Richard Rowlett's Piedras Blancas, CA 2004 Whale Blog on morro-bay.com

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Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey
Weeks 9 & 10 of 10 – 18 thru 29 May 2004


Gray Whales and other marine mammals –

The Gray Whale cow/calf migration passing Point Piedras Blancas is a done deal for 2004. Numbers dropped precipitously as expected and as they should by the end of May. Only 6 pair were seen during these past two weeks with the very last pair passing on Tuesday (5/25) bearing the honorable ‘checker flag’ ... the end! This last pair was also in a hurry, 11 minutes from the pair of Piedras Blancas Rocks, 0.9mi SE of ‘Point’ to passing ‘abeam’ of our study site when the typical average is about 20 minutes. Mom’s hungry, no more time to piddle around in the kelp, and the Chukchi Sea summer feeding grounds off Alaska’s far north coast and Point Barrow is still far far away. It was all the little calf could do just to keep up.

The 2004 season ends with our highest counts ever since we commenced these studies in 1994 which translates into a Gray Whale population in excellent health. There were 452 cow/calf pair counted during these past ten weeks which if we extrapolate for the budget cut Saturdays we didn’t work, the total should be around 550, 50 more than our previous record 1997 season.

Gray Whale sightings (week 9: 24-28 May 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 5
adult/juveniles---- 3
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Risso’s Dolphin,

Gray Whale sightings (week 10: 24-28 May 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 1
adult/juveniles---- 0
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin

Gray Whale sightings (2004 season summary to date) **FINAL**
cow/calf pairs----- 452
adult/juveniles---- 617
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Killer Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin (sp?), Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin


Coastal Sea and water birds

As May draws to a close, so does the northbound coastal seabird migration. Pacific Loons were down to a trickle at less than 200 per day this last week. In addition to a few straggling Surf Scoters, only one straggler Brant Goose was seen plus a couple more up on the beach at Arroyo de la Cruz. Tube-nosed seabirds like Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters continued in low numbers and usually far offshore. There were two Black-footed Albatross sightings, single dark-rumped immature birds on Monday (5/17) and Wednesday (5/19). All of the usual suspect alcid species (Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, Cassin’s Auklet, Xantus’s Murrelet) apart from our resident Pigeon Guillemots continued scarce as they have throughout the season. They are probably out there somewhere, just not near enough to shore to detect.

The one species which really did kick into gear this past week were Brown Pelicans. For lack of anything else to count and since they are, shall we say, “easy,” we counted all of those long languid northbound formations of Brown Pelicans which amounted to a day high of 605 between 0700 and 1900hrs on Thursday (5/27). Heermann’s Gulls which normally disperse northward in concert with the pelicans continue to be strangely absent. Not a single Heermann’s Gull was seen all week and scarcely at all this entire season when in all previous seasons since 1994, they have always been just as predictable, obvious, and in significant numbers as the pelicans. Hmm, most curious.

There were 7 Franklin’s Gulls seen during this reporting period including 5 first summer individuals on Wednesday (5/19) and pair of full breeding plumaged adults on Monday (5/24) which brings the total seen here for the season to 11, plus maybe add one more first summer individual found as the remains on the fledgling Peregrine Falcon’s dining room table out on the marine terrace on the west point opposite the Outer Islet. Six of the seven Franklin’s Gulls seen this period were pairs embedded in the regular little swarming flocks of mostly immature California Gulls which continue dispersing northward.

Peregrine Falcon


Our resident breeding Peregrines were the highlight and most watched spectacle these past two weeks. The first two chicks fledged and departed the cave/eyrie on the Outer Islet bright and early, Monday (5/17). Their enthusiasm in warming up and testing their wings prior to launch ended up knocking both off the ledge, and it was do or die. Both made it to the mainland albeit a little on the awkward side as one landed atop the fog signal building while the other gracefully crash landed in the iceplant at the base of the lighthouse. Two days later (Wednesday 5/19) and right on schedule, chick #3 fledged at precisely 0707hrs. It simply just walked up to the edge of the eyrie and took off arcing around to the south side of the Outer Islet where it promptly landed quite gracefully on the shelf above the cormorants and sea lions where it remained for a couple hours before it too departed for the mainland.

Next was chick #4. This sibling hatched about 7 days after the first two and given this unusual disparity in hatching dates, especially as extreme as 7 days, I had some reservations that it would survive at all. However, the adults (female especially) were quick to care for this one special during feeding, isolating it away from the others so that it wouldn’t get short changed by the more aggressive and ravenous older chicks. This is quite interesting and says a lot for this pair of Peregrines as devoted parents as some bird species simply abandon the weaker and late hatchlings, and in some cases with Peregrines, the stronger birds simply eat the weakest one. Obviously, this was simply not allowed in this family. Seems like there might be a lesson here that some of us humans might want to take to heart.

Then, precisely 7 days after chicks #1 and #2 took their maiden flights, #4 took it’s first leap of faith from the edge of the eyrie around 0700hrs on Sunday (5/23) to join the other three which had been spending most of their time on the ground and rocks out on the flat marine terrace directly across the 100 meter wide channel separating the Outer Islet and the mainland. For the better part of this last week, all four newly fledged Peregrines have stayed and played together out on the windward side terrace, adjacent mainland rocks, the fog signal building, and along the north and fence line while the ever watchful parents kept them in sight at all times. Any human around perceived as a threat was promptly warned off by the loud cacking calls from the female, and if anyone ventured too close, both the female and the male were on the scene in an instant screaming and diving on the intruders. I being one, nearly got my ear ripped off by the male that bolted off the lighthouse when my back was turned while one of the youngsters was perched atop the fog signal building.

