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The Smallest Gull at the River’s End

The world’s smallest gull had recently been spotted in a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls at the San Lorenzo River mouth.

It was a rare west coast gull and the one spotted on May 13, 2022 was only the 5th Santa Cruz County record.

This is the appropriately named little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus). I had seen this rarity on June 9, 2004 at Pescadero March in San Mateo County but I had not seen the diminutive gull since.

My first attempt to add the little gull to my Santa Cruz County list was foiled by a foot race that closed access to the San Lorenzo River mouth. I would have to try again later. Luckily the gull hung around with the flock of Bonaparte’s gull.

I tried again the following weekend. The flock had moved from the river mouth, up river, just north of the railroad trestle. There were about 75 Bonaparte’s gull, so searching through the flock for a slightly smaller gull showing a brown “M” on it’s wings, proved to be a challenge.

I got fleeting and very unsatisfying looks of the gull as the gull flock burst into the air climbing ever higher into the sky, which made me want to come back another time to try to see the bird again. And to get good reference photos for a sketch. Which is exactly what I did the following Saturday morning.

I returned to the Riverway Trail, which is just north of the train trestle that crosses the San Lorenzo River. The Bonaparte’s gull flock had moved from the river mouth (south of the trestle) further up the river. I imagine the large amount of human traffic and off leash dogs on the main beach may have something to do with the relocation.

There where now just 21 Bonaparte’s gulls left in the flock and they were roosting on the western shore of the river, the same river that flows past my cabin, further up the San Lorenzo Valley. Because there where less gulls, picking out the world’s smallest gull would be much easier. It also helped that there was another birder on the trail, already looking at the little gull!

This time the little gull was roosting on a riverside rock 15 feet from the trail! The morning was foggy which was perfect flat, low-contrast light for getting great photographs.

The little gull was also roosting close to the Bonaparte’s, giving me a nice size comparison of the two similar species.

The little gull and the larger adult Bonaparte’s gull on the right.
Loose sketch of the little gull based on one of my photographs.
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Roaring Camp Field Trip

For the two past years, because of Covid, we had to cancel our annual adventure to the gold discovery site in Colma, spending three days and two nights as part of the Gold Rush Program at the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS). Our school has been going to CODS for the past 25 years and it was tough to see two groups of 4th graders missing out on what is one of the most memorable experiences in elementary school.

As a substitute for Colma, my teaching mate suggested a day trip to Roaring Camp & Big Trees in Felton. In the Santa Cruz Mountains we would walk among giants, pan for gold, and take a steam railroad trip through the redwoods. I thought it was a great idea because, in a sense, it was almost in my backyard.

As I like to say, I rent in the city but I own in the country. My family cabin is in the San Lorenzo Valley between Santa Cruz and Felton. From up the valley I can hear the lonesome whistle of the shay locomotive from my deck. While the steam railway is narrow gauge, the standard gauge branch runs just uphill from my cabin, taking passengers from Felton to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

On the Friday morning of our trip our school buses were ten minutes late. Most mapping apps time the trip from San Mateo to Felton to take one hour. In a yellow school bus you have to add 10 to 20 minutes. So when we arrived at Roaring Camp were already behind schedule. Two words in teaching trade that are the most important in this situation are flexibility and patience.

We unloaded our bus (no one lost their breakfast on the journey over the curvaceous Highway 17) and we had a pleasant surprise, just before we crossed the covered bridge on our way to the station.

We arrived late, so our planned schedule was already out the window. We had time for a bathroom break before we queued up at the station as the No 1 Shay “Dixiana” backed into the station with her consist of brightly painted yellow and green passengers cars. We had the two cars behind “Dixiana”. We really would have front row seats to the sites, sounds, and smells of a live steam locomotive!

The two truck Class B Shay on point, was built in 1912 at the Lima Locomotive Works. It was originally built for the Alaculsy Lumber Company as a geared narrow gauge logging locomotive capable of climbing grades of 8% (most standard locomotives can handle a 1.5% grade). It served six other railroads before ending up in Dixianna, Virginia (hence the locomotive’s name). It was designated No. 1 because it was the first locomotive acquired by the railroad and she is now the workhorse of Roaring Camp.

