Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pelagic Photos

Pomarine Jaeger at the Nine Mile Bank in San Diego County waters.

Elegant Terns. They range out surprisingly far into the ocean; we had one at least sixty miles offshore.

Fin Whale.

Sunset on the first day. Trust me, getting a photo with a horizontal horizon is no mean feat from a rocky boat.

Flying fish!

Black-footed Albatross. We had three of these wonderful birds following the boat all day Saturday.

Buller's Shearwaters were reasonable common well offshore.

Leach's Storm-Petrel.

During the slow periods, people would put a couple fishing lines off the back of the boat. We ended up with several fish, one of which was incorporated into Tuesday's day. Best fish I've ever tasted.

Wes Fritz, chummer extraordinaire.

Another Black-footed Albatross.

Common Tern.

Brown Booby. We encountered three Brown Boobies on this trip: one in Los Angeles County waters, one in Mexican waters, and most surprisingly, one in San Diego Harbor!

Brown Booby.

The Brown Booby in San Diego Harbor was a nice end to the trip!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Deep Blue Sea

Earlier in the summer I signed up for a two-day pelagic trip out of San Diego run by Buena Vista Audubon. These long trips take you far out into the Pacific Ocean, out into the realm of petrels and albatrosses. John Garrett, Nora Papian and I departed Orange County in the early afternoon on Monday for the trip. I do not have much time to write, so I will just post a very brief report. I scored five lifers: Ashy Storm-Petrel, Leach's Storm-Petrel, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Arctic Tern. Other interesting pelagic birds we saw included Black-footed Albatross (photo at top of post), Brown Booby, Cassin's Auklet, Buller's Shearwater, and Pomarine Jaeger. We had some good non-bird sea life, including Fin and Blue Whales, Risso's and Common Dolphins, Flying Fish, and several species of fish that we caught.

I'll try to toss up some more photos later, though my schedule promises to be busy in the near future (school starts on Monday!)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Semi Stilt

I just thought I'd post a quick note concerning some neat shorebirds I saw today. This morning, while sifting through my email before leaving for a biking expedition to the Santa Ana River, I noticed a post on OrangeCounty Birding by Jim Pike about a Stilt Sandpiper at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Though tempted to jettison my biking trip (I was hoping to find Baird's Sandpiper) to chase the Stilt Sandpiper, I carried through with my original plan and birded the Santa Ana River all morning. I didn't see any Baird's Sandpipers, but I did score two new Bigby birds - Tricolored Blackbird and Cattle Egret.

This afternoon I drove down to San Joaquin to chase the pesky Stilt Sandpiper. Noticing some birders intent on something down in the Stilt Sandpiper pond, I hurried over there and quickly had the bird pointed out to me. Though it had its head underwater most of the time (see photo at the top of the post!), I managed to get a few shots of it without its bill submerged. This species is very scarce in the county; it isn't seen every year. It was a new county bird for me.

After photographing, observing, and taking notes on the Stilt Sandpiper for awhile, I turned my attention to the swarms of other shorebirds in the pond. As expected, many dowitchers (both species), Western Sandpipers, and Wilson's Phalaropes were present. I noticed a slightly different peep in small flock of Westerns in the pond, and upon close scrutiny I identified it as a Semipalmated Sandpiper. It was very similar to the Western Sandpipers, except for its very short, stubby bill and lack of rufous on the upperparts.

Semipalmated Sandpiper is another fairly rare shorebird in Orange County; only two or three show up in the county every fall. It is primarily an eastern bird; I saw them all the time when I lived in Michigan, but this was only the second I've seen in California. This photo, which doesn't show the bill, shows the lack of rufous on the upperparts.

I was very pleased to net two good species of shorebirds in a quick afternoon jaunt to San Joaquin. Unfortunately, both species are lacking from my Bigby list, so I'm thinking of riding down there tomorrow afternoon. Some Baird's Sandpipers showed up at Bolsa Chica, so I'll have to figure out a way to chase those, too.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stunning Skimmers

If your memory is good, you may recall my confusion concerning two very similar species of dragonflies, Flame and Neon Skimmers. I coincidentally found my first Neon Skimmer just a day or two after posting photos of a skimmer I believed was a Neon Skimmer, but was actually a Flame Skimmer. Well, I thought I had already learned how to distinguish the two species, but today I was lucky enough to learn more about these two species by seeing both… within inches of each other!

I was searching for dragonflies along the lushly vegetated creek at Santiago Oaks Regional Park this afternoon when I spotted two brilliant reddish-orange dragonflies perched on the same stick near the stream. Inspection revealed one to be a Flame Skimmer, and the other a Neon Skimmer! Direct comparison of the two species allowed me to discover more identification techniques for these two dragonflies.