The marine terrace on the west point served as quite the dining room table for a solid week. After having given them a week to mature a bit and adapt to their new mainland surroundings, I did finally venture out on the terrace to examine what sort of fare the fledglings were dining on much to the loud, wake the dead, protests of the adults screaming and repeatedly dive bombing from overhead. The sight on the terrace was pure carnage and literally carpeted with feathers everywhere. Among the breakfast, lunch, and dinner victims were no less than 7 immature California Gulls(!), 3 Green Herons ...I haven’t even seen a Green Heron around here this spring(!), 1 immature Bonaparte’s Gull, 1 first summer Franklin’s Gull, 1 Willet, and some miscellaneous unidentified birdy bits and pieces of other things including a Sora Rail I think, and no doubt many more had already been blown away into the sea. Also, there were a bunch of cough pellets scattered around containing undigested feather and bone fragments. I was quite surprised by the number of California Gulls taken. That’s a pretty large bird even for a Peregrine to knock out of sky then drag it to the terrace. I never did actually see a chase or kill so don’t know if they were being taken by the adults or the new fledglings. Given the steady procession of immature California Gulls passing northward around the Point these past few weeks, they would probably make fairly easy prey targets and good things for the young birds to practice on as they hone their hunting skills.

As we close up the Gray Whale shop for the season and head off to other waiting research endeavors, all four new fledglings remain on and around the lighthouse grounds and so far seem to seldom venture much further up or down the coast or even over across the fence onto the Hearst property. It will be up to Carole Adams and her cadre of dedicated and devoted plant restoration volunteers and others here to keep tabs on the Peregrines progress from this writing forward.

Other birds

Things perked up a bit in the ‘other birds’ department these past two weeks. Most notable and a landmark sighting (i.e., my personal one and only ‘new’ species for Piedras Blancas this season) were a pair of White-faced Ibis that flew around the ‘Point’ at 1045hrs on Wednesday (5/19) while Carole Adams looked on from the housing area. I didn’t really think much more about it until Brian Hatfield came by several hours later returning from a beach survey and tweaking the suspense a bit by announcing he’d seen “a couple interesting birds” just up the road. “Ibis?” I queried, and sure enough, the pair of ibis had landed in that somewhat permanent marshy wet spot along the east side of rt.1 about one mile north of the lighthouse, just south of Cappuccino Cove where they remained at least to early evening. There were no more sightings or reports until a note appeared on the Internet (Slocobirding listserv) that someone had sighted a single White-faced Ibis in that same spot on Monday (5/24). I mobilized to check it out and found there was indeed a White-faced Ibis there again. This one was a totally different individual from the earlier two judging by the cleaner face pattern and it also had a ‘trick knee’ or something which caused it’s left foot to kick up high as it feeds and strides around the marsh. The joint in the left knee itself appears inflamed reddish and a bit swollen, perhaps from an injury of some sort. As of Saturday morning (5/29), this single White-faced Ibis remains and is most reliable at least in the mornings and with luck, afternoons too. Along with the ibis on Saturday morning (5/29), there was also a Cattle Egret present along with several Great and Snowy Egrets. Over the years, this little roadside shallow has been quite a productive spot and one of the few that seems to retain water throughout the Spring.

After an absolute dearth of passerine migrants this Spring, during this last week of May, we finally experienced a little taste of a Spring landbird migration which seemed to otherwise pass us by. Nothing much, but the most notable and surprising was a very late Ruby-crowned Kinglet that turned up around the bird bath on Wednesday (5/26) constituting the only one seen here this season. These normally wintering songbirds are usually long gone from San Luis Obispo County by the end of April or very early May, and this May 26th sighting may represent a late date record for the county.

It looks like I will be leaving before the one and only Anna’s Hummingbird nest I’ve found this season hatches. She’s been quietly nestled on her nest on the tip of a cypress branch for about two weeks now incubating two miniature jelly bean sized eggs. Otherwise, and as painful as it is, I finally had to dismantle the bird feeding station behind Quarters “D” and cut everyone off cold turkey. Only the American Goldfinches seem the most perplexed as they continue to fly to the poles and sock feeders that are no longer there. The numerous Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds are cut off too but will adjust by moving to the neighbors feeders and the fortuitous blooming of a host of flowers including Salvia, a hummingbird favorite. I finally gave up on trying to evict the pair of House Finches that have been determined and persistent at nesting on the Barn Swallow nest ledge over the back garage door. I have yanked that nest out at least a dozen times in the last few weeks in hopes of encouraging the Barn Swallow’s return. As the Barn Swallows seemed to finally give up now, I have too, and now the nest sports 4 freshly laid House Finch eggs.

As our gray whale season is closed now, it’s time to say good bye to our steadfast companions down at the study site. “Bob” the Common Crow, who’s been with us now for three seasons will have to look elsewhere for his handouts. “Bob” had gotten quite accustomed to flying up on our big mounted 25X binoculars and take peanuts tossed to him in midair. Once he’s stuffed his crop full, he takes the booty back to the home cache which is as like last year somewhere way beyond the visitor’s elephant seal beach and around the distant grassy knoll – as a crow flies, that’s a good 4-5 miles when I finally lose site of him in the big binos, and he’s still going.

“Fred and Ethel,” the same pair of Western Gulls that have occupied the site with us for several successive years have been interesting to watch going through their fascinating courtship rituals. Another Western Gull which we call “Ahab” or “Peg-leg” because he is missing his right foot (web part) and hobbles around on the ‘peg’ is quite a scrapper and has adapted to his handicap quite well. He’s been a part of our landscape for several years as well but is not tolerated in the presence of “Fred & Ethel.” “Fred” and “Ahab” got into a snit early in the season back in early April, posturing back and forth, until “Fred” literally grabbed “Ahab” by the wing and escorted (literally dragged) him for about 20 feet(!) to the edge of the parking lot. It’s not a very nice way to treat the handicapped but there have been no more such altercations since and the moment “Fred” or “Ethel” are within sight, “Ahab” departs immediately regardless of his otherwise faithful attention to us is when “Fred and Ethel” aren’t around. Not to be just taken for granted and dismissed as just some seagull, it’s quite interesting that how over time and even years, one discovers to recognize individuals and learn how faithful and site specific some gulls can be. Such is the case with these particular Western Gulls at Point Piedras Blancas.

