Saturday 28 February 2015

Back on the tip and 'that' gull

This time last week I was still in the sunshine of southern California. In contrast today, it was grey and dismal on the tip in Essex. And it took almost three hours to get up there! While I'd been away, Steve had again been unlucky on the tyre front again - it must be half a dozen we've shredded this winter. After going into a local fitting shop and getting our new off-road tyres on the rims, we had to jack the Land Rover up and change things ourselves.

But it was all worth it, just to get a few rings and find that the juvenile Glaucous Gull was still about, albeit briefly. Highlight (it was to me anyhow) was seeing in the flesh what seems to be the same bird that has recently been troubling a few birders with its identity both at Rainham and in Surrey at Beddington and the reservoir roosts - opinion divided between Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. I had a couple of email conversations with people about this bird while I was in California, and remained (untypically) rather non-committal. However, I benefited from seeing it up relatively close and immediately it felt all 'wrong' for both species; size wise it was very similar structurally to a Herring Gull and with a relatively long primary projection it wasn't your average Glaucous Gull. Its tepid bill with dark subterminal band, and pale eye, too didn't feel to fit completely either. I'd go for it being either a leucistic Herring Gull or potentially with some Glaucous genes mixed through.

And just to add to the headache, in amongst the half dozen or so frisky Mediterranean Gulls seen today, was this hybrid bird (complete with a Polish ring): -

hybrid Mediterranean x Black-headed Gull
There were also a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls (first and second-winters) but disappointingly drew a blank on Caspian Gulls today.
2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull

Sunday 22 February 2015

California day seven - Santa Barbara to Los Angeles

All good things come to an end. Saturday was the last day in California, and we wanted to make the most of the day as we were due to fly back to London from Los Angeles mid evening. Before the birding started, we had a bit of good value in the beachside parking lot. There was this big guy sitting in his van near where we were scanning the beach, and he just threw his rubbish out into the parking lot! An attendant came over, picked it up and asked him why he did that - to which this guy replied 'because I'm sick'. Anyway, I had never seen such blatant contempt for the environment and laziness, even here in the US. Compelled to say something, I approached the guy and said 'hello, we've been travelling around California and you are undoubtedly our c**t of the week'. To which he said 'thank you'. Some people never learn...

So birding wise, we started off in Santa Barbara, a place I know well and only an hour or two from the airport. First off was Alice Keck Park, where there's been a regularly returning Thayer's Gull for the last few winters. It hadn't been reported recently, so it was a little surprising to find it present on arrival.
adult Thayer's Gull Santa Barbara, California
It didn't stay long though, and hadn't returned an hour or so later either. Quite a few interesting gulls around the pond here too, including a nice looking 1st-winter American Herring Gull as well as a couple of hybrids.

1st-winter American Herring Gull Santa Barbara, California
The beach itself was quite busy once the sun came out mid-morning. And suffice to say, our last bit of gull action produced some showy birds of the usual species.
adult California Gull Santa Barbara, California

adult Heermann's Gull Santa Barbara, California
We headed off east along the coast road early afternoon, with the intention of targeting one species - Lawrence's Goldfinch. It seems as though it has been a good winter for this sometimes tricky species, and armed with Ebird reports, we headed to Thousand Oaks and an area of weeds just north of the Lutheran University. At least 70 birds were found here, all in a tight though mobile flock. Loads of males too, and a splendid end to another decent trip in the US.
Lawrence's Goldfinch Thousand Oaks, California

Friday 20 February 2015

California day six - Monterey to Pixley NWR

It was another dull morning, with the low cloud hugging the the coastline. A few Heermann's and Mew Gulls were noted at Fisherman's Wharf, along with ringed Brown Pelicans, while a couple of Black Turnstones were on the rocks at Point Pinos. With the gulls (and light) not cooperating, we headed to the outskirts of Monterey to Lagunita Mirada Park. A Red-naped Sapsucker had been found here a couple of days ago - and as this was a species I'd not seen before - it was nice to easily stroll up and see it. I imagine it had been present a while before its discovery, given the copious amounts of sap ridden holes present. A rather dull Varied Thrush was present briefly too.
Red-naped Sapsucker Monterey, California
Today was always going to be a day of travel, heading south so as to be able to go birding tomorrow before the late evening flight back to London. A check of Soap Lake didn't produce the Tundra Swan reported yesterday evening, and so we headed southeast three hours to the barren landscape at Pixley NWR. I always think of California as windswept beaches and upmarket housing, but if you head inland a couple of hours it's for sure a different, more greyer and deprived world. The Sandhill Cranes didn't mind it though, and we probably saw in excess of a thousand birds grazing the fields and dancing around in front of us. It was really good value.

