Notes from the field, May 22 2011

Birds & whales -- Week 8 (5/15-21)
Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
Gray whale mom/calf pair numbers passing the 'Point' this week nose-dived precipitously to 14 after the past three weeks of running in the 50's and 60's.  No surprise, as the season is winding down with the majority having passed now as they continue their long slow but steady journey to far northern Alaska and the Chukchi off Point Barrow.
Meanwhile, the offshore and far offshore zone has come alive this week with humpbacks and blues.  10-15, maybe more, humpback whales have been a daily all day sight all week long filling the seascape with blows, bodies, flukes, and flippers.  Seemingly not really going anywhere, they just seemed happy enough to just hang out milling about, feeding, and performing (breaching, flippering) at regular intervals.  We 5/18 was a big day for blue whales which joined the assemblage of humpbacks with at least three, perhaps more cruising about and seemingly going nowhere other than perhaps enjoying the company of the humpbacks, or at least the feast of krill or other prey that must currently be in abundance out there.  One of those big blues chugging north passed the 'Point' unusually close at 25X 9.0-reticles (0.44nmi / 900meters).  And speaking of big, a positively huge, maybe 20-25 foot long (6-7m), Basking Shark was sighted early Th 5/18 slowly ever so slowly drifting north at 25X 3.5 reticles (0.9nmi).  These lazy giants are completely harmless to humans or anything else other than plankton where they just simply move along slowly, mouth constantly agape to filter the plankton on which they exclusively feed.
Adding yet another chapter to the previous two weeks notes here, a fairly fresh kill gray whale calf was found washed up on the beach in east Cambria on Sa 5/14 but was seen floating around off Cambria four days earlier (Tu 5/10) by a kayaker before it finally came ashore last Saturday.  Judging from the 'damage', the cause of death appears to be killer whales based on tooth marks and certain missing body parts.  Killer Whales are very picky and seem a leave a lot to waste.  Where this happened is unknown.  There was recent calf kill by killer whales observed along the Big Sur coast (southern Monterey County), 9 miles north of Ragged Point on We 5/04.  Before that, on Mo 5/02, and by pure quirky random chance, I observed a large male lurking in the kelp beds between two cow/calf gray whale pairs at Harmony Headlands, a mere 4-5 miles from the stranded calf carcass.  Where this particular calf carcass came from is of course unknown.  Perhaps a kill just off Cambria somewhere around May 2nd and the Harmony Headlands sighting, or the remains of the Big Sur kill on May 4th that drifted south in the long shore current and washing ashore at Cambria, or yet another.  Who knows how many and how often these events take place.  Despite all this, killer whales are obviously around, but we have simply NOT actually seen a one from our gray whale watch site this season, nor have I seen any during my weekend 25X seawatches.  Some years, we see them, others we don't.  In all of our 18 consecutive Spring seasons out here, we have however witnessed two such kills very near the 'Point' at Piedras Blancas.  The Cambria calf measured 7.6 meters (~25 feet).  Nicky Beaulieu, one of our gray whale calf count team players on site this week and timely by coincidence, primary stranding biologist for NOAA/SWFSC and San Diego County was able to complete measurements and collect tissue and baleen samples for DNA and other biological analysis.
gray whale calf count for week 8 (M-F, 16-20May)  =   14
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =    253
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 8 (M-F, 16-20May) =   2
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  389
other marine mammal species this week:
  blue whale
  humpback whale
  long-beaked common dolphin
  bottlenose dolphin
  Risso's dolphin
  Dall's porpoise  
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  Steller's sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter
synopsis of the passing week: 
Spring coastal seabird migration for our primary players, loons, brant, and scoters continues to wind down to just about a season wrap as daily numbers rapidly decline.  Best Pacific Loon day this week was last Sunday's (5/15) seawatch (3,062) and ~5,000 for the day.  All subsequent days each totaled less than 1,000 to as low as ~250.  Unsettled weather early in the week which brought three unseasonal but welcome overnight rain events (1.45" all total here) brought movements to a near standstill including our first 'zero' day for Brant (Mo 5/16) since we since we set up shop here way back on 3/27.  Daily Brant count for the week, Su-Sa were 32, 0, 9, 9, 4, 65, and 3 respectively.  The tardy 65 seen on Fr 5/20 were all in one flock and way out at 1.5nmi streaming low over the water heading north.
Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters continue in best seen numbers daily during the early mornings and an occasional Black-footed Albatross or two is out there especially during the windier afternoons.  A couple lingering Northern Fulmars were detected on Su 5/15 and Sa 5/21, and the season's second MANX SHEARWATER was a flyby at about a mile out on Su 5/15 (details in 'seawatch' report posted slocobirding 5/15).  The week's only ANCIENT MURRELET was a single bird flying fast south with a 20kt tail wind on We 5/18 about 1,000m off the 'Point'.
