Inaugural PAS Pelagic – September 2017

17 09 2017

Black Oystercatcher – Luke Tiller

This Saturday (Saturday, 16th) I took off from Dana Point on a pelagic that I had organized for Pasadena Audubon Society. We joined the R/V Sea Explorer on a boat used by The Ocean Institute as part of their educational work. There’s a nice video of the boat in action on Youtube (here).

Of course picking up our boat in Orange County meant that we had a little ride before we crossed the Orange Curtain into Los Angeles County waters. That said I think many of our participants were new enough to pelagic birding that we were more focused on seeing birds than worrying about the imaginary lines that divide our county lists.

Even before leaving the harbor we had a couple of nice sightings in the way of some Black Oystercatchers loafing on the jetty. Then with jumbo bags of  popcorn at the ready we were soon chumming our way out to sea, a steady stream of Heermann’s Gulls and Western Gulls following closely behind us.


Pink-footed Shearwater – Luke Tiller

Just off shore we were soon surrounded by our first “pelagic” birds, a nice stream of Black-vented Shearwaters. These birds predominantly nest in Baja California, are generally limited to the coastlines of Mexico and California and tend to like nearshore waters. Among them other shearwaters can be found as well and we soon had a couple of Pink-footed following behind the boat too. Later we added a couple of Sooty Shearwaters for our third shearwater species on the day.

As well as the shearwaters, we were soon picking up our first jaegers of the trip too. Pomarines were probably the most numerous and one very accommodating one decided to follow the boat for a while, allowing people to get good looks at both the structure, flight style and plumage of this rather magnificent avian pirate. We soon added Parasitic Jaeger, though the real highlight was picking up a Long-tailed Jaeger to complete our jaeger sweep. It’s currently peak season for Long-tailed Jaeger migration and though this species is the least commonly found jaeger in Southern California we managed to get two in Los Angeles County.


Pomarine Jaeger – Luke Tiller

There were plenty of other species to look at as we motored along including Elegant, Caspian and Royal Terns. We even had a few non-avian goodies including Mola Mola and flying fish. That was at least until we got to Los Angeles County waters. As we arrived in LA County it’s as if the bird tap was suddenly turned off (or at least to a trickle). Our flock of following gulls disappeared (probably because I took over chumming) and the fishing boats around Catalina seemed not to be drawing much avian attention.

Though sightings slowed considerably, the quality of sightings was good. The next couple of hours included stumbling upon a couple of nice rafts of Common Terns, our only storm-petrel of the day: Black Storm-Petrel, a couple of pretty Sabine’s Gulls and a complete sweep of three jaeger species.


Craveri’s Murrelet – Luke Tiller

Highlight of the whole trip had to be our luck with alcids. Not only did we manage to find a pretty cooperative Cassin’s Auklet, that sat for a while with us, but we also managed to find a pair of much sought after Craveri’s Murrelets.

Craveri’s Murrelet has a relatively small population and is one of those birds that is both difficult to find and tough to see well. Typical views are unidentifiable ones of their rear ends, as they take off from the water in front of your boat and Sibley even illustrates them as such in his guide. Amazingly the two, perhaps overly full, Craveri’s we found decided to sit on the water in front of us for over five minutes, This allowed for amazing looks, photos and even better amazing listens! I think this was the first time most, if not all on the boat, had ever heard the insect like twittering of these amazing little birds (listen here).


Craveri’s Murrelets

We ended our day heading back along the Orange County coastline where we ran into more Black-vented Shearwaters and a sizable pod of Common Dolphin. Judging from all the enthusiastic comments from participants I think we need to get another pelagic on the Pasadena Audubon Society schedule ASAP.

One of the best parts of the day was that everyone managed to see pretty much all of the birds that we found. This was testament to our excellent boat captain and the fantastic leaders on the day: David Bell, Tom Benson, Kimball Garrett, Brittany O’Connor and Justyn Stahl. Thanks to everyone for making it a fun day on the water.

