First day of spring 2011!

2011 March 20
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by David J. Ringer

VICKSBURG, MISS. — On Sunday, March 20, Earth’s equator faces the sun, an event called the equinox, and in the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox. In North America, the vernal equinox is widely regarded as the first day of spring.

Here in the southeast, spring is already well underway, but the third week of March does seem to be a turning point. Birding on Saturday, I encountered singing Northern Parulas, Pine Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers and a lone Black-and-white Warbler. Louisiana Waterthrushes, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Prothonotary Warblers should be making appearances any day, if they’re not here already.

Trillium sp.

One of the trilliums called toadshade, an early woodland wildflower. I haven’t worked out which species this is – perhaps Trillium sessile? T. cuneatum is another possibility, but I think that would be larger. Some trilliums are called wake-robins because their blooming heralds the return of spring birds. Here, the first warblers do start to arrive when the trilliums are in bloom.

Coinciding with this spring weekend was another astronomical phenomenon — the “supermoon.”

full moon at perigee

Saturday night, the moon was at perigee, its closest point to Earth. It was also full, and so it appeared large and very bright. I stood out on my deck watching bats flutter past ghostlike in the moonlight and listening to Barred Owls calling back and forth and spring peepers and chorus frogs creating a din that I couldn’t help but interpret as joyful.

Western Crowned Pigeon: New Guinea Wonderbird

2011 March 16
by David J. Ringer
Western Crowned Pigeon. Scientific name: Goura cristata

Western Crowned Pigeon (Goura cristata) at the National Zoo. I don’t often post captive bird images, but the fact is, this bird is just too fabulous not to share. It looks like it’s vogueing at a masquerade ball! Crowned pigeons (there are three species) are equivalent in size and weight to Black Vultures; they are the world’s largest pigeons. See the Birdlife species fact sheet for the Western Crowned Pigeon’s range, habitat, and conservation status. I saw its spectacular cousin, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, in the wild in 2006, an experience that still ranks among the highlights of my birding career: The Pigeon with Stars in Its Hair.

One-footed Ring-billed Gull

2011 March 14
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by David J. Ringer

one-footed Ring-billed Gull

Mexico’s Coronado Islands: Brown Boobies, cormorants, oystercatchers, and pinnipeds

2011 March 12
by David J. Ringer

After seeing Rhinoceros Auklets and Xantus’s Murrelets on the first half of Sunday’s San Diego Bird Festival pelagic trip, we reached Mexico’s Islas Cornado (Coronado Islands), four rocky islands off the coast of northern Baja California. The islands teem with bird life, mostly seabirds and shorebirds, though we did spot a Black Phoebe and a couple of House Finches. There’s lots to see, so sit back and enjoy this photo-heavy post. (The experience also inspired my column this month at 10,000 Birds, so check that out when you’re done: Meet Suliformes, one of the newest orders of birds.)

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

A Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) being dramatic. The bright coloration is characteristic of the californicus subspecies.

Brown Booby colony

Brown Boobies

In the last 10 years, Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster) have colonized Middle Rock in the Coronado Islands. This colony — the northernmost on North America’s Pacific Coast — has numbered in the low 30s for the past couple of years.

male Brown Booby

Graceful and beautiful, Brown Boobies are pantropical seabirds. The race here is brewsteri, and males like this one are easily identified by their frosty white heads.

Brown Boobies with chick

A pair tends a fuzzy white chick.

Brown Booby pair

Female (left) and male (right) flying together. Note female’s slightly larger size, brown head, and yellow facial skin.

Cormorants

Three species of cormorant frequent the islands.

Brandt's Cormorants, Phalacrocorax penicillatus

Brandt’s Cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) are the most abundant. Adults in high breeding plumage can be stunning — sapphire eyes, electric blue gular pouches set off by ivory-colored feathers, white filoplumes on the neck and back, and a blue-green gloss to their body plumage.

Pelagic Cormorants

A few Pelagic Cormorants (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) clung to nearly vertical slopes on Middle Rock. The distance makes detail difficult to see, but Pelagic Cormorants show small, slender heads and bills compared to the larger Brandt’s Cormorants (one at lower left).

Two Pelagic Cormorants, one of which has exposed the fluffy white tuft on its flank, and a Brandt’s Cormorant (far right).

Double-crested Cormorants

North Island held a few nesting Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus). The backgrounds make head plume details difficult to distinguish in this shot, but if you look closely you can see the top bird’s white head plumes (typical of West Coast birds) and the lower bird’s black head plumes. These ear-like tufts give the species both its English and scientific names.

Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani

A striking Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani.

hybrid oystercatcher

And a confusing oystercatcher, which may be an American x Black hybrid. After intensive hunting greatly reduced oystercather populations, the two species have come back into contact along Baja California’s Pacific coast and — it’s believed — interbreed more now than they did historically while they reach a new equilibrium. This bird shows and extensive black bib with scalloped edges, but even pure Americans of the local race show some scalloping. There’s a detailed index for scoring oystercatchers, but most of the features aren’t visible in this image. Nevertheless, an interesting bird, and several trip leaders felt comfortable calling it a hybrid.

Pinnipeds

Harbor seals, Phoca vitulina

Harbor seals, Phoca vitulina

Northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris

Northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris, resting near a partly visible harbor seal (right).

California sea lions, Zalophus californianus

California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) piled up and sleeping under a rock.

Lagniappe

nesting Brown Pelicans

Most of my experience with Brown Pelicans is on the Gulf Coast, where they nest on marshy islands or in mangroves, so I was excited to see them nesting in a very different environment — rocky cliffs studded with prickly pear cacti.

Middle Island

Middle Island, one of the four Coronado Islands

Black Oystercatcher and California sea lion

Black Oystercatcher (left) and California sea lion (right)

Western Gull and Brandt's Cormorant

A sharp-looking adult Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) and a Brandt’s Cormorant.

Xantus’s Murrelet and more on SoCal-Northern Baja pelagic trip

2011 March 10
by David J. Ringer

Sunday, I took a pelagic birding trip out of San Diego with friends Charley Burwick and Melanie Driscoll. The trip was part of the San Diego Bird Festival and had an all-star lineup of leaders, including Debi Shearwater, Paul Lehman, and Matt Sadowski.

Xantus's Murrelet, Synthliboramphus hypoleucus scrippsi

A definite trip highlight was seeing and photographing the scarce Xantus’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus hypoleucus scrippsi), which breeds on only a handful of rocky Pacific islands off southern California and Baja California. These birds are about the size of tubby Red-bellied Woodpeckers — so it can be rather difficult to spot them bobbing in the waves.

We encountered other alcids (more on that in a minute), but tubenoses were scarce. We had quick flybys from one Pink-footed Shearwater and a couple of Sooty Shearwaters, and some people got brief looks at Northern Fulmars. But none of them lingered, and we didn’t find any albatrosses. We did have several jaegers, including nice looks at a couple of adult Pomarine Jaegers, and we had several immature Black-legged Kittiwakes.

California Gull, Larus californicus

A beautiful adult California Gull (Larus californicus) following the boat.

Rhinoceros Auklet, Cerrhinca monocerata

We had good numbers of — and good looks at — Rhinoceros Auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata), a crow-sized puffin relative that winters in these waters. Everyone seemed to call them “rhino auklets” or just “rhinos” — certainly much easier to blurt out in a hurry. This individual is just starting to acquire its facial breeding plumes, and it hasn’t yet developed the bill ornament that gives the species its name. We did see one or two birds with “horns” and several with more developed plumes. Here’s a gorgeous shot of a breeding-plumaged Rhinoceros Auklet.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

At one point, a black-and-white bird among a small flock of Rhinoceros Auklets caused a stir – “Common Murre!” Apparently Common Murres (Uria aalge) are irregular winter residents this far south, and the captain manuevered the boat till everyone got good views of the sharp-looking bird.

The other trip alcid, which I didn’t photograph, was Cassin’s Auklet, a small, stubby, gray bird that never afforded great looks but even at a distance was distinguishable from the other alcids we had. I was pleased with four species of these intriguing “penguins of the north”!

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

Brown tones in the mantle, traces of black in the tail, limited white in the outer primaries, and a smudgy bill tip identify this Western Gull as a third-year bird, well on its way to the crisp, clean plumage of adulthood.

Common Dolphin, Delphinus sp.

Hundreds of Common Dolphins were also a highlight.

Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

The bay held Surf Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) — here’s a spectacular male — and other species from Brant to Eared Grebe.

More to come!