The founder of Roaring Camp, Norman Clark, purchased the Shay in 1962 for his vision of a replica logging town with a narrow gauge railway. The Shay was loaded onto a flatcar and then shipped, via mainline rail, to her new home in Felton.

I could feel the excitement of our fourth graders as they found their seats. These tech-savvy ten year olds were about to experience cutting edge technology of the early 20th Century! And we would be pulled up the mountain by a 110 year old steam locomotive.

With two toots of the whistle, our train rumbled into life headed out from the station and past the water tower. Our train turned right into Schoolhouse Curve on it’s way up to Bear Mountain. Our top speed was about five miles an hour. Shays were built for their motive power on steep logging grades not for swift passenger service.

Crossing the horseshoe curve wooden trestle at Indian Creek. This trestle is one of the tightest turning railroad trestles in the United States. At it’s highest point, the train is 35 feet above the ground.

Once we crossed over the Indian Creek Trestle, the No. 1 labored up an 8.5% grade to the burned out trestles at Spring Canyon. The trestles were burnt in a fire on June 27, 1976.

The charred remains of the Spring Canyon Trestle. I love these ghosts of the past. I have no memory of crossing over this trestle, but knowing my father, I must have been on this train as an infant in the early 1970s.

After the trestle burned on July 27, four months later, a switchback was constructed to make up the elevation needed to summit Bear Mountain. On first section of the switchback, the train has to back up meaning that Shay No. 1 is pushing, instead of pulling, her consist up the hill. This section of track is the steepest portion of narrow gauge railroad in the United States. This grade reaches 9.25%!

Dixianna pushed our train up the grade with no problem, after all this is what she was designed to do. On the way up my some of my students caught their first sighting of a banana slug!

We headed up the last leg of the switchback and labored towards the summit of Bear Mountain, which is really more of a hill. Once our train reached the summit and we stopped for about 15 minutes. We kept our students on the train because we didn’t want to leave anyone behind. I detrained and took a few photos on Dixianna, one of which was the reference for the key sketch.

Dixianna at Bear Mountain. The engineer is greasing the moving parts. Stream locomotives are high maintenance.

A toot from the whistle announced that it was time to board the train because we where heading back down the hill to the station.

Looking down from 35 feet atop the Indian Creek Trestle on our way back to the station.
A Memorial Day field sketch of “Dixianna” waiting to depart of her 10:30 trip to Bear Mountain. She was in the station for about 20 minutes, which gave me enough time to sketch.
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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.

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The Night Visit

Clearly the “squirrel-proof”, pepper-infused suet is not working. When I restocked four suet cakes into the suet feeder for the first time this season, it didn’t take long for the local gray squirrels to visit the feeder.

The squirrels do have a habit of eating some suet, pausing, as if thinking, “Damn this is hot!” before going back for a second helping. The chickadees, juncos, Steller’s jays, and song sparrows enjoy the spicy suet but it is definitely not squirrel proof!

On the first night that I set out the suet, at about 8:20, I heard an audible thump on the deck.

When I went to have a look, I fully expected to see a raccoon, which are infrequent nocturnal visitor to the feeder. But instead I was surprised to see a gray fox, having a nibble at the feeder.

The fox instantly turned around and sprinted across the deck railing and then jumped off the deck and into the night leaving me gobsmacked. What an amazing encounter! This was the first gray fox I had ever seen in the park! And it had come to visit my suet.

The only other gray foxes I had seen in the county were ex-gray foxes lying by the roadside.

This sighting increased my yard mammalian list to five: grey and red squirrel, raccoon, striped skunk, and now gray fox. (I could add mountain lion but a neighbor reported this apex predator passing between my cabin and my neighbors, but I didn’t see it myself.)

I knew I wanted to do a sketch about the encounter but I wondered how I could do a sketch of a gray fox. I wanted to shy away from copyrighted photographs online , so I chose to sketch an ex-fox, at the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum.

