Today was a wonderful day! It was the first-ever combination of Bob Power's and my Palo Alto Adult School birding classes. Our two Seabirds of Monterey Bay groups each held separate 2-hour orientations during the week in preparation for our group day on the water. Today, we filled the boat with friends from both camps, along with expert spotters Dan Singer, Todd Easterla and Roger Wolfe. It was in fact, Roger's Monterey Seabirds group and Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society worked together to make today's fantastic charter trip on the Point Sur Clipper possible.
The weather looked good on shore, but shortly after exiting the Monterey bay harbor we encountered fog. This forced us to alter our original plan somewhat and perhaps reduced our final species list just a little. Roger knows the specifics of what we did and did NOT due as a result of the change, but it worked out fine. The water was smooth and the boat ride was very pleasant all day. Birding on the bay however, is always subject to the whims of weather however, and despite the change in route, we ended up seeing nearly all of our target birds.
We set out at 7:30 with a large eucalyptus tree branch perched on the roof. This time of year, it's not uncommon to have migrant Passerines land in the branches, eager to find a resting stop on their journey. That didn't happen today, but I kep glancing up at those branches to check for exhausted songbirds. Moving on, the harbor and jetty was crowded with California Sea Lions, a few Sea Otters and of course, many Brown Pelicans, Brandt's Cormorants, California, Western and Heermann's Gulls. We also saw a few Elegant Terns, Black Turnstones and Surfbirds.
Exiting the harbor we headed past Point Piños catching a few Pigeon Guillemot and dozens of Common Murre along the way. This latter species was seen in multitudes throughout the day, usually in rafts of 8-15 birds at a time. Oddly, the Rhinoceros Auklets we saw were usually in pairs. At one point we passed a kelp bed that had hundreds of Elegant Terns resting on the surface. As we got near, hundreds of these beautiful birds rose up simultaneously and flew over our boat. Eventually, many of them settled again. It was breathtaking to see them in such numbers. One Common Loon was spotted as it flew over the front of our boat.
Soon after leaving the visible coastline behind us, mostly because of fog... we heard make the first call of Shearwater from the back of the boat. Not a Sooty, but a Buller's Shearwater was the first to arrive. It came in at 11 o'clock on the boat (that's front left...) and then crossed our bow. It then glided down our right side and passed us out back. Most people got a good look, but we had several more later in the day.
Photo: Ashutosh Sinha
Sooty Shearwaters and Pink-footed Shearwaters were more numerous when we got out a bit more. We enjoyed differentiating the vastly different flight styles of the three Shearwater species we say. On one extreme we had the Sooty with its rushed-feeling flap-flap-flap-glide style, and on the other the relaxed, languid wingbeats of the Pink-foot. Perhaps somewhere in the middle was the Buller's Shearwater with its long, very graceful glides interrupted by flap-flap glides. There was an intangible beauty and elegance to this species, in part because of its striking pattern, but also its elegant flight which was noted by many observers. We got "tickable" looks at 2 or 3 Black-vented Shearwaters, but certainly not ideal looks. Late in the day we also had a single pale Northern Fulmar. I was surprised by this as I expected to see many more on this date. Numbers should increase as winter approaches, but Roberson indicates on his checklist that numbers do fluctuate.
Strangely, in one particularly productive Shearwater spot, we also had a small group of Brant flying in the distance and a Northern Pintail overhead. Seemed a little out of place, but the fog does disorient birds... Speaking of fog, and disorientation... I thought I heard some small Songbird-type calls overhead. Could they be the confused calls of a lost Yellow-rumped Warbler. I checked the tree perhed atop the cabin. Nothing.
Photo: Tom Grey www.pbase.com/tgrey
On a grander scale, we saw several Black-footed Albatrosses of various ages. Younger birds were entirely cocoa-colored while the older birds were dusted with confectioner's sugar on the face. They lumbered in like massive B-52s and were met with streaks of joy from everyone on board. Huge, slow moving and impressive, these birds were probably the stars of the day. Many of us got to see the famous "locked-wing" position of this large bird as it banked for a wide turn. This ability is made possible by a special adaptation of the tendons in the back and shoulders, which actually click into a locked position not unlike a folding knife that is opened with a snap.