Sandhill Cranes Pixley NWR, California
The real reason we'd made this detour was to see a Harris' Sparrow - a species I'd wanted to see for a long time, and pretty tricky to catch up with (or non-existent) in all the states I'd been to before. There hadn't been any news the previous day, but within twenty or so minutes of scanning through White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows in a scrubby area near the viewing platform it wasn't a major surprise when I located it. And it turned out to perform nicely too.

Harris' Sparrow Pixley NWR, California
The whole reserve was bird filled, putting to shame our reserves on just the scale of birds present. Among the large numbers of Pintail and Shoveler, a few Northern Harriers cruised over, a Great Horned Owl perched up in a distant bush and a group of fifty or so Snow Geese (including a handful of blue morphs) flew over. Standard stuff such as Black-necked Stilts and Killdeer were also present, while driving out of the reserve alongside loads of Sandhill Cranes was pretty special too.

California day five - Oakland to Half Moon Bay

It was a pretty murky morning as we headed into Oakland and along the shores of Lake Merritt. Lots of gulls about, but just Ring-billed, Westerns, the odd Glaucous-winged and California and a single American Herring. This site has previously been a good bet for Barrow's Goldeneye, but there haven't been any about regularly this winter. Nevertheless some showy Canvasbacks, Lesser Scaup and Black-crowned Night Herons as well as a couple of Belted Kingfishers were nice enough before we braved the San Francisco rush hour traffic and headed south over the Bay Bridge.
drake Canvasback Lake Merritt, California
By mid-morning, the gloom had turned into a nice morning. And with the aid of some directions, we headed into Golden Gate Park, and to an area of log piles near the junction of Nancy Pelosi Drive and Martin Luther King Drive. Here, it took about half an hour to locate the overwintering Rustic Bunting as it lurked in among the juncos - never coming out of the undergrowth, it didn't show too badly at all. Quite a contrast searching for this alongside White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Song and Fox Sparrows while American Robins hopped about with Townsend's Warblers in the trees above!
Rustic Bunting (above two images) Golden Gate Park, California
Townsend's Warbler Golden Gate Park, California
Sooty Fox Sparrow Golden Gate Park, California
American Robin Golden Gate Park, California
Having visited Golden Gate Park a couple of times previously, I knew how photogenic some birds on the small lakes were and so ensued a bit of a papping session - Ring-necked Ducks, Pied-billed Grees, Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers and Mew Gulls being the main targets.
drake Ring-necked Duck Golden Gate Park, California

drake Lesser Scaup Golden Gate Park, California

drake Bufflehead Golden Gate Park, California

adult Mew Gull Golden Gate Park, California

Pied-billed Grebe Golden Gate Park, California

And once we were done, we headed half an hour or south to Half Moon Bay for another visit to Venice Beach and its gulls. Plenty of nice photographs taken of commoner species, and what with just a couple of days left, I was conscious to try and stock up on the different ages of each species and get a few flight shots too. A single Heermann's Gull, four American Herring Gulls and this hybrid presumed Glaucous-winged x American Herring Gull were the highlights.
adult American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull Half Moon Bay, California

