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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!
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Pioneer Canyon Pelagic

For months, Grasshopper Sparrow has been dreaming of going on a pelagic to see some of the iconic west coast species: shearwaters, storm-petrels, and the mighty black-footed albatross! And finally the morning came for a September Alvaro’s Adventures pelagic trip to the continental self from Pillar Point Harbor.

A loose sketch of a budding birder checking out the birds on the breakwater as we head out of Pillar Point Harbor.

We arrived at the harbor half an hour before the meeting time of 6:30 AM. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve, I was excited and I rarely sleep well before a pelagic. Pelagic trips are so exciting because you never know what you’re going to see.

This pelagic produced some avian highlights but on this trip the cetaceans really shined.

A loose pen brush sketch from the stern of the Huli Cat. Not an easy thing to do with the rolling and rocking of the boat in open sea. That’s why it’s loose!

As we headed out into the foggy bay we saw many rafts of common murres. It took a while to see a sooty shearwater and our first was a lone individual, strange for such a gregarious species. As we headed further out we saw more sootys and then our first pink-footed shearwater. A bird misinterpreted by an elderly woman on the trip as a “pink” shearwater, the flamingo of the sea. We came upon small rafts of red-necked phalaropes. Then we saw our first storm-petrel, an ashy.

We were all anticipating the first appearance of an albatross. Once the depth went from 200 feet dropping down to 1,000 and more, we knew we had passed over the continental shelf and were over Pioneer Canyon. This is where pelagic life really intensifies. These were the waters of the albatross. But we didn’t see any of these monarchs of the open seas (well not yet, anyway).

We where not over the submarine canyon long before we were surrounded by dolphins, hundreds of them. Pacific white-sided dolphins same toward the Huli Cat, riding our bow wake and jumping in our stern wake. Mixed in with this large pod were the northern right-whale dolphin, it’s finless back can be easily confused with sea lions. The large pod seemed to seek out our boat and many dolphins where fully breaching out of the water! Their playfulness in water reminded me of ravens in the air.

We next encountered a pair of humpback whales. As we cruised along the continental shelf we came to our best whale sighting of the day. Two blue whales that we kept pace with for about 10 minutes. This is the largest animal to have ever lived on planet earth and it is always amazing to see this leviathan of the Oceans. In fact, there were two of three other blue whales in the area, their tall, straight blow gave away their positions. The two whales would pause on the surface, perhaps resting before diving down, showing their massive fluke as they searched the nutrient rich waters for krill.

The mighty blue whale. We saw their flukes as they dived down.

Later, to our starboard, a young humpback whale entertained us by breaching (jumping) out of the water. We were able to watch about ten breaches from this playful whale.

We came to a group of gulls and shearwaters on the water, perhaps feeding on the remainder of a sea lion meal when Alvaro yelled out the word we were yearning to hear, “Albatross!” A lone black-footed albatross passed us on our port side, giving us great views of it’s effortless flight. We later saw one other albatross but this pelagic was marked by the presence of some amazing cetaceans.

And Grasshopper also got some great lifers, both pelagic birds and marine mammals!

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Half Moon Bay Pelagic Birding

To the outside eye, birding makes a man do some crazy things. The list is too long to retell here and to be honest I have conveniently forgotten a few.

So what do I do on my first Saturday after my first week back at school. Relax? Of course not! I wake up at 5:30 AM, drive 30 minutes through pea soup thick, Pacifica fog and stop to caffeinated at the Press Cafe, where all the fisherman of Pillar Point Harbor do the same (they open at 4 AM daily).

I then stood at the base of the Johnson Pier, coffee in hand and my binoculars around my neck, wearing them as a lanyard at a conference, announcing my place in the world. Other birders slowly wandered in to form in loose flocks, some nibbling ginger cookies other talking about recent avian sighting.

Our destination was the pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County and we would be heading out to the Continental shelf aboard the New Captain Pete, a 53 foot fishing charter boat. But we would be doing no fishing on this all day trip.

Sunrise over Pillar Point breakwater as the New Captain Pete heads out to the Pelagic birding grounds of San Mateo County.

We headed out from the harbor it was interesting to see the groups of birds we were seeing as we were heading out to the pelagic or open ocean birding grounds. We first where seeing coastal species such as brown pelican, Caspian tern, and Brandt’s cormorant. A little further out we started seeing marine species that can be seen from land but with a scope. Common murre, a parent with begging young in tow, a pair of marbled murrelets, and a few Heerman’s gulls on the water. At the edge of this zone we spotted our first northern fulmar.

My pelagic map (from Pillar Point Harbor).

As we headed closer to the Continental shelf we became to see more pelagic species that are rarely seen from land such as Buller’s and pink-footed shearwaters, pomarine and long-tailed jaegers, and the long haul migrant, the arctic tern.