Photo: Tom Grey www.pbase.com/tgrey
Our Storm-Petrel encounters were numerous but fleeting as expected. Roger had said we would give these tiny birds a chase, especially since fog was making visibilty in more southern areas. So after the viewing conditions pushed us to other areas, we began to see these tiny, mysterious birds crisscrossing the bow. No bigger than Starlings, but with much longer wings, they quickly moved in and out of view, appearing for an instant, then disappearing behind waves. We ended up seeing mostly Ashy Storm-Petels, but also had small numbers of Black and, one Least. Again, it was the flight style and overall structure of these birds that makes identification possible with such quick looks. Ashy has shallower wingbeats, and at times seems more bat-like than the Black, which has deeper wingbeats and a more confident flight. Color can help in good light, as can size. Least Storm-Petrel seems all but tail-less and flutters like a butterfly. Anyway, a better look is desired on all of them...
We encountered fewer Jaegers than I expected, but by the end of the day we had seen at least two Pomarine Jaegers, two Parasitic Jaegers in full on-tail chase of a panic-struck Elegant Tern, and one very uncertain, but possible Long-tailed Jaeger. The differences between these three is less than obvious most of the time. Overall structure, and if you're lucky enough to see the bird next to a known species, you can compare size. The upper wing and any visible white shafts can be useful, but mostly it's the body structure, mass and flight style that was helpful. As we watched these birds, a small Tern flew into my view, something about it didn't quite click. Unfortunately by the time I figured out what I was seeing it the bird was too far to get folks on it. I believe it was a Common Tern in basic plumage. Everything about the bird was correct. My brain was just tired.
Photo: Tom Grey www.pbase.com/tgrey
Always exciting is when the big gun shows up. We had three South Polar Skua sightings; I believe they were 2 or possibly 3 different individuals. Huge, muscular and intimidating, these highly predatory birds showed up just long enough to give the other birds something to worry about. The left the scene after deciding there wasn't much to eat, and moved on. The other birds probably shared collective sigh of relieve.
Perhaps the most exciting species we saw was a small pod of Killer Whales. Another boat alerted us to the Orcas not far from where we were, and Roger raced to meet them. Apparently, they were feeding on something before we arrived. When we got to the spot there were also two Humpback Whales here quite close to us. We saw the larger whale's tail as it dove, and on two occasions the Killer Whales breached fully out of the water. It was thrilling!
Photo: Tom Grey www.pbase.com/tgrey
At the end of our trip we disembarked, and tipped the two young girls who had taken a perfectly good Sunday and spent it throwing stale popcorn and smelly fish over the stern in the hopes of luring some interesting Seabirds into viewing range for us landlubbers. Thanks to them and the expert spotters on board, we had a spectacular day, and got some killer views of marine mega fauna as well.
Great Blue Heron
South Polar Skua
Long-tailed Jaeger (possible)
Common Tern (probable)
We awoke to another unfamiliar sound this morning. Actually, not so much unfamiliar, but a sound we hadn't heard for a while. A White-crowned Sparrow was giving an emphatic, almost metallic chip note from the branches right outside our bedroom window. With a little work, we found the bird sitting still on a shaded branch by the trellis. We continued to hear him until we left the house to visit a few spots we plan on birding with the SFBBO Team DeDUCTtions next week.
First we visited Sunnyvale Baylands Park where a few other birders were already in position. Callling Pacific-slope Flycatchers, non-vocal "Western" Flycatchers and a number of Yellow Warblers and one Orange-crowned Warbler were easy enough to find. We were not successful in finding any of the less common migrants that had been spotted of late. But our first Yellow-rumped Warblers and 3 Lincoln's Sparrows were hints of things to come. Cricket spotted a female Selasphorus Hummingbird, probably Allen's, and we got brief looks at a female Western Tanager.
We also visited the Coyote Creek Field Station where the ponds contained nothing unusual. The best bird of this portion of the trip was a hatch-year Brewer's Sparrow that had just been banded by the team. The SFBBO staff volunteers were just getting ready to release the bird when we arrived. They took a few photographs for documentation and then it was done.
I was finally successful in finding the Pectoral Sandpiper yesterday evening at Radio Road. It was my second try to see this beautiful bird, one of my favorites! I was especially conscious of the snow white flanks on this bird, whichi contrasted dramatically with the golden-rufous plumage of the back. Most Dowitchers in the area were approaching uniform gray, with only an occasional juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher showing similarly painted coloration. Cricket was especially struck by the conical bill and the pinkish base of the mandible. Anyway, it was resting with the many Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits and Willets on the long slender island just past the parking lot beside the dog run. Also present were three Black Skimmers.
This morning just before sunrise, we were awakened by a Western Screech Owl giving its barking call outside our bedroom window. I was thrilled because it was a new addition to our yard list, which up until this morning had only one other Owl, a Barn Owl heard flying over the house earlier this year.