There were four flyby FRANKLIN'S GULLS on three dates this week bringing the total to a generous 13 so far this season, one subadult on We 5/18 at 1236hrs, two rose blushed adults on Th 5/19 at 0654hrs, and one adult on Sa 5/21 at 0654hrs.  That bright chalky white second year GLAUCOUS GULL continued into it's third week, but perhaps gone now, was last seen early We 5/18 down on the east elephant seal beach where it was alone picking around on what few shreds remained on the skeleton of a California sea lion pup.  The season's first ELEGANT TERNS (3) appeared offshore during the Sa 5/21 seawatch.  Otherwise, migrant shorebirds were generally scarce apart from mostly Whimbrels.  One late flock of 9 Surfbirds on Fr 5/20 was most notable and getting late.  Wandering Tattlers were detected on three wee early mornings (Th-Fr-Sa, 5/19-21) during the 3-4am hour when they were heard calling as they 'wandered' along the rocky shoreline below the south bluff.  Wandering Tattlers are often the very first bird of the day, and strangely only then when it's dark and 'normal' people are still asleep.  Once day breaks, daylight, and it's all eyes and ears, I couldn't buy a Wandering Tattler around here much less see or hear one! 
Brown Pelican count for the week, Su-Sa was 1,405 (143 juvs).  Not all pelicans were the brown variety this week.  13 WHITE PELICANS were in a flock southbound passing just off the 'Point' at 1010hrs on Tu 5/17.  Also on Tu 5/17, a distant booby, presumably a BROWN BOOBY was seen ~1.5nmi out along the upwelling/color line flying, diving, and feeding and generally heading south.  Hazy poor light and viewing conditions rendered sex and age determination impossible but size, shape, profile, and behavior, long straight stiff wings, and classic bullet like diving was enough to clearly recognize it as a booby, most likely Brown.
Spring migrant passerine drop-ins has been just plain miserably slow.  In part, wrong cosmic and weather conditions, and in no small part, the untimely arborism that continues to whack away at the only remaining best clump of cypress which makes me quietly weep.  Eventually, or hopefully, all that will be done and stuff will grow back.  There is hope for the future as the new cypress wind break is about 6-8' feet high and should be quite nice in another year or two and fortunately for the Monterey Cypress around here, it's resilient, grows fast, and the new plantings are actually looking pretty good now and could hold a few passerines if and when we ever get any.  At least there was one Yellow Warbler, one Wilson's Warbler, and one Warbling Vireo this week, but still no flycatchers, thrushes, or tanagers at all for the entire season so far, so you kinda get the picture :-(( 
In the strange bird song department, I heard a profoundly distinct and 'different' sort of song around here emanating from the lush tree lupine now in full toxic bloom out where the vast sea of iceplant once flourished only a couple years ago, deep and seemingly over my head in places.  It's all gone now, none left but a distant memory, but the tree lupine in it's place is truly astonishing.  That strange song, three mornings in a row (We,Th,Fr,), sounded so different from anything I could think of and defied any familiar connection.  Each note clear and crisp, a quick "drink, drink, drink, drink, your teeeee", last note slightly higher, drawn out, and flute-like.  At first glance from this description, you might peg it for a Spotted Towhee.  There are NO towhees around here and the only birds that reside in the tree lupine out there are the ubiquitous White-crowned and Song Sparrows.  Finally, on the third morning, I managed to chase it down and it turned out to be a SONG SPARROW!!  Maybe a very happy and totally 'stoned' Song Sparrow given the nearly overwhelming rich sweet fragrance of the full blooming tree lupines out there right now :-))   Anyone ever heard a Song Sparrow song like this one described?!?
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 8 (15-21May) =  83
  season cumulative = 146
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     139 - Yellow Warbler
     140 - Rock Dove (likely 'racing pigeon')
     141 - Snowy Plover
     142 - Purple Finch
     143 - Western Scrub-Jay
     144 - American White Pelican
     145 - Warbling Vireo
     146 - Elegant Tern
Saturday, 21 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions: Mostly sunny, scattered high cirrus; wind NNW 12-15kts but obviously more beyond 25X reticles (1.4nmi); sea state Beaufort 4 inshore, B-5 beyond 1.5nmi; mixed swell, NW 5-7ft and S 6-8ft (southern ocean / New Zealand storm); visibility good to 2nmi, poor in haze beyond.
Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes.
