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Winter’s Icy Chill Strikes Malibu Lagoon, 24 December, 2017

December 27, 2017

The elegant Pintail used to be more common in the late 1970’s. (R. Ehler 12-24-17)

A surprising number of birders appeared, considering that it was Christmas Eve Day, and it was chilly. (57°F or 14°C is considered chilly around here. This blog’s title is tongue-in-cheek). We had a good assortment of birds, although all did not appear at the same time nor did everyone see all of them. The Merlin, for example. The first I heard about it was when I was asked: “Wow! Didja see that Merlin! What a show!” Well…no I didn’t, but thanks for asking. Once gone, apparently, gone forever.

Congener Phoebes: Say’s and Black, typically over-winter at the lagoon
(R. Ehler 12-24-17)

We had some people new to birding, and some birders new to the lagoon. Thus, plenty of questions and plenty of new birds for some of us. A cluster of (three, I think) birders had just finished a beginning birder’s course with Pasadena Audubon, and the gulls and shorebirds seemed to be new to them. As a reminder to our readers, our chapter has a beginning birding class beginning soon, but it might already be full.

House Finches seed-eating in beach brush (R. Juncosa 12-24-17)

Some ducks showed up, finally, so I guess the weather up north became a bit more wintery. I’ve recently read that some West Coast sea counts (stand on a seaside high point and count birds flying by) of ducks were down about ninety percent from prior years. That sounded about right to me. But today we had eight species of duck, two of grebe and two of loon. Not large numbers of any particular species, but good diversity.

Snowy Plovers a-plenty on the beach. Thirty-five of them, scattered widely through the washed-up detritus and footprint-hollows landside of the beach berm, including banded birds AA:BG and RR:BB, the latter bird spotted by Chris Lord.

Double-crested Cormorants in the lagoon, Western Gull preening (R. Juncosa 12-24-17)

Gulls were numerous. Most were California Gull, which is to be expected, but we also had one Bonaparte’s, one Mew (reported to me), Two Heermann’s, one Herring and two Glaucous-winged. Royal Tern was the only tern species. Forster’s and Caspian Terns must be around, somewhere, but the Elegants have fled to Baja for the winter. The larger shorebirds – Willet, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit – have dwindled in numbers by about 70% since last month.

Whimbrel pokes around the beach (R. Juncosa 12-24-17)

One or two of the heavy-billed Common Loons were swimming around in the now-shallow lagoon waters. Shallow because the beach was breached during a recent high-tide, most of the water ran out, the water level dropped a couple of feet (estimated) and the water surface area is probably half of what it was a month ago.

Common Loon toolin’ down the lagoon (R. Juncosa 12-24-17)

Speaking of water, the current drought and low humidity is really affecting plants and trees everywhere, causing them to dry out and encouraging all our recent wildfires. The “Thomas” fire had become the largest wildfire in recorded California history – over 280,000 acres (450 square miles), and many homes gone. Many of the bushes look extremely brown and wilted. The tree by the picnic area died and fell over. Someone dragged it out of the path. Downtown Los Angeles had 0.11 inches of rain for Nov-Dec, 94% below normal.

Bewick’s Wren – pronounce it “Buick” or he gets upset – are usually up in the chaparral (R. Ehler 12-24-17)

Western Meadowlark on his rainbird perch (R. Ehler 12-24-17)

On my way out I met a birder, who asked if I though the bird he was looking at was a Cooper’s Hawk. It was on the ground on the small island near our gathering spot. I do not expect to find Cooper’s Hawks on the ground, sitting quietly, doing nothing. I’ve seen them on the ground while eating some hapless bird or rodent, such as the one disassembling and scarfing a rat in my backyard one recent winter. But we agreed that it was a juvenile Cooper’s. Sometimes juvenile raptors haven’t quite figured out how to catch prey. I’ve seen juvenile Red-tailed Hawks chase squirrels by hopping around on the ground, and a juvenile Great Black Hawk in the Peruvian Amazon trying – completely unsuccessfully – to grab any one of over a dozen Hoatzins resting in a fallen riverside tree by jumping ungainly from limb to limb.

Nick, the birder, turned out to be an Ornithology student at San Diego State, visiting locally for Christmas. While I was making my best attempt to tell him how to get to the Ballona Creek jetties to see rocky shorebirds, we spotted a small falcon diving on the Cooper’s Hawk. It was a Kestrel. I haven’t seen a kestrel at the lagoon since 9/25/16, fifteen months ago. Then, to top even that, while talking to Lu Plauzoles in the parking lot about his waste fishing line collection efforts on the Malibu Pier, he spotted a Nuttall’s Woodpecker female whacking away in a nearby tree. This is only the seventh Nuttall’s we’ve spotted at the lagoon in almost forty years; the last one was in October 2015.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, another species usually up in the chaparral (R. Juncosa 12-24-17)

Apropos this unusual woodpecker coastal sighting, Lu commented that he had heard a conjecture from knowledgeable and local birder Dick Norton that the drought, dying trees and lack of invertebrate prey had forced many birds to flee local hills and chaparral and seek food elsewhere. Lu thought this might be why the woodpecker, the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Bewick’s Wrens were around the lagoon in larger than usual numbers this year. He may be right.

On the other hand, Chris Lord – SMBAS member, regular birder at Topanga Canyon and monthly bird census participant at Ballona Freshwater Marsh – had this comment after reading my original posting.

Concerning your Malibu Lagoon write-up and comment on Blue-gray Gnatcatchers [BGGN], my local experience is that many BGGN winter nearer sea level and are absent in winter up in Topanga State Park [TSP], at least in my counting area; then they reappear there in TSP for spring and summer. I have never learned if these are mostly local birds in vertical migration or not. At Ballona Freshwater Marsh (BFM) we count roughly 5 to 10 BGGN per monthly winter count, and I get 3 to 14 BGGN per Topanga State Park count, starting mid-March and peaking in mid-August. I don’t know why we don’t see more wintering at the Lagoon. Maybe there are more at Legacy Park [an inland park a short distance from the lagoon]? They sure like BFM, maybe for its larger habitat area.

Another mystery of nature as yet unsolved. [Sounds like a future PhD thesis to me.] Whatever is really going on, let’s hope there’s some rain in our near future.

A young White-crowned Sparrow (R. Ehler 12-24-17)

Birds new for the season were: Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Bonaparte’s Gull, Herring & Glaucous-winged Gull, Pacific & Common Loons, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Merlin, Barn Swallow, California Towhee.

Many thanks to our photographers: Randy Ehler and Ray Juncosa.

Our next four scheduled field trips: Santa Monica portion of Los Angeles Christmas Count, 6:45 am, 2 January; Antelope Valley Raptors & Other Specialties, 7am carpool time, 13 January; Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 28 January; Salton Sea & Imperial Valley, 9am, 10-11 February (a sign-up trip).

Our next program: The Salton Sea, with California Audubon – Evening Meeting: Tuesday, Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m., 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 Randy Ehler, Chris Lord and others for their contributions to the checklist below.  [Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2017 7/23 8/27 9/24 10/22 11/26 12/24
Temperature 70-75 63-68 68-75 72-82 56-63 57-68
Tide Lo/Hi Height H+4.39 L+1.83 L+1.86 H+5.38 L+2.94 L+2.8
Tide Time 1039 0730 0559 1050 0946 0654
Canada Goose 1
Gadwall 15 1 1 5
American Wigeon 1 3 15
Mallard 30 7 27 15 2 22
Northern Pintail 1 3
Surf Scoter 2
Bufflehead 1
Red-breasted Merganser 4 8
Ruddy Duck 4 2
Pied-billed Grebe 2 1 3 5 8 5
Eared Grebe 1
Western Grebe 2 9 15 5
Clark’s Grebe 2 2
Rock Pigeon 17 3 5 6 10 6
Mourning Dove 4 1 2 2 2 2
Vaux’s Swift 40
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 6 1 6 2 1 3
American Coot 6 20 62 140 60 72
American Avocet 1
Black-bellied Plover 27 39 89 135 115 28
Snowy Plover 9 16 34 25 31 35
Semipalmated Plover 2 1
Killdeer 4 2 8 10 4 3
Whimbrel 27 2 54 45 36 10
Marbled Godwit 8 8 45 80 135 57
Ruddy Turnstone 2 4 7 6 11 12
Black Turnstone 1
Sanderling 7 10 13 11
Baird’s Sandpiper 3
Least Sandpiper 4 3 10 6
Western Sandpiper 2 1
Long-billed Dowitcher 1
Spotted Sandpiper 4
Willet 3 6 55 120 85 11
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 1
Heermann’s Gull 19 7 11 64 5 4
Mew Gull 1 1
Ring-billed Gull 1 4 25 42
Western Gull 52 52 96 145 105 97
California Gull 2 1 98 385 560
Herring Gull 1
Glaucous-winged Gull 2
Least Tern 30 23
Caspian Tern 12 7 1
Royal Tern 2 6 52 47 4 21
Elegant Tern 90 32 4
Pacific Loon 1
Common Loon 4
Brandt’s Cormorant 1 2 2
Double-crested Cormorant 22 18 36 45 32 32
Pelagic Cormorant 1 1
American White Pelican 2
Brown Pelican 35 14 17 17 45 5
Great Blue Heron 6 3 5 4 8 5
Great Egret 5 5 3 8 1
Snowy Egret 12 11 10 4 8 18
Cattle Egret 5
Green Heron 3 2 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 2 1 1 3
Osprey 1 1 1 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Nuttall’s Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Black Phoebe 5 3 5 6 3 4
Say’s Phoebe 1 2 2 4 3
Cassin’s Kingbird 1 1
Western Kingbird 1 1
American Crow 2 6 6 5 5 4
Rough-winged Swallow 2
Barn Swallow 12 6 1
Oak Titmouse 1 1
Bushtit 1 15 48 10
House Wren 1 1 1
Marsh Wren 2 3 1
Bewick’s Wren 3 2 4 3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 15 7
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4 1
Northern Mockingbird 2 2 2 1 2
European Starling 6 25 8 50
American Pipit 4
House Finch 10 2 8 16 40 41
Lesser Goldfinch 2 1
California Towhee 1 2
Brewer’s Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 8
Song Sparrow 6 2 3 4 2 9
White-crowned Sparrow 20 45 27
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 1
Western Meadowlark 1 1 3 3 2
Hooded Oriole 1
Bullock’s Oriole 2
Brewer’s Blackbird 12 1
Great-tailed Grackle 15 2 3 6 12 6
Orange-crowned Warbler 1 5 2 1 1
Nashville Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 2 2 8 5 9 5
Yellow Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped(Aud) Warbler 12 3 12
Wilson’s Warbler 1
Totals by Type Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Waterfowl 45 7 27 19 14 58
Water Birds – Other 65 56 118 223 164 31
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 24 19 23 19 25 4
Quail & Raptors 2 1 1 0 0 137
Shorebirds 82 80 314 434 441 242
Gulls & Terns 207 128 161 363 524 633
Doves 21 4 7 8 12 21
Other Non-Passerines 6 1 47 3 1 3
Passerines 57 48 86 115 211 194
Totals Birds 509 344 784 1184 1392 1323
             
Total Species Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Waterfowl 2 1 1 5 5 8
Water Birds – Other 4 6 4 10 7 6
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 4 3 5 5 6 2
Quail & Raptors 2 1 1 0 0 5
Shorebirds 9 9 14 9 10 10
Gulls & Terns 7 7 5 7 5 10
Doves 2 2 2 2 2 2
Other Non-Passerines 1 1 3 2 1 3
Passerines 11 15 24 19 19 22
Totals Species – 105 42 45 59 59 55 68

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. ednalvarez permalink
    December 27, 2017 8:26 pm

    Chuck,

    I see from the latest blog that there will be a new beginning birding course offered by SMBAS. Would you please check once again that there would not be a use for the Cornell Bird Song set that I wrote to you about previously. Hard to understand why someone taking the course wouldn’t find it of use.

    Best wishes for 2018!

    EDNA

    Like

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