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Winter’s Icy Blasts Chills Birds and Birders Alike: Malibu Lagoon, 25 February, 2018

February 27, 2018

Looking eastward along south edge of lagoon, Malibu Pier in distance
(L. Johnson 2-25-18)

No more of this nonsense about nice weather! Unlike January when temperatures spent far too much time above 80°, February was relatively normal for the season of Mudslide (our equivalent of Winter). We even had several inches of rain during the days following our walk, depending on where you lived, of course. Coastal ranges, such as our Santa Monica Mountains, might get 4” of rain, while downtown L.A. gets ½”. So it goes. On Birdwalk Sunday temperatures ranged 55-62°F, 8:30 AM to 11 AM. The locals braced for this plunge into the icebox by wearing the usual earflapped hats, down jacket over down vest over flannel shirt over thermal T-shirt, thermal pants and mukluk-style furry boots. You know, the bare minimum for inclement weather of this magnitude.

Double-crested Cormorant struggles to swallow a fish (G. Murayama 2-25-18)

It seemed the ducks knew the horrors weather had in store for us, as only 40 were present, down from January’s 109. Coots, cormorants and gulls dropped as well. In fact, we had only 54% of January’s total (see numbers in chart below). Total species present was also down.

Osprey (Larry Loeher 2-25-18)

The Osprey was there and is now on the verge of becoming an expected resident. It was spotted, in fact, carrying what looked like sticks (aka nesting material!) towards the Malibu Colony a bit to the west of the lagoon. Tall trees of eucalyptus and cypress are fairly common in the Malibu area. Considering the number of jumping mullet we see, the lagoon could probably support an Osprey pair through the nesting season. The only problem might be the lagoon breaches following rainstorms, which take a lot of water and undoubtedly some fish out of the lagoon and channels.

The Belding’s race of Savannah Sparrow used to be regular at the lagoon when we had pickleweed, as this subspecies reportedly will not nest where this plant is absent. Pickleweed has returned around much of the lagoon, and very occasionally a Belding’s Sparrow appears. The photo below was enlarged to the point of blurriness, but you can make out the bright yellow lores, bold breast stripes, dark fore-cap, dark line behind the eye and dark stripes on brown back. And for those wondering, the little reddish stem-ends where the plant concentrates salt are edible and do taste like pickles, even when they’re coated with dust. Don’t tell anyone I said so. But then, I love to eat durian (“The King of Fruits!” wrote Alfred Russel Wallace, co-formulator with Charles Darwin of the Theory of Evolution), so what do I know?

Belding’s Savannah Sparrow at edge of the brush (G. Murayama 2-25-18)

I didn’t put it on the list but we probably had a Sage Thrasher. Muriel Kotin heard an unfamiliar thrasher-song emanating from the brush around the parking lot, and Grace Murayama saw what looked like a “small roadrunner” shoot across the footpath to the beach. I’m guessing it was a Sage Thrasher: they’ve been widely reported around the area in all sorts of habitats over the past few weeks, a highly unusual event; while California Thrashers live just a bit inland, we’ve seen them at the lagoon only four times in 338 visits.

View from near PCH bridge towards southeast across Malibu lagoon
(Lillian Johnson 2-25-18)

Far more certain was the Sora, spotted by many and photo’d as it ran across the mudflat at the east end of the north channel, scooting from one patch of reeds to another.

The Sora hoofs it towards the reeds (G. Murayama 2-25-18)

Before the June 2012 lagoon reconfiguration began, Sora were nearly year-round residents, but they left when their reedy habitat disappeared. Reeds slowly reappeared – completely unassisted by humans as far as I know – and migrating Soras stayed briefly during Nov-Dec 2015 and Oct. 2016. The reed beds continue to expand, and in a few more years the Soras may become more frequent and numerous.

Great Egret stalks a lizard in the parking lot
(Grace. Murayama 2-25-18)

Marsh Wrens, another reed obligate, have been slightly speedier about reintroducing themselves. There were 1-2 present Sep-Nov 2015, three years after the reconfiguration, singletons present Nov-Dec 2016, 2 in Sep. 2017, and 1-3 birds present Nov. 2017 through Feb. 2018.

Chapter board members, photographers, and Snowy Plover aficionados Larry Loeher and Grace Murayama patiently watched and re-re-re-recounted the wintering colony of these birds, and finally settled on 34 birds. One banded bird was seen. The birds were feisty, chasing one another from (human) footprint to footprint.

We found a Merlin – a small falcon – cleverly hiding on the tiptop of a cypress tree. It didn’t seem to be doing anything except resting. A couple passed by pushing a baby carriage. As they appeared curious as to why all these peculiar-looking people were staring intently at the top of a tree, I suggested they look through my telescope to see the bird. “Like a Peregrine Falcon, but smaller.” I offered. Always helpful, I added, “It’s called a Merlin, like Merlin the Magician.”

Snowy Plover banded NR-GY in 2017 at Vandenberg AFB (L. Loeher 2-25-18)

By 11 AM the tide was far out and several rocky reefs were exposed, attracting the gulls and larger shorebirds. Except for several small groups of Willets and Marbled Godwits who dropped into the lagoon, nearly all the birds were on the rocks. The Ruddy Turnstones, for example, were working the sea-washed rocks beyond the gull flocks, and the Royal Terns were strewn widely along the stony shore. While the birds were few, the kids on the family walk enjoyed the tide pools; one young man found an octopus with tentacles at least a foot long!!

Black Phoebe shagging flies on the beach (G. Murayama 2-25-18)

Among the various passerines present, the Oak Titmouse was in the picnic area foliage near the colony, the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were clustered into a group visiting the brush near the beach end of the footpath, and the White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were all over the place. At trip’s end,  as we were clambering into our car to leave, four Nanday Parakeets flew noisily by, heading towards the beach.

Looking north towards the PCH bridge, lots of sand between ocean and lagoon
(L. Johnson 2-25-18)

Birds new for the season were: Sora, Pelagic Cormorant, Nanday Parakeet, Oak Titmouse, Savannah Sparrow

Many thanks to our photographers: Lillian Johnson, Larry Loeher & Grace Murayama.

Male House Finch
(J. Waterman 1-28-18)

Our next three scheduled field trips: Sepulveda Basin, 8:30am 10 March; Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 25 March; Malibu Creek State Park, 8am, 14 April.

Our next program: The Natural History of Santa Cruz Island, with Larry Loeher – Evening Meeting: Tuesday, Mar. 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, July-Dec
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, Allen & Muriel Kotin, Grace Murayama, and Chris Tosdevin for their contributions to the checklist below.  [Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2017-18 9/24 10/22 11/26 12/24 1/28 2/25
Temperature 68-75 72-82 56-63 57-68 67-76 55-62
Tide Lo/Hi Height L+1.86 H+5.38 L+2.94 L+2.8 H+5.99 H+5.21
Tide Time 0559 1050 0946 0654 0609 0459
Canada Goose 1
Cinnamon Teal 1
Gadwall 1 1 5 30 8
American Wigeon 1 3 15 36 4
Mallard 27 15 2 22 12 6
Northern Pintail 1 3
Green-winged Teal 6 1
Surf Scoter 2 2
Bufflehead 1 6 8
Red-breasted Merganser 4 8 3 4
Ruddy Duck 4 2 13 9
Pied-billed Grebe 3 5 8 5 1 2
Eared Grebe 1 2
Western Grebe 9 15 5
Clark’s Grebe 2 2 1
Rock Pigeon 5 6 10 6 8 8
Mourning Dove 2 2 2 2 2
Vaux’s Swift 40
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1 1 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 6 2 1 3 5 1
Sora 1
American Coot 62 140 60 72 125 85
American Avocet 1
Black-bellied Plover 89 135 115 28 22 25
Snowy Plover 34 25 31 35 19 34
Semipalmated Plover 1
Killdeer 8 10 4 3 4 10
Whimbrel 54 45 36 10 8 13
Marbled Godwit 45 80 135 57 18 30
Ruddy Turnstone 7 6 11 12 1 6
Sanderling 7 10 13 11 30 20
Baird’s Sandpiper 3
Least Sandpiper 4 3 10 6 1 3
Western Sandpiper 2 1
Spotted Sandpiper 4
Willet 55 120 85 11 9 14
Bonaparte’s Gull 1
Heermann’s Gull 11 64 5 4 5
Mew Gull 1 1
Ring-billed Gull 1 4 25 42 35 70
Western Gull 96 145 105 97 95 92
California Gull 98 385 560 1550 550
Herring Gull 1 2
Glaucous-winged Gull 2 5
Caspian Tern 1
Royal Tern 52 47 4 21 12 15
Elegant Tern 4
Pacific Loon 1 1 1
Common Loon 4
Brandt’s Cormorant 1 2 2 2
Double-crested Cormorant 36 45 32 32 73 37
Pelagic Cormorant 1 2
American White Pelican 2
Brown Pelican 17 17 45 5 6 14
Great Blue Heron 5 4 8 5 2 1
Great Egret 3 8 1 1 3
Snowy Egret 10 4 8 18 8 8
Cattle Egret 5
Green Heron 3 2 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 2 1 1 3
Turkey Vulture 1
Osprey 1 1 2 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Nuttall’s Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 1 1
Peregrine Falcon 2
Nanday Parakeet 4
Black Phoebe 5 6 3 4 3 1
Say’s Phoebe 2 2 4 3 3 3
Cassin’s Kingbird 1
Western Kingbird 1
American Crow 6 5 5 4 3 5
Rough-winged Swallow 2
Barn Swallow 1
Oak Titmouse 1 1
Bushtit 1 15 48 10 20 35
House Wren 1 1
Marsh Wren 2 3 1 1 2
Bewick’s Wren 3 2 4 3 3 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 15 7 8 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4 1 3
Northern Mockingbird 2 2 1 2 2 1
European Starling 25 8 50 15 10
American Pipit 4
House Finch 8 16 40 41 20 8
Lesser Goldfinch 2 1 1 8
Spotted Towhee 1
California Towhee 1 2 1 2
Brewer’s Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 8 1
Song Sparrow 3 4 2 9 4 5
White-crowned Sparrow 20 45 27 8 25
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 1
Western Meadowlark 1 3 3 2 2 4
Red-winged Blackbird 6
Brewer’s Blackbird 1
Great-tailed Grackle 3 6 12 6 1 2
Orange-crowned Warbler 5 2 1 1 2 1
Nashville Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 8 5 9 5 2 4
Yellow Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped(Aud) Warbler 12 3 12 12 20
Wilson’s Warbler 1
Totals by Type Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb
Waterfowl 27 19 14 58 109 40
Water Birds – Other 118 223 164 126 211 142
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 23 19 25 26 11 12
Quail & Raptors 1 0 0 4 6 2
Shorebirds 314 434 441 173 112 155
Gulls & Terns 161 363 524 729 1704 727
Doves 7 8 12 8 8 10
Other Non-Passerines 47 3 1 5 6 6
Passerines 86 115 211 194 121 146
Totals Birds 784 1184 1392 1323 2288 1240
             
Total Species Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb
Waterfowl 1 5 5 8 9 7
Water Birds – Other 4 10 7 8 8 7
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 5 5 6 3 3 3
Quail & Raptors 1 0 0 4 4 2
Shorebirds 14 9 10 9 9 9
Gulls & Terns 5 7 5 9 7 4
Doves 2 2 2 2 1 2
Other Non-Passerines 3 2 1 3 2 3
Passerines 24 19 19 22 22 21
Totals Species – 107 59 59 55 68 65 58
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kyle permalink
    April 9, 2018 8:38 pm

    Cool shots and nice blog! I initially noticed your “Cormorant and Fish” shots. Wow that looks like a giant fish (do you know what kind?) caught and staring deep down it’s captor’s throat here! So can the bird really manage to win the struggle and gulp that entire thing okay?? The Cormorant must have been hungry, if eaten, does the unlucky prey get swallowed wriggling all the way as well?!

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 10, 2018 4:44 pm

      Kyle:
      The fish was probably a medium-sized “Jumping” Mullet. I don’t think a cormorant could get down a full-sized mullet. If you talking about the cormorant & fish photo in THIS posting, the fish is already “down the hatch” and he’s not coming back up. Perhaps you’re talking about a different photo. At any rate, cormorants can get a pretty big fish down their throat although it may take them a long time to digest it, during which time the fish remains, to an ever-declining degree, in the throat. They always swallow the fish head first so the scales and fins won’t get stuck. Like all birds, the cormorant’s breathing tube is completely separate from their digestive tube, so they’ll never get run out of air or choke on food, unlike we humans.

      Yes, the fish may keep wiggling for a while. We often see this, especially with herons and egrets which have a very long and thin neck.

      Like

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