Monthly Archives: March 2012

Westminster Park, San Diego

We attended the San Diego Bird Festival at the beginning of March, like we do pretty much every year. It’s always fun to see all those familiar folks and get in some good birding time too. Recently, San Diego Audubon took over organization of this birding festival. They did a great job of maintaining the excellence of this long-running festival.

One of the logical changes they made was to keep the vendor booths closed in the early mornings when all the festival participants are out on trips anyway, which meant that, after arriving early to set up the booth on the first day, we had extra time in the mornings, which we of course used to go birding! This allowed us to pursue some of the interesting birds that were over-wintering in the greater San Diego Area, such as the Grace’s Warbler at a nearby cemetery, the Thick-billed Kingbird, back for its second year in Chula Vista, and so on.

Summer Tanager in Westminster Park, San Diego

Summer Tanager in Westminster Park, San Diego

Local Celebrity Birds

We searched for a Palm Warbler reported at nearby Westminster Park. This little neighborhood pocket park nestles in the north end of the Point Loma Peninsula. We parked in the empty lot and walked out onto a lawn fringed with red-flowering eucalyptus and sycamores. It didn’t seem at all like Palm Warbler habitat at first glance. Evidently, the warbler was of the same mind since it apparently left.

The place was just crawling with warblers though, mostly Yellow-rumps and Orange-crowns, with the occasional Townsend’s mixed in for excitement. We started pishing from a strategic location and soon had a crowd of irritated birds and one house cat interested. Seriously – we actually pished in a cat – it didn’t jump up on the fence until we started making noise! Anyway, the next thing emerging from the trees was this handsome young male Summer Tanager. He frustrated us by always staying in the shadows whenever he perched, but we still managed to photo-document him adequately.

Wild Parrots

Red-masked Parakeet in Westminster Park, San Diego

Red-masked Parakeet in Westminster Park, San Diego

The next thing to arrive was a noisy flock of Aratinga parakeets. Small flocks of these birds roam all over Point Loma Peninsula. We’ve seen them in several other locations there. They seem to really like the red-flowering eucalyptus trees, as evidenced by this shot.

We identified these birds as Red-masked Parakeets, also known as Cherry-headed Conures. A book about the wild parrots on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco made this species made famous. Separate them from the similar Mitred Parakeet by the more extensive red on the head, crown and face. They also show more red in the leading edge of the wing, particularly in the wrist. It surprised us as always how well they blended into the trees once they made their typically loud entrance. They were actually hard to pick out in the scope even when rustling around right in front of us.

These pictures were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera, attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece using  Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ.

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Arctic Loon-acy

In January of 2012, birders at the Morro Bay Birding Festival discovered an Arctic Loon in San Simeon. Instantly, we knew we needed to chase it. You just cannot pass up a bird this good! So we started planning. We would leave before dawn, travel light, and take in a bunch of other spots on the way back… Which is why three of us met at 4 am on a Sunday morning. We stuffed a bunch of scopes and other gear into the back of an SUV and took off. Staying awake on the way there wasn’t hard. Rarity chases get the blood flowing! Hopes run high (this was a life bird for two of us) and the conversation never lags.

Arctic Loon, basic plumage

Arctic Loon in basic plumage

Arctic Loon!

When we got to the spot at 8:15 am, two of California’s best-known birders greeted us warmly: “What took you so long?!” The loon sat there right in front of us at close range, a total anticlimax! It fished in the same small lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek. There it rubbed shoulders with the gulls, coots, cormorants and grebes, pretty much slumming it. This Arctic Loon was not at all shy, swimming about and preening unconcernedly while allowing close approach of multiple birders with their scopes, tripods and cameras with big lenses. We got stunning looks and took tons of pictures, some of which even came out!

Blinking Arctic Loon

Blinking Arctic Loon

These shots were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 camera, attached with a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope equipped with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece. That’s it. Just point and shoot. The loon did make things challenging occasionally by diving – loon watching is frequently an intermittant occupation. With the bird as close as this, sometimes it was hard to actually keep it in frame, but who’s complaining?! And of course sometimes there’s a bit of luck involved. Here, the camera accidentally caught the bird blinking the nictitating membrane after coming up from a dive. The only difficulty here was in picking which of the hundred photographs to use for this post!

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie

Other Local Attractions

You would think it would be all downhill from there. However, on this fabulous whirlwind birding trip, hits just kept coming. Chestnut-backed Chickadee – probably a dirt-bird to the locals, but we don’t get to see those very often in Orange County. In the day, we saw 4 of the world’s 5 loon species, all three scoters and 6 of our 7 grebe species.

