Month: July 2022 (Page 1 of 2)

Common Tern: LA County (and 5MR) lifer!

Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

A reminder to check flocks more than once, and bird every bird

Common Tern at Dockweiler Beach: LA County lifer!

If you aren’t traveling, July can be tough for a birder. The birding action around my house is suuuuuuuuuuuper slow during July. Yes, by the end of the month, shorebirds have started to arrive along the creek and at the beach. But it’s pretty small numbers, and mostly Willets. Songbirds aren’t moving through yet. At times, it feels like it’s all Mallards and House Finches out there. (The best action these days is probably off-shore, where those with access to boats are seeing birds like Black Storm Petrel and Guadalupe Murrelet and Craveri’s Murrelet that would all be lifers for me).

So as Saturday approached, I wasn’t sure where to go birding. Some stray migrants had already been showing up at the LA River near Long Beach, with Solitary and Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalarope’s seen recently. A budgerigar is also hanging out in the same area. But I have had all those birds in my 5MR (even a budgie!). LA Birders had organized a hike to Throop’s Peak, a beautiful hike at 9,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains that promised a long-elusive Golden Eagle for my LA County list. But I didn’t really want to drive 90 minutes to get there, or be on that hike with a big group. It’s a beautiful hike, and I treasure it for the solitude. (They saw a Golden Eagle). So, a little reluctantly I decided to check out the coast in my 5MR to see what was happening at the beach.

Artist’s rendering of a trash interceptor

First, I went to the creek mouth and jetties. There’s some construction happening on the long middle jetty, so you can’t walk out there. They’re constructing a “trash interceptor” that will skim the surface of the creek and capture the garbage that flows down it into the ocean. It’s a real mess after storms, and this aims to vacuum it up. It’s supposedly the first ever such trash interceptor to be installed in the United States. Sounds great, though I wonder how much it will disrupt the birds that swim up the lower channel from the breakwater. I guess we’ll see in September, when it’s supposed to be done. There wasn’t much going on at the jetty or lagoon, so I decided to see if there was free parking at Vista del Mar Park so I could check out Dockweiler Beach (I’m too cheap to pay $8+ for parking).

There was a parking spot open. First, I checked out the Snowy Plover enclosure, but there were people on the beach in front of it, and no birds. Then, I walked south. Not too far, I ran into a big flock of gulls and a big flock of terns. The gulls were mostly Western and Heermann’s, with a sprinkling of California Gulls about. The tern flock was big and noisy. I couple scans of it showed all Elegant Terns except for two big Caspian Terns on the periphery. The flock was constantly getting flushed by walkers and joggers and kids and dogs and lifeguard pickup trucks. They’d find a spot, settle in for 2-4 minutes, and then all erupt in flight before settling again. I watched this happen five times. After each, I scanned the flock, hoping to find a Forster’s Tern hidden in the crowd.  

Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

Finally, I spotted a smaller tern in the group, with a smaller black bill and a dark shoulder bar. I first though Forster’s Tern based on size, but it didn’t look right. There was too much black on the back of the head, and I didn’t remember seeing black on the shoulder of Forster’s Terns before. I snapped a couple of photos. The flock flushed, and settled, and I found it again and took a couple more shots. Then I pulled up my bird guide app, and checked Forster’s Tern. Nope – this was something different. Under “Common Tern”, the guide said “juveniles and fall adults have black should bar.” This was exciting. Common Terns are rare on the West Coast. In LA, they’re most often spotted in Malibu Lagoon and Long Beach, usually alone or in pairs. A couple have been reported at the Ballona Creek mouth, but none at Dockweiler Beach. I snapped a photo from the back of my phone, shared it on the LA birders WhatsApp chat, and got confirmation that it was a Common Tern. This is an LA County lifer for me! It’s especially fun to find those in my 5MR.

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, Massachusetts

Common Terns are long distance migrants. Our North America Common Terns breed in Canada, and winter in coastal South America (some go all the way to southern Argentina). European and Asian Common Terns breed from England to Siberia, and winter along the coast in Africa or the northern Indian Ocean (including Australia). Despite their rarity around Los Angeles (we have more Forster’s), they are the most numerous tern in the United States. They eat mainly fish. After their populations recovered from 19th century plumage hunters, their numbers are dropping again. Some blame gulls, though habitat loss can’t be helping.

Salter Grover, Pawtuxet Village, Rhode Island

I’ve seen Common Tern a few times before, typically when we visit the northeast. I also spotted a couple of them in Beijing during a trip there in 2017. But I never expected to see one in Los Angeles, especially not on a July walk along the beach in my 5MR. It goes to show – bird every bird. Even when it looks like a big uniform flock of some expected species, make sure to give it a careful look. And not just one look. I didn’t see the Common Tern until the 6th or 7th time that I scanned the flock of terns. 