Not surprising, pretty slow out there this morning for just about everything except California Gulls and Brown PelicansPacific Loons beyond the slow trickle of one's, two's, and three's are now reduced to small sporadic packs of mostly 10-15 (largest this morning, 20) and after 0830 movements went stone dead.  Only three Brant were seen in one flyby 'string', and the largest Surf Scoter string was 14.  Otherwise, morning highlights were one adult FRANKLIN'S GULL and the season's first ELEGANT TERNS (3).  Humpback whales were all over the place this morning as they have been all this past week.
select species counted (northbound only unless otherwise indicated):
  Brant -- 3
  Surf Scoter -- 104
  Red-throated Loon -- 26 (~50/50 adult/basic or immature)
  Pacific Loon -- 759 (~40% adult, 60% basic/immature)
  Common Loon -- 22 (5 adult, rest basic/immature)
  Northern Fulmar -- 1 (medium light)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 5
  Sooty Shearwater -- 222
  Brown Pelican -- 230 (52 juv)
  Whimbrel -- 1
  Long-billed Curlew -- 1
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 5
  FRANKLIN'S GULL -- 1 (adult @ 0647hrs >N, ~500m off 'Point')
  Heermann's Gull -- 4 (immature)
  Caspian Tern -- 1
  ELEGANT TERN -- 3 (1+2=3; season first)
  Common Murre -- 134
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 13
  gray whale --1 cow/calf pair in the 'offshore' lane, ~600m >N
  humpback whale -- 16 (scattered all over the place all morning, mostly pairs)
  Risso's dolphin -- 10-15 [25X reticle 4.0 (0.8nmi) >E & surfing swells]
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident & now residing mostly on communications tower)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull (hundreds! streaming by all morning, 90+% all other than adult)
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter 
Sunday, 22 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions: Mostly cloudy (mid-level marine), haze; wind NW 20kt (start) backing off to 3-6kt after 0700, then winding back up by 0900 (12kt); seas confused choppy Beaufort 4-5 (nearshore), B5-6 beyond 1.5nmi.  Our window into the future at the buoy (San Martin), wind NW 25-30kt+ overnight and thru the morning.  Visibility good to 2nmi, marginal to poor beyond other than for albatross & whales.
Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes'.
Even slower today than yesterday.  There were no Pacific Loon packs this morning, just dribs and drabs, emphasis on the 'drab', as in immatures and in all sorts of the weird offbeat plumages.  Best bites were the two FRANKLIN'S GULLS and all the whale action.  Two separate FRANKLIN'S this morning, one nice rosy adult 300m off the 'Point' >N while another adult spent a good 45min parked on the east elephant seal beach before packing up and flying off, onward and northward to the next point stops along the way.  Tantalizing but too far, too hazy, too rough was one small 'black & white' shearwater, likely a Manx headed north.
Humpback whales were all over the place again, likely even more than yesterday, and nonstop throughout the seawatch zone.  No particular directional movement, just moving about at random, and not at all infrequently, thrusting themselves into the air.  One humpback pair occupied the very nearshore zone normally reserved for gray whale cow/calves, just 300m off the 'Point'.  Near the end of the seawatch, a single blue whale was seen rolling north along the upwelling/color line at 25X reticle 4.5 (~0.8nmi).
select species counted (northbound only unless otherwise indicated):
  Brant -- 4
  Surf Scoter -- 34
  Red-throated Loon -- 21 (~50/50 adult/basic or immature)
  Pacific Loon -- 482 (~20% adult, ~80% basic/immature)
  Common Loon -- 26 (1Ad, 1sAd, rest basic/immature)
  Black-footed Albatross -- 1 (immature)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 13
  Sooty Shearwater -- 181
    unid. small 'black & white' shearwater -- 1 (probably Manx)
  Brown Pelican -- 35 (2 juv)
  Whimbrel -- 8
  Bonaparte's Gull -- 3 (immature)
  FRANKLIN'S GULL -- 2 (adult @ 0647hrs >N, ~300m off 'Point'; 2nd adult on the beach)
  Heermann's Gull -- 2 (immature)
  Herring Gull -- 2
  Glaucous-winged Gull -- 1
  Caspian Tern -- 1 >S (probably a local)
  Common Murre -- 70
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 11
  gray whale -- ZERO
  blue whale -- 1 (>N on upwelling/color line at 25X reticle 4.5 (0.8nmi)
  humpback whale -- 15-20 (scattered all over the place all morning, mostly pairs)
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
  Peregrine Falcon (2, resident & now residing mostly on communications tower)
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull (several hundred >N, 95+% all other ages/plumages than adult)
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter 
Richard Rowlett
Point Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, CA



Last modified: 12/24/2014