Saturday, December 31, 2011

Christmas in the Canyon

“So, what are you going to do with Alison when she’s here next week?” my mom asked from across the table, sandwich poised halfway to her mouth.

Swallowing a mostly-chewed chunk of apple, I rattled off the traditional activities: seawatching, hiking, cooking. I paused, watching the sandwich approach my mom’s mouth, and then revealed, a touch reluctantly, my final plan: “I was also thinking about hiking up Silverado Canyon at two in the morning to look for owls.”

The sandwich stalled and took a nosedive to the plate. “Are you crazy?” my mom demanded. “Alison won’t want to do that.” I ducked my head and smirked.

The interior of the car was dim—nearly as dark as a deserted canyon in the wee hours of the morning, but light enough to spy Alison’s bags heaped in the trunk with a check of the rearview mirror. I could glimpse Alison herself in the passenger seat if I shifted my eyes to the right. Hitting my turn signal and glancing over my shoulder to change lanes, I breached the lapse in conversation with a proposal. “Now, this scheme has been condemned as foolhardy by my parents, but would you be interested in a middle-of-the-night hike up Silverado Canyon for owls?”

Alison did not hesitate. “What kind of question is that? Uh, YEAH! When are we going to do it?”

I thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “Christmas morning.”

That is why we are speeding down Santiago Canyon Road in the dark, the clock on the dash displaying 2:04. With every blink, my eyelids stick together like fingers covered in pine sap. Up ahead, a distant pair of headlights rises, momentarily disappears behind a knoll, reappears, swings around a bend, disappears behind another bend, and then assaults our eyes with brightness at point blank range as it roars by with a rush of wind. The night is restored to blackness, the only illumination coming from our headlights. Another car passes, igniting the blackness with its beams. “I don’t get it,” I complained, “where are all these people going so early on Christmas?”



The clock reads 2:28. With a turn of the key I kill the clock and the car. Everything is black, black as a womb. I give Alison’s hand a squeeze and climb into the night. The air is cool but lacks the anticipated chill. Everything is black. I shoulder my backpack, grasp my staff in one hand and Alison’s hand in the other, and we begin the march. Before we can even circumvent the gate, a pair of booming Great Horned Owls interrupts us. A good sign.

Night. Far from a sinister void of anything good, the blackness teems with life. The hooting owls accompany our footsteps; nearly every bush has its own rodent rustling in the leaf litter; and a few crickets, evidently on the brink of torpor, chirp sluggishly from the roadside. Human influence is nearly imperceptible. Traffic noise, houses, and lights are absent; indeed, the only sign of our species is the scuff of concrete beneath our boots.

The steep climb warms our bodies and we stop to strip off our outer layers, breathing heavily. There is no moon; the steep canyon walls on both sides and the sky lose their individual identities and blend together, the only difference between earth and firmament being the scattering of stars overhead. I tilt my head backward and give a garbled whistle, a pathetic rendition of a Western Screech-Owl’s call. Almost immediately one stammers an angry response from the oaks lining the stream below the road. I call back once or twice more and then we continue up the road, the owl still chirring and whistling to itself in the night.

“Screech six,” I announce, waving a hand in the general direction of a muffled whistle off to the right. “Let’s get up into saw-whet country!” We continue the upward hike with renewed vigor.

A conifer—a Douglas-fir—projects from an opposing hillside, its shape only barely distinguishable from the sky. The road, steeper now, is now longer paved. Our boots are much less bored—every step has the potential for pits, rocks, or uneven surfaces. Much more interesting than flat concrete. Screech-Owls and Great Horns have become commonplace—it is unusual for ten minutes to pass without hearing one or the other. A new voice is added to the owl equation, bring us to a halt, straining our ears. It is strange—a plaintive, continuous whistle, emanating from deep in the canyon. “Saw-whet?” Alison whispers, and, cupping my ears, I can differentiate the individual whistled toots. “Yeeup—let’s move up.”

Anyone who can whistle can imitate a saw-whet. I run my tongue over my lips, tilt my head back slightly, and broadcast a tooted challenge into the canyon. A screech—number ten or eleven, I’ve lost track—chirrs in response. Several minutes pass without a sound except for my whistling. Then, during a pause in my imitations, a timid tooting begins to our left, down the hill. It sounds distant, but it crescendos from a muffled, meek whistle to a loud, pugnacious one. The bird is close. I stab the foliage with the powerful beam of the flashlight, but the oaks, seemingly offended by this foreign light source, conceal everything with a dense screen of leaves. The tooting stops, a shadow darts overhead, and the tooting resumes from uphill. Finding the bird in the beam proves to be impossible, but it is privilege enough to hear it call at such close quarters. Several times, possibly in response to a second saw-whet tooting farther down the canyon, the bird gives a sharp, shouted k’eeOW, like Green Heron but more rubbery sounding.

Our pursuit of the saw-whet has distracted us from noticing the development of the day. The day, practically a zygote when we began the hike, is now a fetus, almost ready for birth. I shake my wrist to dislodge my watch from the sleeves—it’s five past six. “Time to descend,” I sigh wistfully.

The day is born. The sun isn’t up—it won’t be for some time, with these steep ridges and walls that frame the canyon—but the birds are. Towhees, thrashers, and juncos replace the owls. Wrentits whistle from every side. I glance slyly at Alison, who is smiling. “Hey!” I exclaim, suddenly remembering something. “Merry Christmas!”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Few things sting as much as a text about a rare bird at one of your local patches. The sting isn't softened by several thousand miles, either. About a month ago, I seethed with rage when I received word about a male Hooded Warbler at Irvine Regional Park, a mere mile or so from my house. I consoled myself with that thought that, given the date, the bird would probably winter, allowing me to see it over Christmas break.

My prophecy came to pass. Twelve hours hadn't passed since my plane touched down in Orange County before I was admiring this golden knight of the underbrush. Despite its bright colors, the bird was surprisingly elusive--it took me a good hour to locate it, and it would have taken much longer had the bird not started calling. Its metallic chip is the easiest way find it.

