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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Winter gem – Varied Thrush

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I made a quick circuit of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery early this morning and was just about to leave when I found this stunning looking adult male Varied Thrush Ixoreus naevius. Like many species of shy forest thrush it first took flight to find a high up hidden perch, in this case in a large pine tree, where it gazed down at me safely from the boughs above. I thought patience would win in this situation and it might return to the ground, but then it took off flying powerfully south!

I followed the bird around for some time, hoping it would allow a closer look and some photographs of its stunning plumage. It showed distantly – pine trees, out on the lawn, even walking on the roadway! Finally it flew down behind the west fence of the cemetery at “The Dip” so I slowly crept forward to see if I could spot it in the shady undergrowth. I was standing next to the fence thinking wouldn’t it be great if it flew and landed right there in front of me. Sure enough a few seconds later I heard the “chup” call this species makes when taking flight, and it flew through the bushes and landed right in front of me in the spot!

This species was about at the top of my wanted list for finding myself and photographing. So it was very satisfying to finally see this handsome bird alight next to me and allow such detailed photographs. Varied Thrush is a rare winter resident in San Diego County making a usual first appearance around mid October. Several birds were seen in the winter 2011-12 at different locations in the mountains including two together found by Matt Sadowski in the Lagunas. It can be found less frequently in the winter at coastal locations, quiet wooded areas of Point Loma are a good place to search.

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Vivid green Chestnut-sided Warbler

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – While searching near Mission Bay Golf Course, San Diego for yesterday’s Prairie Warbler, I came across this brightly colored basic plumaged Chestnut-sided Warbler Setophaga pensylvanica. It was feeding in another lerp infested eucalyptus close to the golf course but proved difficult to photograph as it hung right over the highway! This bird is in quite freshly molted basic plumage which really shows off the stunning green color on the upper parts. Not a bad consolation prize as it worked out!

The vivid green coloration on the upper parts, indistinct dark centers to upper tail coverts (barely visible on the last photograph below), and extensive white coloration on the three outer rectrices (r4-r6) indicates this is most likely a hatch year male Chestnut-sided Warbler. One neat field character to help identify this bird in the tree canopy above you, looking essentially white from below, are the clearly visible pale yellow patches on the rear flanks behind the legs.

So far in Fall 2012 Chestnut-sided Warbler has only been found at Lake O’Neill, Camp Pendleton in North County where perhaps two different individuals were seen in September. It is one of the more frequently recorded eastern warblers in California and can usually be banked on to be found here in the county each fall. This happens to be the first one I found myself here in San Diego County, my “self-found” list is climbing!

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Uncooperative Chestnut-collared Longspur

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I found this flighty and uncooperative Chestnut-collared Longspur Calcarius ornatus at the Fiesta Island, Mission Bay dog run. It was associating with a handful of Horned Lark, by chance the first group I encountered, but proved very difficult to approach. After several attempts I managed some distant photographs, stationary as well as fly by, shown here heavily cropped and of barely tolerable quality. In flight it made a weak chuckling or rattling call which was difficult to pick out among the many noisy Horned Lark.

Photographed in flight this longspur showed a moderate amount of white on the tail. In the bright mid day light I had trouble picking it out in flight from the Horned Larks that flushed from the ground with it although it did fly more directly without sharp turns. In the photographs below white coloration can be readily seen on the two outer pairs of rectrices r5 and r6. On the second photo the white coloration seems to be more extensive near the base of the tail which I believe is probably the white inner web of rectrix r4 (this tail feather also has a complete black outer web).

From the back view this longspur is quite warmly colored, even in my over-exposed photograph. Although hard to see the crown is peppered with dark brown feathers and the supercilium is pale buff with a slightly darker buff auricular area. Down the back there is a pair of paler brace marks which stand out among the dark centered feathers of the upper parts. The tertials also appear quite dark colored with pale buff edge coloration. Both the greater and median secondary coverts have standout pale tipped edges which can also be seen in the flight photographs above along with white lesser secondary coverts.

Observing this longspur feeding on the ground I was pretty confident eliminating McCown’s and Lapland Longspur. McCown’s is short-legged, almost legless looking in fact, usually crouched tight against the ground, and has a robust larger pink bill. Lapland Longspur can usually be relied on to run around actively on its long legs and show off the white belly as it stands alert looking high off the ground. Chestnut-collared Longspur is kind of intermediate in GISS walking moderately sluggishly with medium length legs visible. The much rarer alternative of Smith’s Longspur, unrecorded in San Diego County, would be more richly buff colored overall with a dark framing of the auricular on the face, as well as fine abundant streaks on the chest. This species also prefers grassland habitats over the desolate open wastelands popular with the other three longspur species. Many thanks to Jay Keller, Curtis Marantz, Kurt Radamaker and Paul Lehman for useful feedback on these photographs.

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Bright Cassin’s Vireo

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I found and photographed this brightly colored Cassin’s Vireo Vireo cassinii in the Silver Gate neighborhood of Point Loma, San Diego. The vireo was feeding close around me in garden trees, along with Orange-crowned and Townsend’s Warblers, as a light rainy drizzle began to fall. You can actually see the tiny rain drops in the first photograph. It’s brightly colored plumage, evidently freshly molted, made me look carefully through the photographs.

Although it has a light grey head and greenish back, it does not have the striking contrasted look that might be expected from the more solidly colored Blue-headed Vireo. I also noticed another field character, first suggested by Don Roberson, that the dark grey loral line, interrupting the eye ring at the front, is actually quite darker than the crown and auricular coloration. This seems to be a characteristic which can be used to confidently separate bright individuals of Cassin’s Vireo from Blue-headed Vireo.

Cassin’s Vireo can be found in San Diego County at all seasons but is generally uncommon. Individuals are regularly encountered during the winter months at favored wooded locations along the coastal belt. The species is also believed to breed scarcely at higher elevations in mountain ranges of the county, above 4000 feet, where it can sometimes be detected in summer.

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Pacific Wren in Point Loma

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The first bird I saw today turned out to be the most interesting, but even with my Canon 7D dialed up to ISO6400 there was still no way I could see it on the image sensor! Before dawn I wandered down to the east side wall at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and up pops the unmistakable cock-tailed, big legged silhouette of a Troglodytes wren literally just a few feet away! It was more than an hour later when I finally managed to return there, in marginally better light, and capture these close up photographs of a Pacific Wren Troglodytes pacificus excitedly chattering around me among dead twigs and branches.

The Pacific Wren is a recent split after elevating both forms of the North American continent wide ranging Winter Wren to species level. A diversity of forms of this wren exist around the northern hemisphere temperate latitudes and in 2010 the 51st supplement to the AOU Checklist (July 2010) split and elevated to species level both of the North American forms pacificus (Pacific Wren) and hiemalis (Winter Wren).

Any Troglodytes wren encountered in San Diego deserves careful scrutiny to distinguish between the two species – Pacific Wren versus Winter Wren – both of which have been recorded here in recent years. The much rarer Winter Wren can be told by its lighter colored frosting on the under parts, more extensive barring on the flanks, and less rufous overall coloration in comparison to the richly colored, and more frequently encountered Pacific Wren. In addition the two species have distinct vocalization differences including contact or alarm calls and songs.

The Pacific Wren is a rare visitor to San Diego County and was most recently seen here in the county with a long staying individual at the San Diego Botanical Gardens last winter (2011-2012). San Diego Field Ornithologists considers this species a Category C rarity in the county.

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