Photo Essay – Swainson’s Hawks in Bakersfield

12 09 2017

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I drove up from Los Angeles to Sonoma for the Sonoma Birding Optics Festival to go talk about optics for ZEISS Birding (blog here). Though I love the incredible diversity of habitat and species in Los Angeles County the one thing it doesn’t have much of is raptor migration.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

The lack of raptors in migration is almost made up for by the incredible winter raptor spectacle that can be found out in the Antelope Valley in winter (see post here), but for an ex-professional hawkwatcher there is nothing that quite competes with watching raptors on migration.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Last Friday I was winging my way north along the somewhat desolate I5 when I spotted some hawks kettling in some Ag fields by the side of the road. I of course got off at the next exit and was excited to find a few Swainson’s Hawks loafing in a field just next to the off ramp.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Though it was almost exactly hot high noon and the heat haze and bright sunlight wasn’t exactly optimal for photography I couldn’t pass up grabbing my camera and getting a few record shots of the moment.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

It’s amazing the individual variation in these beautiful birds and it was nice to be able to study them fairly close up rather than watching them way up in the sky as often happens at a hawkwatch. A few birds even drifted close enough to the roadside for me to capture at least a few different individuals somewhat well with the camera.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

In October I’ll be in Panama for the peak of this species migration through the country. I wonder if I’ll unwittingly connect with any of these birds again. Other highlights of the weekend trip to Sonoma included Black Swifts, Black Rail, Tule Elk and best of all getting to see some old friends at Hawk Hill Hawkwatch.

Los Angeles: Summer in the City?

12 07 2017

San Gabriel Mountains at dusk – Luke Tiller

Though breeding season everywhere tends to be somewhat slower for birding than most other times of year, there is still plenty to like when it comes to birding in Los Angeles. When it comes to summer birding here it’s hard to beat the San Gabriel Mountains, and not just because the elevation tends to provide a little relief from the warmer temperatures to be found down in the basin.


White-headed Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Though most people know Los Angeles is in a basin, not many people realize quite how amazing the mountains that surround that basin can be. Less than twenty miles from Downtown, and just about thirty from LAX, one can find oneself seemingly well away from the hubbub of the city. Quickly climbing up in elevation, one can start to find an array of exciting mountain specialties including Bell’s Sparrow, White-headed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and more.


Northern Pygmy Owl – Luke Tiller

At night the mountains and foothills can come alive with owls and goatsuckers, which when you include rarities, can include up to seven species of owl. As well as the more common species these might include such sought after goodies as Spotted Owl and Flammulated Owl. One owl often more easily found during the day is the tiny, but fierce, Northern Pygmy-Owl. I love pygmy-owls anyway, but the potential for this bird to be split from those Northern Pygmy-Owls found in the Rocky Mountains adds to the interest.


Black Swift – Luke Tiller

One of North Americas most enigmatic and sought after species can also be found in the Los Angeles area: Black Swift. This highly specialized aerial acrobat breeds in just a handful of spots in Southern California, due to a reliance on waterfall nesting sites in what is a relatively dry region, but at least one pair is relatively accessible from Los Angeles. Every July I take a group out from the local Audubon group to enjoy seeing this neat species.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Perhaps even more elusive and desirable, summer is not the worst time to be looking for Mountain Quail. Though they are a little easier to find earlier in the year when the birds are still vocal, they can be found in the warmer months too. In fact the best photographs I ever captured of these sneaky little quail were in July. This may just be a coincidence, but I suspect it was because the birds were at least somewhat focused on maintaining contact with chicks at the time rather than what I was up to.


Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Luke Tiller

Though I love migration more than any other time (who doesn’t?), I have to say I’m thankful for all that summer birding in Los Angeles has to offer. It’s always amazing to me that you can escape a population of 19 million people and find yourself alone and surrounded by birds just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Los Angeles.

Southern Texas in Spring

24 04 2017

I spent a fun time in Southern Texas last week with Alex Lamoureax and Wildside Nature Tours. It was a new time of year for me as far as the Rio Grande Valley is concerned and highlighted how great this corner of Texas can be at almost any time of the year. I still have the urge to get here in September to see what it is like when the Broad-winged Hawks are returning south, perhaps next year.