The bird apparently wanders a bit, but its favorite area seems to be the low oak brush within the train track loop just east of the ampitheter and the large bronze statue of Mr. Irvine. Here's a map of the location.

Not a bad way to begin break! I've followed it up with sightings of Masked Booby, White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Vermilion Flycatcher. Hopefully this trend will continue for the next two weeks of break.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Falling Away

LeConte's Sparrow. In a patch of grass smaller than my dorm room. In downtown Chicago.

The sudden remembrance that I am (or, rather, was) the owner of this blog came as a surprise to me this evening; it had been several weeks since I had even thought about this outlet of boasting and bemoaning. Today being the last day of classes of the semester, I deemed it necessary to squeeze the traditional post complaining about the death of my birding life.

My acquisition of a car this year promised increased birding opportunities; if anything, I have birded less this semester than any previously. At times, an entire week would pass without even one lifting of the binoculars to the eyes, or even off their customary bedpost.

Still, the semester wasn't an entire waste. Problematic holes in my campus list, included Connecticut Warbler, Vesper Sparrow, Great Egret (!), Tundra Swan, Barred Owl, and Herring Gull (!!), lost the distinction of being holes. Occasional forays to the Caledonia Sewage Ponds between study sessions yielded Long-billed Dowitchers and Cackling Geese. I finally (i.e., finally) saw my first jaeger in Michigan, a Parasitic. On one fateful morning, a Brown Creeper landed on my jeans and creeped over my crotch. Sage Thrasher and LeConte's Sparrow in Chicago nearly convinced me that this wasteland is actually a fun place to bird.

Oh, and I got intimate with a Peregrine. Really intimate. Like, the four-foot sort of intimate.

I would bore you with more chronicles of this birdless fall, but it's time to get to bed; I'm going birding tomorrow.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Spruced Up

Meandering languidly along the deserted gravel road, I drew to a stop to survey my surroundings. Jack Pines, everywhere. Squat, gnarled conifers with scraggly needles and contorted limbs, these trees are far from stereotypical idyllic pine tree. In fact, they are ugly, and would hold little attraction to anyone other than maybe Charlie Brown. Actually, Spruce Grouse are fond of them too, and it was for them that my companions and I had traveled here, Vermilion Road in the Upper Peninsula.

My mid-road cogitations were disturbed by the sudden realization that my body really, really wanted me to urinate. The bladder being one authority figure I obey without question, I moved to the side of the road to submit to its will. I took one, two, three steps into the desiccated ferns, reached for the zipper, and—WHOOSH! I involuntarily recoiled from the ash-colored explosion from a low-hanging Jack Pine bough several feet away. Upon regaining control of both mind and bladder, I scanned the branches for the culprit of such a rude disturbance to my personal business. There it was, idly perched three feet up in a pine, red comb flared to maximum, tail fanned: a male Spruce Grouse.

“GROOOUUSE!” I bellowed, hoping my comrades were within earshot. This particular suite of so-called friends derive no greater pleasure than beating and berating me, and the latest subject of my suffering had been my incapacity to walk a straight transect, leading to my chronic separation from the group.

The first to emerge from the ugly forest was Joseph, an abnormally tall, bearded pirate of a birder. He was quickly followed by his similarly tall brother Jonathan, and then by my girlfriend Alison. We converged on the grouse and ravaged it with our eyes.

The grouse, unimpressed, strutted like Santa Claus through the sphagnum, occasionally flaring his tail and fluffing out his feathers. His initial flightiness, perhaps caused by the imminent dropping of my pants, was deceptive; at one point, he proudly sauntered within an arm’s reach. He led us to two more Spruce Grouse nestled in a clump of notably average Jack Pines. We surrounded these boreal chickens, admiring and lusting after their intricately patterned feathers and plump bodies.

Unfortunately, the story lacks a dramatic finale. Two of the grouse sat motionless in pines, apparently disinterested in life, while Santa continued to strut his stuff in the ferns below. After ample observation, we heeded the call of pasties and migrated back in the direction of the car. But first, I had unfinished business to attend to. “Guys, I’ll catch up.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sierra Sampler

Of course, I saw more than Greater Sage-Grouse during my recent stint in the Sierras. Here are a few belated photos and comments for your enjoyment.

Mountain Chickadees are the vermin of the Sierras. And to think, years ago, I fantasized of seeing one. Now I realize that they're basically Black-capped Chickadees with fancy makeup and scratchy throats.

The second greatest avian highlight after the grouse was our successful Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch expedition. Last year, one a hike to Gaylor Lake, I saw two distant flyovers. This year, they were still distant--that's right, about twelve feet distant! There were two families hanging around the perimeter of this gorgeous alpine lake.

The juveniles were uniformly clad in a distasteful gray and polluted the tundra air with their strident supplications for food. On top of this, they were irresistibly cute.

The Sierras are home to some hardcore scenery. Our group did a hike to Cathedral Lake and Tressider Peak. It was beautiful, strenuous, dangerous, and profoundly lacking in birds. The steep, several hundred yard-long descent down a glacier provided a thrill that fully compensated for the paucity of the winged ones.

This American White Pelican flew by while we were observing the sage grouse which I described in a previous post. Later, we snagged the grouse, Wilson's Snipe, and Wilson's Phalarope in the same scope field. Versatility!

Sunday, August 21, 2011


It is humiliating, but I must admit it: birding can get in the way of other activies. Like hiking. So, to remedy this chronic problem, I left my binoculars and big camera in the car this morning while I climbed San Jacinto Peak. It's a decent hike--sixteen miles roundtrip with abundant elevation gain to reach the powerful peak at 10,834 feet. I've dreamed of doing the hike for years, but it was only until this summer that I overcame the mental barriers and kicked the mountain's backside.

Here is the story of my ascent.