Some of our other terrestrial animal friends that have kept us company through the long days of effort were “Hoover,” the California Ground Squirrel which hugs the ground and pavement and reminds us of a vacuum cleaner as he scarfs up all the bird seed and as hard as it is not to, we try not to encourage him too much. New this year was our Long-tailed Weasel, dubbed “GW” or “JK” depending on your political leanings, although for this guy, he’s much too cute for either. He’s been quite bold sometimes as he sniffs out voles and sparrows and has afforded the lucky camera toting gray whale observer some remarkable photo opportunities.


****************************************************
Richard Rowlett <Pterodroma@aol.com
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, SLO Co., CA
****************************************************


Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey
Weeks 7 & 8 of 10 – 02 thru 15 May 2004


Gray Whales and other marine mammals

Dense coastal fog and a cold wind on Monday (5/03) obliterated all visibility most of that day and in a psychological sense seemingly isolated us from the rest of California (and the world) where temperatures here were around 48F with a wind chill which made it seem more like we were in the Alaskan Aleutians, while just across the road (rt.1) the Hearst Castle baked at 95F and the Paso Robles area, just over the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains and only about 15 miles as a crow flies, fried at 108F! Despite that little taste of “Alaska” here, Gray Whale cows & calves continued to pour past our observation and study site at the Point Piedras Blancas Light Station throughout the first week of May averaging 22 pair per day.

As mid-May approaches, the pace is showing signs of slowing and our per day average for the second week of May was down to about 12 pair. The pace has been fast and furious since beginning abruptly on April 20 and continuing steady for three weeks. As of Friday (5/14), it seemed like the faucet was turned off as we had our slowest day since April 9 with only 4 pair. As it should, the season is winding down and daily counts will continue to diminish to very near zero by the end of May.

To date, we have sighted 446 Gray Whale cow/calf pair. Despite our reduced effort this season (5 days per week instead of 6), a quick examination and extrapolation of data shows that the 2004 season has already surpassed the record 1997 season which saw just over 500 to approximately 541 so far this year, ...and we still have two weeks to go! Very likely, in the final analysis of these data which takes into account nights and off effort Saturdays and Sundays, the final estimates for 2004 calf production may well be up around 1,800. This represents a remarkable recovery especially after our lean years of 1999, 2000, and 2001 where calf production crashed to the all time low of around 300 (years 2000 & 2001) which is believed related more to unavailable food resources due to prolonged ice cover in NW Alaska than anything more sinister.

Northbound and nearshore Blue Whales were sighted on 5 of our 10 survey days these past two weeks in groups of ones and twos. Some lucky and well deserving hard working plant restoration volunteers one-upped us keen eyed observers and researchers on Monday (5/10) by spotting 3 Killer Whales (orcas) which apparently sneaked in from the north or west coming up very near the Outer Islet reportedly following one of the many California Sea Lions which haul out there. We never did see them and only heard about the sighting some time after the fact. Of course, we aren’t really watching that area since the Gray Whales come up from the south so I’d like to say our oversight was forgivable.


Gray Whale sightings (week 7: 03-07 May 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 89
adult/juveniles---- 8
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin,
effort hours ------- 47.5 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
47.5 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)

Gray Whale sightings (week 8: 10-14 May 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 49
adult/juveniles---- 12
other species------ Blue Whale, (Killer Whale)
effort hours ------- 54.0 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
54.0 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)

Gray Whale sightings (2004 season summary to date)
cow/calf pairs----- 446
adult/juveniles---- 614
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Killer Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin (sp?), Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin
effort hours ------- 442.7 offshore (out of a possible 472.5)
447.3 inshore (out of a possible 472.5)

Coastal Sea and water birds –-

Pacific Loons continue their Alaska / Canada bound trek past the ‘Point’ passing typically in tight little packs of 40-70. Brant Geese and Surf Scoters have become increasingly scarce and generally reduced now to small stings of stragglers. Although nothing particularly dramatic was noted during week 7, week 8 was dominated both day and night by the first significant return of the more familiar coastal northerly winds with our first gale event of the season on Monday (5/10). Those gales on Monday finally created a good solid upwelling and color line that surfaced on Wednesday (5/12) about mile offshore along which were concentrated many hundreds of Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, thousands of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, and at least two Xantus’s Murrelets. That day also yielded one of the best loon flight days in several weeks which included a single sub-adult Yellow-billed Loon. Doubtlessly the avian highlight of the season so far, this was the first Yellow-billed Loon seen around here in a several years and at 0830hrs, that entirely straw yellow straight-edged up tilted bill really gleamed bright in the morning sun as this very rare and striking bird passed by at less than 200 meters.

On Tuesday (5/11), Whimbrels by the hundreds dominated the coastal flyway all day long as they clung to the shore line heading north into the strong long shore headwinds constituting the best Whimbrel day observed here this season. Surprisingly, there were no Franklin’s Gulls seen during this two-week reporting period. Brown Pelicans continue their steady dispersal northward in ever increasing numbers as flock formations gracefully drift past or over the ‘Point’ throughout each and every day.

