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Back Bay Newport & Ridgway’s Rail: 8 December 2018

December 12, 2018

Looking south down the bay towards the Pacific Ocean
(Lillian Johnson, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

The Gods of Tides were with us for a second year in a row, granting us a 6.0 ft. high tide at 8:55 am. The Weather Gods were also in a good mood, squeezing in blue skies and moderate temperatures between one rain storm (actual) and another (predicted). Even traffic was light. On a roll!

Great Egret (Ray Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Our target birds for the day were [any and all] rails and the California Gnatcatcher. The local park ranger, just arriving, informed us that the best spot for this very endangered, uncommon and local gnatcatcher was between the parking lot and the interpretive center (with its open bathrooms). “I know everyone wants to see them because they’re so hard to find, but I see them so often that I hardly think about it any more,” he said.

Great Egret (R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Sure enough, about 30 ft. from the parking lot and almost the first birds we saw were three gnatcatchers – two well-marked and bright Blue-Grays and the smudgy brown California, scruffling around the ground and low in the bushes. Those with an ear to hear could detect their soft mewing call. Seeing them simultaneously helps with the I.D., and the California was a life bird for some of us. Onward to the bay.

The railing and the bay (L. Johnson, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Our birding route consisted of a bike/walking/running/horse path along the northwest portion of the bay, running all the way up to the Jamboree Road bridge over the top end of the bay. We slowly wandered along this route for a couple of hours, sorting through the numerous ducks, of which we saw far more than I was willing to attempt to count.

Male Northern Shoveler (R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Finally we spotted a rail. Then another. The birds were in the general direction of the sun so colors and patterns were difficult to discern, but through repositioning ourselves and careful observation, we determined they were Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus), formerly classified as Clapper Rail (R. longirostris).

Two Ridgway’s Rails, sitting on the pickleweed
(R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

We eventually saw about 15 Ridgway’s, including a group of 6 on one “island” of sticks and floating vegetation. This 14.5” species looks a lot the 9.5” Virginia Rail, and at several hundred yards it’s difficult to judge their size, other than that they were obviously all the same size, thus the same species. When a 13.5” Pied-billed Grebe paddled up to one and the rail was at least as large as the grebe, we erased the final wisps of doubt.

Ridgway’s Rail at slightly better lighting angle
(R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

The only other rail seen was a single Sora, spotted by Femi, but who scuttled off into the bayside brush before anyone else clamped binos onto it.

Lesser (L. 10.5″) & Greater (R. 14″) Yellowlegs
(R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

The larger shorebirds were common, especially Willet and Marbled Godwit. A dozen Greater Yellowlegs patrolled the nearby shallows; one Lesser Yellowlegs joined them and made comparison easy for us. Gulls were mostly Ring-billed and no terns were seen. Northern Harriers constantly cruised over the flooded reed beds and ducks.

Red-tailed Hawks in this area have been quite dark for decades
(R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

We had a good assortment of passerines prowling the brush, ground and hillsides, totaling 21 species. Prominent among them were Black & Say’s Phoebes, Cassin’s Kingbird, Crows, Marsh Wren (mostly heard), gnatcatchers, House Finch, Song, White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows. Among the Savannah’s we had at least three subspecies: Belding’s (a pickleweed obligate), Large-billed and another, probably a migrant from the north.

Cassin’s Kingbird like to winter in SoCal (R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Our next stop was Bayview Way just west of the Jamboree Rd. bridge, a good spot to view the ducks at the northwest corner of the bay. But street parking was completely filled, so we continued across the bridge and parked on East Bluff Drive. There are often shorebirds here but all we saw was a single flight of Sanderlings. Among the ducks were many dozens of Redhead, a few more Blue-winged Teal and a single female Canvasback, three species not terribly common in SoCal. Our species total was 65, including 13 ducks and 1 goose.

American Kestrel, probably a male
(R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Several of us had lunch at the Sea & Sage Audubon Center at the San Joaquin Marsh, located on Riparian Way, slightly NW of where Campus Drive crosses over San Diego Creek, a mile or so upstream from the Jamboree Rd. bridge. The ponds here usually have good views of interesting birds. We found a lot of Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal and White Pelicans. A few new species were: Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black-necked Stilt, Caspian Tern, Nuttall’s Woodpecker (heard), Tree Swallow, Bushtit, Wrentit (heard), American Pipit and a Palm Warbler. This last species, an eastern warbler, shows up in SoCal every winter in small numbers, and this is not the first time one has wintered at this particular marsh.