5:44--I slam the car door, boldly grip my staff, and head up the trail.
5:44:15--I realize I forgot my hat.
5:45--I start up the trail, for real this time...
6:15--The annoying little pain in my left heel (a pebble? a pine needle?) becomes so unbearable that I take off my shoe to rectify the situation. I am horrified to find a blister forming.
6:33--I come around a bend and flush a covey of Mountain Quail out of the trail.
6:45--I reach Saddle Junction, the top of the Devil's Slide Trail, 2.5 miles into the hike.
7:25--A flash of black and white through the trees--my first Clark's Nutsacker of the hike.
8:00--I reach Wellman Divide, 5.5 miles into the climb. I celebrate by devouring a Clif bar.
9:15--THE PEAK! It's windy, rugged, and viciously gorgeous.

10:00--After puttering around the peak for forty-five minutes (few birds--Rock Wren, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Anna's Hummingbird), I begin the descent.
11:15--The sharp pain in my left heel with every step becomes more and more excruciating. Investigation reveals that the blister is half-dollar sized. And, to top it off, one is forming on my right heel. At least I'm symmetrical.
11:38--Birds are much less obvious in the heat of midday, but I score my first Red-breasted Nuthatch of the hike.
11:45--I return to Saddle Junction, right on schedule.
12:35--The parking lot. Shoes OFF.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Watch It X--Phish

I looked up and saw him coming. Part of me cringed, but another part anticipated a new encounter with him, one of the hobos who haunts Newport Pier. His obvious state of inebriation and can of Mike's Harder Lemonade in hand promised a memorable experience. Sure enough, he sidled up and asked me what I was looking at. "A Pigeon Guillemot," I replied, not mentioning that it was found on Sunday by Brian Daniels or that it was the first juvenile recorded in the county.

I offered him a view through my scope, but he declined. "I can see it fine, man, and mah eyes are already swimmin'. Prolly not a hot idea." Then, he began rambling.

"Ever heard of a band called Phish? No, not F-I-S-H. P-H-I-S-H. Yeaaah, duuuuude, they rock. I mean, they ROCK the HOUSE. Like, every one of those dudes has a PhD in his instrument. I went to a concert once and I was like, 'Wow.' And they were like 'Wow.' And I was like, 'WOW.' And they was like, 'Wow.' And I was like, 'Uhhh,' And they were like, 'WOOOOOOWWW!' You really gotta look them up, brother."

So, I did. And they're pretty good.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Aug 18, 2011 6:00 AM - 7:55 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, misty, light breeze, cool. Pre-work seawatch from the end of Newport Pier. I stupidly keep leaving home at the same time even though the sun rises later, so I took a ten-minute nap in the car before heading out because it was still so dark. Nathaniel the crazy hobo, quite inebriated this morning, came by and rambled on for about fifteen minutes to me about various topics before continuing on in search of more alcohol.
29 species (+1 other taxa)

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata) 8 Unusual--a tight flock heading south offshore.
Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 1
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 4
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 220
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 13
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 26
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 2
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 200
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) 1
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 68
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 11
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 21
Sanderling (Calidris alba) 5
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) 2
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) 3
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 235
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 475
California Gull (Larus californicus) 1
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 12
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 1
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 5
jaeger sp. (Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.)) 1 A smallish, very dark jaeger chasing a couple terns...probably a Parasitic, but meeeehhhh.
Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) 1 Continuing juvenile found by Brian Daniels on Saturday, 8/13. It was hanging out just a hundred or two feet beyond the breakers just maybe 40 yards north of the pier. Excellent views. Most of the time, it was sleeping, but toward the end it was swimming around more and diving. Apparently the first record of a juvenile for the county.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 1
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 70
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 3
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 4
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 1
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 1

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pineapple Bruises

Every birder celebrates his new birds differently; I am no exception. Two timeless rituals accompany my lifers. Actually, both have specific, if not relatively recent, origin, but both have become honored tradition. The first, bestowing a hearty slug to the arm of the companion lucky enough to add a new lifer, originated at the 2009 Young Birder's Conference in San Diego. The second, that of butchering and devouring a hapless pineapple in celebration of another species defeated, was conceived by my old mate Tim last summer as we rampaged the countryside of California. Sadly, I have come to a point in my life where lifers have become about as scarce as affordable gas prices.

One thorn remained in my side from last summer. My aforementioned friend Tim abandoned me last August and journeyed to Lake Crowley, slaying the mythical Greater Sage-Grouse without my permission. The wound festered all winter, becoming dreadfully infected and oozing pus at ever-increasing rates as time wore on. Finally, I decided the situation needed to be rectified.

I spent the entirety of last week camping on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas with a group from my church, and, as fortune would have it, Lake Crowley lay a mere half-hour to the south. Accompanied by Alison, my companion of a romantic nature, I embarked before dawn on Monday, bound for the lake.

Girlfriend birding is much like ordinary birding, except one receives a considerably greater amount of flak about missing turns, misidentifying birds, or being hungry forty minutes after lunch than one would birding with comrade. Additionally, there are other inevitable distractions, but I won't dwell on those. I hadn't really researched the layout of the lake, so it took a couple drives up and down the highway and a brief interrogation of a marina worker at the south end of the lake until we found our way to the proper location, Benton Crossing Road at the northern end of the lake. There, we found dire warnings of the imminent presence of our treacherous quarry and knew that the hunt was now in full throttle.

My strategy had been to aimlessly drive around until we found the grouse along a road somewhere--at least, that is how my precursor Tim had succeeded. After almost an hour of futile driving, a new strategy seemed to be in order. None was immediately obvious, but my scheming was interrupted by a roadside Yellow-headed Blackbird. Rolling down the windows, I remarked something about how this spot smelled productive and threw my trusty Taurus into park. It was tranquil and picturesque--a small stream meandered through a verdant cow pasture. Sage ringed the edges of the pasture. The Yellow-headed Blackbird, however, seemed to be a false indicator. There was nothing of interest, unless cows, Brewer's Blackbirds, and Cliff Swallows could be considered interesting. About to turn back to the car, I took one last scan of the field and noticed a grouse-like lump among the cows.

And it was, indeed, a Greater Sage-Grouse, or, more accurately, six Greater Sage-Grouse. I turned and daintily punched Alison's arm. She retaliated with a slug more intense by a factor of at least ten. This bit of business out of the way, we ventured out into the pasture for better looks, braving sharp sage branches, cow patties, and the potentially belligerent cows themselves. We suffered nothing more serious than lightly soiled feet, and in return enjoyed the company of sixteen Greater Sage-Grouse at close range.

