Piedras Blancas and north coast summary (week 11: May 22-28)
COASTAL SEABIRDS --
loons, brant, scoters....
Three good late season Pacific Loon flight mornings were observed this week;
Mo 5/22 after 1000hrs and coastal fog cleared with ~750;
Fr 5/26 (0545-0830hrs) with 540 clicker counted;
Su 5/28 (0530-0900hrs) with 1,082 clicker counted (est. ~1500 for day)
Otherwise, just a sprinkle now and then ranging from <100 to ~200 per day
plus a much lighter sprinkle of Common and Red-throated.
As for northbound Brant and Surf Scoters, late season migration couldn't be
even described as a trickle or a sprinkle; rather just occasional stragglers.
There were only seven Brant sightings all week including by comparative
early season standards, three relatively sizable straggler flocks of 40 (We
5/24), 24 (Sa 5/27), and 11 (Su 5/28).
Black-footed Albatross -- sightings continue diminishing in frequency
Th 5/25 -- one immature
Su 5/28 -- three immature
NORTHERN FULMAR -- two sightings this week, the first and only near shore all
season, thus here highlighted in 'caps'.
Tu 5/23 (1445hrs) -- one light morph flying north
We 5/24 (0658hrs) -- one light morph flying north
Sooty & Pink-footed Shearwaters -- relatively, very scarce all week again, at
least within 'big eye' sight of the 'point' with the exception of Th 5/25
when the majority (94%) of ~640 counted in the early morning (0545-0700hrs)
were heading south. Otherwise, most have been moving north. Pink-footed
Shearwaters were detected only on Th 5/25 (2) and Su 5/28 (3).
MANX SHEARWATER --
Su 5/28 (0718hrs) -- single bird alone and no where near or remotely
associated with anything else observed; in superb full on sunlight (at my
back) and flying north at 6.0 reticules (0.5 nmi). Fourth sighting this
spring and like the others, was a small 'black & white' shearwater, flat inky
black over the entire dorsal area in sharp contrast to the snowy white
underparts from the chin and base of the bill through the undertail coverts
which extended all the way to the tip of the short tail. The black 'cap'
extended as a straight line from the base of the bill through and just below
the eye jagging up slightly on the side of the neck. There was no hint of
white ovals near the base of the tail or rump; just solid black. Wing
jaegers, gulls, terns, phalaropes, alcids....
Parasitic Jaeger --
Tu 5/23 (1445hrs) -- one adult light morph flying north
Franklin's Gull --
Mo 5/22 (1530hrs) -- 1 alt. plumaged adult, alone right over our heads
ROYAL TERN --
Su 5/28 -- single adult foraging around and drifting off to the north at
100 meters. The first sighting this spring and a rather unusual one due to
the late date. A few Royal Terns are usually and occasionally seen when I
first arrive here on site in mid-March. By mid-April, they are usually all
gone. However, this season, they've been strangely absent. Identification:
Largish shorter & thicker orange-billed tern; crest / crown already fading
back to the nape; grayer along trailing edge of primaries.
ELEGANT TERN --
Su 5/28 -- Two birds together flying / foraging northward at ~500 meters
offshore. Second sighting this spring (first were those anomalous presumably
storm driven birds back on April 17). Identification: similar to Royal but
a tad smaller and slimmer with longer thinner orange bill; underwing mostly
white including the trailing edge of primaries apart from narrow gray tips on
the outer most few.
Common Tern --
Su 5/28 -- first coastal sightings from PB this spring; loose flock of 7
flying north along the 'color line' at 0.6nmi.
