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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At last an Indigo Bunting

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Just after dawn this morning at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery I heard a repeated loud “spik” call and discovered this bunting, holding down a grass seed-head, which struck me as quite different from other Passerina buntings I had seen recently. All Lazuli Bunting I might add. But distinguishing Indigo from Lazuli Bunting can be tricky so I figured it would not hurt to seek some other opinions on this one. I sent around a few photographs to birding friends with experience on the east coast and they agreed with the identification of this bird as an Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea.

Over the past few weeks I found several Passerina buntings around San Diego and fell into some real late night quizzing of photographs. Invariably the paler washed out looking birds, with suffused buffy breast coloration, and whitish wing bars always pointed towards identification as Lazuli Bunting, the most likely species to be found here in California. But I noticed a difference in this bird immediately. It looked darker brown on the upper parts and had plenty of suffused streaking on the breast. Most importantly it had a richer dark buff, really almost a chestnut tone, to the plumage overall. From some angles parts of it looked the same rich color like a female Blue Grosbeak in fact. The pale buff bars on the wing coverts of this individual can be found in a small proportion of Indigo Buntings.

The call of Indigo Bunting is quite shockingly loud for its size. In fact I found myself looking further away for the source of the repeated high volume “spik” call. I think it might even be louder than a Black-headed Grosbeak which it sounds a bit like. Here is a recording of an Indigo Bunting call that is well matched to the bird I saw and heard this morning.

It took flight quickly when workers started up their gas powered tools nearby. I saw it last, still calling loudly, in the single Myoporum tree close to “The Wall” on the east side of the cemetery.

Supermarket Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Not satisfied with my previous flight views and sun blinded looks on the overhead wire, I dropped by the Oceanside Fresh & Easy supermarket parking lot again today to see if the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus was around. My luck changed and I found it working along the tops of drought stricken fennel plants on the open waste land just north of the parking lot. Views were brief though before it bolted again, like a small pink and grey missile, heading for the hillside! This is one nervous bird and very mobile.

I managed to get a few level flight shots as it went by me on the way to the hillside but discovered later I had only captured images of the wing beats down! This bird is an adult at least one year in age because it has advanced through prealternate molt, sometime earlier this year in the spring, of the outer primary (P10). Prebasic molt in this species does not include outer primary replacement so this cannot be a hatch year bird because the retained juvenile P10 tip would be a rounded type without a notch. In flight the image below captures the shape of this adult plumage outer primary on the right wing which has a female type, smaller length, notched tip (thinner tip). Given the shorter tail and not very extensive reddish pink axillary coloration most likely this is an adult female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was originally found by Oceanside birder Michael Martin on 05 Oct 2012. The species is considered a Category B rarity by San Diego Field Ornithologists which means we get about one record annually in the county. In fact the most recent report came some time ago in November 2009 when a long-staying individual frequented the Model Plane Airfield at Mission Bay. Perhaps this handsome looking much sought after flycatcher from the east now visits us less often than before.

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Crows hate them – Zone-tailed Hawk

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Grabbed a quick lunch today at the Fresh & Easy supermarket in Oceanside where the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been reported. While sitting back in my camp chair munching on an egg-salad sandwich I noticed some larger diurnal migrants using the updraft from the ridge behind the store to travel south. First surprise were two American White Pelican booking south cross-wind. Then a few minutes later things got really interesting when a Zone-tailed Hawk Buteo albonotatus came by with a cawing American Crow tied on its tail. I managed a few documentation photographs as it circled higher over the mobile home park south of the train tracks.

When I first saw this large black avian object coming towards me I thought it might be a Turkey Vulture but the general impression of the bird was not right. The body was too large in the rear and the tail too stout looking. In addition the aggressive mobbing of the crow was a dead giveaway that this was something else a bit more dangerous to smaller game. Going by me overhead it showed off the wide white bar on the mid-tail and contrasting paler coloration of the secondaries and primaries. Also very noticeable were the powerful large yellow feet, got to have something to crush to death those poor ground-squirrels, and the yellow cere on the bill was visible as it veered around circling.

Finally I did get to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at this spot a little while after the hawk came by. A fine looking pink and grey long-tailed missile, it flew right by me coming from north of the store and then landed on the wires going down the hillside. Sometimes waiting around in one spot can be rewarding. I began to sense a bit of a Patagonia Picnic Table Effect kicking in, when finding one rare bird leads to the discovery of others at the same location. Who knows what else might be flying down the coastline?

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The very large Golden-crowned Sparrow

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – In the early morning of 05 Oct 2012 I was looking over “The Wall”, along the east side of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, when a very large sparrow hopped up in among dead twigs below me. It had me puzzled from the back view for a moment but soon shuffled around on a branch revealing itself. I popped the telephoto lens over the wall and got a few nice shots of my first Golden-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia atricapilla of Fall 2012.