Male Allen’s Hummingbird (R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

For those who want to visit Back Bay Newport (aka Upper Newport Bay), I suggest the high tide days in December through February; check the on-line tide tables (December 2018, for example). Get there ½ – 2 hours before high tide, so you can (one hopes) watch the birds being forced out of their hiding places in the reeds. There will also be more ducks present farther into winter, with Canvasback, Redhead and even Eurasian Wigeon possible, plus more grebes and possibly loons. The Mountains to the Sea Trail & Bikeway one-way road along the east side of the bay also has excellent birding, usually with plenty of shorebirds. Link to map of the bay [Chuck Almdale]

Many thanks to our photographers Lillian Johnson and Ray Juncosa.

Trip List – Back Bay Newport 12/8/18 11/4/17
Canada Goose X X
Gadwall X
American Wigeon X X
Mallard X X
Blue-winged Teal X
Cinnamon Teal X
Northern Shoveler X
Northern Pintail X X
Green-winged Teal X X
Canvasback X
Redhead X
Greater Scaup X
Lesser Scaup X
Bufflehead X X
Hooded Merganser X
Ruddy Duck X X
Pied-billed Grebe X X
Eared Grebe X
Western Grebe X X
Clark’s Grebe X X
Double-crested Cormorant X X
American White Pelican X
Brown Pelican X
Great Blue Heron X X
Great Egret X X
Snowy Egret X X
Green Heron X
Turkey Vulture X X
Osprey X
Northern Harrier X X
Cooper’s Hawk X
Red-tailed Hawk X X
Ridgway’s Rail 15
Sora 1 X
American Coot X X
American Avocet X
Black-bellied Plover X
Spotted Sandpiper X
Greater Yellowlegs X
Willet X X
Lesser Yellowlegs X
Whimbrel X
Long-billed Curlew X
Marbled Godwit X X
Sanderling X
Least Sandpiper X
Ring-billed Gull X X
Western Gull X X
Rock Pigeon X
Mourning Dove X X
Anna’s Hummingbird X X
Allen’s Hummingbird X
Belted Kingfisher X X
Northern Flicker X
American Kestrel X X
Peregrine Falcon X
Black Phoebe X X
Say’s Phoebe X X
Cassin’s Kingbird X
American Crow X X
Common Raven X
No. Rough-winged Swallow X
House Wren X
Marsh Wren X X
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher X X
California Gnatcatcher X
Ruby-crowned Kinglet X
California Thrasher H
Northern Mockingbird X X
Orange-crowned Warbler X
Common Yellowthroat X
Yellow-rumped Warbler X
California Towhee X
Savannah Sparrow X X
Song Sparrow X X
Lincoln’s Sparrow X
White-crowned Sparrow X X
Western Meadowlark X
House Finch X X
Lesser Goldfinch X
Total Species – 80 65 52
X – Seen
H – Heard only
1, 15 – Number seen
  1. Susie Malone permalink
    December 13, 2018 10:29 pm

    I enjoyed your trip report with the fabulous photos!!! Thank you.

    On Wed, Dec 12, 2018 at 5:26 PM SANTA MONICA BAY AUDUBON SOCIETY BLOG wrote:

    > Chukar posted: ” The Gods of Tides were with us for a second year in a > row, granting us a 6.0 ft. high tide at 8:55 am. The Weather Gods were in a > good mood, and squeezed in blue skies and moderate temperatures between one > rain storm (actual) and another (predicted). ” >


    • Chukar permalink*
      December 16, 2018 3:54 pm

      Thanks, Susie. Join us anytime on any of our field trips, if you haven’t already done so.
      Our next is Dec. 23 at good ol’ Malibu Lagoon, where we should have lots of birds. After that it’s Jan 12, searching for raptors and whatnot in the Antelope Valley, then – surprise, surprise – back to Malibu Lagoon on Jan. 27 for our monthly walk with maybe even more birds than in December. And so it goes. – Chuck


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