This location seems to be a haunt for these grouse--I'd imagine they enjoy grazing among the cows for the succulent grass along the stream.

We saw the birds from Owen River Road near the one-lane bridge, which can be accessed by taking Pit Road north from Benton Crossing Road, turning west on Owen River Road, and then turning north again on Owen River Road.

And no, we did not forget the second tradition. After an hour of grouse appreciation, we returned to our steed the Taurus and unearthed a pineapple from the disastrously messy backseat. The unfortunate pineapple again and again tasted the bite of my pocketknife, and we, in turn, gnawed on the doomed fruit's juicy flesh. The old wound has been drained, cleaned, and bandaged.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Watch It IX--Whaling

Even though whaling is nearly extinct and universally frowned upon, I engaged in some yesterday. Actually, it was purely accidental--I was tracking a Cassin's Auklet when a pair of giant nostrils rolled up out of the sea in the background. I see whales from shore fairly often, but it is always a treat to see a Blue Whale on the way to work.

I continue to be impressed with each day's individuality. The sea is not static; there is always something different from the previous week. Yesterday, the difference was dramatic: jaegers and Pink-footed Shearwaters suddenly appearing in numbers, Elegant Terns again abundant to the point of irritation, and my first Common Tern and Black-bellied Plover seen from the pier this summer. Regularly birding the same location has its value.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Aug 4, 2011 5:50 AM - 7:55 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: mostly clear, with patchy fog/cloud banks (it was sunny most of the time I was there; however, while driving down, I drove through some really dense fog banks, and towards the end the sun was concealed), calm, cool. It's always a good day when you see a Blue Whale on the way to work. Also, a few notables in the avian department--a bunch of jaegers, a huge influx in PFSH numbers, first COTE of the summer, and a lot more ELTE than the last few weeks.
29 species (+1 other taxa)

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 1
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 35 Where did they come all come from?? After seeing one or two every seawatch all summer, they were all over the place--this number is very conservative. There could have easily been 50+ present. There was a large, strung-out feeding frenzy of dolphins with WEGU, ELTE, and BRPE attending, and many of the PFSH were zooming around that, some of them landing on the water to check it out.
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 425
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 4
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 5
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 20
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 4
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 400 Including many juveniles.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) 4 First I've seen on the beach this summer.
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 34
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 8
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 12
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) 32
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 200
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 700 More than usual--there were lots of birds offshore sitting on the water and flying around.
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 3
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) 1
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 3
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 800
Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) 2
Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) 7 Literally the first bird I saw through my scope was a light-morph POJA. The first I've seen from the pier this summer, and strange that there were so many. Definitely different individuals--I had one light morph adult with full tail spoons, three light morph subadults chasing a single tern, and a couple dark morphs. Quite the show.
jaeger sp. (Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.)) 2
Common Murre (Uria aalge) 1 One flying "north"--looked to be in basic-type plumage. Pretty distant.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 11 Back down to regular numbers...
Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) 2 A couple, the first spotted on the water--I hardly ever spot alcids at rest. The other was a fly-by.
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 40
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 2
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 3
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 2

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Watch It VIII

Yes, I did go seawatching last week, and yes, I did delay for nearly a whole week before before posting my report! The shame is overwhelming; I solemnly promise not to let it happen again, at least not until this week.

It was an entirely ordinary day, except for the deluge of northbound Cassin's Auklets. I carefully tallied forty-eight. To my knowledge, this is a record count for the county. The Birds of Orange County lists a high count of twenty-five, and eBird, though more up-to-date, shows a previous high count of thirty. Interesting.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 29, 2011 5:45 AM - 7:50 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, strong breeze (W, ~10 mph), cool (~65?F). Seawatching before work. Productive--I think the wind might have been blowing birds closer to shore, because a lot of the birds were closer to shore than normal (e.g., PFSH and SOSH visible with the naked eye, and CAAU just a couple hundred yards off the end of the pier). Or maybe it was a coincidence. Also had one distant whale sp. about a mile out--just saw it briefly while I was tracking a flock of CAAU flying by.
27 species (+1 other taxa)

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 2
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 1
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 325 Perhaps slightly more than normal, including many very close birds (relatively speaking, of course).
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 1
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 11
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 14
Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) 1 The first I've observed at the pier this summer.
cormorant sp. (Phalacrocorax sp.) 3
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 250
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) 1 Fly-by bird with a broken leg hanging down.
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 59 Big influx, including many juveniles--the first juvenile shorebirds (other than local breeders) I've seen this summer. Most were south of the pier, and most left once people starting showing up.
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 2
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 28
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 300
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) 1 Strangely, the first I've had at the pier this summer. A raggedy adult-cycle north of the pier on the beach.
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 400
California Gull (Larus californicus) 2
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 2
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 5
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 2
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 85
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 48 By far the most I've ever seen in one seawatch--almost every time I scanned, I had at least one or two small flocks going "north." Many were exceptionally close to shore. It's entirely possible that numbers like these are always present, it's just that they stick farther out where thy can't be seen.
Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) 2
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 60
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 1
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 1
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 6

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Off the Pier

I've seen more seabirds this summer than any previously thanks to my weekly pier vigils. Shearwaters and alcids are cool, but only a certain level of satisfaction can be garnered from the glimpses had from the pier of black specks bouncing around at the horizon. Earlier in the summer, I swore off pelagics to save funds for textbooks and dates to the sewage ponds. However, when a free ticket came my way (thanks, Rhoda and Joey!) I couldn't exactly turn it down.

The trip was Los Angeles Audubon's thirteen hour cruise on the speedy Condor Express out of Santa Barbara, an annual odyssey into the far reaches of the ocean, the domain of the pterodroma and tropicbird. Two great perils challenge any birder daring enough to sign up for one of these trips: seasickness and sleep. The Condor Express is a large, stable boat, yet somehow several among our ranks lost the contents of their stomachs over the rail. I remained untouched, and even managed to stave off the latter evil, not counting a quick five-minute nap during a lull in the afternoon.

