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A Few Odd Birds: Malibu Lagoon, 26 February 2023

March 23, 2023

[By Chuck Almdale]

South channel, ocean in distance (Ray Juncosa 2/26/23)

After eight months in a row of high tides, it was nice to see it low. Sand, mud, pools, puddles, rocks, tide pools, peeps running around, actual beach upon which one can walk. High tides can be exciting with the beach disappearing before your eyes, water rushing in and out the channel, all the birds bunched up on what few square feet of sand remain, the perpetual wondering if all the Malibu Colony houses will make it through “this one” — but everything gets old after a while. Low tide renews the beach, or at least one’s view of it.

Mostly pelicans & cormorants at low tide (Ray Juncosa 2/26/23)
Black Skimmers (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

Our first surprise of the day were the Black Skimmers sitting with the pelicans and cormorants. We don’t get a lot of Black Skimmers. Every now and then a few drop in: 227 birds in 26 sightings, or 12% of visits out of the past ten years. They need an expanse of calm water in order to catch fish by skimming the surface and snapping whatever they bump into. Malibu Lagoon is a bit small for them and the ocean has far too many waves; they much prefer Upper Newport Bay in the winter, or Bolsa Chica and San Diego Bay where they breed. When they sleep on the sand with their heads and enormous bills lolling to the side, they look dead. If you see this, don’t panic.

Black Skimmers (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

There was another surprise in the lagoon-edge line of Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants.

Not all the pelicans were brown (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

White Pelicans are even more uncommon. I was certain we’d seen one at the lagoon within the past year or two, but it must have been on a non-census day, as the last one I recorded were two birds on 22 Oct. 2017. Like the skimmers, they prefer calm waters where they can work as a team herding fish into a team. It’s tough to work as a team when there’s only one of you. I don’t know if this bird caught anything. When they’re swimming or resting on the sand their plumage is completely white, but when the get up and fly and all those black feathers appear, it’s a bit of a surprise if you’re not expecting it.

White Pelican (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)
Tidal sidewalk at low tide (Ray Juncosa 2/26/23)
Green-winged Teal (Ray Juncosa 2/26/23)

There were ducks, of course; eleven species in fact. Green-winged Teals are expected this time of year, and this is the fifth month in a row for them. I like Ray’s photo above as it show why it’s a “Green-winged” Teal. It’s hard to capture this in a photo as the green speculum is usually hidden when wings are folded. On the Northern Shoveler, like this male below, the baby-blue forewing patch is also hard to see, except in flight. Look closely.

Northern Shoveler male (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

You may be shocked to hear we also had gulls; 324 gulls in 9 species, 73% of them California Gulls. Out of the 5 February months during 2018-2022, three had almost the same total gulls in the mid-300s, while two had more than double that. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote more than once.

Herring & Glaucous-winged Gulls. (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

The Herring and Glaucous-winged Gulls are regular winter visitors in low numbers at the lagoon. [Their relative size above is a photographic illusion. The right-hand Glaucous-winged is actually an inch longer than the Herring.] The both have pale gray backs. The Herring wingtips are black with white mirrors while the Glaucous-winged wingtips are pale gray, about the same shade as the mantle. Herring has a lot of speckling on the neck and a light eye; Glaucous-winged has little speckling and a dark eye. Both have pink legs, a large yellow bill with a prominent gonydeal bump and red gonys spot on lower bill. Most of the Glaucous-winged gulls we get at the lagoon are 1st-year birds, I don’t know how the Herrings that show up there fall out on age.

We also had a few of their cousins, the Royal Terns. These three below show that they can be the same age at the same time of year and still look different.

Three Royal Terns, obviously looking at something interesting
(Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

Our last unusual bird of the day was the Short-billed Gull, which we used to call the Mew Gull after the sound of its call. For centuries it was considered to be the same species as the Common Gull of Europe. In 2021 it was split off and for reasons unknown to me it was named “Short-bill” rather than the perfectly good “Mew.” I suspect that many British Isles people still call their “Common” Gull the “Mew” as that ancient name dates back to Old English. But people would become confused with their unofficial Mew and our official Mew being different species. The British maintain their sense of history and are reluctant to toss out willy-nilly perfectly good names on the basis of a frivolous fad or implausible plaint. They can still call their bird the Mew and everyone there knows what they referring to.

