Notes from the field - May 1, 2011

Birds & whales -- Week 5 (4/24-30)

Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
gray whale calf count for week 5 (M-F, 25-29Apr)  =   71
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =   118
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 5 (M-F, 25-29Apr) =   10
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  374
other marine mammal species this week:
  blue whale (a veritable parade with _7_ on Wednesday morning 4/27)
  minke whale
  humpback whale
  Pacific white-sided dolphin  
  long-beaked common dolphin 
  bottlenose dolphin
  Risso's dolphin  
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter
synopsis of the passing week: 
A windy week out here on the 'Point', especially afternoons, but also busy and no weather (fog/rain) disruptions apart from late Th-Fr high winds.  Lots of gray whale calves this week with 'almost' double digit totals for each of our M-F 0700-1900hrs survey days (17-19-17, Mo-Tu-We).  A little wind ain't going to stop us, it just goes with the territory, and even 30kts when the late shift (4-7pm) can turn brutally cold and everyone has changed from shorts and t-shirts typical before noon when it can be downright hot(!), to full blown Alaska arctic gear for the afternoon, viewing conditions for detecting and tracking gray whale calves slow but steadily making their way through the lee side calm waters of the 'pond' are generally fine.  However, even the wind which turned to 35+kt gales Thursday and Friday afternoons got the best of us, digs up the 'pond' full of white caps creating many 'false' blows as the wind snaps the tops off and compromises our our standards for effort, and we simply had to quit early and settle for 8 and 10 on Thursday and Friday respectively.
All this wind hasn't seemed to deter the hummingbirds.  One to two adult male Rufous continued all week, and despite the raging gales on Th 4/28, the season hummingbird 'grand slam' (six species) was scored when a female COSTA'S showed up.  Why Thursday in the face of all that wind and way out here and so far from arid inland normal of all places seems so totally inappropriate.  Tough little buggers aren't they, and why turn down a free lunch!  When just about everything else comes to a dead stop in the face of such fierce winds, including us, those tiny such delicate creatures seem to have no problem with it at all.  Add to this week's hummingbird mix, an adult male BLACK-CHINNED (#5 for the season) was at the feeders on We 4/27, and yet another Black-chinned (#6), immature male, was at the feeders early afternoon Sa 4/30.  
This was probably peak week for the Pacific Loon migration as it continued to proceed unabated each and every day and running ~20,000+ per day.  Heaviest day this week was Mo 4/25 with perhaps 30-35,000 passing the 'Point'.  Occasional pulses when the lanes run uninterrupted like a river at flood stage may see sustained flights lasting up to 20 minutes with as many as 600-800+ passing a fixed point per minute!  Slowest day this week was Sa 4/30 with likely no more than 10,000.
The Wandering Tattlers are back in PB-town now.  Early Tuesday morning (4/26), 4am, I hadn't even gotten the back door fully open or even heard the first snort of an elephant seal, when the tell-tale ringing rapid fire 'tu-tu-tu-tu-tu' of a tattler was heard piercing the darkness below the bluff as it wandered it's way along the shoreline rocks below.  All this week during the heart of darkness 3-5am hours, Wandering Tattlers have now become a familiar, even expected, addition to the seascape sounds of surf, elephant seals, an incessantly hooting Great Horned Owl, in addition to an occasional yelping Coyote off in some far distant corner or across the highway out somewhere in the Hearst pastures.
Shorebird migration passing the 'Point' has been going full tilt this week.  Dowitchers, Dunlin, Semipalmated Plovers, and Western Sandpipers in particular, and especially heaviest during the late afternoon into the evening hours.  Whimbrels too are building in numbers and frequency and if not seen first, nearly always give their approach away by their persistent calls as they often come in high and pass overhead as singles or in little flocks up to a dozen or so.  Phalaropes have tapered off after last week's mega-concentrations out along the upwelling/color line, but there's still plenty around with numbers variable from day to day.
