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A Cotillion* of Elegant Terns: Malibu Lagoon Apr. 24, 2016

April 29, 2016

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The creaking calls of the large flock of Elegant Terns nearly drowned out the sounds of traffic from Pacific Coast Highway, and a few of the thirty birders present wondered if such numbers were unusual. Well, yes – and no. Forty years ago they were uncommon north of San Diego and, once or twice a year, you might see a few birds at the lagoon.

Elegant Terns in flight, Pepperdine University in distance (R. Ehler 4/24/16)

Elegant Terns in flight, Pepperdine University in distance (R. Ehler 4/24/16)

On 10-21-79, I found three Elegants on my very first Malibu Lagoon census.  Twenty-two years later, on 3-25-01, they finally hit double digits with 10 whole birds.  Only two years later, on 4-27-03, they hit triple digits at 250 birds. Then 700 birds on 4-26-09, and a whopping 3,100 birds on 4-26-15. To date, we’ve seen 12,423 terns of all species at the lagoon, of which 79% (9,795) have been Elegant. And 67% (6,585) of those were in April. Today’s count of 1,800 Elegant Terns is unusual, but considering the progression over time, not unexpected.

Thirteen photos were stitched together to make this panorama of Elegant Terns (C. Bragg 4/24/16)

One of three islands covered with Elegant Terns – a thirteen photo panorama
(C. Bragg 4/24/16)

Elegant Terns have long nested primarily on Isla Rasa in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, but in May 1959, 31 pairs were found nesting in the salt works area of southern San Diego Bay. They began nesting at Bolsa Chica in Orange County in 1987, and in Los Angeles Harbor in 1988. Post-breeding, in late summer and fall, they migrate up the coast as far as northern California, with irregular appearances as far north as southwest Washington. All these migrants spend the winter in Mexico, but, as made apparent by their appearances at the lagoon, they do a lot of springtime moving around before settling down to breed. Since 1979, our lagoon records show the following winter totals: Nov. 16 birds, Dec. 0, Jan. 1, Feb. 1, Mar. 391. The single bird(s) recorded Jan & Feb 2010 could have been a misidentified Royal Tern, a wintering species which was present on both dates.

Lucky tern, unlucky fish (R. Juncosa 4/24/16)

Lucky tern, unlucky fish (R. Juncosa 4/24/16)

We don’t get a lot of Black-necked Stilts at the lagoon: 29 total birds in 7 sightings, including today’s 19 birds. Ray Juncosa captured them with some very interesting effects of lighting. Stilts, along with Avocets, are in their own family, Recurvirostridae (Latin – bent backwards bill). Our stilt ranges from the U.S. to the West Indies, Peru & Brazil, plus Hawaii, where it used to be considered a separate species, the Hawaiian Stilt. The five other Stilt species and ranges are: Black-winged – Eurasia & Africa; Pied – Indonesia to New Zealand; the critically endangered Black – South Island of New Zealand; White-backed – so. South America; Banded – Australia.

Black-necked Stilts, a study (R. Juncosa 4/24/16)

Black-necked Stilts, a study (R. Juncosa 4/24/16)

The “semipalmated” foot is partially webbed between the toes. The Semipalmated Plover is a regular Spring & Fall migrant visitor at the lagoon, but no one ever actually sees the webbing. Of the “stints” or “peeps” in the Calidris genus, two are also semipalmated – the Western (Calidris mauri) (Greek – “a gray speckled sandpiper” + mauri [Ernesto Mauri, Italian naturalist])  and the aptly named Semipalmated Sandpiper (C. pusilla) ( Latin – very small).

Somehow the semipalmated foot moved from the Semipalmated Plover to the Western Sandpiper (J. Waterman 4/24/16)

Somehow the semipalmated foot moved from the Semipalmated Plover (left) to the Western Sandpiper (J. Waterman 4/24/16)

I could find nothing in book or on web about differences in webbing between the Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers (SeSa), so I checked with Kimball Garrett of the L.A. Co. Museum of Natural History. He replied, in short, “No difference.” “Then why,” you (dear reader) may inquire, “is one called semipalmated and the other isn’t?” The answer, I believe, is (as with “unusual” Elegant Tern presence) time-dependent. The SeSa was first described in 1766 by Linnaeus himself, based on a specimen from Santo Domingo, which he named Tringa (changed much later to Calidris) pusilla. The Western was described a century later in 1857, from a specimen from South Carolina. [Many Westerns winter on the SE U.S. coast.] The name Semipalmated was already taken, so Western it became.