I went to the museum and found the display that included the taxidermy gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). These mount museums are a sketcher’s delight because you can sketch many reptiles, butterflies, fish, birds and mammals that are not moving. I felt like I was channeling the sprit of John James Audubon.

The gray fox at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

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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.

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County Birding in the New Year

It was a good omen to see a large raptor perched on a snag just after I crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

I was not sure what the raptor was (hard to identify at 70 miles per hour) but it certainly was not a red-tailed hawk, it was much bigger. I was thinking more eagle-like.

I passed Waddell Beach and turned around at the soonest point. I headed back and pulled into the dirt parking lot at Waddell State Beach. Once I got bins on the bird, I had no doubt that I was looking at an eagle. Not a golden but a juvenile bald eagle. Perhaps a second or third year bird. Welcome to Santa Cruz County! What a great afterwork bird!

That large yellow bill screams: bald eagle!! This is a juvenile bird and the first I have seen at Waddell Beach.

The next morning, Saturday, I headed to Tryrrell Park, just behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to look for a wayward warbler that had recently been spending the winter among the oaks and willows. Within about ten minutes I had the small, grey warbler, foraging in the willows with a Townsend’s warbler. A Lucy’s warbler. What a rarity and what a great county bird!

I then headed across town to the Natural Brides Overlook just off Westcliff Drive, to looked for a reported ruddy turnstone. It was not there but a local fellow Santa Cruz Bird Club member was there looking for the same bird with a scope. Together we found some nice birds: whimbrel, black turnstone, black oystercatcher, back-bellied plover, Heerman’s gull, and a close female white-winged scoter on the water.

We met a man with a large lens from Sacramento, our state capital, and he was photographing some birds on the rock. He was excited at adding Brandt’s cormorant and Heerman’s gull to his life list (these birds are not seen in the Central Valley). A father and son from the east coast walked up, telling use there was a hawk perched on a light post on Westcliff. What follows is the conversation:

Son: I think it’s a rough-legged hawk.

Me: Now that would be a great bird to see here. (I put the raptor in my bins) Peregrine.

Father: It’s too big to be a peregrine.

In the meantime my club member compatriot has put his scope on the bird in question. And he asks me to take a look. I looked.

Me: Peregrine.

Dad: They are smaller on the east coast.

Size is not a great measure for field identification because birds can often seem larger when they fluff up their feathers and in raptors occurs reverse sexual dimorphism, which simply means that females are larger than males.

A rough-legged hawk, no err, a peregrine, no, too big to be a peregrine. . . okay a peregrine! A nickname for this bird on Hawk Hill is “Elvis” because of it’s dark head and “sideburns”.

I got some beta from the club member about a bird in the county that I needed to add to my lifelist. I had lackadaisically searched for the Santa Cruz County resident with no luck. Why? First I was searching in the wrong place and secondly, the bird was an exotic species which had been introduced to California.

Exotic species are an odd one when it comes to listing. They could be escapees and normally you cannot count them but if they have a established and sustained breeding population, such as the European starling or the Himalayan snowcock, then they can be counted. With the ABA’s approval of course.

So I headed down Highway One towards Watsonville. My destination: Pinto Lake City Park. The bird in question, according to my beta, was to be found in the reeds near the picnic area, just to the right of the dock.

At the moment the dock was inundated with the Devil’s Bird: great-tailed grackle. There must have been about 30. I searched the reeds and got a brief view of my quarry before a flock flew to the other side of the dock.

I walked over and followed the sounds of the flock moving through the reeds. I final got great views of lifebird # 1,666 (a global pandemic really spoils a world life list). Here was a flock of 12 scale-breasted munias. This small sparrow-like birds are native to Asia and India. How they got here, no one really knows.

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A Sunday Morning Twofer

The Westside of Santa Cruz has been recently active with fall migrants, including a few species that are considered rare in California.

I set out early on Sunday morning and the most challenging part of my migrant search was getting to the Westside of Santa Cruz. Streets where blocked off because of a bicycle race which made getting to the Homeless Garden and Antonelli Pond a chore. Highway One was blocked off at Western Drive and I was hoping the two rarities seen the day before would still be in the area. Now I waited, a bit impatiently, as a CHP officer let in a trickle of traffic at Western Drive, in between clumps of cyclists.