BLACK TERN --
Th 5/25 (0615hrs) -- loose flock of 8 adults flying north ~2.0 nmi out
Marbled Murrelet --
Mo 5/22 (1757hrs) -- single adult flying north along the 'color' line at
XANTUS'S MURRELET (_S. h. scrippsi_) -- First sightings of the season, five
sightings, seven birds, all observed with 25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes' (of
Tu 5/23 (1715hrs) -- pair of birds flying north along 'color' line at
0.5nmi (sea state 0)
Tu 5/23 (1721hrs) -- pair of birds flying north along 'color' line at
0.5nmi (sea state 0)
Fr 5/26 (0550hrs) -- one bird flying north at ~500 meters (sea state 4)
Su 5/28 (0624hrs) -- one bird flying north along 'color line' at 0.6nmi
(sea state 4)
Su 5/28 (0659hrs) -- one bird flying north along 'color line' at 0.6nmi
(sea state 4)
I know that these late May dates defy conventional wisdom and thus are
generally regarded as 'early' if not outright dismissed by the skeptics.
Since 1994, a few Xantus's have been detected consistently most seasons here
during the last week or two of May. Xantus's (_scrippsi_) breed fairly
commonly in the Channel Islands and the appearance off Piedras Blancas in
late May begs the questions; (1) foraging birds ranging far from 'home' or
(2) might there be an unknown or suspected breeding location north of the
Southern California Bight breeding sites? Morro Rock maybe??
Identification: (1) tiny 'black & white' alcid, (2) entirely flat inky black
above including straight back behind and around the eye, (3) white below from
chin at base of bill to under tail; (4) whitish wing linings; (5) all were
too far to assess bill characteristics. The only other species with which
these relatively long-distant sightings might be confused with around here
would be Ancient Murrelets, especially immatures, but they will always appear
'dark headed' which in good light, contrasts with a paler (grayer) back.
This has not been a good flight year for Ancient Murrelets. Baja dispersing
Craveri's Murrelet can't be dismissed either as an occasional possibility,
although again, conventional wisdom indicates a late summer / fall
occurrence. So far, in every case when these tiny alcids have been in range
to satisfactorily assess wing linings, they've always been distinctly white
rather than dusky. I've never detected or even suspected a springtime
Craveri's so far.
shorebirds and odd waterfowl....
Not much; only occasional Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwits.
Three flyby Northern Shovelers (2m, 1f) on Fr 5/26 were the only waterfowl
out of the ordinary.
the morning counts including a final season Sunday....
Early morning full on 'big eye' counts (25X150 Fujinon mounted binoculars) --
Selected species (mostly migrants) of particular interest only.
Species marked with (*) were individually counted with hand clickers. The
Fri 5/26 count was extended from 0700-0830hrs for three obvious "non-'big
eye' required" species since there was a significant movement of those 'easy'
naked eye targets (see end of this section). I intended to do a count on Sa
5/27 but was fogged out. I've added Brown Pelican and Heermann's Gull to the
list this week and regret that I didn't start two weeks ago. Hermann's are
broken down for full bright white-headed adults, and all the others which
includes immatures, sub-Adults, and adults with incomplete white heads.
About 2% of the Hermann's which pass by, both adults and brown immatures and
full adults show a curious and striking white or tan epaulets on the upper
wing as I'm sure many of you are aware. White in adults, tan in all brown
immatures. I think I read somewhere that this is a genetic anomaly which
pertains to a small percentage of the Heermann's Gull population.
