The Sea Elephant, the Laughing Gull, and a Tsunami

After work, on my way down to Santa Cruz, I spotted a male elephant seal resting on Waddell State Beach. On the previous Friday I had seen a juvenile bald eagle perched above the beach. Waddell Beach had been good to me.

This weekend, on Saturday morning, I returned to Waddell Beach to see if the elephant seal was still there and if so, I intended to sketch it. But I found so much more!

I pulled into the dirt parking lot at about 7:30 AM. And there was the male elephant seal on the beach looking like a massive piece of driftwood. The seal’s stern was pointing toward the tide and it bulbous snout, facing east. This is only the second elephant seal I have seen on Waddell State Beach.

I planned to search the gull flock that usually rests and bathes in Waddell Creek on the beach near the creek mouth. At the end of the beach I could see the flock of about 100 gulls. I was hoping to find a black-legged kittiwake, a gull that I have been wanted to add to my county list for a while. But before I got to the flock, there were a few gulls foraging around the elephant seal. Indeed, they seemed to be in orbit around the massive mammal.

The dark gulls where juvenile Heermann’s gulls but there was one daintier gull that was actively foraging in the surfline. This gull really stood out. And that’s always a good thing when you’re gulling. The first thing that called out to me was the shape, size, and color of the beak. Now where had I seen that beak before?

This gull was smaller than the nearby Heermann’s gulls. I checked off the fieldmarks: dark bill, darkish smudge behind the eye (clearly one of the hooded gulls), dark eye with a white broken ring, grey back, brownish wing coverts, white undertail coverts (seen when in flight), dark wing tips, and dark legs. This could be only one gull, a gull I had seen on the Texas coast; even taking a dip in a hotel’s swimming pool. This was a first winter laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)! A rare gull on the west coast of California.

Three laughing gulls in the hotel swimming pool in Rockport, Texas. The gull in the center most resembles the gull I found at Waddell Beach. The two other hooded gulls are in adult breeding plumage.
A pinniped piece of driftwood. A battle-scarred male elephant seal, master of Waddell Beach.

After taking some photos of the very active laughing gull, I pulled out my Stillman and Birn Beta hardcover panoramic journal, picked a position, and started sketching the elephant seal. He was very accommodating by just doing his driftwood impression. I looked north towards the parking lot and I noticed that a park ranger’s truck had just pulled in.

My field sketch of the male elephant seal at Waddell Beach.
The first winter laughing gull of Waddell Beach. What a great find! A Santa Cruz County lifer!

The ranger got out of his truck and he began walking towards me. Here I was, about to get a lecture about being too close to the elephant seal, when I was keeping a 25 foot buffer from the pinniped. Or so I though. When the ranger came within hailing distance, (when masked this seems to be about eight feet), he told me there was a tsunami warning and the surge was predicted to hit the coast right about now. I looked at my watch and it was just after 8 AM. He recommended that I leave the beach, which I did. I asked him if there had been and earthquake and he told me that and underwater volcano had erupted!

The undersea volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, 40 miles from the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, had erupted. A tsunami warning had been issued along the entire west coast of the United States as well as across the Pacific in Japan. The only evidence of the tsunami I witnessed was a swell running up Waddell Creek which causing the mallards to take to the air. At the time I really thought nothing of it. Winter waves I though. (I later found out that the surge damaged boats in Santa Cruz Harbor).

When I made it back to the parking lot I encountered two local birders who where looking for the recently reported black scoters. It is always great to have fellow witnesses when you find a rare bird. I showed them where the gull was, just to the right of the elephant seal and further down the beach. They got on it and then put word out on Monterey Birds of it’s presence. The more witnesses the better! Birders in Santa Cruz County love to share.

Thank you Lois, for getting the word out. And thank you for the very uncommon cuckoo in Watsonville!

One of the birders was Lois, the finder of the common cuckoo in Watsonville in the fall of 2012. That was an extremely rare bird that brought birders from across the United States to see it. I was glad to partially repay the favor with this humble, wayward, hooded gull. We seemed to be almost even.

Well, almost.


Waddell Beach: Black Scoters and an Elephant Seal

I had a nice Santa Cruz County After-Work-Lifer (AWL) as I just crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

A pair of black scoters had been reported just north from the dirt parking lot at Waddell Beach.

Three scoters are found on the California Coast in winter: surf, white-winged, and black. The most numerous is the the surf scoter. There were about fifty (probably many more) riding the waves or diving under them, off the sands of Waddell Beach.

Black scoter is the least common off the Santa Cruz County coast. Luckily for birders, it is the easiest to identify. Both the male and female are distinctive. The black has a rounded head where as the surf and white-winged scoter have a flatten head as if they were hit on the head with a frying pan!

The male black scoter, like it’s name implies, is all black. It’s head is rounded and it’s orange “golf ball” at the bases of it’s bill is a beacon that yells out, “Black Scoter!!”
The female also has a rounded head and a dark cap that contrasts with a lighter checks and neck.

I returned to Waddell Beach on Saturday morning to look through the gull flock at the Waddell Creekmouth. I was hopping to see a kittiwake or the rare lesser black-backed gull that had recently been reported. I saw neither.

What I did find, foraging in the near shore of Waddell Creek, was a long-billed dowitcher. Turns out that this is a new county shorebird for my list!I always love these shorts of birding surprises!

I did want to look for the black scoters again and try to get a few photos of the continuing sea ducks in good morning light. They obliged as the rode the tide about 40 yards from the parking lot. I was able to photograph the two together and separately as they associated with the surf scoters.

On Sunday morning, I headed back to Waddell Beach. The creek provides a large public gull bath along the coast and this area has produced much sought after gulls as black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, Bonaparte’s and, just once, an adult lesser black-backed gull! Gulls congregate here to wash in the fresh water and you are more likely to see a larger number of gulls at this early hour before the beach crowds arrive.

On Sunday morning all I recorded was California, western, mew, herring, and four Heerman’s gulls. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It did give me practice at sorting through gulls which can be notoriously tough to identify.

On my way back to the parking lot I refound the two black scoters in even better morning light. The two photos included in this post were taken on Sunday morning.

When I returned to my car I looked down at the beach and about 20 feet away was large 12 to 15 foot bull elephant seal resting on the sands. How had I missed such a large beast?

I had come here to see a county life bird. Instead I found a county life pinniped!

The view from the parking lot. Seems so hard to miss.
Here is my car to provide some scale.
This young male northern elephant seal looks like he has been in a few scuffles by the number of scars on his body. He is defiantly the beach master of this beach.