Tag: Sabine’s Gull

Aug ’22 San Diego County Pelagic Recap

Black-footed Albatross possibly seeking buttered popcorn in another county

San Diego County Pelagic Delivers Great Birds

I wouldn’t say that I don’t like boat trips. I’ve had a bunch of experiences on various kinds of watercraft that I’d describe as enjoyable. But I like to have a quick exit available should I decide that I’m not enjoying whatever it is I’m doing. This is significantly frustrated by the bounded nature of boats. For short rides, this usually isn’t a concern. Once the trip gets longer than a couple of hours, the possibility of not being able to flee increases enough that I usually bow out. As a result, I haven’t been on too many pelagic (open ocean) birding trips. The couple I’ve gone on in Los Angeles and Maine have lasted 3-4 hours. None was as ambitious as the boat ride I went on recently out of San Diego. This was an 11-hour trip that would go more than 30 miles off shore to a productive spot of Pacific Ocean along the US/Mexico maritime border known as The Corner.  That’s a lot of time to decide you don’t want to be on the boat. And it’s an incredibly long time if you happen to get seasick.

The allure of such boat trips for a birder is the chance to see birds that you can’t seen from land. It’s not unlike traveling to a new country. In place of finches and sparrows and warblers, you’re spotting auklets, murres, murrelets, shearwaters, boobies, razorbills, fulmars, gannets, terns, petrels, storm-petrels, jaegers, albatross, puffins, kittiwakes, tropicbirds, and skua. Every pelagic boat ride I’ve been on has produced multiple lifers. 

The seas in San Diego weren’t loaded with flocks of seabirds, but the trip was an astounding success for variety. After a bumpy exit out of Mission Bay, we headed to the Nine Mile Bank. On the way, I got my first three lifers of the eight I’d get on this trip: Long-tailed Jaeger, Craveri’s Murrelet, and Black Storm-Petrel. Long-tailed Jaegers are the most likely of our three jaegers to require being far off-shore to see. It breeds in the Arctic, and is found off California especially in August and September. True to form, we saw several jaegers during the day in dogfights with terns who had caught a fish. Craveri’s Murrelet is a small little bird that breeds in Mexico and then disperses into California waters during late summer and fall as long as the waters are warm. Their size and behavior (they mainly swim on the surface) make them easy to spot in calm seas. Due to the slightly choppy conditions we had, we didn’t see a lot of Craveri’s Murrelets. And when we did, they were usually flying away from the boat before we got close.

A classic pelagic photograph, supposedly of two Craveri’s Murrelets

At the Nine Mile Bank I added another lifer: Ashy Storm-Petrel. In the trough between the 9 and 30 Mile Banks I saw lifer #5: a Townsend’s Storm-Petrel. We saw 4 (or maybe 5) kinds of storm-petrels on the trip. Storm-Petrels are dark aerobatic delicate wisps, and they’re a tough ID because the visual distinctions amongst them can be quite subtle. I could only put them into three buckets. Bucket #1 = Black Storm-Petrel and Ashy Storm-Petrel. Black is much more common, whereas Ashy are a bit more gray. Bucket #2 = Least Storm-Petrel. These look like miniature Black Storm-Petrels. They’re apparently the size of sparrows, but with much a larger wingspan. As long as they’re amongst other storm-petrels, they were easy to pick out. Bucket #3 = Leach’s or Townsend’s Storm-Petrel. These birds are a similar size, but with supposedly different flight styles. Having no experience with storm-petrels, recognizing different flight styles was beyond me. The ID of Townsend’s/Leach’s is made more difficult by the fact that each species can have a rump that is all-white, or white divided by a dark line, or smudgy dark with white on the edges, or all dark. The trip leaders only certainly ID’d Townsend’s. Some folks have added Leach’s Storm-Petrels to the eBird reports, but without any pictures. 

We reached The Corner at 11am – so named because it’s the point where the US/Mexico border takes a turn south. Once there, we dumped a bunch of popcorn and chumsicles and cod liver oil into the water to attract birds. Contrary to John James Audubon and popular myth, birds (especially ocean birds) have a great sense of smell. Some albatross can detect scents from 10-12 miles away. But it takes time for the smells to spread and lure in the birds. Delightfully for us, our first rarity came in not 5 minutes after we laid out the slick: a Cook’s Petrel. A New Zealand breeder, until just a few years ago they were mainly birds of legend for one-day excursions in California waters. But more recently, they’ve been regular fall visitors in this area. The flyby was quick, and my focus was poor, but I got a couple of shots of the black and gray color pattern on the back, and the white underparts edged in black along the wings.

It took an hour and a half, by contrast, to lure in an albatross (maybe it was miles away when we put out the stink).  A birder next to me asked “what’s that coming in low?” I looked through my binoculars and shouted “albatross!” A juvenile Black-footed Albatross then flew past the back of the boat. We saw at least two separate individuals – one with a white rump and another without a dark rump. 

Despite being surrounded by water, pelagic trips are a lot like birding the desert. Sometimes, for miles and miles, there isn’t a bird in sight. But then, off in the distance, there’s a flock of birds resting on the water or feeding on a school of fish. At other times, out of nowhere, a single bird will fly past the boat and disappear toward the horizon.  Much more than land birding, you’ve got to be ready to get your binoculars or camera on a bird in seconds, or it might be gone. That your platform is bobbing and leaning, sometimes so much that you simply cannot look through the binoculars or camera without falling over, only adds to the challenge.

Unless the seas are flat, expect a lot of out-of-focus pictures from a pelagic trip. More often than not, the camera will focus on the ocean behind the bird I’m trying to photograph, leaving the rare bird we spotted discernable but fuzzy. In addition, expect a bunch of photos of distant birds flying away from the boat.

