Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More About California (October 10 and 11)

I am now in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Pharr, Texas.  On Saturday, October 18, I flew from Oakland, CA through Salt Lake City, Utah to San Antonio, Texas and drove down to the McAllen area.  On my way down Rt. 281, I noticed many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the power lines, fences and a few on dead tree branches.  About 26 miles north of Falfurrias, I decided to start counting the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (SCFL).  By the time I got to Falfurrias, I had counted 191 and estimated that I had seen at least that many before I started counting.  In one stretch before I started counting, there were about 50 SCFL sitting on the power lines on the three sections between four poles.  That amazing sight is what convinced me to try to count these SCFL!  By the time that I got to Pharr, I had counted 365 SCFL plus the190 for a total of about 555 SCFL!  This is a rare bird in Ohio where I live!

Filling in the recent past

Recall that after St. Paul and arriving in Anchorage on October 9, I took a red eye flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Los Angeles, California through Seattle with a 4.5 hour lay-over.  I got a little sleep on the flight to Seattle and my lay-over on the floor of the airport at the gate while waiting for my flight to LAX and more sleep on the flight to Los Angeles.  I arrived at LAX at 8:40 am.  My first stop was to get breakfast, my usual oatmeal, a breakfast burrito meal, orange juice and coffee at McDonalds. 

Palos Verdes Peninsula, October 10:  I headed to the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the Ocean Trails area opposite Forrestal Drive off of Palos Verdes Drive South to try for California Gnatcatcher.  There is a large amount of development in this area with destruction (aka development) of the coastal sage and scrub along the sea cliffs.  Trump National Golf Club has consumed a large amount of habitat, but provides the public access to the trails through the habitat and also public toilets.  I walked east in the direction of the remaining habitat looking for California Gnatcatcher and found at least two by going uphill along a trail and then east/south along a trail that skirts new development.  Hopefully the habitat protectors will win future battles.  It helps that a lot of local people use the trails for exercise--walking and running.  I first saw movement in the low scrub, heard a mewing call and found a California Gnatcatcher, new bird for the year, preening in the shade.  It eventually came out in the open for the photos below.  Note the buffy or light reddish brown color on the back and under-parts toward the tail, the darker head and the somewhat indistinct white eye ring and almost completely black tail except for a small amount of white on the outer tail feathers and a few white tips on the feathers on the underside of the tail.

California Gnatcatcher 
calling, sounds like a cat mewing

buffy under-parts near tail and limited white on tail feathers
While in the area, I looked for Allen's Hummingbird.  I had previously identified an Allen's Hummingbird also reported by local experts near the Chuparosa Bed and Breakfast in Madera Canyon, Arizona, where Allen's is unusual if not rare.  I wanted to supplement that identification with a sighting in known habitat. Near the public restrooms at the clubhouse of the golf course, there were two large beds of flowering lavender (purple).  There were Anna's and the smaller Allen's Hummingbirds competing for these flowers.  I managed a few photos of an Allen's Hummingbird showing the green back and the very pointed outer tail feathers (rectrices).  This is apparently an immature male due to the incomplete color on the throat and the shape of the outer retrices, which would be stiletto shaped on an adult male (Ref.  Hummingbirds by Sheri Williamson).  The shape of the tail feathers distinguishes Allen's hummingbird from the similar Rufous hummingbird, a potential migrant.  It took a while to get these photos, but it was a lot of fun watching the fights and completion between the Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds.
Allen's Hummingbird-green back

limited color on throat and pointed outer rectrix
stretching almost showing the open tail
I left Palos Verdes Peninsula and headed north toward Ventura.  I had a scheduled trip on October 11 to Santa Cruz Island with Island Packers to try for the Island Scrub-Jay and hoped to see Black-vented Shearwater on the trip across the channel to Santa Cruz Island.  On my way to Ventura, I planned to stop to look at Arnold Road near Oxnard in the sod farm fields and agricultural fields to try for a male Tricolored Blackbird.  On September 23 at Joseph D. Grant Park, I saw a female Tricolored Blackbird mixed in with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds during an earlier visit to California but wanted to see a male.  Neil Hayward had seen Tricolored Blackbird mixed in with Red-winged Blackbirds on the sod fields on Arnold Road back in July.  I arrived on Arnold Road as the sun was getting low in the sky, but I continued driving toward the end of the road to a gate to a park where there were tules and a large natural area.  The security guard was knowledgeable about birds in the area, and noted that most if not all of the Red-winged Blackbirds had left the area and that there were only a few Tricolored Blackbirds that might breed there.  While we were talking, the security guard noticed a White-tailed Kite fly in and land on the power lines.  This was a much better view of White-tailed Kite than I obtained at Joseph D. Grant Park on September 23.  See photo below.
White-tailed Kite
Happy Canyon Road, October 11:  The trip to Prisoner's Harbor, the best place to see Island Scrub-Jay, was scheduled for 12:00 pm.  There was enough time to drive to Happy Canyon Road to try for the Yellow-billed Magpie.  Yellow-billed Magpie is found only in Central California unlike its more widely distributed close relative, Black-billed Magpie, which I first saw in Colorado this year.  It was only about one hour and twenty minutes from my motel to Happy Canyon Road northeast of Santa Barbara across San Marcos Pass.  I picked up breakfast on the way and arrived at the start of Happy Canyon Road after 8:00 am.  I drove east on Happy Canyon Road through scenic vineyards and ranch country for about three miles, where I spotted three distant Yellow-billed Magpies in a field, my target new bird for the year.  I stopped there to watch them thinking that I would see them only at a distance.  However, five more showed up for a total of eight, and they came closer to the road.  Yellow-billed Magpie is a striking and beautiful bird.  See photos. 
Yellow-billed Magpies
These are crow-sized birds or larger with the long tail.  They are fun to watch as they walk and hop about on the ground, but are more striking and beautiful at close range.
I got my breakfast acorn.  See you later guys!
I decided to leave the area, because I was not getting really close photos of the magpies sitting or on the ground.  I drove down the road to a ranch house to turn around.  As I neared the drive way, three Yellow-billed Magpies flew across the road and landed very close.  Therefore, I stayed to try for some closer photos.
At about 9:30 am, I left Happy Valley Road happy that I had found the Yellow-billed Magpie and headed back to Ventura to meet the Island Packers trip to Santa Cruz Island.
Jay Gets a Jay (Distant Relative?), Island Packers to Prisoners Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, October 11:  The Island Packer boat was not very full for the trip to Santa Cruz Island.  Later we were told that another island Packer boat was at Prisoners Harbor with a large group of elementary school children.  In spite of the government shut-down, we were fortunate to be able to go to Prisoners Harbor, the best place to see the Island Scrub-Jay.  I sat next to a birding couple from Colorado, and we enjoyed this Peregrine Falcon in the harbor sitting on the mast of a nearby boat.

