Pelagic Birding In San Diego

Hey, do you notice anything different?  We've changed from blogger to word press for blogging software.  All the   are there and hopefully in the next few weeks as I get used to this we'll be able to organize things so you can find answers to bird questions easier. If you think of a category that would be useful, let me know and I'll talk to my trusty web master, Non Birding Bill.


So, I'm going to test out this bad boy with a blog entry from the San Diego Bird Festival.  One of the field trips I was super excited about was a pelagic trip to the Cornado Islands to watch seabirds.  I really enjoy any bird trip by boat--a day in a boat is automatically an adventure.  I must say that this is was one of the smoothest pelagic trips I've ever been on.  The seas were calm and the weather started chilly, but I was down to a t-shirt by the afternoon.  I don't think anyone got remotely ill and we would have been fine without any Bonine.


It was a different set of gulls following the chum off the back of the boat on this trip compared to what we saw on the pelagic trip in Florida.  One of my favorites was that dark gull with the white head--a Heerman's gull.  Actually, the others are Heerman's too, just immature birds.


There were several birds I was hoping to get.  Some I had seen before like the sooty shearwater above, but there were several new birds for me including Xantus's murrelet, black-vented shearwater, rhinoceros auklet and Cassin's auklet.  You might think that getting these new birds are pretty darned easy out on the open water, but looking for dark birds about the size of a nerf football, is a bit tricky.  I've always chuckled about birders say when pointing out birds:

"It's there in that tree," they shout while point to a woods.

Well, it's not much better on the ocean.  You can try the clock, "The murrelet is at about 1 o'clock, about 200 meters out."

I'm not very good with meters and yards, I struggled.  But fortunately, we had some excellent guides on the boat and the captain even made sure to pass as smoothly as possible so as not to spook birds.

steve-howellSpeaking of guides, did I mention that Steve Howell was one of our guides?  Steve has been part of some the largest and most hardcore books out there including illustrations for Pyle books and he co-authored A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America--a hefty book that rivals Sibley in weight and is considered a dangerous weapon in some states.

My first brown boobie!

The most exciting new bird for me  on the trip was a brown booby.  I have been waiting over thirty years to see one of these things, ever since I read about them as a kid and discovered there birds with dirty names.  Plus, they are just a cool looking bird anyway.

Brown boobies, juvenile and adult

I can't really bring a scope on a boat trip, but I did try to get shots by hold my camera to my binoculars.  They are not the best photos on the planet, but they make good souveniers for my lifer boobies.


We had some fun mammal action on the trip too, there were many sealions...


This one came right up to our boat just as we were docking.  It apparently has some eye problems and gets a few handouts by many locals.  It was swam up to the ship and when fish was not tossed to it immediately, went looking for more generous humans.

dolphinOne of the craziest things we saw was a pod of dolphins on the move.  There looked to be between 150 - 200 hundred, close the surface of the water.  They were moving fast and jumping out of the water.  The moved quickly and our boat followed them a bit.  I don't know if they were migrating or what, but was amazing to see so many dolphins on the move.  Other maring mammals observed included Risso's dolphin and gray whale.

Okay, now let's see how this entry posts in the new blog.

Ghost Bird Movie

I've kind of hesitated blogging this for a few reasons. One being that whenever the ivory-billed woodpecker is mentioned in a blog post (mine or other blogs), it brings out arguments. You can't even bring it up without someone launching into some off beat augment, sometimes it isn't even about whether the bird is alive or not and I just don't like dealing with that. The other thing is that I'm kind of torn on the whole movie. I like all the people involved and I worry no matter what I blog about, someone involved is not going to like it.

However, I just got an email notice that there is a new Bird Watch Radio podcast and it features The Ghost Bird Movie. I look forward to listening to it.

So, here it goes.

