Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Nesting Pigeon Guillemot of Montaña de Oro

Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus Columba) begin appearing along the rocky coast of Montaña de Oro State Park in mid-March.  The season of breeding/nesting has begun.  The numerous cracks, crevices, and holes in the cliffs and rock formations offer to this plump sea bird with the startling red legs a variety of cozy nesting sites.  (red arrow points to a possible nest site)

The breeding range for the Guillemot is vast, from the North Pacific waters to Alaska and along the Pacific Coast through California.  In winter California Guillemots migrate north to the inland marine waters of Washington.
Pigeon Guillemots belong to the Auk family - related to Murrelet, Auklet, and Puffin.
From my observations at MdO I have come to the conclusion that it takes quite a bit of time for Guillemots to sort out their relationships.  Occasionally, I have seen them come ashore where they do bill touching, chasing, and posturing.   On one occasion I observed a pair mating.  If I had blinked I would have missed it.  Much of the mating ritual occurs in the water with much bill touching, and dashing about under the water.  Shrill whistles are always prevalent.
Guillemots are monogamists.  Notice how they are in pairs.
Both parents incubate and feed the young. Throughout the day the nestlings are fed small fish and marine invertebrates.  Hatching takes 33 - 38 days. 
 There has been much coming and going into this crevice, noted by the red arrow.  I am assuming the parents are feeding a chick.  Four to six weeks after hatching young will leave the nest by scrambling and fluttering down to the water.  After leaving the nest they are completely independent.  This transition between dependence and independence often happens at night.  They can dive and swim, but it will take two to three weeks before they are strong enough to fly.
The Pigeon Guillemot scales rock faces and cliffs by flapping its wings combined with the use of  sharp claws on its webbed feet.  
“Both sexes are alike in appearance, except for Californian birds where females were found to have larger bills than males.” (a quote from Wikipedia)  I have spent quite a bit of time comparing Guillemot bills and see no difference between the males and females.

The best places to observe Pigeon Guillemots at Montaña de Oro is Smuggler’s Cove, the first cove on the Bluff Trail, and the last quarter mile of the trail.  In the many years of observing Guillemots at MdO I have yet to see a juvenile (Google photo), but remain hopeful of a sighting in the near future.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Rural Road Birding

Toro Creek Road - The morning was beautiful! We were barely off Hwy One when we began to see flycatchers. Farms on both sides of the narrow road, cattle and horses peacefully grazing in the fields, clusters of huge rocks, tall Eucalyptus and dense Monterey Cypress (below photo) - plenty of habitat for birds to nest and feed.
As we stepped from the car we saw Cassin’s Kingbird perched on barbed wire fencing.  Within a few moments we had identified a Female Hooded Oriole, Say’s Phoebe, Meadowlark, Western Bluebird (photo), Red-winged Blackbird, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. 
Toro Creek Road has a rich history.  In the year 1857 the Reverend Alden Bradford Spooner, one of the early settlers and the first Protestant Minister in San Luis Obispo, began farming 150 acres of government land about three miles up Toro Creek.  In the good old days, the 20 mile trip into San Luis Obispo, which Spooner made frequently, required an overnight, usually spent at a friend's or relative's house.

Santa Rita Road - The road passes over Santa Rita Creek which feeds into Whale Rock Reservoir, located in the hills above Cayucos.  The area where the road passes over the creek (photo) was our destination.  Not much of the creek can be seen, as surrounding vegetation, such as willow, Sycamore,  Coast Live Oak, Blue Berry Elder, Nettles, and Poison Oak make identification rather challenging, but we persevered. 
Due to the presence of mature oaks, we saw Nuttle's and Downy Woodpecker.  Spotted Towhee was highly visible. (below) I do like birds that are not shy about showing off their beauty.
Heard but not seen, except for a fleeting glimpse, Warbling Vireo, Wilson's Warbler, Pacific Flycatcher, and my recent favorite, the Ash-throated Flycatcher. (below)
I have used this photo several times as it is the only presentable photo I have of this beauty.  This Ash-throated could be related to the one we heard singing, as the photo was taken about a mile from Santa Rita Creek.  We did have a little excitement when a brightly colored American Kestrel took off after a Red-tailed Hawk.  The much smaller Kestrel dove on the Hawk, managing to make contact a few times.  Yeah, for the little guy! 