What's out there? Instead of writing "Well, we were cruising along, with shearwaters everywhere, and then we saw an albatross, which we stopped and watched for five minutes....", I'll just give you the photos, perhaps with a brief accompanying comment.

I'll start with the alcids. This grayish little chunk of blubber has been likened to a football. It's a Rhinocerous Auklet, which is actually more of a puffin than anything else. We saw perhaps a half-dozen.

Next on the alcid roster: Cassin's Auklet. Another chunk of gray blubber, but smaller than a Rhino Auklet, with a smaller bill. More of a tennis ball (albeit a very dusty one) than a football. If you squint, you can see the small white mark above the eye.

When I see Cassin's Auklets at the pier (which I do, nearly every week), I see them in flight. From that distance, they look like gnats buzzing along the surface in a fast, direct line the way a gnat would never fly. At a closer distance, from a boat, they look more like horse flies. Note on the bottom left photo the impressive amount of white on the underparts, more extensive and well-defined than is shown in some field guides.

Gem of the swells, the desire of every non-Californian birder...Xantus's Murrelet. I'm rather fond of them myself. We saw about ten, all of the expected scrippsi race.

Before delving any farther into the wonders of the pelagic world, let us pause to appreciate the scum circling around the back of the boat: Heermann's Gulls. Sure, they're common on the beach, but it's cool to see them fifty miles offshore, particularly when they're crisply-fringed juveniles fresh out of Mexico. Oh, and the bird in the background is a Pink-footed Shearwater.

The ball analogies are not exclusive to alcids. I have heard birders compare Red-necked Phalaropes to ping-pong balls. I can't remember the last time I saw a fleet of two hundred ping-pong balls spiraling on the water or twisting and fluttering among the swells.

Bigger, and redder, and farther out: Red Phalarope, still partially in alternate plumage, accompanied by a couple Red-necks.

The leaders almost blew out the PA system on this bird, and for a good reason: it's a Manx Shearwater. In North America, they normally range off the East Coast; however, a few turn up in the wrong ocean every year.

A few Northern Fulmars summer off of southern California every year. This bird was so pathetically ragged and bleached that I felt sorry for it and included it here.

This Laysan Albatross has the distinction of being the first, and only, Laysan Albatross I've seen thus far in my life. They are regular off California, but apparently not in the summer. Its dwarfed bodyguard is another fulmar, a much more pristine one at that.

Laysan Albatross (front), Pacific Ocean (back), sky (top).

Arctic Terns, I can't get excited about them. They're terns that spent their entire lives flying around over the ocean, which would be cool if they were shearwaters or petrels or something, but they're not.

Birders have a thing for jaegers. They compare them to pirates, or brutes, or triathletes, or bodybuilders. But, I must admit, Long-tailed Jaegers deserve admiration. They spend their time beating on those loser Arctic Terns and look classy while doing so.

Skuas are jaegers so intense that they aren't even called jaegers. Born in Antarctica and raised on penguin meat, these beasts roam the oceans the rest of the year, wintering (during our summer) off California and making a livlihood by terrorizing hapless Heermann's Gulls, shearwaters, or whatever else gets in their way.

Yes, skuas demand respect. Even the zombie-birders emerged from their hibernation in the cabin to gape at the two skuas that circled and wheeled in our wake.

Once you start seeing Leach's Storm-Petrels on a California pelagic, it's probably safe to go asleep. They inhabit deep, deep water, the kind of water that is devoid of avian life except for Leach's Storm-Petrels. Seriously, once you get out a hundred miles, an hour may pass with twenty Leach's Storm-Petrels and nothing else. However, birders are attracted to these barren seas with hopes of finding some great rarity. Quality, not quantity. We managed to rustle up a couple Red-billed Tropicbirds to compensate for the scarcity of birds.

And now I shall return to my trusty pier, accumulating dollars in my bank account for other wonders. Wonders like The Essentials of Organic Chemistry.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watch It VII--Who Cares About Pigeons?

I won't attempt to conceal this sorry fact about myself: I discriminate against pigeons. When I'm feeling good towards them, I ignore them; at other times, I'll take a few steps out of my way to try to kick one off the pier. In fact, the only pigeons that I really care about are the ones that are black with white wing patches and red webbed feet. In other words, Pigeon Guillemots.

And these lusted-after Pigeon Guillemots were one primary motivations for rolling out of bed at four forty-five in the morning for these weekly seawatches. Note the past tense. I saw one on Friday. It only took twenty hours and two-thirds of the summer to glimpse its velvety black, obese body being carried southward on whirring wings. As the bird disappeared in the shame of defeat, I pledged that, despite this monumental victory, I will continue to seawatch for the rest of the summer.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 22, 2011 5:45 AM - 7:55 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, light breeze (~6mph, WSW), cool (~65?F). An excellent morning of seawatching before work, and not just because I finally pegged Pigeon Guillemot. Many birds, few fish, and no especially bizarre people. The old dude with the cane I see every week finally gave me enough details about his mystery bird that I was able to identify it as a Caspian Tern. Today, he was picking up old fishing line left strewn around and throwing it away. Cool guy.
28 species (+1 other taxa)

