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Back Bay Newport Rails, Ducks and Herons: 14 December 2019

December 21, 2019

Down the path to the Nature Center (L. Johnson 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

And yet again The God of Tides was with us for a third year in a row, granting us a 6.21 foot high tide at 9:37 AM. The Weather Gods were also in a good mood, squeezing in fair weather and moderate temperatures for us. Keep it up, guys (or gals). Our only problem was getting there. Three out of four cars, traveling separately, completely missed the turnoff from the #405 onto the #73 freeway and were forced to jockey their way there via surface streets. This can be dangerous in Orange County where one can easily become traffic-funneled into a Disneyland parking lot, never to be seen alive again. The fourth car was Orange County local Enid who arrived by a different route.

Master photographer Ray Juncosa who shot all the bird photos last year and took many more this year, suffered a photo-trauma when the central processing unit in his camera went kablooey (a technical term with elusive definition) and ruined almost all his photos, including all the rail photos. So the photos for this essay may look a bit odd.

Identifying birds can be a tricky affair. There are many variables affecting your ability to figure out what you’re looking at, and they fall roughly into two categories: Set and Setting. [I’m not following someone’s thesis on this but am making it up as I write, so forgive me if it lacks coherence.]

Setting includes: location, habitat, brightness and location of ambient light, obscuring vegetation, movements of the bird, reflections, wind, air moisture (rain, fog, snow), rarity or commonness of the species, plumage variations, orientation of the bird to you (side, front, rear, above, below or other view), and probably other factors not coming immediately to mind.

Set includes: you. Everything external and internal about your body and mind, such as: acuity of vision, annoying aspects of wind and sun, fatigue of mind or body, pain in your left foot, hunger, thirst, familiarity with the bird family, genus or species, handiness and accuracy of your field guide, and – not least – your expectations. What do you expect to see in this location, season and time, what other possibilities are there, do you know what the field marks are and have you remembered to look for them on the bird?

All of this is my rationalization of why I had a tough time finding and figuring out three of today’s target birds. I know, I know; excuses, excuses.

The railing and the bay. The railing becomes a high wall further down.
(L. Johnson, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

The late high tide – 9:37am rather than 8am or earlier – gave us plenty of time to get lost (see above), amble around looking for California Gnatcatchers (heard but not seen) and look at every bird within sight. We finally arrived at the marsh edge at a location where the wall wasn’t too high for all of us to see over – hey, whose bright idea was it to build such a high wall next to a bird-filled marsh, anyway? – where we finally found a rail to study, sitting on some floating vegetation, surrounded by thin, obscuring reeds. I decided that it was probably a Ridgway’s (née Clapper) Rail (14.5″ long) rather than the much smaller Virginia’s (9.5″).

Hallelujah! It decided to move, and came directly towards us. Halfway along its journey it passed right by a Coot (15.5″). Check the photo below. It’s fuzzy, but you should be able to see the brownish blob in the foreground.

Brown blob in foreground is a Virginia Rail, much smaller than the nearby coot (Marie 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

This was far too small to be a Ridgway’s so it had to be a Virginia Rail. All this time we were looking more-or-less directly towards the sun, with lots of reflecting water. Viewing birds with the sun behind them, rather than behind you, always washes out all colors. You see shades of gray rather than reds, browns and blacks. When feasible, it’s useful to change your location to improve your angle of view, but in this case it was impossible. The bird got very close but instead of climbing up on some vegetation or floating detritus to give us wonderful views, it disappeared behind a low berm, never to be seen again.

Virginia Rail, two views. Notice the bright chestnut breast which you can’t actually see. (Marie, 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

Upon returning home and checking my 2018 report, I found my comment:

This 14.5” species (Ridgway’s Rail) looks a lot like 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.

Lightning had struck twice in the same place, but not in exactly the same way.

A little later we saw more rails, ten in total, including a string of seven sitting on the same line of floating vegetation or detritus, several hundred yards away, again mostly into the sun. Hard to see, hard to judge size. I thought I could see back feathers with warm brown edges and black centers. Well, sometimes, anyway. Sometimes they looked gray. Or dull brown. I assumed they were all Virginia’s like the first bird although I really couldn’t see them well enough to be certain.

Bushes, bay and rail-hiding berm (L. Johnson 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

The photo below is the best we have of any of these birds. The colors are a bit weird (enhanced, perhaps?). The back looks green to me, you can’t see the striped flanks and I can’t get any useful pattern off the cheek. Femi sent it to me saying she thought it was a Ridgway’s because “Long bill and it’s seen much more frequently than Virginia’s in that area.” Those are valid reasons for her conclusion, if they’re accurate.

Ridgway’s Rail (F. Faminu 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

The Ridgway’s Rail is more common at Upper Newport Bay in both my experience and according to eBird (Ridgway’s Rail versus Virginia Rail – click blue and red symbols on the linked maps for sighting details) and is reported far more frequently and in greater numbers, as it likes brackish water a lot more than does the Virginia, which prefers fresh water. But the long bill? I decided to check.

