Full Field Notes

Birds & whales -- Week 2 (4/03-09)
Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California


synopsis of the passing week:

As predicted/expected, key coastal players, loons and Brant ramped up this week after a slow start Sunday & Monday as we experienced good weather, calm, and light movements in the migration lanes.

On Tu 4/05, things exploded out there, especially Bonaparte's Gulls (7-10,000) streaming north during the morning out along a well developed color/upwelling line. Amongst them at one point and drifting north as well, a diving/feeding adult female BROWN BOOBY (uniform brown head, chest, and back, white belly & wing linings, bright yellow face & bill). Alcids (Common Murres & Rhinoceros Auklets) were northbound and thick again, but minus the previous week's perception of migrant Pigeon Guillemots. Three winter female Long-tailed Ducks were amongst a northbound string of Surf Scoters The first vanguard flight of Pacific Loons was noted and seemed to outnumber Red-throated about 2:1 for the first time this season. A chalky white 2nd year Glaucous Gull and first sighting of the season, paused briefly in the 'pond' (bay, SE side of the 'Point') before moving on, and an Ancient Murrelet came in late in the afternoon, settled in the middle of the 'pond', then picked up and moved further inshore to waters back in the little elephant seal cove where the American Oystercatcher was seen last year. Meanwhile, another surge of hummingbirds hit the back yard and window mounted feeders, lots of Rufous, an unusual number adult male Anna's (5-6+) and females than is the norm around here (migrants?), and two adult male Calliope that remained to sunset. Nice photos of the Calliope taken by John Morehead who just by chance happened to be visiting that day and didn't realize the rarity of this visitor until well after the fact, camera put away, and gone.

Come Wednesday (4/06), cold northerly gales blew all the hummingbirds away save for a couple die-hard migrant Rufous. Migrant coastal seabirds were light as the previous day's morning flight of Bonaparte's Gulls dwindled from thousands to just a few hundred, to 4 on Th 4/07, and none Fr & Sa 4/08-09, and not much else going on out there either.

Thursday (4/07), and between storm fronts, previous day's winds were down, the lanes cranked again with Brant and Pacific Loons especially all morning to early afternoon. Some 12,000 Brant went by in skenes up to 200+ and numerous 50-100 Pacific Loon-packs amounted to about 5,000 for the day. Common Loons were on the move in good numbers with 100-200 per hour for the first few hours of the morning, many high overhead in loose aggregations of 10-30 as they often are when they cross over the 'Point' between the lighthouse and rt.1 (Pacific & Red-throated almost never do that).

An interesting perspective on an adult male Black Scoter in a string of ~65 Surf Scoters was viewed as this group approaching from the San Simeon buoy and pair of rocks SE of the 'Point'. A head on view of a line of Surf Scoters is not something most folks are used to seeing, rather something that passes by out front and looks like a 'string'. String they are not really, rather a lateral line which in fact is a staggered half 'V' formation like geese and pelicans. From a head-on perspective, Surf Scoters are quite spectacular, especially during the afternoon when the colorful bills are lit off by the afternoon sun. Anyway, the bright orange-yellow nobbed bill on the adult male Black Scoter embedded amongst this particular batch of Surf Scoters just lit off like a huge light bulb and couldn't be missed if you tried.

Brown Pelicans continue to be quite scarce, some days, no sightings at all. By mid-April last season (2010), northbound traveling flocks passing by and over the 'Point' were profoundly obvious, a trend that built and continued almost daily to the end of the season (end of May).

With SloCo birders making note of Common Raven sightings along the outer Central Coast recently, I am pleased to add one more. I was unexpectedly greeted by a single Common Raven on Fr (4/08) perched right on the rt.1 PB entrance gate fence post(!), totally absorbed in eating a vole, and a surprising 'welcome back' as I was returning from the Friday afternoon Cambria farmer's market with my weekly dose of strawberries & other goodies. Common Raven is rare on the outer Central Coast and this one was the first sighting out here in about eight years.

One of my most favorite times of any day out here is EARLY morning, long before even first light, grab my first cup of coffee and head out the back door. At 4am, it's the darkest of dark out there, then just settle in my chair on the concrete slab (deck) and watch the sky and listen to the soothing sounds of nature. It is the quietest time of any day. Any left over wind abruptly shuts off right at 4am turning more often than not dead calm, leaving only the sounds of the forever gentle surf (sometimes not so gentle), elephant seals yelping, snorting, belching, farting, sea otter pups 'meowing', gray whales & calves softly blowing in the nearshore waters near the cliff, kreeking Western Grebes, sometimes an owl or two, and occasionally something else flies over to challenge my nighttime birding skills. Monday 4/04, a Barn Owl (first in several years) was heard flying about screeching & hissing around the housing block & lighthouse, it's ghostly presence occasionally captured in the rotating lighthouse beam, while at the same time a Great Horned Owl was calling from some far off corner of the grounds. Often my first clue that Wandering Tattlers have arrived is during this dark time when their familiar tooting can be clearly heard as they move about the rocky shoreline below. None out there yet, but they will undoubtedly show up within the next few weeks. As for the night sky, it's amazing! Moon or not, the mood is always different, invigorating and inspiring. On moonless nights, there are so many stars, I never fail to see at least a few meteors streaking overhead, and not infrequently I can even see the International Space Station, the brightest "star" in the sky when passing overhead, gleaming for a few minutes, then fading to black as the reflective solar panels turn away from the sun. When the Space Shuttle is up there, I can see that too, naked eye, moving right along side the Space Station. I sure am going to miss the Space Shuttle once the fleet is retired for good later this year.

Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
week 2 (03-09Apr) = 84
season cumulative = 98

New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
78- Pink-footed Shearwater
79 - Clark's Grebe
80 - Bank Swallow
81 - Barn Owl
82 - Bullock's Oriole
83 - Ruby-crowned Kinglet
84 - Bonaparte's Gull
86 - Glaucous Gull
87 - Allen's Hummingbird
88 - Horned Grebe
89 - Black-legged Kittiwake
90 - Black Turnstone
91 - Sanderling
92 - Western Sandpiper
93 - Common Raven
94 - Northern Shoveler
95 - Red-necked Phalarope
96 - Heermann's Gull
97 - Black-footed Albatross
98 - Red Phalarope


GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:

gray whale calf count for week 2 (M-F, 03-09Apr) = 2
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total) = 2

gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 2 (M-F, 03-09Apr) = 197
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total = 304

other marine mammal species this week:
humpback whale
Pacific white-sided dolphin
Risso's dolphin
bottlenose dolphin
northern elephant seal
California sea lion
Steller's sea lion
harbor seal
sea otter

Saturday, 09 April 2011 -- 0700-1000hrs (3.0hrs)
clear sky, sun, wind E 0-3kts (becoming WSW 3kt at 0955hrs), sea state Beaufort 2, calm, slight residual swell & chop; small surf, visibility 3nmi before 0830, 5nmi thereafter.
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes'
Beautiful morning, but a chilly start with remnants of yesterday's hail/sleet/snow showers still clinging to some of the higher peaks across the road (rt.1) and Santa Lucias.  A grim slow day for birds.  Better actually for the whale and dolphin show!  Tuesday & Thursday would have been the most interesting bird days this past week (see forthcoming weekly report).  Things started slow and remained so, until a small pulse of Pacific Loons cut loose at 0930hrs which more than doubled the then day total in just the last 30 minutes.  Had I given it another hour, I could have added another 1,000 or so.  By 1100hrs, the loon flight was done for the day.  Otherwise, not much happening.  Brant and Surf Scoters were comparatively low as were alcids, especially Rhinoceros Auklets.  Virtually no gulls at all apart from the usual California and Western; not even a Glaucous-winged or Bonaparte's!  As grim as it sounds, I still picked off 5 season firsts; Northern Shoveler, Black-footed Albatross, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, and Heermann's Gull.  
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 203
  Surf Scoter -- 380
  *Northern Shoveler -- 1 (adult male; season first; *see note below) 
  Red-throated Loon -- 427
  Pacific Loon -- 1386  
  Common Loon -- 18
  Black-footed Albatross -- 1 (immature; season first)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 1
  Sooty Shearwater -- 213
  Brown Pelican -- 6 (adult)
  Whimbrel -- 8
  Long-billed Curlew -- 4
    unid. 'peep' (Western maybe)
  Common Murre -- 97
  Ancient Murrelet -- 1
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 13 (low)
  Red-necked Phalarope -- 2 (season first)
  Red Phalarope -- 20 (season first)
    unid. phalaropes -- 84
  gray whale -- 7 (ad/juv 'offshore' lanes, no calves)
  Pacific white-sided dolphin -- ~30 (feeding 1nmi off on upwelling with gulls and shearwaters)
  *Risso's Dolphin -- 80-100 (*see note below)     
others present but not counted:
  Eared Grebe (2; same two here all season)
  Western Grebe
  Clark's Grebe (1)
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Heermann's Gull (immature >SE, non-migrant, but still a season first)
  Western Gull
  California Gull
  *Caspian Tern (*see note below)
  *Pigeon Guillemot (*see note below)
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (2)
  harbor seal
  sea otter
*Northern Shoveler -- adult male with 3 Surf Scoters, but broke away just before passing the 'Point'.
* Caspian Tern -- I can't ever count these because 99% cut across the 'Point' through the saddle between the housing block and rt.1 which is perfectly 180 degrees behind me and my 100% total focus concentrated viewing area.  A second pair of eyes in the back of my head would help!
* Pigeon Guillemot -- I wrote last week I would try and count these if there appears to be a migration and/or more than usual.  Definitely not today, just the usual locals sitting around and wandering to and fro and little to no perceptible change from day to day all week.  So, no; apparently no significant migratory movements at the moment, and by now, maybe it's done.
**Risso's dolphin -- 80-100, observed for full 3hrs; first tracked from 4nmi out, inbound to the 'Point' and inshore to 1nmi SE of lighthouse just south of the pair of Piedras Blancas Rocks off the big public elephant seal beach and viewing area / vista point.  It's a little unusual to see this normally deep water / shelf break species so far inshore.    
Sunday, 10 April 2011 -- 0700-1200hrs (5.0hrs)
clear sky, sun, wind offshore NE 6kts early, then-E 0-2kts, becoming onshore W 6kt at 1110hrs, sea state Beaufort 2, calm, slight swell & no chop; small surf, visibility mostly 5nmi.
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes'
