Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bulletin 151 - Monterey CA birds and wildlife

I had my first real vacation in a year, last week, and headed back to my favorite haunt, Carmel CA.  I have seen almost all the birds there, but my local guide, Rick Fournier had mentioned that he knew a location about 2 hours away, where roosting Long-eared Owls (Asio otus) could be found. This thin 16" long bird was a lifer and a real treat. In winter, all the guide books state that flocks may gather together and roost together in the same tree. Well, the pine tree was full of owls! I saw about 12-15, and the man whose property it was on said he had counted 22 birds in the tree! The sexes are similar and the bird is IDed by the long ear tufts, orange or rusty facial disk with a vertical black line through the eye. Here are 2 different birds.

Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl
Mostly they were hunched down, but the odd one was sitting very upright and appeared thin. The guide books call this the alert or camouflage posture.

Long-eared Owl - alert posture
Also on the property was an old barn that housed a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) (who would have guessed?). This was only the second time, that I ever had 2 owl species in daylight at the same location. What a treat!

Barn Owl

 One the way back, my other target bird was the Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli). I had seen this bird once before in Arizona, but the coastal birds are much darker, so I wanted to see and photograph the other color variant.

Sage Sparrow - Pacific form
We also found both local species of bluebirds beside the road on the way back. The beautiful male Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) is the only all blue bird in the USA.

Mountain Bluebird - male
The Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) is quite similar to the eastern. I didn't get a good photo of the male, but I did see a female hovering. I have never before seen a songbird hover. Of course other birds do this..kingfishers, some raptors (American Kestrel, White-tailed Kite). Here is the female photographed while hovering.

Western Bluebird - female
Along the coast, checking gulls in various plumages can be an intellectual challenge to try to match them to the guide books. Here is a Mew Gull (Larus canus) in Monterey harbor. Superficially it looks like a winter adult with the plain yellow bill. However, the feet can be seen beneath the water and are gray in color. The feet of an adult are yellow, and the juveniles are gray. So I think this is a second winter bird molting to adult plumage as spring nears.

Mew Gull - 2nd winter molting to adult plumage
One of the more interesting natural history events that a visitor can do in the Monterey area in winter is to see the hibernating Monarch Butterflies in Pacific Grove, a small town adjacent to Monterey. They proudly call themselves Butterfly Town USA. We all know and have seen photos of the Monarch Butterflies hibernating in Mexico. Well the Monarchs west of the Rockies just go to California rather than Mexico. There are a number of locations along the coast. Most are inaccessible in the forests of Big Sur, but there is a stand of trees in Pacific Grove that host the butterflies and can be visited. I have seen them on several occasions in the past. This photo was taken in the latter part of February in 2008.

Monarch Butterflies - Pacific Grove CA,  Feb 19, 2008
On this visit, there were scarcely any butterflies at all. The local docent said there was a very cold winter recently that caused a massive die-off  of the butterflies. There were only 3 small clumps in the trees. here is one of the 2 larger clumps but it was nowhere near the size of the ones in the photo above.

Monarch Butterflies - Pacific Grove CA, Feb 15, 2012
The smallest of the 3 clumps just had a handful of the insects.

Monarch Butterflies - Pacific Grove CA, Feb 15, 2012
When the temperature outside reaches about 55 degrees, the Monarchs rouse from their hibernation and start flitting about. You can see several with their wings open as the temperature that day was in the mid 50's. However, many try to fly and just fall to the ground. The visitors have to be careful not to step on these beautiful creatures as they wait to warm up. Here was a single one at eye level on a pine tree.

Monarch Butterfly
This is truly a marvellous sight and one of the true mysteries of nature. How these insects make their way back to the same location each winter, as the insects arriving in winter are several generation away from the ones who left in the spring? How is this information passed on? I had always assumed that this 3000 mile migration from Canada to Mexico was the world's record for an insect migration. However, in researching this, in 2009, it has been discovered that a species of dragonfly migrates from India to Africa for the winter and back again the next spring. They stop at the Maldives and Seychelles on the way. This can be more than 5000 miles each way and over open ocean! If interested, read this link on this remarkable journey.

I went whale watching in Monterey Bay to see the gray whales on their northward migration. We were told on the boat that this was the longest mammal migration of any species - as much as 4700 miles each way from the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska to the calving grounds in the Sea of Cortez of Mexico. So I thought this was a perfect fit with the longest insect migration above. Again I was surprised when I did my research for this bulletin, that the record now belongs to some Humpback Whales that summer off Antarctica and migrate to the Caribbean coast of Central America, a 5200 mile trip each way!

I had seen the Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) on an earlier trip, but now I wanted to photograph them. Unfortunately, we did not have any jumping, so I only get them on the surface when they spout.

Gray Whales
The only other mammals seen were some Risso's Dolphins (Grampus griseus) in a large pod of perhaps 50 individuals. The young dolphins are dark gray but as they age they get lighter and almost white. They are IDed by the rounded head. This appears to be a very old individual and he is smiling at us.

Risso's Dolphin

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2012 David McDonald

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