When comparing species with long bills, such as sandpipers and rails, it’s often useful to determine the length of bill compared to the head length front-to-back, which a profile view supplies. Skulls works well for this, but my complete collection of bird skulls of the world never magically appeared, so I use bird handbooks and field guides instead, measuring the photos or paintings as exactly as I can. This works nicely for Greater vs. Lesser Yellowlegs, or

Lesser (L) & Greater (R) Yellowlegs. Note relative difference in bill-length. (R. Juncosa, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Sanderling vs. Snowy Plover. I didn’t know if it would for Virginia vs. Ridgway’s Rails. In both these species bill-length exceeds head-length. But by how much? I got out my National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America (6th edition, 2011) and my millimeter ruler. The Virginia bill-length exceeded head-length by 33%. Ridgway’s was relatively longer, at 43%. So the Ridgway’s bill was relatively 10% longer.

I don’t know know about you, but I doubt that I can see that small a relative difference in length unless the bird is extremely close, like lying in my hand, conveniently dead.

I do this kind of obsessive nitpicking, infrequently, because it’s nearly impossible to judge absolute size ( 5″, 8″, 15″, etc.) of a bird or bird part unless you have something to compare it to, optimally the other species you are considering, right next to your target bird. In my opinion, people who claim to be able to judge size – large or small – of a single isolated bird at a distance should be regarded with skepticism. An eagle at a great distance is the same visual size as a tiny falconet close up. You need other details such as wing position, tail-to-torso length or bill-to-head length.

Just to be obsessively safer, I did the same measurements using the Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW, 1996) and Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (2003). Unfortunately, while the Ridgley’s bill was consistently longer than the Virginia bill, the relative bill-lengths and relative species difference varied. See the chart below.

NGS HBW Sibley Average
% Length % Length % Length % Length
Bill > Head Bill > Head Bill > Head Bill > Head
Virginia Rail 33% 14% 31% 26%
Ridgley’s Rail 43% 48% 54% 48%
Difference 10% 33% 23% 22%

Figure 1. Comparison of bill-length vs. head-length in Virginia and Ridgley’s Rails.

The Virginia relative bill-length varied from 14-33% and the Ridgway’s from 43-54%, with the species difference varying from 10-33%. If you take the average difference of 22% (Ridgway’s relatively bill-length exceeding Virginia bill-length), this might be visible to a good birder with good eyesight and good binoculars in good light with good angle at a reasonable distance. We didn’t have all those conditions, and I’m not sure I’m good enough to discern this difference anyway except at a very close distance.

American Kestrel working on a small rodent
(R. Juncosa 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

However, I agree with Femi’s conclusion. All the rails we saw, except the first bird which swam past the coot towards us, were Ridgway’s. The first bird, which I’m not sure she saw, was a Virginia. Problems of light, distance, obstructing vegetation, reflection, comparable species, familiarity, knowledge, expectation and assumption all interfered with my analytical process.

There were plenty of ducks, and we spent a long time searching through the numerous rafts and grouping for uncommon species like Blue-winged Teal, Canvasback or Goldeneye. We didn’t see any.

Green-winged Teal males (R. Juncosa 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

What I noticed was that the ducks were very “clumpy.” We’d see a group of 25-100 birds and they’d all be the same species – American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Canada Goose, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Bufflehead or Ruddy Duck – with a very few birds of other species among them. Diving ducks like Bufflehead and Ruddy prefer deeper water where they can chase fish or find crustaceans and mollusks under water, and the “dabbling” ducks like Mallard and Pintail prefer shallow water so they can find food while “tipping” at the surface. But even withing their preferred hunting areas, they clumped.

We went over to the bay’s southern shore and drove along the Mountains to the Sea Trail and Bikeway – a cumbersome name, and yes, it’s legal to drive on it, one-way, 15 mph. We stopped at a dirt pullout and scanned the herons and ducks. The reported Tricolored Heron immediately flew into my binocular view and landed, about 50 yards away. That was convenient!

Tricolored Heron (Maria 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

This species is fairly common along the coast of the southeastern and gulf states, down into Mexico and the Caribbean, and the mainland Mexican and Baja coasts. It’s from Baja that they occasionally wander north into SoCal. Not very often or very far north, though. I’d previously seen them only once in SoCal, and never in Los Angeles County. They behave a lot like Reddish Egrets, dancing and jumping around. The “tricolor” refers to their reddish, blue-gray and white plumage. Afterwards we cruised up the road looking at everything, but searching for a reported Little Blue Heron. We didn’t see it.

We lunched at the nearby San Joaquin Marsh, home of Sea & Sage Audubon. Although birding here can be very good, with rare birds often appearing, we left to search for the Red-footed Booby recently and repeatedly seen on the Corona del Mar jetty. Our only new birds (not on the list below) were an American Pipit on the lawn and some White Pelicans on the marsh.