I do like birding rural roads.  It's as if the birds are waiting for you to come by.  And there is wire fencing and the occasional post to perch on, and there are the creeks where a variety of birds can bath, nest and find insects to feed their nestlings.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Coachella Valley - Birds, Wildflowers & Other Delights

Spring had sprung - The desert was calling - Winter birds had taken off to their nesting grounds, and it was time for me to take off for an adventure into the California desert where I could see blooming wildflowers, interesting birds, awesome vistas, and spend time with a friend.
  The rugged, snow capped peak is Mt. San Jacinto at 10,833 ft.
A visit to Cathy, my friend in the Coachella Valley, was long overdue.  Cathy loves the desert and is familiar with all the special places that have wildflowers, birds, and beautiful vistas;  she is within a half hour to forty minutes from the Santa Rosa - San Jacinto National Monument, the Big Morongo Preserve, and the Coachella Valley Preserve, which is known for it dense groves of the only native Palm in California, Washingtonia filifera.  Palm sprouts may be seen in left foreground of photo.
Coachella Valley Preserve - The California Palm, also known as petticoat palm, has dense fronds that form a “skirt.”  The fronds hang down to the ground creating habitat for many species of birds, and reptiles.  The San Andreas fault which runs through the Coachella Valley supplies the water necessary for the California Palms to thrive.  A delightful boardwalk meanders through a grove; as you can see in the photo, the skirts overhanging the boardwalk have been trimmed, creating skirt or petticoat tunnels.  It is not everyday one can stroll through, and I do mean through, California native palms.
The open desert presented us with an abundance of blooming shrubs and wildflowers; we marveled at the beauty of Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), one of my favorite desert plants. To say Brittlebush was prolific is an understatement, miles and miles of desert were covered with this brilliant blooming beauty.
As we walked along the little gully, still wet from recent rain, we spotted a White-winged Dove.  It’s feathers looked like grey velvet.  The White-winged Dove overwinters in Mexico and Central America and comes to our southwestern states to breed.  Unfortunately they are infrequent visitors to the Central Coast. 
Shortly after our Dove sighting we noticed Verdin activity in a thorny Palo Verde Tree.  Verdin are tiny, the same size as Bushtits.  Sitting on a shaded log we watched the little darlings methodically build their breeding nest. 
The female was inside lining the nest while the male was gathering materials.  The opening will be toward the prevailing winds, to bring in cooling air as the weather gets hotter.  Actually, they have two nests.  The winter nest is much thicker for warmth.
Big Morongo Preserve - At the feeding station (above) we saw numerous birds, including a pair of Vermilion Flycatcher and a brilliantly colored Hooded Oriole.  We had a spectacular sighting from an overlook in the riparian section of the preserve.  Thanks to two birder/photographers who readily shared identification, we found we were looking at a small flock of endangered Least Bell’s Vireo.    Their musical chatter was delightful.  
They are officially listed as endangered, primarily due to loss of riparian habitat and cowbird brood parasitism.  Cowbirds lay eggs in various songbird nests.  When the eggs hatch, the hatchlings kill the other chicks. Big Morongo Preserve is one of the few places where Least Bell’s Vireo nests.  I hope there are no Cowbirds in the Big Morongo Preserve.
Santa Rosa-San Jacinto National Monument - An interpretative trail winds its way through a plethora of blooming plants and shrubs.  Oh my gosh, it was a wildflower paradise.  The red flowering shrub is Chuparosa (Justicia californica), a favorite of Costa's Hummingbird.
 A pair of Phainopepla were active in the Mesquite and Palo Verde trees.  The female has a smaller crest, is gray in color; both male and female have red eyes.  To our delight a pair of Verdin were nest building only a few feet above us. After two visits to the Santa Rosa Nat. Mon., I was hoping for a third, but ran out of time. 

