Notes from the field - April 17, 2011

Birds & whales -- Week 3 (4/10-16)

Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
synopsis of the passing week:  
Another great week on the 'Point'; no wind, rain, or fog disruptions (except Saturday's foggy morning), and everyone's happy, avian, human, and other.  Gray whale moms and calves arrived abruptly on We 4/13 just as abruptly as the offshore phase of adults and juveniles which have been pouring by since early March virtually ceased.  So, let the parade of calves begin!
Pacific Loon migration is in full swing now, 7,500-20,000+ each day.  No big Brant days yet, and Surf Scoters are subsiding, but still plenty.  Most scoter strings number 50-100 or less with the largest one numbering ~250 on Th 4/14.
The big show around here continues to be the hummingbirds, and an epic season it's been!  Three weeks now and little sign of things slowing.  Five species this week, dominated by the ravenous migrant Rufous, but also including unusual numbers of Anna's, especially adult males, and no less than 7 Calliope (6 adult male, one female), and 4 Black-chinned (three adult males, one immature male).  The unprecedented Calliope count for the season now stands at 8.  Calliope and Black-chinned are generally quite rare here on the outer coast with most seasons passing with one at best, but more often no sightings at all.  Even the normal afternoon onshore NW winds (15-25kts) some days doesn't seem to dissuade them, and the feeding frenzy that normally develops mid-afternoon and continues to sunset is totally insane!  Su 4/10 afternoon and evening and a bit windy, the hanging feeder had run dry a couple hours before sunset and I just left it so, thus concentrating the ravenous hordes at the window feeders.  There were so many around these little plastic suction cup mounted feeders, the one I call my "desktop", 18" in front of me, desk, and computer, and just a six inches below eye level is always the most popular.  There were so many around that feeder this past Sunday evening, I could l clearly hear the incessant buzzing like bees resonating through the window and side of the house.  For such light and delicate little birds, they are often anything but quiet when landing on the feeder perches, and often do so with a surprisingly loud 'thump' while others occasionally bump the window when being chased off by others vying for a spot on the hot seat.
Evenings around sunset, the action is fast and furious.  On Fr 4/15, I had both Black-chinned and Calliope (adult males both) alight on the only two available perches at my desk front window feeder right at sunset, the Black-chinned's metallic purple/violet throat sparkling just from my desk lamp shining through the window!  This is only 18 inches (I measured it) from my eye and hand when I'm typing on my computer, and if it weren't for just the thickness of the pane of glass, I could literally reach out and touch them.  Talk about a fantastic desktop attribute!  Gives the term 'desktop' a whole new meaning!  Some people keep flowers or pictures of someone or some thing memorable on their desks; I've got a real live non-stop action packed hummingbird feeder!  Now, that's special!  One more to go, Costa's, and it will be a grand slam hummingbird season!
Some of these many Rufous, and probably Anna's too, are perhaps the same birds lingering here where the food is.  One particularly recognizable 'snowcap', an immature male Rufous with a white forehead and crown has been around every day all week.  The Calliope and Black-chinneds I presume are all different since a day or two usually pass between sightings and I know I'm not missing them.  By week's end, Sa 4/16, numbers were down somewhat, and the ratio male:female (or at least Selasphorus types) was about 50:50, but still seemingly high for adult males for now, mid-April.  There are certainly more immature male Rufous now and more birds showing up with rufous backs speckled with green than earlier when nearly all were solid clean rufous-backs.
Why there's so much hummingbird activity concentrated right here on this isolated oft wind-swept 'Point' of land very day leads me to some speculation.  I can just take a look around, scan across the highway into the Hearst pastures and Santa Lucia's beyond.  What's missing over there?  Flowers!  All the bloomage around here is HERE.  There's virtually nothing over there on the other side that's unavoidably obvious, and a little recon field trip away from morning coastal foggy Sa (4/16) enroute to Paso Robles via Santa Rosa Creek, Cypress Mountain, Old Creek, and Santa Rita Roads confirmed that there is little wildflower bloomery going on anywhere east of highway 1 or anywhere really north or south of Piedras Blancas.  Who do we thank for that?  Well, the tireless die-hard volunteer plant restoration folks, Carole Adams, Marsha & Bob Goss, and all the others who've managed to kill, pull, and extract every single blade of the invasive iceplant that once so deeply carpeted this entire area, but now renewed and restored with nothing but happy blooming natives.  To find any iceplant at all around here now, you'd have to be a damn genius!
Other avian happenings this past week included the season's first Franklin's Gulls, single breeding plumaged birds each, on Th 4/14 (1706hrs), and another on Fr 4/15 (1507hrs) among a loose flock of ~20 California Gulls.  That first bird on Thursday was particularly interesting as it came in unusually high over the 'pond', alone, and was first detected by call, ...a single repeating call note completely unfamiliar to me around here, and I had to hunt around for it to see where it was coming from and what it was.  It was so high, I might not have even seen it at all had it not been not been for the unfamiliar call note.
The season's second Glaucous Gull (first year tan immature) passed by on Fr 4/15.  Good numbers of Glaucous-winged Gulls are currently moving through with 50-100 on some days.  Caspian Tern movements this Spring have been spotty all season long so far, some days lots, others few to none at all.  Offshore, the same can be said for phalaropes.  Mo 4/11 seemed to be a particularly big day, especially very early when 50-100,000 were swarming past, most too far to determine species, but those that were close enough revealed both Red-necked (most) and Red.  They've probably been out there all week, but some days they weren't detected at all and I'm guessing just too far and out of range to view from shore.
Back on land, two Common Ravens were down on the south beach early Tu 4/12 picking through elephant seal body parts and later seen chasing snakes out in the Hearst pastures across the road (rt.1).  Over the past decade now, Eurasian Collared-Doves have pretty well gotten themselves established here as well as all over SLO County.  On Mo 4/11, I flushed a record flock of 7 out of the Monterey Cypress behind Quarters "C", and otherwise, see one or two around from time to time although not every day.  When they are around, they certainly give the resident Peregrines something to chase, and frequently, although I've yet to see a successful 'kill' yet, any stray Eurasian Collared-Dove, or any 'columbid' for that matter that strays out in the open around here always seems to catch the Peregrine's gaze, followed by urgent pursuit and the dove's mad dash back into the dense protective cover of the cypress just barely in the nick of time as the Peregrine aborts and wooshes over the treetop and back to it's favored perches atop of the lighthouse or the Outer Islet.
And finally, ...Brown Pelicans may be showing signs of a reappearance after a virtual absence the past three weeks, with the first significant flock (25 adults), and the first vanguard of the 'Mexican Air Force', passing by heading north on Fr 4/15 at 1635hrs. 
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 3 (10-16Apr) =  85
  season cumulative = 109
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     099 - Ring-necked Duck
     101 - Dunlin
     102 - Mallard
     103 - Black-chinned Hummingbird
     104 - Greater Yellowlegs
     105 - Long-billed Dowitcher
     106 - Franklin's Gull
     107 - Killdeer
     108 - Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler
     109 - Black-bellied Plover
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
gray whale calf count for week 3 (M-F, 11-15Apr) =  14
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =  16
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 3 (M-F, 11-15Apr) =   24
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  355
other marine mammal species this week:
  humpback whale
  long-beaked common dolphin
  Risso's dolphin
  bottlenose dolphin
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion  
  harbor seal
  sea otter
Saturday 16 April was an ABORT - FOG.  Fog had just backed off at 0700hrs to 0.5nmi, but only after 20 min into what was supposed to be a good day and clicking off a mere 290 Pacific Loons, one adult male Cinnamon Teal, and ~15 close in Red Phalaropes among other things, Mr. Fog returned and was here to stay until at least late morning.  After 0800hrs, then 0930hrs, and little sign of improvement, I gave up and fled the scene of the crime and went to Paso.  Upon my return in the late afternoon, it was hazy, but the fog was long gone.  There was a good Pacific Loon pulse in progress at 1800hrs with ~1,000 settling in to feed right off the 'Point' and 'pond' at 200m and less and in the greatest of afternoon light to see the finest details, notably the shimmering metallic purple throats which otherwise and in any other light just appear flat black.  The only other notable were some mighty fine flocks of Brant streaming by with the largest of perhaps 2,000 total, largest flock numbering ~300.
Sunday 17 April was also an early morning ABORT - FOG, but thicker and lasting longer.  Had one false start at 1045hrs when it looked to be clearing only to return even before I could get from the house to the 'Point', a commute on foot that takes all of about 3 minutes, so will call that one "just a drill".  Went to Ragged Point for lunch at the snack bar where my season's first (maybe SLO Co season first too?) Olive-sided Flycatcher was calling near the parking lot.  Back on the 'Point' at 1330hrs, hazy and windy, sea state 5 headed for a 6.  Virtually NOTHING was moving at all and I quit after a half hour.  Come 1800hrs, little change and by 1900hrs, Mr. Fog is back.
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