There were many highlights over the week, but if I were to pick just a handful they would be as follows:


Common Pauraque and chick – Luke Tiller

Finding Common Pauraques with chicks One of my coolest sightings of my last tour to Texas was finding a Pauraque that wasn’t the most photographed Pauraque in the whole of the world. There’s at least one that everyone and their dog knows about, so it’s always good to find your own one. The coolest sighting this year was following up on that bird and discovering that this time it had two chicks snuggled up underneath it. We also saw the well known bird with chicks too. If there was just one good reason to go to Texas in April it would have to be baby Pauraques!


Botteri’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Exploring Palo Alto Battlefield Whenever I find myself in Texas I like to try and find somewhere new to visit. It feels like a lot of visitors just hit the same old spots over and over again. Thanks to a tip off from a couple of ex locals I decided to check out Palo Alto Battlefield. Not only did it provide some interesting and different habitat to most of the other stops, it also provided some interesting history and a beautifully appointed visitors center. Highlight there was getting to see numerous Botteri’s Sparrows. They aren’t around during winter (at least according to most sources) so they were a new Texas bird for me. Their range is at best spotty between southern Texas and Costa Rica (up to nine subspecies) and so they were a real joy to see. What made the sighting even better was that, unprovoked, one of these usually skulky birds popped up and started singing vociferously, giving the group killer views.


Broad-winged Hawk – Luke Tiller

Morning raptor liftoff Southern Texas is excellent for a bunch of species that are uncommon or even essentially absent from the rest of the country. Included in this are a couple of raptors. While looking for one of them, Hook-billed Kite, we were able to witness a bunch of raptor migration as hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites and some Swainson’s Hawks lifted off from forests on both sides of the border in order to continue their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. As a hawkwatching fan it was nice to get to see some raptor migration, something one gets a little starved of in Southern California!


Least Bittern – Luke Tiller

South Padre Island migration It’s amazing what a little coastal habitat can produce in terms of migrant traps on South Padre Island. Even the most rudimentary drip and a couple of trees can produce wonderful migrant species like Painted Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Kentucky Warblers and more. Though we didn’t quite hit the fallout conditions that are possible there, we did get a wonderful mix of mainly southern US migrants. Throw in perhaps the most accommodating Least Bitterns on the planet and some great shorebirds at Boca Chica and you have yourself a pretty great day.


Red-bordered Metalmark – Luke Tiller

National Butterfly Center The National Butterfly Center is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a little more expensive than most of the sites but the incredible butterflies, great feeders and numbers of great birds always make it worth a stop in my opinion. Last time it was a male Varied Bunting, this time it was killer views of a group of Groove-billed Anis (website here).

You can see some more photos from the trip on my flickr page (here). You can see a collection of Texas photos in another album (here).

Anna’s Hummingbird – Photo Essay

13 04 2017

Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

While birding at Santa Fe Dam the other day I stumbled upon this fairly co-operative Anna’s Hummingbird. I approached it a couple of times for shots. I basically figured that it was somewhat guarding a patch of flowers and that it might be a little more tolerant of approach than usual.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I have what I feel is a pretty decent setup for bird photography: a Canon 7D and the 300mm f4. Rightly or wrongly, I generally still take shots like I used to when I had my old 35mm Praktica as a teenager but will take bursts of shots when it seems appropriate (like when this bird stretched and preened).


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think the main thing about getting good bird photos is getting close to them, whatever lens you have. I think among birders (or maybe even beginner bird photographers) the thought is that a long lens allows you to get great shots from miles away, which in my experience is certainly not the case .


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think being a birder first, you can parlay your bird knowledge into good photography. This means using the field skills you would use to approach a bird to get close for shots, but also understanding how birds are likely to react and how sensitive different species might be, even tailoring that experience to dealing with birds in different circumstances.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

In the end through slow and indirect approach I managed to work my way within about ten feet of this hummingbird. The overcast skies helped to produce a nice picture, as hummingbird gorgets tend to blow out in any direct sunlight. I tried to follow the few little bits of advice I have picked up along the way: shoot with the sun behind you and get to the birds level.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I was also thinking about the background, but didn’t have much to work with. After taking a couple of shots against a pure sky background (not my preference) I moved a little to try get the hazy gray mountains behind the bird. I’m not sure it made a huge difference? The main thing was to try line up with the bird so that I was catching the flare of the gorget as he faced me. Anyway I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out.