I finally made my way across the intersection and turned left on Shafner, which was also blocked off by a CHP officer. Here was where two passions collided: birding and triathletes. And the triathletes were winning.

I found parking at the end of Shafner and crossed the rusted railroad tracks and headed into the Homeless Garden. The garden was already occupied by five birders, with their large lens, looking for the first of the rare migrants on my list: bobolink.

After wandering around for ten minutes, I noticed a triad of birder-photographers with their lens pointed at a row of tall purple flowers. This is always a good sign because I reckoned they where not photographing a white-crowned sparrow or a lesser goldfinch but a rarer visitor called a bobolink.

What’s in a name? Well bobolink is onomatopoeic of it’s call. Other birds whose common name is derived from the sound of it’s call are: chickadee, whip-poor-will, dickcissel, bobwhite, chachalaca, hoopoe, killdeer, poorwill, willet, kookaburra, and of course the cuckoo.

The bobolink with it’s attending birding paparazzi at the Homeless Garden.

And now back to the Homeless Garden in western Santa Cruz: it turns out that the bird all the birders where looking at was the bobolink. The bird was very accommodating as it perched up on the vegetation and held relatively still.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) at the Homeless Garden in Santa Cruz.

Now I was going to try for the second county bird (and third for the weekend) and this bird was much rarer. This bird had only been recorded in Santa Cruz County once before. I had first seen a white-eyed vireo in Southern Texas in 2013. Now one was out on the West Coast.

I headed east down the railroad tracks and I could see about ten birders peering into the bushes on either side of the track. I had passed two birders who had already given up on the bird and where heading to the garden to look at the bobolink.

Now sometime magic happens in birding. Where you happen to be at just the right place at just the right time. Such was the case as I approached the group of birders and was just about to ask if they had had any luck with the vireo when one of the birders exclaimed, “There’s the bird!” And pointed into the top of a rail side tree. Some of the birders and been searching for the vireo for over two hours and here I come, Johnny- Come-Lately, and the bird seems to appear out of nowhere.

I got bins on the foraging vireo, two white wing bars, yellowish wash, white throat, and a distinctive white eye with a dark pupil. This was the bird all the birders were here to see. White-eyed vireo!

The vireo moved from tree to tree and at one point was foraging with a mixed feeding flock in a pine. Beside the white-eyed, the flock included warbling vireo, pygmy nuthatch, Townsend’s warbler, chestnut-backed chickadee, dark-eyed junco, Bewick’s wren, oak titmouse, both downy and hairy woodpeckers, and bushtits.

As we searched the feeding flock in the pine, we where joined by more birders. I could only gesture to the place where the white-eyed vireo used to be but had not been seen in the last few minutes. We where joined by more and more birders and a tallish, bespectacled man stood to my left peering into the pine. And here is where I used my odd and often under-appreciated superpower: identify obscure “celebrates”.

Low and behold, the birder standing next to me was none other than the acclaimed novelist, Jonathan Franzen. He is the the author of the National Book Award winner, The Corrections (which I have not read). He is also a birder and has written essays about birds and birding (one essay is titled “My Bird Problem”). Franzen now lives in Santa Cruz, which explains why he was here on a Sunday morning, attempting to get a glimpse of the wayward vireo. I’m not sure he got that glimpse because I returned to my car shortly afterwards with a county twofer.

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A Plover From Another Continental Coast

When I read the report of an extremely rare plover on a Santa Cruz County beach, I knew that I had to head down with GrassHopper Sparrow, to add this find to my county list! (This was a mega lifer for Grasshopper.)

This plover had only been seen in California on twenty occasions. And when it was first seen on the morning of September 17 by Simon Thornhill, he posted on a birding list serve: “Strange Plover at Laguna Beach”. He noted that the plover was slightly larger than the snowy plovers it was loosely associating with. He included a photo and it was identified by the birding community as a lesser sand plover (Charadrius mongolus).

