PB 2000 (week 5: April 10-16)


Piedras Blancas and north coast summary (week 5: April 10-16)

coastal seabirds --

Off and on dense coastal fog Tu-Th (4/11-13) hampered observations somewhat,
especially We 4/12 which solidly shut us down until about 1600hrs. Modest
loon flights (mostly Pacific now) were observed through the clear periods
with ~15,000 on both Mo 4/10 and Tu 4/11. Who knows what was really going on
We 4/12 with the widespread dense blanket of fog covering all of the central
and southern California coastal waters? Judging from past experience and
perceptions and my occasional peaks into the 'holes', such fog events appear
to ground loon flights. Even during the abrupt cleared period after 1600hrs,
virtually nothing was moving.

The ever so slow advance of that first dawdling weak low pressure storm
system on Th 4/13 triggered the first strong loon flight of the season as I
was kind of anticipating with ~25,000 packing through all day long in
addition to ~7,500 each for Brant and Surf Scoters. Fr 4/12 morning brought
forth the first welcome rain of the season, not much, but enough to settle
the dust and pack sand. Once that cleared out, Friday afternoon turned out
to be one of those most rare and gloriously beautiful afternoons one can ever
experience here. Seas were flat slick calm with crisp clear horizons and a
sun that was downright 'too hot' while the hills and Hearst Castle across the
road were blanketed by a pile of cumulus giving the whole area a feeling of
magic and the surreal. Despite such gorgeous conditions, the Pacific Loon
flight went essentially dead (<5,000) although Brant (~5,000) and Surf
Scoters (~7,500) pushed through in some really huge flocks. This was clearly
peak week for Brant with minimally 12,000 more on Su 4/15. Total Brant for
the week estimated 30-40,000 plus an unknown for the foggy We 4/12

Then, about 5pm on Fr 4/11, an interesting event occurred with a sudden and
spectacular movement of Common Loons. My 'clicker count' from 1715-1945hrs
tallied 1,237. That may not sound like much or very noteworthy compared to
tens of thousands of Pacific Loons streaming by here at rates up to 1,000 per
minute(!) at times, but those loose flocks of Common Loons up to 50 at a time
spread across the sky and all in full breeding plumage, especially when
passing directly overhead and to the east against such a spectacular mountain
/ cloud backdrop illuminated by the late afternoon sun is indeed one of the
most stirring sights to behold and one of those short-lived events which I
look forward to each Spring. Common Loons are not 'common' as the name
implies; they are in fact the cumulatively least numerous of the 'big three'
California loons. Why? Probably because of their migration pattern and more
cosmopolitan inland distribution makes them less exclusively restricted to
the narrow band of marine coastal waters as are Pacific and Red-throated.
Thus, Common Loons disperse in migration far and wide over the whole state
(and U.S.) and although they are perhaps more familiar to most, are perhaps
less numerous overall anyway.

As the season has been virtually dead for 'tubenose' seabirds thus far,
things changed abruptly late Fri (4/11) afternoon with the sudden appearance
of Sooty Shearwaters (~1,000) swarming about out there a mile or so over the
slick calm seas. The appearance of the first significant numbers of
shearwaters seemed to coincide with the first breezers of school fish seen
this Spring and a group of 6-10 Humpback Whales (season's first as well)
which have remained now daily through Su 4/16, some coming in within 400
meters of the 'Point', breaching, flippering, and otherwise just milling
around back and forth.

Fr 4/11 afternoon also brought the weeks highlight species, a FLESH-FOOTED
SHEARWATER, and only the third such sighting from shore here since 1994. A
large all dark shearwater, sooty brown/black including underwing, pinkish
bill, heavy set, deep winged, languid flyer somewhat suggestive of
Pink-footed and Cory's. Seen for about 5 min. coursing back and forth a few
times with plenty of Sootys about for comparison at about 0.5nmi at 1745hrs.
Speaking of Pink-footed Shearwater, I still haven't detected a single one
yet!! Su 4/16 should have been the day for sure, but it wasn't! Zero.

Sa 4/15 was yet another absolute prefect flat calm clear day. Life couldn't
have been better except that coastal bird flights had come to a virtual zero
apart from the 500 or so Sooty Shearwaters attending the Humpbacks and school
fish. Gone were the Common Loons, few other loons, Brant, and scoters. The
calm before the storm.