The San Diego Bird Atlas indicates this species arrives here in the county in the first week of October, so this rather exhausted looking individual was right on time. Squinting its eyes at me in the bright morning sunshine, it really looked as if it had been on the wing all night and had barely a chance to rest before I found it. The streaked underparts indicate this is a juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow. It had found its way almost to the southern limit of the wintering range of this species which regularly extends only a few hundred more miles down Baja California Norte, Mexico.

This species completes part of its first prebasic molt on the breeding grounds and this individual does look as if it has a mixture of newer richly colored feathers and some very worn tattered feathers too. The fluffy feathered head has some nice looking new black feathers coming in on the crown stripes above the lores (this individual is at the darkest end of the range for a hatch year bird). The tail by contrast is a real worn out tattered mess already with nothing but spiky ends to some of the rectrices.

There is a single field character of this species which easily separates it from all White-crowned Sparrow plumages – the absence of a median crown stripe on the head. Often loose sparrow flocks seem to always be looking at you from their sides, yes birds have eyes on the sides of their heads! But get a look at them from head on and the Golden-crowned Sparrow is virtually unmistakeable with its golden peppered crown bordered only on the sides by darker stripes. In addition it is very large, when found alone that is not so useful, but in a mixed flock with White-crowned if there is one “big” sparrow then it could well be a Golden-crowned.

I usually see small numbers of Golden-crowned Sparrow around Point Loma but they appear in a wave and then peter out to being quite scarce there later in the winter. Some nice looking black and gold crown striped alternate plumaged individuals, breeding finery, can also be found here in the early spring time – those are always a nice find.

Strange Wood-Pewee

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – A lot of discussion was generated recently about a flycatcher found in the southeast corner of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I initially ran into this bird while it was in a stationary mode sitting around on a grave marker. It seemed a bit odd looking, sort of “legless” and inanimate perched on its belly on the grave marker, and was quite gentle looking and round headed. It almost looked like a big martin – perhaps a giveaway right there! As soon as it took flight however there was no mistaking the barrel-roll aerial acrobatics and large cloak like wings of a Wood-Pewee. This bird flew like a martin but in tight circles and with such swift turns you could not keep up with it visually. Later on I deleted all the photographs that I took not realizing they might be useful! Luckily I was back there the next day and took a few more photographs of it sitting on a grave marker which are shown below.

Even viewed from the back, foreshortened in perspective, this bird has a very long primary projection extending a good one-third of the way down the tail. It is a big tail too, wide all the way down its length and quite well notched. Perhaps a bit difficult to discern it does actually have three wing bars. The lesser secondary coverts, mostly hidden by the fluffy scapular feathers, are pale-tipped in addition to the more noticeable other two large wing bars on the median and greater secondary coverts.

One of the nice things about watching many different bird species sitting on grave markers at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is that you have available a standard size marker to compare against the bird! The Standard Government Upright Headstone is 42 inches long, 13 inches wide, and 4 inches in thickness. So if you can get a bird close to it then you kind of have a ruler sitting right there on the photograph!

The flight shot below of the Wood-Pewee captures the bird leaving the Upright Headstone, the headstone it flew from is below the bird. The bird is literally right on the headstone in flight since it is in the narrow depth of focus of the effective 640 mm focal length of my lens. Note the enormous cloak like wings that are just really long when outstretched.

The photograph below is darkened to show better the thickness of the Headstone Marker. To compare the bird versus the 4 inch thick Headstone Marker I simply measured a V from the middle of the bird’s back to each wing tip and scaled that total measurement against the thickness of the Headstone Marker below that it flew from. My estimate came out about a 10 inch or bit larger wingspan of this bird. Try it – it works!

The following wingspans come from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology online species accounts; Western Wood-Pewee 10.2 inches, Eastern Wood-Pewee 9.1-10.2 inches, Least Flycatcher 7.9 inches, and Hammond’s Flycatcher 8.7 inches. It would seem to fit best in the Wood-Pewee range.

The mostly dark lower mandible indicates this is very likely a juvenile Western Wood-Pewee and not an Eastern Wood-Pewee which ought to show more light coloration. I think a bit of yellow-orange color can be seen also at the bill gape, it looks a bit swollen like a juvenile bird. Juvenile Western Wood-Pewees complete their first prebasic molt on the wintering grounds so we ought to see a few coming through the area at this date. I never heard it vocalize but think it is reasonable to assume it is the more common of the two possible species here in Southern California.

In hot water – Red-billed Tropicbird

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – We had not gone far out of San Diego on the ocean today when a bright white object caught my attention on the water ahead. Just the quickest binocular view and I spotted the red immediately – not the usual piece of floating white bucket fooling me this time! Here was an adult Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus sitting on the water just six nautical miles southwest of Point Loma! Digital cameras were quickly hoisted as the tropicbird took off flying and made a close circuit around the boat.

In my opinion this tropicbird appears to be in “staffelmauser” molt of the remiges. Wing feathers look to be of different lengths – quite strange looking in fact. The secondaries are longest in the middle of the feather tract, at least on the right wing, while the primaries seem to be molting outwards. Clearly this bird could fly well, in spite of funny looking skinny wings, and it did not stick around for long just gracing us with the single circuit of the boat before determinedly heading off elsewhere.

Red-billed Tropicbird is quite rare in San Diego County waters with perhaps only a few found each year. The last report came on 27 June 2012, also of an adult, although this individual was reported somewhat further offshore at 23 NM from Point Loma.

Water temperatures are high at the moment off of San Diego.  We encountered 68 degree Fahrenheit water very quickly and later found water temperatures of 71 degrees Fahrenheit and even a little higher. This might account for the close inshore Red-billed Tropicbird. We did not see many other seabirds on this trip, which seems to be a character of warmer waters.

Many thanks to boat Captain Dave Povey and fellow crew members Steve Brad and Peter Ginsberg for a great day on the ocean.

Neon light bird – Yellow-green Vireo

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – Some days you connect with the bird and some days you don’t. I was pretty disappointed yesterday after not catching up with the Yellow-green Vireo Vireo flavoviridis found by Sue Smith at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego. So today I headed out there early with one goal in mind! As you will see from the photographs below I did not come away dissatisfied this time around!

Every part of this bird can be seen in these photographs down to the dark blackish thin eyebrow, dark brownish-red eyes, blue legs, pale graphite gray cap, glowing yellow crissum, yellow inner fringes of rectrices, the grayish pink bill, and even the small hooked tip of the upper mandible. The yellowish-olive upperparts and pale gray crown indicates this is the vagrant western form of Yellow-green Vireo V.f. hypoleucus expected here in California.

This Yellow-green Vireo is in very fresh plumage. Delicate light colored fringes edge the wing feathers and the standout yellow coloration on the underparts is bright and eye-popping. It is really just a neon light of a bird when you catch sight of it, particularly against a dark background. Even when viewing it against a bright backlighting when viewed overhead it really stands out.

Many thanks to Sue Smith for finding this amazing looking vireo. Easily my favorite bird of 2012 so far here in the county. Records of this species are scarce in the county with less than one record per year on average. They can be real skulkers, in denser habitats such as willow beds, so catching an opportunity to photograph one out in the open was a special experience. Yellow-green Vireo is a California Bird Records Committee review species with on average about three or four accepted records per year in the state.

Enormous Lark Bunting – Point Loma

I knew something was up this morning here in San Diego when I found a migrant Common Yellowthroat in my backyard in Pacific Beach. Now that is unusual and probably a sign to look further afield! So off I went for a quick tour of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. I was following a small flock of mixed birds in the northwest section, darting up and down from pines to the ground, when an enormous grosbeak like bicolored bird jumped up on a grave marker! Not a grosbeak though, showing off its big white shoulder epaulets this was a much rarer Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys. I followed it around for just a few minutes obtaining some photographs before it hopped the north fence line and was gone!

The enormous size of this “sparrow-like” bird can be appreciated when seen perched next to a diminutive Chipping Sparrow! Standing together on top of the grave marker, the Lark Bunting looks as if it could almost tuck the smaller sparrow under its wing!

Lark Bunting is a rare visitor to San Diego County and I had encountered another individual here almost one year ago on 18 Oct 2011. Last year seems to have been a bumper crop with another individual found by Paul Lehman on 6 Nov 2011 further east in the county in the agricultural field edges at Jacumba. In recent years large flocks of this species have been observed in Arizona, sometimes numbering in the multiple hundreds of individuals per flock. Perhaps a wintering range expansion or increase in numbers could be driving the increasing frequency this species is encountered here on the California coast.

Luckily the Lark Bunting reappeared later in the day and many other people observed it at the cemetery.

Not so familiar – melanistic Brewer’s Blackbird

Sometimes a familiar bird flies by and it just does not look right. That initial uncomfortable gut feeling is a real trigger to chase after it! So when I saw this blackbird fly by me the other day at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, well, I almost dismissed it. But something wasn’t right. When it landed and started walking around I realized what about it was bugging me. From a distance it was all deep blackish-chestnut colored! As these photographs reveal, this Brewer’s Blackbird Euphagus cyanocephalus is actually not a plumage coloration you would normally encounter for this species! Even the eye color had a deep chestnut tone to it.

Who better to ask about this unusual looking blackbird than Alvaro Jaramillo, coauthor, with Peter Burke, of the Helm Guide to New World Blackbirds. After examining one of my photographs Alvaro agreed that this was “an extra dark individual, beyond what is normal” and “weirdly dark” for Brewer’s Blackbird, most probably an adult with some degree of melanism. It appears to be an adult since it has a reddish tone to the eye color rather than brownish like a juvenile would have. If it is an adult with unusual melanistic plumage coloration then most likely it is a female.

I searched high and low on the internet for a similar looking Brewer’s Blackbird and did in fact find just a single example photographed which appeared quite similar to this bird. It would seem to be a rare plumage variant but worth keeping in mind when checking blackbird flocks locally here in San Diego.

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