Piedras Blancas and north coast summary (week 9: May 08-14)
COASTAL SEABIRDS --
loons, brant, scoters....
Brant and Surf Scoters are definitely winding down to straggler individuals
or small flocks. Brant were generally running at less than 100 per day, and
Surf Scoters less than 200. Loon flights all week were very light (a few
hundred to 1,000 or so) but building again toward week's end. Ahead of the
approaching week storm system to the north heralded the week's best flight on
Sa 5/13 with 8 - 10,000 Pacific Loons. Most are seen now in very tight
flocks of 20 - 100 with long pauses in between.
Black-footed Albatross --
We 5/10 -- 6 between 0600-0700hrs
Th 5/11 -- 6-8 between 0600-0700hrs & occasional through day
Fr 5/12 -- 2 between 0600-0700hrs
Su 5/14 -- 12 during 0600-0900hr 'big eye' count all heading north
Sooty & Pink-footed Shearwater --
The Sooty Shearwater flights this week have really been cranking! Countless
thousands have been blasting through in an unbroken stream all heading north
each morning and in a consistent and narrow corridor at the 3-reticle (1.0
nmi) range offshore. Meanwhile, the visual range ratio of Pink-footed to
Sooties continues to decline, becoming downright scarce if not rare. I don't
know what the ratio might have been on Su 5/14 when my comfortably accurate
count was 21,000 : 0 between 0600-0900hrs.
MANX SHEARWATER --
We 5/10 -- 0653hrs; 100 - <200m, just inside the surf break and passing just
over the 'harbor seal rocks' and 5X closer than any other shearwaters out
there this morning! Observed at leisure in perfect brilliant lighting and
even viewed and *appreciated* (as in like "Wow!") by some of the other
observers. This was the closest to shore that I have ever seen this species
since annually observing a few each Spring since 1994 (~20 cumulative spring
records now; 3rd this season). Jeepers! It was but the sheerest of flukes
that I even saw this one as I'd just stepped away from the 'big eyes' to show
one of the other observers a Black-footed Albatross and recognized this lone
little 'black & white' shearwater right in the surf with the naked eye.
Forget the albatross! It happened right at observer rotation and not a
second too soon or late as Todd showed up right then and we all were able to
gaze at this bird fully to everyone's satisfaction at minimum focus in the
'25X' as it just kind of slowly drifted on by heading north.
Black-vented Shearwater --
Su 5/14 (0634hrs) -- 1 amongst the endless stream of Sooties at 1.0 nmi (3rd
sighting this spring).
jaegers, gulls, terns, phalaropes, alcids....
Jaegers -- none
Franklin's Gull -- 4 sightings (5 birds) this week
Tu 5/09 (1724hrs) -- 2 first summer sub-adults alone
We 5/10 (1053hrs) -- 1 adult mixed with California Gulls
Fr 5/12 (0621hrs) -- 1 adult flying north ~500m offshore
Fr 5/12 (1253hrs) -- 1 adult flying north with one California Gull
Bonaparte's Gull -- continue extremely scarce to nonexistent for the second
season in a row.
Sabine's Gull -- no sightings yet this spring. They are due now any time!
If it doesn't start happening this coming week, then the traditional
nearshore late afternoon flights aren't going to happen.
large flights (thousands), mostly Red-necked with a sprinkle of Reds Mo-Tu
5/08-09. 9,400 clicker counted during a brief hazy window (1200-1300hrs) in
the fog Mo 5/08 when visibility opened up to about 0.5 nmi. A much larger
flight casually noted and reported early Tu 5/09 but unfortunately, I screwed
up and went to San Simeon State Park to immerse myself attempting to bird in
the super dense fog while it was all along clear at Piedras Blancas. I knew
that was probably a mistake even before I left! Modest flight mostly
Red-necked (~10,000) 0600-0800hrs Fr 5/12.
Terns -- none of note; just the occasional Forster's and local Caspians.