I had first seen a Lesser Sand Plover in California on October 22, 2016 on Pt. Reyes Beach on the Outer Point of Marin County’s Pt. Reyes. This small plover is usually found in Asia (it was formally know as the Mongolian plover), the east coast of Africa, India, and Australia. So when one wanders into California is would have most likely crossed over from Siberia and headed south through Alaska, Canada, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

A rare plover in Santa Cruz County was a bird too good to pass up so Grasshopper and I headed to the coast on a Sunday afternoon. The weekend pumpkin patch traffic was surprisingly light and we make good time down Highway One into Santa Cruz County.

We parked in the dirt lot, crossed the highway, and started down the trail towards Laguna Beach. As we headed down the trail, we met three other birders coming up the trail. They where smiling and this is always a good sign! The rare plover was still present.

The birders gave us directions to where the sand plover was being seen and they predicted that we would find it in less than five minutes! Let’s hope this prediction comes true.

The wind off the ocean was whipping up the sand and I assumed the plovers would be hunkered down in the dunes about 40 yards from the waterline.

We first observed three snowy plovers in the dunes and we knew the sand plover must be close by. To distinguish a snowy from a sand is not a very tough identification. The sand is larger and uniformly a darker grey with a distinct white supercillium (eyebrow). And also most of the snowies on Laguna Beach were sporting jewelry, colored leg bands to help researchers identify individuals.

While I did not keep track of time, we did find a darker, slightly larger plover that was loosely associating with the snowies, within about five minutes! County lifer 262!!

A not-so-sharply-focused photo of the lesser sand plover on the sands of Laguna Beach.

We had the sand plover all to ourselves for about 15 minutes. Over the last couple of days the plover had attracted many birders to this almost forgotten beach on this Santa Cruz County beach.

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Santa Cruz County Pelagic

County lines are a bit strange when it comes to off shore waters. They can seem arbitrary in the same way that county, state, or country lines can be. Only these county lines are drawn over deep water.

One of Alvaro’s pelagic boat trips was scheduled to head north from Monterey Harbor into Santa Cruz County waters. So I had to take this trip on my quest fro 300 Santa Cruz County birds.

Pelagic birding can be sublime and maddening in equal measures. For one, you are birding from a platform that is pitching in constant motion and the birds are often on a surface that is undulating where birds appear and disappear at a blink of an eye. Some birds fly to and over the boat while other birds, that had been resting on the water, take off at the first sight of a boat and you get a view of a retreating bird. Also because the bird boats are really designed for fishing and not pelagic birding, it is impossible to be two places at once. So if you are on the starboard rail and a rarity is seen on the opposite side of the boat, you have to make a mad scrabble on a surface that make one look like a drunk sailor, and only to find that the bird is gone with a spotter pointing to the spot where the Manx shearwater used to be!

I suppose this is the draw of pelagic birding. It is challenging and it can often give you incredible memorable experiences. Such as the time when our boat was surrounded my a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins that numbered in the high hundreds or the time when we kept pace with two blue whales or another time when a black-footed albatross flew in and rest in the water a few yards from the boat.

We where scheduled to depart at 7:30 AM and at 7 a group of Santa Cruz Bird Club members where milling about, cleaning their optics and looking at gulls in the harbor. Our leader, Alvaro walked down the wharf. I was surprised to see him upright because he had flow in the night before from Spain, having just finished a birding trip. He said he felt fine but joked that if we found him asleep later in the afternoon we where to kick him awake.

We left on time and we where only about an hour from port when we saw our first pelagic gem: the black-footed albatross. We soon crossed into Santa Cruz water and I wanted to add this albatross to my county list but unfortunately the four that we saw where all in Monterey waters. There where large numbers of shearwaters throughout our trip, the most common being sooty and pink-footed but with sightings of Buller’s and just one short-tailed and Manx shearwaters.

Looking down the port side of the Pt. Sur Clipper, or in pelagic birding parlance, 6 o’ clock to 9 o’clock. Here we are cruising above the Monterey Bay submarine canyon.