As we approached the shelf we spotted a giant of a bird, sitting on the water. This was the master of the wind, the black-footed albatross, a west coast speciality. These birds are amazing to watch on the wing and there can be very tame, often approaching boats.

Once we hit the weather buoy on the Continental shelf, we seem to be seeing more shearwaters and were surrounded by Pacific white-sided dolphins that road the bow wake and paralleled our path. On this journey we also spotted about 40 humpback whales.

Over all it was amazing day at sea, with calm seas, many pelagic bird species and marine mammals.

I highly recommend going with Alvaro’s Adventures on a pelagic trip to the Continental shelf.

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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.

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Friday After Work Lifer

Is there any better way to end a week on a Friday than having an afternoon lifebird on the San Mateo Coast? I was about to find out as I left work and headed west to Half Moon Bay, recently christened, “The Rare Gull Capital of the United States”.

The rare gull in question was the slaty-backed gull (Larus schistisagus). This large four year gull is an Asian gull that is rare in Alaska but is even rarer along the western coast of California. This was my sort of lifer.

The last time the adult gull had been seen was at 5:30 on the previous afternoon at the Pilarcitos Creek mouth as it entered the Pacific at Venice Beach in Half Moon Bay.

When I arrived at about 4, there were over one hundred gulls preening, resting, and bathing on the beach and in the creek and about 10 birders combing through the mixed species flock.

Now which one of these gulls has a slaty back?

I figured patience was the order of the day. I was hoping the gull would appear and we had many eyes trained on the group.

I shared a conversation with Sterling and a non-birder lady that when a little something like this:

Lady: What are you looking at?

Birder: Gulls.

Lady: Oh seagulls! Why are there so many here?

Birder: The fresh water from the creek, they bathe and drink from it.

Lady: Why don’t they drink from there? (she points to the Pacific Ocean).

Birder: It’s the ocean. It’s saltwater.

dsc07389 Another oddly pixilated photo of the mixed gull flock at Pilarcitos Creek. I’d call it art if it weren’t a complete accident.

It was starting to get colder but the mix flocked provided me with many different looks at gulls of different ages and species. But the the large gull with a dark slaty-grey back had not yet appeared.

Then at 5:20, out of thin air, the adult slaty-backed was spotted on the southside of the creek, 20 yards away! Lifer #512!

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A rather crappy digiscope of the adult slaty-backed gull.

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A great way to end the week: a lifer and a beautiful sunset at Venice Beach.

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An Extremely Rare California Gull

On Thursday January 12, 2017 at 2:07 PM, word went out of Sialia.com (a birding lists digest) that a very rare gull had been  found in a parking lot in Pillar Point Harbor, just north of Half Moon Bay. This small, dove-like gull was a Ross’s Gull, an arctic breeder that spends it’s time feeding near ice flows in the Arctic. And this gull was only the second time this species had ever been seen in California. It was previously seen in November of 2006 in, (where else?) the Salton Sea.

On the following day, Friday the 13th, I saw that the gull had been seen up until 3:20 PM on Thursday when it had flown north and the Ross’s could not be refound.  I knew where I would be heading after work to attempt to add a rare gem of a bird to my list but in the morning, the gull’s location was a mystery. Then it was refound at 12:20 at the Half Moon Bay Airport. Now if the gull would only stick until I could get there! But the gull flew east, fortunately no further than the flooded Brussels sprout field across highway one.

I left work and headed west on Highway 92, willing the gull to stay put and not head north into oblivion. Traffic slowed through Half Moon Bay and was equally as sluggish once I turned north on Highway One. I passed the intersection to Princeton, just a bit further, then I spotted all the cars pulled over on either side of the highway. I parked and swiftly walked north, towards the hordes of birders.

The Ross’s stood out like a sore thumb, a brilliantly white gull in a brown field. Bingo Lifebird #509, the perfect lifer!

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The Ross’s gull in the flooded field, across Highway One from the Half Moon Bay Airport on Friday the 13th, 2017.

The Ross’s was the perfect lifer because it was ultra rare (only the second California record), it was seen in amazing afternoon light, it was tame and extremely accommodating, it was only 30 yards away in a puddle by itself (no massive gull flock to muddle through), and it acted as if 150 crazed birders watching it was an everyday experience.

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Field sketch from Highway One.

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Overexposed digiscope photo of the Ross’s. The little gull was scanning the skies, two peregrines were spotted earlier, heading northeast.

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The hordes or birders from near and far, enjoying a late afternoon gull from the edge of Highway One.

Coda:

On the following day, Saturday January 14, at 2:10 PM, it was reported that the Ross’s Gull had been flushed up from the flooded field by a pair of peregrines and the gull was taken by the two falcons, ending it’s wayward journey.