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Pelicans and Pipits – Malibu Lagoon, 22 October, 2017

October 27, 2017

Clark’s Grebe with his bright orange bill & stand-out eye (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

A group of Pepperdine University students trudged down the hill to the lagoon to join us today, fulfilling some sort of Biology class field trip requirement. Lucky them – it was probably the hottest field trip day of the year, as all of SoCal was being throttled by a record heat wave. I’m usually so busy talking and answering questions that I don’t bother to drink water. Today I knocked off a whole bottle.

Eared Grebe, wet (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

A few ducks have arrived, almost too few to count: Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail – one each. More exciting were the Aechmophorus grebes: nine Western and two Clark’s, although most of use saw five of the former and one of the latter. We had them at close range and everyone got to see how they differ in face, bill and flank patterns (see photo above).

Pied-billed Grebe, also wet (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants – again, one of each – were swimming offshore in the surf zone. It’s tough to see them well when they’re diving for fish, as they spend only a second or two on the surface before again disappearing.

Pelatic Cormorant has a long tail (R. Juncosa 10-22-17)

These birds were busily bouncing around as the eminently surfable waves kept rolling in, and the sun was inconveniently located to maximize viewing difficulty. However, Pelagic Cormorants have a long tail – when compared to other cormorants – and Ray Juncosa’s photo captures this characteristic. The tail is so long, it looks like a sodden squirrel tail.

Whimbrel briskly walking (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

The larger sandpipers – Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Willet – put in quite an appearance along the lagoon edge. A few were foraging for food, but most were resting, probably from a long flight from the north.

American Pipit in foreground, Song Sparrow behind (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

Although not commonly seen in Malibu, American Pipit has visited the lagoon and beach for decades; we’ve sighted it 21 times on our monthly walks, with a total of 51+ birds. We used to call them Water Pipit, as when we first recorded it on 9/24/89, the very same year it was officially split into Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta (Old World) and American Pipit Anthus rubescens (New World). It took a while for the news of splits to get out back then – widespread dissemination of such information via email and the web was yet to come. Pipits are in the family Motacillidae (Latin: wag+tail). Of the family’s 66 species, only three breed in North America, and an additional five species, such as White Wagtail, occasionally visit. The rest are spread across the Old World throughout Africa, Europe and Asia.

Brown & American White Pelicans with assorted companions (R. Juncosa 10-22-17)

On the other hand, American White Pelicans have never been previously recorded on our monthly walks. They are not plunge divers, as are Brown Pelicans. They prefer fresh water, or very calm and shallow coastal waters. They generally feed in groups, “herding” a school of fish into a tight group, then scooping them up in their bills. They cannot do this in choppy or deep near-shore waters. They are regularly seen elsewhere in the Malibu Creek watershed, such as Lake Sherwood and Westlake. This pair had probably flown downstream from one of those lakes and had been present for much of the previous week.

High tide today was +5.38 ft. at 10:50 am. We watched waves washing across the beach and into the lagoon. Significant portions of the beach were washed away, and the virtual fence – many yards from the surf zone when erected last spring – is close to being washed away. Plans are afoot to remove it before winter storms do it for us.

High tides nearly took away the virtual fence (G. Murayama 10-23-17)

Heermann’s Gull were also present in good (for them) numbers: sixty adults in basic (non-breeding, winter) plumage and four first-year birds, dark chocolate brown. Over the prior ten years, the highest October count was 45 birds. Our highest count ever was 350 on 4/26/15.

Assorted Royal & Elegant Terns (G. Murayama 10-22-17)

Check the terns pictured above. Elegant Terns are smaller than Royals by 3″, have slimmer, relatively longer, more decurved bills, longer black crests, and their dark crests surround – or at least abut – their dark eye. The eye of the Royal is often separated – and is more distinct – from the dark crest. In this photo, the Elegant ventral feathers (breast, belly, wing underside) are off-white compared to the Royals, perhaps with a rosy or pinkish cast. One Elegant has a jagged red streak which Kimball Garrett of the L.A. Natural History Museum agreed looked like blood or oil staining, possibly from a fish or crustacean source. Over the decades, the cause of the pink flush on the breasts of many gulls and terns has been debated.  Colin Selway (12/23/13) posted what may be the most recent and best explanation, from which I quote below. I recommend reading his entire posting.