day We Th Fr Su
date 5/24 5/25 5/26 5/28
start time 0545 0545 0545 0530
stop time 0700 0700 0700 0900
wind direction calm NNW NNW NNW
wind speed 0 15 20 15
Beaufort sea state 0 3/4 4/5 3/4
visibility (nmi) 1.5 5 3 4 (1.5
Red-throated Loon 1 0 6 39
Pacific Loon* 37 32 108 1082
Common Loon 1 10 5 45
Eared Grebe 5 0 1 0 (scarce
Black-footed Albatross 0 1 0 3
NORTHERN FULMAR 1 0 0 0
Sooty Shearwater (N)* 126 40 38 99
" " (S)* 0 600 0 0
Pink-footed Shearwater 0 0 2 3
MANX SHEARWATER 0 0 0 1 (4th this season)
Brown Pelican* 77 85 170 94
Brant 0 0 3 14
Surf Scoter 6 13 5 57
White-winged Scoter 0 0 0 0
Red-breasted Merganser 0 0 0 0
Jaegers 0 0 0 0
Bonaparte's Gull 0 0 0 4
Heermann's Gull* 10 13 31 30
" " (Ad)* (2) (4) (7) (3)
" " (im/sA)* (8) (9) (24) (27)
Sabine's Gull 0 0 0 0
ROYAL TERN 0 0 0 1 (season
ELEGANT TERN 0 0 0 2 (2nd Y2K,
Common Tern 0 0 0 7 (season
BLACK TERN 0 8 0 0
Red-necked Phalarope 0 0 3 5
Red Phalarope 0 0 0 0
Common Murre 2 4 10 18
XANTUS'S MURRELET 0 0 1 2 (season firsts)
Rhinoceros Auklet 0 15 3 65
Whimbrel 0 0 7 1
Long-billed Curlew 0 0 1 2
Marbled Godwit 0 0 9 0
Wandering Tattler 0 0 0 1
**Significant strong early morning flight totals counted Fr 5/26,
0545-0830hrs for just these select species:
Pacific Loon (540), Brown Pelican (360), Heermann's Gull (160)
OTHER STUFF --
The resident Peregrines appear to have largely abandoned the site. The male
is still seen on rare occasion and the female hasn't been sighted in two or
Anna's nest #4 finally hatched the first egg around noon on We 5/14 but a
late afternoon check on the nest revealed that the tiny chicklet was missing.
Hmmm...? Brewer's Blackbird? House Finch? Garter Snake? or ?? Half of
the shell was strangely attached or stuck to the outside of the nest and
remained there for two days while the female remained tight on the nest and
remaining egg. After nearly three months and on her third nest, plus my
liberal supply of feeders, she has gotten so accustomed to my presence that I
can routinely get within 6 inches(!) of her and nest which is on an exposed
tip of a dead branch five feet above the ground, and she still won't budge.
The second chick hatched very early Fr 5/26 and appears to be okay so far. A
very long incubation period for this nest, more than 4 weeks, which makes me
wonder if things are really okay this time.
Meanwhile, still another hummingbird nest, nest #9 this season and Allen's #5
was discovered in the same tree as Allen's #4, but it's so high up (12 feet)
and too disruptive to get to that I shall never bother with it. I suspect
two or three others around in some other areas so maybe I can find those ones
too if I find myself with too much time on my hands this coming and last week
for me here.
other yard birds....
Well, it's about time! Things are starting to perk up around here with a few
passerine migrants. Most notable this week has been an adult male *MAGNOLIA
WARBLER* which arrived with the warm foggy overcast on We 5/24, first turning
up in my favorite 'vagrant wobbler bush' (officially known as a coffeeberry),
and still remains an easy daily 'tick' now so far through Su 5/28. He's
quite the songster and adds a striking new fresh and cheery sound each
morning above the usual deafening din of House Finches and White-crowned
Sparrows through the morning hours. Over the years since 1994, this one
little 'vagrant wobbler bush' has produced Prothonotary, Black-and-white,
American Redstarts, and now MAGNOLIA, in addition to *all* the other common
to uncommon SLO Co warbler species although Y2K won't go down in the history
books as being one of them. God only knows what else probably turns up in
there when I'm not around, especially in the Fall.
Too bad we didn't have a good functional beacon on the lighthouse that
morning (We 5/24) as I think with the low overcast, fog, and warm offshore
breeze, an even better fallout might have been in the offering by this
season's standards as in addition to the MAGNOLIA, there were Wilson's and
Yellow Warblers and a Western Wood Pewee. There had been absolute 'zip' all
season until this particular morning. Thinking that maybe a more widespread
fallout might have occurred along the coast, I explored north to Arroyo de la
Cruz, the pines and creek at San Carpoforo, and Ragged Point later in the
morning. Zilch! Clearly all the action, what little there was, was at the
An adult male Lawrence's Goldfinch was seen in the company of up to 8
American Goldfinches on Th & Fr (5/25-26) on thistles, mostly between the
rt.1 gate and inside cattleguard.
