Skip to content

Malibu Morning with Plovers and Terns

June 20, 2017

Tern Least nesting area & Snowy Plover foraging area, Malibu
(Chuck Almdale 6-17-17)

Stacey Vigallon, the tern and plover maven, put out a request for Snowy Plover monitors for Malibu Lagoon for the weekend. I was otherwise unscheduled for Saturday morning, June 17, and signed up.

Snowy Plover on remaining unhatched egg, Malibu (Sarah Ngo 6-3-17)

If you’ve never spent a couple of hours watching a particular bird, or group of birds, this will give you a sense of how it goes. It’s similar to a breeding bird atlas project; you watch the birds and occasionally something noteworthy happens. All times below are rounded to the nearest quarter-hour.

Adult Snowy Plover has found a tiny sand crab, Malibu
(Grace Murayama 6-9-17)

0840: I arrive at the breeding area. Least Terns (LETE) are constantly squawking, flying out to sea, returning with small fish, sitting on the ground, or standing – fish in bill – near a sitting bird. No Snowy Plovers (SNPL) are visible. A flock of about 100 gulls rests about 50 yards from the LETE nesting area, and a mixed flock of 18 Brown Pelicans and 7 Double-crested Cormorants are 50 yards further across a lagoon shallow. Two Black-bellied Plovers forage near the gulls, six adult Killdeer are scattered around the lagoon edge and vegetated sand. 19 of the gulls are Heermann’s, 1 sub-adult and the rest post-breeding adults; two are Ring-billed, the rest are Western Gull.

Heermann’s and Western Gulls, Malibu (Lillian Johnson 6-23-13)

0845: The adult male Snowy Plover (SNPL) flies from the seashore edge where it had probably been feeding on the wet sand or seaweed wrack. He lands near the chick, and I watched them both off-and-on, mostly on, for the next 75 minutes. The adult does nearly nothing but watch the chick, who walks around poking at the ground, apparently searching for food and paying little-to-no attention to the adult. The adult stays within approximately three-to-twenty feet about 95% of the time. It did not show the chick how to do anything nor finds any food for it, and it did not approach the chick to warm or protect it in any way. This chick was born (best estimate) between 3 June 10:55am and 4 June 1pm (times per Grace Murayama and Pam Prichard), making it now 14 days old).

RR:BB, Malibu; 1 of 2 chicks banded at Oceano Dunes, Spring 2016
Mother of the three chicks hatched on Malibu Beach, only eight months old in this photo (Grace Murayama 2-26-17)

0900: Six Royal Terns have joined the gull flock. While watching the SNPLs I begin counting LETEs. Every count is different: 15 birds, 18 birds, 9 “nesting” birds (the ones “well-planted” to their spots) and 6 others, 12 nesting and 12 non-nesting. The last sounds reasonable as mate-not-on-nest should equal mate-on-nest.

The Sanderling (foreground, in basic ‘non-breeding’ plumage) is often mistaken for a Snowy Plover, their winter roost-mate (Joyce Waterman 1-25-15)

0945: A breeding plumage Sanderling arrived a short while ago. The adult SNPL becomes suddenly very aggressive towards it, running and flying at it and driving it into flight. The Sanderling soon returns, but stays farther away from the SNPLs. The adult SNPL is not aggressive towards the Sanderling nor any other bird the rest of the morning.

Male Great-tailed Grackle, Malibu (Randy Ehler 9-27-15)

1000: The two SNPLs have disappeared into the small vegetated hillocks of sand. Five minutes later all the LETEs rise and fly around for several minutes. I count 28 birds, then scrutinize the ground to see if any LETE remains. None are visible. Thereafter I see no evidence that more than 28 birds are present. A few minutes later a male Great-tailed Grackle appears. The LETEs begin taking turns diving on this bird from behind, soon driving it away. It’s possible that the earlier rise of the LETE flock had something to do with the grackle, visible to them but not to me.

Long-billed Curlew, Malibu (Randy Ehler 2-22-15)

1015: A Long-billed Curlew appears, probing the underwater mud in the lagoon. They are not common at the lagoon and rarely stay long. Three Elegant Terns appear alongside the six Royal Terns.

