Notes from the field - April 24, 2011

  Birds & whales -- Week 4 (4/17-23)

Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
 
Once the fog cleared out mid-week and we could actually see the water again, gray whale calf migration appears to be picking up momentum with our first double digit day on Th 4/21.  Fog wiped out 25% of our available work week M-F research time, and we no doubt missed a few more that otherwise would have been counted because of it.
 
gray whale calf count for week 4 (M-F, 18-22Apr) =  31
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =  47
 
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 4 (M-F, 18-22Apr) =     9
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  364
 
other marine mammal species this week:
  blue whale  (Th 4/21)
  minke whale
  long-beaked common dolphin 
  bottlenose dolphin
  Risso's dolphin
  harbor porpoise
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter
 
BIRD NEWS 
 
synopsis of the passing week:
 
Our enemy #1, FOG, shrouded the 'Point' most of the past weekend, wiping out all available time for any meaningful seawatches, and then continued through half-time (1300hrs) Mo 4/18 before finally peeling back at 1300hrs and immediately revealing a gray whale cow/calf entering the 'pond'.  The long 2-1/2 day fog event apparently seriously grounded much of the coastal seabird migration.  Almost immediately as the fog finally backed off, a literal blizzard of Bonaparte's Gulls, flock after flock after flock suddenly erupted, each hugging the coast, some of those flocks 'blowing-apart' right overhead at our 'Point-side' study site by a mere few feet.  I haven't seen a flight like that out here since last century (mid-1990's).  Bonaparte's Gull migration over the past decade for some strange reason has generally taken a more-offshore track with much, most, or nearly all of the migration passing by undetected.  Some seasons during the past ten years we hardly see any at all other than inshore stragglers, aka Peregrine bait.
 
The Mo 4/18 afternoon Bonaparte's flight then abruptly ended at 1600hrs, followed immediately by a huge surge of Brant that continued to 1900hrs.  Huge flocks, frequent, and each right on the heels of the one before, 500-1000 were typical while one long drawn out mega-flock of ~2200, perhaps a combination of several flocks, was an unprecedented spectacle.  All total, just during in that short late afternoon-evening 3-hour window, likely some 20,000 Brant passed by and perhaps continued through the night.  Brant, one of the fastest of migrating waterfowl, are known for their epic non-stop migration journeys, Fall AND Spring between Pacific coast Baja / California wintering grounds and Alaska (Izembek Lagoon & the Yukon Delta), and when the bulk go, the majority may do so all at once.  The trip just from here to there may take all of six days or less as has been determined from radio and satellite tracking data.
 
Fog returned on Tu 4/19, thicker and more persistent than the preceding three days, and pretty much buggered the whole day.  Finally, We 4/20, Mr. Fog was gone and finally gone for good.  Seas were flat slick calm most of the day to the horizon, viewing conditions that couldn't be more optimal.  No significant Brant, loon, scoter, or even Bonaparte's Gull numbers all day, but what was out there, especially from mid-afternoon to the end of our research day, 1900hrs, was truly astonishing.  Phalaropes!  By the tens and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions!  They were all stacked up along the color/upwelling line way out there at 'big eyes' 1.0 reticule (2nmi), clean and sharp, stretching from NW to SE parallel the coast for as far as they 'big eyes' could see.  The phalaropes were packed and in a nearly unbroken solid pencil line all rafted up up on the surface, and in some spots, huge solid black patches the size of a city block.  None were showing much sign of directional movement, just nervous little clouds all over the place drifting back and forth and settling back on the water.  Such numbers were simply unestimatable, but 1 - 5 MILLION wouldn't be a stretch, and yet, not a single one ever barely close enough to determine ID.  It would have been fun to have taken a little boat ride out there, and quite doable even in a little unseaworthy dingy on this flat slick calm day, and just waded around through all that mess.  So, for what it's worth, this appears to have been just one giant staging area late We 4/20 afternoon/evening.  This is often the case with sudden mass appearances of phalaropes out here, here one day, all gone the next.
 
Come Th 4/21, seas continued flat slick calm through mid-morning, the sharp color/upwelling line remained intact at 2nmi, but ALL the phalaropes were gone save for a few hundreds in smallish flocks generally drifting northward.  NW wind picked up late morning with the passage of the cold front, clouds giving way to crystal clear blue skies, but the day otherwise passed with very light movements of anything, loons, brant, scoters, Bonaparte's Gulls.  Then, Fr 4/22, the sea came alive again with phalaropes, this time mostly on the move.  Flocks 200-500 seemed to be everywhere from a few hundred meters offshore out to the color/upwelling line now at 2.0 reticules (1.4nmi), and moving north.  Those flocks close enough to be identified were mostly Red-necked (99.9%) with a few Red's sprinkled in here in there.  The flight continued through mid-morning, then subsided to near zero by noon.  All total, at the very least, 1-2 MILLION phalaropes flew by Friday morning.
 
seagulls -- One Glaucous Gull this week, #3 for the season on Mo 4/18 (2nd yr chalky white) dazzled everyone who saw it fly by.  No Franklin's Gulls this week after the season's first two last week.  Gull movements this week have generally been fairly light and dominated by Western, Herring, Glaucous-winged, and a lot of 'Olympic' gulls (Glaucous-winged X 'northern' Western hybrids).  California Gull flights haven't really started yet, currently just a steady trickle, but should be coming in days and weeks ahead, especially afternoons when the winds are up.
 
The epic hummingbird show around here the past three weeks appears to have passed.  I had hoped maybe the persistent fog early in the week had just slowed things, but once we got the all clear, there were few hummingbirds at all other than just the usual resident and nesting 2-3 female Anna's, one lingering adult male Anna's that's taken to adopting the top of one lone dead clump of rabbitbush(?) behind Quarter's "B" as a favored territorial lookout, but no more than one adult male Rufous each day, and 2 or 3 female Selasphorus types, one of which may prove to be an Allen's if I can find the nest in a suspect Monterey Cypress.
 
Last week's speculation regarding coastal hummingbird concentrations, migrants and resident (Anna's in particular) and noting the lack of wild flowers seemingly everywhere inland even after a winter of bountiful rains nearly state wide may lay in the grass.  Inland, at least between here and highway 101 and probably way beyond that, all of the grasslands are blinding emerald green, lush, and thick, perhaps so much so as to crowd the otherwise colorful explosion of all the usual wild flowers.  Blooming wildflowers certainly don't provide all the nutrition hummingbirds demand, and insects contribute a large portion.  The insects are still around and plentiful I suppose, here and over there.  The wildflowers provide the color and thus the attraction and for opportunistically picking off insects.  Little or no wildflowers, why bother.  At least, that's my latest theory, right or wrong, I don't know.  As for the high numbers of Anna's Hummingbirds, adult males in particular out here on this isolated wind swept 'Point', there's hardly the habitat much less room to support a dozen or more adult males and all trying to establish and protect territories.  They are probably all here and probably only temporarily so since there's such an easy food source (feeders), and should eventually move off once things brighten up across the road and further inland.  Currently here at Pt. Piedras Blancas, the predominate color is yellow; a literal carpet of yellow made up of Seaside Fiddleneck, Goldfields, California Buttercups, and a few patches of California Poppy sprinkled around.  The blue/purple colored lupines are there too but you kind of have to consciously look for them just to realize they are there in the otherwise thick grass, and are often detected first just by that familiar sweet intoxicating fragrance.
 
One of our resident Great Horned Owls (two now for certain) put on a good show for all who cared to take a look on Tu 4/19, as it sat conspicuously perched in a semi open/concealed part of the dense Monterey Cypress behind Quarters "A".  For 12+ hours it sat there, mostly asleep, and never so much as moved a muscle.  Must have been really sleepy and not even the ungodly urbanized invasion of a leaf blower cleaning the back deck under that tree behind Quarters "A" could dislodge it. 
 
One vagrant passerine this week, so pack your bags & bins, jump in the car & hit the road; American Robin!  Adult female turned up in the back yard late morning Th 4/21 remaining to dark.  Only 2nd record out here and first this century!  ....Oh, never mind about the road trip..., it's gone already :-))  I've seen more Prothonotary and Magnolia Warblers out here over all these years than American Robins!  Also nice to see again was an adult male Lawrence's Goldfinch on Fr 4/22 perched in the latest round of 'arborism' (Thursday's pruning back of a thick patch of wind-driven out-of-control Monterey).  Known for being nomadic, years may go by between Lawrence's Goldfinch sightings, but a pair or two did in fact nest out here during the Spring of 2001.
 
Best Pacific Loon day this week was Fr 4/22 with some 25-30,000 flying past.  Saturday's sea watch (4/23) showed a moderate flight during the 5-hour morning session (13,723) and with perhaps 15-17,000 for the day.  Highlight of the Saturday seawatch was without doubt the adult male fly-by HARLEQUIN DUCK that flew past (north), alone, and at close quarters.  By late Saturday afternoon and evening, the entire area and ocean beyond was bathed in an eerie and rare dead calm, glassy slick to the crisp horizon where a school of common dolphins (Delphinus sp.) were seen way way out there at 0.2 reticules (~5nmi) under the company of a swarm of seabirds.  Otherwise, absolutely nothing was moving, zero loons, shearwaters, or gulls, and only the occasional high flying skein of northbound Brant and Surf Scoters and a couple mom/calf gray whale pairs that moved through, their blows clearly audible to those standing/sitting around enjoying the pleasant evening way up in the backyard behind the housing units.
 
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 4 (17-23Apr) =  77
  season cumulative = 117
 
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     110 - Violet-green Swallow
     111 - Semipalmated Plover
     112 - Wandering Tattler
     113 - Forster's Tern
     114 - American Robin
     115 - Lawrence's Goldfinch
     116 - Harlequin Duck
     117 - Orange-crowned Warbler
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Saturday, 23 April 2011 -- 00630-1130hrs (5.0hrs)
mostly mid-high level overcast, precious few sunbreaks (Seattle-speak), one really precious one early(!); wind calm 0630-0830, S 3-5kts (0830-1130); sea state flat slick calm Beaufort 0 to horizon (0630-0830), flat calm Beaufort 2 thereafter, surf & swell slight; visibility good, 2-3nmi in haze, to 4nmi after 1100hrs.
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes'
 
Great morning out here this morning!  Flat calm seas, no wind, and combined with a bright overcast revealing everything that was within 'big eyes' range.  Easter Egg Alert!  You'll have to tune in early tomorrow morning for the Week 4 report to find it.  I can't give it away now, come on!  I've still got 10 hours to go before midnight and the official close of Week 4.
 
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 329
  HARLEQUIN DUCK -- 1 (adult male, **see comment below**)
  Surf Scoter -- 1029
  White-winged Scoter -- 5 (one group, all adult male)
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 10 (all female, 1,2,1,1,5)
  Red-throated Loon -- 351
  Pacific Loon -- 13,723
  Common Loon -- 352
  Sooty Shearwater -- 77 (low, tubenoses not nearshore today)
  Brown Pelican -- 28 (4 juveniles)
  Wandering Tattler -- 2
  Whimbrel -- 4
  Black Turnstone -- 1
  Surfbird -- 14
  Western Sandpiper -- 52
  Dunlin -- 30
  Dowitcher sp. -- 9 (silent, probably Short-billed)
    unid phalaropes -- ~50 (**Easter Egg Alert!**  See week 4 report tomorrow!)
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 13
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 2
  Common Murre -- 116
  Cassin's Auklet -- 2
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 70
      -----
  gray whale -- 3 cow/calf pair, 'inside' lanes, 300m  >N
  long-beaked common dolphin -- ~40 at 0.9nmi (3.5 reticles) >N
  bottlenose dolphin -- 5 along shoreside surf break, 300m >N
  Risso's dolphin -- 2 at 0.6nmi (6.0 reticles) >S
 
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  California Gull
  Western Gull
  Caspian Tern (heard a couple; they all happen behind me)
  Pigeon Guillemot
    -----
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (1)
  harbor seal
  sea otter
 
**comment / notes** 
HARLEQUIN DUCK -- fresh crisp adult male flying north and all alone at 0.5nmi (7.0 reticles) at 0642hrs, just 12 minutes and a really good start into today's effort.  Also, timing of one of the few sunbreaks this morning was right then for all of about 2 minutes just as the sun crested the Santa Lucia's, and lit off that bird magnificently!  Quite the showstopper there for a moment!
Sunday, 24 April 2011 -- 00630-1130hrs (5.0hrs)
mostly overcast, passing brief misty patches at times, and the odd but brief sunbreak now and then; wind N 0-2kts 0630-0945, W to NW 5-8kts (0945-1130); seas calm, flat slick Beaufort 0 nearshore out to 1.0 reticle (color/upwelling line) and Beaufort 2 beyond that but gradually working shoreward after 1000hrs and calm Beaufort 2 throughout zone after that; surf & swell slight; visibility good 2-3nmi first half, 4-5nmi after.
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes' 
 
The main thrust of Pacific Loons passed early, with 75% of the total 11,878 passing 0630-0845hrs.  Peak rush was during the 0730-0800hr segment with 3,770.  After 0845hrs, loons slowed to a trickle and occasional packs of mostly 20-80.  It was a really good day for alcids; all species in much higher numbers than normal.  Rhinoceros Auklets especially, but also record numbers of Ancient Murrelets, and high counts for Common Murres and Cassin's Auklets.  The shocker of the day was a flock of geese other than Brant -- Greater White-fronted with one Snow -- see comments below.
  
select species counted (northbound only):
  GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE -- 80 (**see comment below**)
  SNOW GOOSE -- 1 (**see comment below**)
  Brant -- 493
  Surf Scoter -- 1194
  White-winged Scoter -- 1 (adult male)
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 14 (all female: 1,3,1,4,1,2,2)
  Red-throated Loon -- 208
  Pacific Loon -- 11,878
  Common Loon -- 422
  Eared Grebe -- 1 (swam by >N)
  Black-footed Albatross -- 1 (immature)
  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (dark)
    (Pink-footed Shearwater) -- zero!  (Where are these guys?!?)
  Sooty Shearwater -- 720 (light but steady >N all morning)
  Brown Pelican -- 11 (all adults)
  Whimbrel -- 14
  Marbled Godwit -- 1
  Surfbird -- 2
  Western Sandpiper -- 11
  Dunlin -- 120
  Dowitcher sp.-- 10 (silent, probably Short-billed)
    unid. medium shorebirds -- 65 (dowitcher/dunlin/knot size)
  Red Phalarope -- 75
    unid. phalaropes -- 2330
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 33
  Heermann's Gull -- 2 (immature)
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 2 (immature)
  Common Murre -- 344 (high)
  Ancient Murrelet -- 40 (highest number seen here ever)
  Cassin's Auklet -- 135 (high for these too when visible from shore)
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 1060 (very high, steady all morning)
      -----
  gray whale -- 3 cow/calf pair >N
  minke whale -- 3 >N
  humpback whale -- 2 >N
  bottlenose dolphin -- 3 >N just outside surf zone
   
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  California Gull
  Western Gull
      (Caspian Tern) -- none at all today
  Pigeon Guillemot
    -----
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (1)
  harbor seal
  sea otter
 
**comment / notes**
Surprise goose flock comprised of 80 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE and one lone white SNOW GOOSE (not a Ross's) suddenly appeared about 1/2nmi south (180 degrees-T) of the 'Point' at 1050hrs, got themselves all balled up and 'off track', became quite noisy as if 'discussing' what to do next.  After wallowing for a few seconds, they pulled themselves together, back in formation, and passed by at 400 meters and just above eye level heading north and on up the Coast. 
------------------------------------------------------------
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
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Last modified: 12/24/2014