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Social distance birding at Malibu Lagoon, 22 July, 2020

July 31, 2020

It seemed like a good time for a test to see if field trips were feasible.

Snowy Egrets vie for dominance (A. Douglas 7-22-20)

To maximize safety and compliance with local laws, I set rules: SMBAS board members only, masks and social distancing required, bring your own scope. A group of seven gathered, and off we went.

View from the pavilion (L. Johnson 7-22-20)

Overall it went fairly well. But we were a small group of civic-minded birders, and the only infraction was one person who couldn’t keep their proboscis covered. No rants, no foaming at the mouth, no summer soldier shouts of “Give me liberty, or give me death! Unmasked I arrived into this world, unmasked I shall take my leave!”

Great Blue Heron, neck entended
(G. Murayama 7-31-20)

A question arose. Where does the heron’s neck go when flying?

Adrian, our physician/anatomist-in-residence, replied: “To begin with, the heron’s cervical vertebrae (that’s the neck bones) have a unique structure allowing them to hinge over an adjacent vertebra. That is why they have that curious kink in the neck and how they can strike so swiftly to catch prey. This enables them to fold their necks in an”S” shape, hence they can lengthen or shorten the neck.”

Great Blue Heron, neck contracted for flight (G. Murayama 7-31-20)

I thought it just telescoped down into it’s torso, like a tripod leg, or perhaps the neck inverted itself like a snake swallowing its tail from the inside, or it compressed and stretched like the hose of a vacuum cleaner, or it Möbius-stripped itself into a parallel dimension, but then I don’t have the medical degrees requisite for this exacting a physiological analysis.

Lillian and I had arrived early, and while checking the parking lot area, found a group of seven – SEVEN! – Hooded Orioles, moving through the sycamore trees. We’ve seen Hooded Orioles many times before at the lagoon, as they’ve nested there for years in various trees, both deciduous and palm. We’ve seen both adults, year-old birds and juveniles. But rarely this many, all at the same time. Later perusal of A Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds, Baicich & Harrison, 1991, told me the following:

Begin nesting early April to early May. Two or sometimes 3 broods. Usually four eggs, sometimes 3-5. Eggs are long subelliptical to long oval. Smooth and glossy. Very pale blue, sometimes with a slight pink or purple wash. Finely scribbled and scrawled or with a few elongated blotches or specks of black, usually with the markings concentrated at the larger end. Sometimes almost unmarked. 22 X 15 mm. Eggs laid at daily intervals. Incubation by female alone. 13 days. Nestlings are altricial and downy. Down sparse; on head and back. Young tended by both parents. Leave nest at 14 days.

So this could have been a single family group – two adults and five young, from a recent hatching. But I thought one or two of the birds looked a bit older than recently-fledged. So perhaps it was a second hatching and one or two young from an earlier hatching accompanied the new group. Sort of an extended family. But the latter possibility is just conjecture.

Back home, I checked my spreadsheet and found that we’ve sighted Hooded Orioles at the lagoon 36 times with a total of 85 birds, including this sighting. Our all-time high count was eight on 7/22/01, followed by six on 7/24/11. Most of the sightings were of undoubtedly the same individuals in consecutive summer months, such as the one to four birds sighted over five months, 4/24/19 – 8/28/19.

We were certainly not the only people at the lagoon and on the beach. Perhaps half, probably less, were masked. Social distancing was practiced, generally, except for what appeared to be a surfing class for kids; they were shoulder-to-shoulder and unmasked on the sand, including their accompanying adults. Surfers, of course, keep their gear to a minimum and avoid masks. Once they’re on the waves, this seems sensible, but less so while they walk to the beach on the often-crowded path.

Malibu Colony and picnic corner in the distance (L. Johnson 7-22-20)

Birding while masked is not great. If it’s only you or your family unit, you can skip the mask when the contagious and obviously rabid “others” are not near. But in a group such as ours, with people clustered and milling about, you have to keep the mask on nearly all the time. I found that for at least the first hour, when temperatures were cool, my binocular eyepieces would fog up within seconds and I was constantly wiping them. After too many wipes, I just stepped farther away from the group and pulled down my mask when I wanted to stare at a bird. That solved the fogging problem.**  By the time we reached the beach, the day had warmed and fogging while masked didn’t seem to be as much a problem.

** Later Note: We now have two methods of conquering the mask/fogging problem without dropping your mask. Both easy and cheap.

High water over the summer clock sidewalk (G. Murayama 7-31-20)

Water height tile 7′ 8.4″ Summer Tidal Clock was wet (L. Johnson 7-22-20)

So if you go a-birding in a mask, keep your microfiber lens cloth close at hand, and maybe a handkerchief as well to sop up excess moisture.

The Canada Geese were still there, all eight of them, two adults and six near-full-size young. They were resting near a group of gulls, shorebirds and Western Snowy Plovers on the beach near the east side of the lagoon, the area right above the log full of Double-crested Cormorants in the photo below. I don’t think any of them moved a muscle the entire time we were nearby, admiring the shorebirds and checking the eight plovers for leg bands (none found).

Southern lagoon, Surfrider Beach & Malibu Pier (L. Johnson 7-22-20)

Birding was pretty good, but then after months of infrequent-to-never birding, it was nice just to get out in the sun and breeze and watch a few feathered friends flinging themselves about.

Western Gull or Western Lammergeier? A tough call. You decide. (G. Murayama 7-31-20)

As usual more than half the birds were gulls and terns, primarily Western Gulls and Elegant Terns. The latter were there in all plumage stages, from begging juveniles with stubby pale yellow bills to fully decked-out  adults. Same goes for the Western Gulls, our most local gull, as many of them nest on Acacapa Island, about forty miles away, along with the Brown Pelicans.

Juvenile Elegant Terns with stubby bills & adult Western Gull
(G. Murayama 7-17-20)

This is the time of year the Heermann’s Gulls return from their nesting grounds on Isla Rasa in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, a tiny uninhabited island where about 95% of the world’s Heermann’s Gulls and Elegant Terns nest. We generally get them in all plumages, but in recent years there have been massive breeding failures due to lack of proper sized prey fish. So it’s nice to see juveniles.

Juvenile & breeding Adult Heermann’s Gulls back from Sea of Cortez
(A. Douglas 7-22-20)

There doesn’t have to be a “bird of the day” but it’s nice when there is. We were staring at the outer rocks near the Malibu Colony of humans.

Adrian alerted me to it. “I think there’s a small bird out there.”
Me: “There are small knobs on those rocks which look just like birds. Sure it’s not one of those?”
“I think it’s a bird, not a rock.”
“Which rock is in on?”
“The big rock, on top, about in the middle.”
Scanning, then finding. “Hey, it really is a bird!…Jumping Jehoshaphat, I think it’s a Wandering Tattler! That’s a good bird for here. They like rocks, not sand, so we don’t get many.”
Someone asked, “Aren’t they down at Marina del Rey, on the jetties?”
“Yeah, but they’re not terrifically common even there. You’re always lucky to find one.”

Wandering Tattler on the outer rocks (A. Douglas 7-22-20)

So we admired the bird as best we could. A couple of hundred yards away, only 11” long, mostly gray, on a gray-brown rock, above a blue-gray sea and against a cloudy gray sky. I’ve seen tattlers only seven times at the lagoon, the first on 11/17/19, each one a solitary bird.

Wandering Tattler avoiding a breaking wave (A. Douglas 7-22-20)

You may have noticed that some of the photos, taken by Grace Murayama, have a different date. Grace and Larry regularly census the Snowy Plovers and Least Terns (if any) at both Malibu Lagoon and Zuma Beach. They couldn’t join us, so I included some of her photos from other dates. Here’s another.

Sanderling (L) back from breeding and Western Snowy Plover (R)
(G. Murayama 7-31-20)

Western Snowy Plovers, Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers often roost together on the beach. They’re all small birds with predators, for whom the more eyes the better, and they don’t compete with each other (well, a little, maybe) when searching for food. So they get along about as well as might be expected.

Birds new for the season: Pied-billed Grebe, Anna’s Hummingbird, Snowy Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wandering Tattler, California Gull, Elegant Tern, California Scrub-Jay, Wrentit, Hooded Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird. [Some of these species may have been present in March & April, but we weren’t there to see.]

Many thanks to photographers: Adrian Douglas, Lillian Johnson, Grace Murayama.

Our next three scheduled field trips: Who knows? Not I.
Our next program: We may carry something on Zoom near the end of August. Watch for announcements.
NOTE: Our 10 a.m. Parent’s & Kids Birdwalk is canceled until further notice due to the near-impossibility of maintaining proper masked social distancing with parents and small children.

Links: Unusual birds at Malibu Lagoon
9/23/02 Aerial photo of Malibu Lagoon

Prior checklists:
2019: Jan-June, July-Dec
2018: Jan-June, July-Dec  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 Lagoon Reconfiguration 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 restoration period June’12-June’14.
[Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2019-20 12/22/19 1/26/20 2/23 5/22 6/25 7/22
Temperature 54-64 56-58 56-62 68-73 64-70 60-66
Tide Lo/Hi Height H+6.08 H+6.43 H+5.70 H+3.53 L-0.52 L+0.71
Tide Time 0603 0705 0934 1031 0733 0819
Canada Goose 6 14 8 8
Cinnamon Teal 19
Northern Shoveler 13 12
Gadwall 14 29 39 34 31 40
American Wigeon 14 7
Mallard 22 13 10 12 23 27
Northern Pintail 2 1
Green-winged Teal 20 36 35
Surf Scoter 34 5
White-winged Scoter 1
Bufflehead 8 4
Hooded Merganser 2
Red-breasted Merganser 13 2 6
Ruddy Duck 22 35
Pied-billed Grebe 6 1 1 3
Eared Grebe 2
Western Grebe 6 1
Rock Pigeon 6 8 15 7 10
Mourning Dove 2 2 4 4 3
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 1 1 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 5 3 3 4 3 3
American Coot 45 12 40 4 2
Black-bellied Plover 35 43 57 14 10 15
Snowy Plover 39 14 4 8
Killdeer 17 16 12 2 6 2
Whimbrel 3 4 3 18 5 15
Marbled Godwit 12 12 52 4 1
Ruddy Turnstone 10 5 8 2
Sanderling 28 12 14
Least Sandpiper 2 2
Western Sandpiper 1 5 2 1
Long-billed Dowitcher 4
Wandering Tattler 1
Willet 4 20 6 1 6 8
Heermann’s Gull 4 8 3 4 9 65
Ring-billed Gull 50 6 44
Western Gull 120 11 82 210 120 90
California Gull 1100 110 215 4
Herring Gull 1 2
Glaucous-winged Gull 3 2 3 3
Least Tern 2
Caspian Tern 60 15 4
Royal Tern 4 1 6 55
Elegant Tern 195
Red-throated Loon 1
Brandt’s Cormorant 2 1
Double-crested Cormorant 37 18 35 14 15 16
Pelagic Cormorant 2 1 1
Brown Pelican 26 32 38 94 30 19
Great Blue Heron 4 2 2 3 2
Great Egret 1 3
Snowy Egret 24 1 6 3 2 8
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1
Turkey Vulture 2 1 5
Osprey 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1 3
Belted Kingfisher 1 1 1
Nuttall’s Woodpecker 1 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Nanday Parakeet 7
Black Phoebe 2 3 4 1 5
Say’s Phoebe 2 3 2
California Scrub-Jay 1 1
American Crow 4 2 6 2 2 4
Tree Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 10 18 22
Oak Titmouse 1
Bushtit 10 20 6 22 16
House Wren 2
Marsh Wren 2 2
Bewick’s Wren 1 1 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1 1
Wrentit 1 1
Hermit Thrush 1
Northern Mockingbird 1 2 2 2 2 2
European Starling 3 9 60 12
American Pipit 1
House Finch 6 8 16 24 5
Lesser Goldfinch 1 3
Spotted Towhee 1
California Towhee 1 1
Song Sparrow 5 1 16 12 3 3
White-crowned Sparrow 5 4 6
Golden-crowned Sparrow 1 1
Western Meadowlark 1
Hooded Oriole 7
Red-winged Blackbird 6 1
Great-tailed Grackle 2 3 4 3 20
Common Yellowthroat 2 3 1
Yellow-rumped(Aud) Warbler 11 8 6
Totals by Type Dec Jan Feb May Jun Jul
Waterfowl 93 157 174 60 62 75
Water Birds – Other 119 66 120 113 47 40
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 28 3 8 4 6 13
Quail & Raptors 3 2 8 2 0 0
Shorebirds 149 128 161 39 30 58
Gulls & Terns 1282 140 353 334 144 358
Doves 8 10 19 0 11 13
Other Non-Passerines 8 5 13 4 3 4
Passerines 43 43 102 62 137 99
Totals Birds 1733 554 958 618 440 660
Total Species Dec Jan Feb May Jun Jul
Waterfowl 6 10 12 3 3 3
Water Birds – Other 7 6 5 4 4 4
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 2 2 2 2 3 3
Quail & Raptors 2 2 2 2 0 0
Shorebirds 9 9 9 5 6 10
Gulls & Terns 7 7 6 6 3 5
Doves 2 2 2 0 2 2
Other Non-Passerines 4 3 5 1 1 2
Passerines 13 15 25 9 11 13
Totals Species –   93 52 56 68 32 33 42
  1. paula shuman permalink
    August 2, 2020 10:32 pm

    FYI,when walking by Marina del Rey Middle School, last Monday there was a large flock of Canadian Geese on the grass fields – close to 20 I would guess.

    Paula Shuman

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chukar permalink*
      August 3, 2020 11:15 am

      Many ornithologists and birders are not overjoyed to see Canada Geese take up the habit of nesting in our area. Prime among the reasons is they’re hogging nesting sites formerly used by the smaller ducks, and goose poop on the lawns. You probably know that old metaphor combining the goose, poop and speed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. permalink
    August 2, 2020 4:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this email.It was heartening to read/see in these surreal times.

    Liked by 1 person

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