The most dependable difference between the two species is the extent of orange on the wings. Flame Skimmers have orange covering more than half of their wings, while Neon Skimmers show only a small amount of orange at the base of their wings. This is clearly evident in the photos. Another reliable identification characteristic is the color of the abdomen. Flame Skimmers appear bright enough to the uninitiated, but Neon Skimmers really knock your socks off. Their abdomens glow! Neon Skimmers appear much redder than Flame Skimmers.

In addition to these two classic field marks, I noticed a couple subtle differences between the two species when seen together. First of all, the Neon Skimmer had a slightly shorter and thicker abdomen than the Flame Skimmer. Second, the Flame Skimmer appeared to have slightly longer wings than the Neon Skimmer. Of course, these characteristics would be very difficult to ascertain on solitary skimmers, but when seen together, they might be helpful.

Oh, I forgot to mention which skimmer was which in the photos. I’ll let you figure it out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Sea

Walter, a young Beechey Ground-Squirrel, heard the unmistakable sounds of a granola bar being extricated from its wrapper. Good news. Walter was hungry, so he emerged onto the sidewalk from the adjacent garden to wheedle an innocent tourist out of his snack. He was quick to notice the coveted granola bar cradled in the hands of a human standing in front of an odd, three-legged animal. The breeze shifted, and Walter caught a whiff of the prize - mmmmmm, Oats and Honey! Sauntering toward the human, Walter employed every little trick that usually won the attention of humans, only to be ignored. The human, standing immobile before the three-legged animal, did not even acknowledge Walter's presence. After a few minutes of unsuccessful begging, Walter stomped off in search of easier prey.

I yawned, jammed my eyeball to the scope eyepiece, and stared at the distant water magnified through the mist. Occasionally the shadowy form of a shearwater would flit out of the mist, usually quickly disappearing. A swirling flock of Sooty Shearwaters drew my attention to a small pod of dolphins offshore. There wasn't much else to see; the mist obscured everything more than a mile or two offshore, and few birds seemed to be flying. Already bored after only ten minutes of seawatching, I fished a granola bar out of my bike bag and began munching while scanning for seabirds, barely noticing a Beechey Ground-Squirrel moseying around on the sidewalk next to me.

Giving up on seawatching, I strolled down to the beach, thinking the whole time Darn, did I just ride twenty-one miles to see a bunch of mist and some Sooty Shearwaters? My shoes began filling with sand the instant I stepped off the concrete walkway and onto the beach. Working my way over to one of the rock formations (having to leap over a creek with my scope, camera, binoculars, water bottle, etc., in the process), I began scanning for shorebirds. Hopping from rock to rock until I found a good spot to set up my scope, I cursed the sharp, jagged rocks and made a mental note to wear studier shoes than Converse next time I visited the place.

Shorebirds were scarce. Suddenly, a medium-sized black shorebird appeared atop a distant rock. I couldn't believe my luck - a Black Oystercatcher! I trained my scope on it, finding a crow exactly where the oystercatcher had been sitting. Hmmm.

Two Black-bellied Plovers wandered through the flock of motley gulls, occasionally giving mournful whistles as if they were sad about being the only genuine shorebirds around.

After scrutinizing the rest of the rocks and finding no other shorebirds, I turned my attention to the jetty of the adjacent Newport Harbor. Shorebirds generally don't like the jetty as much as the natural rock formations, but they must have forgotten that this morning; I quickly spotted a few Black Turnstones. I watched a different grayish shorebird I suspected was a Wandering Tattler until it took flight, showing no white in the wings or tail. Wandering Tattler indeed. My first new Bigby bird. At last, the morning seemed to be shedding its grim atmosphere.

The mist appeared to be burning off a bit, so I climbed back to the top of the bluff to take another shot at seawatching. After scanning and finding nothing except the same shearwaters and dolphins, I turned my attention to the terns swirling and diving over the ocean, hoping to pick out a more unusual species. In just a few minutes, I did, though you wouldn't guess judging just by the name - Common Tern. This species is a rather uncommon migrant through Orange County, and I missed it for my Bigby list last year. This tern, in fact, led me to my next new Bigby bird as it was flyin' roun' an' stuff over the ocean: three Red-necked Phalaropes bobbing around amongst the waves.

I was busy watching another tight little knot of phalaropes buzzing in for a landing beside their buddies when a feminine voice brimming with curiosity asked "Whatcha lookin' at?"
"Seabirds," I replied laconically, jerking my head to acknowledge the woman's presence.
"Seabirds?" She repeated in a voice that suggested that she doubted the existence of such creates.
"Way out," I said, nodding, affirming their existence, as she continued walking down towards the beach.

