Saturday, September 20, 2014

Big Sigh of Relief

I'm finally home from California. That is one reason to be relieved. I was away for too long in Sept with 2 trips to the west coast. The other reason to be relieved is that the ENTIRE time that I was in California, there was a mega rare bird in Cape May that I was getting hourly text reports about. This is the kind of thing that puts my stomach in knots. What if the bird leaves before I get back? Aaarrrrgggghhhhh.

Good news. The bird didn't leave. I got off of the plane last night at 5 PM, spent the night at home for the first time in 9 days, then got up and left the house at 5 AM to go to Cape May. I wasn't the only one there at sunrise. There were lots of people standing on the beach - including an entire family that drove down from Connecticut just to see this bird.  There was a nerve wracking hour spent looking at the normal birds but not seeing the rare one - and then I saw it land on the beach. I pointed it out to the crowd and everyone was happy. My stomach stopped hurting. There were ooohs and aaaahs. Here it is in the center of the photo - Whiskered Tern. You are probably not impressed.

Terns - Cape May Beach
No, it doesn't have whiskers. In fact, I have more whiskers than than this tern has feathers. Not sure why they call it Whiskered. I picked it out of the crowd by its dark belly. There are actually 4 different tern species in that photo - Common, Forster's, Royal and Whikered along with a few Laughing Gulls.

The tern lifted off and there were morel oooohs and aaaaahs. It flew right at us!

Whiskered Tern
You can see the gray belly on the bird in this shot.

Whiskered Tern
This bird is REALLY off course. They breed in Europe and Asia and winter in Africa, Java and Australia. No where near Cape May. This bird is so rare that there are articles in the newspapers about it. People are making videos of the bird flying around the beach. Whew. It didn't leave. I saw it. It was lovely. Now, I can get back to the regular bird obsession!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

From Desert to Mountains

I have to tell you that the mountains outside of Los Angeles are way nicer than the desert. The air is cooler and clear since you are above the smog. I drove up early on Sunday morning. The day started out on a down note. I had to stop for gas. Got off of the freeway and had to go to 2 gas stations before finding one that was open at 5:30 AM. Tried to use my credit card and had it denied because the credit card company saw that I was trying to use it at 5:30 AM in LA. Then couldn't get back on the freeway due to road closure. Finally got up to the mountains which requires a harrowing drive up a winding road with motorcyclists whizzing past me at high speed. The scenery is breath taking.

Got to my desired location. Found my target bird. Pulled out the camera and . . . nothing. The battery was completely dead! AAARRRGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

I got to the Visitor's Center and saw a few birders heading out of the parking lot. I hailed them down for some info and found out that they were part of Pasadena Audubon doing their monthly filed trip. The leader has the same camera as I do so I boldly asked if he had a spare battery that I could borrow while I was birding with the group. What a great guy! I still have the battery. He is a trusting sole and kept my battery in return for the charged one. Yay. Otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten these photos including this excellent shot of White-headed Woodpecker taking a drink at the Visitor Center.

White-headed Woodpecker
Or this shot of Pygmy Nuthatch.

Pygmy Nuthatch
 Or Oak Titmouse.

Oak Titmouse
Or any of the other birds that I saw like this Black-headed Grosbeak.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Or these GIANT pine cones.

Coulter's Pine Cone

Giant pine cone

Or this Black Bear that rambled past me at Mt. Wilson Observatory!

Black Bear
Thanks Hill - where ever you are!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Back to California

After a brief return home from San Diego, I packed my bags and headed right back. This time it was a working trip. We worked in San Diego on Friday and then headed to LA for another session on Monday. That left the weekend for sightseeing and birding. My coworker Sam and I decided to rent a car and drive to LA so that we could do some sightseeing. The guy at the car rental told us that we needed to go swimming after a hard day at work. The water in Southern California is unusually warm right now so we took his advice and headed to the beach. Our first stop was Kohl's department store to buy swimsuits. Our next stop was La Jolla Cove - a ritzy beach village with high end art galleries and fancy cars. Here is the beach.

LaJolla Cove Beach
There were plenty of people there swimming in the surf. Others were swimming long distance across the cove. A few were snorkeling to see the bright orange Garabaldi fish that were swimming around. And we were all swimming with these guys!

California Sea Lions
They were swimming right with the people and lounging on the beach right along side of us. Here is a photo of a beached whale and sea lions. They didn't seem to mind people getting really close.

Beached Whale
I made Sam get up super early on Saturday so that we could spend the day driving to Joshua Tree National Park which is in the desert. Not much wildlife out there - mostly landscape stuff. These giant smooth rocks only appear in certain places in the desert. That's Sam standing on top.

These unusual bushes also show up in certain places, but not everywhere.

This in an actual Joshue Tree.
Joshua Tree
I ditched Sam on Sunday. Rather he ditched me so that he could hang out with friends and people his own age. More about that next time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

More Pacific Pelagic Stories

I guess I should have started out with a better description and visual of the trip. Here is a map that might help you see where we went. The RED circle is where we went at the Salton Sea. The PURPLE lines with arrows are where we were during the day and the GRAY lines with arrows are where the boat went at night. The furthest we went off the coast was 225 miles. You can see that we were north of Los Angeles at one point and it looks like we were in Mexico on the last night.

Searcher Pelagic Map
Oh, and I should have shown you a photo of the boat.The Searcher is 40 years old, 95 feet long and 24 feet wide. It's heavy and slow. It has 12 cabins below deck, a dining room, kitchen, 4 bathrooms (2 have showers), and an upper deck for viewing birds which is where Barbara and I spent most of our days.

Bird highlights of the trip for me were the Black-footed Albatross. These birds are born on Midway Atoll - think battle of Midway, middle of the Pacific - and wander the ocean for years until they are old enough to breed and head back to Midway. They show up off of the California coast on a regular basis so the crew isn't surprised when they see one. Still, it made my heart skip a beat when someone yelled "ALBATROSS!" and I saw this heading up the wake of the boat.

Black-footed Albatross
This bird was probably born in April and already has a 7 foot wingspan! It is formidable right up until you see one try to land. Then, all majesty goes right out the window. They throw themselves into a tail spin, stretch out . . .

Black-footed Albatross

And come in for a landing with their black feet splayed out. Sometimes they trip themselves and go head first into the waves. What a riot.

Black-footed Albatross
We was at least 5 of them over the course of the trip. On the last day, 4 showed up and sat together. What a great scene.

One of the other fan favorites on the trip was the Red-billed Tropicbird. They kind of look like terns but they are different. Somehow more exotic. I think it has to do with the long tail streamers.

Red-billed Tropicbird
 At one point, this bird hovered directly over the boat and really put on a show.

Red-billed Tropicbird
Another one of the best birds on the trip for me was Sabine's Gull. I used to page through my field guide and wonder how anyone could tell one seagull from another. But I knew that the one gull that I could pick out would be Sabine's Gull. They are pretty rare in our area. I flipped when a few showed up behind the boat and flipped out when none of the photos turned out very good. Ugh. Look at the wing pattern on this gull. And the yellow tip on the bill.

Sabine's Gull
So, to wrap it up - the trip was a great success. Great birds, great sea creatures, great adventure and great friends to share it with.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Deep Blue Sea

The whole reason for our California trip was to go out on a 4 day pelagic birding trip - out into the Pacific ocean to find west coast sea birds. The trip was an opportunity to see some birds that we don't get in the Atlantic ocean. The boat is a 95 foot fishing and natural history cruiser called the Searcher. Paul and Anita talked it up last year and we got 13 east coasters to sign up. That made the trip even better. This is not an ordinary pelagic trip where you sleep on the deck and bring your own Wawa hoagies. This boat has cabins and a chef! Barbara and I got a cabin together with bunk beds and room for our bags. Unfortunately for Barbara, our cabin was right next to the diesel engine which roared along all day and night.

As for the birds and sea life, we saw it all including whales, dolphins, sharks, sea lions and lots of birds. We headed out of San Diego port on Monday afternoon and immediately saw sea lions and birds along the docks and rocks of Point Loma.

