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!

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.