Marbled Murrelet --
Fr 5/12 (0645hrs) -- single alternate plumage adult flying south at ~200m and
veering inshore as it rounded the 'Point'. I almost never see singles of
this species here; usually pairs. Perhaps it has a mate on the nest not so
far away in one of those forested island spots along the southern Big Sur
coast somewhere and passing by here on foraging mission.
Su 5/14 (0614hrs) -- single, maybe same bird as Friday, flying south at ~200m
and veering inshore as it rounded the 'Point'.
Ancient Murrelet --
Su 5/14 -- single bird flying north at 500m
Rhinoceros Auklet --
morning flights have tapered off to just an occasional few now.
shorebirds and odd waterfowl....
Huge flight Tu 5/09 (morning). Clicker counted 1,230 between 1000-1300hrs.
Six flocks each contained 125-200 birds! They were reported as "lots" by
Todd while I was off 'pissing away' the morning at San Simeon between
0600-1000. Whimbrels continued to trickle by through the afternoon but in
fewer and smaller flocks. Until this day, migrating Whimbrels have been
fairly scarce although still one of the most frequently seen shorebirds. I
scanned over every one of them this morning looking for that one 'odd' one
that might be mixed in, but no such luck. BTW, where are all the Willets?
I've seen very few along the coast this Spring. Even the traditional beach
strand along rt.1 north of Morro Bay seems to harbor way fewer than usual.
Red Knot --
One flock of ~60 (first I've detected here this Spring) whizzed right past
our noses at the study site at ~1700hrs Tu 5/09. A flock of 10 was mixed
with Whimbrels on We 5/10.
ROSS'S GOOSE -- Two amazing show stopper sightings this week!
Th 5/11 (0953hrs) -- Single adult shadowing a Pacific Loon 300m off the
'Point' heading north.
Fr 5/12 (1530hrs) -- another single adult amongst a straggle of 12 coast
hugging northbound Brant at ~1530hrs Fr 5/12. What was it thinking?!? Like,
maybe it could 'hide' or something! :-))
Th 5/11 -- single female flying north
the Sunday morning count....
Sunday 5/07 full on 'big eye' count (25X150 fujinon mounted binoculars) --
Selected species (mostly migrants) of particular interest only.
0600-0900hrs -- weather: cloudy, cold(!) wind SSE 8-10kts, sea state B-3,
visibility 5 nmi. Species marked with (*) were individually counted with
hand clickers. Sooty Shearwaters dominated the count and the estimate shown
is a pretty good one based on frequent 1-min fixed point counts (birds
passing through the field of view with the glasses set at 225 degrees (SW) to
determine flow rates which ranged from 50-200 per min (average 100/min)
throughout the observation period.
Black-footed Albatross 12
Sooty Shearwater ~21,000 (all 1.0 nmi offshore)
Pink-footed Shearwater 0
Black-vented Shearwater 1
Red-throated Loon* 75
Pacific Loon* 3,140
Common Loon* 61
Surf Scoter* 108
White-winged Scoter 6
Red-breasted Merganser 0
Bonaparte's Gull 0
Phalaropes (sp?) ~500 (only 2 flocks & way the hell offshore)
Common Murre 19
Marbled Murrelet 1
Ancient Murrelet 1
Rhinoceros Auklet* 73
flyby shorebirds -- Whimbrel (20). Nothing else!
OTHER STUFF --
Very little activity this week and not even seen very often. Neither the
male or female spends much if any time perched on the lighthouse any more.
Occasionally, I'll see the male clinging to it's favorite perch on the SE
face of the 'Outer Rock'. There were no chases or kills observed this week,
but I saw the male on a couple of occasions returning from the sea with a
small reddish item, Red Phalaropes I suspect which must be much further
offshore than my visual range is of use.
