Piedras Blancas 2003 -- 30Mar-05Apr (week 3 of 11)
- Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey
Week 3 of 11 -- 30Mar-05Apr 2003
Signs of coastal seabird migrations picked up a bit this week. Red-throated
Loons which dominated the scene passing at a steady trickle through the last
two weeks of March are slowing just as the Pacific Loons are warming up. The
first vanguard of the immense Pacific Loon flight yet to come appeared on
Tuesday (4/01) with 500-1000 passing the Point during the morning along with
~100 Common Loons. There were another 1000-1500 Pacific Loons on Wednesday
(4/02), then virtually none thereafter to weeks end.
The first good Brant flight was noted on Wednesday (4/02) with 1500-2000, and
another 1000-1500 on Thursday (4/03), and ~600 on Friday (4/04). There were
none on Saturday (4/05). Flocks were few, but what they lacked there, they
made up in numbers with one flock strung out numbering over 600. There have
been no big surges of Surf Scoters yet which is starting to be a little late.
An adult male HARLEQUIN DUCK was seen on Tuesday (4/01) beating it hard to
catch up with the tail end of a string of Surf Scoters.
Tubenose seabirds continue scarce. I have yet to see my first albatross of
the season. Sooty Shearwaters are sporadically present every day but in very
low numbers, essentially meaning one or two every now and then. The season's
first and this week's only Pink-footed Shearwater was sighted on Thursday
(4/03). Black-vented Shearwaters are still about occasionally with sightings
of one on Tuesday (4/01) and 6 on Wednesday (4/02). Morning flights of
Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets remain status quo as numbers remain at
unremarkable normal levels.
There may be good news on the resident Peregrine front. On Thursday (4/03),
I observed a food exchange with the male bringing in some unidentified small
prey item but he flew up near the top of the Outer Islet on the north side
where I can't see anything. Moments later, the female took off and emerged
from the outside edge of the rock islet. Further encouragement that
something IS in fact happening up there was a report from one of the
volunteers who comes out to the lighthouse to help with the native vegetative
restoration work around here who told me that she had seen copulation taking
place on top of the lighthouse about a month ago and before I arrived here.
So, this might explain the silence and lack of sightings. The female is on
eggs at which time everyone is pretty quiet anyway. If this is then true,
then everything would be more or less on schedule and in keeping with
previous years when I've been afforded full views of nesting activity when it
happens on the south side of the Outer Islet where it usually does. Only
once in the past 9 years have the Peregrines nested and brought off young on
the more wind exposed cold north side.
Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds continue a daily full-time presence about the
six feeders placed around the back yard. Most are usually females but I have
been seeing males of both species attending more regular than usual. The
most enjoyable feeders are the two window feeders suction cup mounted on the
kitchen window and the other only inches from my pillow at my bedroom window.
Conveniently, the hummingbirds seem to favor these ones best. Why I'm not
sure. Perhaps it's because they like seeing their reflection in the glass.
Like everyone else has reported, Rufous Hummingbirds simply are hardly
anywhere. I still see one or two adult males every day but 2003 will have to
go down as the poorest showing for this species in 10 Spring migrations here
which can sometimes swarm with 40 or more at any one time in some years.
Quite rare on the outer coast, an adult male BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD made a
brief feeding stop on Sunday (3/30) then was never seen again.
I had an "unsettling" experience on Monday (3/31) when I went around on the
north side of the old office building near the redwood water tank where I
often sit quietly on the little porchlet just to watch for hummingbird nests
and anything else going on in the dense cypress cover there. The moment I
sat down on the little porchlet which I've sat on almost every Spring day for
all these years, the thing collapsed with a thunderous cracking of rotted
timbers (I probably shouldn't have had that extra tri-tip last week). In the
ensuing chaos, a female Anna's Hummingbird bolted from a nest no more than 4
feet in front of my nose. I didn't even know she or a nest was even there.
Unfortunately, she didn't get very far and in the panicked departure somehow
got entangled on the edge of the nest. I've never heard a hummingbird
*screaming* before but there she was screaming incapable of escape. After
extracting myself from the debris for which I almost needed a crane since I
too was stuck, I reached out and was able to free her still with some nest
material attached to her foot and thigh.
What was interesting about this nest and a departure from the norm was the
material being used to line the nest. Typically, both the Anna's and Allen's
nesting around here build the outer shell out of lichens, cobweb filaments,
and dog hair, then line it with soft balls of weed seed or thistle fluff.
This particular nest was lined with comparatively huge reddish House Finch
breast feathers. It must be a bit of challenge for a little hummingbird to
even transport such a thing, but I suppose this lady was trying something new
just to be different avant-garde. Maybe now she realizes that wasn't such a
good idea. The nest now has been abandoned and when I saw her last, she
still had some of the stuffing tangled about her foot and thigh. The moral
of the story is probably good for us all; be careful with what you feather
your nest with.