I don't really know what's going on with our resident pair of Peregrine Falcons this season.  They don't seem to be doing anything other than just hanging out, atop the Outer Islet, top of the Lighthouse, or somewhere else unknown, and they certainly don't appear to be nesting or raising young or have any interest in such.  Hunting sorties out and about seem to wind up as failures nearly 100% of the time and even the usual favorites, straggler Bonaparte's Gulls that should be easy targets and probably should be removed from the gene pool anyway don't seem to catch the Peregrine's interest.  Instead, they go for what should be easy targets, like the Eurasian Collared-Doves but from what I've seen so far, fail every time.  Even when an injured shorebirds turn up and hobble around on the beach, they can't even snag those before the potential victim runs for cover.  For instance, late in the day Tu 4/26, what appeared to be a Black-bellied Plover with a broken wing and perhaps other problems was hobbling around on the near east elephant seal beach when it caught the Peregrine eye.  The Peregrine made a lame run for the plover, but before it could be picked off, the plover managed to drag itself up into the dunes and disappear into a large clump of tree lupine.  The Peregrine hovered over the lupine for a few seconds then landed on top to perhaps wait out the plover and get another chance.  But impatience intervened and after all of about 15 seconds, the Peregrine flew off and away.  I don't know the final fate of the plover; it may still be in the tree lupine for all I know.
One of the week's avian highlights this week came early during Easter Sunday's 5-hour 25X seawatch marathon when a surprise flock of geese, something other than the usual and familiar Brant, materialized out of seemingly nowhere comprised of 80 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED and one token all 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 and agitated 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.  The season's third LONG-TAILED DUCK, one lonesome female passed the 'Point' during the Sa 4/30 seawatch early at 0634hrs.
There were two FRANKLIN'S GULL sightings this week, both on Th 4/28 with a lone beautiful pinkish washed adult at 0840hrs, and a subadult 4 hours later (1239hrs) amongst a loose flock of ~25 California Gulls which brings us to 4 for the season so far.  Alcids made a good surprise showing during last Sunday morning's (4/24) 5-hour marathon sea watch with very high numbers of Common Murres (344), Ancient Murrelets (40), Rhinoceros Auklets (1060), and Cassin's Auklets (135).  After Sunday, the rest of the week saw daily murre and Rhino numbers fall back to double digit normal, no Cassin's, and an occasional Ancient Murrelet.
We have been running thumb clicker counts on Brown Pelicans each day during gray whale watches and overall, daily totals are still running far below last year at this time when day totals were as much or more than this week's cumulative.  Week 5 total Brown Pelicans making their way north was only 307 (18 juv), a bit less than last week's 493 (30 juv).  Some of these may be coming from a new breeding site on San Clemente Island where colleague and onsite PB whale counter Jim Carretta counted some 600 nests with chicks back in January during pinniped work out there.
Other stuff... An adult Golden Eagle was around on Su-Mo 4/24-25.  On Monday, the eagle spent the entire day working over just one spot in search of inattentive voles, rabbits, and ground squirrels.  Monday afternoon, windy, it was a veritable kite-fest out there over the newly restored bluff and terrace just north of the lighthouse and fog signal building, with the Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, two Common Raven, and a bunch of crows, all hovering in the wind as if tethered on a string.  Nice comparisons with all and nice to not even have to leave the couch to watch all this from the living room front window.  These two Common Ravens are going on four weeks out here now and I have been seeing one or both almost daily as they make the rounds patrolling the elephant seal beaches, grasslands, and rt.1 roadway for opportunistic carrion, ...and snakes.  Both the ravens and crows have gotten quite good now at capturing sun basking individuals of the bumper crop of garter snakes lurking around here seemingly everywhere.  Hanging on to Common Ravens out here for so long is most unusual.  Most seasons pass with no raven sightings at all.  When one or two do show up, they typically come in high from the east, take a look at the vast blue waterworld beyond, utter a few croaks, "yikes!", then turn tail and head back east to the 'Valley'.
