Notes from the field - May 09, 2011

 Birds & whales -- Week 6 (5/01-07)

Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
Gray whale mom/calves continued moving through in more encouraging numbers after the past two slow seasons.  In fact, the total seen just last week (week 5), was 71 cow/calf pair and EXACTLY the cumulative total for the entire 2010 season!  This week, the total was down slightly as expected as the peak has likely passed, but still good with 57.
Normally, the mom/calves just slowly truck on through at a slow pace at a steady average speed of 3kts or so.  However, once or twice during a season here we see something a little different which may last for a few hours when parade seems to grind to a halt.  Cow/calf pairs come into the usually quiet lee side wind protected waters on the southeast side of the 'Point', an area we call the "pond", then linger there, quiet and often hugging very close to the beach and rocks, and show reluctance and caution when it comes time to exit, round the 'Point', and continue their journey north.  Such was the case Monday morning (5/01) when two pair went unusually quiet in the 'pond' and near the 'Point', some reversing there and entering into the even nearer inside waters between our watch site and the harbor seal and sea lion rocks, something they rarely do, and came within what might seem like an even more risky near and shallow 50m off the shoreline.
When we see this sort of thing happen, we've suspected killer whales may be lurking in the neighborhood somewhere, and the gray whales know or can sense that, but we have never actually seen such to verify that suspicion.  However, on Mo 5/01, and just by sheer random chance, I was scheduled for the late shift (10-1 start) so was off and away doing an early morning walk at Harmony Headlands, some 18-20 miles or so south of Point Piedras Blancas.  While out scanning over the headland, I saw two gray whale cow/calf pair some 800m apart just outside the extensive kelp beds there, when suddenly, right in the middle between the two, a large black dorsal fin rolled up revealing one very large male KILLER WHALE lurking there just INSIDE the kelp beds.  The gray whales had literally come to a dead stop and calves on both sides of the potential danger were repeatedly poking their heads up high above the surface (spyhopping).  I didn't have the luxury of time to linger to watch for an outcome as I had to return to the lighthouse for my 10-1 watch shift.  When I did return, I was surprised to learn of the unusual quiet behavior going on with the animals that were already in the 'pond', staying there, and obvious reluctance to leave.  18nmi as a gray whale swims from Harmony Headlands to Piedras Blancas, or killer whale too for that matter, isn't very far, and it would seem that the gray whales sensed the danger at some distance.  This one adult male orca seen at Harmony Headlands may have just been scouting and sizing up a potential later meal and wouldn't likely take out a gray whale on it's own.  Usually such attacks are very coordinated and involve an entire pod.  Other killer whales were likely out there somewhere but probably scattered over many miles.
From our watch site on the 'Point', I figured that we might not see those 0730 Harmony Headlands animals for at perhaps 5-6 hours assuming they made it past the danger lurking there.  And indeed that was the case, with the danger evidently passed, the coast was clear, and the cow/calf pairs, perhaps the same two seen earlier down there arrived around 1400hrs followed in short order with a total of six pair in a 3-hour period between 1330 and 1630hrs, all of which probably stacked up down there and off Morro Bay.      
The nearshore migration highway between Baja California and far northern Alaska is challenging enough just by sheer length of the journey, but also wrought with other dangers and having to run a gauntlet through a least a couple well know choke points, namely Monterey Bay, and Alaska's Unimak Pass where killer whales have learned, routinely gather in number, and just patiently lay in wait to easily pick off the occasional easy prey gray whale calf.
Last week, there was a gray whale kill (orcas) reportedly observed off Santa Barbara.  Three to four days later (We 4/27), a single cow/calf pair showed up in the 'pond' here but with an extra adult female in close attendance.  These animals stalled in the pond for about 40 minutes where it appeared that nursing was involved, not by just one, but both adult females which led me to speculate that perhaps the extra adult female may have been the one that lost her calf to the Santa Barbara killer whales a few days before and still retained her motherly instinct to nurse her baby calf.
gray whale calf count for week 6 (M-F, 02-06May)  =   58
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =    176
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 6 (M-F, 02-06May) =   8
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  382
other marine mammal species this week:
  minke whale
  humpback whale
  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: 
For the first week of May, action in the loon lanes has been unusually slow, and for here, the largely vacant coastside ocean looked more like the last week of May than the first.  Numbers of Pacific Loons passing the 'Point' began dramatically diminishing with last Saturday's 5-hour morning seawatch (4/30 - 6680) and Sunday (5/01 - 5880).  Mo-Tu (5/02-03) there were no more than 2-3,000 all day each day, and on that absolutely gorgeous calm record warm We 5/04, things went absolutely dead with no more than maybe 500.  Brant and Surf Scoters have hardly showed any better and were conspicuously scarce to absent most of the week.  So, with our three feature players minimized this past week, it's been a bit tedious and boring at times gazing out there if just for birds.  Still, patience is not without reward.  Two YELLOW-BILLED LOONS (sub adult and adult) were the highlight during Sunday's seawatch (details posted slocobirding 5/01).