Sometimes I have moments when I ask myself, "How the heck did I end up here?" Above is one of those moments. This is a picture I took during the San Diego Bird Festival when there was a preview screening of the Ghost Bird movie. Afterwards there was a panel discussion with David Sibley (dude with the mic), Scott Crocker, the filmmaker (the dude in the middle) and a surprise appearance by Dr. Jerry Jackson (who said I could call him Jerry and who also made a surprise appearance to the screening on his 25th wedding anniversary). I found myself bleary eyed after a day of field trips and watching a documentary about the search for the ivory-bill standing in front of a crowd of people. The three other men were involved with the film, I was just involved with the search. At first I felt strange and out of place (and really wished in my fatigue that we were sitting instead of standing--at Sci Fi Convention panels, you get to sit).

When the panel started, in my sleep deprived state, I had to get a photo--how did I end up on a panel with Sibley and Jackson--weirdsville.

The movie is interesting (definitely watch for it in Netflix or better yet, try to get a showing at your bird club). Basically it chronicles the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the boom that happened in Brinkley, AR, the skepticism that soon followed, and then the let down in Brinkley since. It also breaks down how Sibley, Jackson and ornithologist Richard Prum came to the conclusion that the physical evidence for the ivory-billed woodpecker is not reliable and how the woodpecker's rise and fall of fame, mirrors that of Brinkley, AR. And the film brings up good questions like was money funnelled from other bird research projects to go to the ivory-billed woodpecker at the expense of other species like Kirtland's warblers?

Several things occurred to me during the film. When residents of Brinkley were interviewed and talking about changes to the town and all the merchandising that came about, audience members were laughing. I felt really bad, it seemed it was more "Oh look at those wacky southerners who don't get birds." I think had I not known some of the people personally, I would have been laughing with the the rest of the audience. Perhaps the people interviewed are laughing right along with the audience, but sitting there in the dark, I just felt weird.

It was noticeable was that Cornell Lab or Ornithology was not part of the project. The only time you saw John Fitzpatrick (head of Cornell) or Bobby Harrison and Tim Gallagher (dudes who rediscovered it) was in segments from news conferences and 60 Minutes. As mentioned earlier, Cornell declined interviews.

There was some interesting editing in the film. One that made me chuckle was towards the end. A rather colorful Brinkley resident says something to the effect that he hopes they didn't make up the sighting to get a big pile of money. As he says this, the film cuts to Fitzpatrick, Harrison, and Gallagher leaning in during a press conference and smiling. It's edited in slow motion, not unlike what you would see on a tabloid tv program.

But what struck me most, was that the ivory-billed woodpecker is really important to birders and not so much to the rest of the world. It struck me when they started talking about the skepticism on the Internet about the ivory-bill. They interviewed the guy who used to have the ivory-bill skeptic blog (which has now moved on to other topics). He said in the film that he gets as many as 300 hits a day. Now, 300 hits a day is a drop in the bucket compared to my blog. And if you compare my blog with popular mainstream blogs like Mr. Neil or Dooce or Cute Overload, well that's an even tinier drop in an even bigger bucket. The mainstream really didn't care about the ivory-billed woodpecker nearly as much as a handful of hardcore birders. It kind of weirds me out sometimes to realize that birding might not be as popular as I would like it to be.

The panel was interesting as audience members asked questions. Most noticeable was someone from Cornell who happened to be at the San Diego Bird Festival with a booth was in the audience. The film was shown as a last minute addition to the festival and I got the sense that Cornell was a little blindsided by the showing. The Cornell rep said that they felt it was unfair to say that the filmmaker couldn't get people from the Lab to participate, but Crocker said that he had interviews lined up and after speaking with a rep from the lab, all the interviews cancelled.

I could see how that would happen. When I was part of the ivory-bill search, I pretty much had to sign an agreement that any photos I took or writings about my experience on the search team would end up property of Cornell Lab. At the time, I figured it was worth it for the adventure. However, I know people who didn't go on the Cornell search because of that nasty little ownership issue. There are several agencies involved with the ivory-bill search: Cornell, The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife--when you have that many big players involved with one species, everyone has to be extra careful, so I could see how with the lack of concrete ivory-bill proof, Cornell might want to step away from this documentary.