What's in store for week 6?  Maybe the "perfect storm"?  I can only hope.  Potential is good this week for migrant passerines given the right combination of events, a 'trifecta' of events of sorts, that could unleash a passerine fall-out.  The moon is descending into the 'new' phase, nights/early mornings will be dark all week, and if an interior flight takes off under optimal clear conditions to the south, then encounters a front with clouds, rain, and east winds near here, this place could come alive, even dripping.  Alternatively and absent the clouds and rain, a good offshore early morning "Santa Ana" type event would be most welcome.  This past week was hump-week, day, minute, nanosecond, ...We 4/27 (1300-00.0hrs).  It's all downhill from here folks.
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 5 (24-30Apr) =  90
  season cumulative = 123
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     118 - Greater White-fronted Goose
     119 - Snow Goose
     120 - Golden Eagle
     121 - Lesser Yellowlegs
     122 - Costa's Hummingbird
     123 - Spotted Sandpiper
Saturday, 30 April 2011 -- 00630-1130hrs (5.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions:  Clear sky, sun; wind extremely variable, mostly W to N, sometimes E, 0-15; combined seas very choppy and confused, sea state Beaufort 4; visibility up to 4nmi early but blurring out in fluctuating heat distortion from 0835-1030hrs with useful visibility reduced to mostly less than 1.5nmi (2-3 reticles), but improving to 3nmi after 1030hrs as atmosphere began to stabilize and winds became more northerly.
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes' 
A weird morning weather wise with a war going on between onshore vs offshore winds and shifting frequently.  Hot one minute, cold the next, depending on the wind, back and forth and constantly changing direction and speed.  Offshore high pressure vs developing interior thermal low and I was caught in the middle.  Worse, was the heat distortion which without warning suddenly turned many birds beyond one mile, and lots of them too, into useless annoying blurs.  Seas were very chopped up and confused from the past two days of gales, and still blowing 35kts at the San Martin buoy all morning, but here the residual effect most noticeable and turbulently ripped along a quarter-mile wide swath parallel the coast at the crisply demarcated upwelling/color line which teemed with phalaropes and Bonaparte's Gulls, maybe a couple flocks of Sabine's too but couldn't tell for sure, and loads of other stuff.  Recorded numbers for birds out there, especially phalaropes, are sure to be low as I'm sure there were many many more.
Pacific Loons moved through at a light but steady pace all morning but at a much reduced volume than expected.  Surprising was the relative high number of Red-throated Loons, totals significantly higher than last week when I would normally be expecting those numbers to continue diminishing with each passing week.  A couple anomalies were two 'black-bellied' Pacific Loons, not oil stained or stained with anything, just black underparts, chest and belly, quite strange looking, and were seen flying by at 0826 & 0928hrs respectively.  Not unprecidented as I see a few of these almost every year and am not sure what that's all about.
Tubenose seabirds were present in good numbers and many very nearshore through the first half of the morning including the first significant numbers of Pink-footed Shearwaters so far this season.  Five immature Black-footed Albatross, mostly 1 to 1.5nmi out along the upwelling/color line, all different and all moving north was an unusually high number for the these Spring season from shore seawatches over the years.  No big nearshore alcid flights this morning like last Sunday (4/24) with numbers of Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets returning to what I consider normal.  A lone female LONG-TAILED DUCK went by very near the start at 0634hrs, and third sighting of this species this 2011 season. 
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 1102
  Surf Scoter -- 1629
  White-winged Scoter -- 3 (1M,2F)
  LONG-TAILED DUCK -- 1 (female, alone)
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 18 (2M,16F -- 2,1,3,2,3,7)
  Red-throated Loon -- 525
  Pacific Loon -- 6680
  Common Loon -- 488
     (Yellow-billed Loon ?) -- 2 (immature, pretty sure, good light but heat shimmer)
  Black-footed Albatross -- 5 (high, all immature >N)
  Northern Fulmar -- 3 (2 dark, 1 medium light)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 171
  Sooty Shearwater -- 1165 (steady >N all morning)
  Brown Pelican -- 31 (6 juv)
  Wandering Tattler -- 3
  Semipalmated Plover -- 7
  Whimbrel -- 38
  Long-billed Curlew -- 1
  Western Sandpiper -- 585
  Dunlin -- 150
  Dowitcher sp.-- 265 (probably Short-billed)
    unid. medium shorebirds -- 630 (dowitcher/knot size)
  Red-necked Phalarope -- 85
  Red Phalarope -- 600
    unid. phalaropes -- 850
    (Sabine's Gull ?) -- 40
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 365
  Mew Gull -- 1 (immature)
  Thayer's Gull -- 1 (immature)
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 13 (1 adult, 12 immature)
  Forster's Tern -- 95
  Common Murre -- 51
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 38
  gray whale -- 2 cow/calf pair 'nearshore' + 1 ad/juv 'offshore'
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Clark's Grebe (1)
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull
  Herring Gull
  Caspian Tern
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (1)
  harbor seal
  sea otter
Sunday, 01 May 2011 -- 0630-1130hrs (5.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions:  Clear sky, sun; wind calm, seas mostly slick slight bumpy calm,
Beaufort 0-2; workable visibility good to 2nmi with haze early and slight heat distortion later beyond 2nmi; upwelling/color line 2.0nmi (start) slowly drifting shoreward to 1nmi (end). 
25X150 Fujinon 'big eyes'.
At least yesterday's horrible shimmering heat distortion was gone, ...and so were all the shorebirds.  Elvis has clearly left the building!  Also, gulls and terns apart from Bonaparte's were largely MIA as well; not even a single Herring Gull.  Alcids, namely Rhinoceros Auklets were on the high side again, but then the visibility where they were was quite good too.  I am surprised that there were NO Red-breasted Mergansers this morning, nor any even slightly unusual scoters or other waterfowl.
In the loon department, Pacific Loons were again moving at a light but steady pace and a bit less than yesterday.  Red-throated Loons were running way high in number for this early May date and way high in proportion to Pacific.  And THEY (R-t Loons) were HIGH as well, unusually so.  Red-throated Loons often transit in a strata just above the flowing layer of near surface hugging Pacific Loons.  But this morning, they were way way up there, 100-200, some 300 feet, above the surface often in loose flocks of 10-30.  Because of this, I undoubtedly missed some, perhaps a lot (maybe 10-20%), simply because they were passing above my usual 25X field of vision.
The main highlight of this morning's marathon 5-hour seawatch were 2 YELLOW-BILLED LOONS
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 472
  Surf Scoter -- 1150
  Red-throated Loon -- 990 (high and HIGH)
  Pacific Loon -- 5880
  Common Loon -- 230
  YELLOW-BILLED LOON -- 2  (**see comment below**)
  Black-footed Albatross -- 1 (immature)
  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (dark)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 25
  Sooty Shearwater -- 1205 (steady >N all morning)
  Brown Pelican -- 221 (15 juv)
  Semipalmated Plover -- 1
  Whimbrel -- 22 (ALL with flock of 34 Brant ~1nmi out)
  Western Sandpiper -- 6
  Red-necked Phalarope -- 30
  Red Phalarope -- 200
    unid. phalaropes -- 455
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 630
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 2 (immature)
  Common Murre -- 137
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 555 (another 'high' day again)
  gray whale -- 1 cow/calf pair 'inshore' + 1 ad/juv 'offshore' >N
  long-beaked common dolphin -- 200-300 >S
  bottlenose dolphin -- 5 >N
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Clark's Grebe (2)
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull
  Caspian Tern
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (1)
  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