Opening up shop at 0700hrs Th 5/05, a good nearshore northbound shearwater flight was in progress with Sooty's passing at 20-30/minute which lasted about 30 minutes, then eased back and more offshore.  Still, during this brief window, the season's first MANX SHEARWATER was picked off.  A small 'black & white' shearwater, flat black upper, gleaming white below, short tail, white under tail coverts extending to near tail tip, and no white ovals lapping up on the sides of the rump.  Also, quite a few nearshore Pink-footeds in this mix as well.  Other notable seabirds this week included two XANTUS'S MURRELETS on Sa 5/07.  One was first on the water just off the 'Point' at 25X reticle 6.0 (~1200m) and easily determined to be the California subspecies _S.h.scrippsi_ which are usually encountered in waters inshore of the shelf break.  It's probably way too early for the Baja form, _S.h.hypoleucus_ around here anyway.  When they do appear, it's usually mid-late summer / fall, and nearly always in pairs and in deeper waters off the shelf break out to 200nmi where they range up the California coast north to Washington and southern British Columbia in small but regular numbers.
At long patient last, a jaeger finally made an appearance at the tail end of this week when an adult Pomarine was seen flying north during the 5-hr Sa 5/07 seawatch.  Why jaegers of any stripe seem to be so seldom seen from the 'Point' here is a bit of a mystery, especially since we've got that nice often bird-loaded and active upwelling/color line working usually just a mile or two offshore.
Three breeding adult FRANKLIN'S GULLS (#5, #6, and #7 for the season) made a dramatic showing at 1236hrs Tu 5/03 when they suddenly appeared overhead and skimming over the top of the housing block heading north.  Here one minute, gone the next, but long enough to be seen by and dazzle the small group of site volunteers assembled for lunch at the picnic tables out back.  FRANKLIN'S GULL #8 went over the study site at 1313hrs on Th 5/05.  One chalky white 2nd year GLAUCOUS GULL (#4 for the season) was seen off and on through the afternoon We (5/04) and continued through at least sundown Fr 5/06.  Bonaparte's Gulls continue to be seen daily and have been for the past three weeks.  All total many many thousands trekking by in nearshore coastal waters and most close enough to be carefully picked through for something 'different' like maybe a Little Gull.  No such luck as usual for after all these years and tens of thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls later, never even a hopeful glimmer that such ever exists out there.
Shorebirds peaked last week having now come and gone.  Few were noted this week apart from occasional flocks of mostly Dowitchers and Dunlins.  Last week's swarms of phalaropes have largely come and gone too but still a few out there, especially along the upwelling/color line which is usually too far out (1-2nmi) to be examined closely.  However, that dramatic feature did manage to drift inshore to within about 600m late Su (5/01) afternoon and evening revealing some 25-50,000 birds strung out there, 80-90% of which appeared to be Red-necked Phalaropes.
A single WHITE-FACED IBIS was first a flyby out low over the dunes heading north late Tu 5/03, and presumably the same bird was later found in 'the little sometimes ibis wetland' along rt.1 one mile north of the PB gate (1/2 mi S of the old PB Motel) where it remained all afternoon We (5/04).   
Brown Pelican numbers are increasing daily, some in long drawn out strings passing like a slow moving freight train.  The largest such string contained 108 individuals on We (5/04) and the total for the day nearly exceeded the number of Pacific Loons, again something more typical of the last week of May rather than the first.  Total Brown Pelicans counted this week: 1253 (84 juvs).