Allen's nest #2 fledged it's first on Th 5/11 leaving one the nest to itself
when not perched on the edge to nestle in all to itself and it too fledged in
the afternoon Su 5/14. Allen's nest #3 should hatch by late this coming week
if the schedule follows anywhere close to nests #1 and #2. Anna's nest #3
(the high one 12 feet over the drive) also fledged this week, Th 5/11 and Su
Meanwhile, two more nests were discovered this week. That makes a record
smashing 8 so far this Spring. I don't know how I had managed to overlook
it, but Anna's #4 was already on two eggs when discovered on Sa 5/13 just
outside the front door on the tip of an exposed dead branch a few feet off
the sidewalk. That one can't be more conspicuous if it even tried and I've
probably brushed against it several times while messing around in the yard.
The 8th nest was discovered a bit too late. Already abandoned (fledging ~3
weeks ago I'd guess), I'm sure that one was another Allen's that was tucked
away deep and well hidden in a cypress where I'd seen activity weeks ago and
female feeding a nearby fledgling. I should have looked a little harder when
I suspected something going on way back in there.
other yard birds....
Okay, so you moon watchers have calculated some umpteen thousands of
songbirds flying over at night this week. Hmph! Well..., NONE of 'em have
found their way out here! It's this damned lighthouse! This pathetic little
Christmas tree like ornament which replaced the rotating beacon last year and
only flashes for one second at 9 second intervals (if it works at all) just
aint gonna do it folks to attract the lost and forlorn migrant, much less
vagrant out to these parts. Gone are the glory days when under optimum
conditions, hundreds of passerines would flit around the light at night like
fireflies and descend into the bushes at first light.
Lighthouses are no longer a necessity to aid navigation and the Coast Guard
was reluctant to even activate the flashing light but had to give in because
of the deluge of 'hate mail' as they put it. But lighthouses have a
historical significance and offer to all as a welcome beacon with all it's
fascination, enchantment, romance even to all those who aren't just marine
navigators. Personally, I need the light just to find my way 'home' some
nights as I've caught myself driving right past the turnoff on occasion. The
Piedras Blancas light has been here since 1874 for heaven's sake. Why turn
it out now? It marks the south end of the Big Sur coast and doesn't deserve
to be forsaken just because it no longer serves the needs of marine
navigation. The Coast Guard wants to divest it's interest in the light which
no longer serves it's purpose and puts a strain on it's budget.
A private enterprise may be the way to go to perhaps even restore the light
to it's former glory, cap and all (the former top was heavily damaged or
sheared off during a massive storm back in about 1947 I think). There must
be someone down there in Cambria way with an extra $500,000 just lying around
looking for good use, no? Yoo-hoo! Here 'tis. And just mere $2-million or
so could probably restore it magnificently. If SLO County is the 8th least
affordable county in the country as I read in the 'New Times', then that
...ughm... has to mean that more than just a few folks around here must have
just a tinsy little more than they really really need to fulfill a cozy
Okay, getting off the rant wagon now, the week wasn't quite a total loss for
passerines. Just coming 'off watch' (rotation shift) at 1300hrs on Sa 5/13,
I took the 'scenic route' back to the house (i.e. following the road around
the north side) and was quite startled to discover a tight little flock of 8
YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS picking around in the iceplant at the head of the
drive to the house. All were females and/or very immature males (some had
little white flecks in the wings). I watched them for about 5 minutes after
which they up and flew south, over the house and disappeared. Five minutes
later, I logged on to download email with the first message being Mike Stiles
posting of "20 females" that same very day at Oso Flaco. Fascinating!
Coincidence or what?!? I usually see 1-3 Yellow-headed Blackbirds around
here during a typical season but usually in March or April. This 5/13 event
was the first May record I have around here since 1994.