In all it was a very pleasurable cruise, even though I did not get an albatross over Santa Cruz waters, I did add 12 new county lifers, including: south polar skua, Arctic and common tern, Sabine’s gull, two jaegers, northern fulmar, Manx, Buller’s, and pink-footer shearwater.

As we headed back towards Monterey Harbor and the pelagic species where being replaced with inshore species like brown pelican, Brant’s cormorant, and western gull, there was one last surprise for use. One of the spotters picked out a far off brown booby flying along the coast. Not a bad way to ended a productive pelagic.

While we whiffed on black-footed albatross in Santa Cruz County, this photo of an albatross, blurred in motion over Monterey waters, sums up the motion and excitement of a classic Monterey Bay Pelagic.
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King of Tyrants: Tyrannus tyrannus

On a Monday, Trrannus tyrannus was first seen in a coffeeberry bush (Rhamnus californica) in the northwest corner of Antonelli Pond in Santa Cruz’s westside. I just hoped this county rarity would stick around until Friday when I could get down the coast to look for it.

The Eastern kingbird, like it’s name implies, breeds on the eastern side of the United States. This kingbird is a neotropical migrant where it spends winters entirely in South America. On their winters grounds, the kingbird travels in flocks and eats berries. (In the north it feeds mainly on insects taken on the wing).

Tyrannus tyrannus, means “tyrant, despot, or king” (take your pick) is named for the kingbird’s aggressive behavior during breeding season. While defending their nesting territory, they will attack birds that are much larger than itself, including hawks, great blue herons, ravens, crows, and even squirrels. There have been reports of kingbirds landing on the back of hawks and vultures, pecking and pulling out feathers. This is the King of Tyrants with a major Napoleon Complex.

So at about five PM I found myself in the northwest corner of Antonnelli Pond reflecting on the long journey this 40 gram bird had made, from the Amazon, eating fruit in flocks to it’s long journey up the Pacific Coast to forage for a few days near a pond in Santa Cruz. So far the coffeeberry bush was sans kingbird.

After about a 15 minute wait, a pied bird flew from the north into the bottom of the bush. I attempted to flank the bird to identify it as the wayward tyrant. A bird shot up from the bush, dark above and light below was a fine white border on it’s tail, Bingo! Eastern kingbird! The bird flew to a chain linked fence that bordered the Homeless Garden, where I was able to get a few distant photos.

A common perch for a kingbird: a fence.

The kingbird foraged for a bit in the garden and then flew back and landed on top of the coffeeberry bush in perfect late afternoon light, so I had to take a few photographs to confirm it’s misplaced existence. It stayed on it’s perch for a few minutes and it then flew across the pond and my encounter with the wayward (is their such a thing in nature?) eastern kingbird was over.

The eastern kingbird in great light, showing off it’s kingbird profile.

Often when we are looking for one thing in nature we see so much more. This was the case on Saturday morning, when I returned to Antonelli Pond to look for the eastern kingbird again (and the willow flycatcher that had also been report). While the coffeeberry bush was lacking a kingbird, some movement in the brush in front of me caught my attention.

A caught a glimpse of a long mammalian predator. I wanted to entice it out to get a better look so I did my best impersonation of a wounded rodent (I was thinking mouse) and within seconds, it’s snake-like head, ears alert, appeared out of the brush. It was almost licking it’s deadly teeth with delight (I call anthropomorphism on myself!)

It was a long-tailed weasel (Neogale frenata)! I had seen this predator on two other occasions but both sightings (at Wilder Ranch) were fleeting and I just got a flash of it’s dark-tipped tail as it disappeared into coyote brush.

The long-tailed weasel is an aggressive predator which can take prey twice it’s size such as rabbits and squirrels. On one occasion at Wilder Ranch on the Old Cove Landing Trail, a weasel was hunting bush rabbits and I heard a lagomorphic scream that was hard to forgot. I was not sure if the weasel’s hunt was successful.

The long-tailed weasel, coaxed out of the brush with my wounded rodent impression.
The long-tailed weasel showing off it’s black-tipped tail.