The next day’s Zeiss Victory SF tour activities started later in the morning. However, some of us were unwilling to let the best birding of the day slide by unused. So a few of us rose at 5:00 am to walk to reedy marshes that spread like fingers into the edge of town. What a great decision! Our first reward was a brief but definitive view of Savi’s Warbler on the marsh edge. Loudly singing its distinctive low-pitched hum of a song; easily overlooked if not focused upon.
For our first day of birding on the Zeiss Victory SF tour, we boarded the bus in Vienna at 6:30 the next morning and headed for Neusiedl am See, our base of operations for the rest of the tour. Neusiedl am See is located on a large lake, the Neusiedler See, in the southeastern part of Austria, nestled in the wine country near the Hungarian border. This lake has extensive marshy edges, making it a haven for waterfowl, herons and shorebirds. With laudable directness, we drove right past our lodgings and got straight to the birding, traveling clockwise round to the southeastern shore of the Neusiedler See. Continue reading
I just got home from attending the Zeiss Victory SF Experience tour. This press event celebrated the release of their new world-class SF Binocular. Zeiss took us on a tour of their factory in Wetzlar, Germany. There we saw how they assemble their new Victory SF binoculars. The extensive testing they do ensures a high level of quality control. That visit impressed all of us! Between travelling and a tour of the lovely old town section of Wetzlar Germany, we birded little on our first day.
Much of our birding time there involved common hedge and garden birds. Anyone with much European birding experience knows these birds intimately. Since I’d not previously visited continental Europe, these common birds delighted me! I enjoyed common birds like Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Black Redstart, Short-toed Treecreeper, Fieldfare, Serin and others. It was also a chance to get to know my fellow trip participants. There were a lot of really good birders on this trip, and I benefited greatly from their experience and knowledge. Continue reading
We can learn a lot by watching animals. Unlike humans, they remain focused on their task at all times. This Green Heron, gone fishin at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California was no exception.
Green Herons, like most members of the heron and egret family, fish and crustaceans for a living. They have to get good at it to survive. Of the family members that occur in North America, the Great Blue Heron and the Cattle Egret eat land-based critters. The Great Blue Heron will eat anything it can fit in its mouth including rodents and birds. The Cattle Egret eats mostly insects, but also frogs and worms.
Recently, we took a trip to one of the local canyons in the Santa Ana mountains in search of mid-April migrants. We hit the jackpot almost immediately. Right away, this handsome Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) greeted us in the parking lot. Surprisingly, he was pretty cooperative too. We stopped in a dry foothill canyon to listen for sparrows. First, Lazuli Bunting, Black-chinned Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Western Tanager rewarded us. Typically, California Thrasher, Bewick’s Wren and both Blue-gray and California Gnatcatchers were there, along with California Towhee, Phainopepla and a distant Coastal Cactus Wren.
Next, we went to our target destination: Silverado Canyon. The reported MacGillivray’s Warbler, a much sought-after mid-April migrant, ultimately called loudly enough to be heard over the stream. Mountain Quail were calling from all over everywhere. Pacific-slope Flycatchers worked the under story over the creek. Following that, a wave of common warblers came through: Wilson’s, Townsend’s, Black-throated Gray, and a few Nashville Warblers. A handful of late Yellow-rumped Warblers of the Audubon’s race also showed up. Some of the Orange-crowned Warblers (Oreothlypis celata) annually stay and breed here. And the morning light was perfect for photography too.
Surprisingly, the vireos put in a good showing too, with half a dozen migrant Warbling Vireos and at least two singing Cassin’s Vireos. Perhaps the most common vireos were the vocal resident Hutton’s. An early Western Wood-Pewee sang its distinctive song in the distance, a perfect complement to the activity in front of us. Later, at a stream crossing with shallow pools, we found migrants coming in to bathe and drink. Hermit Thrushes stood by shyly as the warblers boldly splashed about. This lovely male Hermit Warbler (Setophaga occidentalis) gave us quite a show. Some of these bathing birds were so busy, they let us approach quite closely. Thus, even small birds like these warblers were huge in the 10×42 Zeiss Victory SF binoculars we were lucky to be using. It’s pretty hard to beat that kind of frame-filling view of such beautiful birds!
Lastly, I shot these photos with a Canon EOS T3 equipped with a 100-400 mm zoom lens.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park in Laguna Niguel, California is a wonderful place to go in the spring. Summer resident breeding birds are often perched up and singing. The habitat is a combination of coastal sage scrub with willow and cottonwood riparian areas. A road parallels the creek that runs down the center of the canyon. Late March and early April is the perfect time to visit, because you can see and hear Greater Roadrunner, Least Bell’s Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Therefore, I headed there to try digiscoping with my micro 4/3 format camera through the Swarovski ATX Modular Eyepiece with the Swarovski 85mm Modular Objective. The Chats weren’t in yet. I saw one Blue Grosbeak but it was high in a willow against marine layer clouds – a difficult background to work with.
As luck would have it, I found this Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus posted up and singing. The bird sat low enough that there was foliage in the background. The Grosbeak was so vivid and sang beautifully. Therefore, I immediately decided to take a video. Fortunately, it was easy to mount the camera to the scope, thanks to the Swarovski TLS-APO SLR camera adapter, and I was rolling seconds after I had focused on the Black-headed Grosbeak with the ATX 85 spotting scope.
The pale downy feathers are the Grosbeak’s insulation system. He was fluffed-up because the chill from the previous night had not yet left the air.
Recently, Optics4Birding participated as a vender in the annual San Diego Bird Festival. After three days of talking with people about optics, it felt great to revert to merely being a birder. At the gracious invitation of Swarovski, I joined the Islas Coronados Pelagic Trip. I have been on a few of these festival pelagics before, but this was my first in some time. Over the years, the trip underwent some important changes. While it was always good, I am happy to report it is even better now!