When the panel wrapped up, I watched in fascination as someone approached Jackson and asked if he had received the notes on their ivory-bill sighting. The person named the date (they saw it last year) right off the bridge over the Cache River. The tone seemed to suggest that the dared Jackson to disagree with their sighting. He was so smooth and so gracious in the interaction. You could tell he had experienced this moment several times before. He non committaly acknowledged the sighting and then said flat out, that with out photographic proof or him being there next to the person at the time of the sighting, it's difficult to prove. It was impressive.

So, those are my thoughts about the documentary. It's worth a look.

Although, I would really appreciate it if someone could get some shots of the Cache River or Brinkley, AR in spring or summer, I'd be curious to know what that place looks like when there are leaves on the trees.

Birdchick, Dr. Jerome Jackson, Scott Crocker, David Sibley.

Common Western Birds Seen At The San Diego Bird Festival

I thought I had planned my bird festivals so well this winter. Florida and San Diego--what better places could a Minnesota girl go to in January and March? Alas, both were a bit chillier than I expected. Florida had a record setting cold snap. And well, San Diego was still really warm at 50 degrees compared to where I live, but not shorts weather. Part of it was that I did many field trips where it's expect to be chilly, like on a boat or in the mountains.

While on the woodpecker trip for the San Diego Bird Festival in the mountains we looked through my scope, we could see the top of the mountain was covered in frost. Glad we weren't going to the top. It was pleasantly chilly enough where we were. I have to say, I had some of the best field trip grub ever at this festival. The best part was all the Laughing Cow Babybel Cheese. Nothing like enjoying great birds in the mountain and eating cheese.

I'm so excited! I found another photo of a Brewer's blackbird that I forgot I took in my iPhoto stash. He's so pretty, shining in all his iridescent glory of the full sun. This bird was part of a flock hanging out at a picnic area. I got to feed them as I tossed bits of my sandwich to the flock. Ah, one person's trash bird is another birder's treasure.

Another bird I was excited to spend time with was the western bluebird. We get tons of eastern bluebirds where I live and westerns are different because their rufous coloration extends to their backs. Eastern bluebirds just have the sky blue down their backs. I was happy to find a male western bluebird that wouldn't turn around and just show me his back.

Check out this super cute dark-eyed junco (the western version sometimes known as Oregon junco). They were flitting around all over the ground and this one paused to get a sip from a small puddle of water. It's the same species as the dark-eyed junco I see here, just a different color. Dark-eyed juncos used to be divided into five different species, a few years ago, this would have been a countable bird, but now the five are lumped into one. I wonder how long until they are divided again?

There were some common birds for me that others on the field trip where excited to see, like this male purple finch. He's beautiful, but he was a lifer for several people on my field trip. And we had to work to see this dude. I'm used to peering out at the feeders at Mr. Neil's and there they are. This one was singing at the top of a tree and it took some time to find the right angle for folks to see him. I giggled at working so hard for a feeder bird. He was singing his territory song, and I managed to get a video of him singing:

Such a pretty song and it's lovely to hear territory song after a long winter.

Anna's hummingbirds were all over the place and we found a female who appeared to be incubating eggs on a nest. She must be well habituated to humans. This nest was at about my eye level in a bush. The bush was in the corner of a "V" where two well travelled paths intersected and people walked by unaware as we watched.

We saw quite a few red-tailed hawks. Many were grabbing thermals and starting to do pair bonding activities. In Minnesota, these guys are setting up territory now. Females should be laying eggs soon. The red-tails in San Diego looked like they were on about the same schedules.

We did see some mammals out on the trip. This was a ground squirrel watching the birders as we were watching the birds. Something about his posture made it look like he was plotting our demise.

The Woodpecker Field Trip At San Diego Bird Festival

Don't forget that this Thursday at 6pm at Merlin's Rest is a Birds and Beers (Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders to sit down, have a beverage, and talk some birds). If you are remotely interested in birds, from the hardcore lister to the backyard birder to someone who saw a bird once, this group is for you.

I was really excited to do the Woodpecker Field Trip at the San Diego Bird Festival. I was hoping to see some new species like white-headed woodpecker or Lewis's woodpecker. I got skunked on both but had a fabulous time--that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise when birding. Ah well, another bird for another day. I did have a great time with all of the acorn woodpeckers and several other species.

