese – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

Ross’s Geese – Robb Field, Ocean Beach, San Diego 08 Dec 2012

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San Diego City – downtown rarities

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The cool foggy morning kept the birds actively feeding and low in trees this morning at the Marston House in Balboa Park. This warbler put in an appearance in the tiny tree over the birdbath right outside the house and allowed some close photography. Reported yesterday as a Black-throated Green Warbler it appears to be a hybrid Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler of some degree. Looking most like a Hermit Warbler in fact, it may be a parental backcross of such a hybrid with Hermit Warbler. The quite strong streaked markings on the underparts and patchy dark auricular seems to indicate some Townsend’s Warbler mixed in to the parentage. Most importantly this bird has a clean white vent area, unlike Black-throated Green Warbler which shows off light yellow patches on the vent sides.

Hybrid Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler – Balboa Park, San Diego 07 Dec 2012

Hybrid Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler – Balboa Park, San Diego 07 Dec 2012

Hybrid Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler – Balboa Park, San Diego 07 Dec 2012

Hybrid Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler – Balboa Park, San Diego 07 Dec 2012

I only planned on looking for the Red-necked Grebe but navigating through downtown San Diego to the Seaport Marina I noticed many warblers in the planted trees. After finding the grebe I took off with Peter Ginsberg and Terry Hunefeld to search through Pantoja Park right there in the marina district. The oldest park in downtown San Diego – established in 1850 – had a few nice birds! In among a warbler flock was this perky and bright Chestnut-sided Warbler. This bird appears to be an adult male in basic plumage. The flanks have quite strong chestnut marks (covered over by fluffy white belly feathers in most of the photographs), the upperparts are a bright green, and the uppertail coverts and marginal wing coverts have extensive black centers.

The Red-necked Grebe was hunting small fish beneath rocks right at the marina side. We watched it catch a small fish almost coot like as it splashed around with its large lappet feet. Silent for a long time it suddenly let out a loud cluck sound – grebe vocalization!

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Weekend highlights – Point Loma and Coronado Island 01-02 Dec 2012

An early morning venture out to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery revealed possibly the same Pacific Wren Troglodytes pacificus, located on the east side just behind the wall in the eucalyptus grove, that I originally found here on 20 Oct 2012. I faintly heard its chatter alarm call from a distance down in the gulley, so decided to go over and take a closer look. It popped up quickly and loudly protested my presence!

Pacific Wren – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego – CA 01 Dec 2012

Pacific Wren – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego – CA 01 Dec 2012

I heard it call a couple times, but then it came closer to me giving the typical sharp sounding single or fast double scold note. As it approached very close the next time I obtained a recording of the call which can be listened to below.

This female Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus appeared pumping its wings in flight as it flew across a small gap between pine trees. Luckily it perched on an open bough in full view allowing this quick distant photograph before it quietly slid out the back of the pine tree. This species can be so difficult to approach! I always ask myself when assessing a small Accipiter – does the appearance of the head and face remind me of a miniature looking Northern Harrier head? If it does then most likely you are looking at a Sharpie. The tiny stubby bill, positioned lower on a flatter face, really changes the look of this species compared to a Cooper’s Hawk. The smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk also has a pronounced white eye-brow, particularly prominent on the individual below, and skinnier delicate looking legs.

Sharp-shinned Hawk female – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery – 02 Dec 2012

Palm Warbler – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA – 01 Dec 2012

Pine Warbler – Coronado Island, San Diego, CA – 01 Dec 2012

Pine Warbler – Coronado Island, San Diego, CA – 01 Dec 2012

I came across this Baltimore Oriole Oriolus galbula along the east perimeter trail of Point Loma Nazarene University, Point Loma, San Diego. It was attracted to my pishing and I managed a few photographs before it took flight. The tapered rectrices seem to indicate this is a hatch year bird. It could be either a male or darkly colored female. The head is freshly molting to black plumage but the feathers have fine orange fringes which give it a peppered or patchy coloration. The two white contrasting wing bars can be seen on the greater and median coverts and may indicate this is a female.

Baltimore Oriole – Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CA – 02 Dec 2012

Baltimore Oriole – Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CA – 02 Dec 2012

Western Scrub-Jay – Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CA – 02 Dec 2012

“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler – Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA – 01 Dec 2012

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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