Birding the Kill Bill Superbloom

3 04 2017

Superbloom at dawn – Luke Tiller

This Sunday David Bell and I ventured out into the wilds of Northeast LA County to check out what was happening with this years superbloom. This year has been an incredible one for wildflowers across the Southwest.  As well as the flowers, I was intrigued as to what might turn up there bird wise. Adding to the potential interest was the fact that Jonathan Feenstra had found what appears to be Los Angeles County’s first record of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in over eighty years just a stones throw away on Edward’s Airforce Base, on a section that isn’t open to the public.

The thing I like about birding with David is that he’s always up for trying somewhere different rather than chasing birds or hitting the same old birding sites. It was for this reason that we found ourselves stopping at dawn amid a sea of yellow desert wildflowers at the Kill Bill Church (more here) in Hi Vista to see what might have stopped off in this one horse town during migration. It actually turned out to be a fairly productive stop with highlights including specialist local breeders like Black-throated Sparrow as well as a couple of out of place migrants including a beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbird.


Kill Bill Church – JG Klein

We then worked our way north on East 200th Street past the Phacelia Wildlife Sanctuary to explore the very northern edge of the county, stopping only when the road would take us no further. Here at the end of the line, a gate blocked our entrance to Edward’s Airforce Base. It was a surprisingly productive end of the line however with singing Le Conte’s Thrasher (or LeConte’s Thrasher depending on what the AOS decide) and five species of sparrows that included three real beauties: Bell’s, Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrow.

We were soon stumbling on more birds as we worked our way through the Creosote Bush and Joshua Tree covered landscape. In my experience this habitat often seems to be pretty birdless, but today we kept stumbling upon little flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and in among them other birds would appear. Some expected, like the Rock Wrens and Verdins, some much less so like the migrants that seemed to have joined in these little roving flocks: Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and House Wren. It seemed like almost every bird freaked out the local eBird filters however, highlighting how little this area gets birded.


Black-throated Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Of course usually this area is pretty barren desert, but this year there are plenty of flowers for these birds to enjoy, and looking carefully at my photos from the day, plenty of accompanying bugs. With the superbloom it makes me wonder how the usual desert migrant traps will fair this Spring. With the desert somewhat greener than usual I wonder if those places will be less of a draw for wandering birds or whether the abundance of growth in the desert may somehow end up helping waifs and strays survive and similar or greater numbers will find their way to those weird little desert oases? It will be interesting to find out.

As well as a fairly constant turnover of birds there was much else to enjoy including lots of neat flowers. Almost everywhere you looked was a carpet of yellow flowers mainly formed by millions upon millions of little California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) but there were other pretty ones in among them including the purple Phacelia that the nearby wildlife sanctuary is named for. You can find LA County Parks and Wildlife Refuges using their parks locator tool (here).


Phacelia sp – Luke Tiller

The flowers were of course attracting insects and one of my main highlights of the day was not only seeing, but also photographing quite well a White-lined Sphinx moth. As well as poking around Hi Vista we also stopped at a couple of other spots that looked like they might hold potential for future exploration, but didn’t come up with anything particularly out of this world species wise.

It was a fun morning of birding and I’m hoping I can sneak out here for a little more before the bloom fades or I have to leave for a mid-April Texas Tour that I will be co-leading for Wildside Nature Tours. There’s still one open space if you are looking for a short but sweet adventure in that incredible part of the world (details here). There are some more photos from the day on my flickr page (here). Thanks to Naresh Satyan and Mickey Long for flower identification.


California Goldenfields – Luke Tiller

Trip Species Checklist:

American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawk, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Black Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, House Wren, Cactus Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Le Conte’s Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Bell’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow

Anza Borrego – Superbloom Hawkwatching.