They - the hordes of beach goers - streamed by, I'm sure all curious, but most not bold enough to ask what a scruffy teenager was doing pointing something that looked vaguely like a missile launcher out to sea. Most people just walk by, sometimes so busy staring that they trip over my tripod. At least a couple people usually end up talking to me about birds or cameras each time I go seawatching. The tourists are part of the fun of seawatching - scaring them, having conversation with them, ignoring them, or impressing them by informing them that yes, I really did ride that bike twenty-one miles to get here just to look at birds.

After the interruption, I looked back at the phalaropes only to discover a dozen more had arrived. Small parties flew by often, some of them stopping, others hurrying on. Lots of phalaropes. The novelty of the phalaropes wore off after a while, so I pointed my scope farther offshore. The decreasing amount of mist revealed increasing numbers of shearwaters. Lines of dozens of Sooty Shearwaters cruised by, and after some careful scanning I spotted a single Pink-footed Shearwater and a few Black Storm-Petrels. Then...

OHMYGOSH A SMALLDARKBIRD BUZZINGTHEWATERACLID! I followed it in my scope, carefully noting characteristics that identified it as a Rhinoceros Auklet. It was mostly dark (not smartly black and white like a Xantus's Murrelet), but with a paler belly and slower wing beats than a Cassin's Auklet. Needless to say, this was another Bigby bird for me, and a decent one at that - I think it's pretty neat to have an alcid on my Bigby list.

Around ten, I decided to leave after over two hours of seawatching. I packed up my affects and bade goodbye to the seabirds, shorebirds, and beach goers as I wearily pedaled off down the street in the direction of home. Seawatching is always enjoyable (at least when there are seabirds to see!), but it is particularly fun to do by bike. It's a long trip (I put forty-four miles on my bike today) and requires an early start (I had to leave my house before a lot of the birds woke up!), but the payoff is worth it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dragonfly LIfers 14-16

I've gotten three life dragonflies in the past week, but before I write about those I need to back up and retract that Neon Skimmer from earlier in the week. I wasn't entirely sure about it, and sure enough several people contacted me to set me straight: it was actually a Flame Skimmer. However, I'm not taking Neon Skimmer off my list; on Thursday, I found several genuine Neon Skimmers (Libellula croceipennis) at Santiago Oaks Regional Park. In the photo at the top of this post and the next photo note the limited amount of orange in the wings and the retina-searing red abdomen. Not a bad-looking dragonfly!

I scored another life dragonfly at Santiago Oaks on Thursday, thankfully one that is easily identified. While hiking along one of the trails, I was buzzed by a very elegant blackish dragonfly with a bold white spot on its abdomen - a Pale-faced Clubskimmer (Brechmorhoga mendax)! Unfortunately, it was devilishly uncooperative for photos and this poor photo does not give this beautiful insect justice.

The dragonflies were so absorbing that I barely noticed the birds. Actually, that's mostly a lie, since it was midday and the birds were not very active anyway. The only decent bird photo I got was of this ragged Hutton's Vireo.

My second "life" dragonfly was none too exciting, since I've seen this species hundreds of times before. However, I'd never photographed it, so when I came across this Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata) patrolling the neighborhood lake, I spent quite a bit of time attempting to photograph this fast-flying insect. I made a few clumsy attempts to catch it but only succeeded in making a fool of myself.

Here's a second photo that shows the black "saddlebags" on the wings better.

This morning I went for a ride up Saddleback (the highest peak in the Santa Ana Mountains) with my dad and Bob Scrimger. I was surprised to find lots of darners flying around up near the peak, far from any water. Like the previous two species, it was a great challenge to photograph them in flight. I finally succeeded, and after a bit of research I am fairly confident this is a California Darner (Aeshna californica.)

Although we weren't doing any hard-core birding, we saw a few interesting birds, including Phainopepla, Mountain Chickadee, Western Wood-Pewee, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and others. The views were spectacular along Main Divide Road and on top of the peak. Looking south from the peak, we were treated to fine views of Starr Ranch and the overlapping hills of the southern Santa Anas.

Turning approximately 135º and looking northeast, we could see the distant San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains with the lower Santa Anas in the foreground.

We rewarded ourselves for surviving the bumpy trip down the mountain with an excellent lunch at the quaint Silverado Cafe (highly recommended!) It was a pleasant morning, with some good birds, excellent views, and my first California Darners.

