Notes from the field - May 15, 2011

Birds & whales -- Week 7 (5/08-14)
Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
Gray whale cow/calf pairs continued moving through the very nearshore waters just outside (sometimes in) the surf zone.  Early anticipation was for a downward trend this week.  Such was not the case and in fact we exceeded last week's total (58) with 63 mom/calf pair this week.  The coming week should definitely see a decline.  All total, 2011 is proving to be a very good season for calf production and our best showing in five years!  Calves usually first begin appearing by the very end of March & early April.  This year, significant numbers didn't begin showing until near the middle of April and strong numbers now in mid-May is unusual.  The first phase of Alaska bound gray whales (adults, juveniles, pregnant females) that fill the offshore lanes in late February to mid March also ran much later than usual.  That first phase has usually plays itself out by the end of March; this year it was the 2nd week of April when it finally stopped dead and followed immediately by phase two and the first inshore surge of calves.  So, it looks like a late running season which means we will be adding an extra week on to our monitoring here and will keep the shop open to June 3.
As a follow-up to last week's observations and discussion regarding unusual quiescent gray whale behavior in the suspected nearby presence of hungry killer whales and further supported with my random chance sighting of one adult male lurking in the kelp beds off Harmony Headlands between two mom/calf pair on either side back on Mo 5/02, more evidence of such surfaced this week.  On We 5/04 there was in fact a killer whale attack where a pod took out a calf along the Big Sur coast, 9 miles north of Ragged Point.  The event was observed by CalTrans workers from the site of that giant landslide which has totally blocked rt.1 since 14 April.  From the hand-me-down reports (thanks Mark Arnold), it sounded like quite the literal bloodbath up there, straight down in the clear calm waters off the last overlook and site of the road closure.  I drove up there yesterday afternoon (Sa 5/14) to take a look at the crime scene and just take a look at the landslide.  Wow, what a view and experience that wild drama should have been as viewed from the ringside seat of that spectacular overlook!  Speaking of spectacular, that landslide is utterly huge!!!  CalTrans crew looked like ants in it's midst, and after a month now, little has changed, and if anyone is buried underneath, no one knows.  Don't expect any reopening of the highway any time soon.  Maybe July 4th or even mid-summer, if that!
gray whale calf count for week 7 (M-F, 09-13May)  =   63
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =    239
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 7 (M-F, 09-13May) =   5
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  387
other marine mammal species this week:
  humpback whale
  Pacific white-sided dolphin
  bottlenose dolphin
  Risso's dolphin
  harbor porpoise  
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter
synopsis of the passing week: 
Coastal Spring migration in the loon, brant, scoter lanes is definitely winding down this week.  The flow of Pacific Loons continued it's unusually early decline with much of this early/mid week May looking like last week (week 6) and even more like the last week of May if not first of June; just minus the gloom.  Then, after a long 10-day lull, the loon lanes perked up again mid-week with good early morning flights We-Sa (5/11-14) with ~4,000 passing on We & Th, 5-7500 Fr, and ~2500 Sa.  All in all and with this unprecedented earlier than usual decline, my subjective sense is that overall, Pacific Loon numbers continue to decline as they have most of this first decade on the 21st Century.  During the 1990's (1994-2000), I felt pretty confident in counting and estimating some 3/4-million Pacific Loons were passing Pt. Piedras Blancas each Spring.  With each passing year during this first decade, numbers seemed to run about 1/3 fewer.  Now, 2011, subjectively the total volume  appears to be even less, perhaps just 400,000 or so.  Again, just a subjective sense, but also supported to by simply watching what goes on here every single day plus the dedicated weekend seawatches.
Also, slowing to a virtual stop were the late season Brant and ALL this week seemed to be stragglers.  Su-Sa total numbers seen this week were ~65, 13, 21, 12, 73, 24, and 33, respectively.  Such low numbers are highly irregular compared to ALL previous years.  The only decent flock all week was a long string of ~70 Brant at 1703hrs with one standout leading the pack, a comparably way oversized CANADA GOOSE, #3 in that string and first sighting here this season.  Exactly three hours before that string of Brant, 1403hrs, a single WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE was #3 in a string of 11 Brandt's Cormorants.  Once rounding the 'Point' at our gray whale study site, the goose parted company from the cormorants that were just returning 'home' to the Outer Islet, and this wayward White-fronted Goose just continued on alone on it's own merry way.
There were a couple interesting 'oddball' Pacific Loons this week.  Another one of those 'black-bellied' individuals (#3 for the season) went by on Tu 5/10.  Not oiled nor otherwise stained, just all solid black underparts (chest & belly) and such individuals so far remain a mystery as I've not yet been able to uncover any reference to or explanation for such an anomaly.  Speaking of anomalies, the other 'standout' in the crowd of ~60 Pacific Loons was a very nearly all white individual on We 5/11 (all white wings, excessive white shoulder bars, crown, and nape.  A weird looker indeed!
Shorebird migration passing here is virtually done for the season, save for the typically later species such as Whimbrels and Red Knots.  Northbound Whimbrels were running heavy all afternoon We 5/10 with some 2500 or so from 1430hrs to sunset and typically in flocks of 50-100+.  Few were seen before or after the Wednesday event.  Likewise, the first Red Knots detected this Spring were also seen on We 5/10 with two small flocks (15 & 6) during the afternoon.  In 2010, the only Red Knots observed here were in this same time frame, on 5/07 and 5/12.