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) 2 I was very surprised to have two--and they were definitely different, because I saw them at the same time. First, I got on a loon coming north. It came by fairly close and I was able to ID it as a PALO. Just as it was crossing the end of the pier, I caught a glimpse of a bird on the water at the bottom of my field of view. Another PALO, quite close to the pier! Both were in basic-type plumage, and I could see that the sitting bird at least quite bleached and ragged.
Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 2
Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) 1 One (accompanied by one of the WEGR) swimming around the pier. The first I've observed here this summer.
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 2
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 250
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 35
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 24 These definitely seem to be on the increase. Post-breeders coming from somewhere, I'd presume...
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 425 More than I'm used to, and most were fly-bys. There seemed to be at least one line flying low over the water at any given time, and there were a couple BIG flocks (80+) birds. Strangely, I saw very few birds feeding or anything. Correlation to the fishermen's lack of luck? Hmmmm.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1 A tame juvenile perched on the pier railing, looking for handouts. They learn quick.
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) 1
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 24 Shorebirds are picking up!
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 2
peep sp. (Calidris sp.) 9 A small flock heading south...probably WESA.
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) 50 I was initially baffled when I kept seeing tiny birds waay out that looked sorta looked like whitish storm-petrels that kept landing on the water. Finally, it clicked--phalaropes! The first I've seen this summer at the pier.
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 200
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 500
California Gull (Larus californicus) 1 One very raggedy near-adult (3rd cycle?) on the beach south of the pier.
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 115 Very strange--all the other terns have been decreasing since I started coming, except LETE, which seems to grow every time I come. Or maybe I just didn't notice them when there were thousands of ELTE milling around drowning everything out...
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 8
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 1
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 32 Very, very few.
Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) 9
Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) 1 County bird! By far the most exciting thing I've had of all my summer seawatching, even though I've been expecting it sooner or later. I first got on while it around 0630, while it was well north of the pier, and my impression was of an all-dark, medium-sized alcid. I was getting my hopes up, but with the cloud cover and all anything could appear black. I couldn't see the white wing patches, though it was sorta coming in towards shore, so I couldn't really tell. I wasn't at the end of the pier because of all the fishermen, so I lost it when it went behind. I dashed up to the south side and immediately got on it going past the end of the pier, and all doubt was erased--perfect alternate-plumage PIGU, flying directly by at moderate distance. Gorgeous! It LANDED a short distance south of the pier--way too far for photos, etc., but still nice and close for scope views, and way closer than the usual SOSH/BLSP zone. After sitting for a minute, it dove twice (very abrupt jump with open wings--funky) and then took off again and continued south. Total observation time was maybe six or seven minutes. In flight, looks like a small, black murre--same "flying uphill" aspect, perhaps less pronounced, and the head looks really small and the body very fat. The white wing patches were less obvious than I had been expecting--they were easily missed when the bird wasn't roughly even with the pier. Dark underwings noted when the bird stood up to flap while on the water. Saaawweeeet!
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 9
Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) 1 One fly-by going "north," fairly distant. The first I've observed here this summer--finally!
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 60
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 1
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 10
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 6

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Watch It VI

Some describe it as a twitter, others a whinny, and yet others liken it to a chorus of tiny handbells. I just can't hear it. To me, it just sounds like a Bushtit.

Whatever it may or may not sound like, I was surprised to hear it wafting down the pier on my latest seawatching extravaganza. A new pier bird. It seems that not even the most microscopic patch of shrubbery is free of Bushtits.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 14, 2011 5:42 AM - 7:54 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy, light breeze (~10 mph, SSW), very light drizzle, cool (67°F). Low tide. Thick clouds resulted in very dim viewing conditions for the first half-hour or so. Tern numbers are still much reduced from before, but decent numbers of everything else. There was at least one fair-sized (forty-plus strong) pod of dolphins well offshore, being followed by a large flock of gulls, terns, pelicans, and shearwaters. Human-wise, things were pretty normal on the pier today...I surrended the very end of the pier to fishermen and instead watched from about 7/8 of the way to the end.
28 species (+2 other taxa)

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) 2 A pair sitting on the water well to the south.
Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 1
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 350 Lots, but they were all pretty distant.
Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas) 1 One, my first of the summer.
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 28
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 5
cormorant sp. (Phalacrocorax sp.) 2
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 85
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 7
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 6 A small fly-by flock just as I was walking down the pier.
Sanderling (Calidris alba) 1 My first of the summer, an alternate-plumage bird on the beach south of the pier.
peep sp. (Calidris sp.) 3 A small group flying north low over the water, not too distant, but blehhh
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 240 A considerable influx. They were everywhere, too--lots of birds flying offshore, lots on the beach. There were also considerable numbers of juveniles. I guess breeding is pretty much done with down in Mexico...
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 675
California Gull (Larus californicus) 4 It has been weird...I've seen very few CAGU this summer on the beach, but today there were four. Oversummering? Or failed breeders coming from somewhere?
Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) 1 An extremely straggly, bleached bird fighting over stale french bread with other gulls at the base of the pier. It was almost pure white, with just a small amount of creamy brown on the underparts. The bill was almost completely black. Interestingly, a very similar bird--probably the same one--was photographed by Eliot Harold maybe a week ago near the SAR mouth. I saw photos on OrangeCountyBirding and it looks very similar. Sweet, the first summering one I've seen in the county.
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 70
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 22
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 2 Very few!
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 1
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 210
Common Murre (Uria aalge) 1 One alternate-plumaged bird going "north." Altogether not too surprising given my previous sightings this summer (and there have been regular reports from La Jolla (Lehman et al). Still weird.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 16 Several small parties of 1-5 going "north", all distant. My highest count yet this summer, I believe.
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 60
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 4
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 5
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) 2 New bird for the pier for me! A couple calling from the tiny patch of ornamental shrubbery near the bathrooms at the base of the pier.
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 1
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Birding--Bad for the Health

Head entombed in pillows, torso mummified in blankets, I was well along in the process of falling asleep. A dark haze swirled over my mind. The peaceful hum of traffic and the muffled booms of Disneyland fireworks ten miles distant lulled me into unconsciousness, an unorthodox yet soothing lullaby.


A Barn Owl shrieked a challenge to muggy night. Barn Owl vocalizations are diametrically opposed to lullabies—sharp, startling, scary. I jerked awake and glanced at my watch. Ten o’clock. I made a mental note to register this impolite owl into eBird first thing in the morning.

eBird has been the ruin of my life. I can’t even sleep without being dogged with the obsessive urge to enter checklist after checklist.