We made it back to the dock around 6:15pm, just over 11 hours after we’d left. It’s a bit draining to spend so long on a boat, struggling for stability to stand and peering through binoculars while the sun beats down. But wen the results were amazing. There’s still some lifers out there for me to get, so I’ll probably sign up for another long pelagic next year in this area, are look to take one that explores the Channel Islands and beyond.




Birding Ballona Creek #4 – The East End

A Guide to the East End of Ballona Creek

This post in my Guide to Birding Ballona Creek covers the portion of the creek east of Inglewood Blvd., all the way to Syd Kronenthal Park (3.6 miles). Despite its length, this section of the creek has few birds. The creek is no longer tidal, and there’s very little vegetation in the concrete creek bed. But there are a couple of sections that regularly produce some birds, and a rarity can turn up anywhere. This section of the creek has produced a Sandhill Crane, Sabine’s Gull, Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-throated Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, and Solitary Sandpiper.



Two eBird hotspots cover this section of Ballona Creek: one is called Ballona Creek–east of Centinela Ave., and the other is called Upper Ballona Creek Bike Path, Culver City.  It’s not clear where the “East of Centinela Ave.” hotspot ends and the “Upper Ballona Creek Bike Path” hotspot begins. To add to the confusion, the “East of Centinela Ave.” hotspot overlaps with the “Ballona Creek–Centinela Ave. to Inglewood Blvd.” hotspot (a short section of the creek east of Centinela Ave.). It really should be renamed “Ballona Creek–East of Inglewood Blvd.” (in large part because the creek, and the bird life, noticeably changes at Inglewood Blvd.) Anyhoodle, I use Duquesne Avenue as my dividing line between these two hotspots for the eastern half of the creek bike path. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper Ballona Creek

A Semipalmated Sandpiper stretches its wings

I’ll cover this section of the creek starting from the far east end, and make my way toward the ocean. We start where the bike path ends, at Syd Kronenthal Park. Syd Kronenthal worked for Culver City Parks and Rec for 52 years, and was the driving force behind many of the city’s parks. This is a nice park with a bunch of trees, and a big soccer/baseball field. I haven’t spent a lot of time birding this park, but it’s got some big trees, so there’s always a chance something cool is there. I did find this Merlin one January, perched in trees overlooking the creek.

Merlin Culver City California

This Merlin had its eyes on some Least Sandpipers in the creek

From Syd Kronenthal Park, you descend a slope to hop on the Ballona Creek bike path. The first section runs north/south, and goes under a tall bridge (see picture below). There is almost always some vegetation growing at the water’s edge here, unless the city’s vegetation destruction crew has been dispatched. Black-necked Stilts breed in this section of the creek. They build their nests on raised cement areas in the middle of the creek. Black-necked Stilts are territorial and protective, and will loudly call if you pause to watch them and eggs are in the nest or chicks are around. There are usually some sandpipers here, from fall to spring, but it’s hit and miss. Mostly, they are Least Sandpipers, with a smaller number of Western Sandpipers. I did find a Semipalmated Sandpiper in this section in August 2020, a rare sighting away from the L.A. River for that species. 

ballona creek

An environmental destruction crew scours the creek of any and all vegetation

After a half mile, the creek turns southwest, and goes past the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and its famous steep staircase (I used the 282 stairs as sea-level training for hiking the Inka Trail – note the nearest creek access is Duquesne Avenue). There are more Black-necked Stilts here (watch for nests and newborns), and rock pigeons on the wires over the creek. In March, Northern Rough-winged Swallows arrive. They often perch on the guardrails along the bike path, and will disappear into the holes in the concrete sides of the creek bed. 

The creek widens just south of Duquesne  Avenue, where a small tributary appears from beneath the houses east of the creek and adds water flow. This wide, shallow section is a good spot for sandpipers. If they are small, they are Least and Western Sandpipers, but I’ve had Solitary Sandpipers in this area (in late August and early September). After Jackson Avenue (where a pipeline bridge crosses the creek), birdlife mostly vanishes until Overland Avenue . Mallards and Killdeer are about all the action you can expect, though Walter Lamb improbably found a Sandhill Crane in this section of the creek one day.

Solitary Sandpiper Ballona Creek

This Solitary Sandpiper hung around for a couple of weeks in Aug-Sept 2018

As the bike path continues toward the ocean, it passed by Culver City High school fields (a Whimbrel is my most surprising sighting here) and native garden along the fence (a White-throated Sparrow popped out of the bushes one December).

After crossing under the 405 freeway, the bike path passes Slauson Park, which has a small collection of tall trees. Despite its proximity to my house, I haven’t explored it enough (for migrants, or a wintering songbird). From Mar Vista Gardens to Inglewood Blvd, you can often find a gull flock of shifting size. I lack Andy Birch’s obsession with scanning gull flocks for rarities, but some careful attention here could probably pull our something good during the winter.  I did find a juvenile Sabine’s Gull here in October 2016 that stuck around for 4 days. You’ll likely hear the shrieks of exotic pet birds like a cockatiel or budgerigar coming from Mar Vista Gardens as you pass by. They’ve always been in cages, but maybe one will break out someday and become a non-countable escapee. 

Set your expectations low for this 3-mile section of creek. The birds aren’t numerous, and the species counts won’t be big. Given its length, it is best covered by bike rather than on foot. But like anywhere else, surprises await.

Access Points to the Bike Path in this section (starting at east end):

  • Syd Kronenthal Park
  • Duquesne Ave. (access to Culver City Park)
  • Overland Ave.
  • Westwood Blvd. bridge (for a quick detour to Lindberg Park)
  • Sepulveda Blvd.
  • Purdue Avenue (just south of Sawtelle Blvd)
  • Slauson Park. 
  • Inglewood Blvd.