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Interesting events at Malibu Lagoon: 21 October, 2020

October 31, 2020

Small, controlled field trips in open spaces still seem feasible.
We had ten people this time.

[By Chuck Almdale]

Malibu beach-birder-lagoon-pier (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

We had ten masked and equidistant birders this time, including Mary Prismon and daughter Roxie, neither of whom we’d seen in at least six months. The lagoon breach had closed up and water was quite high, reaching about 6 ½ ft. on the tidal clock sidewalk. (It’s hard to be certain as the marker tiles are covered by dirt and plants.) Temperatures were good – 64 to 68° – a semi-sunny day, no breeze at all and the waves were middlin’ to good and dotted with surfers. A nice day.

Inundated tidal clock sidewalk (L Johnson 10-21-20)

Despite all the water, there were surprisingly few ducks, although there were over 100 coots. Seventeen ducks, nine of which were Ruddy Duck, which is very unusual. Not even a Mallard! The White Wagtail which had been present on 5 October when the low water left a sandy rim around lagoon and channel, was gone.

[Later note: Jimy Tallal send in a note on 11/3/20 that all the Mallards and a lot of egrets were across PCH at Legacy Park on Civic Center Way. That’s also where Chris Tosdevin saw the immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.]

Vermilion Flycatcher (C. Tosdevin 10-19-20)

But it was replaced by another rarity for the lagoon – a Vermilion Flycatcher. The bird had been there for at least two days, as Chris Tosdevin photographed it on the 19th. This was the first sighting at the lagoon for him and for all of us, and was a life bird for one of our group. It looked like a first year male as the vermilion on the center of the breast was incomplete. This bird’s breeding range extends from SoCal (Morongo Valley) to central Texas and south all the way to Argentina, but the birds that winter along the SoCal coast must come from nearby. He was madly flying and flitting and flycatching all over the west end of the channel, making the taking of photographs quite a challenge.

Left – Vermilion Flycatcher (C. Tosdevin 10-19-20)
Right – Vermilion Flycatcher U.S. Range | BirdFellow_com

Common Yellowthroat male at home (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

We beat our way along the path to the beach, but other than several large bands of Bushtits, there weren’t many birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers were scattered in ones and twos, the Common Yellowthroats were in bushes and reeds around the edges of the channels, and the two Orange-crowned Warblers were gleaning tiny ants – Argentinian, I suppose – from leafy bushes.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

The eminently surfable waves were washing over the offshore rocks, so no birds there, but several Pelagic Cormorants dove and swam in the surf zone, looking like snake birds. Far offshore a loon flew by. It looked like a Red-throated, slender, with head and tail lower than back and mostly pale underneath, although October is a bit early for them.

Cormorants & Egret in a reflective mood (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

Several groups of Sanderlings, totaling 75 birds, ran back and forth with the lapping waves. Ray commented that they were feeding only on the wet sand. As the water retreated, they’d run down to the wettest portion they could reach, quickly poke around, then run back up to avoid getting knocked down by the next incoming wavelet. Here’s what Terres’ Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds says about this behavior:

Sanderling scatter to avoid a wave (C. Bragg 10-21-20)

…on wet beaches of coasts, probes vigorously with partly opened bill, making series of small holes in straight or curving lines to catch minute crustaceans (beach “fleas,” hippa crabs, shrimps, etc.), also eats small mollusks (mussels, for example), marine worms (Bent, 1927)…

Sanderling on foam (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

I’ve never heard of a “hippa crab,” so I looked them up. They’re crustaceans, ten-legged (order: Decapoda), known as Sand Crabs (family Hippidae), and they fall into three genera Emerita, Hippa and Mastigochirus. At this point, confusion takes over. Around here, it may be the Pacific Mole Crab (Hippa pacifica), or it may be the Pacific Mole Crab (Emerita analoga). [Not a typo]. Or these two may be the exact same animal. Wikipedia on Hippa says Hippa “is closely related to the genus Emerita, and species have often been transferred between the two genera.” Wikipedia on  Emerita says ” the related genus Hippa is found across the Indo-Pacific, including Australia.” So it’s Emerita analoga (I concluded) who live in our SoCal “swash zones,” the area of the sandy beach constantly washed over by incoming waves.  This site says Emerita analoga ranges from Baja’s Magdalena Bay to Alaska, and grow to 1.4” long and 1” wide.  

Female Pacific Mole Crab Emerita analoga (Wikipedia)

It turned out I’ve caught-and-released many of these creatures. It’s easy and fun and they wriggle in your hands, trying to burrow backwards between your fingers to hide, just as they do in the wave-washed sand. Unfortunately for them, it’s also easy for gulls, sandpipers and surf fishermen to catch them, only they don’t “release.”

Link to a very nice PBS Deep Look film on Pacific Mole Crabs and some discussion.
Link to an autobiography by a Pacific Mole (or Sand) Crab.

Beach, waves & pier (L. Johnson 10-21-20)

Sanderlings are only 8” long and there’s no way (on God’s Green Earth!!) they’ll be swallowing a 1.4” x 1” crab. Whatever they were catching was invisible to our naked human eyes. My guess is that they were catching really really small crabs – crabs have to start really really small, before they reach 1.4” long, right? – or eggs; perhaps mole crab eggs, perhaps grunion eggs, perhaps any number of invertebrate eggs. I have seen Marbled Godwits and Whimbrels snagging the larger 1.4” Mole Crabs from the “swash zone.”  I welcome enlightenment from any of our readers on what they might have been eating.

Ray photographs the sandpipers (L. Johnson 10-21-20)

That mystery now unsolved, we wandered over to the lagoon edge where the sandpipers and plovers, such as they were, were spread out along the water’s edge. Leaving out the 75 Sanderlings in the swash zone, of the 154 sandpipers and plovers, 91 were Black-bellied Plover, 42 were Snowy Plover, and the few remaining birds were in five species. They were mostly snoozing, or trying to snooze. About 10 of the 42 Snowy Plovers were busily running around; the rest sat in their little dimples in the sand, soaking up the sun. I saw no banded birds.

Snowy Plover (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

The Ruddy Turnstones and the other plovers and ‘pipers were all well into their winter (or basic) plumages.

Ruddy Turnstone steps lightly (R. Juncosa 10-21-20)

Birds new for the season: Surf Scoter, Ruddy Duck, Eared Grebe, Anna’s Hummingbird, Red-throated Loon, Vermilion Flycatcher, White-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

South channel to lagoon (L. Johnson 10-21-20)

Birds new for the season: Northern Pintail, Vaux’s Swift, Marbled Godwit, Sanderling, Spotted Sandpiper, Say’s Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Marsh Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, California Towhee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler.

Many thanks to photographers: Chuck Bragg, Lillian Johnson, Ray Juncosa, and Chris Tosdevin.

The next three SMBAS scheduled field trips: Who knows? Not I.
The next SMBAS program: November 3, Seaweed Faceoff! with Lauren Smith, on ZOOM, 7:30 PM.
The SMBAS 10 a.m. Parent’s & Kids Birdwalk is canceled until further notice due to the near-impossibility of maintained 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 
2020: Jan-July,    
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 20205/226/257/228/269/2410/21
Tide Lo/Hi HeightH+3.53L-0.52L+0.71L+2.52L+3.05L+2.70
Tide Time103107330819095810040634
Canada Goose1488   
American Wigeon     3
Northern Pintail    2 
Green-winged Teal   1  
Surf Scoter     3
Ruddy Duck     9
Pied-billed Grebe  3322
Eared Grebe     1
Western Grebe1     
Rock Pigeon 7104610
Mourning Dove 43542
Vaux’s Swift    8 
Anna’s Hummingbird  1  1
Allen’s Hummingbird433 11
American Coot4 2 48118
Black-bellied Plover1410156610291
Snowy Plover  8262742
Semipalmated Plover   48 
Marbled Godwit41  35
Ruddy Turnstone  2216
Sanderling    3975
Least Sandpiper  22112 
Western Sandpiper 2181 
Short-billed Dowitcher   2  
Long-billed Dowitcher  4   
Spotted Sandpiper    21
Wandering Tattler  1   
Heermann’s Gull49651014 
Western Gull21012090989021
California Gull  417121
Glaucous-winged Gull3     
Least Tern2  2  
Caspian Tern601541  
Forster’s Tern   4  
Royal Tern55  1112 
Elegant Tern  1952211 
Red-throated Loon     1
Brandt’s Cormorant 1    
Double-crested Cormorant141516184316
Pelagic Cormorant 1 113
Brown Pelican943019855
Great Blue Heron 32433
Great Egret 134201
Snowy Egret328425
Black-crowned Night-Heron1  2  
Osprey1  1 1
Cooper’s Hawk1     
Belted Kingfisher   12 
Black Phoebe 15545
Say’s Phoebe    12
Vermilion Flycatcher     1
Loggerhead Shrike    1 
California Scrub-Jay  112 
American Crow224334
Rough-winged Swallow   1  
Cliff Swallow 1    
Barn Swallow10182220  
House Wren   1 2
Marsh Wren    5 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher    52
Wrentit  1 1 
Western Bluebird   4  
Northern Mockingbird2221 2
European Starling960122725
House Finch16245484
Lesser Goldfinch    22
Lawrence’s Goldfinch    15 
California Towhee1   11
Song Sparrow1233437
White-crowned Sparrow     4
Western Meadowlark   25  
Hooded Oriole  7   
Red-winged Blackbird  1   
Great-tailed Grackle43202 2
Orange-crowned Warbler    42
Common Yellowthroat 1 445
Yellow Warbler    2 
Yellow-rumped(Aud) Warbler     10
Totals by TypeMayJunJulAugSepOct
Water Birds – Other11347403099146
Herons, Egrets & Ibis461314259
Quail & Raptors200101
Gulls & Terns33414435836412922
Other Non-Passerines4341112
Totals Birds618440660790619573
Total SpeciesMayJunJulAugSepOct
Water Birds – Other444457
Herons, Egrets & Ibis233433
Quail & Raptors200101
Gulls & Terns635852
Other Non-Passerines112132
Totals Species – 84323342485148

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