San Simeon State Park --
morning walk (Tu 5/23, 0530-0930) -- ....ABORT.... Cold south wind and dense
coastal fog when I reluctantly departed the lighthouse at 5am for San Simeon
and just as bad if not worse down there. Yuck! I couldn't muster much
enthusiasm for yet another walk in the dark, cold, and gloom, and thought
about just turning around and going back to the lighthouse. But, since I was
up and about already, why totally waste the morning, so....
-- alternate plan 'B' -- San Simeon Creek Road --
I made a run up San Simeon Creek Road (8.3 mi) just to see how far inland the
fog had penetrated and just to poke around for a while. After about 4 miles,
I broke out into beautiful crystal clear blue skies leaving the fog and gloom
behind and below and the air temperature rocketed upwards 24 degrees (52 to
76), ...and this was still long before the sun was anywhere near cresting the
ridge top! Anyway, it was quite a sensational morning really.
The most stunning and photogenic spectacle was undoubtedly the Barbary Sheep
(4 ewes and 4 lambs) perched atop the uttermost tippy top of that spire of a
most scenic rock formation on the left side of the road at 7.6 miles up from
rt.1. Having never before seen any of this remnant herd from the W.R. Hearst
menagerie which have roamed those hills now for the past 60 years, the
discovery this morning was quite a startling sight. That rock is also a good
spot for Canyon Wrens and it was pretty cool just watching them with the
scope trained on the sheep as one was seen in the same field of view hopping
around at it's feet.
On the way back down and with a genuine conscious effort, I was actually
'Dipper hunting', when I was indeed rewarded with an AMERICAN DIPPER, much to
my amazement, in the upper San Simeon Creek at the bridge and cattle guard
located exactly 5.5 miles up San Simeon Creek Road from rt.1. The bird
initially revealed itself about 100 feet upstream with the characteristic
sharp loud 'zeet' notes and bobbing & blinking on a rock in the rushing
stream bed. As I walked in, it then flew downstream under the bridge and
further downstream somewhere. Repeated trips and checks up there on We, Th,
Fr, and Sa have so far failed to refind that bird, but it must still be along
there somewhere. There is and continues to be a very vocal Canyon Wren in
the creek there on the downstream side of the bridge; a bit of an odd spot,
but it's there for whatever reason.
My glowing Barbary Sheep report got everyone around here all excited and has
sent everyone running up there on gray whale watch break inland excursions
the past few days. Todd came back after just a two hour mid-afternoon jaunt
We 5/24 totally aglow with an even more inspiring report: at the Barbary
Sheep rock (7.6 miles), 30 sheep, a CALIFORNIA CONDOR soaring overhead in a
large kettle of Turkey Vultures and drifting north, two Peregrines on the
large roundish rock off to right and the south side of the road, and then a
quick stop at the far east sewage pond just east of San Simeon State Park on
the way back, a WHITE-FACED IBIS (same or a new one?), and two Lawrence's
Goldfinches. I dashed up through all those areas an hour later We, then
again Th, Fr, and Sa, and of course couldn't find any of those things other
than the sheep.
Foreign and far eastern SLO Co. Travel --
Su 5/21 -- Cal City to Cal Valley....
Forsaking PB and my dutiful Sunday morning 'big eye' counts for the very
first time since mid-March and avoiding the dreadful prospect of being
eyeballs in a cold fog on a Sunday 'day off', I fled last Su-Mo 5/21-22 on a
far-flung field trip to the legendary eastern Kern Co. migrant / vagrant
traps of the Mohave oases at Butterbredt Spring, Galileo, and California City.
It was also an adventure in 'heat shock'. Only two miles inland on rt.46
east of Cambria, the heat hit with a vengeance -- 95 already! I was
completely unacclimatized and headed for a probable meltdown since I hadn't
been anywhere east of rt.1 and immediate outer coast and it's marine
influence at all since mid-March! What a tiny world I restricted myself to
all this time!