We had a great moment with a western variety of northern flicker (this is a red-shafted variety). Where I live, we get the yellow-shafted version of this species. The red-shafted version of the northern flicker is different, the shafts of wing feathers are red and the males have a red moustache and not a black moustache. Note the above male. Now, here is a photo of the yellow-shafted that I'm used to. See the difference?

We had paused for a break in the trail and could hear this bird in the distance. We played its call once and it flew in and immediately flew in and started to drum on the trunk to announce territory. I got a video of it:

What amazes me most is how little movement the flicker appears to be making and still manages to create quite a sound. The birds look for a good, resonant tree but still the sound is remarkable.

We had a spectacular time, the view was beautiful up in the mountains surrounded by burnt trees. One of the field trip leaders was Steve Shunk head of Paradise Birding. He's got a woodpecker festival going this June in Oregon and says that he could easily get me white-headed woodpecker there...was that his plan? Maybe he was keeping the white-headeds away on this trip, so I'd have to go to Oregon in June? Doubtful, since I've never met a man so gung-ho on woodpeckers...ever. Seriously, this guy needs to be seen to be believed. I have never seen a grown man get so excited over seeing a downy woodpecker, as Steve Shunk.

I did get one new woodpecker species and that was a Nuttall's woodpecker. This is such a cool woodpecker at least the one I was was watching. She was gleaning insects off of the leaves. They do peck like other woodpeckers, but some do go for the bugs crawling on the foliage. I got a video of her foraging. In the background, you'll hear Steve talking about a sapsucker, he's not talking about the Nuttall's--you can hear his excitement (that's the same excitement he would have for a downy woodpecker), he was on the trail of an odd looking sapsucker:

Did you hear Steve's excitement?

The Woody Woodpecker Controversy

While at the San Diego Bird Festival, I got to enjoy one of my favorite bird species--the acorn woodpecker (this is a female above, she's just as handsome as the male). I love this species, the first time I ever saw one was years ago in San Francisco. They look like they are about to tell you joke at any moment. Actually, they look like Groucho Marx to me. I think she needs a cigar and say things like, "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

This species lives in family groups and one of the interesting this is that the group will select one tree for food storage. This tree is called a granary tree. They drill a hole and put an acorn into that hole.

Actually, they drill LOTS of holes. One granary tree may have up to 50,000 holes in it. The woodpeckers fill the tree in the autumn when acorns or plentiful and feed off of their cache through the winter. The tree we saw during the festival was very empty since it's practically spring in San Diego. But acorn woodpeckers may not be fun for everybody, especially if they choose a house as their granary tree.

While I was enjoying the great birds at San Diego, a whole woodpecker discussion started on a hardcore birding listserv called ID Frontiers. This is not the type of listserv where you email a blurry photo of a house sparrow and ask what it is. This is the type of listserv where you discuss gulls for days on end and the differences in their primary projection and whether or not the gull in question is just an aberrant herring gull or some hybrid no one has ever imagined before.

Well, a more light hearted discussion start came up: What species is Woody Woodpecker? As a kid, I always thought he was an ivory-billed woodpecker. Okay, the ivory-bill isn't blue and Woody's white patches don't match up, but you can't argue with Woody's size, his crest and his light colored bill. When I worked at a wild bird store and we had to listen to bird identification CDs all day, I heard an acorn woodpecker call and it gave the "Ha ha ha HAAA ha" call. I realized that sounded a little familiar. Here's an example that you can hear over at Xeno Canto. Can you kind of hear it the laugh sound. From then on I figured that Woody was a hybrid between an acorn and an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Well, I guess NPR's "All Things Considered" program referenced Woody Woodpecker in a story recently about acorn woodpeckers damaging houses in California and said that acorn woodpeckers were the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker. My favorite blogger and frequent contributor to All Things Considered, Julie Zickefoose sent a note that Woody was in fact a pileated woodpecker.

ID Frontiers went nuts over this.