Peregrine Falcon

Three of the four Peregrine chicks are getting close to fledging while the fourth remains about a week behind. The older ones which are well feather out now are often seen during the mornings perched on the edge of the cave like eyrie on the sunny southeast facing side of the Outer Islet flexing their wings and preparing for that first leap of faith which may well come this coming week. The adult male and female spend much of the day, even the windy ones, perched on the antenna at the top of the lighthouse from which they can gauge every potential prey item morsel which happens into their sight. Favored items are Short-billed Dowitchers, stray Bonaparte’s Gulls, offshore phalaropes, the occasional small alcid, and virtually any wayward pigeon or dove which happens to wander by.


Other birds

There remains little to report in the ‘other birds’ department. The last of our overwintering Golden-crowned Sparrows hit the road during the first week of May. Migrant songbirds (passerines) continue to completely bypass the ‘Point’ this season. For one, the long shore windy environment isn’t particularly inviting anyway and there have been no timely offshore Santa Anna winds to deflect a migration coastward. Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds keep themselves busy at the feeders and are attempting to nest where they can find a suitable spot. The one Anna’s nest which I found under construction on Monday (5/03) contained it’s first egg on Sunday (5/09) which then promptly became a casualty to the gales of Monday (5/10). Somewhat rare out here, an adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird has been an off and on visitor these past two weeks.


****************************************************
Richard Rowlett <Pterodroma@[remove]aol.com
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, SLO Co., CA
****************************************************


Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey
Weeks 5 & 6 of 10 – 18 April thru 01 May 2004

Gray Whales and other marine mammals –

The nearshore Alaska bound migration of Gray Whale cow/calf pairs these past two weeks of April has been in full swing and at it’s peak as we averaged just over 23 pair per day through the period with a high day of 32 pair on Tuesday (4/27). Even with our reduced survey effort, 5 days per week instead of 6, the 2004 count so far is the second highest in all of our eleven successive seasons here at Piedras Blancas since 1994. This is a very promising sign that the health of the California Gray Whale is very good indeed.

It has been a very busy couple of weeks as the weather gods cooperated each and every day blessing us with generally warm and calm conditions with visits by Mr. Fog conveniently limited to both nonworking Saturdays. Monday and Tuesday (4/26 & 4/27) were probably the warmest days ever experienced during all these seasons when normally our spring days are most pleasantly warm in the mornings but quite chilly and windy in the afternoons. TV / movie crews from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and network TV from the Republic of Korea were present this past week as each were filming documentaries tracking the Gray Whale migration from Baja to Alaska including footage of our study site and animals as they approached and passed Piedras Blancas. The weather and the whales cooperated beautifully and no one was disappointed albeit probably a little sunburned.

At times, multiple cow/calf pairs piled up in the generally calm leeward waters of the bay only a few feet off the southeast side of the ‘Point’ where they lingered and maintained close group physical contact as they rolled around all over each other. Perhaps there is also no rush since they may also sense the danger that lies ahead in Monterey Bay where large numbers of Killer Whales have set up a gauntlet of sorts and have been making a record killing on the moving buffet of new born Gray Whale calves this year.

Our first Killer Whale sightings here this Spring were three individuals passing north about mile off the ‘Point’ on Thursday (4/29). Based on shape and nicks in the dorsal fin, one of those was a male recognized as probably “CA52" and one of the transient mammal eating orcas known to inhabit the waters around Monterey Bay and the Central Coast. Blue Whale sightings included northbound pairs on Friday (4/23) and Saturday (5/01). Other cetacean species seen these past two weeks included Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, and Risso’s Dolphin.

Elephant Seals continue to pack the area beaches with numbers peaking during the last week of April at around 8,000. The best place to take in the show remains the ‘Vista Point’ overlook along route 1, one mile south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. In the coming weeks of May, these numbers will gradually recede as the mostly adult females, juveniles, and new born this past winter / spring finish their molt and return to the sea. Up to three Steller’s Sea Lions were regulars seen hauled out on the lower Piedras Blancas Rocks (those two rocks directly off the Elephant Seal viewing area) and on the Outer Islet here at the Point from Wednesday thru Friday (4/28-30).

Gray Whale sightings (week 5: 19-23 April 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 106
adult/juveniles---- 8
other species------ Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin,
effort hours ------- 60.0 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
60.0 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)

Gray Whale sightings (week 6: 26-30 April 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 131
adult/juveniles---- 12
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Killer Whale
effort hours ------- 57.0 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
59.1 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)

Gray Whale sightings
(2004 season summary to date)
cow/calf pairs----- 310
adult/juveniles---- 597
other species------ Blue Whale, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Killer Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin (sp?), Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin
effort hours ------- 341.2 offshore (out of a possible 352.5)
345.8 inshore (out of a possible 352.5)

Coastal Sea and water birds –-

Coastal seabird migration seems be considerably less intense and dynamic this season compared to those particularly during the mid and late 1990's. 2002 was a relatively unremarkable season and this Spring appears even less so. Pacific Loons continue moving north as they will through the end of May with the peak having occurred in mid April with 15-25,000 per day. However, there have been none of those long drawn out prolonged mesmerizing outbursts where loon flights are sometimes observed sustained for 30 minutes or more as 600-1,000 pass a fixed point per minute! Much like 2002, the migration corridor appears much wider and further offshore rather than concentrated within 200 meters of the ‘Point’ with much smaller flocks of 200 or less followed by periods of relative calm. From our vantage point here on the beach, there appears to be little or no strong upwelling or color line which typically tends to concentrate all sorts of seabirds and along which even the whales and dolphins often tend to follow. Brant Geese and Surf Scoters continue but in ever decreasing numbers through the end of April. To date, only 4 White-winged Scoters and zero Black Scoters have been casually sighted.

