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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Interesting but silent Empidonax

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – I discovered this interesting but silent Empidonax flycatcher late Friday afternoon at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery as the sun was going down. It was close to the southwest corner of the cemetery where it ventured out and caught insects on the ground by pouncing from atop grave markers. My first impression was a small and spritely Empidonax with a skinny tail. What also struck me as standout from a distance were the very dark blackish wings with large and contrasting white wing bars and tertial edges. It has a whitish throat accentuated by a light brownish chest belt. I would call this a “bright” bird. The first backlighted photographs below show the blackish wings best, while other photographs were in full sunlight and reflection contributed to brightening the color.

I had been watching several Pacific-slope Flycatchers before I encountered what I think is this very different looking individual. It seems to differ from this species in head shape, eye ring width around the eye, the pattern of wing coloration, and dusky tip to lower mandible. The head shape is flattened at the top but extended in size at the back behind the eye. Quite unlike the “cone head” appearance of Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I think the wing feathers look freshly molted, they look dark blackish with thick white tips.

Viewed from behind this bird can be seen to have a fairly short primary extension. In my estimation the back is dark olive-brown colored contrasting with the wings. I should state that I personally have difficulties telling grays and greens apart so could make a mistake in the color. The dark olive-brown back would seem to eliminate both Dusky and Gray, those species in addition might not show such contrasting blackish wings with white markings. The extent of the eye-ring, really lacking a large extension at the rear of the eye, its head shape, and the dark tip to lower mandible seem to eliminate the “Western” type. So this could possibly be a Least Flycatcher!

I waited around for some time at close quarters hoping it might vocalize and help end the mystery of its identity. It made no calls the entire time and after several sorties out in the open disappeared into the surrounding shrubbery. I also noticed that it did not “shiver” its tail like a “Western” type but instead just made a small movement up and down quite quickly.

After returning home I looked online at many photographs of Empidonax and it does seem to fit very well with those I found of Least Flycatcher.

Ovenbird refound!

[All photographs copyright, Gary Nunn 2012] – The day after my original sighting of Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla on 15 Sep 2012 a second report came in from the other side of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery by Rich Norgaard on 16 Sep 2012. It seems most likely it is the same individual and it was nice that many people got to see this quirky ground-dwelling warbler after it was refound. I ventured over to the location late in the afternoon, at “The Dip” on the west side fence line. I found the Ovenbird walking around feeding busily on the open grass and it allowed very close approach. I obtained these photographs as it walked in the long shadows from the setting sun. As I soon realized, this species has a built in light meter and hates open full sunlight!

“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.