Years ago, it was just a 4-hour jaunt to the Coronado Islands of Mexico with the major target being Brown Booby, which occasionally roosted on the cliffs of Middle Island. On a good day, you maybe saw two of them. Recently, the festival switched operators, and SoCal Birding now runs the boats. In addition to the Coronado Islands trip, there is an 8-hour venture to the 9-Mile Bank. This vast underwater seamount features deeper, colder, nutrient-rich waters that lure in a host of pelagic life forms to this point just 14 miles offshore. It is worth noting that the leadership on these trips is truly world class. Some of them literally wrote the book; others just know enough that they could have! Kudos also goes to Swarovski Optik, who generously subsidizes the trip. That holds down the cost so participants can get a great trip at an amazing price.
As the bus left Marina Village where they hold the festival, rain streaked the windows. But excitement kept the mood upbeat as we boarded the boat during a dry spell. As usual, Swarovski, was loaning binoculars to anyone bold enough to take them. I brought a pair of 10×42 EL Swarovision binoculars from Optics4Birding so on my way onto the boat, I clarified with them the important difference between loaned (theirs) and “stolen” (ours!). Conventional wisdom says you don’t take 10x bins onto a boat since they’re harder to hold steady. And frankly there are enough impediments to steadiness on a pelagic trip. You wouldn’t know it by me! The waters were calm, with the waves seldom exceeding 5 feet with only minimal wind. I had cracking views all day, and the extra magnification was very useful on the more distant birds and mammals.
Leaving the Harbor
On our way out of the harbor, we saw all the expected species, starting with Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants. A number of dark-bellied Brant swam by, and a Herring Gull mixed in with the common Western and Heermann’s Gulls. A wintering Long-tailed Duck among the Surf Scoters and a young Glaucous-winged Gull added spice to the mix. A frightful crush of cormorants, herons, egrets and pelicans sat on the bait barge. But several Black Turnstones lent the place a bit more dignity.
Common, Pacific and Red-throated Loons were all present in the channel as we headed out to the 9-Mile Bank. A Parasitic Jaeger was chasing gulls and terns at the tip of the headland. Shortly thereafter, the first Rhinoceros Auklets appeared, looking like stubby shoeboxes with wings. Rhinos are probably closer to puffins than other auklets, and this was evident in those that allowed us closer approach. Soon Cassin’s Auklets, barely 1/5 the size of the Rhinos, were zinging away at our approach. They looked like little gray tennis balls in flight. Our last alcid of the day was Xantus’ Murrelet, which almost invariably appeared in pairs. These were birds of the locally-breeding scrippsi sub-species. They show prominent white eye crescents, but lack the white cheek patch of the northerly-breeding hypoleucos sub-species.
No less exciting than the birds were the mammals. We saw several pods of Risso’s Dolphins with their characteristic scarring of the upper body and their large dorsal fins. Risso’s Dolphins feed primarily on squid, who take vigorous exception to the process. These dolphins also use their teeth on each other to communicate. Thus, these dolphins often look like Jackson Pollack art. The trip also yielded some close encounters with multiple Finback Whales. California Sea Lions were everywhere, and on the rocks of the Coronados, we saw Harbor and Southern Elephant Seals. The last two mammals were Pacific White-sided Dolphins and Short-beaked Common Dolphins. Experts recently separated them from the Long-beaked species. Evidently, the splitters hold sway among the mammologists too!
We also saw scattered tubenoses, beginning with another local breeder, Black-vented Shearwater. Their small size and rapid wingbeats made them fairly easy to distinguish from the larger shearwaters we would see. By contrast, the much larger Pink-footed Shearwaters have a more languid wingbeat and frequently glide for long distances. Intermediate between them was a single Sooty Shearwater, unique among these three species in having an all-dark belly. Their silvery underwing linings (rather than clearly white) are a distinguishing field mark . Much discussion raged around a putative Short-tailed Shearwater. But the best was still to come.
First, a Black-footed Albatross was found and lured to the crowd of gulls among the chum at the back. A constant dribble of cod liver oil kept it following us for quite some time. So everyone got great looks at this spectacular ocean wanderer. Then a Northern Fulmar brought everyone to the railing. This bird showed its classic blunt, bull-headed look, emphasized by the steep forehead. Right on its tail came the unexpected gem of the trip: a gorgeous Laysan Albatross. This bird nearly caused participants to capsize the boat when it cut sharply across the bow, and everyone raced to that side. Okay, not really, but the pandemonium was impressive!
Visiting the Coronado Islands
When we got closer to the Coronados, we began seeing Brown Boobies in flight. Soon we were at the nesting/roosting cliffs at Middle Island. We saw them in great numbers, logging between 25 and 30 individuals. Our trip around the South Island netted us a Wandering Tattler or two, a few Black Oystercatchers, and then a very interesting American x Black Oystercatcher hybrid. We see such birds fairly frequently in southern California, but this one was particularly pretty. Eventually, we headed north to return to San Diego. A Black-footed albatross taunted us on the way, coming in behind the boat and hanging with us for quite a while before veering away west and out of sight within a half mile of the U.S. border. But then it, or another like it, returned shortly after we crossed the border, followed by a second individual.
Not to be outdone, a Brown Booby showed up in flight fairly close to the channel mouth. Immediately after that, a Parasitic Jaeger was seen hounding an Elegant Tern. While we were docking, this fantastic Double-crested Cormorant showed up in all his nuptial splendor. You seldom get to see them looking this fine, a fitting end to a great trip!