Kimball L. Garrett, the Ornithology Collections Manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County started it by stating that Walter Lantz (the creator of Woody Woodpecker) personally gave him a copy of his biography published in 1985 and that it reads that Woody Woodpecker was inspired by acorn woodpeckers seen during his honeymoon in 1940. Apparently, Lantz's new bride suggested he should turn the woodpeckers into a character.

So, then Julie had to give an on air mia culpa, which you can listen to or read here. So, case closed, Woody is an acorn woodpecker, you heard it on NPR. Right?

But not so fast. Leave it to the wonderous Alvaro Jaramillo (the guy who can truly make watching and identifying gulls seem like fun) to find the video/photographic proof as to Woody's identity--proof so dramatic that David Luneau would weep. Alvaro said, "There is a Woody Woodpecker episode where someone is trying to hunt down “Campephilus principalis” and Woody looks him up in a book, and there he finds a picture of himself. I remember seeing that when I was a kid."

And just to go that extra mile, Alvaro found the proof. "Episode is from 1964, called “Dumb like a Fox.” Here is the magic screen capture. The story is that the museum will pay $25 for one Campephilus principalis."

And if you're not down with your latin names, Campephilus principalis is also known as ivory-billed woodpecker.

So, there you have it. Proof of Woody Woodpecker's ID and proof that even the most hardcore birders can have a sense of humor. And now I leave with a video of a male acorn woodpecker looking for food:

Birds Around San Diego Bird Fest

One of the cool things for me, being a Midwestern girl is that when I go to the coasts, just walking out the door of my hotel room brings exciting birds for me like the young Heerman's gull (it was foraging on the lawn and pandering for a handout). Have you ever seen an adult Heerman's gull? Check out this link, it's a pretty classy lookin' bird.

Okay, mallards are not the most exciting bird on the planet but I did think it was funny that a pair was hanging out at the heated pool at night--yes the pool was heated, it did get down to 40 degrees at night. This male must have quite the line going with the hens, "Hey, baby, I know a place we can relax. It's fenced, far from predators, we can get some snacks, and nothing but class all the way."

Okay, this I thought was very cool. At first, "I though, are those cell phone receivers tacked onto palm trees?" Then I realized that the trunks were wide and realized that they were fake palm trees. Cell phone towers disguised to blend in with the landscape--and no guy wires to kill birds. Check it out, there a bird perched on top of one of the trees.

Thanks to the magic of digiscoping, we can see that it's a Cassin's kingbird. That must be a great place to watch for insects.

My buddy Clay chuckled when I got a photo of a Brewer's blackbird. "You can tell those Easterners gettin' a photo of a Brewer's blackbird." What can I say, it's different.

Black skimmers were roosting in the afternoon on a beach near the convention center where the San Diego Bird Festival was held at Mission Bay.

A pleasant surprise for me was seeing brant swimming around near shore. This is one of those birds I could never see, but once I finally saw them, I see them everywhere now. They were on their northward migration.

Willets were all over. I took this photo off the San Diego river, it was foraging and when another willet walked nearby, it stopped feeding and then sat down and was still until the other willet passed. Was this some sort of submissive behavior?

There are also the numerous brown pelicans, anyone can get an award winning shot...

So why not get a shot where they look really goofy and not unlike that rarely remembered Showbiz Pizza Place character, Uncle Klunk.

San Diego Digiscoping

Back to more fun at the San Diego Bird Festival! Last time I talked about all the wood duck action at Santee Lakes. I did get quite a few photos of wood ducks, but the main bird species seen at Santee Lakes (and my hotel) was the American coot. While we were at Santee, families came to "feed the ducks." I thought about pointing out that they were actualely "feeding the rails" but abstained. The coots get an odd diet of bread and I even watched a kid toss them some gummy bears. Perhaps gummy bears are kind of like the aquatic insects and animals they are supposed to eat?

Santee Lakes is a beautiful little chain of lakes. The palm trees were a welcome site to this Minnesota girl. The San Diego Bird Festival originally was held in January. Last year they were kicking around the idea of moving to March. Someone asked, "Who wants to come to California in March, when it's practically spring?" I added my two cents worth by saying in my area of the US, it's still very much winter in March--and it is. As I type this, it's five degrees in Minnesota.