Like 2002, tube-nosed seabirds, shearwaters and albatross have been something of a relative rarity, again perhaps owing to the apparent weak presence of the coastal upwelling. Pink-footed Shearwaters are extremely scarce and Sooty Shearwaters quite sporadic, present in low numbers some days and entirely absent in others. To date, only one Black-footed Albatross has been sighted at all this season.

Alcid numbers picked up a bit with more Common Murres and a few Rhinoceros Auklets, both of which have been unusually scarce all season. Single early northbound Xantus’s Murrelets were sighted just outside the surf break on both Thursday and Friday (4/29 and 4/30).

The most notable seabird event these past two weeks was a massive flight of Red-necked Phalaropes on Tuesday (4/20) where countless tens of thousands streamed by all day long mostly concentrated to 1 mile offshore. True to form with phalarope migration here, massive flights occur during a very short window with this season’s limited to just one day (4/20) with not a single one seen since!

There were three Franklin’s Gull sightings, all breeding adults and all on Wednesday (4/28). Otherwise, the Spring coastal gull flight is fairly routine and normal especially during the more windy afternoons with steady little gaggles of mostly California Gulls with the occasional Western and Glaucous-winged in the mix which follow every little nuance of the coastline and cliff face as they disperse northward.

If anything is more numerous than usual this season, Brown Pelicans have been making a strong showing throughout the month of April as numbers build each and every day. Brown Pelicans are present throughout the year but usually not in really noticeable numbers until mid to late May as long formations of these post breeding birds from Baja, i.e., the “Mexican Air Force” as we like to call them, add moments of spectacular drama to the coastal front with their dynamic maneuvers. Usually, Heermann’s Gulls disperse northward in concert with the pelicans, and in ever increasing numbers from mid May onwards. So far, the Heermann’s Gull movement has yet to materialize at all as post breeding migrants and overwintering birds have been exceedingly scarce this season.

Peregrine Falcon


Life continues proceeding well up in the Peregrine house in the cave-like eyrie on the southeast face of the Outer Islet. Following the 4/13 hatching of three healthy young, a fourth one made a debut appearance on Monday 4/26. This one was about half the size of the others but with intensive motherly care appeared to be treated preferentially over the others in the early days until the late one could hold it’s own with it’s ever increasingly demanding and hungry siblings. In the past week, all have grown rapidly and I can hardly tell them apart. Gone is the fuzzy white down which gave way to fuzzy brown down, to the present as they begin to feather out. Hatching this year was about a week earlier than usual and I would expect fledgling probably late in the third week of May. This is the third year in a row to have four fledgling Peregrines produced on the Outer Islet where they have been known to nest ever since records were first kept back in the late 1800's!

Other birds

Not much new to report in the ‘other birds’ department. The aggregation of Golden-crowned Sparrows which started out as 15-20 in March thru mid April is down to two by the end of the month. Migrant passerines have largely avoided the ‘Point’ this year which is not at all surprising as much of the nonnative brush and cypress cover which provided shelter has either been removed or trimmed to lend a more tidy appearance to the lighthouse site. Migrants are migrants, and they can find all they need nearby and off site. On the bright side, the ongoing removal of the choking rank and thick iceplant with all it’s everlasting sterility and now replaced with a regeneration of natural and native plants characteristic to the Central Coast is providing slow but long term improvement to habitat for our local native nesting birds like White-crowned Sparrows with others like Wrentits, Scrub Jays, California Towhees, and Thrashers to hopefully follow one day in the not so distant future.

Finally, the most startling if not bizarre experience were the five Yellow-headed Blackbirds seen on Saturday (5/01). I had just returned from a foggy Saturday morning beach walk up at Arroyo de la Cruz, and pulled in to open the gate. The bizarre part was that after I drove through and waiting and watching through the rear view mirror for the automatic gate to close behind me, I saw those five Yellow-headed Blackbirds (1 adult male, 2 females, and 2 immature) IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR all lined up side by side sitting on the Hearst gate on the opposite of the highway. Yellow-headed Blackbirds out here on the outer coast are a generally scarce commodity to start with, but first spotting a ‘rare’ bird in this manner was a definite first!


****************************************************
Richard Rowlett <Pterodroma@[remove]aol.com
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, SLO Co., CA
****************************************************


Week 4 of 10 April 11-17, 2004
Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey

Gray Whales and other marine mammals –

The nearshore Gray Whale cow/calf migration continued to gain momentum this week with 56 pair seen during our Monday thru Friday survey days compared with 14 during the previous week. Statistically compared to previous years, calf production appears at least equal if not a little better and all appear to be in good health. Baring any disruptions in visibility by any unpredictable visits by ‘Mr. Fog,’ the coming week should yield many more with week 5 being the approximate peak. The marine weather forecast for the region looks good all week with no significant rain or wind events anticipated at this writing.

The season’s first northbound Blue Whales were sighted this week with two on Thursday (4/15) and two more on Friday (4/16), both sightings less than a mile off the ‘Point.’ Racing north and churning the sea surface into a froth on Friday (4/16) less than a mile from shore was a large and spectacular mixed three-species school of Risso’s, Pacific White-sided, and Northern Right Whale Dolphins. The sleek and genuinely handsome Right Whale Dolphins (100-200 individuals) led the pack making the sighting the largest number ever sighted here during our decade of Gray Whale survey studies here.

The Elephant Seals (females, juvenile males, pups) continue to pour ashore and pack the beaches to molt by the thousands with heaviest concentrations located between the lighthouse and the ‘Vista Point’ a mile south. The sight at the latter is quite the impressive show stopper for anyone driving the Coast Highway up from Cambria or down from Big Sur. At times judging by the packed parking lot, there are at times about as many fascinated gawkers as sun baking Elephant Seals. A stop there right now and on through the end of the month is really very much worth anyone’s time for a look and to take a few pictures as there is no where else more convenient or accessible in the USA to witness this remarkable spectacle. A dedicated cadre of volunteer interpretive docent “Friends of the Elephant Seals” (FES) are always present to answer questions and assist with your enjoyment.