A great thank you is due to Cathy and Mother and Father Nature for the most fabulous desert adventure I have ever experienced. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Birding Between Rain Storms

    Coreopsis at the entrance to Sweet Springs Preserve

Sweet Springs - The break in the clouds was brief.  The shower began just as I was entering the preserve.  My rain jacked has been getting a lot of use lately.  The pond was very quiet.  The only ducks were a male and female Mallard that appeared to be chasing one another with much splashing.  They both disappeared under the water.  I was clueless at that moment as to what was going on.  The male began to appear; underneath him the female.  He was clutching her head.  I thought, "Oh my gosh, he's going to drown her."  She survived.  This was my first experience observing the brief mating process of Mallards, if I had blinked, I would have missed the event.   

There were the usual birds with two exceptions -  The usual were - Bushtit, Song Sparrow, Junco, California Towhee, California Quail, Common Yellowthroat; Nuttall’s Woodpecker and Northern Flicker were busy drumming - Exception one, watching a Merlin (Falco columbarius) fly on to a perch in a tall deceased tree across from the pond. (below).   Exception two, listening to the song of a Purple Finch.  Purple Finch often hang out at the tip top of high trees and can be difficult to see.
Montaña de Oro - Spooners Cove and Bluff Trail -  My favorite sighting - 2 beautiful Peahens delicately nibbling on green vegetation growing in Spooner's Cove.  They paid no attention to my presence.  The Peahens arrived about two years ago.  I have a question.  How have they avoided being eaten by one of Montaña de Oro's many hungry predators?
The Peregrine appear to be in the nesting mode.  They have been seen mating, and the male is bringing her food.  The female spends much of her time perched on the point or close to the nest opening (below photo).  On the formation below were Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorant and three Oystercatcher.
Pelagic Cormorants are beginning to transition into their breeding plumage.  On some of the Pelagic their white flank patches can be seen.  This group of Pelagic Cormorants are located a short distance north of Corallina Cove.  They may nest on Morro Rock or on a Sea Stack near Morro Rock. 
Song birds along the Bluff Trail were also in the mating mode.  Much singing and chasing through the brush.  Spring is definitely in the air.  Meanwhile the rain ☔️ ☔️ continues. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Birding Harmony Headlands

Harmony Headlands State Park - The morning was beautiful, the trail damp from recent rains, a couple of mucky spots, but nothing that was not navigable.
A small stream, meandered alongside the trail.  The hills were thick with green coastal scrub, bird sounds drew my attention into the stream side shrubbery.  Bewick’s Wren, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and a Yellow-rumpled Warbler were very active, yet easy to see.   A bright blue Scrub Jay was makings it's presence known. 

Overhead an American Kestrel (photo below), Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk.  On a not too distant outcropping perched a magnificent Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle sighting was a delightful surprise.
I find the best time to visit Harmony Headlands is during winter and spring when the hills are green, the ponds are full, and ticks are not a problem. 
The primary pond is not huge but large enough to attract ducks.  I was hoping to see a Redhead.   As can be seen in the photo, the pond spreads into the brush.  In the brush on the far side were several Mallards, as far as I could determine there was no Redhead among them.  I am planning a return trip after the current rainy season passes.  On the pond were Coots, Pied-billed Grebe, and a small flock of Ruddy Duck.  Taking advantage of the insects were Black and Say’s Phoebe.  The robust song of California Thrasher was pervasive.  This time of year Harmony Headlands is truly magical. 

Harmony Headlands State Park is located directly off Hwy 1, about a mile north of Villa Creek Road.  

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Birding Between Rain Storms

 Laguna Lake - The rain had just stopped and I was headed to Laguna Lake.  I believe I was the only birder in the county that had not seen the Vermilion Flycatcher.  It’s not that I hadn’t tried.  Upon arrival at the small fishing dock, actually the area where the little darling has frequently been seen,  I heard a sweet, yet unfamiliar song.  On are twig, at the top of a scraggly willow, perched the Vermilion Flycatcher. ( Photo of the Laguna Lake Flycatcher by Roger Zachary.)
This little traveler is considered a rare visitor to the Central Coast.  He may have journeyed here from East Texas or from suitable regions in the Eastern Ca. deserts such as Zzyzx, near Baker Ca. or the Big Morongo Preserve, east of Palm Springs, Ca. where the Vermilion Flycatcher has been known to nest.