So, it was a productive week for dragonflies. I snagged three lifers (four, actually, counting Neon Skimmer.) Hopefully more will come; I'm hoping to have twenty species on my list by the end of the summer!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dragonfly Lifers #12-13

My pursuit of new dragonflies has been pushed to the back burner during the last few works while I was working at camp, but I've scored two new species recently. I'd better hustle out searching for dragonflies in the next few weeks before they start to disappear!

The first one is a bit graphic. I'd noticed dozens of small damselflies flitting about the neighborhood lake, and narrowed them down to Bluet sp. To positively identify them, I collected one and looked at the tip of its terminal abdomen appendage under a microscope. I was able to positively identify it as a Tule Bluet (Enallagma carunculatum.)

This afternoon, while photographing dragonflies at the neighborhood lake, I came across this skimmer. I assumed it was a Flame Skimmer at first, but after photographing it and looking it up in my field guide I believe it is actually the very similar Neon Skimmer (Libellula croceipennis.) The lack of dark brown streaks on the wings and the brilliant reddish orange abdomen seem good for this species.

I was also able to drastically improve on my photos of Red-tailed Pennant (Brachymesia furcata.) One has been hanging out at the lake in my neighborhood, but it usually stays well from the edge, flying constant low over the water and rarely landing. Today I noticed that it was sitting on a small reed a few feet from the edge of the lake. Unfortunately, it was facing away and the light was bad, so a good photo did not seem possible. The opportunity was too good to pass up; I hiked up my shorts and gingerly stepped into the shallow water of the lake. I maneuvered through the disgusting water and slime until I was close to the dragonfly with the sun at my back. Hardly pleasant, but I'm happy with the result.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Summer Flies By

Summer is disappearing at an alarming rate. It seems only yesterday I was leaving for the Young Birder's Conference in San Diego, yet that was well over a month ago. The past four weeks have been a dizzying blur of leading bird walks, hauling trash, and teaching bird lessons for birding day camps at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. August, the last month of summer remaining, promises to be quiet and filled with plenty of summer school. My hectic life of the last month or so has not allowed many blog posts, so here the pictorial highlights of the last week of camp.

Instead of sleeping in and driving to San Joaquin on Monday, I woke long before dawn and rolled out of the driveway on my bike at five-thirty. I planned to do a big day bike, though carefully engineered to not interfere with my work at camp. I arrived at Upper Newport Bay by quarter to seven and birded there for about an hour and a half before heading to San Joaquin to work at the camp. This Green Heron was patiently fishing from a rock near the Jamboree Road bridge.

The ride around Back Bay Drive always produces lots of birds. Shorebirds swarmed over every mudflat; careful scoping revealed more uncommon species such as Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Semipalmated Plover among the abundant Willets, Marbled Godwits, Western Sandpipers, and others. A bedraggled Surf Scoter was a good bonus. Clapper Rails are always difficult to come by, so I crossed my fingers and kept my ears open. I was pleasantly surprised to spot two of these elusive birds walking around on an open mudflat! Another surprise was a single Loggerhead Shrike on Shellmaker Island.

I had to be at San Joaquin by quarter to nine, so I abandoned Upper Newport Bay far sooner than I would have liked. The first day of the last week of camp was much like all the other days - bird walk in the morning, lessons later in the morning and afternoon. I left the marsh in the mid-afternoon heat (not before enjoying some nice cake and watermelon, though!) and after a very long and hot ride I arrived home. My house is situated near the edge of the foothills, and therefore has different bird species. A quick walk around my neighborhood before dinner produced new species such as Say's Phoebe, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. I birded Irvine Regional Park in the evening, finding species like Acorn Woodpecker, California Thrasher, and this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

I birded Irvine Regional Park until sunset. I would have stuck around later to look for owls, but I was tired from riding about forty miles and had to prepare a bird lesson for the next day of camp. In just an hour or so I found about a dozen new species at Irvine Regional Park, enough to bring my total for the day to one hundred and four. Not bad for July, especially by bike!

The rest of my week was considerably tamer. I birded Huntington State Beach briefly on Wednesday afternoon, having arrived early for a beach party. So little was around that I resorted to photographing the Heermann's Gulls out of boredom.

The last day of camp, traditionally the most hectic because it runs all day and includes a sleepover, was briefly interrupted when Trudy Hurd popped over with a Common Yellowthroat that had managed to get inside one of the other buildings and collided with a window.

The evening walk on Friday was productive. Lots of birds gather in the ponds to roost, included these two Whimbrels.

We finished our evening walk at dusk, quietly enjoyed the sunset in front of one of the ponds while watching and listening to the birds. All the camps were finally over, I finally realized as I drove home from the sleepover on Saturday morning. Now that I have more time, I look forward to writing some more serious blog posts.