San Simeon State Park --
Two morning walks this week, Tu 5/09, and an encore Sa 5/13 visit only
because this and last week's scheduled trips were so severely compromised by
morning walk (Tu 5/09, 0630-0930) -- I can't believe I subjected myself to a
second straight weekly walk in the fog. It was worse than last week! Waking
up (late) at PB, it was clear with the northern edge of the heavy fog bank
which blanketed the coast all day on Monday just two miles south. This was a
morning where all my planets were misaligned. I just knew it was going to be
a good phalarope early morning here (and it was), and I was already 30 min
late getting started which cost me the Black-crowned Night Heron and god
knows what else. There were no new migrants or arrivals and even the
residents were hard to come by if not just missed. And of course after last
week's report of strutting Turkeys during the early mornings around the
windmill below the Washburn Campground, they were nowhere to be seen or
heard. I was a bit concerned that all the gun fire heard not far off to the
east of the campground during last week's walk might have been the death
knell for the Turkeys this Spring. Isn't there a spring time turkey hunting
season around here? So, I had to settle for WINTER WREN as consolation
prize. Singing away in it's usual place in the thick brambles upslope from
south end of the footbridge through the riparian section, a foggy morning
must be to it's liking. All total, 64 species, yet another new season low,
which would have been 6 less than that if the fog hadn't parted right at the
very end of my time allowed to provide a very quick look over the ocean.
morning walk (Sa 5/13, 0545-0930) -- Well, this was more like it. A return
to sunshine and a chance to get a good feel what was going on. Still not a
lot with maybe a dozen (individuals) of all those umpteen thousands of
migrants suggested by moon-watcher Brad Schram and calculated by other list
members finding their way into the park. New additions or arrivals to the
accumulation were numerous Yellow Warblers (6), Townsend's Warbler (1),
Warbling Vireo (1), and Western Kingbird (1). There were more Swainson's
Thrushes but still no orioles, tanagers, or flycatchers other than summer
resident Pacific-slope although all these things can be found in abundance
only a mile or two further inland. Despite some horrible misses (Great
Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, White-crowned Sparrow,
Peregrine, and an almost miss Great Blue Heron), I still managed a season
high species count of 81. One bonus bird; the **WHITE-FACED IBIS** first
discovered on the far back sewage pond and reported on Th 5/11 was still
present and left standing there at 0900hrs. The WINTER WREN was found again
in the usual place but with a lot more effort. On a 'normally' sunny
morning, this bird is one 'kick-ass' champion skulker. Singing short muffled
bursts of song deep in the brambles, it could easily be overlooked over the
din of everything else. Ditto the equally muffled chip or scold note which
if you weren't tuned in to listen for it right there at that spot, you'd walk
right past it and never know the difference.
'FOREIGN TRAVEL' --
Todd Pusser, one of our globe-trotting marine mammal observer team members at
the PB survey site reported on an interesting trip to Monterey on Su 5/14
which I'd like to share and hopefully not bore the pants off those that are
strictly SLO County bird enthusiasts.
Todd went to Monterey and out on the boat with the Nat.Geo. team and came
back with an incredible tale which he best describes as one of his best
marine mammal experiences of his life. It must have been truly incredible!
The anchovies were running thick and fast in the inner bay only 1-3 miles off
Moss Landing and was the prime attraction to the hard to imagine spectacle of
150-200(!!!) Humpback Whales and 5,000(!!!) Pacific White-sided Dolphins.
Sooty Shearwaters carpeted the ocean surface by the countless tens of
thousands! Todd said everywhere you looked, it was like a forest of Humpback
blows. Dozens of Humpbacks were seen synchronously lunge feeding and
frequently breaching, even bumping the boat, while the anchovies were
everywhere, even leaping out of the water and on to the boat. Well...,
nothing like that around here!! I'm glad the trip went so well for him and
the Nat.Geo. team. I'm envious and will look forward to the photos.
Okay, phew! This is quite long enough for one weekly summary! ...sorry.
Richard Rowlett (Pterodroma@aol.com)
NOAA/NMFS Gray Whale Survey
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, California
"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what
nobody has thought" --Albert Szent-Gyorgi (1893-1986).