What a difference a day makes!  I wasn't planning on a 5-hour non-stop 'glued to the 25X' marathon today and was ready to pack it up at 10 as the morning flight seemed to dry up after 0930 and loons dropped off to a trickle.  Then, 0945 rolled around, and boom(!), it was off to the races.  Pacific Loons started pouring by and with each passing half hour extension of intended effort, I just couldn't drag myself away.  Good thing too, as the best, quite literally, was coming in dead last!
YELLOW-BILLED LOON (immature) simply materialized out of nowhere like magic at the proverbial 'two-minute warning', 1158hrs (I was definitely quitting at noon, no matter what, period!).  I don't know where it came from, it was just suddenly there, sitting on the water out front and center, 205 degrees True, 15 reticles (400m), and right in the middle of my scan zone for the previous 5 hours, along the color/upwelling line which had been slowly working shoreward from about a mile out since 0700hrs.  The view of this particular bird was just too good, perfect light, and even a couple Common Loons floating about nearby for comparison, and a classic 'dead ringer' for a Yellow-billed Loon if there ever was one!  This was a largish loon showing a virtually uniform very pale creamy tan back and blotchy white/tan squarish head slightly peaked at front.  Just the overall paleness was truly startling!  The bill was no less startling, straight edged above and below and solid horn-yellow from base to tip and made for nice comparison with a Common Loon in the same field of view a few feet away.  I can only surmise that the Yellow-billed Loon must have just swam in from the south and I didn't see it earlier nor had any clue there was something suspicious even out there.  Since I'm only counting loons, brant, and scoters, and other stuff that are moving from left to right (north), mostly flyers but some swimmers too, I'm not really watching out for whatever might be sitting around on the water, since on a crazy morning like this one, I really don't have such luxury of time.  All total, I watched this Yellow-billed Loon for about 10 minutes as it was periodically diving/feeding on the color/upwelling line, and gradually moving in a northerly direction, albeit the hard way, ...swimming.  It's gonna be a very long trip to Alaska at that rate!
Speaking of birds appearing out of nowhere like magic, the same can be said for a raft of 9 lovely breeding plumaged Rhinoceros Auklets seen no less than a half-hour before the loon and in the exact same patch of water and spot on the color/upwelling line at 400m.  I don't know where they came from either.  Up until then, I had only seen an abysmal total of 4 fly-bys all morning long!
By the numbers, there were 2,813 Pacific Loons during the first half (0700-0930) and 11,050 during the second half (0930-1200).  Has the ring of a sporting event, eh.  And they weren't done just because I was.  From the house, I could see the flight continued fairly strong up to about 1300hrs and could probably safely add another 2,000 to the tally, then tapered off after that and certainly so after the NW winds started kicking up a bit more by 1400hrs. 
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 421
  Ring-necked Duck -- 2 (pair with 12 Surf Scoters >N;  season first, #99)
    unid duck -- 2 (maybe Gadwall??  with 18 Surf Scoters >N up high and too far)
  Surf Scoter -- 1323
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 14 (all female; 6 sightings 4,3,1,2,3,1 all >N) 
  Red-throated Loon -- 1242
  Pacific Loon -- 13,863
  Common Loon -- 116 (seems low)
  YELLOW-BILLED LOON -- 1 (immature;  season first, #100) 
  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (pale morph)
  Sooty Shearwater -- 93
  Brown Pelican -- 4 (adult)
  Whimbrel -- 11
  Long-billed Curlew -- 1
  Marbled Godwit -- 1
  Black Turnstone -- 1
  Surfbird -- 17
  Dowitcher sp. -- 115 (silent, probably Short-billed)
  Western Sandpiper -- 10
    unid 'peep' -- 8  (probably Western)
  Red-necked Phalarope -- 6
    unid phalaropes -- 2750
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 45
  Ring-billed Gull -- 1
  Herring Gull -- 2
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 4
  Common Murre -- 84
  Ancient Murrelet -- 3
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 13 (low)
  gray whale -- 4 (ad/juv, 'offshore' lanes) -- Boys will be boys; quite the 'pink floyd' show out front and center through the first hour. ...Huh?  Don't ask!  :-))
others present but not counted:
  Eared Grebe (2, same two here all season)
  Western Grebe (4-6, no Clark's this morning)
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  California Gull
  Western Gull
  Caspian Tern (all behind me, at least 2, probably more)
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
    (Steller's sea lion) - two yesterday, none today
  harbor seal
  sea otter


Richard Rowlett
NOAA, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (La Jolla, CA)
(18th annual gray whale calf count)
Point Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, CA

Last modified: 12/24/2014