Notes from the field, May 29 2011

Birds & whales -- Week 9 (5/22-28)

Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, San Luis Obispo Co., California
GRAY WHALES & other marine mammals:
It looks like the big show is pretty much over, in the can, a wrap.  Only two mom/calf gray whale pair this week, both sneaky ones early on on Mo 5/23 and Tu 5/24.  Then, on We 5/25, a strange twist when three huge cows came steamrolling through the 'pond' together, a threesome, including one of the biggest fattest cows I have ever seen.  At first glance on spotting those, I thought for sure we were back in the money and little calves would be rolling up along side.  In 100% of all previous late season sightings of such large cows over all these years, they have always had calves  Turns out this time, no; they were ALL without.  Hmm; what's that mean exactly?!?  We've seen no gray whales since, and those three large cows seemed to literally mark the end of the parade; like fire trucks at the end of a more familiar human oriented parade.  I like to think these gals were the cleanup crew and just bringing up the rear in perhaps a gray whale version of making sure "no child left behind".  Maybe they really are smarter than us :-))
The 2011 calf counting season has been a good one and our best since 2005.  Looking ahead, 2012 is looking even more promising assuming that our ice models hold up.  Unlike the past few years, Spring ice conditions in Alaska's northern Bering Sea, the Straits, and Chukchi Sea off Barrow have been heavier than normal, slow to recede, and thus we believe an untimely hindrance for gray whales to access the feeding grounds.  Pregnant cows that can't reach the primary feeding grounds to gain and/or sustain adequate nourishment in the limited summer time available simply abort.  The end results are low birth rates at the winter calving grounds of Baja California.  Now, May 2011, reports and satellite images indicate little to be no ice blocking issues and those areas around St. Lawrence Island, the Bering Straits, and the Chukchi are largely ice free and readily available to thousands of hungry gray whales to fatten up and ready themselves for the long roundtrip journey to Baja and back during which time they don't feed at all.
Spring 2012, only 10-12 more months away, and only time will tell whether our ice theory really does hold water.  We'll be here and already we can hardly wait!
gray whale calf count for week 9 (M-F, 23-27May)  =   2
gray whale calf count (cumulative season total)   =    255
gray whale (adult/juveniles) for week 9 (M-F, 23-27May) =   4
gray whale (adult/juveniles) cumulative season total     =  393
other marine mammal species this week:
  humpback whale
  Pacific white-sided dolphin
  short-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:
This will likely be the FINAL installment in this 2011 series of rather long winded weekly reports that documents coastal seabird and gray whale migration that passes Point Piedras Blancas.  Nowhere along the California coast or anywhere along the entire West Coast has such an effort been so tireless and thorough.  We will continue into the coming week (week 10), but likely only a partial just to tidy up and make sure all has come and gone and been accounted for.
Nearing the end of May, the season is winding down and most of our primary players are long gone as expected.  The Brant are all but gone save for the few northbound stragglers.  Brant sightings this week, Su-Sa were 4, 14, 47, 5, 0, 1, and 2 respectively.  Loons are still hanging in there with Pacific Loon numbers ranging from 350-750 per day with best day, 1250 on We 5/12.  Still seen but in much fewer numbers are token Red-throated and Common Loons.  Most of all these loons by now are immatures and maybe adults (subadults?) still in basic plumage.
There were three more FRANKLIN'S GULL sightings this week, two adults during the Su 5/22 morning seawatch, and one more rosy blushed adult on Tu 5/24 at 1356hrs.  Cumulatively, total Franklin's Gulls passing the 'Point' this season stands at 16, well above the season average here, and seemingly the only Franklin's reported anywhere along the West Coast this year, California to Washington.  I've been monitoring the various State and local message boards up and down the West Coast all season, particularly other popular 'seawatch' sites (Pigeon Point, CA and Boiler Bay, OR) and find no other mention of coastal Franklin's Gulls at all.
Judging from plumage and primary wear, a flyby 2nd year GLAUCOUS GULL (#5) seen Th 5/26 was believed to be different from #4 which stayed around here for nearly three weeks and last seen on 5/18.  Otherwise, it's California Gulls which dominate the longshore gull flyway.  Hundreds, some flocks to 200+, and amounting to thousands through the week have all been heading north following every little nuance of the coastline with more than 90% immature in all manner of mind boggling plumages.  Heermann's Gulls which should be increasingly numerous by now simply aren't.  None to just a single digit few go by now and then, typically quiet and inconspicuous.  There were probably less than 10 Glaucous-winged Gulls all week and only a couple Herring Gulls.
After the season's first Elegant Terns (3) seen on Sa 5/21, only two more were seen this week, a nearshore northbound pair on Tu 5/24.  ARCTIC TERNS were seen for the first time in several years with two out along the upwelling/color line on Mo 5/23.
Late season shorebirds included 5 immature Black-bellied Plovers Mo 5/23 (three separate sightings), in addition to small numbers of Whimbrels and one or two Wandering Tattlers almost daily.  True to form, I don't think I've actually seen or heard a Wandering Tattler during the daylight hours for the past three weeks as all detections have been birds heard in the calm quiet wee-early morning hours around 0330 'tu-tu-tu-ing' about along the rocks below the south facing bluff while I'm up and out waking up, having coffee, watching the stars, and pondering what I might write about next.
With but one Sanderling sighting all Spring long, and long long ago on 08 April, this week heralded a slew of sightings of usually small flocks of 5-20 whizzing quietly northbound past the 'Point'.  Origin of these particular SANDERLINGS is of curious interest since they are likely not any of those that may have wintered along the Central Coast or even points hundreds of miles south, but rather from much much further south along the coasts of central Chile and Peru.  Interestingly, these South American Sanderlings are among the latest of Spring shorebird migrants, but their time on the breeding grounds seems to be very short as well, and even as they may be the last to arrive, they are also among the first to leave the Arctic breeding grounds and head south again.  To learn more, see this interesting scientific paper:  Migration Routes of New World Sanderlings
The northbound Brown Pelican count for the week, Su-Sa was 1,658 including 408 juveniles.
There's been some major misses in this coastal seabird migration season.  Namely, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, Common Tern, and Marbled Murrelet.  I don't know what's happened to the SLO Co Marbled Murrelets.  During the 1990's, I never saw many but always saw a few almost daily, usually pairs (or one and the same pair?) flying back and forth near the 'Point' particularly at dawn and dusk.  I wonder if perhaps the Big Sur wildfire a few years ago might have compromised their nesting sites and habitat, or perhaps there is some other reason.
As for passerine migration here on the 'Point', it's simply been an epic failure.  Total misses for the first time ever in 18 years, Western Wood-Pewee, any Empidonax flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Western Tanager, plus a few others.  Even the otherwise overwhelming common warblers to the point of near annoyance everywhere else in the State, have been virtual vagrants here with but one or two Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, Yellow, and Wilson's all total for the whole season. Ditto Warbling Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullock's Oriole.  There have been a few unexpected nice finds, most notably Varied Thrush (3/31-4/01), Red-breasted Nuthatch (5/01-02 & 5/06), and BALTIMORE ORIOLE (5/14).
Spring 2011 Pt. Piedras Blancas Light Station "yard list" bird species count:
  week 9 (22-28 May) =  68
  season cumulative  = 148
New this week (in the order of the "twitch"):
     147 - Arctic Tern
     148 - Gadwall     
Saturday, 28 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)
Weather/viewing conditions: Clear sky, full sun; wind light but flexing 0-10kt mostly NNW; seas calm nearshore Beaufort 2-3, offshore 1.5nmi and beyond B4-5 (obviously wind out there), visibility good to 3nmi.  
Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes'.
Most of today's light late season action passed before 0800hrs.  Virtually all of the shearwaters disappeared after 0800 as did most of the loons.  What was left for the last hour was mostly Common Murres, California Gulls, and Brown Pelicans.
select species counted (northbound only unless otherwise indicated):
  Brant -- 2
  Surf Scoter -- 116
  Red-throated Loon -- 24 (30% adult alternate)
  Pacific Loon -- 450 (90% basic/immature)
  Common Loon -- 22 (all basic/immature)
  Pink-footed Shearwater -- 8
  Sooty Shearwater -- 1033
  Brown Pelican -- 184 (65 juv)
  Sanderling -- 5
  Red Phalarope -- 3
  Heermann's Gull -- 1 (adult non-breeding)
  Common Murre -- 205
  Rhinoceros Auklet -- 22
  gray whale -- ZERO
  Pacific white-side dolphin -- 5-8 (25X reticle 6.0 (0.6nmi)
others present but not counted:
  Western Grebe
  Double-crested Cormorant
  Brandt's Cormorant
  Pelagic Cormorant
    (Peregrine Falcon) -- nowhere to be seen this morning!
  Black Oystercatcher
  Western Gull
  California Gull (95+% immature & other than adult)
  Pigeon Guillemot
  northern elephant seal
  California sea lion
  harbor seal
  sea otter 
Sunday, 29 May 2011 -- 0600-0900hrs (3.0hrs)