We hit the big stuff right away with whales. The 2 largest whales in the ocean showed up on our first day. First was a Blue Whale. This is the largest being to ever live on earth - reaching lengths of 90 feet. Look at the nostrils on this beast.

Blue Whale
The second longest whale in the world is the Fin Whale. Seen here just after it dove under our boat! Zoom in to see the parasites hanging off of it.

Fin Whale
Common birds followed the boat including this Western Gull who I caught looking for chum in our wake.

Western Gull
And this Elegant Tern followed us for a long time but turned back once we got far from land.

Elegant Tern
But these are not the birds that we came out for. We were more interested in Shearwaters like this Pink-footed Shearwater.

Pink-footed Shearwater
Named for their pink feet but frankly, alot of birds have pink feet. You can see the feet in this photo. Many of the sea birds take flight by running across the water to get enough speed to lift off.

Other birds that most of the participants wanted to see were Craveri's Murrelets. A murrelet is an alcid which is related to Puffins. They are diving birds that remind you of Peguins only they can fly (which penguins can't do).  Craveri's are another one of those birds that was just created by a split. They used to be Xantu's Murrelets until they split into 3 species. They are like little flying softballs. Try finding one of these in the vast Pacific ocean! Well, we found about a dozen of them over the course of the trip.

Craveri's Murrelets

Craveri's Murrelets
Of course, whales aren't the only creatures in the sea. There are also (gulp) sharks. This Hammerhead Shark was cruising along the surface right next to the boat. You can barely make out the hammerhead shape under water.

Hammerhead Shark
This flying fish actually flew for a long distance before diving back underwater. It was amazing to see this fish in action. Even more amazing that I actually got a photo.

Flying Fish
One of the birds that I can never get enough of is Northern Fulmar. We have these in the Atlantic too but we rarely see them. This guy almost got run over by the boat. He is in heavy molt and missing many feathers which makes it difficult to fly. Check out the feather shafts sticking out of his backside. These are new feathers that haven't unfurled yet.

Northern Fulmar

There is much more to tell you and more photos of amazing sea life and sea birds. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a big body of water that sits in the middle of the desert in Southern California. I learned something very interesting about it last week. I always thought it was the result of some ancient sea or something but it turns out that it is actually the result of an engineering mistake back in the 1940s. Some engineers were trying to divert a river to agricultural land and ended up filling up a desert basin that sits below sea level with water! Their mistake has lasted far longer than they imagined. You can see the large expanse of water here that hosts thousands of pelicans and gulls.

Pelicans and Gulls
Although the scene looks idyllic, the sea has had problems from the start. There were once vacation homes and marinas and lots of fishing, boating and swimming here. But not today. Here is the marina and boat ramp - dry as a bone.

Salton Sea Boat Ramp
We parked here and had to walk a few hundred yards out to the water's edge. The place is desolate.

The water cannot sustain as many fish now that it has evaporated. Back in the '60s, the fish all died at once. The stench drove people away. They abandoned their vacation homes, pulled their boats and split. Dead fish are still visible along the beach.

Dead Fish
But there are also really neat birds here too like this Snowy Plover. This little guy didn't seem to mind my presence on the desolate beach.

Snowy Plover
At one point, he walked right toward me! 

Snowy Plover
Other birds such as these Avocets are plentiful around the sea. Here are 2 coming in for a landing.

American Avocets
American Avocets
This Caspian Tern was cruising the coast line.

Caspian Tern
American White Pelicans were all over the place. This huge pelican soars very high like a hawk. Here is one taking off right overhead.

American White Pelican
The Salton Sea is one of the only places in the US to see Yellow-footed Gull. We saw a few including this one sitting with Black Terns.

Yellow-footed Gull
Oh, did I mention that it gets hot here - like 111 degree hot? That's not a typo - 111 degrees. We started the day at 76 degrees,  it was 100 by 10:30 AM and triple 1s by the time we quit at 1:30.. I was lucky enough not to have a hot flash or I might have vaporized on the spot - POOF and I could have spontaneously combusted! Good thing they had cold beer at the burger joint.

Cold Beer!