Wednesday 18 February 2015

California day four - Bodega Bay to Colusa

It was another morning of hitting the beaches. Before that though, I swung into Doran Beach (just south of Bodega Bay) where we quickly located a Eurasian Wigeon on a small roadside lagoon among a small group of American Wigeon. Just like yesterday's Tufted Duck, I am starting to wonder whether I've been to California too many times when I drop in to have a look at stuff like this...
drake Eurasian Wigeon Bodega Bay, California - same as how they look in London!
Anyhow, it was back to the gulls after a quick stop at Diekmann's Store where an Orange-crowned Warbler, a few Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers were seen. Most of the morning was then spent on the beach at Jenner at the mouth of the Russian River, where the undoubted highlight of the trip for me was a lovely dark, smooth and cute looking juvenile Thayer's Gull. Totally lush in every sense of the word.
juvenile Thayer's Gull Jenner, California
It contrasted nicely with this extreme juvenile too.
juvenile Thayer's Gull Jenner, California - an extremely pale individual
All told, there were about five juvenile Thayer's Gulls and two adults - as well as greater numbers of American Herring Gulls of all ages. But unlike yesterday, a lot of the birds weren't too cooperative and the Western Gulls quickly mastered the art of laying into our bread completely uninvited. And if it wasn't them, the closeness to the Pacific breakers meant a bit of our gull food got washed out with them (and quickly devoured by gulls subsequently).
adult California Gull Salmon Creek, California
Our final coastal stop was to be Salmon Creek again - and despite a distinct lack of anything interesting with the Glaucous-winged, California, American Herring and Western Gulls the views of Mew Gulls feeding in the surf more than made up for it.
adult Mew Gull Salmon Creek, California
And on that note, after a nice Belted Kingfisher by the roadside, we headed inland a couple of hours or so. I'd been stacking up the Eurasian vagrants for this trip (still one more to come tomorrow fingers crossed), and with a Falcated Duck overwintering at Colusa NWR that was the next port of call. Having headed through the mountains, we arrived to copious amounts of ducks on the pond just off Highway 20. I'd never seen so many ducks - thousands of American Wigeons, Pintails and Gadwall, hundreds of Ring-necked Ducks and smaller numbers of Lesser Scaup and Green-winged Teal as well as large flocks of Pacific White-fronted Geese and a small skein of Ross' Geese over.

After about an hour of scanning, I finally picked out the drake Falcated Duck, roosting at the back of the lagoon among American Wigeon and Pintail. Just like the Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon, the views weren't ideal for shots - in fact, it was mega distant and there was no way of getting any closer. I also picked up at least three drake Eurasian Wigeons in total, as well as what looked like a female alongside one of the drakes.
Pacific White-fronted Goose Colusa NWR, California
And so we headed to the National Wildlife Refuge proper for the last bit of light, and on the 'autotour' [a way of allowing fat yanks to view wildlife from their car with minimum walking] highlights included Cinnamon Teal, American Bittern, Western Meadowlark, Northern Harrier and a nice roosting group of Black-crowned Night Herons. As dusk approached, the geese were nice and active, calling away, and a fitting end to another decent day in California.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

California day three - Point Reyes to Jenner

We awoke today to a load of gloom here in Petaluma. The plan was to start the day's birding/gulling at nearby Lucchesi Park where myself, Lee G and Josh J a couple of years ago had feasted on loads of Thayer's Gulls and generally just good gulling. To my dismay this morning, I arrived to find the place had been totally gentrified! Signs saying 'do not feed the birds', new landscaping and generally not the 'shit hole' feel of a couple of years ago. So, as we all know, gulls love places most of us don't so alas there were no gulls to sort through here and so we moved on...

The next stop was a bit of dirty ABA twitching and, it was roles reversed. I searched through upwards of 500 Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaups at Stafford Lake to find a single drake Tufted Duck - and it was asleep on the far side of the lake! That said, the place was alive with activity - three Varied Thrushes among a load of American Robins, Hermit Thrush, Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeers, several American Wigeons, a single Cackling Goose along with copious doses of Buffleheads.
White-crowned Sparrow Point Reyes, California
Half an hour later, we arrived at Inverness where scanning the bay didn't reveal the hoped for Eurasian Wigeon (nor any American Wigeons) though loads of Buffleheads, Greater and Lesser Scaups and Black Brants were a bit of compensation. We headed through the dramatic yet bleak landscape at Point Reyes, arriving at the end of the point where showy White-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows were easily papped. We ended up overlooking Chimney Rock, where three Brown Boobies were present amongst the Brown Pelicans and Western Gulls; an adult and two immatures, rare birds and a bit of a bonus for this trip.
Brown Boobies on Chimney Rock, Point Reyes, California
It was nearly time to ease those larid withdrawal symptoms. But only after a nice Red-shouldered Hawk en route to the bushes below Diekmann's Store in Bodega Bay, where Nashville Warbler, a couple of Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Anna's Hummingbird and Golden-crowned Sparrow showed up nicely. Just a couple of miles further up the coast was Salmon Creek - a tried and tested site for gull papping. And today was no exception with an adult and two juvenile Thayer's Gulls, several Mew Gulls, half a dozen American Herring Gulls along with the ubiquitous Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls.