A treat for me was being able to watch ring-necked ducks up close and not freezing my tail off! Some readers of this blog may remember a series of photos I put in the blog last year from my buddy Clay Taylor of a ring-necked duck trying to swallow a snail. Clay got that footage here at Santee Lakes.


We were so close, we could kind of see the ring around the neck for which the duck was named...again, those wacky ornithologists naming a bird for a hard to see feature and some something obvious like ring-billed duck.

Keeping with the theme of ultra-mellow birds, our group found a rather easy going pied-billed grebe. In many places, you so much as make one furtive sidelong glance and they dive. Not this grebe, it went as far as to go into a ten minute preening session.

Then came the stare down. It was fun and I never really noticed the black chin on a pied-billed grebe before.

There were some ruddy ducks out on the lakes too--but they were much more camera shy, or just tired. Many of the males with the bluest bills were more interested in sleeping and preening. I started to video a male as he was swimming around and towards the end of it, he started doing his mating dance--he raises his tail and two little tufts on his head. He creates some bubbles underneath his body and then slaps his bill against his chest several times while making To attract a female the male swims around her, his tail tilted forward and neck outstretched. He then slaps his chestnut-colored chest with his bright blue bill while making his courtship call. The video didn't capture the call, but you can hear it at Xeno-canto. Here's the video:

The park is used by several members of the public, it's not a quiet park, but there's room for everybody from birders, duck feeders and people who like to go fishing. As we were working the lakes for digiscoping, there was a guy who was fishing--his line even got stuck in the tree and Clay helped him get it out. But we birders must have out stayed our welcome because he started to complain about us. I heard him behind me mutter to his friend, "I think watching birds is stupid, you can just go to the pet store and buy them. Why don't these people go and just buy some birds and leave us alone."

Irritated that he was complaining about us, even after Clay had helped him, I started to defend our group by saying, "You can't buy these birds in a pet store."

And he retorted, "Yes you can, bird watching is stupid."

I turned to look at him and he was not facing me.

But based on what I saw, I chose not to engage any further with a man whose butt was hanging out of his trousers. Perhaps he is not the world's authority on whether or not bird watching is stupid.

I was grateful when a western scrub-jay popped up as a nice cleansing bird.

San Diego Wood Ducks

Well, the San Diego Bird Festival put on by the San Diego Audubon Society has wound down to a a close and it was an action packed festival from workshops, to games to, movie sneak preview to even David Sibley himself. One of the field trips I went on was with my buddy Clay and it was in depth digiscoping. He did a class (above) and the next day he took a group out for field trip that was geared to getting shots of birds in great light. I must admit, it was a refreshing change for me, to just be able to go on a field trip and really take time with birds, not just go out and tick off as many species as possible. We went to Santee Lakes for part of it and I was going over my photos, I noticed I had several shots of wood ducks!

The wood ducks were used to people coming around to feed them. As I was standing on a bridge looking out at the waterfowl, this male wood duck swam up and gave me an expectant look. I didn't even need to use the digiscoping equipment, he was too close. He stared momentarily and when I failed to produce anything remotely resembling food, he moved on looking for accommodating human.

Everyone in our group found a drowsy adult male wood duck on which to practice their digiscoping mojo. Another case of a bird behaving differently in another state. Wood ducks in Minnesota are rather cagey, but have a friendlier attitude in sunny San Diego.

As we were taking his photo, he suddenly perked up. You can't see in the photo, but not too far in front of him, a pair of wood ducks is waddling by. He started doing his wood duck whistle. As the pair continued without paying him too much mind, he started to settle back down on one foot, but still continued to whistle. I took a video. You'll hear Clay talking in the background as well as a great-tailed grackle:

Did you catch the size of that great-tailed grackle walking behind the wood duck?

I think this is my favorite of all of them. I love head-on shots of birds. More San Diego Bird Fest fun (and Guatemala) is on the way.