The back yard feeding stations continue to be packed out from dawn to dusk.
So far in just three short weeks I've gone through nearly 75lbs of oil
sunflower seeds, 25lbs of white millet, and 10lbs of nyger. Among the
feeding party is a fairly stabilized flock of blackbirds, both Brewer's and
Red-wingeds. The Red-winged Blackbirds usually stay out in the marshy spots
around the vernal pool and up at the spring, our source for water. This year
for the first time, they've descended on the backyard and never leave.
Admittedly, their effervescent liquidy and constant song is a nice addition
to the loads of House and American Goldfinches also around here all the time
... to a point. Right now, all the racket is getting a little out of control
and probably keeping all the neighbors awake. Even I when trying to catch a
few rays and zzz's during a break the other day, had to finally bring the
radio out tuned to what else ... the "OTTER" of course (KOTR, 94.9FM) ...
just to soften the relentless bird song cacophony a bit. I can't even hear
the surf or the elephant seals anymore.
The blackbirds go after the white millet like little black vacuum cleaners
sucking up everything in sight. "Sight" being the operative word here. They
go for the easy pickings and still leave plenty for the White-crowned,
Golden-crowned, Fox, Lincoln's, and Song Sparrows which prefer to scratch for
their grub anyway.
MARINE MAMMALS ---
Perhaps boding well for things to come and proof of a successful calving
season in the Baja lagoons, we had 12 gray whale cow/calf pair this week.
For the first week of April this is our best early start since 1995. The
peak "phase 2" gray whale migration period (cows with calves) should occur
between mid April to early May with the mommas and their babies cruise a very
near shore route often just outside the surf zone following every little nook
and cranny of a ragged coast line all the way from Baja to Alaska.
Come mid April, if you want to see something really amazing, watch the show
from any one of a number of pullouts along the rt.1 Big Sur coast, especially
those around and just south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Pick a pull
out where you literally can look straight down into the calm crystal clear
waters below. Be patient and just wait a bit. With luck a northbound gray
whale cow with her calf will soon come along cruising through the fields of
kelp. Mid to late morning is best when the sun is high but not right
overhead. The view is like looking through glass. I've been doing marine
mammal work for nearly 30 years and I have never seen gray whales like the
killer views to die for that I had up there last year! For even closer in
your face views, bring a scope. As a bonus, you might even see a California
It was also an interesting week for other species. On Monday (3/31) we had
another pair of northbound Blue Whales about 1.5nmi out in the morning, then
either another or the same pair southbound in the afternoon. We sighted our
first Humpback Whale on Thursday (4/03) which came in close and slowly passed
the 'Point' northbound at 200-300 meters. Like the Blue Whales, this is a
little early for Humpbacks as well. I noted John Roser's posting this past
week of a Humpback sighting about a mile off Spooner's Cove (MDO) and have to
wonder if we may have seen the same one a day later.
The real show stopper this week was a huge roiling mass of ~200 Risso's
Dolphins led by a vanguard of ~15 Northern Right Whale Dolphins about 3/4 to
1.0 nmi out and northbound on the color/convergence line. They were
definitely on a mission. The Risso's Dolphins were leaping out of the water
showing their blunt beakless foreheads and variably gray to whitish scarred
bodies while the Right Whale Dolphins porpoised ahead. Both of these species
usually remain offshore along the shelf break and beyond so it was a little
unusual to see them in so close. We do see Risso's Dolphins from time to
time and they typically are moving very very slow and seldom aerial as with
this sighting. The Northern Right Whale Dolphin is a rare sighting from
shore and we don't even see them at all most years. The Northern Right Whale
Dolphin is one of our most handsome of all dolphins with it's smooth glossy
black body and white belly streak exceeded in magnificence only by it's
southern counterpart, the Southern Right Whale Dolphin of the southern cool
temperate oceans. The right whale dolphins are unique from all other dolphin
species in that they possess no dorsal fin and as such, can easily be
mistaken for proposing sea lions.
Gray Whale sightings:
cow/calf pairs----- 12
other species----- Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Risso's Dolphin, Northern
Right Whale Dolphin
effort hours -------- 58.8 offshore (out of a possible 69.0)
58.8 inshore (out of a possible 69.0)
disclaimer: "these counts of calves are preliminary, from unedited data, and
have not been reviewed to account for sighting conditions or observer bias".
Sorry folks; this got a little long this week. But somehow, a lot happened
this week and the Spring migration has hardly even gotten started
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, SLO Co., CA
"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what
nobody has thought" --Albert Szent-Gyorgi (1893-1986).