Royal Tern in basic plumage (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

“Due to the temporary nature of the colour; usually fading within one month of arrival at the breeding grounds; the main theory used to be that a pink oil was applied to the surface of feathers, secreted by the birds uropygial gland at the base of the tail. It was also reported that there was seasonal variation in the red colour of the gland secretions; this cosmetic theory I suspect has at least a slight effect on some individuals or species but cannot be responsible for the intensity of the pink suffusion in the plumage of the majority. I remember many years ago preparing a study skin of a Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) in spring and finding while degreasing the skin in solvent it did not immediately remove the pink flush; the pigment appeared to be inside the feathers.

In fact, two recent studies have shown that at least in some species the pigments responsible for the pink coloration were oxy-carotenoids, mainly astaxanthin, deposited inside the feathers of Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis), Franklin’s Gull (L. pipixcan; McGraw and Hardy, 2005) and Elegant Terns (Sterna elegans) (Hudon and Brush, 1990). Astaxanthin was first named and characterized in 1938, extracted from the lobster (Homarus astacus) and called “haematochrom” until 1944 when Tisher identified the main carotenoid as astaxanthin.

Birds are unable to manufacture carotenoids endogenously, and in these cases the pink colour probably comes from the carotenoid astaxanthin, primarily biosynthesized within algae, phytoplankton and plants, ingested and incorporated into the tissues of the crustaceans, then fish, that both can form part of the bird’s diet, and are then metabolically processed by the birds. Some individuals or species may have evolved enzymatic mechanisms to convert various carotenoids into forms of astaxanthin or to deposit the pigment directly into the feathers. The colour could be further enhanced by wax secretions from the uropygial gland, the composition of these secretions is thought to change providing differing functions at different times of the year, and may well contain the carotenoid astaxanthin in one form or another. It appears highly likely that the pink coloration is dependent on the dietary availability of such carotenoids, this could be seasonal or abundant at all times in the food chain. One other source of caroteniods could be from the continued growth of commercial fish farming (marine and fresh water) this worldwide industry has created an enormous demand for pigments, as a vitamin source and to colour the flesh of Rainbow Trout, Atlantic Salmon, shrimp, Koi, Sea Bream, Yellow Tail and ornamental fish. On poultry farms it is also used to improve the colour of eggs.”  Link to posting.

Snowy Plover AA:BL (lower left band looks white but was Lime) (Jane Hines 10-22-17)

Snowy Plovers were running all over the place making an accurate count difficult. This may have been because the high tide – their favorite time to begin feeding – was coming and going all the while. Of at least twenty counts by at least four people, the high count was 25 birds. We’re going with that, although there could have been another ten birds afoot. Our Malibu mother RR:BB was there, as was AA:BL (left leg aqua over aqua, right leg blue over lime). This latter bird was banded as a chick at Ft. Ord during the 2016 spring-summer breeding season, and first showed up at Malibu on August 28, 2016.

Landing pad for unauthorized alien aircraft (G. Murayama 10-20-17)

We decided the object above was a target landing site for a drone helicopter. Larry Loeher thought there might be at least nine more of them somewhere around, as this one was “#10.” We contacted California State Parks, who told us that no such drones or targets are currently permitted to operate within any parks in the area. I wonder if we are witnessing the beginnings of “drone golf.”

Birds new for the season were: Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Eared Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Anna’s Hummingbird, Mew Gull, Brandt’s Cormorant, American White Pelican, American Pipit, Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Many thanks to our photographers: Jane Hines, Ray Juncosa, Grace Murayama and Joyce Waterman.

Great Blue Heron and his rufous thighs (J. Waterman 10-22-17)

Our next four scheduled field trips: Butterbredt Spring Halloween, 8:30am, 28-29 October; Newport Back Bay 8:30am, 4 November; Seal Beach NWR 8am, 18 November; Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 26 November.

Our next program: To be announced, 7 November, 7:30 pm; 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 viewpoint just south of the parking 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:
2017: Jan-June
2016: Jan-June, July-Dec 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.