American Herring Gulls Salmon Creek - adult (top), 2nd-winter (middle) and 1st-winter (bottom)
For most, an hour of gulls would have been enough. Not for myself, Mick S and Richard S. Instead, we decided to do it all again a little further up the coast at Jenner; again a previously visited site where gulls (and seals) congregate at the mouth of the Russian River and tend to show nicely. There were larger numbers here, and there were at least seven Thayer's Gulls here (four adults and three juveniles) as well as some nice looking American Herring Gulls, Mew Gulls and the like.

adult Thayer's Gulls Jenner, California (above two images)

juvenile Thayer's Gulls Jenner, California (above two images)

1st-winter American Herring Gull Jenner, California
Like the previous two days, ringed Western Gulls featured - one yellow ringed bird and a couple of blue ringed individuals too.

ringed Western Gulls - 1st-winter (top) at Salmon Creek and 2nd-winter (bottom) at Jenner

Monday 16 February 2015

California day two - Monterey to Half Moon Bay

It was nice to have slept in a bed last night! So up and refreshed, we hit Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey early on. Light was great for the first half an hour and with a surprising number of Mew Gulls on the beach, I was happy to reconnect with just how diminutive and different they are to our Common Gulls; the difference in first-winter birds is just absurd. There were also a handful of Heermann's Gulls about, a couple of blue ringed Western Gulls and a load of Surf Scoters offshore. Anyway, after a lovely bit of light and a bit of dog walking flushing, the fog rolled in and that was that.

adult Mew Gulls, Monterey

adult Heermann's Gull, Monterey

adult Western Gull, Monterey
Moss Landing was very quiet; the river mouth provided loads of Brown Pelicans, the odd Western Gull and a small number of Savannah Sparrows singing their hearts out. A mid-morning bagel stop provided some roosting Black-crowned Night Herons as a bonus while trying to locate gulls near the Pajaro river mouth was fruitless. And so we headed inland half an hour or so to Los Gatos, where this stray eastern warbler was lingering: -
Black-throated Blue Warbler, Los Gatos
The walk around the creek between the edge of town and Route 17 also provided some decent views of Townsend's Warbler, Oregon Junco and Oak Titmouse. However, the gulls a bit further on at Milpitas failed to show - in my 2013 trip, this site provided ample opportunities to study a good number of Thayer's Gulls. Today, one gull was present and that was a pretty distant, rancid-looking Ring-billed Gull.

Time to head back to the coast, where the rest of the day was spent at Venice Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. A pretty reliable site for gulls, and it was here that the Thayer's Gull duck was broken - two adults noted in the end. There were also a good number of Glaucous-winged Gulls; a species that increases in numbers from Monterey northwards. Good numbers of Mew Gulls were also present, as well as half a dozen American Herring Gulls and a couple of Heermann's Gulls, as well as a concoction of hybrids. Snowy Plovers, and some showy Surf Scoters just offshore, mixed it up a little species wise too.
adult Thayer's Gull, Half Moon Bay

1st-winter American Herring Gull, Half Moon Bay

adult Glaucous-winged Gull, Half Moon Bay

presumed adult American Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull, Half Moon Bay
Good to be back in the gull action here in California. The further north you get, the better the gulls are. And after the three day weekend due to Presidents' Day, hopefully most of the state will be back in work in the morning.
Snowy Plover, Half Moon Bay