Turri Road - The weather was blustery.  In recently plowed fields were large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Perched on fencing were Say’s Phoebe, Western Bluebird, and Lark Sparrow (below).
 Morro Bay Marina - Looks like the storm has passed - Seven species of underwater foragers, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Common Loon, Western Grebe, Eared Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-creasted Cormorant, and a cooperative male Belted Kingfisher (below).  I love birding the Marina as the water birds are in a confined space and much easier to identify.
Sweet Springs -  Two Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher frolicked in Silver Lupine bushes growing along the path to the east overlook.  Kinglet and Gnatcatcher can be difficult to observe as they are usually flitting thru dense foliage. 
In the shallower water, Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal (above), Green-winged Teal, and American Wigeon.  In the deeper water many hundreds of water birds.  Regardless of the weather birding the Central Coast is always a memorable experience.

My favorite photo of the day, California Towhee bathing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Highlights of The 2019 Morro Bay Winter Bird Olympics

The Second Annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Olympics  - Morro Bay has been in a flutter with excitement these last two weeks.  Most of the events went off smoothly, of course when there is a diverse congregation of avian athletes, glitches are bound to happen.

        * Highlights of Events *

Feeding Pose - Open to all long-legged shorebirds - Allison Avocet from Tulare County, Ca. won first place.  It took two years of rigorous training to perfect her winning pose.  Her amazing time of 8.13 minutes exceeded the world record by .48 seconds.  After the event Allison graciously posed for photographers.
Willet Half Marathon - A Team Event
The powerful team from Pakowki Lake basin, Alberta Canada was the first team to cross the finish line.  Unfortunately, when the judges reviewed the instant replay, they found a ringer, a Godwit posing as a Willet, a definite no, no.  It appeared that the coach had made a poor last minute decision when a team member needed to be replaced.
Raptor Catch and Release
The competitor must catch a fish and gently carry it 300 meters (984ft) to the release pond.  The fish must be alive and active upon it’s release.  Oscar Osprey from Shasta Lake Ca. was nearing the finish line when he heard the crowd chanting his name.  The distraction caused Oscar to tighten his grip on the fish.  Oops!  Oscar graciously acknowledged his loss, flew up to a branch, and proceeded to eat his lunch with gusto.
One-Leg Sand Stand - Open to all Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, and Long--billed Curlews.
Coralina Curlew from Oregon's remote grasslands comes from a long line of one-leg sand standers.  On the day of the event conditions on the beach were less than optimal.  For over six hours she persevered through fog, wind, and blowing sand.  What cinched her win was an impromptu flyover by a Peregrine Falcon that caused all but Coralina to take flight.  Later in the day as the winners were stepping up to the podium Gladys Godwit, known for being a poor looser, accused Coralina of using a pain killer on her ankle.
Kingfisher Synchronized High Dive - Open to all Kingfishers
The Kingfishers synchronized dive competition is fierce.  Few males enter the event as they cannot grasp the synchronized concept.  This year there were two male teams, three mixed gender teams, and 22 female teams.  Karmen and Klara* from Nome Alaska won the gold with three out of three beautiful dives.  No photos were allowed at the event as the photo/video rights had been sold to an international publication.  Fortunately a friend of mine managed to get a photo of Klara practicing her dive.  
Golf Course Challenge - A Team Event
This year's Golf Course Challenge was simplified, as last year's event caused mass confusion among the Coots.  The revised Challenge consisted of three segments, circle the 9th tee, waddle in a line to the pond, exit the pond and return to the 9th tee.  Much to their surprise and delight, the local team took 3rd place.

Unfortunately there was a minor glitch that few Coots noticed.  One of the judges for the Golf Course Challenge was B. B. Eagle* who was stationed in the Eucalyptus tree directly across from the pond. 
When our local team was exiting the pond he snatched the last Coot which happened to be the team captain.  B. B.  Eagle returned to his perch with the team captain securely clutched in his razor sharp talons.  I will spare you the rest of the details.

 I hope this glimpse into the highlights of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Olympics whets your appetite to attend next year's Bird Olympics.

* photos of Klara Kingfisher, Willet Half Marathon, and B. B. Eagle by Gary O'Neill.