Having never been to any of these places before, the trip was quite enjoyable
and different. The peak of passerine migration had probably passed the week
before, but nonetheless, the experience was quite interesting, refreshing,
...and... *NOT MARINE*, and there were still enough passerine migrants to
sort through. No loons, brant, scoters, albatross, shearwaters, or alcids
I'm pleased to report :-)) There were enough Wilson's Warblers to make me
weary but would have certainly made a pie baker happy. Warbler Highlights
included the adult male HOODED and NORTHERN PARULA (Butterbredt), MAGNOLIA
and BLACK-AND-WHITE (Galileo), but I missed both the NORTHERN PARULA and
CONNECTICUT at California City's Central Park. By the time I got to Cal.
City, I was already at the 'melt down' stage (heat & Wilson's Warblers) at
3pm and decided to call it quits and head for an after dark rendezvous with
the Carrizo Plain and Cal Valley in SLO Co.
Needing to kill time until sunset, I roamed around those so incredibly ugly
as to be downright photogenic western Kern Co. oil fields along rt.33, ~30
miles north of Taft searching in vain for a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER which
had been easy and sedate for several days previous. Oh well; it's not like
me to chase vagrants but since it wasn't much out of the way, I gave it a
shot for something to do. Gassed up in Taft, then headed out for a slow
after dark drive through the Carrizo on Soda Springs Road between rt.33 and
rt.58 (California Valley). This is something I've always wanted to do on a
warm spring desert night. Starting at 2000hrs, I slowly made the 45 mile
trek, looking for all the assorted nightlife, snakes, K-rats, kit fox,
burrowing owls, etc., and creep along at 15-20mph so as not to run over any
of 'em enroute. Highlights included 4 Burrowing Owls standing at scattered
intervals in the middle of the road, 21 Giant Kangaroo Rats, 2 Pronghorn,
three Gopher Snakes, one large Western Rattlesnake, and two gorgeous
California Kingsnakes, along with Western Toads, Western Spadefoots, a
smaller K-rat species, a couple kinds of pocket mice, several Black-tailed
Jackrabbits, and a Lesser Nighthawk. But no Kit Foxes; next time I'll bring
my big million candle power search light.
Around midnight, I headed up the remote and totally deserted Bitterwater Road
to car camp along there at the 'two trees' south of the Blackwell Corner and
hit the Cottonwood grove and some other spots early morning. It was brittle
dry and stone dead quiet out there. Warm too, I slept with the windows and
sunroof open listening for anything. Absolutely nothing! Not even a remote
hint of any overflying migrants. Soon after dawn, I was first disappointed
to discover that the little oasis right on the SLO / Kern Co. line 2 mi east
of Blackwell Corner on the Bitterwater Valley Road, the two abandoned houses
across from the pumping station and associated trees, shrubs, and brush which
I've found so birdy in the past had been totally dozed out, burned, and
scraped clean. Damn!
A couple of nice accommodating Barn Owls were clearly visible from the road
in the grove of trees along with several Lawrence's Goldfinches around a
ranch just north of Blackwell Corner on the east side of Bitterwater Road but
no migrant passerines. A little further north, the Cottonwood grove located
about half way between rts 58 and 46 along the west side of Bitterwater Road
and which borders a large seasonal but currently completely dry lake harbored
a few migrants but nothing out of the ordinary. There were a lot of birds in
those trees, like Wilson's, Orange-crowned, and Yellow Warblers, Warbling
Vireos, Swainson's Thrush, Western Tanagers, Bullock's Orioles, lots of
flycatchers (Western Kingbird, Ash-throated, Pewees, Epidonax), all three
goldfinches, and six Great Horned Owls including 4 recent fledglings. The
foxtails were horrindous and I pretty much ruined a good pair of socks,
however, I'd bet a few vagrants drop in there on occasion as well as around
some of those tree'd and watered ranch houses, although it's probably more of
a long shot than a sure thing. Birding there would likely be better when the
lake is filled with water.
Okay folks, enough! One more week which will likely be only a partial, then
I too will be 'migrating' out of here.
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).