Westcliff Kittiwake

The black-legged kittiwake has been on my Santa Cruz County wish list for sometime. You figure with 29 miles of coastline, this pelagic gull or more correctly, seagull (kittiwakes drink salt water), would be far easier to see in the county. But sadly, it isn’t. The kittiwakes keep to the offshore waters.

The winter is the time to see this gull on the California Coast. Every winter, a few kittiwakes stop for a rest on coastal beaches or cliffs. The county north of Santa Cruz, San Mateo County, can be a good place to see a kittiwake as it rests, bathes, or preens, at gull roosts, usually on a beach where a freshwater creeks flows into the ocean. But every season can be different with many kittiwake sightings on year but some seasons, hardly any.

Perhaps because much of Santa Cruz County’s coastline lies within Monterey Bay and not facing the open ocean, kittiwakes tend to be even scarcer than in counties to the north.

Many times I had searched gull flocks on the northern Santa Cruz coast with no luck. I could not find the smaller gull with the bowlegged walk, wearing black earmuffs with a yellow beak. Waddell Beach, the most northerly beach in the county, has been a good place for large concentrations of roosting gulls. I picked through these flocks in search of a lone kittiwake and had always come up empty.

Now there was another lone adult kittiwake being seen on the rocks at Westcliff Drive and Woodrow. And in the middle of May!

After getting another look at the scissor-tailed flycatcher in Davenport, I headed back to Santa Cruz and walked parts of Westcliff Drive in search of the kittiwake. No luck.

One early morning on the following day, a Sunday, I headed to the San Lorenzo River mouth to look for the recently reported little gull but the whole area was closed off because of a foot race. So I thought I would check Westcliff Drive to see if I could add a county kittiwake. I had missed so many times that I did not have high expectations.

I parked on Columbia Street and I looked east down Westcliff, toward the lighthouse and there was a large feeding flock of gulls, pelicans, and cormorants. I sure hoped the kittiwake was not amongst the hundreds of birds.

I turned and walked west, towards Woodrow and I soon saw a lone whitish bird perched on the rocks. It was a bit too far to identify conclusively but I had a hunch that this was the kittiwake. I picked up my pace and then stopped to raise my bins. It was most certainly a kittiwake! I was now almost jogging because I wanted to take a few photos before the bird flew.

By the time I was inline with the bird on the cliff, I was about 20 yards away and the kittiwake showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.

I was able to get some great shot of the kittiwake in the even gray morning light. It did not seem threatened by my presence, this was a bird that spent the majority of it’s life at sea after all. It then took to the air, circled around twice and them flew west.

Just then a local birder arrived and I gave him the news that he had just missed the bird. We stood around chatting about attempts to see kittiwakes in the county and he then turned to leave, heading towards his car parked on Woodrow. Just then, the kittiwake returned to the cliff and I called out “Kittiwake!” and the birder returned to confirm it’s existence.


Gull Puzzles: Venice Beach

I was listening to a radio program and the subject was about how puzzles have become more popular during the pandemic. There’s always been one sort of birding puzzle that has also gained popularity in recent times but is also a puzzle that turns a lot of birders off, and that is gulling.

For a long time birders just dismissed a flock of gulls and didn’t try to pick through them. To the untrained eye, gulls look the same and if there aren’t adults, then they can be very problematic for identification. One flock can contain a range of ages and two members of the same species, roosting right next to each other, many look like entirely two different species.

Now there is a much better understanding of gull plumage through all their various life cycles and there are quite a few books that provide identification techniques and photographs on identifying gulls in all their ages.

On my Monday President’s Day I headed to the coast to try to puzzle over some gulls. One of the best spots on the San Mateo County coast is Venice Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. Here Pilarcitos Creek snakes it’s way into the bay.

Anywhere along the coast where there is a broad sandy beach with a freshwater steam can be a good gull roost. The freshwater attracts the gulls because here they can preen and wash and rest. To me, a bathing gull is a joyous sight to behold.

Lots of gulls on Venice Beach with many coming and going. I predicted there where over 300 birds.

At Venice Beach there where about 300 gulls resting on the beach or floating in a raft just off shore. I set up my scope on the bluff above the creek and beach and started scanning the flock.

I was seeing a lot of gulls of different species and ages: western, California, herring, and glaucous-winged. But I was looking for a gull that stood out from all the rest of the flock. Perhaps a gull with a yellow bill and dark earmuffs or a shockingly white gull with a black-tipped pink eraser bill. I was looking for rare gulls. A gull that stood apart.

And then I spotted the large white gull of the High Arctic but my view was obscured by the undulating roll of the beach so I headed up along the bluff for another look. It was worst. The gull was hidden between the Surfline and the beach. I wasn’t helped by that fact that parts of the flock where flushed when a beach walker decided to amble through the flock, taking a video, no doubt, to impress their eight followers on TikTok.

Also there where many gulls coming and going. But I didn’t see a large white gull take to the air so I assumed it was still among the 300.

I continued scanning the flock looking for that puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit in. On one of my scans I came across a smaller gull that was preening, hiding it’s beak in it’s back feathers. I didn’t need to see its beak shape or color to know that this was a rare California coastal gull. The darkness around its nape and the dark “earmuffs” were the giveaway. I was looking at an adult black-legged kittiwake! When it turned it’s head back I saw it’s all yellow beak.

The adult black-legged kittiwake with it’s dark “earmuffs’ and yellow beak.

The black-legged kittiwake (Risso tridactyla) is not often seen from land south of it’s nesting territory, so seeing a roosting kittiwake on a California beach is always a treat. In order to see a roosting kittiwake would mean a trip to coastal Alaska in the breeding season.

I got some documentation photos before the flock was flushed by another beach walker and I never saw the kittiwake again.

I continued to try to re-find the Arctic visitor and there where many gulls to pick through. After about ten minutes a gull that was bathing in the creek stood out like a sore thumb: a large white gull with a bicolored pink and black bill, this was a first winter glaucous gull!

Gulls bathing. There is no doubt which is the white gull of the High Arctic!

The other gulls where keeping their distance from the glaucous, and for good reason. While the great black-backed gull is recognized as the largest gull in the world by length and wingspan, the glaucous can often be heavier.

In Audubon’s The Birds of America the glaucous is called the Burgomaster Gull. A Burgomaster is a European term for a chief magistrate of a town. Indeed the glaucous is the mayor of the beach. This big barrel chested gull maintains a circle, at beak length, from other gulls. This is the dominate gull in the flock even though this bird was a first winter immature.

The other gulls keep their distance from the Mayor of the Beach!

County Birding: San Mateo and San Francisco Counties Part 2

On Sunday I decided to head to Lake Merced and its environs.

I started at the Vista Grande Canal which is just south of the Concrete Bridge. This concrete canal can have some nice species including the continuing swamp sparrow. I found the sparrow shortly after arriving and enjoyed watching it foraging in the water with excellent mid-morning light.

The continuing swamp sparrow and it’s relflection. The reflected green makes this scene look like a May Morning instead of early February.

Above my head, on a power line, a California scrub-jay perched with an acorn in it’s mouth. This intelligent species is an avian gardner, responsible for oak trees “growing” uphill because of the jay habit of caching thousands of acorns in the ground.

In the distance, toward the lake, I could here the unearthly song of a male great-tailed grackle. This “Devil bird” has been slowly making it’s way north.

My next stop was the Boathouse and docks. This is where I had seen an adult bald eagle a few weeks before. The docks can sometime yield interesting gulls.

I first checked, quiet hopefully, the eucalyptus for the adult bald eagle but this bird had flow weeks ago. With the naked eye, I could see a lone gull on the nearest wooden dock. It’s grey mantle and white underparts said, “small adult gull”.

I put bins on the bird and I realized that this was no ordinary gull for this location. What I was looking at was a wintering pelagic gull that rarely comes ashore excepted when pushed towards land, ahead of a storm front. And there had not been a storm in the past week. The bird I was looking at was an adult black-legged kittiwake!

I grabbed my camera and headed down to the docks to get a better look. Yes the yellow-green bill and dark “ear muffs” put this in the kittiwake category. I took some photos for documentation for this was indeed a rare bird at this location. Most kittiwakes in San Francisco, are seen by scope when birders are doing a seawatch. The last two eBird reports of black-legged kittiwake from Lake Merced where from 2001 and 1977!

One of the first photos I took of the wayward kittiwake. The indentation just under the breast seemed off. When the kittiwake turned to face me I could see the reason this pelagic species had been forced ashore. There was a deep indentation under it’s breast and a large, open wound in it’s chest. The kittiwake was injured.

The kittiwake had come ashore to rest and die.

I watched the kittiwake as it repeatedly drank water. It occasionally sat down but then stood up again and took another sip of water.

This angle shows the open wound, perhaps caused by a fishing line.

I put word out to local birders of my find. I wanted other birders to witness this pelagic rarity on the shores of a San Franciscan lake before it flew off or passed away. In all about 11 birders reported seeing the kittiwake that Sunday.

One report, from mid afternoon, noted that animal control attempted to net the kittiwake but it was well enough to fly off towards the gull flock in the middle of the lake. It eventual returned to it’s favored place on the wooden dock.

The last eBird report of this bird was just after 4 PM and then it was seen no more.

The adult kittiwake taking a sip of water. This photo is bittersweet. While is was amazing to see a new San Francisco County bird but also realizing that I was probably witnessing the kittiwake’s last day on Earth.

Gather of Gulls

Flying Rats. Parking Lot Bird. Beach Pigeons. A Health Hazard. A Nuissance.

There are many epithets given to the unpopular group of birds collectively known as “seagulls”. These birds are often overlooked, even by birders. 

Gulls are found in most coastal urban areas including parking lots, school yards or perched on the roof of fast food chains, often chasing other birds and sometimes even small children. While the rising human population harms many species of animals, gulls seem to prosper with our desrtruction and altering of the earth’s landscapes.

From a birder’s perspective, gulls all seem to look alike and can be devilishly difficult to identify. Some first year birds look like a Dickensian chimney sweep, covered from head to tail in dark-gray soot. Or you have adult birds that all seem to have the same proportion of white and grey. It’s easy to understand why many birders ignore them altogether. With gulls, the devil is truly in the details.

So it was that on a Sunday morning that Dickissel and I came to be on a bluff above Pilarcitos Creek to observe details.

From our perspective, the creek was directly below us and beyond the water was Venice Beach and further down slope was Half Moon Bay. Directly in front of us were gulls bathing and preening in Pilarcitos Creek while up on the beach there where other gulls that were preening or resting on the sands. In total, the mixed gull flock included about 150 individuals.

This flock  was truly mixed. It included common gulls at different plumages on their three to fourth year journey to adulthood. And none of them resembled each other, hence the importance of observing details (and a scope helps).

The first gulls that stood out were the five adult and one juvenile black-legged kittiwakes, enthusiastically bathing in the creek. 2017 has been a fantastic year for this normally scarce species on the coast. For whatever reason, this winter, these petite pelagic gulls were abundant on beaches and off shore rocks. The kittiwakes kept their distance from the larger gulls in the communal bath that is Pilarcitos Creek.

One juvenile kittiwake would vigorously preen and bath at the base of the main flock and slowly float downstream just below our perch where we could observe it’s bold “M” stretched across it’s wing span and it’s black rimmed tail. Dickcissel christened the young one our “Homie”.

Our “Homie”, the juvenile black-legged kittiwake,  flying upstream to preen in the waters of Pilarcitos Creek. 

Aside from the kittiwakes, the most common gull present were westerns, followed by California, mew, ring-billed, and two glaucous-winged gulls. But we were searching for a large white Artic gem. This would be the largest and whitest gull around, a gull that cohabitants with polar bears and its foragaging portfolio includes predation, this gull was the glaucous gull (Larus  hyerboreus).

A large white gull with a pied bill of black and bubblegum pink appeared amoung the gulls washing in the creek. This gull really stood out. It washed and preened for a good 15 minutes allowing close study thought the scope. After it’s bath, the glaucous flew up to the beach to continue to preen.

A digiscope photo taken by Dicksissel of the 1st winter glaucous gull, bathing in the creek. All other gulls are giving this menacing youngster a wide berth.

What I noticed about the glaucous is that all the western gulls surrounding on the beach, it gave it a wide berth as if they knew the glaucous was different. Bigger, more aggressive, and menacing. All the other gulls stayed outside of pecking distance.

Some beach walkers flushed the gull flock, they took to the air, circled around and eventually returned to the creek and beach. I scanned the flock and refound the glaucous. I then noticed a bird at the upper edge of the flock that stood out. It stood out for a few reasons: first is was standing apart from the flock, as if it didn’t belong, second it’s bill shape was very different from the others, and lastly it’s dark eyes was framed in a broken white circle. This was a rare west coaster, a laughing gull (Leucophaeus artricilla).

A birder on the bluff looking for that needle in the haystack.


Scope Gull

To the naked eye they are white specks on a rock. With binoculars you can discern the white front and grey back, the yellow beak (with maybe a smudge of red on the lower mandible) but the iris and orbital ring color are unknown at this distance. But with a scope the smaller gull,  just on the right, with a yellow bill, dark “earmuffs”, and black feet turns into North American Lifebird #510!

I set out on Saturday morning ,  heading south on Highway One with binos, scope, and tripod stowed in the back. My first detour of the day was in Pacifica to the Sharp Park Golf Course to check on the continuing emperor goose. A short walk south down the berm produced the rare goose, loosely feeding on the fairway with a group of Canada geese. Check.


Journal page from the Emperor goose I saw at Seven Mile Slough, Lifebird #500. March 12, 2016.


Digiscope shot of the goose in the rough, at Sharp Park Golf Course, January 29, 2017.

The next stop was Pillar Point Harbor to see if anything interesting had blown in. I checked the creekmouth and beaches for any interesting gulls with not much luck. I then returned to Highway One. My plan was to head to Pescadero to scope the rocks and sea to find something interesting.

On my way to Santa Cruz, I frequently stop here, scanning the rocks for one of my favorite rock dwellers, the black oystercatcher. Most times it’s banshee wail, issued as it flies, calls attention to this cryptic colored bird, especially when it tucks its bright orange-red bill into its feathers. I scoped the rocks from the Pescadero State Beach pockmarked parking lot.  I counted 11 oystercatchers among the gulls and pelicans.

I slowly picked through the gulls, noting the beautiful plumage of the Heerman’s gull that were preening near the brown pelicans. As I panned to the left I saw a small gull, one with dark earmuffs, that I had missed on my first pass. This gull was different. Through the scope I ticked off the details: black legs, earmuffs, yellow bill. This was my target bird: an adult black-legged kittiwake! Lifebird #510!


A not so wonderful digiscope photo of the preening kittiwake (the top gull).