If you don't know what this is, come birding with us (J. Waterman 4/24/16)

If you don’t know what this is, come birding with us. No, it’s not a plover or sandpiper foot.
(J. Waterman 4/24/16)

So what about the rarely seen webbed feet of the Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus)? I’ll spare you the gruesome details and say simply that it has visible –  but short – webbing between all three toes. The very similar Ringed Plover (C. hiaticula) of Eurasia & Africa has visible webbing between middle and outer toe, and nearly invisible webbing between middle and inner toe. 10,000 Birds gives a great description, but the pictures of feet aren’t so hot. [Beware  (!!) of Google Images – I’ve seen many misidentifications there.]

Many people mistake the female Red-winged Blackbird for a sparrow (R. Ehler 4/24/16)

Many people mistake the female Red-winged Blackbird for a sparrow
(R. Ehler 4/24/16)

We didn’t have any Snowy Plovers; probably all have left for their various breeding grounds farther north. Grace Murayama snapped this nice photo of an adult Snowy on 4/13.

The last Snowy Plover of Springtime (G. Murayama 4/13/16)

The last Snowy Plover of Springtime (G. Murayama 4/13/16)

Bonaparte’s Gull is another species whose lagoon presence has changed significantly over the years. We used to get them in large numbers: 3-15-80 1,600 birds, 11-29-80 530, 12-12-82 1,095. Our last triple-digit count was 632 birds on 1-8-83, shortly after the first lagoon reconfiguration in late 1982. Since then, out of 180 census days, their numbers have reached double-digits only 6 times out of 62 sightings. I don’t know if their overall population has plummeted, or they just didn’t like the new (in 1983) lagoon and stopped coming.

Bonaparte's Gull - basic & alternate plumages (J. Waterman 4/24/16)

Bonaparte’s Gull – basic & alternate plumages (J. Waterman 4/24/16)

Birds new for the season were: Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated Plover, Common Murre (by Malibu Pier), Belted Kingfisher, Violet-green Swallow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

The foremast is about 170 ft high on this giganto-yacht (G. Murayama 4/24/16)

The foremast is about 170 ft high on this giganto-yacht moored off Malibu Pier
(G. Murayama 4/13/16)

As always, many thanks to our photographers: Chuck Bragg, Randy Ehler, Ray Juncosa, Grace Murayama and Joyce Waterman.

*Cotillion of Elegant Terns is the official collective noun for this species.

Least Sandpiper, like Narcissus, admires his reflection (C. Bragg 4/24/16)

Least Sandpiper, like Narcissus, admires his own reflection (C. Bragg 4/24/16)

Our next four scheduled field trips: To be announced, 14 May; Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 22 May; Mt. Piños, 11-12 June 8am; Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 26 Jun.

American Robins infrequent the lagoon (R. Ehler 4/24/16)

American Robins infrequent the lagoon
(R. Ehler 4/24/16)

Our next program: Grunion,  Tuesday, 3 May, 7:30 pm, at [note location change] Chris Reed Park, 1133 7th St., NE corner of 7th and Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica.

NOTE: Our 10 a.m. Parent’s & Kids Birdwalk meets at the shaded viewing area. Watch for Willie the Weasel. He’ll be watching for you and your big floppy feet.

Links: Unusual birds at Malibu Lagoon
9/23/02 Aerial photo of Malibu Lagoon
Prior checklists:
2015:   Jan-May,    July-Dec    2014:   Jan-July,    July-Dec

2013:   Jan-June,   July-Dec   2012:   Jan-June,   July-Dec
2011:   Jan-June,   July-Dec   2010:  Jan-June,   July-Dec
 