Sunday 4/16, all hell broke loose. The floodgates burst open as everything
seemed to be on the move with great urgency riding a 15-20kt SSE tail wind
thanks the second and strongest of the two low pressure storm systems this
week. A quick glance from the house early at 0630 and even as I was opening
up shop at 0645 I didn't register to the naked eye that much of anything was
going on. It wasn't until that first glance through the 'big eyes' (25X150
fujinon binoculars) that ...Holy S___!!... the sky offshore was literally
black with clouds of birds!! Mostly loons -- thousands upon thousands of
loons, most high and offshore, too far, too fast, and too dense to
distinguish Pacific from Red-throated but most were undoubtedly Pacific
Loons. From just 0645-0730, I 'clicker counted' 27,600 loons! Between
0730-0800, the flight dwindled to 4,000, and continued to diminish thereafter
to about 1,500 per hour for the rest of the day. Few Brant and scoters were
seen during the morning session -or- they were too far offshore and high to
be detected. However, some colossal Brant and Surf Scoter flocks (800-1200)
started passing the point after 4pm.

I conducted two short focused sessions on the 'big eyes' (0645-0900hrs and
1730-1830hrs) on this day in addition to making regular and frequent 'spot
checks' throughout the day. With my 'clicker count' figures plus minimal
estimate in between, I think a fair guess on loon numbers for the day was
easily 45-65,000(!), 90-95% of which were in all likelihood Pacific.

Selected species count results of focused ‘big eye' (25X150 fujinon
binoculars) coastal seabird watch conducted Sun 4/16 (0645-0900hrs and
0645-0930hrs -- weather: overcast, wind SSE 15kts, sea state B4, visibility
clear but slightly hazy near horizon;
1730-1830hrs: weather – overcast, very light rain, wind SSE 20kts, sea state
B5, visibility clear but slightly hazy near horizon.
Species listed marked with (*) were individually counted with hand clickers.
Also, you'll note some ‘zero' data listing species which I should be seeing
or should have seen by now but haven't. You know the ol' adage: Negative data
is just as important as positive, just not as much fun to collect. If this
little table below ends up out of alignment and scrambled at your end, sorry,
blame the Internet programers.

0645-0900 1730-1830 day estimate

Black-footed Albatross 3 0 unknown
Sooty shearwater ~4,500 ~1,500 unknown
Pink-footed Shearwater 0 0 unknown
Loons* 33,250 3,200 45-65,000
Pacific --- --- (~90-95%)
Red-throated --- --- (~5%)
Common --- --- (<1%)
Brant* 500 5,800 ~12,000
Surf Scoter* 810 2,400 ~7,000
White-winged Scoter 0 0 unknown
Black Scoter 0 0 unknown
R-b Merganser 0 0 unknown
Bonaparte's Gull 0 340 unknown
Black-legged Kittiwake 0 0 unknown
Forster's Tern 0 0 unknown
Common Murre 12 15 unknown
Rhinoceros Auklet* 305 0 unknown
other alcids 0 0 unknown
Phalaropes 0 0 ? unknown
shorebirds: nothing but a few flocks of small ‘peep' like jobs, one of which
might have been phalaropes, otherwise, none what so ever! ....or they were
all blown so far offshore beyond the limits of detection.

other coastal sightings / non-sightings of note, arrivals, departures,
etc.... --

Black-footed Albatross -- 3 immature on Su 4/16; a little surprising given
the offshore nature of the winds.
Pink-footed Shearwater -- still NONE sighted yet this spring
Bonaparte's Gull -- first sightings Mo 4/10 (early morning offshore flocks)
Black-legged Kittiwake -- one sighting; single adult on Tu 4/11
Glaucous Gull -- singles on Mo 4/10 (large chalky white 2yr bird), and Su
4/16 (pale mottled tan 1yr bird). Both birds were notably larger than the
Westerns with which they were associated, plumage uniform, large rectangular
shaped head and long two-tone bill
Forster's Tern -- small numbers all week
Rhinoceros Auklets -- good northbound flights during the first hour or two Mo
4/10 and Su 4/16. 200-300.
other alcids -- other than Common Murres & Pigeon Guillemots, none.
Black Scoter -- NONE still. I have scanned countless flocks and thousands of
flyby Surf Scoters, and not a Black amongst them ....yet. Still looking.

other stuff --

Peregrines -- activity unchanged from last week. Female is spending most of
her life these days inside the eyrie. I'm assuming (hoping) everything is
still going well. The male comes and goes, sometimes bringing in food and/or
at which time they change turns on the nest. Otherwise no dramatic chases or
kills observed this week.