Corona del Mar charges an exorbitant rate in their parking lots. $4.80 for an hour. They don’t tell you the price ahead of time, if you can find a working machine. They take credit cards and exact cash, although I don’t know how you pay in exact cash if you don’t know the exact amount.

We searched the jetties and rocks, picking up Brandt’s Cormorant and Heermann’s Gull, but no Booby. This is another tropical species that occasionally wanders northward. There seem to be more and more such birds recently, with occasional outbreaks of boobies and frigatebirds appearing. Perhaps this is a symptom of our increasingly warmer offshore waters.

Rather than go directly home, we decided to again drive along the upper bay’s south side. Perhaps we’d find the Little Blue Heron. Probably not.

Little Blue Herons come in two colors: blue and white. The juveniles are white, with some small dusky areas, two-toned bluish bills, blue lores, dark (often hidden) wingtips, and darkish legs and feet. It’s necessary to separate them from the similarly plumaged and sized and much more common Snowy Egrets. Normally, if the bird is white, that is mentioned by those who report it, so as to save time for people looking for it. It’s a tricky distinction to make at a distance, so it’s necessary to keep the field mark differences in mind.

Snowy Egret (R. Juncosa 12-14-19 Upper Newport Bay)

I had seen no mention made of its plumage in the several on-line reports I’d read. So I assumed that the bird was blue, and searched for a Snowy Egret-sized dark blue heron. None were to be seen.

At about our third stop, sitting in the car, idling as bicyclists rode by, we were looking around when Marie spoke from the back seat: “That egret not far away looks a bit weird. It’s got some splotchy dark patches on it.” I looked, and it certainly looked like it could be a juvenile Little Blue Heron, although again we were looking into the sunlight.

Little Blue Heron in white juvenile plumage
(Marie 12-24-19 Upper Newport Bay)

By the time we got the telescope out of the trunk and tripod extended, the bird had flown a couple of hundred yards away and looked pretty small. But we could see dusky patches, dark wing tips, two-toned bluish bill and dark legs with no yellow feet or yellow-green stripe running up the back of the legs. Little Blue Heron! A nice ending to the day.

The drive home was horrible, stop and go all the way, taking more than twice as long as did the morning drive.

Many thanks to our photographers Femi Faminu, Lillian Johnson, Ray Juncosa and Marie.

Trip Lists – Back Bay Newport 12/14/19 12/8/18 11/4/17
Canada Goose X X X
Gadwall X X
American Wigeon X X X
Mallard X X X
Blue-winged Teal X
Cinnamon Teal X X
Northern Shoveler X
Northern Pintail X X X
Green-winged Teal X X X
Canvasback X
Redhead X X
Greater Scaup X
Lesser Scaup X X
Bufflehead X X X
Hooded Merganser X
Ruddy Duck X X X
Pied-billed Grebe X X X
Eared Grebe X
Western Grebe X X
Clark’s Grebe X X
Double-crested Cormorant X X X
American White Pelican X
Brown Pelican X X
Great Blue Heron X X X
Great Egret X X X
Snowy Egret X X X
Little Blue Heron X
Tricolored Heron X
Green Heron X
Turkey Vulture X X X
Osprey X X
Northern Harrier X X X
Cooper’s Hawk X X
Red-tailed Hawk X X X
Virginia’s Rail 1
Ridgway’s Rail 10 15
Sora 1 X
American Coot X X X
American Avocet X X
Black-bellied Plover X
Spotted Sandpiper X
Greater Yellowlegs X X
Willet X X X
Lesser Yellowlegs X
Whimbrel X
Long-billed Curlew X X
Marbled Godwit X X X
Sanderling X
Least Sandpiper X X
Ring-billed Gull X X X
Western Gull X X X
California Gull X
Rock Pigeon X X
Mourning Dove X X X
Anna’s Hummingbird X X X
Allen’s Hummingbird X X
Belted Kingfisher X X X
Northern Flicker X
American Kestrel X X X
Peregrine Falcon X
Black Phoebe X X X
Say’s Phoebe X X X
Cassin’s Kingbird X X
California Scrub-Jay X
American Crow X X X
Common Raven X
No. Rough-winged Swallow X
House Wren X
Marsh Wren H X X
Bewick’s Wren X
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher X X
California Gnatcatcher H X
Ruby-crowned Kinglet X
California Thrasher X H
Northern Mockingbird X X X
Orange-crowned Warbler X
Common Yellowthroat X X
Yellow-rumped Warbler X
California Towhee X X
Savannah Sparrow X X X
Song Sparrow X X X
Lincoln’s Sparrow X
White-crowned Sparrow X X X
Western Meadowlark X
House Finch X X X
Lesser Goldfinch X X
Total Species – 80 59 65 52
X – Seen
H – Heard only
1, 15 – Number seen
  1. Kathy Kusner permalink
    March 20, 2020 7:14 pm

    Beautiful !!!




  2. December 21, 2019 9:17 am

    Thank you, Chuck, for your informative and fun report!  Best wishes for the holidays, and good birding in 2020! Enid Hayflick


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