27 03 2017

Desert Sunflowers – Anza Borrego

This Saturday I headed for Anza Borrego for Pasadena Audubon’s annual trip to the hawkwatch there. After a very early morning start I arrived in Borrego Springs for our dawn rendezvous. Our first port of call was the Mesquite woods in town which are usually home to Crissal Thrasher and historically it seems now to Lucy’s Warbler. Though we did find some nice desert denizens including Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Gnatcatcher we struggled to turn up any of the rarer species hoped for here. Still none of the above are very common in LA County so it’s always a treat to see them. The other highlights here were numbers of Western Kingbirds, including groups of migrants passing overhead and a couple of rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch that dropped in next to the group!.

Next stop turned from opportune bathroom break into an intensive birding stop. A stop in town lead us to both a nesting Great Horned Owl and from there we started to find a few interesting species dotted around town including a nesting Costa’s Hummingbird, White-winged and Common Ground Dove. The thing I’ve always loved most about birding is migration because you just never know what you are going to find next and as we walked around the block back to our cars from the owl nest we found ourselves a little flock of migrating passerines. In the mix were a decent number of birds and a mix of species including warblers, vireos and orioles. Highlights were almost certainly the stunning male Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles with runner up prizes going to Wilson’s and Nashville Warblers.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Unfortunately the predicted winds that were forecast for the afternoon kicked up a little earlier than predicted which made both bird and bloom watching a little harder than anticipated. Still, we managed to find a nice couple of fields of flowers out on Di Giorgio Rd and Henderson Canyon Rd and a nice mix of different species out at Old Spring Rd. Though the winds were roaring luck was on our side and I randomly spotted some Swainson’s Hawks coursing out over a field and the group managed to walk out towards them for better looks. It was nice to be able to show people the differences in plumage between adults and juveniles and compare the different morphs too. We also pulled out a Red-tailed Hawk from the group as well.

Next stop was a quick lunch break over at the Tamarisk Grove campground. Here among the throngs of campers and visitors enjoying the wildflower and cactus show we managed to stumble upon a beautiful Long-eared Owl. The bird, though not more than a few feet from a busy parking lot, seemed very relaxed apart from when an Anna’s Hummingbird came buzzing around his head at which point he immediately opened his bright yellow eyes and stared angrily at this buzzing interloper.


Long-eared Owl – Luke Tiller

The last portion of our day we hiked out to Yaqui Wells. A mile and a half round trip from Tamarisk Grove campground that takes you through a mix of beautiful cactus dotted habitat before it eventually opens up on this natural seep. This year round water resource attracts all kinds of animals including a mix of birds. The further we got from the campground so it also allowed us to escape a little from the hordes of campers and even better we were also pretty shaded from the howling winds.

It was beautiful and quiet here and we eventually started to run into some birds here including locally breeding specialties: Phainopepla, Rock Wren and the incredibly stunning Scott’s Orioles, as well as small mixed flocks that included a nice variety of migrants. As we slowly worked our way along the trail we found groups of early arriving species that included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers.


Tiny Checkerspot – Luke Tiller

As well as the birds, Yaqui Wells also provided us with a bunch of pretty butterflies among the blooming flowers including Desert Orange Tip, Arizona Powdered-Skipper, Becker’s White, Tiny Checkerspot and sadly, a recently deceased Sleepy Orange. The finale of our trip was highlighted by two beautiful orioles, Hooded and Bullock’s, that we found feeding on a stunning Ocotillo – a real cacophony of color!

We ended our day with a respectable 53 species of birds including two species of owl, three species of oriole with Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the Scott’s Orioles probably among the highlights. We also enjoyed the beautiful scenery, this years much lauded superbloom (even if things were a little past peak) and some attractive butterflies. It was sad to have to head home and I can’t wait to do it again next year. Next time I definitely need to make sure I schedule more time in town!


Ocotillo – Luke Tiller

Thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a fun day, especially Naresh for his wildflower knowledge and Hilary and Steve for providing our own private bathroom facilities on the day. I have posted a handful of shots from the day on my flickr page (here) and Naresh has kindly shared his photos from the day (here).

Bird Species List:

American Wigeon, Mallard, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher,Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Common Raven, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Phainopepla, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Scott’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch