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Mullet & birds at Malibu Lagoon, 26 August, 2018

August 31, 2018

Because we have readers all over the U.S. and in over 100 countries, it’s partially for you, our far-flung readership, that today I go well beyond our typical report of the birds we saw. The event described below is very likely only one of the negative impacts of climate change which we will be experiencing with increasing frequency as we proceed towards an uncertain – and possibly very uncomfortable – future for humankind. You may want to spread the news. Some aren’t listening. If this sort of event hasn’t happened near you, wait. And don’t be shocked! shocked! when it does. Unfortunately for those with children and grandchildren whom you cherish, it will be those very offspring who will bear the brunt of the future we now create, along with all the other lifeforms who share our planet, of course. It won’t be you; you’ll be safely gone; it will be your gift left for your children to endure.

The white dots are dead Striped Mullet; view of the Malibu Lagoon west end channel. (Lu Plauzoles 8-26-18)

I’m very sad to report this, but last week and into this week, there was a major die-off of our much-loved Striped Mullet in Malibu Lagoon. We’ll have additional separate reports on this event, so I’m won’t go into great detail here, but will give you a few details.

Great Egret & dead Striped Mullet on Friday (G. Murayama 8-24-18)

Dead fish in Malibu Lagoon were first reported on Monday August 20. By 8/22 “over a hundred” dead fish were seen. They turned out to be the Jumping Mullet (Mugil cephalus) (or Mullet: Bully, Common, Common, Flathead, Gray, Flathead Gray, Hardgut, Jumping, Mangrove, Poddy, River, Sand, Sea, Striped)  who have entertained us for years with their above-water antics. One of the surprises was just how many of these fish – thousands – had taken up residence in the lagoon and channel since the 2012-13 reconfiguration, and – until now – were doing fine.

Rachel Turba collects water samples (L. Loeher 8-26-18)

Some tests were taken that day: dissolved oxygen was 3-5 milligrams per liter, described as “… isn’t great, but also isn’t below the critical thresholds.” Water temperature was high: about 28°C (83-84°F). This was not good, as according to FishBase the maximum temperature limit for Mugil cephalus is 24°C (75°F). Many other mullet were still jumping frequently in the lagoon. Mullet were seen “roiling the water” as far as ½ mile up Malibu Creek.

Somewhere over 200 dead mullet in this photo, Malibu Lagoon
(L. Loeher 8-26-18

By Friday 8/24, the dead were estimated at 2000-3000 fish, throughout the lagoon and channel and well up Malibu Creek. On Sunday 8/26, bird walk day, the dead mullet probably approached 4000; many were in the 18-19” length (see photo below), but some were as large as 36”, stunning some biologists. Small dead Silverside fish were found of genus Menidia or Atherinops. A pale waxy/oily substance lay on the water surface (see photo above) around the fish which was later determined to be an lipid exudation from the decomposing fish. Our Sunday birding group saw a few mullet swimming sluggishly at the surface. Dead fish were stinking in the hot sun. Because very few scavengers came to eat the dead fish, State Parks personnel began removing them on Monday 8/27.

Mullet necropsy, typical Malibu Lagoon 19-inch fish, nothing negative discovered (Karina Johnston, Bay Foundation – 8-24-18)

Several dozen researchers, biologists, local college biology professors, State Parks personnel, Calif. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife personnel and others are now involved in figuring out what caused the problem and how to create a reporting and communication protocol so that such events can be reported more quickly and professional biologists can jump on such problems. Although some of the interested parties – including myself – think that the high water temperature is the likely primary culprit, nothing has yet been ruled out.

Caspian Tern with an edible fish (G. Murayama 8-26-18)

Necropsies have and will continue to be done, organ samples have been and will be sent for testing. Possible factors include: temperature, oxygen, harmful algal bloom, micro-habitat anoxic condition, pesticides (especially pyrethroids), bacteria, fungus, parasites, unknown chemicals. A similar die-off occurred a month ago at Ormond Beach in Ventura County. Such lagoon die-offs are not unusual along the Southern and Baja California coastlines.

Birds were not plentiful, especially birds swimming in lagoon and channel: six ducks and one lonely coot was it. Some terns, mostly Caspian, flew over the lagoon and dove on the smaller fish – probably Top Smelt – near the surface. All the other gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants and shorebirds stayed on the sandy beach and lagoon shoreline. A few Western Gulls tore at the more recently deceased mullet, but most of the dead were left alone to rot and stink.

Barn Swallow with bug (R. Juncosa 8-26-18)

Barn Swallows have been breeding at the lagoon for many years. After the young have left the nest, they line up on a leaning reed stem, or in this case a cable, and wait to be fed. Mmmmm, bugs!

Barn Swallows (R. Juncosa 8-26-18)

Here’s a view of Surfrider Beach, looking west towards the Malibu Colony residential area. The lagoon is located to the right; surfers dot the waves to the left.

Surf has eaten the beach right up to the Snowy Plover enclosure fence
(G. Murayama 8-24-18)

The recent surf and high tides had considerably eroded the beach, leaving a 3-foot berm drop-off in the sand, and the Snowy Plover enclosure fence is close to falling over. Beach walkers, who have been excellent at staying out of the enclosure until now, were beginning to enter the enclosure due to the complete lack of beach at high tide outside the fence.

Forster’s Terns and molting Black-bellied Plovers (G. Murayama 8-26-16)

We had a good assortment of terns: no Least, but Caspian, Royal, Elegant and a few Forster’s were present. Good numbers of Whimbrel and Black-bellied Plovers rested on the sand in all stages of molting. Snowy Plovers numbered 33, but no banded birds were spotted.

Western Snowy Plover (L. Loeher 8-26-18)

Another event – perhaps also related to climate change – occurred several weeks ago. A young Magnificent Frigatebird was photographed flying over the lagoon. Larry Loeher was there with Grace Murayama, doing their usual Snowy Plover count when the bird “approached from the direction of Malibu Canyon inland, circled the lagoon once, and flew off inland,” never to be seen again. This species is very uncommon in SoCal, but we should say that one was sight several weeks earlier a few miles up the coast at Point Dumé. There are only five species in their family Fregatidae, and they are nearly worldwide in tropical waters. They have many unusual characteristics, which you can read about here, here and here. I’ll just mention that they are the most aerially buoyant bird in the world, as they have the largest wing surface area to body weight ratio of all birds. This makes them wonderful fliers. We’ve also seen various booby species along the coast, some as far north as Monterey Bay near San Francisco. The tropics are on their way to us, whether we want them or not.

Ho hum – Just another young Magnificent Frigatebird crusing o’er the lagoon (Larry Loeher, 8-10-18)

Finally, as if it wasn’t bad enough that climate change is (probably) killing off our beloved Jumping Mullet, it appears we’re being invaded by mutant shorebirds, possibly the result of atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. Look closely at the photo below.

The dreaded Four-legged Sandpipers are now invading our shores
(G. Murayama, Zuma Beach, 8-17-18)

Birds new for the season were: Black-necked Stilt, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Phalarope, Forster’s Tern, Pelagic Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Bewick’s Wren.

Many thanks to our photographers: Ray Juncosa, Larry Loeher, Grace Murayama, & Lu Plauzoles.

Song Sparrow (L. Loeher 8-26-16)

Our next three scheduled field trips: Lower Los Angeles River, 7am, 8 September; Malibu Lagoon Coastal Cleanup 9am, 15 September;  Malibu Lagoon 8:30 & 10am, 23 September.

Our next program: Luke Tiller will present “Tails from the Platform: Hawks, Hawkwatchers and Hawkwatching”: Tuesday, 2 October, 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 2018: 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 for her contributions to the checklist below.  [Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2018 3/25 4/22 5/27 6/24 7/22 8/26
Temperature 55-62 63-67 61-66 62-68 70-79 72-76
Tide Lo/Hi Height L-.16 L-.15 H+3.86 H+3.50 H+3.31 H+4.36
Tide Time 1213 1028 0912 0826 0733 1030
Northern Shoveler 2
Gadwall 12 5 12 4 15
American Wigeon 8
Mallard 12 4 15 12 12 6
Northern Pintail 1
Green-winged Teal 6
Bufflehead 1
Red-breasted Merganser 6
Ruddy Duck 4
Pied-billed Grebe 1 2
Western Grebe 25
Rock Pigeon 10 1 3 2 6 30
Eurasian Collared-Dove 1 2
Mourning Dove 4 1 2 2
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 2 3 1 2
American Coot 75 2 4 1 1
Black-necked Stilt 1
Black-bellied Plover 10 9 1 17 125
Snowy Plover 12 9 3 4 9 33
Semipalmated Plover 4
Killdeer 12 7 4 8 8 4
Whimbrel 9 3 6 3 113 39
Marbled Godwit 7 30 3
Ruddy Turnstone 1 6
Sanderling 20 45 7 3
Least Sandpiper 1 12
Western Sandpiper 10 4
Willet 6 6 4 18 2
Red-necked Phalarope 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 2
Heermann’s Gull 3 1 5 28 8
Ring-billed Gull 10 1
Western Gull 120 18 112 75 95 85
California Gull 20 4 2 4
Glaucous-winged Gull 3
Least Tern 9 2
Caspian Tern 2 8 11 4 1 15
Forster’s Tern 2 3
Royal Tern 17 2 1 6
Elegant Tern 3 30 130 4 11 48
Black Skimmer 1
Pacific Loon 3
Brandt’s Cormorant 1 1 7
Double-crested Cormorant 27 18 15 7 16 15
Pelagic Cormorant 3 1
Brown Pelican 37 32 68 5 5 7
Great Blue Heron 2 1 1 2 3 3
Great Egret 2 3 3 3 4
Snowy Egret 6 1 4 5 10 25
Green Heron 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 4 2 1
Turkey Vulture 1 4 5
Osprey 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Nanday Parakeet 4
Black Phoebe 4 1 2 3 3
Cassin’s Kingbird 1
Western Kingbird 2
American Crow 4 2 2 4 4 2
Common Raven 2
Tree Swallow 3
Violet-green Swallow 6 2
Rough-winged Swallow 3 5 1 4
Cliff Swallow 5 8 1 3
Barn Swallow 15 4 10 15 25 16
Bushtit 6 1 20 27 60 30
Marsh Wren 2
Bewick’s Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2
Western Bluebird 1
American Robin 1
Northern Mockingbird 3 2 2 2 2
European Starling 23 13
House Finch 24 4 5 8 6
Lesser Goldfinch 2
Spotted Towhee 2
California Towhee 1 2 1
Savannah Sparrow 2 1
Song Sparrow 2 10 5 5 2 6
White-crowned Sparrow 28
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Hooded Oriole 4
Red-winged Blackbird 15 1 7 30
Brown-headed Cowbird 2 2
Brewer’s Blackbird 1
Great-tailed Grackle 15 4 4 3 4 7
Orange-crowned Warbler 3 1
Common Yellowthroat 2 1
Yellow-rumped(Aud) Warbler 12
Wilson’s Warbler 1
Totals by Type Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug
Waterfowl 52 9 27 16 27 6
Water Birds – Other 172 52 88 21 22 24
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 14 4 9 10 17 32
Quail & Raptors 2 0 5 1 0 5
Shorebirds 88 90 56 41 149 215
Gulls & Terns 179 57 269 95 137 169
Doves 15 3 4 4 8 30
Other Non-Passerines 6 3 1 1 1 2
Passerines 189 37 66 69 161 75
Totals Birds 717 255 525 258 522 558
             
Total Species Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug
Waterfowl 9 2 2 2 2 1
Water Birds – Other 8 3 4 4 3 4
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 4 3 4 3 4 3
Quail & Raptors 2 0 2 1 0 1
Shorebirds 10 8 6 6 5 9
Gulls & Terns 9 4 8 7 5 7
Doves 3 2 2 2 2 1
Other Non-Passerines 2 1 1 1 1 1
Passerines 27 15 12 11 15 9
Totals Species 74 38 41 37 37 36
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