Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Oct 20 (Day 293) - Seawatching, HUGE rarity news, Mom and Sonia arrive!

Today started out just like Saturday. I spent the first 4 hours of the day parked on a bench in La Jolla staring out to see. Unlike Saturday, there was next to no wind today. This made for ideal conditions in which to search for my next target bird, Cassin's auklet. This tiny alcid generally winters in the deep waters off the California coast. As you can see in the photo below, there is a deepwater, submarine canyon that comes very close to La Jolla. The auklets often feed along the edge of this canyon, and on calm days like today, some can wander close enough to shore to be seen from the perch I occupied today. These birds are basically gray with white tummies, so they are rather nondescript. They are only 9" long which makes finding them even more challenging.

You can see the underwater canyon northwest of La Jolla Shores

They look like tiny footballs with wings

I was joined this morning, like Saturday, by Stan Walens. Over the four hours from ~7am-11am, we were abel to find 6-7 Parasitic jaegers, 3 species of cormorant, Red-necked phalaropes, Surf scoters, and, quite surprisingly, 4 Brown Boobies. Boobies are much less common in La Jolla than they are further south in Imperical Beach where I saw ~20 yesterday morning. Finally at 10:45, Stan spotted a flock of ~12 Cassin's auklets skimming across the surface 1/2 a mile out. Using his directions, I was able to quickly find the flock as they buzzed past us. I could make out a dozen small, dark, compact flying things zipping along with a distinct purpose. This is about all the detail I expected to see at this distance. This sighting left much to be desired, but this bird counts for species #579 nonetheless! See "comments" section below for a more thorough discussion on the ID of this bird.

With this bird sorted out, I turned my attention to the Red phalarope that had been reported yesterday. The phalarope had been reported at the mouth of the tidal San Diego River. I was not optimistic about finding this bird today. This is because the area is tidal, and although the bird was found on yesterday afternoon's low tide, the marsh and mud flats where it was found would certainly flood on last evening's high tide. This would surely displace the bird. Who knows if it actually return to the same spot for this afternoon's high tide?!?! I had not seen any reports of the bird from the morning, but I decided to check the posts one last time before heading towards the river to start the search. This is were the day got REALLY interesting.

While the phalarope had not been reported, an incredible rarity had turned up in Mission Bay within the last hour. We'll call this bird "Q" for the moment. Q is a bird that I did not expect to see this year, and as soon as I read the post, the sprint to the spot where it was seen was on! After a fast 7 miles, I arrived at the spot. A few other birders were there already, but they had been unable to relocate the bird. Just as I arrived, another birder came running towards us to tell us the bird had just been relocated 400 yards south of where we were looking. Hustling down that way, we were on the bird in 2 minutes. Now, the my looks at the Cassin's auklet were not good. However, the looks that I had at this bird more than balanced things out. At times Q came within 5 feet of me! Needless to say I got some very nice photos. Knowing that many more people were certainly coming to see the bird, several of us tried to keep on eye on it. We were able to do this for about an hour before it flew off not to be relocated again. With the bird gone, I decided to get back to the Phalarope search. It was only a short ride to that spot. I figured I would spend the rest of the afternoon there and then meet Mom and Sonia at their hotel when they arrived. I will return to Q, just chill for a minute, a'ight?

A very efficient 31 miles today

The river mouth was teeming with shorebirds. Long-billed curlews, Marbled godwits, Black-bellied plovers, Semipalmated plovers, Snowy plovers, Dunlin, Least sandpipers, Western sandpiper, Short-billed dowitchers, and Willets, were all in the mix. Herons of various flavors were also floating around, but I was not able to find the Red Phalarope. I suspect this bird moved on once the tide came in last night. This meant I was searching for a bird that likely wasn't there, but the other shorebirds made for a nice afternoon of birding.

As I was winding down at the river, I checked the posts again to see if anything new had popped up. Nothing had, but Q had reappeared back in the spot where I saw it this morning. The overcast, flat light of the morning had since given way to gorgeous, end-of-afternoon golden light. I decided to take a second crack at Q to get better photos. This turned out to be an incredibly good idea. The bird behaved just as well if not better than the morning session. By now I am sure everyone wants to know what the hell Q is. So without too much ado, I present Q.

OK, here's a little more ado.....

.....and here's a little more.

And now, ladies and gentlemen......

I present year bird #580.

Ancient Murrelet!

This bird was inside Mission Bay, a first for the area. Evidently, maybe 1 of these is seen every 5-6 years in the San Diego area. These sightings are normally poor looks from seawatches, so this was an incredible treat for all the birders who came out to see this guy today. This bird winters in Northern California and areas north of there. I cleared out of its wintering grounds before it arrived. This is why I did not expect to see this bird this year. That one made it this far south, this early in the fall, and in this warm water year is just amazing. The only thing more amazing is how well we saw this bird! The afternoon photo session was just incredible. Here are a few shots from the morning (with flat light) just for reference.

So, here's the story for the next few days. My mom wanted to come and visit me and meet Sonia's family in LA. I was very apprehensive about being locked into a given location while she visited, but it looks as though her visit will work very well with my exit from San Diego in a few days. Sonia picked mom up at LAX, and they drove to SD to meet me this afternoon. Mom wanted to try In N Out, so we dined there this evening. I will spend the next two mornings seawatching and the next two afternoons hanging with Mom and Sonia. They get along incredibly well - almost too well. The combined calls for a haircut are getting louder by the minute! They will stay here until Thursday morning when they will head back to LA to spend a few additional days there with Sonia's family. I will at that time move out of SD and head towards the Salton Sea and points east. 

Whew, long entry. Here's a few more shots from today for you to enjoy!

Long-billed curlew

Peregrine falcon


  1. Your Cassin's Auklet description doesn't sound very convincing -- it could equally describe almost any distant alcid flock. I guess we'll have to take your word for it!

    1. Wow that was snarky and uncalled for. Way to be an ass for no reason. Great report Dorian. Haters gonna hate

  2. It could - but it doesn't. There are a very limited number of alcids that occur here. At this time of year (and this year in particular since murre numbers are down because of warm water), Cassin's is the predominant auklet seen from shore in La Jolla.

    Common murre is much bigger and has loads of white underneath. Saw several of these today for size/color reference. Very easy to ID from a great distance.

    Rhino auklet is also much bigger and rarely occurs here. Same size as a murres which at same distance looked enormous compared to the Cassin's.

    Craver's murrelet has loads of white underneath and usually travels in pairs. Ditto for Scripp's and Guadalupe murrelet. A flock of 12 of any of these would be unprecedented from shore here (or anywhere!). One individual of any of these would be very noteworthy.

    Pigeon guillemot is rare here, doesn't flock, and would be much whiter if in non-breeding plumage or show white-wing patches if (unlikely) still in breeding plumage.

    So, yes, while I would have liked a better view, I am confident that these birds were Cassin's auklets. No even remotely possible species is as small, generally dark-bodied, and numerous as Cassin's auklets are at this place at this time of year.

  3. Thanks for sharing you logic behind your call of Cassin's Auklet, I really have learned a tremendous amount from your posts this year! --adam

  4. Thanks for the expanded rationale, Dorian. FWIW the first comment was mine and it wasn't intended in a snarky way, as one reader apparently interpreted it.

  5. Even up close Cassin's Murrelets just look like small flying grey footballs.

    It sounds like you cleaned up in San Diego! There isn't really much more to find around there apart from maybe a wayward Blue-footed Booby down at the end of Seacoast Drive.

  6. How's the bike rig holding up prior to the big transit east? -Dave