hummingbirds -- The Anna's nest just outside the front window which has kept
us watchful and fascinated since Day 1 fledged the first chick at 1856hrs on
Th 4/13. It just shot out of the nest like it had been flying all its life.
Pretty amazing actually since I hadn't observed it exercising much. But the
departure was perhaps a bit premature. A visiting FWS biologist whom I'd
regrettably just shown the nest to 5 minutes earlier couldn't resist the
temptation to photograph them (camera, tripod, flash, the whole nine yards)
and jostling the branches at less than a foot away was all it took. So,
let's say I'm just a bit aggravated to spare you readers a burst of
profanity. On the other hand, the nest was getting really crowded and one
was sure to have to go soon. Still, and especially after watching over the
nest so carefully since the eggs were laid, through the moment of hatching,
and enjoying the routine of watching the daily routine just to have some here
today gone tomorrow intruder thoughtlessly disrupt the whole thing kind of
leaves a sour taste toward visitors of any ilk. Meanwhile, the second chick
has the whole nest to itself. By Sa 4/15, as it climbed up on the edge,
exercising and preening, I figured fledging was imminent. Then, it would
nestle back into the nest again. Ditto Su 4/16 despite the wind and rain. I
thought for sure the wind would at least blow it out or into taking it's
maiden flight. The female still comes around to feed it every 20 min or so.
I haven't actually seen the first bird to fledge but assume (hope) it's
around nearby somewhere as the female will continue to feed the fledglings
for sometime even when they are out of the nest. Meanwhile, this is one busy
female. Yet another brand new nest (nest #5 this season) in the cypress next
door. It looks like the same Anna's female tending her current fledging
fledglings as she also is in the process of building the new nest. I'm
guessing it probably has two eggs already, but it's up too high for me to
ever see into it. All the others nests are doing well and weathered the
weekend storm fine. One more Anna's with two chicks will be the next to
fledge followed by the luxury nest of Allen's. The other Allen's is still on
two eggs.

yardbirds -- nothing much of note. Golden-crowned Sparrows remain. The
Sunday storm brought in our first Orange-crowned and Wilson's Warblers but in
no great numbers to get all excited over.

San Simeon State Park --

morning walk (Tu 4/11, 0630-0930) -- A clear calm morning but again fairly
quiet. The species count was pretty good (80) thanks to padding by a strong
showing of coastal migrants (loons, brant, scoters) which are typically
abundant off PB but often missed at San Simeon since I only have time for a
quick cursory 10 min scan over the ocean and many of those birds are at the
bare edge of visual detection. The trail route was again fairly quiet and
warbler numbers seemed fewer. Western Tanager and Cedar Waxwing was new for
this springs morning walks at this location. Notable misses: Bushtit,
Townsend's Warbler, Bufflehead, Cinnamon Teal. The little gaggle of
waterfowl which I usually count on has pretty much cleared out leaving only
one Ruddy Duck in the small pond just east of the park campground. Even
scrounging up a single coot was a hard find. Three fresh broods of Mallards
were noted and a 'broilers dozen' (13) Wild Turkeys were seen in the usual
hillside pastures just east of the hilltop campground. The adult male
Peregrine was present again for the third weekly walk in a row on the large
rock at the mouth of San Simeon Creek.

**Preview to Week 6** -- Being a little tardy with this report, just a quick
update tacked on here on activity this morning (Mo 4/17) as the rains ceased,
skies cleared, and seas settled to a lumpy glassy state. Most notable was
the season's first FRANKLIN'S GULL (adult) followed 200 meters arrears by the
season's first Parasitic Jaeger. Also, the season's first phalaropes (unid)
were seen far out along the upwelling / convergence line. Loon, brant,
scoter flights have been virtually nil. Yesterday's blow must have really
scoured the 'loony bin' clean for a while. Cetaceans seen in an unusual
episode of simultaneous visibility from shore this morning: Gray Whale,
Humpback Whale, Risso's Dolphin, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, and Northern
Right-whale Dolphin. ....And, as of now (1400hrs), that lingering fledgling
Anna's Hummingbird continues to sit as it has all day so far on the outside
edge of the nest exercising, preening, feeding (from Mom), and just sitting.
Any second now..... varoom, varoom... Stay tuned.

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).