It appears that we squandered away the perfect week for migrant passerines if there were going to be any given the right conditions; new moon and dark mornings were in place, but no intervening storms or easterly 'Santa Anna' like winds to divert any migrants to the coast and beyond.  However, there were a couple interesting passerine moments this week when a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH dropped in out of the blue on Mo (5/02) and lingered into Tu (5/03) creeping and picking around on cypress cones.  The other was a little tight migrant/vagrant(??) flock of 16 HOUSE SPAROWS on Tu 5/03 which also appeared out of the blue at the gray whale watch site on the 'Point'.  Just flybys, didn't stop or so much as land or pause, just kept going north looking and acting more like a nomadic flock of winter finches such as Redpolls or something.  Odd, and the first evidence of House Sparrows around here or anywhere in the neighborhood in two years!  When has anyone ever seen or heard the words "migrant" and/or "vagrant" used in reference to HOUSE SPARROWS, much less in the same sentence?!? :-))
It was nice to wake up from my afternoon nap Th 5/05 and instantly find right out my bedside window a new year/season 'yardbird' perched atop the wooly yarrow and mere ten feet away, an adult male Black-headed Grosbeak.  We missed that one all together here last year.  Yet another RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH (#2) plus our season's first and one each Townsend's and Wilson's Warblers and Bullock's Oriole dropped in Fr 5/06 along with a Black-headed Grosbeak in a sort of mini-nano-micro burst at what hints at Spring migrant passerine activity way out here on this isolated 'Point'.
The hummingbird action around the yard and feeders has predictably slowed to the near bare minimum.  Still, at least one adult male Rufous was present Su-We (5/01-04) but none thereafter, and a pair of BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRDS (adult male & female, #7 & #8 for the season) were on the feeders Su (5/01) but not seen again thereafter.  Otherwise, both Anna's and Allen's are currently on nests in the cypress and at least one adult male Anna's continues to guard it's territory behind the housing block. 
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 6 (01-07May) =  92
  season cumulative = 134
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     124 - Red-breasted Nuthatch
     125 - Brown-headed Cowbird
     126 - House Sparrow
     127 - White-faced Ibis
     128 - Manx Shearwater
     129 - Black-headed Grosbeak
     130 - Wilson's Warbler
     131 - Bullock's Oriole
     132 - Townsend's Warbler
     133 - Xantus's Murrelet
     134 - Pomarine Jaeger
Saturday, 07 May 2011 -- 0600-1100hrs (5.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions:  broken low to mid level marine overcast, becoming mostly sunny after 1030hrs; wind mostly offshore E 5-10kts to 0900hrs, becoming onshore WSW 10kts after 0900-1100hrs; sea state Beaufort 2-3 nearshore to 25X reticle 2.0 (1.4nmi) heavily white-capped Beaufort 4-5+ beyond (wind overnight and all morning at San Martin Buoy including those more offshore waters here, NW to 25kts); visibility good to 3nmi (birds), to 5nmi for albatross, whales, and dolphins).
A good morning, ...or at least it should have been.  Instead, a brutal gruellingly long and largely empty ocean apart from the steady northbound Sooty Shearwaters.  Light, but cold offshore E wind early and cold onshore in my face S after midmorning.  MIA big time, LOONS, BRANT, SCOTERS and pretty much the story all week long.  Gray whales too; zero this morning after a good M-F week count.  Where'd everybody go?!?  Season firsts were two single XANTUS'S MURRELETS and a Pomarine Jaeger.  The only oddball in the 5-hr slog was one flyby adult male NORTHERN SHOVELER.
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 26 (low!!!)
  Surf Scoter -- 51 (low!!!)
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 4 (all female, 1,3)
  Red-throated Loon -- 21 (low)
  Pacific Loon -- 768 (catastrophic low!!!!!  ~60% basic/immature)
  Common Loon -- 56 (low)
  Eared Grebe -- 1 (flyby >N)
  Black-footed Albatross -- 2 (immature)
  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (medium)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 24
  Sooty Shearwater -- 2875 (steady >N all morning)
  Brown Pelican -- 120 (7 juv)
  Whimbrel -- 2
  Red-necked Phalarope -- 75
  Red Phalarope -- 217
    unid. phalaropes -- 280
  Pomarine Jaeger -- 1 (season first)
  Heermann's Gull -- 34 (first migrants, 1 adult, 33 immature)
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 129
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 2 (immature)
  Common Murre -- 51
  XANTUS'S MURRELET -- 2 (season first; S.h.scrippsi on water at 25X reticle, 1200m)
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 542 (another 'high' day again)
  gray whale -- ZERO!
  humpback whale -- 2 >N
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe (only 1-2 and no Clark's)
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull
  Herring Gull
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (2, immature males sparring all morning)
  harbor seal
  sea otter

Richard Rowlett
Point Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, CA




Last modified: 12/24/2014