Gray Whale sightings (week 4: 11-17 April 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 56
adult/juveniles---- 27
other species------ Blue Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin (sp?), Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin
effort hours ------- 60.0 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
60.0 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)
Gray Whale sightings (2004 season summary to date)
cow/calf pairs----- 73
adult/juveniles---- 577
other species------ Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin (sp?), Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin
effort hours ------- 224.2 offshore (out of a possible 232.5)
226.7 inshore (out of a possible 232.5)
Coastal Sea and water birds –

After last week’s big Brant Geese flight, numbers this week diminished dramatically. Gone are those frequent huge skeins 400-800 strong, down this week to fewer flocks and rarely more than 150. Surf Scoters continue to decline as well and there were no White-winged or Black Scoters seen in the casual glances nearshore. Pacific Loons made a strong morning showing with 25-30,000 on Thursday (4/16) but otherwise, daily flights were relatively light with 10,000 per day.

The migration of Bonaparte’s Gulls has become less noticeable than in the previous two. Fewer numbers seem to be following the coastline as they seemed to be moving along the coastal upwelling 1-2 miles offshore. The season’s first Franklin’s Gull, a beautiful adult with a nice rosy blush showing on the chest and belly, crossed over the ‘Point’ all alone between the lighthouse and the housing area at 1655hrs on Wednesday (4/17). Single northbound Black-legged Kittiwakes were seen on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (4/13, 4/15, 4/17).

Tube-nosed seabirds were scarce this week and mostly early morning events with just the few Sooty Shearwaters and occasional Pink-footed Shearwater detectable from shore with most out about two miles. Northbound Common Murres were a little more conspicuous this week but Rhinoceros Auklets remain a strangely scarce commodity around here as they have been all season.

Peregrine Falcon

Great news on the Peregrine front as our pair of nesting falcons debuted two tiny gray downy chicks early Monday morning (4/13). A third and slightly smaller chick joined it’s siblings on Thursday (4/16) as the female ripped and tore little bits of some prey item into tiny bite size pieces and fed each one by one as the cave eyrie entrance was brilliantly illuminated and warmed by the morning sun. Once the sun moves overhead and the entrance becomes shaded, the chicks usually retreat back into the warmth and safety of the far right corner. There may be a fourth chick in the batch but by weeks end, we had not been able to confirm that with absolute certainty.

Other birds

The woodchip lawn out back of our living quarters continues to sport 12-15 Golden-crowned Sparrows and it will be interesting to see how long they linger as they scratch for the little bits of white millet strewn about. Passerine migrants are sparse and infrequent and have included just the usual coastal scrub migrants, namely Orange-crowned, Wilson’s, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

The Rufous Hummingbird migration tapered off this week after last week’s strong showing. There are still the occasional adult male Rufous each day, but most of the others apart from the resident and nesting Anna’s are female Selasphorus types, most probably Rufous at this stage but one or two nesting Allen’s as well.

****************************************************
Richard Rowlett <Pterodroma@[remove]aol.com
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
San Simeon, SLO Co., CA
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Week 3 of 10 April 4-10, 2004
Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey

Gray Whales and other marine mammals


This first full week of April continued to see a steady decline of gray whales in the ‘offshore highway’ and a gradual increase in numbers of gray whale cow/calf pairs following the traditional inshore route. By Friday (4/08), there were no gray whale sightings at all offshore and five cow/calf pair inshore.

The only other cetacean species seen this week was the occasional small gang of Bottlenose Dolphins. It’s been a little slow in the ancillary department so far and hopefully we will be treated to a greater diversity as the season progresses. To date since commencing these studies at Piedras Blancas, we have logged a quite respectable 16 cetacean (whale & dolphin) species

Gray Whale sightings (week 3, 05-09 April 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 14
adult/juveniles---- 66
other species------ Bottlenose Dolphin
effort hours ------- 57.7 offshore (out of a possible 60.0)
59.2 inshore (out of a possible 60.0)

Gray Whale sightings (2004 season summary to date)
cow/calf pairs----- 17
adult/juveniles---- 548
other species------ Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin
effort hours ------- 164.0 offshore (out of a possible 172.5)
166.7 inshore (out of a possible 172.5)

Coastal Sea and water birds

This was the big week (perhaps peak week) for northbound Brant Geese, especially Friday & Saturday (4/08-09) as many thousands, often in huge flocks (400-800) steadily passed Piedras Blancas all day long. The Surf Scoter migration has subsided in intensity as we enter the month of April but there should still be some big days ahead. There have been no Black Scoters noted and only four White-winged Scoters have been seen so far. Apart from occasional little groups of Red-breasted Mergansers, no other sea ducks were observed. The most startling surprise was a small northbound flock of 6 Canada Geese which came up unexpectedly passing low over the ‘Point’ on Thursday (4/08)

It was also a good week for migrant Pacific Loons with some days seeing totals in the 10-20,000 range.
The Pacific Loon migration in the Spring here lasts all season long with some days seeing as many as 40,000 or more steadily passing the point, often in pulses and within a long ribbon thin band 200-300 meters offshore with continuous flow rates of 600-1,000 passing a fixed point per minute! Weeks 4 and 5 should witness the peak of this astonishing spectacle as Pacific Loons wing north from Baja California to the summer breeding grounds of Canada and Alaska.

Bonaparte’s Gulls continue following the nearshore and coastal route this season but somewhat sporadic with the heaviest concentration this week during the afternoon Thursday (4/08). The more traditional ‘seagulls’ (California, Western, Glaucous-winged) which largely seemed to forsake us in 2003 have returned in frequent northbound flocks which follow every little nuance of the coastline. I’m still surprised by the persistent poor showing in 2003 when normally these gulls are such an ubiquitous and common part of the land and seascape, especially during the often windy afternoons.