Tracking inland from there and making our way back south, we saw a pair of Golden Eagles and a brilliant male Lapland Longspur in the company of about a hundred Horned Larks. We also saw one of California’s two endemic bird species: Yellow-billed Magpies. This provided a showcase for what digiscoping can do by way of photo-documentation. This magpie was easily 75 yards distant and crawling through obscuring grass on a hillside beneath live oaks, yet the camera still did a passable job with it. In the end though, the best bird of the day was still that magnificent loon.

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San Jacinto Wildlife Area, Winter 2012

Burrowing Owl in San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Burrowing Owl in San Jacinto Wildlife Area

We went out to San Jacinto Wildlife Area looking for the Gyrfalcon… again. We went prepared with hot drinks, hats and gloves to keep from freezing. In that, we were mostly successful, but in finding the jeer-falcon, not so much. The greater San Jacinto Wildlife Area has had a fabulous winter for raptors. In addition to the ‘mythical’ Gyrfalcon, the four basic falcons, American Kestrel, Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine were all present. Everywhere we looked,we found either a Northern Harrier or a White-tailed Kite. Red-tails seemingly outnumbered even American Crows.

Along Gilman Springs Road was an overwintering dark-phase Swainson’s Hawk that was rather shy. The fields around Alessandro and Davis Roads harbored many Ferruginous Hawks, including several dark-phase birds. We saw quite a few along with both Bald and Golden Eagles. At least two Rough-legged Hawks wintered there that year. Even a Harlan’s Hawk (not a common morph in California) regularly hung out there. Both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks were also present, and if you hung around until evening, it wasn’t hard to find 3-4 Short-eared Owls flying over the marshes along Bridge Street. Other birders alerted us this Burrowing Owl hunkered down right next to the levy road. Evidently, it did not want to see us!

Mountain Bluebird at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Mountain Bluebird at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

San Jacinto Wildlife Area Regulars

After two or three hours of watching, we packed it in to go look for other birds. Down by San Jacinto Creek, we found a small flock of Mountain Bluebirds. Not a rare bird here, but certainly a pretty one. Further up Davis Road in an area of dry grasslands and sage chaparral, we found hundreds of sparrows. These included many White-crowned Sparrow, a few bright Savannah Sparrows and the occasional Vesper Sparrow mixed in. Canyon and Rock Wrens were both singing from the tops of boulders along Davis Road and a distant Greater Roadrunner was moaning out his love song from further away.

Sage Thrasher at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Sage Thrasher at San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Dozens of Sage Thrashers

The real star of the show up there was the Sage Thrashers. When we first heard reports of upwards of 30 thrashers in that location, it didn’t sound real. But there they were! Everywhere! For a while, we had half a dozen sitting on fence posts like meadowlarks. Others ran around like robins in the grass behind them. We watched more than a dozen right in front of us. Meanwhile others sang from perches in the sage behind us. It was really spectacular!

We took these photos with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope, using a Vortex PS-100 adapter attached to a Kowa TSN DA-10

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Unusual Birds for San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Lesser Yellowlegs at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Lesser Yellowlegs at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

We visited San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine to participate in the Southern California Audubon Coordinating Council meeting. Sea and Sage Audubon graciously hosted this event. At a location like that, arriving early allows you to go birding before the meeting starts. Naturally, we did! With winter giving way to spring, and many birds molting into their nuptial plumage, a lot of the species look really beautiful. The American Avocets all sported their peach-colored heads.

There were many Tree Swallows hawking insects overhead, with the occasional Northern Rough-winged to keep us honest. Incidentally, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary hosts the southernmost breeding colony of Tree Swallows in the western U.S. Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats were yelling at us from the sedge beds. And as it turned out, several unusual birds provided happy surprises. A dainty little Lesser Yellowlegs gave us great looks here. It fed with characteristic rapidity in the shallows of Pond D. Consequently, we ran into problems photographing it: it kept sprinting out of the frame! Notice the delicate beak, whose length is less than 1.5x that of the head.

Common Teal at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Common Teal at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Common Teal

On Pond C, we found the one unusual visitor to the marsh that we knew from previous visits: Common Teal. Formerly recognized as a distinct and unique species, this Eurasian sub-species of Green-winged Teal visits us occasionally. Readily recognizable males lack the vertical white bar on the anterior portion of its flanks. Instead they sport a horizontal white bar on the scapulars that ours lacks. Another more subtle identifying feature of the drake Common Teal is the more prominent white striping in the face. Conversely, male Green-winged Teal lack this altogether, or show only a little bit. Thus, birders should watch this space for future developments. The International Ornithological Union already re-split Common Teal out from the Green-winged Teal. Hence, when the American Ornithological Union may follow suit. Either way, it’s a snazzy looking bird!

All pictures were taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece and Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope, using a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ.

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