Birding Maine & Canada – July 2022

You couldn’t get more east in the lower 48 than we did

Maine in July is Fantastic

July once again meant a family vacation to Maine (last’s year trip report is here). And Maine in July means endless green as far as the eye can see. For a resident of Los Angeles, where it basically never rains and concrete and buildings cover the landscape, Maine is an impossibly lush environment. The roads are lined by all manner of green trees. The hikes wander through forests of green trees and fields of green bushes and green grasses. The rocks are covered in green mosses. This green bounty creates a curious dilemma. For an urban birder like me, life can be easy because the birds are usually concentrated in the small patches of available bird-friendly habitat.  But when you get to a place like Maine, it’s all habitat. In every direction. The birds could be anywhere. Looking for a Northern Parula? Just walk a few feet in any direction and look in the trees. No spot is all that much better than another. Birding in a place like Maine defies the (increasingly, in my view, noxious) eBird idea of birding hotspots. 

Greens trees around Sargent Mountain Pond, Acadia National Park

Another joy of Maine is the chance to see species that don’t regular come to the West Coast. There is a certain set of birds that I associate with being in Maine. There’s the Bobolink, who sound like R2-D2 and emerge from tall grass fields in surprising numbers as you walk by. There’s the unbelievable fiery face of the Blackburnian Warbler that makes the bird look like a tiny meteor entering the atmosphere. There’s the Bald Eagle majestically perched in pine trees at the water’s edge. There’s the impossibly long and intricate song of the tiny Winter Wren emanating from somewhere deep in the forest.

Of course, a trip to Maine is also good for unexpected sightings. This year, I added a half dozen birds to my Maine life list. An Indigo Bunting popped out of some bushes one day, and left before I could snap a photo. A Bonaparte’s Gull was hanging out at low tide in a cove while some Common Mergansers swam past. One evening, a Common Nighthawk danced high above a grassy field. On our drive back to Boston airport, we stopped at a Henslow’s Sparrow stakeout. And a lunch break in Portland got me a Northern Mockingbird at almost the northeastern edge of its range. In addition, I got great looks at birds I don’t see every time I come. They included Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pileated Woodpecker, who I tracked down thanks to its impressively loud drumming.

One day during the trip, my oldest son and I took a drive to Canada. The border was just over two hours from where we were staying. Since he’d never been to Canada, and I hadn’t been there since I became a birder, we both were looking to check some boxes on our to-do list. There wasn’t much in the way of cities nearby. Since it was just going to be a day trip, we decided to visit Campobello Island in the province of New Brunswick. Despite being Canadian land, it’s the home of a U.S. National Park–Roosevelt Campobello International Park (it’s actually jointly managed by the U.S. and Canada). Apparently, Franklin Roosevelt had a summer home there, and some buildings are preserved.

We skipped the home tours and headed straight for East Quoddy (Head Harbour) Light at the northeastern tip of the island. The lighthouse is on a rocky islet. It is an island at high tide, and accessible by foot at low tide (the tides here shift some 15 feet from low to high, and can rise 5 feet an hour). It’s picturesque. Our timing was almost perfect – we had to wait about 15 minutes until the tide was low enough to walk over. It’s a fun, short adventure – there’s some slippery rocks to manage, mysterious fish heads decaying, and some rusty, off-kilter stairs to ascend and descend. The lighthouse itself was closed, but it was a nice spot to chill and see some whales (no Great Cormorants, which would’ve been a lifer, but the only Black Guillemot of the trip). We checked out a couple of other spots on Campobello Island, including a cool little cove with 5 old shipwrecks, and then stopped for lunch. All told, we got 10 species of bird, and were able to turn all of Canada light yellow on our eBird profiles.

Head Harbor Lighthouse, not quite at low enough tide to access

After lunch, we went back to the United States and out to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. It is the easternmost point of land in the lower 48 states (apparently the U.S. Virgin Islands is farther east). We checked the rocks for Great Cormorant (none), and took a short hike along the coast. Now we’ll need to go to Washington, Florida, and Minnesota is we want to hit the westernmost, southernmost, and northernmost points in the contiguous 48 states.

Before we drove back to Boston for our flight home, I checked eBird to see if there were any possible lifers along the way. It turned out that a guy had recently found a Henslow’s Sparrow in a field along the side of the road (he was apparently driving by with his windows down, and heard the bird. Notably, Henslow’s Sparrows have the shortest song of any North American songbird, so this is quite a ridiculous find). It was only the 4th record ever for Maine of this declining grassland sparrow, and the spot was just 5 minutes off the highway. It promised to be a short stop: either the bird was there when we pulled up, or we’d stand in place for 5-10 minutes and strike out. If we were lucky, there’d be some birders already present with their scopes pointed at the bird. We were lucky. As we drove up to the location, two other car loads of birders pulled up almost simultaneously with us. At least three different birders were present, peering through binoculars out into the field. We walked up, they pointed to the bush where it was perched singing, and I had a lifer. The bird was a bit far out in the hot field for me to get good photos (see below).

I snuck in one last birding excursion before we boarded the plane. Near our airport hotel was a place called the Belle Isle Marsh Preservation. It offered a chance to catch a glimpse of a Saltmarsh Sparrow, and maybe some other birds that would bump up my year list. To my delight, there were Saltmarsh Sparrows moving around. They never stood still out in the open, but darted from one patch of marshy cover to another. You never knew where one would pop out, so you had to be quick on the trigger if you wanted to good photo. I totally failed to get an identifiable picture of one (see above), but it was fun to try. 

As usual, it was great to get to the northeast.


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