This morning I scanned the double row of poplars with a dozen or so other birders. When I left around 9:00 the Canada Warbler had not been refound, but it wasn't for lack of looking. I did see scads of Yellow Warblers, 4 Orange-crowned Warblers, 3 Wilson's Warblers, no less than 5 vocal Pacific-slope Flycatchers, just as many non-vocal "Western" Flycatchers, a Warbling Vireos, and a Red-breasted Sapsucker. Also heard a White-crowned Sparrow near the restrooms. Itwas very birdy for the two hours I was in the park, but activity began to slow as the breeze picked up. Perhaps later today...
I made another jaunt to Palo Alto Baylands to see what was happening in the fennel. Not much... and in the pools by the parking lot the Shorebirds were unchanged since the previous visit except for a single Spotted Sandpiper who flew in, attembed to find a dry patch to land on. After making several circles around the pool, it decided to look elsewhere.
I spent part of lunch hour at the famous fennel patch near the ranger station at the Palo Alto Baylands. I had hardly finished one round of pishing when the Willow Flycatcher popped into view to see who was making all that noise. Other birds included both male and female Common Yellowthroat, one Bewick's Wren and a single Yellow Warbler. I'm sure there's more hiding in that area, but there was a large picnic going on near the barbecue so it was a little hard to hear things. The puddles near the visitors center had a nice assemblage of Shorebirds, but nothing unexpected. Mostly Least but also a few Western Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs etc.
Cricket and I visited Coyote Hills Regional Park today too. Most ponds were dry and the "no name trail" produced no Shorebirds at all, but plenty of American White Pelicans, Great, and Snowy Egrets. The south parking lot had a Loggerhead Shrike perched cooperatively near the outhouse, and we later found a second Shrike near the dry basin across from the visitors center. We searched for Rock Wren up in the rocky overlook, but no luck there... The real highlight was a Willow Flycatcher which was foraging in the thicket bordering the south end of the north pond. We also found Yellow Warbler here, as well a House Wren, Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Barn Swallow. To reach this area, take the trail which leads across the marsh toward the pond where many Am. White Pelicans gather. Here also were Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal and Mallard. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were roosting along the edge of the marsh.
We also made a quick stop at Don Edwards finding much the same assemblage of Shorebirds, with perhaps even more Lesser Yellowlegs along the entrance road.
A very vocal Pacific-slope Flycatcher paid a visit to our back yard this morning. If it hadn't vocalized repeatedly, I'd have to call it a "western" Flycatcher... I was still groggy and not-quite-caffeinated when I heard the telltale whistle once, followed by a few disconnected notes from our bedroom window. Then the slurred came whistle again, and again. The phrases were infrequent, but easily recongizable. It finally appeared very briefly in the yucca tree, but it was enough to know I wasn't imaging things. Looking back, it was about this time last year we had one in our yard too.
I was happy to hear a Western Tanager in our back yard on Saturday morning. It was still dark outside, but the call "pri-did it!" call was easy enough to ID.
Cricket and I also paid a visit to the Coyote Creek Field Station shorebird pond on Sunday, finding a high number of 18 Lesser Yellowlegs , as well as several adult and juvenile Greater Yellowlegs. The high winds made it difficult to hold binocs and scope steady, consequently, we didn't find much at A16 where it was positively howling in the afternoon! Two Red-necked Phalaropes made for something different since
Western and Least Sandpipers were the only other small Shorebirds we saw.
Today, Petersen and I made a trip to the coast, hoping to find some interesting Shorebirds. The wind was still pretty strong, and generally, birds were staying on the down-low and hard to see.
After leaving Pescadero Creek overlook, which had 6 or so Semipalmated Plovers and 7 offshore Pacific Loons, a Common Merganser and a Common Murre, we visited Phipp's Ranch. There were quite a few Wilson's Warblers to be found there, and 2 Townsend's Warblers, 2 Warbling Vireos and a Huttons Vireo . Red-shouldered Hawk , 2 Downy Woodpeckers, both Band-tailed Pigeons and Eurasian Collared Doves were easily seen, but no hoped for rarities, most especially the recently reported Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Oh, well... We did have two Swainson's Thrushes and one Hermit Thrush in the natural garden area.
Along Gazos Creek we encountered more two Hairy Woodpeckers, many Band-tailed Pigeons, and more several more Wilson's Warblers. We also heard a few calling Wrentits but again, it was generally slow. The fennel patch along Hwy 1, just north of the Gazos Creek parking lot, 4 Song Sparrows, two Savannah Sparrows and a female Common Yellowthroat were found. Swallows foraging overhead were primarily Violet-green, but Northern Rough-winged and an occasional Barn were seen.