Tubenose seabirds, Sooty Shearwaters in particular are beginning to be seen more regularly now, but in small numbers and usually a mile or two further offshore. An immature Black-footed Albatross made a brief appearance about 2 miles offshore on Thursday (4/08). Apart from our resident Pigeon Guillemots, alcids of all species are remarkably scarce. The usual regulars like Common Murre and Rhinoceros Auklet are being seen with less frequency than any season previous. I haven’t even detected a Rhinoceros Auklet at all so far! In past seasons, I don’t think a day ever passed without a few nearshore Rhinos around somewhere during just about any casual glance offshore. Conversely, although largely missing in 2003, Cassin’s Auklets have been seen in small numbers and occasionally quite close to shore.

Peregrine Falcon

Hopefully some good news to report from our resident pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons. Hatching has perhaps occurred up in the little cave/eyrie on the southeast side of the Outer Islet (Rock) on Monday or Tuesday (4/05 or 06). The male was seen delivering a small prey item to the rock on Monday (4/05) at which time the female bounded out of the far right dark corner to accept the delivery, then flew off to feast on the prize a short distance away. This was the first time I had seen the female at all since arriving here onsite on 21 March. The following day, Tuesday 4/06, another delivery was observed as the male flew to the eyrie. Again the female bounded out of the corner to accept the item, then immediately carried it back into the far right corner from where she came and presumably or at least hopefully intent on feeding it to newly hatched young. If hatching has occurred, this would make it a little earlier than in past years, but the timing would seem about right based on reports from Carole Adams and her cadre of plant volunteers and caretakers who reported observing copulation taking place on and around the lighthouse a month or so ago. After another week of watching their behavior around here, we should have a better idea what’s happening up there.

Other birds

The menagerie of yard birds scratching in the woodchip lawn is often amazingly dominated by the continued presence of 10-15 Golden-crowned Sparrows. Some of these birds are beautiful adults in fresh plumage with gleaming crowns of ‘gold’. The much smaller quantities of white millet sprinkled around in the wood chips keeps them busy and dare I say even happier than if it was just doled out by the bucketful on bare ground like in the past. As working for ones living is good for people, so it also seems for the ground scratching sparrows. Other players include the resident White-crowned and Song Sparrows, and a show stopping appearance of an adult ‘white-striped’ White-throated Sparrow on Wednesday (4/07). Unfortunately, the latter was a one-day wonder and hasn’t been seen since. Also, the usual House Finches, Brewers, and Red-winged Blackbirds are about but not overwhelmingly so since I’ve put them on a diet minus the sunflower seed which I’m not using now so as not to create a mess of seed hulls everywhere, and I don’t wish to encourage the California Ground Squirrels either which are beginning to make a renewed appearance around here since they all disappeared a few years. ago. Not on any diet at all is the little swarm of American Goldfinches which attach themselves all day long to niger filled hanging sock feeders. Their constant jubilant song and brilliant colorful plumage is worth the small extra price to pay to keep them around and happy.

The first full week of April 2004 presented a more normal coastal flight of Spring migrant Rufous Hummingbirds. Their numbers at any one time seemed sporadic as they seemed to come and go in little waves of a dozen or so but often didn’t seem to linger for long; just long enough to tank up and move on. Last year, any Rufous Hummingbirds at all was something of a rarity at all around here as they seemed to skip the outer coast and move north through interior California. A stunning adult male Calliope Hummingbird thrilled all who cared to watch during the afternoon Wednesday (4/07) as it was so nicely illuminated on the feeder in the afternoon soon against a blue ocean backdrop.

****************************************************
Richard Rowlett
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).
****************************************************


Weeks 1 and 2 of 10 -- March 21 through April 3, 2004
Piedras Blancas Gray Whale cow/calf survey

We commenced our 11th season at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Light Station study site to monitor the northbound California Gray Whale cow/calf migration on Monday, 22 March. With a ‘zero’ budget this season, we’ve had to make and adapt to a few modifications which shouldn’t impact the final analysis. Most significant is starting a week later and operating 5 days per week instead of the usual six. Apart from that, we will just have to tighten our belts a little bit and enjoy that extra day off which won’t be hard to do in such a glorious area as Piedras Blancas itself and the taking advantage of all the infinite magic and natural beauty that the Central California coast has to offer up for virtually free.

Gray Whales and other marine mammals

These first two weeks has been the transition period as the offshore phase of Gray Whale adult males, pregnant females, and juveniles which pass by in the more ‘offshore’ highway gradually winds down from peaking 3-4 weeks ago and the first arrivals of cows and calves which follow a more inshore coastal route come along steadily increasing through the month of April then slowly tapering off during May. The first cow/calf was sighted during week 1 on Thursday, 3/25, and two were seen during week 2. This coming week 3 promises more.

Other cetaceans seen this week included our first Humpback Whale (cow & calf) which passed within 100 meters of the ‘Point’ plus occasional small cruising schools of Bottlenose and Risso’s Dolphins. Elephant Seals (females, juveniles, and pups) are starting to pack the beaches again as they come ashore to molt as they yelp, belch, and bask in the sun and occasionally spar with each other. By late April, they will likely virtually carpet some stretches of nearby beaches like piles of driftwood and number in the thousands. The adult males which dominate the scene here during the winter are long gone and far out to sea.

