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Back Bay Newport: 10 December 2022

December 19, 2022

[By Chuck Almdale]

Back Bay Newport, 40 minutes before +5.74′ high tide.
Lots and lots of marsh grass before the open water. (Lillian Johnson 12-10-22)

We couldn’t get the highest tide of the year as it didn’t fall on a weekend, but we got one about 6″ lower, enough to get some rails up and out of the reeds. The sky was clear and the temperatures were mid-50’s to mid-60’s.

We started at the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve on Irving Ave. & University Dr., located on the west side of the bay. This spot has its advantages: a large parking lot, the Muth Interpretive Center has open and spotless bathrooms, a resident population of endemic California Gnatcatchers, a long walk/bicycle/horse trail alongside the marsh, reliable locations for the rails to appear.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, brighter than the dingy California Gnatcatcher. Instead of endemic California Gnatcatchers near the Muth Interpretive Center, we found a pair of Blue-grays. Lovely to see, but not exceedingly rare or local. (Lynzie Flynn 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

This location also has some disadvantages: that bike trail I mentioned with whizzing bikes and riders shouting unhelpful things, a high wall/fence that some vertically challenged birders will have difficulty seeing over, unreliable California Gnatcatchers, and middle-distance Ridgeway Rails located right into the morning sun.

The railing and the bay. The railing is a high wall over the creek at the bottom of the hill and also where begins bending around the corner farther along. What were they thinking when they built it this high? (Photo: Lillian Johnson, Upper Newport Bay 12-8-18)

Nevertheless, we found about a dozen rails within about 100 yds. of each other. The largest gathering was four birds. But we were looking into the sun and the wall was too high for easy viewing for some of us. We had Virginia’s Rail on our last visit here, but not this time.

Ridgway’s Rail (formerly Clapper) (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)
One of the closest birds. Photo slightly sharpened.

Most of the rails were out by the “S-bend” channel in the photo below. We later found a few a bit closer. Of course we looked and looked, but we couldn’t turn any of the rails into Virginia’s Rail.

Marsh grass and “ponds.” (Lillian Johnson 12-10-22 Back Bay Newport)

Our 2019 trip to Back Bay Newport had a nice little chart of Virginia’s vs. Ridgley’s Rail’s head and bill sizes, with some discussion, created by moi. Here it is again!

Just to be obsessively safe, 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.

 % Length% Length% Length% Length
 Bill > HeadBill > HeadBill > HeadBill > Head
Virginia Rail33%14%31%26%
Ridgway’s Rail43%48%54%48%

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 see well enough to discern this difference anyway except at a very close distance.

We did see some shorebirds, but not a lot of them. Most of the “peeps” were too far away to differentiate well. On the east side of the bay we passed a pickleweed/grass field full of Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Willet and this Long-billed Dowitcher.

Long-billed Dowitcher, the smallest sandpiper we could photograph.
(Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

Also on the east side near the permanent porta-potty parking lot was the usual small group of Long-billed Curlews, resting from their labors of the day.

Long-billed Curlews (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

We had quite a few hummingbirds, all of them either Anna’s* or Allan’s (no relation; they’re not even in the same genus). Lynzie caught this male Anna’s doing wing-tricks.

Anna’s Hummingbird male on the wing (Lynzie Flynn 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

*Anna’s Hummingbird was named for Anna, Duchess of Rivoli. John James Audubon was much “impressed by her beauty and charm” when he met her in Paris in 1828, where he was probably trying to hawk some of his paintings. The type specimen was acquired in 1846 by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Rivoli’s Hummingbird is named for her husband. (Dict. of Am. Bird Names, Ernest A. Choate, 1985)

Among the seven raptors seen was this Northern Harrier, close enough to photo if you have a steady hand.

Northern Harrier (formerly Marsh Hawk) (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)
Their owlish face is an excellent field mark at great distance.

The inevitable Osprey was also present. We watched it dive feet-first on a fish, but came up empty-handed, so to speak. There was also – much to our surprise – a Bald Eagle, determined (by others) to likely be three years old, thus not yet in adult plumage with full white head and tail. We did see it fly low over the bay, scaring the coots and ducks, but too far away for a good photograph.

Osprey (Lynzie Flynn 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

Most numerous and noticeable were the many species of ducks – fifteen of them! In addition to the six pictured below, we had: Canada Goose (OK, it’s an honorary duck), Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Lesser Scaup, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser and Ruddy Duck.

Two male Anas ducks: Pintail and American Wigeon (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)
Two teals: Blue-winged and Green-winged (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)
Two Aythya ducks: Redhead male and Canvasback female (Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

Pintail used to be common at Malibu Lagoon decades back, but have become less frequently seen and in fewer numbers. Blue-winged Teal are uncommon on the west coast, but are amazingly abundant in the east. We were astonished to see the numbers of Redhead at the upper portion of the bay just south of Jamboree Road – somewhere about 500. The Canvasback female was the sole representative of her species, hiding among some drowned bushes near the flotillas of Redhead and Lesser Scaup.

Passerines were well represented with sixteen species, but not abundant in numbers. A dozen or two of Savannah Sparrows were nice to see, but the oddest passerine was a Black Phoebe flitting and perching in the marsh below the bike/walk way.

Black Phoebe with peculiar white patches
(Chris Tosdevin 12/10/22, Back Bay Newport)

Black Phoebes normally have white on the belly and vent, but not on the rump and wings.

West side cliff on left, east side opposite as seen from southeast end. This area features roadside high tides. (Lillian Johnson 12-10-22 Back Bay Newport)

If I lead this trip again, I think I’ll start on the southeast end where the water comes in much closer. The odds aren’t as good for actually seeing rails, but if they’re there, they’re closer and the sun isn’t in your eyes. I have seen Ridgley’s, Virginia’s and Sora along the east side many times in the past, and the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trailway is very pleasant to drive and bird from the road, with many good stopping locations. There are cyclers zooming along but they have more room to maneuver and rarely shout distracting insults.

Check this map, which leads you to the Muth Interpretive Center on the northwest side of the bay. Back Bay Newport – NW meeting area
The starting place I’m referring to is on the SE corner of the bay where Back Bay Drive meets Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail & Bikeway, near the Back Bay Science Center. Here the high tides come up almost to your feet.

East side cliff from south end. (Lillian Johnson 12-10-22 Back Bay Newport)

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

Many thanks to our photographers Lynzie Flynn, Lillian Johnson & Chris Tosdevin.

Trip List – Back Bay Newport12/10/2212/14/1912/8/1811/4/17
Canada GooseXXXX
American WigeonXXXX
Blue-winged TealXX
Cinnamon TealXX
Northern ShovelerXX
Northern PintailXXXX
Green-winged TealXXXX
Greater ScaupX
Lesser ScaupXXX
Surf ScoterX
Hooded MerganserX
Red-Breasted MerganserX
Ruddy DuckXXXX
Pied-billed GrebeXXXX
Eared GrebeXX
Western GrebeXXX
Clark’s GrebeXX
Rock PigeonXXX
Mourning DoveXXXX
Anna’s HummingbirdXXXX
Allen’s HummingbirdXXX
White-throated SwiftX
Virginia’s Rail10
Ridgway’s Rail12115
American CootXXXX
American AvocetXXX
Black-bellied PloverX
Long-billed CurlewXXX
Marbled GodwitXXXX
Least SandpiperXXX
Western SandpiperX
Long-billed DowitcherX
Spotted SandpiperXX
Lesser YellowlegsX
Greater YellowlegsXXX
Ring-billed GullXXXX
Western GullXXXX
California GullXX
Double-crested CormorantXXXX
American White PelicanX
Brown PelicanXXX
Great Blue HeronXXXX
Great EgretXXXX
Snowy EgretXXXX
Little Blue HeronX
Tricolored HeronX
Green HeronX
Turkey VultureXXXX
Northern HarrierXXXX
Cooper’s HawkXX
Bald EagleX
Red-shouldered HawkX
Red-tailed HawkXXXX
Belted KingfisherXXXX
Northern FlickerX
American KestrelXXXX
Peregrine FalconX
Black PhoebeXXXX
Say’s PhoebeXXXX
Cassin’s KingbirdXXX
California Scrub-JayX
American CrowXXXX
Common RavenX
Northern Rough-winged SwallowX
House WrenX
Marsh WrenHXX
Bewick’s WrenXX
Blue-gray GnatcatcherXXX
California GnatcatcherHX
Ruby-crowned KingletX
California ThrasherXH
Northern MockingbirdXXXX
House FinchXXXX
California TowheeXXX
Savannah SparrowXXXX
Song SparrowXXXX
Lincoln’s SparrowX
White-crowned SparrowXXXX
Orange-crowned WarblerX
Common YellowthroatXXX
Yellow-rumped WarblerXX
Western MeadowlarkX
Lesser GoldfinchXX
Total Species – 8068596552
X – Seen
H – Heard only
1, 15 – Number seen

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