Our 2nd year chalky white GLAUCOUS GULL Gull (#4) continued off and on all week, sometimes a flyby between the elephant seal beaches and the PB Motel, but most often seen bathing and preening in the small ocean side lagoon opposite the 'sometimes white ibis wetland' 1/2-mile south of the old PB Motel early mornings.  This bird is easily recognizable as the same by the unique pattern of wear on the primary tips.  A total surprise winter adult BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (black wing tips and partial hind neck collar, yellow bill) passed overhead and the 'Point' at 1626hrs on Fr 5/13.  Exactly 24 minutes later, 1655hrs, one breeding adult FRANKLIN'S GULL (season #9) followed in the kittiwakes wingbeats in exactly the same corridor and height, both birds heading north.  Black-legged Kittiwakes have been exceedingly scarce this season with only two sightings early on and offshore back in Week 2 on 4/06 and 4/07.  Spotting one now and cutting overland no less over the 'Point' was also unusual.
The northbound Brown Pelican count for the week was 1588 (81 juvs).  Heermann's Gulls often accompany the mid-late May surge of Brown Pelicans, but apart from a one-day burst on Sa 5/07 (34), they continue very scarce.  California Gulls have been surging this week in frequent loose afternoon wind blown flocks of 20-80+ with ~20% adult and the rest in all manner of younger plumage and flavor.  Among the notable miscellaneous, two Bank Swallows were flybys at the watch site on the 'Point' on Fr 5/13. 
Migrant Spring passerines out here all week has been a total bust. Well..., almost a total bust.  No warblers, no vireos, no flycatchers, no thrushes, no tanagers, no grosbeaks.  ZERO!  Orioles?  Almost none of those either until Sa 5/14 when an adult male BALTIMORE ORIOLE turned up at the end of my Saturday morning seawatch, first scolding in the shrubs behind Quarters "B" at 0925hrs.  Assuming a Bullock's, I nearly let it go, until it popped up on the top of the bush but in bad light and I couldn't see anything more than a silhouette of a generic 'oriole'.  It then flew up into the Monterey Cypress behind Quarters "C" and "D" where it disappeared into the thick canopy, scolding and making a little 'chirpy' noise that didn't sound quite right for Bullock's but not really registering as all that different.  Again, ready to let it go, I walked to the front of the housing block to start my daily ritual 1-1/2 mile loop mile walk to the PB entrance gate then north through the grasslands inside the fence along rt.1 to the 'north beach', and back via the beach and finally an old abandoned road cut when the oriole started singing again and now very clearly viewable over the top of the house perched atop the highest twig of the cypress.  Now in good light, I was immediately struck by the complete full black hood, black back and wings with only minimal white wing/scapular bars, and orange underparts.  When the bird flew, it showed a mostly orange tail with no black tail band like a Bullock's.  So..., if I can't seem to find the 'common' stuff, I guess I'll just have to settle for the vagrants. The whole sighting from first detection to the end lasted all of 5 minutes, when and without human provocation, the bird just took off, flying NE toward rt.1, Hearst pastures, and the hills beyond.  Nice surprise!  Never give in, never give up.
With unsettled weather forecast early this coming week, maybe rain & SE or E winds, there should be some hope left for some of the usual suspects to show up of which many are still MIA for the season.  Unfortunately, the moon is not favorable as it heads into Full on bright and even with heavy cloud cover, there's still enough ambient light filtering through that clearly reveals the coastline and waters beyond and keeps migrants ashore and inland. 
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 7 (08-14May) =  73
  season cumulative = 138
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     135 - Red Knot
     136 - Canada Goose
     137 - Mourning Dove
     138 - Baltimore Oriole    
Saturday, 14 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions:  slightly filtered sun through scattered high thin cirrus; wind NNW 15-10kts (first hour), becoming light & variable 2-5kts after 0700; sea state Beaufort 4 before 0700 gradually subsiding to B-2 thereafter and generally calm; visibility good 4-5nmi.
Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes'
Cutting back on these weekend marathon sea watches from 5hrs to 3hrs now as the season wanes and activity diminishes earlier unless there is something compelling going on to extend on a day by day basis.  This morning's seawatch saw a continuing uptick in the loon department which continues now since We 5/11 after a long 10-day long dry spell prior where it looked like an early end to the migration season.  The 1530 Pacific Loons this morning in just THREE hours over the mere 768 a week ago in FIVE hours is more in line with expectations for this mid-May date.  Brant numbers continue on the very light side and Surf Scoters are still moving through in small but steady numbers. 
select species counted (northbound only):
  Brant -- 33
  Surf Scoter -- 349
  White-winged Scoter -- 1 (female)
  Red-breasted Merganser -- 2 (female)
  Red-throated Loon -- 58
  Pacific Loon -- 1530 (~70% basic/immature)
  Common Loon -- 46 (7 adult)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 11
  Sooty Shearwater -- 460
  Brown Pelican -- 220 (7 juv)
  Whimbrel -- 28
  Pomarine Jaeger -- 1 (adult)
     [Heermann's Gull -- zero (34 in 1st hour of seawatch a week ago)]
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 16
  Mew Gull -- 1 (immature >N)
     [Glaucous-winged Gull -- zero]
  Common Murre -- 24
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 95
  gray whale -- 1 (cow/calf pair >N)
  Pacific white-sided dolphin -- 15-20 at 25X reticle 0.8 (2.5nmi) >S
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion (1, immature male)
     [harbor seal -- none this morning; high tide, haul out rocks awash]
  sea otter