Fortunately, a simple solution exists, and, rising on an elbow from my pillows, I reached for it on the nightstand: a pair of earplugs. Nothing but the most raucous mockingbird shouting from my windowsill could disturb my slumber now. I sighed and sank back into my nest of pillows and blankets. Sleep followed quickly.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Watch It V

Early mornings at the pier are gorgeous. Mist blurs the horizon, the sky blends from pearly pink to slate blue overhead, and the dark ocean gently laps at the beach, frothing like whipped cream. The air is fresh, salty, and only the very slightest whiff of fish offal spoils it, depending on where you stand. But then, the sun rises, casting away all the illusions. The idyllic palm trees and buildings stand on what was formerly a gigantic coastal estuary teeming with life, long since raped and buried underneath roads, houses, malls, and other marks of humanity. The ocean is polluted, the air smoggy, and even the pier itself is heavily littered with cigarette butts, In-N-Out Burger wrappers, and partially decomposed sunflower seed shells. Ah well. Sometimes, reality hurts.

Enough complaining. This week's installment of seawatching was successful--not that it ever isn't--and I thoroughly enjoyed two hours of shearwaters, alcids, and terns before work. One of the most interesting aspects of my weekly visits is the variation in numbers of the common species. I've had mornings when I see at least a thousand more Elegant Terns. Why were there so few (relatively speaking) this week? I just don't know.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 7, 2011 5:42 AM - 7:54 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: mostly clear (rather misty, especially early on), light breeze (SW), warm (~68°F). Seawatching before work. A few decent things. Once again, it was nice to actually have the sun out on the birds, though lighting wasn't great on birds that were south of the pier.
23 species

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) 1 This one was unexpected--a bird in basic-type plumage hauling "north" low over the water. Presumably a locally summering bird.
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 330
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 5
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 3
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 55
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) 3
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) 1
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 2
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 110 Numbers continue to grow--including many birds heading north offshore. Also, had my first juveniles of the year.
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 400
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 22
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 16
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 8
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 150 Much fewer than recently. Several weeks ago, I had at least a thousand more in a similar span of time at the same time of day. Hmm, why? Weather conditions? Or maybe stage in breeding cycle of the birds at Bolsa Chica? Shift in food distribution?
Xantus's Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus) 2 A prize--a pair, not that far out, going "north." Obviously small and cleanly black and white.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 5 A small flock buzzing north well offshore.
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 32
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 4 A little fly-by group at the base of the pier as I was heading out...first time I've had them here. Whoopie!
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 15
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 2
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 1
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 2

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Two, Four, Six, Eight, Try To Estimate!

“How many [Ruby-crowned] kinglets?” I asked, notebook in hand, pen poised to record the official tally.

“At least a couple dozen…maybe twenty-six?” responded my girlfriend Alison, behind the wheel as we pulled away from Floral Lane, an alleged hotspot that I have thus far found to be positively underwhelming.

“Don’t be ludicrous,” I scolded. “Fourteen.”

Alison sighed.

“Come on. They were ALL over the place. I saw six in one bush.”

Seeing the validity of both statements, I conceded. “All right, fine. Sixteen.”

Both of us are notoriously strong-willed people. The debate nearly dissolved into blows, but eventually we peacefully agreed that we had, indeed, seen sixteen Ruby-crowned Kinglets on our walk. He who wields the pen holds power.

It’s a time-honored tradition of mine. Go birding, have a good time. Then, afterwards, estimate the numbers of birds you saw and punch them into eBird. How representational are these estimates—often little more than wild guesses—of the true number of birds present? Some situations offer challenges, like…

A cloud of swallows swirling back and forth over a field…thousands upon thousands of gulls blanketing the center dike at Muskegon Wastewater…a chorus of unseen Wrentits trilling from hill cloaked in chaparral…ubiquitous Black Phoebes, one standing guard over seemingly every trash can in the neighborhood.

An even greater challenge faces birders entering eBird checklists from memory: whether a species was even present or not. Did I hear any Song Sparrows on my evening walk around the evening? Well, surely I did—must have just forgotten to write it down on my little pad. How many? Well, I don’t know, but usually there seem to be about three singing males in the neighborhood, so I’ll put down three. Yeah, three, I remember them all now…

I’ve become halfway diligent at jotting down all the species I detect in a pocket notebook that I feel naked without. Recording numbers, however, is another story. Leaving the estimations to the end frequently leads to intense personal frustration (when I bird with myself) or verbal, possibly even physical conflict (when I bird with others). In addition to these negative side effects of estimation, is it even accurate? I decided to test the accuracy of my estimation on a recent evening ramble to Irvine Regional Park by carefully tallying numbers of several species.

The first thing I noticed: Black Phoebes are freaking everywhere. I encountered eleven in less than a mile of walking. On my previous four visits of comparable effort, I estimated three, six, one, and seven birds, respectively. Second observation: Cliff Swallows are impossible to count, screw this. Third observation: Mourning Doves, that’s better. Fly in a straight line, one or two at a time. I can handle this. I ended up with seventeen, compared with forty, twenty-six, eighteen, and thirty-eight on previous visits. Fourth observation: Shoot, eight-thirty, almost my bedtime...better head back.

These two case studies might suggest that my estimation powers are reasonably accurate. I do not, however, flatter myself to be convinced so easily. Oftentimes, when confronted with a species scrawled on my notepad, I am completely at loss as to how many I saw. This challenge is two-pronged. It involves memory, sometimes over hours, and it also requires synthesizing a total of birds seen over a period of time—when out birding, you see those Yellow-rumped Warblers a few at a time, not all at once. Out of curiosity, I googled “estimation games” and blew an enjoyable few minutes testing myself ( Embarrassingly, I nearly scored negatively on the “Count 50-99” level, but then I promptly dominated the “Count 20-50” level. It seems that I am forever doomed to be ignorant of my level of estimation skill…

One of my goals for the remainder of the summer is to be more aggressive in keeping track of bird numbers while birding and not saving the estimation for the end. It requires considerable time and diligence, both of which I seem to perpetually lack. But who knows? Perhaps, by the end of the summer, my eBird account will be spewing forth data that are slightly more accurate.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Watch It IV--The Fish Apocalypse

"I know that human beings and fish can coexist peacefully."

This prophecy, uttered by none other than George W. Bush, has not yet come to pass. Our coastlines are still ravaged with war. This morning, a barrage of mackerel staged an assault on Newport Pier, where bold defenders of the human legacy valiantly attempted to quell the surge with their rods, lines, and hooks. I just watched.

