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Heermann’s Gulls at Malibu Lagoon, 16 May 2021

May 20, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

Lagoon & algae, Heermann’s Gulls, cormorants & pelicans, Surfrider Beach & the hills above Malibu (Ray Juncosa, 5-16-21)

The lagoon outlet is closed and the lagoon water level is high—7.0 ft above sea level on the tidal sidewalk. Recent warm weather (over 90° across the southland) warmed the water and algae now covers much of the surface. Algae usually is not this abundant until well into summer.

Yes, that’s water, all the way up to 7 feet above sea level (Lillian Johnson 5-15-21)

Weather was cloudy and cool with temperatures in the 59°-68° range in the morning. Tide was rising from the +1.57 ft. low at 7:36am. Very little wind and an ocean swell coming from somewhere far, far away brought really nicely shaped surf. A great many surfers dotted the waves all morning long.

A cloud-shrouded lagoon (L. Johnson 5-16-21)

Except for Mallard, Gadwall and Canada Goose, many of whom remain to nest, the ducks have all left. Only six coots and a single Pied-billed Grebe kept them company, so the lagoon surface was nearly empty.

The reed beds are still quite flattened from the storm over a month ago. One Green Heron found it a convenient spot to rest. These birds are regular visitors, but for some reason we’ve consistently missed them since November 2019.

Green Herons are olive-green on their back (R. Juncosa 5-16-21)

Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Elegant Terns, and Heermann’s Gulls were in relatively large numbers, most of them crowded onto one of the low and narrow sand islands near the lagoon’s southern edge.

We had 280 Heermann’s Gulls, all but two were sub-adult. Lu Plauzoles counted 36 juveniles. This struck all of us as an extraordinary number of Heermann’s, especially for May, when most of them are still down in Baja, finishing up their breeding season. So I did a little research and found:

Heermann’s Gulls at Malibu Lagoon

  • Average May count for period 2011-2020: 11.2 birds.
  • Years 2011-2020 with none present in May: 2011, 2017
  • Previous high count in May: 61 on 5-27-07
  • Sightings >100 birds: 9 out of 263 times they were present: 350 on 4-26-15, 280 5-16-21, 155 3-23-14, 142 1-23-05, 139 11-6-82, 127 1-28-07, 125 7-25-10, 120 10-23-05, 112 11-2-80.

So 280 birds on 5-16-21 was our highest May count by far, and the second highest count of all time. The most obvious assumption is that they finished nesting early and dispersed from Isla Rasa, where about 95% of them nest, along with most of the world’s Elegant Terns.

Brown Pelicans and (mostly) Elegant Terns. (R. Juncosa 5-16-21)

There were also 235 Brown Pelicans, another high number. Our all-time high for them is 1490 birds on 4-26-15, with an additional scattering of sightings in the mid-to-high hundreds. 107 Elegant Terns, 13 Caspian Terns and only 46 other gulls rounded out the gull/tern group.

Elegant Terns spooked easily, frequently taking flight for no apparent reason (R. Juncosa 5-16-21)

Shorebirds were almost entirely absent: 31 total sandpipers and plovers including 19 Marbled Godwit. Unusual among them was a lone male Red-necked Phalarope. This is one of the few North American species in which the female is more brightly plumaged than the male. Such sexual dimorphism reversal generally (if not always) signals polyandry, and all three of our phalarope species are indeed polyandrous, with the male performing most of the nesting duties including watching over the young.

Male Red-necked Phalarope paddling through the algae. The female is even more colorful. (R. Juncosa 5-16-21)

The ducks have already started breeding. Watching from the newly rebuilt observation deck atop the Adamson boathouse, we saw below us a pair of Mallards leading 4 downy ducklings from the brush into the small pool below. The puffball-ducklings were so buoyant they could hardly swim. Whatever they were pecking at on the water surface was too small to be seen by us. Perhaps they weren’t pecking at anything, but just imitating their parents feeding behavior. That’s how we all learn, isn’t it?

While walking back from Adamson House across the PCH bridge we spotted two Red-shouldered Hawks, flying overhead, heading west, one in sub-adult plumage and missing at least one flight feather, the other a very brightly plumaged adult. The last time we spotted this species, which has long nested not far upstream, was back in November 2018.

The swallows kept us very busy, constantly shooting above, by and between us, some high, some low. Most were bright rusty-brown and shiny-blue Barn Swallows, but Cliff Swallows, three Rough-winged and two Violet-green were also in the mix. The Violet-greens (or Violent Greens as they’re sometimes called) nests in our local mountains and farther north, but we see them nearly every year at the lagoon during migration.

Male House Finch keeps a close eye on those berries to his right (R. Juncosa 5-16-21)

Last but not least was a bright and colorful pair of Yellow Warblers, the male’s breast covered with red streaks, working the beach-edge bushes near Malibu Colony’s west-end fence.

Birds new for the season: Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Western Kingbird,, Violet-green Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Oak Titmouse, Yellow Warbler.

Many thanks to photographers: Lillian Johnson & Ray Juncosa

The next SMBAS scheduled field trips: Maybe in September. We’ll see.

The next SMBAS program: We may have a June Zoom meeting. Watch for announcements.

The SMBAS 10 a.m. Parent’s & Kids Birdwalk remains canceled until further notice due to the near-impossibility of maintained proper masked social distancing with parents and small children.

Barn Swallow on rain bird
(C. Tosdevin 4-25-21)

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

Prior checklists:
2020: Jan-JulyJuly-Dec  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 2020-2112/221/222/223/224/255/22
Tide Lo/Hi HeightL+2.15L+0.86L-0.13L+0.86H+4.83L+1.57
Tide Time105212231314122308430736
Snow Goose2     
(Black) Brant    1 
Canada Goose 88686
Cinnamon Teal  47  
Northern Shoveler   8  
American Wigeon268128  
Northern Pintail122   
Green-winged Teal861125  
Surf Scoter13 152  
Red-breasted Merganser12112123 
Ruddy Duck19625   
Pied-billed Grebe326611
Eared Grebe5 12  
Western Grebe2 4114 
Rock Pigeon14346915
Mourning Dove2 16  
Anna’s Hummingbird2 2311
Allen’s Hummingbird2 2242
American Coot445110210235756
Black Oystercatcher4244  
Black-bellied Plover10252531225
Snowy Plover222127230 
Semipalmated Plover41  29 
Marbled Godwit8101110  
Ruddy Turnstone61 5  
Dunlin    1 
Least Sandpiper136481 
Western Sandpiper  1420 
Spotted Sandpiper2 1 1 
Greater Yellowlegs1     
Heermann’s Gull431624228280
Ring-billed Gull651538126 
Western Gull343080654035
California Gull485502351303510
Herring Gull1  1  
Glaucous-winged Gull331111
Caspian Tern   42013
Royal Tern356246 
Elegant Tern    395107
Pacific Loon1 1   
Brandt’s Cormorant  5   
Double-crested Cormorant288552251226
Pelagic Cormorant1 1 1 
Brown Pelican321621227105235
Great Blue Heron313  3
Great Egret122211
Snowy Egret23109321
Green Heron     1
Black-crowned Night-Heron  1   
Turkey Vulture21 1 1
Osprey11 221
Cooper’s Hawk 1    
Red-shouldered Hawk     2
Belted Kingfisher11    
Nuttall’s Woodpecker 1    
Downy Woodpecker1     
Peregrine Falcon    1 
Black Phoebe612286
Say’s Phoebe51    
Western Kingbird     1
California Scrub-Jay  12  
American Crow1462544
Common Raven   1  
Violet-green Swallow     2
Rough-winged Swallow   623
Cliff Swallow     8
Barn Swallow   102530
Oak Titmouse     2
Western Bluebird   2  
Northern Mockingbird1  245
European Starling3010 755 
House Finch6441066
Lesser Goldfinch564162 
Spotted Towhee    1 
California Towhee  14 3
Song Sparrow334778
White-crowned Sparrow 4562 
Dark-eyed Junco1     
Hooded Oriole    11
Red-winged Blackbird   224
Brown-headed Cowbird   21 
Great-tailed Grackle3 1866
Orange-crowned Warbler1     
Common Yellowthroat51 3  
Yellow Warbler     2
Yellow-rumped Warbler16614151 
Totals by TypeDecJanFebMarAprMay
Water Birds – Other518359292306198268
Herons, Egrets & Ibis271315536
Quail & Raptors330334
Gulls & Terns634119362279531446
Other Non-Passerines624553
Totals Birds15637389801172962918
Total SpeciesDecJanFebMarAprMay
Water Birds – Other949664
Herons, Egrets & Ibis334224
Quail & Raptors230223
Gulls & Terns766886
Other Non-Passerines422222
Totals Species – 95645056625344

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