Many thanks to Lillian Johnson, Chris Lord and others for their contributions to the checklist below.  [Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2016-17 5/28 6/25 7/23 8/27 9/24 10/22
Temperature 63-68 68-81 70-75 63-68 68-75 72-82
Tide Lo/Hi Height L+1.32 H+4.18 H+4.39 L+1.83 L+1.86 H+5.38
Tide Time 0627 1147 1039 0730 0559 1050
Canada Goose 1
Gadwall 15 18 15 1
American Wigeon 1
Mallard 25 35 30 7 27 15
Northern Pintail 1
Red-breasted Merganser 4
Pied-billed Grebe 2 1 3 5
Eared Grebe 1
Western Grebe 2 9
Clark’s Grebe 2
Rock Pigeon 13 15 17 3 5 6
Mourning Dove 4 2 4 1 2 2
Vaux’s Swift 40
Anna’s Hummingbird 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 3 4 6 1 6 2
American Coot 1 4 6 20 62 140
American Avocet 1
Black-bellied Plover 5 5 27 39 89 135
Snowy Plover 2 5 9 16 34 25
Semipalmated Plover 2 1
Killdeer 14 8 4 2 8 10
Whimbrel 27 2 54 45
Long-billed Curlew 1
Marbled Godwit 8 8 45 80
Ruddy Turnstone 2 4 7 6
Black Turnstone 1
Sanderling 7 10
Baird’s Sandpiper 3
Least Sandpiper 4 3
Western Sandpiper 1 2
Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Spotted Sandpiper 4
Willet 2 3 6 55 120
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Heermann’s Gull 24 19 7 11 64
Mew Gull 1
Ring-billed Gull 1 4
Western Gull 45 103 52 52 96 145
California Gull 3 2 1 98
Least Tern 3 20 30 23
Caspian Tern 4 12 12 7 1
Royal Tern 2 2 6 52 47
Elegant Tern 45 3 90 32 4
Brandt’s Cormorant 1
Double-crested Cormorant 12 11 22 18 36 45
Pelagic Cormorant 1 1
American White Pelican 2
Brown Pelican 18 68 35 14 17 17
Great Blue Heron 3 5 6 3 5 4
Great Egret 3 5 5 3 8
Snowy Egret 2 9 12 11 10 4
Green Heron 3 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 1 1 2 1
Osprey 1 1 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Black Phoebe 5 5 5 3 5 6
Say’s Phoebe 1 2 2
Cassin’s Kingbird 1 1
Western Kingbird 1 1
American Crow 5 7 2 6 6 5
Rough-winged Swallow 3 2
Cliff Swallow 3 15
Barn Swallow 10 9 12 6
Oak Titmouse 1 1
Bushtit 1 15
House Wren 1
Marsh Wren 2
Bewick’s Wren 3 2
Northern Mockingbird 8 4 2 2 2
European Starling 12 7 6 25
American Pipit 4
House Finch 30 10 10 2 8 16
Lesser Goldfinch 2 1
California Towhee 3 1
Brewer’s Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 8
Song Sparrow 12 6 6 2 3 4
White-crowned Sparrow 20
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 1
Western Meadowlark 1 1 3
Hooded Oriole 1 1
Bullock’s Oriole 2
Red-winged Blackbird 30
Brewer’s Blackbird 12 1
Great-tailed Grackle 4 15 2 3 6
Orange-crowned Warbler 1 5 2
Nashville Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 4 1 2 2 8 5
Yellow Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 12
Wilson’s Warbler 1
Totals by Type May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct
Waterfowl 44 53 45 7 27 19
Water Birds – Other 31 83 65 56 118 223
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 6 18 24 19 23 19
Quail & Raptors 0 0 2 1 1 0
Shorebirds 21 22 82 80 314 434
Gulls & Terns 97 167 207 128 161 363
Doves 17 17 21 4 7 8
Other Non-Passerines 3 4 6 1 47 3
Passerines 92 104 57 48 86 115
Totals Birds 311 468 509 344 784 1184
Total Species May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct
Waterfowl 3 2 2 1 1 5
Water Birds – Other 3 3 4 6 4 10
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 3 4 4 3 5 5
Quail & Raptors 0 0 2 1 1 0
Shorebirds 3 6 9 9 14 9
Gulls & Terns 4 7 7 7 5 7
Doves 2 2 2 2 2 2
Other Non-Passerines 1 1 1 1 3 2
Passerines 10 14 11 15 24 19
Totals Species – 93 29 39 42 45 59 59
One Comment leave one →
  1. Cathie Atchley permalink
    October 29, 2017 8:52 am

    Thank you for all the information you impart- fascinating facts, and much food for thought!
    My planned fall sojourn to California did not happen, but I haven’t given up hope..our long Minnesota winter will be filled with “California Dreamin”.
    Again, sincere thanks for your efforts! Looking forward to further posts!
    Warm regards- and happy birding!


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