Friday, March 28, 2008

Bulletin #32 - Monterey CA winter birds #4

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
March 28, 2008

Bulletin #32 – winter birds Monterey California #4

Hello friends,

Correction on Bulletin #31….

Last week, I mis-identified the Pacific Golden Plover. It is actually a juvenile Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola). This bird is also known as the Grey Plover in Eurasia. Thanks to Rick Fournier, my ever vigilant, expert guide in Monterey for pointing out the differences.

Hey Dave -

The photograph of the Pacific Golden Plover appears to be a Black-bellied Plover, for a number of reasons. The primary projection is not beyond the tail but extends to the tip of the tail. The bill is far too heavy for PGPL , the barring on the tail appears to be black on white, not black on a buffy or golden stripe, and there is a clear absence of any gold spangling on the bird. Even in winter plumage this feature pops. It appears to be a juvenile BBPL. If you have some more photographs I'd like to look at them.

Good birding -

Gulls were a major target for me on this trip as the Austin Texas Audubon society was putting on a gull identification workshop and they needed some additional photos.

My guide, Rick Fournier, is an expert on all birds. He pointed out the confusing species to me as well as helped with other gulls pictures I took after my day with him.

Gulls may be the most confusing bird family to identify. They are certainly right up there with the sparrows. However, I think gulls can be worse as they come in so many plumage variations. For example, most gulls don’t mature for 3 – 4 years, and each year is often a different plumage. The common Herring Gull may have as many as 6 different appearances – juvenile, 1st winter, 2nd year, 3rd year, adult breeding and adult non-breeding. In addition, there is much hybridization between species, with the offspring having various degrees of intermediate plumage of the parents.

The parts to look at include the size, eye color, bill and leg color, and wing color. Also, there may be brown streaking on the head, neck and breast.

The 19” Heermann’s Gull (Larus heermanni) is the easiest gull in California to identify, as it is the darkest. Here are the adult in breeding plumage and non-breeding plumage. It has black legs and red bill – distinctive. click ‘next’ once

Here are the 1st winter, 1st summer and 2nd winter plumage. These look very much like the pictures in Sibley and are fairly easy to sort out. Notice the bill color is different in all 3 plumages. click ‘next’ twice

The small 16” Mew Gull (Larus canus) has dark eye, yellow legs and a small yellow unmarked bill. The wings are pale gray. It also has large white spots on the wings. This is the non-breeding adult plumage with the brown streaking on head and neck. click ‘next’ once

Here is the 1st winter plumage Mew Gull – completely different appearance, but note the small bill.

The larger 23” Thayer’s Gull is a resident of the Canadian arctic. It winters along the Pacific coast, but sporadically along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well. This was a life bird for me. The non-breeding adult has a smallish yellow-green bill with red spot, pink legs, dark eye, and pale gray wings with dark primaries. Here are a couple of photos of the same bird. click ‘next’ once

I have only 1 other plumage of the Thayer’s Gull – a second winter bird.

Tired of gulls? So, it is time for a change of scenery.

The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) occurs all across North America. The birds in Florida are very pale and the birds get progressively redder as we go west. My guide told me that there is speculation that this species may be split, with the redder birds being called ‘Red-breasted Hawk’. When he told me that, I had to take a photo of the California version of the bird. So, if the split occurs, I will have photos already of both ‘species’.

The first photo is the California adult, and the second photo is the Florida version of the adult. It is much paler on the breast and head. click ‘next’ once

There is a large (14.5”) species of wild pigeon in the west, the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). This bird normally occurs at higher elevations, but I have seen it in Carmel in the tops of tall pine trees. One day, as we were sitting on the balcony of our room, a pair of them landed on some wires several streets away. I raced to get my camera, but the tripod was in the car in the parking garage. I propped the big lens across the back of a patio chair and got a couple of photos before they flew off.

This pigeon is unique in North America in having yellow legs and bill. The rest of this family has pink legs and bills. Superficially, he looks like a Rock Pigeon, but he has a white collar on the back of his neck and a white terminal band on the tail.

Lastly, the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). This is the only New World member of this family. He is a small brown bird with curved beak that climbs upwards on a tree trunk. He probes for insect in the bark crevices. He lands near the bottom of a tree and ascends. He uses his stiff tail as a prop similar to a woodpecker. Here are a couple of photos of 2 different birds. click ‘next’ once

The last bird is an interesting one. I have never seen the Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis). It is a western species, and I have looked for it numerous times. It occurs at elevation. There is a 1000’ peak just outside Monterey that is home to this bird. Also, in winter in Monterey, there is a closely related species with very similar coloration, the Townsend’s Warbler.

I went to the location to try once again for the Hermit Warbler. I finally found a mixed flock of chickadees, kinglets etc feeding in the pines and suddenly saw a flash of yellow suggesting a warbler. I got my camera on it and started taking photos. As I was looking at the bird through the lens, it looked like a female Townsend’s Warbler. That was my impression back in the motel room reviewing the pictures on the camera LCD screen.

When I got back home and started processing the photos, I then thought that it might just be my long sought Hermit Warbler (female). I sent the photos to my Monterey guide Rick Fournier, and he said that it actually is a hybrid Townsend’s x Hermit female. I will post all 4 photos and his explanation for those birders who are interested. It is a listed hybrid in both National Geographic and Sibley field guides. He has never seen this bird before! There are several eastern warbler hybrids – Brewster’s and Lawrence’s warbler that are both hybrids between Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers. I have not seen either of these.

So I didn’t get my lifer Hermit Warbler, but I got any interesting bird that is probably much less common. Can I count it as ½ a bird for my life list?? LOL

Here are 2 of the 4 photos. I’ll post all 4 on the web site for your perusal. Below the photos is Rick Fournier’s explanation of why this is a hybrid. click ‘next’ 3 times

Discussion re: Hybrid Hermit x Townsend’s

Great photograph! Upon close inspection, I believe this to be a female Townsend's X Hermit hybrid, for a couple of reasons. Your photos clearly show extensive streaking along the flanks, a couple of photos show some faint yellow developing below the throat, the head pattern superficially resembles a Townsend's and the upperparts are pretty heavily streaked.

Check a Hermit and you'll notice that the flanks are plain, no yellow below the throat and lite streaking on the back. The facial pattern is dusky around the auriculars but not as dominate as this bird.

Thanks for sharing.

Rick Fournier
Monterey Birding Adventures

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bulletin #31 - Monterey CA winter birds #3

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
March 21, 2008

Bulletin #31 – winter birds Monterey California #3

Hello friends,

Grebes were well represented in Monterey harbor. There were 4 species – Eared, Horned, Western and Clark’s all easily seen.

The striking, large (25”)Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was close to the pier and gave me my best pictures yet of this species. The first shows the adult with yellow bill and black feathers around the eye. The second shows one sleeping on the water. click ‘next’ once

The very similar Clark’s Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) has an orange bill and white around the eye. This is the non-breeding plumage with some black feathers above and behind the eye. It also has more white on the flanks than the Western Grebe. click ‘next’ once

The non-breeding plumage Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) is smaller than the previous birds at only 13” in length. It is black and white with red eye and black auriculars. This bird appears to have a yellowish eye that occurs in juvenile birds, but the reflection appears to be more red, so it may be an artifact of the flash. He has an all black bill.

The very similar Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritis) has no black below the eye. It is also in non-breeding plumage. He also has a white tip on the bill.

In the last bulletin, I showed the male Hooded Merganser. I also got a photo of the female. She has a reddish brown crest. Here are the pair. click ‘next’ once

The Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) appears superficially black as do all the cormorants. However, many black birds are iridescent in the sunlight. I caught this bird sitting on a rock in the afternoon sun. He has a beautiful greenish coloration with yellow bill and red face. In breeding plumage he also has white flank patches. These white patches enable ready identification of this species when flying or when swimming as in the second photo. click ‘next’ once

The Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) is a common cute little flycatcher that occurs in the southwest USA and California. He is easy to identify as he is all black except white belly.

His cousin, the Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya) is brown with a reddish-brown belly. This was only the second time I had ever seen this bird. Both these phoebes occur as vagrants on the upper Texas coast. click ‘next’ once

I was also looking for several specific shorebirds. My nemesis was the Surfbird. It is supposed to winter on rocky coasts along California and Oregon. I looked along miles of shoreline and didn’t see a single bird. However, I found a bird that I didn’t expect to find. The evening prior to my birding with my guide, I looked at the range maps in the field guide to see if there were any birds that might be there, that I wasn’t aware of. One of these was the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva). This bird breeds in Alaska and Siberia, and winters primarily in the South Pacific, Asia and Australia. However, a few migrate to the US west coast in winter. I asked my guide, Rick Fournier, about this and he agreed that a few of them were around. They would be found in muddy fields rather than on the shore. In my extensive search for the Surfbird, I found 2 of these birds on the shore. It was not a lifer for me as I have seen many in Hawaii. If you have ever been to Hawaii in winter, they are all over the lawns at the hotels. The bird is more brown or golden than the more common Black-bellied Plover. It also does not have the black underwing. I saw this bird fly and confirmed no black.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bulletin #30 - Monterey CA winter birds #

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
March 14, 2008

Bulletin #30 – winter birds Monterey California #2

Hello friends,

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

The next life bird was the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus). This is one of the two native North American swans. There is a third swan species that has been introduced. The adults are white with black bill and small yellow spot on the bill below the eye. The juveniles are brownish with pink bill and they gradually molt to adult plumage over the first winter. The first photo is an adult and the second is an adult and juvenile together. The second photo was taken with both a 1.4x and 2x extenders, for effective size of 1400mm lens and manually focusing. This is very difficult under best of circumstances, but with the swans swimming, even more difficult. click ‘next’ once

The male Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) is closely related to the Redhead. The difference between these ducks is the shape of the head. The Redhead has a round head. This bird has a sloping forehead that flows right into the bill.

The male Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is a beautiful duck in brown, black and white with a yellow eye and large white crest patch. This bird occurs regularly along the upper Texas coast in winter.

The male Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) is our smallest duck species at 13”. He is mostly white bodied and has large white patch on his head. The dark of his head is black or purplish in the light. Here are photos of 2 different birds. click ‘next’ once

I also got a number of photos of sparrows and related species.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) is a large bird (7.25”) that breeds in BC, Yukon and Alaska and winters from Washington to California. It is not listed on the upper Texas coast checklist.

The sexes are similar plumage. The first photo is an adult that is almost in full breeding plumage with clear breast, golden crown patch bordered with black. The black is not quite total behind the eye. Notice also the bicolored bill. The 1st winter birds have a totally gray bill. The second photo is a non-breeding adult with no black against the yellow forehead. click ‘next’ once

The common Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) occurs almost everywhere in North America as a breeder, permanent resident or winter resident. The breast streaking coalescing to a central breast spot are the key to identifying this common bird. I got my best photos ever of this bird on this trip. It was in a mixed flock with the Golden-crowned Sparrows above. click ‘next’ once

The next bird is the common Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). Again, this is a bird occurs throughout North America, but it has regional variations in coloration. Those on the upper Texas coast are rather drab, however, this one has more yellowish on head and face. This feature, according to my guide Rick Fournier, is typical of wintering Monterey birds.

I got great pictures of the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis). This is another widely distributed bird across North America, but has marked regional plumage differences. The ‘Oregon’ plumaged birds of the west are perhaps the prettiest. The first photo is the male with black hood. The second photo is the female with a gray hood. click ‘next’ once

The last bird is the California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis). This drab brown bird has a rusty undertail patch.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

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