Short-billed (Mew) Gull (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

Whatever we call it, it still has a mewing call and a distinctive thin, short bill. This distinctiveness doesn’t stop birders from thinking the occasional skinny-billed Ring-billed Gull is really a Mew. [I know a few such people, myself included.] We don’t get many Mews … er, Short-bills … at the lagoon. They seem to really like sewage outfalls, so I suppose their absence is a Good Thing for Malibu. Ventura, up the coast, has a water treatment facility by their harbor. Behind a chain-link fence near the road they had several large round structures filled with charcoal or some filtration material, and a central arm would slowly rotate dribbling water down onto the charcoal. The Mew Gulls loved those arms with a deep and abiding passion and would sit on them by the hundreds for hours, going slowly around in a circle. If you wanted to see a Mew Gull for some obscure reason, it was an utterly reliable location. Then the facility covered over the top of these structures, preventing gull access (and birder viewing), and another prime birding spot bit the dust. The best local spot I know of now for them is on Dockweiler Beach in front of the Hyperion water treatment facility south of Marina del Rey. Coincidence? I think not.

Nothing but mud in the west channel (Ray Juncosa 2/26/23)

The swallows are returning. (Don’t tell the people at San Juan Capistrano this, lest they become apoplectic with rage or envy. They think swallows return on March 25 every year, no matter what.) The SJC swallows are Cliff Swallows, like these below. They build nests of mouthfuls of mud, globbed (a technical term) onto a wall or underside of a bridge and the like, one glob at a time. The resulting cup of mud globs holds the chicks. They used to nest in great numbers on the outside of the stone walls of the San Juan Capistrano Mission church. But the people who run the church did some … ahem … improvements … a few years back and the swallows didn’t like the results and for the most part stopped nesting there. I don’t know the swallow situation at the church these days. Maybe they forgave the church Fathers and nest there again. Maybe not.

Cliff Swallows quite like catching bugs above the sands (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

About 20-30 years ago we had a big El Nino winter and so much water came down Malibu Creek carrying logs and rocks and whatnot that the Pacific Coast Highway bridge was dangerously damaged. The highway crews re-built most of it, but whatever process they used to make the walls of the supports was very swallow-unfriendly. Too smooth perhaps. The nests used to be abundant there; now there are few-to-none during nesting season. What Cliff Swallows we still have nesting in Malibu now use the Civic Center and shopping center walls. Think about that next time you built a bridge in Cliff Swallow Country (like the entire central valley of California), road engineers, OK? Leave the walls a little rough for the nest’s mud to adhere. Bugs bite people, especially movie people (everyone knows that!); swallows eat bugs; win-win (except for the biting bugs, who lose).

Cassin’s Kingbird, a gray bird among gray branches
(Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

Birds new for the Season: Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mourning Dove, Short-billed Gull, Black Skimmer, Brandt’s Cormorant, American White Pelican, White-faced Ibis, Cooper’s Hawk, Say’s Phoebe, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cliff Swallow.

Malibu Lagoon on eBird as of 2-28-23: 6681 lists, 318 species

Many thanks to photographers: Ray Juncosa, Chris Tosdevin

Lesser Goldfinch male checking out the seed pods
(Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

Upcoming SMBAS scheduled field trips:

  • Malibu Lagoon, Sun Mar. 26, 8:30 am
  • Sycamore Canyon Sat. Apr. 8, 8 am 
  • Malibu Lagoon, Sun Apr 23, 8:30 am No reservations or Covid card required for this trip.
  • Morongo Valley & Black Rock Campground Sat. May 6, 3pm; Sun 7:30am am. If you want to stay overnight Sat. May 6, you’ll need to reserve a Yucca Valley motel room or Black Rock campsite.
  • These and any other trips we announce for the foreseeable future will depend upon expected status of the Covid/flu/etc. pandemic at trip time. Any trip announced may be canceled shortly before trip date if it seems necessary. By now any other comments should be superfluous.
  • Link to Programs & Field Trip schedule.

The next SMBAS Zoom program: Corvids, with Dr. John Marzluff. Tuesday, 4 April 2023, 7:30 p.m.

The SMBAS 10 a.m. Parent’s & Kids Birdwalk will restart in April. Reservations for groups necessary, but not for families.

White-crowned Sparrow adult (Chris Todevin 2/26/23)

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

Prior checklists:
2021: Jan-JulyJuly-Dec 2022: Jan-June, July-Dec
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, remain available—despite numerous complaints—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.

Many thanks to Chris & Ruth Tosdevin, Ray Juncosa, Chris Lord and others for their contributions to this month’s checklist.

The species lists below is irregularly re-sequenced to agree with the California Bird Records Committee Official California Checklist, which was updated 4 Feb 2023. If part of the chart’s right side is hidden, there’s a slider button at the bottom.
[Chuck Almdale]

Malibu Census 2022-239/2510/2311/2712/251/222/26
Tide Lo/Hi HeightH+5.01H+5.33H+6.04H+6.59H+6.81L+0.81
 Tide Time094908391045095008580911
1Canada Goose    42
1Cinnamon Teal     1
1Northern Shoveler     7
1American Wigeon  148 4
1Northern Pintail 1    
1Green-winged Teal 26381526
1Lesser Scaup  1   
1Surf Scoter  12316
1Bufflehead  1111105
1Common Goldeneye    2 
1Hooded Merganser   51 
1Red-breasted Merganser  25763
1Ruddy Duck3353242 8
2Pied-billed Grebe684521
2Horned Grebe   1  
2Eared Grebe 285  
2Western Grebe 241840
7Feral Pigeon61546165
7Mourning Dove 42  2
8Anna’s Hummingbird1 121 
8Allen’s Hummingbird  2 23
2American Coot47145851303873
5Black-bellied Plover676483514362
5Semipalmated Plover32    
5Snowy Plover253918 1616
5Marbled Godwit21638231817
5Ruddy Turnstone344263
5Least Sandpiper231562192227
5Western Sandpiper8484  
5Spotted Sandpiper1     
5Red-necked Phalarope2     
6Heermann’s Gull981685273
6Short-billed Gull  1  1
6Ring-billed Gull22228553640
6Western Gull7264105684938
6California Gull571553904501330237
6Herring Gull    21
6Glaucous-winged Gull  3 74
6Forster’s Tern 1    
6Royal Tern1123 214
6Elegant Tern 15    
6Black Skimmer     3
2Red-throated Loon    1 
2Common Loon  1   
2Black-vented Shearwater  100   
2Brandt’s Cormorant     1
2Pelagic Cormorant 14161
2Double-crested Cormorant565145623667
2American White Pelican     1
2Brown Pelican6465220158343159
3Great Blue Heron33352 
3Great Egret125322
3Snowy Egret993135166
3Green Heron 1    
3Black-crowned Night-Heron  11  
3White-faced Ibis     1
4Turkey Vulture 11115
4Cooper’s Hawk     1
4Red-shouldered Hawk1     
4Red-tailed Hawk   3 1
8Belted Kingfisher1 2 1 
8Nuttall’s Woodpecker    1 
4American Kestrel   1  
4Merlin   1  
4Peregrine Falcon1     
9Cassin’s Kingbird3 11 1
9Black Phoebe533233
9Say’s Phoebe1    1
9California Scrub-Jay21111 
9American Crow381231127
9Common Raven    21
9Oak Titmouse 2    
9Northern Rough-winged Swallow     2
9Cliff Swallow     24
9Wrentit1  21 
9Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2121
9Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2 1 
9House Wren212 1 
9Marsh Wren 1  1 
9Bewick’s Wren1 2   
9Northern Mockingbird1     
9European Starling8   69
9Hermit Thrush  3 1 
9House Finch415181696
9Lesser Goldfinch616 410
9White-crowned Sparrow 1240161225
9Song Sparrow336 45
9California Towhee 36133
9Spotted Towhee1 1   
9Red-winged Blackbird 43812 
9Great-tailed Grackle 51   
9Orange-crowned Warbler2  1 1
9Common Yellowthroat532124
9Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s) 4161562
9Townsend’s Warbler   1  
Totals by TypeSepOctNovDecJanFeb
2Water Birds – Other174275471363434343
3Herons, Egrets & Ibis13154044209
4Quail & Raptors211617
6Gulls & Terns1412775466581453341
8Other Non-Passerines205253
 Totals Birds7149141690146022761170
 Total SpeciesSepOctNovDecJanFeb
2Water Birds – Other589878
3Herons, Egrets & Ibis344433
4Quail & Raptors211413
6Gulls & Terns577479
8Other Non-Passerines203141
Totals Species – 104525465556164

  1. Linda Friar permalink
    March 24, 2023 2:45 pm

    I amend myself. Looking at my other photos, most likely a white faced ibis. Nice in any case.



  2. ethanski permalink
    March 24, 2023 4:47 am

    Thanks for the interesting informative colorful comments on the sightings of birds I’ve seen over and over.
    I learned stuff!!


    • Chukar permalink*
      March 24, 2023 10:38 am

      Come on our Malibu walk some time. All that was old is created anew!


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