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The Masked Birders at Malibu Lagoon, 22 May, 2020

May 29, 2020

North across lagoon to PCH bridge, Serra Retreat Center on distant hill
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

The sun was warm despite the scudding clouds, and a brisk breeze riffled the water. Typically for late May, there were few birds on the water, but the distant beach had a sizable flock of gulls, Brown Pelicans, and terns. People were few and mostly scattered, and the first we saw were three homeless people, two in animated maskless conversation and one resting at a picnic table.

We decided that birding qualifies as “active” rather than “passive” behavior – thus now legal on our SoCal beaches  – so Lillian and I ventured to Malibu for the first time in three months. The parking lot was closed and the south side of Pacific Coast Highway was jammed with cars belonging to surfers, a surmise later supported by the numbers of surfers thrashing in the wind-blown waves. Plenty of parking was still available on the north side of PCH. It felt a little strange to be out and about and back at the lagoon, wearing mask and carrying scope. The Masked Birders ride again!

Eastward down the north channel, Adamson House in the distance
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

Sure enough, duck and coots were few, and many of them were ducklings in various sizes. Eight Canada Geese rested on the west most sand island near the “Osprey snag.” They roused themselves a bit later, floated about for a few minutes, then flew off past Adamson House. On the long sand island paralleling the beach, just east of the large mixed flock, were two more adult geese, tending their troop of fluffy goslings. We counted four goslings, but there may have been an additional two.

A solitary Western Grebe snoozed in mid-lagoon. Two pairs of American Coots were all that remained of February’s forty birds and October’s record count of 870.

SW across channel towards picnic corner and Malibu Colony
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

Passerines were remarkably absent, except for Song Sparrows and House Finches in the brush, Barn Swallows in the sky, and one family of six Bushtits near the picnic corner, foraging in their usual rolling wave manner. We checked that corner for signs of Hooded Orioles, but found none. Neither were there any oriole nests visibly suspended from fronds of the nearby palms.

The sand spit points towards the sand island with bird flock
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

The beach has become remarkably narrow in places, so narrow that it would be difficult to maintain social distancing should people plop themselves down on the sand and others tried to walk past them.

Searching for height markers on the tidal clock (L. Johnson 5-22-20)

The beach breech from lagoon to ocean is closed, as it always is by late May, and nearly all of the sea- and shorebirds were on a long and narrow island of sand, paralleling the beach. This gave them some safety from the encroachment of humans who – if they know “what’s what” (not all do) – stay out of the lagoon as the water can be polluted this time of year.

When the breach closes water collects in the lagoon; the water now is relatively high, about 7 feet above sea level. We couldn’t be certain about the exact elevation as the tiles indicating height along the Winter Ramp / Summer Clock are covered with mud and we couldn’t find them. Next time we go I’ll try to remember to take a trowel.

Looking west towards Malibu Colony & south portion of the lagoon
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

We counted, recounted and re-re-re-recounted the few species there were. 94 Brown Pelicans was a fairly good number. The pelicans nest on the Channel Islands, particularly Anacapa, the smallest and closest of them, and the lagoon is a handy resting spot for them when they’re out and about searching for schools of fish. In addition to the 14 Double-crested Cormorants among the pelicans, there were another 10 in their two nesting trees in the shopping center across the street. Don’t park under them! – cormorants are famous for their guano-producing skills.

Not a lot of people on the beach (L. Johnson 5-22-20)

The terns in the flock were almost evenly divided between Caspian and Royal, and we were surprised to find not a single Elegant among them. The two Least Terns were quite busy diving on small lagoon fish although the breeze was riffling the water’s surface. The weather website later said the wind was 6mph, it seemed a bit stiffer than that to me. Traffic to and from Malibu was light, thanks to the pandemic, and what could have been a 2 ½ hour trip each way was under an hour.

A different angle on the sandy bird island, Adamson House and Malibu Pier
(L. Johnson 5-22-20)

We couldn’t do the usual six-consecutive-months census report as we missed March and April. Instead, you will find below a comparison of May trips for the past six years.

Birds new for the season: Least Tern, Caspian Tern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Cooper’s Hawk, Barn Swallow. [Some of these species may have been present in March & April, but we weren’t there to see.]

Many thanks to photographer Lillian Johnson.

Our next three scheduled field trips: Who knows? Not I.
Our next program: We’ll have to wait and see.
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 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
May 2015-2020 5/24 5/22 5/28 5/27 5/26 5/22
Temperature 59-70 61-66 63-68 61-66 57-59 61-65
Tide Lo/Hi Height L+0.54 H+3.69 L+1.32 H+3.86 L+0.66 H+3.53
Tide Time 1139 1101 0627 0912 1040 1031
Snow Goose 3
(Black) Brant 7 1
Canada Goose 6 14
Gadwall 22 8 15 12 13 34
Mallard 8 4 25 15 22 12
Red-breasted Merganser 1 4
Pied-billed Grebe 1 1
Western Grebe 1 1
Rock Pigeon 9 1 13 3 18
Mourning Dove 2 2 4 1 2
Anna’s Hummingbird 2 1
Allen’s Hummingbird 6 2 3 3 4
American Coot 1 1 4 4
Black-bellied Plover 6 5 9 14
Snowy Plover 2 3
Killdeer 6 6 14 4 4 2
Whimbrel 1 6 18
Marbled Godwit 30 4
Willet 1 16 4 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 1 2
Heermann’s Gull 45 8 1 2 4
Ring-billed Gull 8 26 15
Western Gull 135 23 45 112 125 210
California Gull 6 3
Glaucous-winged Gull 1 3
Least Tern 3 9 12 2
Caspian Tern 11 9 4 11 13 60
Forster’s Tern 2
Royal Tern 2 48 2 2 55
Elegant Tern 85 10 45 130 165
Pacific Loon 1
Brandt’s Cormorant 1 1 1
Double-crested Cormorant 55 7 12 15 27 14
Pelagic Cormorant 4 2
Brown Pelican 70 14 18 68 108 94
Great Blue Heron 2 2 3 1
Great Egret 5 1 3 2
Snowy Egret 4 2 2 4 8 3
Green Heron 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 1 1
Turkey Vulture 4
Osprey 1 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Nanday Parakeet 3
Black Phoebe 2 1 5 5
California Scrub-Jay 2
American Crow 5 4 5 2 6 2
Violet-green Swallow 2 1
Rough-winged Swallow 6 6 3 5
Cliff Swallow 10 4 3 8 6
Barn Swallow 12 4 10 10 14 10
Bushtit 2 2 20 1 6
Bewick’s Wren 1
Western Bluebird 1
American Robin 1
Northern Mockingbird 3 2 8 2 3 2
European Starling 3 2 12 12 9
House Sparrow 3
House Finch 20 7 30 5 8 16
Spotted Towhee 1
California Towhee 2 2 1
Song Sparrow 9 2 12 5 5 12
Hooded Oriole 3 2
Red-winged Blackbird 2 4
Brewer’s Blackbird 2 12
Great-tailed Grackle 3 3 4 4
Common Yellowthroat 1 4
Totals by Type 5/24 5/22 5/28 5/27 5/26 5/22
Waterfowl 37 14 47 27 41 60
Water Birds – Other 134 22 31 88 138 113
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 11 5 6 9 11 4
Quail & Raptors 1 1 0 5 0 2
Shorebirds 8 28 21 56 4 39
Gulls & Terns 294 127 97 269 334 334
Doves 11 3 17 4 20 0
Other Non-Passerines 8 2 3 1 6 4
Passerines 86 60 92 66 63 62
Totals Birds 590 262 314 525 617 618
 Year 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Total Species 5/24 5/22 5/28 5/27 5/26 5/22
Waterfowl 3 4 4 2 3 3
Water Birds – Other 8 3 3 4 4 4
Herons, Egrets & Ibis 3 3 3 4 3 2
Quail & Raptors 1 1 0 2 0 2
Shorebirds 3 3 3 6 1 5
Gulls & Terns 9 7 4 8 7 6
Doves 2 2 2 2 2 0
Other Non-Passerines 2 1 1 1 2 1
Passerines 17 17 10 12 11 9
Totals Species – 69 48 41 30 41 33 32


Report from Tromsø, Norway, 70° North

May 29, 2020
tags: ,

Subscribers to the BirdChat ListServe are very familiar with the always interesting slice-of-Nordic-life postings of Wim Vader. Wim loves watching birds and sharing his observations, and his messages from the far north are always lovely to read, as you will see below.

Tromsø, Norway

He tells his own story better than I and if you enjoy it, subscribe to the BirdChat ListServe. It’s nationwide, free, always has interesting and informative postings such as Wim’s, and you can consolidate postings from them to one email per day.   [Chuck Almdale]

Date:    Tue, 26 May 2020
From:    Willem Jan Marinus Vader <wim.vader@UIT.NO>
Subject: Birding in the dark – Tromsø in winter

Since a few days, we have got back the midnight sun again in Tromsø, N. Norway, where I have lived since 1973. But spring is late this year: our garden is still 3/4 snow-covered, the birches are still bare and I have not yet heard the Willow Warbler, our most numerous song bird.

As several people has asked me how birds and birding are in winter in Tromsø, when it is mostly dark, I’ll give an impression here. Please let me know, if I mail too often these days; being more or less isolated gives one more time for such activities.

Tromsø, is at c 70* N, and with c 75,000 inhabitants the largest town in N. Scandinavia. Because of the Gulf Stream, we have a forest of mainly birch trees (and pines in the inland), instead of ice or bleak tundra, as everywhere else at this latitude. The town is situated on the island of Tromsøya, and the sounds surrounding the island form the sill of the large Balsfjord. Between us and the open sea there is the large and high island of Kvaløya, so that by road it is c 50 km to the outer coast. The island itself is not very high, maybe 100 m, but the surrounding hills on the mainland and Kvaløya reach 1200 m. My house is at the south end of the island, at c 45 m o.s.l., and close to a remnant birch forest with much planted spruce, Folkeparken; I walk through Folkeparken on my way to Tromsø Museum, where I worked for 40 years and still have a desk and do research on my specialty, the amphipod crustaceans. I am now 83.

Being so far north, we have a long winter, and snow half the year (snow depth, now, 26 May, is 80 cm(!), but this is a late year), but because of the open water around, the winters are not very severe, with temperatures rarely falling below – 17*C (in the inland it easily can get – 40*C). All the cars here have summer and winter wheels, and they shift to winter wheels, usually with studded tires, in October, shifting back in May. I also use ‘brodder’ under my shoes for most of winter; they are especially useful in the increasingly frequent periods of Atlantic depressions with milder temperatures, leading to very slippery and icy roads and paths (Without these periods, we would have had almost 4 m of snow this winter!).

Another major factor between our winters and yours is the absence of daylight in mid winter here; the sun is not visible from late November to late January. With the reflecting snow on the ground it is usually possible to walk the unlighted paths in Folkeparken during the day, but birding in winter is no easy task: the icy roads are hard to drive (in fact, I don’t drive at all in winter anymore) and there is very little daylight.

So how do the birds cope with all this? Most simply by doing what a popular song here says: ‘The birds come to their senses and fly south’: they leave us in autumn and come back in spring. Some, like the Arctic Terns, almost overdo this by flying all the way to the Antarctic, and swallows, cuckoos and Willow Warblers winter in S. Africa, but many species do not migrate further than South or even Western Europe. The species that do stay here in winter I have divided into several categories:

1.  Seabirds. For them there are no problems of ice and snow, as the water remains open.  On the other hand, the dark may well be a problem for species such as terns that hunt by sight, making it impossible to remain here in winter. We won’t talk about them further, just remark that in winter we have here several species that nest even further north, and only can be found here in winter. Good examples are the King Eider and the Yellow-billed Loon (White-billed Diver for some).

2.  Shore birds. There is often ice on the shores in winter, and many if the intertidal invertebrates also migrate to deeper water in winter, so the shore is a difficult environment in that season, and most shore birds leave us. A few of the hardier gulls, such as the Herring Gull and the Great Black-backed Gull can be seen here all year (But it looks like as if ours migrate and the winter birds are breeders from NW Russia). And there is a single shorebird that apparently has overcome all these problems; that is the roly-poly Purple Sandpiper, that seems impervious to the cold and always able to find the periwinkles they feed on.

3.  Freshwater birds. All freshwater here freezes over for many months on end, so these birds all have to leave, unless they can change over to the open shore, as the Grey Herons and some few Mallards do. Another small exception is our national bird, the Dipper, where part of the population survives the winter up here at some rapids, that never freeze completely over.

4.  Ground feeders. Just as with the freshwater birds, they all have to leave in winter, as the ground is snow covered for months on end. A few Woodcocks try to winter on the outer islands, but they often are found dead.

5. Bulk feeders. In this category the grouse are most important. Willow Grouse and Ptarmigan feed on willow buds and shoots, Black Grouse on birch, and the large Capercaillie (more an inland bird here) on pine needles. We have few woodpeckers here, but some winters there is an influx from the east of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and they feed mostly on pine seeds in winter.

6. Insect feeders. The large majority of these of course migrate south in winter, or switch to other food, as do the tits, the woodpeckers and to a certain degree also the Tree Creeper (which also habitually robs the caches that the Willow Tits make in autumn). Strangely enough the smallest of them all, the Goldcrest, seems to stay with insect food all winter, and in severe winters many die.

7. Fruit feeders. Northern Norway is a country very rich in wild berries, feasted on by both birds, mammals and man. And many of them tolerate frost well. However, most of them grow on or near the ground and are therefore very hard to get to in winter. An exception is the Rowan (Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia), a tree that yields large amounts of orange edible berries (which make a good jam!). The berry crop varies a lot from year to year, but some years we have a bumper crop, and in those years the thrushes (Fieldfare and Redwing) that otherwise fly south in October, linger till January and feast on the rowan berries. Another fruit eater, that arrives in time for the rowan feast, is the beautiful Bohemian Waxwing, and in top years there may be many hundreds of them even in my garden. Some years also Pine Grosbeak join in the feast, as tame here as they are everywhere.

8. ‘Seed eaters *feeder birds’. Lots of people here feed the birds all winter, and for most of them sun flower seeds are the favourite food offered. The most common birds at the feeders are Great Tits and the last years also the newcomer Blue Tit, as well as here and there pairs of Willow Tits. The latter hoards food in autumn, and is therefore less dependent on kind people than Great and Blue Tits, which do not hoard. Greenfinches, also a newcomer here far north (still absent when I came here in 1973, but now almost the most numerous winter bird), greedily feed at the feeders, and have a tendency to try to monopolize them, and there are often also Bullfinches, these large, calm and beautiful finches, that here north have even taken over for European Robins on the Christmas cards. Where there are House Sparrows, they of course also participate, but this species is quite patchily distributed here and also very resident: there is a small colony at a house 50 m down the road, but I never see them in our garden. Many of these feeders are close to lighted windows and at such places one can find feeding birds virtually at any hour of day or night. Clearly, there is too little daylight to allow the birds to confine their activities to the 2-3 hours of twilight.

9. Omnivores. Here the crows come in, and they are the most conspicuous land birds in winter Tromsø. Our garden, as very many, has a resident pairs of Magpies (not the Aussie ones, but the long-tailed black and white crow of that name), and one of hooded Crows, while in winter Northern Ravens also venture into town, although they are much more circumspect. The magpies often succeed to raid the feeders, with some acrobatics (as our many feral pigeons now and down also manage), while the crows don’t even try. Also the large gulls are omnivorous, but in winter they mostly keep to the shores.

10. Predators. Somewhat surprisingly, given the lack of ‘good hunting light’ there are quite a number of  predators around, mostly hunters of birds rather than small mammals. White-tailed Sea Eagles are common, but they scavenge almost as much as catch their own prey in winter. More active hunters are the Sparrow Hawk, often causing panic at the feeders, and the Northern Goshawk, mostly a winter visitor here. I have also once or twice seen a Gyrfalcon, usually a hunter of  grouse, in town, no doubt looking for a meal among our town flock of feral pigeons, as so much else here ‘the northernmost in the world.’

If this sounds like a lot of birds, I have given the wrong impression. In reality land birds, except for the crows, the greenfinches and the tits, are very thin on the ground here in winter, and a walk through town will usually not get you into the double digits of bird species numbers this time a year, even at mid day. Nevertheless, we are very fond of our winter birds: they add colour and movement to an otherwise largely black and white landscape. A very beautiful and often spectacular landscape, by the way. Come and see for yourself, when such will once again be feasible!
Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway

Building the Perfect Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder

May 28, 2020

Squirrels were stealing my bird seed so I solved the problem with mechanical engineering 🙂

Former NASA engineer – with seven years working on the Curiosity Rover under his belt – Mark Rober became Covid-trapped at home, takes up birdwatching, but has a problem with squirrels gobbling up all the birdseed.  Sound familiar? But Mark uses his mechanical engineering skills to develop a unique method to deal with his wily adversaries.

This is the guy who previously developed the “glitter-stinkbomb package” to punish his local porch pirates.     [Chuck Almdale]

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