Monday 25 February 2013

Showing well at Golden Gate Park

We decided to go true dude on our final day and headed to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. No major targets (aside from getting some nice images of Mew Gulls of all ages), just to see a few yanks at close range. The ponds, or at least one of them, was filled with Ring-necked Ducks and American Wigeons as well as a couple of Lesser Scaup - all to within a couple of metres. And they didn't pass the bread test (though the 3 Hooded Mergs on the same pond did).
drake American Wigeon

female American Wigeon

drake Lesser Scaup

drake Ring-necked Duck

Pied-billed Grebe
There were also the obligatory gulls just waiting to be papped, which included four Thayer's and some lovely Mew Gulls: -
juvenile Thayer's Gull

adult Mew Gull

Josh keeping the Western Gulls and hybrids alive
The place is the San Francisco equivalent of Hyde Park, so much so I almost expected Des McKenzie to burst out of the bushes. But he didn't, and nor did anyone else thankfully. It's a great introduction to Pacific coast US birding, and probably best to come here first as opposed to last as - typical of any urban birding - you don't get the biodiversity you get elsewhere. With just a load of common species to show for our casual efforts (Townsend's Warblers, Anna's Hummingbirds and three species of sparrow the highlights), Josh and Lee wanted to take the dudeometer to the next level, so we headed on down to the Golden Gate bridge.
And then there was a nice American Robin on a lawn along the Presidio, and the odd Western Grebe, Black Turnstone and Heermann's Gull by Fort Mason, before Josh navigated our way back through San Francisco to the airport largely based on his knowledge of the city from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas...
American Robin

Sunday 24 February 2013

The last couple of days in California

The last couple of days of my trip to California continued in the same vein, with showy birds in nice light. Friday morning started out in Monterey, where there were similar birds in Laguna Grande Park to the previous day - including the Palm Warbler and loads of Yellow-rumped (predominantly Audubon's Warblers) - but no sign of the American Dipper.
Audubon's Warbler, Monterey 22nd Feb 2013
We headed north from Monterey, and enjoyed a bit of Moss Landing. Loads of showy birds in the harbour area - Clark's and Western Grebes, Brown Pelicans, Heermann's Gulls as well as a few waders such as Hudsonian Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit and the first Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers of the trip and plenty of Sea Otters too.
Hudsonian Whimbrel, Moss Landing 22nd Feb 2013

Moss Landing holds good numbers of Sea Otters that show extremely well too
The rest of the afternoon was spent doing what I've loved best on this trip, and the primary focus too, which is getting close up looks of properly rare gull species over here in the Britain and Ireland. We'd been tipped off by Alvaro J about a place where you get decent views of Thayer's Gulls in San Jose at Hidden Valley Park, so after the obligatory golden arches stop, we spent an hour or so observing and snapping away; seven Thayer's Gulls present (mainly 2nd-winters) and a perplexing mix of hybrids as always with the Glaucous-winged x Herrings looking uncannily like Thayer's at times.
2nd-winter Thayer's Gull, Hidden Valley Park 22nd Feb 2013 - a slightly structured, retarded individual
We then headed off towards the coast, and the site that we visited on our first afternoon - Venice beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. There were 100s of large gulls present, and in amongst them the usual interesting mix including several Thayer's Gulls, including a third-winter bird (a rare age).
3rd-winter Thayer's Gull - not an age seen regularly by any means. Note the dark markings on the primary coverts, and adult type primary markings including an obvious mirror on P10 and a small mirror on the inner web of P9 and black subterminal mark to P5

1st-winter Glaucous-winged Gull, Venice Beach 22nd Feb 2013
A pretty scenic site too, making a change from all my gull watching on the Thames and rubbish dumps back in England. It also happened that this area was used to film Chasing Mavericks, a film I watched on the plane home earlier today.
Venice Beach, Half Moon Bay
Anyway, more from California on another blog post soon.

Friday 22 February 2013

Monterey today

Still in Monterey this evening after a bird (and mammal filled) day out and about locally. The sun was shining throughout, and a stroll around the harbour early doors produced a few nice bits. Loads of divers and grebes floating around, as well as a Hooded Merganser amongst the Surf Scoters, and the first good looks of Heermann's Gulls this trip. All to a continual raucous yelping of the Californian Sealions.
Sealions - slothing about in the sun

drake Surf Scoter

Heermann's Gull
Then to a whale watching trip where we quickly hit upon a group of 3 Grey Whales, and that was that. Impressive beasts they were and a species I'd not seen before, but as they chose the inner bay to chill out in, it meant that the punters were happy and we didn't go out any further. However, we did luck out on 3 Ancient Murrelets amongst the copious amounts of Rhinoceros Auklets and Guillemots, while the odd 'Pacific' Fulmar and Kittiwake flew by.

Grey Whales doing a bit of blowing
Back on dry land, after a typically American sized 'small' cup of Clam Chowder we headed a couple of miles north to Laguna Grande Park. There we met another birder who told us about a Palm Warbler, which performed admirably and looked suitably rare, from a European perspective at least, feeding amongst the thickets in somewhat waterthrush-style manner.

Palm Warbler, Laguna Grande Park, Monterey
The real prize here, however, was an overwintering American Dipper; a mega rare bird for Monterey and it showed rather well as it fed in typical fashion along the stream coming off the lake.
American Dipper, Laguna Grande Park, Monterey
The day was rounded off with another short drive to Point Pinos where another vagrant - a Vermilion Flycatcher - was also overwintering. A pretty scraggy first-winter bird; a far cry from the jewel you'd expect. A drake Cinnamon Teal showed well on the small pond and a Surfbird was on the rocks with a small group of Black Turnstones, and we made it back to Fisherman's Wharf just before dark, where the vagrant Black-throated Diver was showing in amongst the Pacifics to round off a thoroughly satisfying day.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Californian goose fest

Yesterday, we were birding inland in California - remarkably like the Lincolnshire/Norfolk fields where the geese hang out. And instead of the Pinkfeet you'd expect, these were replaced by goose flocks of a different colour - a big flock of Snow Geese (2,000+) near Rio Vista and then 20,000+ Ross' Geese at Merced National Wildlife Refuge were proper special despite absolutely appalling weather. Also some intriguing Canada Geese too.
blue morph Snow Goose amongst a load of Ross' Geese
a cloud of Ross' Geese
Nice to see lots of Sandhill Cranes, and some Pacific Whitefronts for the first time - pale, large with tepid pinkish/orange bill and really bright orange legs.
Pacific White-fronted Goose
The whole area was stacked full of birds that, on the other side of the Atlantic, would make your day even in their ones and twos. All nice and close too. American Wigeon, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, Ring-necked Ducks and Canvasbacks, Whistling Swan, Killdeer, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sand and Wilson's Snipe and also good to see the fine flank streaking on Hudsonian Dunlins.
Hudsonian Dunlin - showing those fine lines of flank streaking leading off the breast
My real target for the day was Mountain Plover, and we located 16 of these Caspian Plover-style birds in short turf off Sandy Mush Road. This type of habitat was pretty prevalent and birds such as Ferruginous Hawk, Western Meadowlarks, huge flocks of Tricoloured and Red-winged Blackbird, Lark Sparrow and one of these lovely Burrowing Owls.
Just a shame about the weather - the abysmal grey and torrential rain meant it wasn't just the landscape that reminded me of home. Today, however, has made up for it with bright blue skies with snow in the mountains, Californian Condors in dramatic coastal scenery, more gull action and finally our first cracking meal of the trip, in Monterey. More of this sometime soon. 

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Rock on

Fresh this morning out on the tip of Bodega Head, it wasn't long before I picked up the Rock Sandpiper amongst a small group of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones. A very rare winter visitor this far south, I was well pleased to see this 'Purple Sand of the Pacific' as it was a new bird for me. Thanks to a bit of ingenuity and guts from JJ, I scrambled down the eroding cliff face to get some proper views as it fed on rockpools just above the crashing waves.

Rock Sandpiper Bodega Head, California 18th Feb 2013
And here is one of the Surfbirds it chose to keep company with: -
So, heading back to the town itself, we were able to quickly locate the overwintering Nashville and Wilson's Warblers, as well as a couple of Orange-crowned and Townsend's Warblers, below Diekmann's Store. Yellow-rumped Warblers were absolutely everywhere - present in their 100s. But, with our eyes firmly fixed on the gull action, only a Swamp Sparrow near Salmon Creek could get in our way before heading off to Lucchesi Park in Petaluma. I'll keep it brief here, but totally mindblowing views of loads of Thayer's Gulls of all ages, lots of other interesting gulls including hybrids, including a real dopy looking Glaucous-winged x Glaucous (my first of this concoction). Just a couple of the 800 or so shots; I'll save some of the others for another time!
presumed juvenile Glaucous-winged x Glaucous Gull

juvenile Thayer's Gull up close and personal

adult Thayer's Gull

presumed adult American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull
Last hour of light spent at Shollenberger - nice groups of American Avocets, a large flock of distant Canvasbacks, a couple of Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals while numerous Red-winged Blackbirds, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows present. The day was rounded off with a Dennys, our third night of crap American food.