Gray Whale sightings (week 1, 22-26 March 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 1
adult/juveniles---- 347
other species------ Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin
effort hours ------- 55.0 offshore (out of a possible 55.0)
55.0 inshore (out of a possible 55.0)

Gray Whale sightings (week 2, 29 March - 02 April 2004)
cow/calf pairs----- 2
adult/juveniles---- 135
other species------ Humpback Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin
effort hours ------- 51.5 offshore (out of a possible 57.5)
52.5 inshore (out of a possible 57.5)

Seabirds

Alaska and Canada bound Brant Geese and Surf Scoters have been the primary players these first two weeks as the dominate the northward Spring coastal seabird migration. Loons were at a trickle pace during the first week but by week two, Pacific Loons were building from scattered singles to small packs and strings thus more noticeable. Red-throated and Common Loons are also scattered throughout but often way overshadowed by the enormous migration of Pacific Loons which should peak in mid-late April with as many at 25-40,000 passing by during any given morning. Some of these loon flights in April can be utterly hypnotic spectacles with as many as 600-1,000 per minute passing a fixed point sustained nonstop for a half hour or more. Thursday morning (4/01) was our best day of this first two week period with the first significant flights of Pacific Loons (~5,000) and several thousand Brant and Surf Scoters. Even more interesting was a sudden but apparently short lived flight of Bonaparte’s Gulls with many hundreds passing by between sunrise and noon. It used to be back in the mid-1990's that Bonaparte’s Gulls were a routine and predictable part of coastal migration landscape as they tightly followed the coastline and crossed over the ‘Point’ right over our heads in a momentary blizzard of “blown apart” gulls as they encountered the headwinds that at times blast across the Piedras Blancas. Then, in the late 1990's the Bonaparte’s Gulls all seemed to disappear, the entire Spring would pass and we’d hardly see any at all. They weren’t gone, they were just further offshore and out of visual range. The steady flight of flock after flock on Thursday morning seemed like a good sign that perhaps they might be returning to the coastal shore this Spring, but by noon, they were all gone and on Friday, none were seen at all nor much else including loons, brant, and scoters. I probably saw more Bonaparte’s Gulls on Thursday morning (4/01) than the entire season’s sum totals for the past 5 years! There is no predicting exactly what each day will bring and it’s always just that diversity and the not infrequent appearance of the unexpected which keeps things exciting and keeps us alert and on our toes.

Other interesting and somewhat uncommon sightings these first two weeks were singles each of Northern Fulmar (3/22), Black-legged Kittiwake (3/23), Ancient Murrelet (3/30), and a southbound Cattle Egret (3/30). The only ‘tube-nosed’ seabird sightings during these first two weeks were a few Sooty Shearwaters early on 3/29.

Peregrine Falcon

Our resident pair of Peregrines are back and appear to be nesting in the little natural cavity on the leeward (southeast) face of Outer Islet which has long been the traditional nesting site for over a century. Courtship and copulation was reported taking place around and atop the lighthouse about a month ago. Presumably if all is going on schedule, the female should be tucked away and out of sight incubating while the male stands guard and just patiently hangs out on top of the lighthouse or on some nearby ledge on the Outer Islet when not out hunting. The Peregrine successfully fledged 4 young in both 2002 and 2003. Baring any mishaps, we should see signs of a successful hatching in a few weeks.

Other birds

The yard and grounds around our living quarters are teaming with assorted songbirds which are responding magnificently to the currently refurbished back yard and gardening efforts under the hard and relentlessly dedicated efforts of Carole Adams and the team of devoted volunteers who often come out to weed out undesirable nonnative weeds, iceplant, then plant, replant, and transplant with species characteristic and native to the central coast. The site has never looked better and it gets better and better all the time. Of course just sticking plants in the ground and hoping for the best isn’t necessarily the best course of action, thus all the dedicated follow-up care including watering, weeding, and clearing away wind blown rocks and debris give them a better than fair start. Once established, they should take off and spread on their own which can be amazingly fast especially in the places where the iceplant has long had such a solidly dense carpet-like stranglehold. The South African iceplant was planted here back in the 1930's during the depression era by the CCC in an effort to control wind blown sand when the ‘Point’ was largely sandy dunes. It worked and certainly contained blowing sand, but it is also relentless in it’s tenacity and snuffs out every other form of native vegetation in addition to creating a sterile monocultural environment which is inhospitable to all other forms of wildlife including birds.

Carole and the gang have done such a spectacular job with our yard that I don’t want to clutter it all up with an accumulation of hundreds of pounds of sunflower seed hulls just to feed the House Finches. In a season of tight budgets, House Finch feeding is out this year and quite frankly, they’re doing quite fine without my help and there are just as many as ever including their most welcoming early morning cacophony of song. $50/week just on bird seed like 2003? Not this year! I have been sprinkling small amounts of left over white millet in amongst the wood chips which are bedded down across the lawn where there once long ago was grass. A wood chip lawn is a great idea! It’s tidy, no watering is required, and the millet sprinkled around makes all the ground feeders ‘work’ for their grub rather than having it ladled out and gobbled up in an instant. Already, in addition to the traditional resident House Finches, White-crowned and Song Sparrows, and just the occasional Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds, there’s been a record flock of 15-20 Golden-crowned Sparrows all out there at once and the most I have ever seen during my 11-year Spring tenure here and I’d like to think this is in part in response to the improvements and expansion of native plants. American Goldfinches adorn the two niger (thistle seed) sock feeders adding color and chatter all day long and likewise are dining on left over seed from 2003. The six hummingbird feeders have been busy, especially during this past week (week 2) with a moderately strong presence of Rufous Hummingbirds (brilliant adult males and females) migrating through at present along with the resident Anna’s and probably an Allen’s or two (female Allen’s are virtually indistinguishable from female Rufous). Okay, I’m not that cheap; I can still splurge on a box of sugar a couple of times this season.

****************************************************
Richard Rowlett
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).


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