Sunday, 15 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)

Weather/viewing conditions:  partly cloudy (passing cumulus) but mostly sunny with a couple brief passing rain showers; wind ESE 0-4kts; sea state Beaufort 2 & generally calm; visibility good and crisp to 5+nmi except briefly reduced to 0.5nmi during an 8-minute small passing rain shower.

Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes'

Pretty morning this morning.  Sun and lovely billowy cumulus around but nothing too threatening and all contributing to fabulous lighting and contrast in the offshore zone along with the occasional rainbow now and then.  Slow start to the loons (146 for first hour), but then cranking after, often coming by in literal clouds of 30-100+, then nothing in between.  Peak Pacific Loon count segments, 1,060 (0730-0800) and 1,203 (0830-0900).  Soon after 0900, the show was over with nothing left but a passing trickle and the occasional small pack.  Both Brant and Surf Scoters were passing at almost exactly the same numbers for 3 hours of effort as the same 3 hours yesterday.  Amazing how close today's and yesterday's totals were!  After the biggest Brown Pelican day of the season yesterday (432), numbers crashed this morning and little more has happened so far up to this posting (noon).  Maybe it rained on their parade last night and they're just hunkered down and drying out somewhere. 

Other highlights of the morning were a MANX SHEARWATER (#2), BLACK SCOTER (first since 08 April), and a really bright white (double light) Northern Fulmar.  Also, a late single Black Turnstone was a nice surprise since I haven't seen one around here since 28 April.

 select species counted (northbound only unless otherwise indicated):

  Brant -- 32

  Surf Scoter -- 357

  White-winged Scoter -- 1 (female)

  BLACK SCOTER -- 1 (adult male)

  Red-breasted Merganser -- 3 (female)

  Red-throated Loon -- 66 (~70% basic/immature

  Pacific Loon -- 3062 (~70% basic/immature)

  Common Loon -- 48 (1sub-adult, rest basic/immature)

  Black-footed Albatross -- 2 (immature)

  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (double light >S)

  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 16

  Sooty Shearwater -- 745

  MANX SHEARWATER -- 1 (*see notes/comment below*)

  Brown Pelican -- 37 (all adults)

  Whimbrel -- 2

  Black Turnstone -- 1

  Heermann's Gull -- 5 (1 sub-adult, 4 immature)

  Red-necked Phalarope -- 26

  Red Phalarope -- 29

    unid phalaropes -- 135

  Common Murre -- 88

  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 26


  gray whale --5 cow/calf pairs 'nearshore' >N

  humpback whale -- 2-4 [25X reticle 0.2 (4nmi), feeding/milling?]

  unid common dolphin -- 250-400 [25X reticle 0.2-0.4 (3-4nmi) >S]

  Risso's dolphin -- 20-50 [25X reticle 0.4 (3.2nmi) >S]


others present but not counted:

  Western Grebe

  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 -- none today; 1 immature male yesterday]

  harbor seal -- 2 on haulout rocks early before overrun by rising tide

  sea otter



MANX SHEARWATER -- one at 25X reticle 3.0 (1.06nmi), 0651hrs >N.  small 'black&white' shearwater, flat black upperparts, bright white underparts, wing linings, and face below eyeline; short tail, white undertail coverts extending to tip, no white ovals lapping up on sides of rump; flight swift shallow wingbeats between arcs and glides.  Sighting #2 here for the season.



Richard Rowlett

Point Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)

San Simeon, CA


Last modified: 12/24/2014