A dozen frantic tails vibrated against the ruthless cement, sending delightful showers skyward. The sun sparkled some, but others remained dark, opaque, and red. Gradually, the symphony of tails experienced a diminuendo, and the accompanying showers weakened to a faint mist, then to nothing. Nothing, except eyes--eyes, wide, unblinking, desperate. Some were stained with red; all were hopeless. As the scores of bodies were dumped into five-gallon buckets, some jerked back to brief life, only to be again overtaken by death. One mackerel, lying on its side on a bed of his fallen comrades, gaped his mouth open and shut, surely reciting "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" in his silent fish language.

During lulls in the battle, when the danger of being snagged with a hook or splashed with blood or entrails abated, I turned my eyes to the mist-shrouded horizon, waiting for the emergence of some pelagic oddity. Pigeon Guillemots, apparently reveling in their continued delinquency, escaped my grasp once again. But, time is on my side. I have the remainder of the summer to resolve this feud.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jul 1, 2011 5:38 AM - 8:30 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: clear, very light breeze (SSW), warm (64-73°F) Morning seawatch--kinda weird to be out seawatching on a sunny morning, which made viewing condition a lot different than usual (e.g., SOSH looked brown, not nondescript black, and the silver blazes on their underwings were really obvious.) Way more fishermen than usual, too, which made viewing a bit difficult. They were also catching a lot more fish than they usually do.
19 species (+2 other taxa)

Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 1 Only one, a distant bird fairly early on. Despite the distance, the morning sun made the pink bill readily visible, and the pale belly and underwings were surprisingly obvious.
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 215 Fewer than normal, though still numerous. There was one bird sitting on the water fairly close to shore most of the morning, and oddly it had symmetrical white patches on the wings, presumably from bleaching/molt. Got me excited for PIGU for the first couple seconds, but it obviously wasn't...
shearwater sp. (Calonectris/Puffinus sp.) 1 Sooo...I think this was probably the bird of the morning, and I don't know what it was. I got on a pretty distant shearwater hauling south(ish). What was surprising about this bird was that it was very clean dark and light--very pale below, with white underwings. Obviously, it wasn't a Sooty. Most likely, it was just a Pink-foot gleaming in the sunlight--the definite Pink-foot I had earlier surprised me with its contrast, but it seemed more strong on this bird, and I didn't see the pink bill, either. Huuuh.
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 18
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 4
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 88
Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) 2 Two flying "north," low over the water--they rounded the end of the pier.
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 1 On the beach.
shorebird sp. (Charadriiformes sp.) 8 A distant flock of small shorebirds going south...I think they miiight have been Semi Plovers, but yeah...beyond my ability.
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 75
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 280
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 85
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 10
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 15
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 2
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 500
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 55
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 4
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 5
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 5
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 10

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Watch It III

1. to trespass, especially on another's game preserve, in order to steal animals or to hunt.
2. to take game or fish illegally.
3. (of land) to become broken up or slushy by being trampled.
4. to cook (eggs, fish, fruits, etc.) in a hot liquid that is kept just below the boiling point.

My coveted Pigeon Guillemots have been poached! (And no, they weren't cooked for breakfast).

When I read the news that someone had spotted two Pigeon Guillemots at Newport Pier early last week, I flew into a rage and swore to duplicate the sighting during my weekly vigil on Friday morning. Arriving at the pier at a time when a vast percentage of the county was still probably asleep, I sauntered down the pier, cast a haughtly glare upon the gaggle of fishermen hogging the rail, and began scanning the swells. Shortly thereafter, a kindly hobo approached, a kleenex dangling from an outstretched hand. "Your nose is dripping," he chuckled.

Thanks. A drippy nose, no Pigeon Guillemots, and eight hours of work ahead of me. Life is a beast.

Newport Pier, Orange, US-CA
Jun 24, 2011 5:46 AM - 7:53 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Weather: cloudy and misty, light breeze (~7mph, SW), cool (~63°F)
22 species (+1 other taxa)

Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) 2
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) 240
Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania) 7
Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) 1 The only one I saw was one accidentally snagged by a fisherman. I heard a commotion, looked up, and saw a guy reeling it in on his rod. He got it onto the pier, where it was remarkably calm. Then, one guy held its bill, and the other unhooked it (it appeared to be hooked in the leg). Then, the guy picked it up and chucked it as hard as he could off the pier. It took off flying
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 2
cormorant sp. (Phalacrocorax sp.) 1
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 48
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) 8
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) 65
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) 580
Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) 60 At the time I arrived, large numbers of terns were foraging their way south. By the time I was leaving, many were heading back north, and lots of the LETE had fish in tow.
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) 4
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) 32
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 24
Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) 1000
Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) 2 A pair flying south over the beach as I was leaving.
Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) 11 Several small parties, all distant, and all going "north."
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 32
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) 2
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 5
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) 2
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) 1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 3

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Humans aren't the only ones that struggle with it...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lesser Mountains

As I complete my monotonous tasks in the air-conditioned comfort of the Color Lab throughout the week, I wistfully remember last summer and the excessive time I spent in various mountain ranges. Hikes were had, scrambles up rocky slopes were not uncommon, and plunges into icy mountain streams and lakes provided welcome diversions from birding. I decided that I would have to get into some mountains this weekend, even if they were just the lowly Santa Ana Mountains. I was decidedly unenthusiastic about this decision when I arose at four-thirty this morning, but I dragged myself to the Trabuco Canyon Trail and began hiking before six. After six hours and thirteen miles, I had seen a nice selection of montane birds, including Mountain Quail, Olive-sided Flycathcer, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and this Western Wood-Pewee.

The primary motive fueling this hike, however, was not birds--it was other forms of life. These other forms of life--especially butterflies--abounded, much to my joy.

Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)

Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon)

Tailed Copper (Lycaena arota)

Dotted Blue (Euphilotes enoptes)

Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus)

Gabb's Checkerspot (Chlosyne gabbii)

Leanira Checkerspot (Thessalia leanira)

Red Rock Skimmer (Paltothemis lineatipes)

Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer)