Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Outer Point Migrage


By the second weekend of October, the fall of 2016 had already been a good one...year birds in the right year, county birds in the right counties, acceptable numbers of migrants around, a state nemesis had been vanquished (Northern Gannet), I found a solid Siberian vague runt at my patch (Bar-tailed Godwit), and had a Sibe *MEGA* give good looks (Dusky Warbler)...if I had to quit birding right then for the rest of 2016 it would have been a pretty good year...but why the fuck would I do that? So I tried to bird someplace else besides SF or Point Reyes, but all I had to show for it...literally...was this Ridgway's Rail at Arrowhead Marsh. I'll take it.


The day after was forecast for decent weather, so I predictably went back out to the Outer Point...it's hard not to be there in October. As I rode a bristling caffeine high past Drake's Estero, a wall of fog appeared just west of the RCA patch, so I turned around to bird RCA in hopes that the fog would lift in the meantime. Hermit Warbler and Lark Sparrow were nice birds, and a couple ultra-confiding Hutton's Vireos dropped down to forage beside me.


This young male Anna's Hummingbird was holding down a flowering shrub next to my car, so I gave it a quick but punishing crush.


A couple miles down the road I got stuck in a birder traffic jam, but that worked out well because I may have just blown by the flock of 20 Greater White-fronts that were grazing next to the road. It's a nice bird to run into on the coast, as most of the big migrant flocks are just flyovers and don't put down too often.


Much of birding the Outer Point, probably 40%, consists of looking at White-crowned Sparrows and hoping that they are not White-crowned Sparrows. This was just a White-crowned Sparrow, so I crushed it and tried to move on with my life. Crush, move on, crush, get on with it...such is the rhythm of birding some days.


I walked over to one of my favorite micro-spots, where I am guaranteed to see nothing but White-crowned Sparrows, but for once there was something I didn't expect at the Zonotrichia stronghold. Here is a Western Bluebird-Tropical Kingbird combo for Caroline, Frank, and Jen. Dan, this would be for you too, but I know how much you hate combos.


Ah, a nice refreshing Mexican rarity. This was a good sign, but there turned out to be little else at the lighthouse (a few getting-late Violet-green Swallows) and Fish Docks was dead.

Using some of the Global Birder Ranking System's data collection tools (I have access to those, being #7 in the U.S.), it is obvious that there has been a statistically significant uptick in the last couple years of West Coast birders thinking they might have a Couch's Kingbird, not a Tropical. While Constant Vigilance is always good, birders should not let themselves get too worked up...Tropical Kingbirds are an expected fall migrant, albeit not a common one. There is no reason to suspect Couch's unless the bird really sounds or looks like one.


Fun with Tropical Kingbird cropping.


The Fish Docks are haunted by the ghosts of many Vague Runts that have dropped in over the years seeking food and shelter. On this day, migrants were few and rarities only lurked through the cypresses in spirit. A Say's Phoebe ominously watched over the birders making the rounds.


My traditionally horrible luck at Nunes was reversed when some other birders got me on this Black-and-white Warbler. Though Black-and-whites are a low-level rarity in much of the state, on Point Reyes they are seen much less frequently than other "eastern" warblers like Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided, Palm, etc. Considering this was a county bird and a far better looking bird than most other fall migrants, I had a nice mellow birdbuzz going after spending time with this bird.


The real avian highlight of the day though was the Tree Swallows. Yep, I'm going with Tree Swallow as Bird of The Day over Tropical Kingbird and Black-and-white Warbler. By early afternoon there were Tree Swallows pretty much everywhere you looked - while this is normal for some places in the east during fall migration, this is not the case in the bay area...it can be rather difficult to actually get to see a bunch of passerines migrating. Migration (landbirds) is just so much less visible here than on the eastern half of the continent, it's difficult to detect birds coming and going, especially large concentrations of them. I walked around in the middle of a huge feeding flock of swallows at Spaletta Plateau, it was a lot of fun.

One of the reasons I had even been out on the point on this day (aside from the obviously great time of year) was because the winds had been forecast to shift during the morning to the south, and south winds takes rare birds out of the sky and put them on the ground. The Black-and-white Warbler may have dropped in for this very reason. The prevailing winds here are out of the northwest, but for the entire following week we had south winds, and the coast was getting absolutely pummeled with rarities. It was hard to withstand...I was stuck in an office gnawing my lower lip to bloody shreds while rare shit just seemed to be raining down everywhere. Luckily, those south winds also brought some rain at the end of the week, which prevented some of these vague runts from continuing their migrations and allowed me to see a Yellow-green Vireo and Black-throated Blue Warbler out at the Fish Docks the following Saturday. Shit conditions and no photos, but those were some damn good birds. Yellow-green Vireos are not even Bird Police birds in California anymore, but I hadn't seen one anywhere since 2010 so I was stoked. And who knows when I will see those two species in the same place again...talk about a good combo.

South winds...how I long for your gentle, overcast touch. Until next fall.

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