Peregrine Falcon
As we exited the harbor, we stopped to see a brown Booby on the channel marker at the end of the jetty, which was uncooperative for photos because it was preening.  See photo below.
uncooperative Brown Booby, brown bird in center
 The California Sea Lions on the buoy were more cooperative.
California Sea Lions
Several of the 19 oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara area came into view.
As we crossed the channel to Santa Cruz Island, I started seeing small shearwaters that were Black-vented Shearwaters.  The boat stopped to investigate a large feeding flock of Black-vented Shearwaters, Brown Pelicans, Western Gulls  with a few California and Heerman's Gulls.  There were also Common Dolphins and at least one Pink-footed Shearwater.  
Common Dolphins approaching the boat
I got busy at the front of the boat getting photos and checking off all the field marks of Black-vented Shearwater, small size and more rapid wing beats relative to Pink-footed Shearwater, smeary brown on face without a crisp demarcation to the white throat and under-parts and dark under-tail coverts, thus its name.  Black-vented Shearwater is a new bird for the year.  
Black-vented Shearwater
Black-vented Shearwater is closely related to Manx Shearwater, more common on the Atlantic Ocean and rare in California waters on the Pacific Ocean.  Manx Shearwater is more white on the under-parts and under the wings, has white under-tail coverts and has a sharper demarcation between the brown on the face and the white throat and under-parts.    The photo below of Black-vented Shearwater shows the additional plumage details used to separate this Black-vented Shearwater from Manx Shearwater. 
dark diagonal mark and relatively wide dark flight feathers on under-wing

dark vent/under tail coverts 
As we approached Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island came into view.  This island has the largest colony of Western Gulls in the world.

When we arrived at Prisoners Harbor and debarked, I noticed something different.  The corral was on the left in the past when I visited to see Island Scrub-Jay for the first time in 2005.  Now the corral is on the right side.  During the introductory comments, our guide indicated that the corral had been moved to develop a wetland.  I thought that I was confused!

My first encounter at Prisoners Harbor was with the Santa Cruz Island Fox.   Each channel island has a separate subspecies of fox, which are descendants of the Gray Fox that colonized the Channel Islands approximately 10,000 years ago.  Unlike the Gray Fox, these small cat sized foxes are relatively diurnal (active during the day) and relatively tame.   

Santa Cruz Island Fox
Hey, let me out of here!  (corral fence)
Free again!
I found two Lewis's Woodpeckers in a dead snag near the dock.  These are unexpected and are migrants through this area.  However, they are great new birds for me for the year, and will save me time later by eliminating a chase to find this bird.  Lewis's Woodpecker has a dark back with a greenish sheen in bright sunlight, a light colored collar, red face and pink breast and belly.  I managed to capture these field marks in these long distant photos. 
Lewis's Woodpeckers, greenish sheen, light collar
Lewis's Woodpeckers, pink breast and belly
These Lewis's Woodpeckers were hawking for insects, which is impressive, because their wing span is as large as a crow.

And finally, the object of my visit, my distant relative ( :>) :>) ), the Island Scrub-Jay (which I previously mistakenly called Island Jay).  No jay is an island, but this one lives only on an island.  The Island Scrub-Jay is endemic to Santa Cruz Island and is closely related to the coastal population of Western Scrub-Jay.  The Island Scrub-Jay is larger, more brightly colored, especially the blue, and has a larger, thicker bill, related to eating the thick-shelled acorns of the Island Oak.  A New Jersey birder found the first Island Scrub-Jay, number 700 for the ABA area.  The Island Scrub-Jays are noisy but relatively secretive and did not come close for photos.  I managed a few long distant photos shown below.
Island Scrub-Jay, stout bill, bright blue 

Soon it was time to say good bye to Santa Cruz Island.

Leaving Santa Cruz Island

As of October 11, 2013, California Gnatcatcher, Yellow-billed Magpie, Black-vented Shearwater, Lewis's Woodpecker, and Island Scrub-Jay raise the total to 678 plus 2 provisional species. 


  1. Great post Jay! I love the photos - especially the Magpie in flight. The primaries really are spectacular.

    Glad you were happy in Happy Canyon Road!

    - Neil

  2. Hi Jay: Looks like you are on a roll. I am sure 700 is a gimme now; ( no jinx intended ). Keep an eye on the Barnacle Geese/Pink footed goose/Yellow legged Gull being reported now in Nova Scotia/NFLD. now. The first two will probably show up in the American N.E. before too long, but it is always good to have a back-up.
    Keep having fun. Thor

    Thor Manson
    Gallagher Lake/Oliver, B.C.