2009:
  Jan-June  July-Dec

The 10-year comparison summaries created during the project period, despite numerous complaints, remain available on our Lagoon Project Bird Census Page. Very briefly summarized, the results unexpectedly indicate that avian species diversification and numbers improved slightly during the period Jun’12-June’14.     [Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2016 11/22 12/27 1/24 2/28 3/27 4/24
Temperature 64-80 48-61 48-64 57-70 55-65 60-67
Tide Lo/Hi Height L+0.24 H+6.07 H+5.90 L+1.38 H+3.43 H+3.63
Tide Time 1241 0945 0855 0654 1228 1143
Brant 3 2
Canada Goose 11 7
Gadwall 4 13 3 20 14 4
American Wigeon 2 10 16 10
Mallard 25 2 15 22 16 18
Northern Shoveler 8 2 16 12 14
Northern Pintail 2 4
Green-winged Teal 11 8 8
Lesser Scaup 5
Surf Scoter 1 2 17 16
Bufflehead 4 1 2 2
Hooded Merganser 2
Red-brstd Merganser 2 17 3 3 2
Ruddy Duck 110 1 10
Red-throated Loon 1 2
Pacific Loon 2 1 2
Common Loon 2 1 1
Pied-billed Grebe 3 2 3 8 3
Horned Grebe 1 1
Eared Grebe 10 2 2 5 2
Western Grebe 15 4 1 1
Blk-vented Shearwater 1
Brandt’s Cormorant 2 1 4 2
Dble-crstd Cormorant 45 15 24 19 6 23
Pelagic Cormorant 2 1 2
Brown Pelican 11 10 30 43 28 77
Great Blue Heron 3 2 3 4 3
Great Egret 1 2 2 1 5 2
Snowy Egret 8 30 21 7 7 4
Blk-crwnd N-Heron 1
Osprey 1 1 1 3 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Sora 1 2
American Coot 60 10 40 65 53 4
Black-necked Stilt 19
Blk-bellied Plover 33 30 12 32 8 20
Snowy Plover 28 12 4 3
Semipalmated Plover 8
Killdeer 4 14 2 4 3 2
Spotted Sandpiper 2 5 1 1 1
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Willet 18 13 8 8 12 10
Whimbrel 5 1 3 4 21 2
Marbled Godwit 8 11 13 22 15 6
Ruddy Turnstone 9 2 5 1
Surfbird 1
Sanderling 6
Least Sandpiper 4 13 7
Western Sandpiper 4 35 1
Long-billed Dowitcher 2 2
Common Murre 1 3
Bonaparte’s Gull 2 1 3
Heermann’s Gull 11 4 1 2
Mew Gull 1
Ring-billed Gull 95 60 30 90 15 1
Western Gull 140 80 13 160 45 60
California Gull 1430 620 400 650 130 15
Thayer’s Gull 1
Glaucous-wingd Gull 1 1 4 1
Caspian Tern 3 19
Forster’s Tern 3
Royal Tern 23 11 25 31 18 2
Elegant Tern 5 1800
Rock Pigeon 20 2 2 6 6 6
Mourning Dove 1 2 2 2 1
Anna’s Hummingbird 2 3 1 2 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 5 2 3 3 4 4
Belted Kingfisher 1 1
American Kestrel 1 1
Merlin 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Nanday Parakeet 8 2
Black Phoebe 10 12 3 8 6 4
Say’s Phoebe 1 2 1 1
Cassin’s Kingbird 1
Western Scrub-Jay 1
American Crow 3 1 6 23 6 4
Common Raven 1 1
Violet-green Swallow 1
Rough-wingd Swallow 10 10
Cliff Swallow 1 6
Barn Swallow 6 4
Oak Titmouse 1 1
Bushtit 28 40 4 5 4
House Wren 2 1 1
Marsh Wren 1
Bewick’s Wren 1 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 9 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 10 6 1
Western Bluebird 1
Hermit Thrush 1 3 1
American Robin 2 1
Northern Mockingbird 6 2 1 3 4 6
European Starling 21 10 110 90 1 2
Ornge-crwnd Warbler 5
Common Yellowthroat 7 1 1 5 5
Yellow-rumpd Warbler 40 40 9
Townsend’s Warbler 1
Spotted Towhee 2 1
California Towhee 1 1 2 5 3
Savannah Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 3 6 3 3 12 14
Lincoln’s Sparrow 1
White-crwnd Sparrow 4 15 20 5 5
Black-headed Grosbeak 1
Red-winged Blackbird 5
Western Meadowlark 5 4 2
Brewer’s Blackbird 6
Great-tailed Grackle 4 3 2 1 9 3
Brwn-headed Cowbird 2
Hooded Oriole 1
House Finch 4 3 1 6 21 16
Lesser Goldfinch 1
Totals by Type Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr
Waterfowl 169 58 61 118 74 22
Water Birds – Other 152 48 104 146 100 106
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 13 34 26 12 15 6
Quail & Raptors 2 4 2 4 2 1
Shorebirds 113 83 50 86 113 76
Gulls & Terns 1703 775 472 939 219 1903
Doves 21 2 4 8 8 7
Other Non-Passerines 7 6 4 13 7 5
Passerines 164 156 150 168 105 95
Totals Birds 2344 1166 873 1494 643 2221
             
Total Species Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr
Waterfowl 10 10 8 11 7 2
Water Birds – Other 11 9 9 10 9 4
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 4 3 3 3 3 2
Quail & Raptors 2 4 2 2 2 1
Shorebirds 9 10 6 10 11 10
Gulls & Terns 7 7 5 9 8 8
Doves 2 1 2 2 2 2
Other Non-Passerines 2 3 2 3 3 2
Passerines 20 21 12 19 22 20
Totals Species 67 68 49 69 67 51

 

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