Weather/viewing conditions: Clear sky, full sun, wind NW 25-30kts, seas very choppy and rough, sea state Beaufort 6 except nearshore 500m inshore of the upwelling/color line & in lee of Outer Islet (B4-5); visibility good to 2nmi (for most birds), to 4nmi for albatross & large whales.
Fujinon 25X150 'big eyes'.

This is the FINAL Sa-Su weekend seawatch and report for the 2011 Piedras Blancas season. And going out with a bang so to speak with the first really windy early morning session this entire season. No surprise, numbers were low, and movements of everything had dropped to near zero during the final hour. What loons and scoters there were, weren't giving up and still pushing north into the headwind gale. But even they gave up by 0800 with all of eight Pacific Loons and one Surf Scoter seen during the final hour. That left mostly immature California Gulls during that final hour, and like the loons, soon gave out and gave up.

All the tubenose activity (albatross & shearwaters) was all concentrated during the first hour (0600-0700) and just flat out died thereafter. Still, there was one stellar bright moment when a flock of FOUR adult LONG-TAILED JAEGERS went by heading and carried south on the tailwind at 0802 and just outside the nearshore but otherwise lifeless upwelling/color line at 25X 13 reticles (600m). The jaegers make species #149 for the season in addition to the first sighting record from the 'Point' here ever.

select species counted (northbound only unless otherwise indicated):
(Brant) -- ZERO
Surf Scoter -- 88
Red-throated Loon -- 7
Pacific Loon -- 184
Common Loon -- 10
Black-footed Albatross -- 2 (immature)
Pink-footed Shearwater -- 3
Sooty Shearwater -- 790
Brown Pelican -- 55 (32 juv)
Whimbrel -- 2
Wandering Tattler -- 1
Western Sandpiper -- 1 (late)
LONG-TAILED JAEGER -- 4 (adult >S)
Ring-billed Gull -- 1
Glaucous-winged Gull -- 1
Caspian Tern -- 1
Common Murre -- 121
Rhinoceros Auklet -- 5
cetaceans -- ZERO

others present but not counted:
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Brandt's Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Peregrine Falcon -- (male only, perched entire 3 hrs on favorite ledge Outer Islet
Black Oystercatcher
Western Gull
California Gull
Pigeon Guillemot
northern elephant seal
California sea lion
sea otter
Richard Rowlett
Point Piedras Blancas Light Station (PBLS)
San Simeon, CA

Last modified: 12/24/2014