Friday, March 7, 2008

Bulletin #29 - Monterey CA winter birds #1

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
March 7, 2008

Bulletin #29 – winter birds Monterey California #1

Hello friends,

Monterey again! Well yes, it is my wife and my favorite place for a vacation and there are still some birds that I have not seen or photographed.

Many Canadian arctic and Alaskan birds winter along the central California coast. It has been several years since I was there over this period, so I managed to get several new bird photos as well as 4 life birds.

I hired the same guide again, Rick Fournier of Monterey Birding Adventures, for a day. As I had sent him a ‘wish list’ of birds that I wanted to see and photograph, we had a great day. His email is

We started at Monterey Harbor and found a lifer almost immediately.
The Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a regular but uncommon winter bird there. It breeds high in the arctic and winters along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Upper Texas checklist also shows it a straggler in winter here, although I can never remember hearing any reports. If you are unfamiliar with the name Long-tailed Duck, it was formerly known as Oldsquaw, but I guess due to political correctness, the name was changed several years ago.

We saw a flock of 5 birds and managed to get some up close photos. Most of the pictures in field guides show long central tail feathers on the male. However, our birds didn’t have them and according to Sibley, they molt 4x yearly, so have all sorts of different plumage variations.

The first photo is the male. He has a bicolored bill. The second photo is the female. These are in winter plumage. click ‘next’ once

Surf Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) were the most common duck species. They were in the harbor and fairly close to the pier. Thus I was able to get my best photos ever of this species.

The male, in the first photo, is black with a white eye and multicolored bill. The female is dark brown with white patches on face. The vertical white patch behind her bill is diagnostic. click ‘next’ once

I also saw the female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca). She is also brown, but has white wing patch that is usually visible when they are swimming. The first photo shows the white wing patch clearly. It then started raining, and the second photo shows the same bird extending her neck as if to catch the rain drops. click ‘next’ once

The third duck species, in Monterey Harbor that I photographed, was the Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) (GRSC). A cooperative male was swimming close to the pier, which allowed some good pictures. This is a very rare bird on the upper Texas coast. He closely resembles the Lesser Scaup. The GRSC has a greenish head if there is some sun on him. It was overcast and raining in these pictures, so his head looks dark. Both scaups have bluish bills, but there is some black at the end of the bill. The black triangle seen in the second picture is diagnostic for the Greater Scaup. The Lesser Scaup just has a line along the tip of the bill. click ‘next’ once

Loons were also present in the harbor. I got fantastic photos of the Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata). When I was with the guide, I got some good long distance photos. I went back twice on my own and once, I had one of these loons swim right up to me as I stood on a pier at water level. He was about 40 yards away and swam right towards me until he was 10 feet away – too close to photograph with my 500mm lens. The first picture is on his way in. Notice he doesn’t have a ‘chin strap’ as does the Pacific Loon.

The second is at 15 feet, the closest I can focus the long lens. This is an uncropped photo. Notice the upturned bill and red eye.

The third photo was him swimming away. Again, the upturned bill and round head is diagnostic. The white speckling on the back is also characteristic of this species. These are all winter plumage. click ‘next’ twice

The other loon species was the Common Loon (Gavia immer). I didn’t bother to take any photos, as I had excellent ones from Texas City. I’ll put up one of these to show the difference between the species. The Common Loon is larger (32” vs 25”) Also, note the back doesn’t have the white speckling. The bill of the Common Loon is larger and held horizontally, not upwards as in the Red-throated Loon. The last differentiation between the two species was pointed out by my guide. The Common has a flat head, like he has been whacked with a 2x4. The Red-throated has a rounded top of head. This feature allows distinction between them when a long way off.

I was also trying to get good photos of various gull species to make available for people to use on gull identification lectures. I saw this white gull like bird sitting on the water, while I was on the main pier in Monterey. I didn’t know what it was, but I assumed that it was something rare. Fortunately, he also swam right to the pier below me. When I got back to my room, I reviewed the pictures and realized it wasn’t a gull at all but a Northern Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis). This is an open ocean seabird that occasionally occurs close to shore, especially after a storm. Normally this bird can only be seen on pelagic birding trips. I have been on 2 such trips out of Monterey and had never seen the bird. Thus, my photography allowed me to photograph an unusual bird and decide later on what it is. This was a life bird for me. Without photographs, I would have just called it an unidentified white gull.

The identification of this bird is the small tube nostril that extends half way along the bill that is seen in the second close-up photo. This is a common feature of seabirds and pointed me to the correct ID. But at first glance, it sure looks like a pretty gull. click ‘next’ once

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

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