Monday 18 February 2013

California intro

Today (Sunday) was the first full day of being in California, with just an hour or so down Half Moon Bay after the flight from London spent birding yesterday. First oddity was sunshine, and there's been plenty of it throughout the weekend. Birds have been plentiful too and it has been a typically relaxing, stress free trip so far. However, those gulls predictably are as hard and frustrating as I thought - loads of Western x Glaucous-wingeds and also smaller numbers of American Herring x Glaucous-winged. Needless to say though, we've plucked out over 50 Thayer's already with some giving themselves up like the two below: -
adult Thayer's Gull Jenner 17 Feb 2013

adult Thayer's Gull Salmon Creek 17 Feb 2013
It certainly has already been an education, with thayeri just totally variable - the males long-billed and snouty, females more subdued features; many more pale irises that I was led to believe (most adults had varying degrees of paleness) while primary colouration also variable from nearly black to slate-grey. So perhaps the adult was really one overall!
Varied Thrush Point Arena 17 Feb 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Point Arena 17 Feb 2013
Anyway, plenty of other things to look at too today - a couple of lovely Varied Thrushes, Townsend's Warblers and Golden-crowed Sparrows to name but a few. Birds such as Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows are common, and to boot, we've ended the day with six species of sparrow! All of these birds seen in spectacular scenery too.
Western Willet Bodega Bay 17 Feb 2013

Thursday 14 February 2013

Preparing for Pacific gulling

I'm excited. No, I haven't just signed up to Baggers' dancing birder thing on Sky One. But on Saturday morning, I'm heading off to California to get stuck into a load of tricky larids with a couple of other gull watching mates. Throw into the mix a load of good west coast birds and a week away from cold, grey London should give the old bones a bit of a shake out too.

This trip was hatched out of my semi-birding visit last summer, as well as trip reports from Steve A and info from Chris G. So the target is to come back knowing a bit more about what Thayer's Gulls actually look like in range, as well as shots of Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls (as well as the inbetweeners), Mew and Heermann's Gulls as well as west coast American Herring Gulls, all with full sets of wings!
1st-summer California Gull with quills for coverts
near-adult Glaucous-winged Gull mid-moult
presumably there's a Western Gull in there somewhere?
Some people have described Heermann's Gulls as beautiful. This one wasn't
These are of course extreme examples, but northern hemisphere gulls generally aren't at their best in the summer post-breeding months. So bring on this February trip.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Pelican brief

Coincidentally, just a week before I'm about to return to the west coast of the US, I get an email from the North American Bird Banding Program on Friday about this young chap that I spotted at Brookings, Oregon, on 2nd August 2012: -
Brown Pelican M77
It had been ringed a week or so earlier, on 25th July, in San Francisco, California. As with the ringed Caspian Tern from last summer, once again I got a certificate of appreciation!
It's all getting me warmed up nicely for the return visit! There'll be plenty of gulls to look through, and this time they'll have all their primaries intact. I suppose it'll be rude to not have a look at a few other species too. Six more sleeps to go.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Bonaparte's Gull in Eastbourne

I headed down to Eastbourne for a leisurely few hours by the seaside with David B. We ditched a car at Dartford where, coincidentally, there were 8 Waxwings and the showy Slavonian Grebe continued its residence on its favoured pool. It was late morning by the time we arrived at Princes Park, and there had been no sign despite all the long lenses. Within five minutes, I found the Bonaparte's Gull and this quality little, tree-nesting yank gull put on a show for the next few hours and often, I targ: -

As you can see, it proved rather obliging and its high-pitched call could be heard at times, taking me back to the flocks I saw in Canada last December here. It does have extensive black feathering in the inner primaries (to P3) - a feature potentially of a second-cycle (so third calendar year) bird; however its primary coverts and alula were unmarked so probably best to age it as an adult. Not much else about, and getting back to London with a couple of hours of light left produced little of note; just one NTGG ringed Herring Gull at Crayford. Grim weather forecast tomorrow but I'll still be getting amongst it - last day of British birding as I'm off to California next Saturday for some serious yank gullage.