Royal Tern (left) with non-breeding crest, three Elegant Terns with breeding crest. Royal is noticeably bulkier. Elegant with neck fully extended looks as tall as Royal. Malibu (Jim Kenney 6-12-15)

1030: All the terns, now numbering 26 Elegant and 6 Royal take flight as a group and head west. Barn Swallows in increasing numbers have been cruising the beach surface since I arrived. One picks up a molted downy feather and flies away with it. The numbers of gulls, pelicans and cormorants has not changed.

House Finch male (Joyce Waterman 11-27-16)

1045: In the scattered beach plants (which I think are pickleweed**), a male House Finch seems to be
nibbling the stem-tips. This is where pickleweed stores salt. I suddenly realized that all the fish I’d seen brought in by the LETEs were rather large – as long or slightly longer than bill+head length. This is, I believe, too large for a chick to eat, and I wonder if the LETEs will be able to find suitably-sized fish for the chicks. In prior years, some nestings have failed, nestlings abandoned by parents because of this problem.

Least Tern pair mating; note fish size, Malibu (Grace Murayama 6-9-17)

1100: Two Gadwall and one Red-breasted Merganser are preening at lagoon’s edge near the gulls. Numerous Mallard, mostly juvenile, swim on the lagoon. Four Black-bellied Plovers fly in to rest near the gulls.

Red-breasted Merganser on alert (Joyce Waterman 7-27-14)

1115: A Western Gull leaves the flock and flies towards the sea, passing low over the LETE nesting area. Most of the LETEs rise and chase the gull, diving on him from behind. A few minutes later the male Great-tailed Grackle reappears. The LETEs soon begin diving on him one at a time from behind, as they did before, and in 1-2 minutes he rises and flies off to land beyond the pelican-cormorant flock, the LETEs pursuing him and diving on him. The two SNPLs reappear after an 80-minute absence. The Long-billed Curlew flies off to the west and disappears.

Snowy Plover chick, probable age – 15 days, Malibu (Chris Tosdevin 6-18-17)

1130: The two SNPLs have disappeared again. Six juvenile and one adult Mallard are preening on the lagoon edge near the LETE nesting area. Many LETEs take to the air and dive on the juveniles, soon driving them into the lagoon and away. The adult Mallard remains. A helicopter passes offshore heading west. None of the birds are alarmed. It passes by five minutes later, heading east; again no birds are alarmed. I finally see one LETE with a very small fish, about as long as the bird’s bill, or slightly smaller. Perhaps tiny fish will be available for the chicks.

Least Tern on two eggs, Malibu
(Chris Tosdevin 6-18-17)

1145: Sarah Ngo (with whom I have corresponded but never met) and friend have appeared to visit the flock and take pictures. We talk until I leave at noon. A helicopter passes by inland of the lagoon, heading west. The gulls rise, perhaps alarmed by the inland helicopter. They soon alight, but take flight again a few minutes later, most flying off to sea.

1200: The adult male SNPL has just flown from near the lagoon down to the damp seaside sand where he begins to pick and probe. Sarah and friend follow to photograph him. Time for me to leave.

It was a very pleasant morning, starting cool with overcast and a bit of fog. Most clouds cleared and the fog burned away by 1100, but the temperature hadn’t yet passed 80°. I’d brought several magazines to read in case I got bored, but there was too much activity for me to ever open them.

Many thanks to all our photographers: Randy Ehler, Lillian Johnson, Jim Kenney, Grace Murayama, Sarah Ngo, Chris Tosdevin, Joyce Waterman

[Chuck Almdale]

**Note:  After this was posted, I was informed by Grace Murayama that the so-called “pickleweed” is most likely Sea Rocket Cakile maritima, an European invasive widespread on ungroomed American beaches. She adds:

Pickleweed (Salicornia pacifica) is a leafless succulent and a California native plant, with teeny tiny flowers at upper joints.  It’s also found at the lagoon, along the walkways and at the brackish or salty water’s edge.
Sea Rocket has an interesting seed dispersal system, which helps it thrive and extend its range. The fruit is a swollen 2-jointed pod. “The upper part has a single seed inside a corky outer covering which breaks off when ripe. This capsule is impervious to salt water and floats off in the current to new locations. The lower half of the fruit also contains a seed which remains attached to the parent plant and produces a new Sea Rocket on its already proven favorable home ground…” (Nancy Dale’s Flowering Plants…)

I like both Sea Rocket and Pickleweed and think the beach and lagoon look better with either or both than without them, even if that opinion makes me a native plant heretic.

One Comment
  1. janeb permalink
    June 20, 2017 5:04 pm

    Terrific Chuck.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: