Friday, February 17, 2017

Baja California: A Final Morning in Todos Santos

There are just a few photos from the relaxed, final few hours of morning birding on my WINGS tour to the Cape Region of Baja California. The tour officially ended around noon with our arrival at the San José del Cabo airport.

We actually had one outing after our late afternoon arrival the day before, after the long drive from Puerto San Carlos. With memories of the whales still fresh on our minds, we walked down to the beach to watch the release of hatchling Green Sea Turtles by a team of volunteers who collect the eggs and incubate them safely from the many predators and people who use the beach. They eventually released somewhere around 60 hatchlings at dusk this evening.

While waiting for the volunteers to get the last turtles from their nests, we watched the sun set and noticed a fascinating tail-slapping display of a Humpback Whale, perhaps a mile out at sea. I was able to get it in the scope, as the animal “stood” on its head for at least ten minutes, slapping the water aggressively back and forth with each side of its flukes without pause. This is likely part of a mating display, perhaps aggressive, but no one really knows.

We stayed at the Serendipity Bed & Breakfast, a delightful place that everyone opined would be a nice place to stay for a few days. I agree, and it would be fun to really scour the region for vagrants, but we had pretty much run out of expected bird species to add to our list, and that would just make the tour more expensive. Sigh.

We did add White-crowned Sparrow (the interior western subspecies oriantha), Brewer’s Sparrow, and California Quail, as well as had more enjoyable views of Scott’s Oriole, Hooded Orioles, Lark Sparrows, and Costa’s Hummingbirds, among others. This Hyptis laniflora, Woolly Desert-Lavender, endemic to Baja California Sur, was the primary food for the Costa’s Hummingbirds.

This bushy composite, forming shrubs taller than me, is Bahiopsis tomentosa, Felt-leaved Goldeneye, and is endemic to the Cape Region.

We saw several Northern Mockingbirds every day of the tour – the deserts here apparently offer plenty of food and the right structure.

The mockingbird is perched on this fascinating shrub, which might be a food source. It is Stegnosperma halimifolium, Sonoran Stegnosperma, in the strange and small family Stegnospermataceae. Although there are specimens of this species from Caborca, Sonora, less than 100 km from the Arizona border, there are no members of this family here.

It was starting to get warmer, and more butterflies were around. This is the very widespread Pyrisitia lisa, Little Yellow.

I saw a few of these every day of the tour (unlike the dozens in previous years), but usually only in flight as I was driving. This is the first one we had perch in front of the group where we could see the lovely colors. It’s the endemic subspecies Myscelia cyananthe streckeri, Blackened Bluewing.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Baja California: Puerto San Carlos and Bahia Magadlena

My WINGS tour to Baja California’s Cape Region includes a boat trip on Bahia Magdalena, leaving from Puerto San Carlos west of Ciudad Constitucion. This is about a 4-hour drive from La Paz, and on our way we made a stop in the unique desert of the Magdalena Plain.

One of the most distinctive features one notices in this type of desert are the lichens growing on everything. Fog is common here at any time of year, though rains are infrequent and unpredictable.

This is Lophocereus schottii, Senita Cactus, which barely makes it into the U.S. at Organpipe Cactus National Monument.
Lophocereus schottii, Senita Cactus

I was especially hoping to find a patch of the cactus Stenocereus eruca, the Creeping Devil, endemic to this particular area. I had seen it a couple years ago on a side road we didn’t have time to check this year, and back then I didn’t realize how local an endemic it is. We couldn’t find it, unfortunately. But the plants, birds, and animals here were good. A pair of Harris's Hawks let us approach quite closely.
Harris's Hawk

This male Costa's Hummingbird appeared out of nowhere, seemed to choose a perch to check us out for a minute, then zoomed off.
Costa's Hummingbird

When I saw this lizard run on the sand and hide under a bush, I assumed it had to be the drab local subspecies of Zebra-tailed Lizard, but Brian Eagar explained to me that it’s a female of the extremely variable Uta stansburiana, Side-blotched Lizard – despite the lack of a blotch.
Uta stansburiana, Side-blotched Lizard

About 15 km before we reached the coastline of Magdalena Bay we started seeing Ospreys on their nests on transmission line pylons as well as on the many platforms erected for them. There is an active nest every few hundred meters after this. I’d be surprised if there were a denser breeding population anywhere else in the world.

This pond  just before Puerto San Carlos is a roost for many ibises, herons, and egrets, and we watched about 100 birds come in at sunset, including an impressive total of 14 Reddish Egrets.

This is also where we finally got good views of this Ridgway's Rail, a recent split from Clapper Rail. The Baja California Sur endemic subspecies here is Rallus obsoletus beldingi, which supposedly looks different or has different measurements from the subspecies in California, Arizona, mainland Mexico.
Ridgway's Rail, Rallus obsoletus beldingi

The main purpose of our big detour this far north is to take a whale watching trip on Bahia Magdalena. The day started with thin low-level fog, the first time I’ve seen that here. But it burned off very quickly, and the nearly perfectly still air (one reason for the fog) resulted in a gorgeous, nearly flat and mirror-like sea.

We saw whales – at one point one could scan a 90° swath ahead and see about 15 whale spouts in the distance. As we got closer to the main area of activity, we had very good views of several whales and their flukes: Eschrichtius robustus, the Gray Whale.
Eschrichtius robustus, Gray Whale

After about an hour of waiting (and never aggressively approaching any), we found ourselves next to what appeared to be a mating orgy, with three or four individuals flailing about. In this one shot, you can even the see the penis of one whale as he rolls on his back.
Eschrichtius robustus, Gray Whale

There was some exciting birding too. Before we even got to the whales, I directed José, our pilot to motor towards a group of plunge-diving Brown Pelicans. As we got closer, I noticed several Black-vented Shearwaters amongst the group, the first I have seen in the bay. I quickly made sure my group could see them, then tried getting some photos, vaguely aware that there were some small dolphins in part of the feeding frenzy. To my surprise, I got not only an in-focus photo of one of the shearwaters in flight (not very easy with the Canon PowerShot type cameras), but also an identifiable shot of what turned out to be a Delphinus capensis, Long-beaked Common Dolphin.
Black-vented Shearwater, Delphinus capensis, Long-beaked Common Dolphin

On our way back to port we came across a resting group of Black-vented Shearwaters, allowing excellent views.
Black-vented Shearwater

Out of nowhere came a Pomarine Jaeger, which briefly chased one of the shearwaters and then quickly vanished to the south. One of my participants got much better photos than this – this is more typical of the kind of photo I can get of a bird in flight with this camera.
Pomarine Jaeger

José paused to show us several of these young Urobatis halleri, Round Stingrays, common in the shallower parts of the bay.
Urobatis halleri, Round Stingray

With only a few effortless flaps and no wind, this Brown Pelican skimmed the surface of the water and passed us.
Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis californicus

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Baja California: Around La Paz

The La Paz, Baja California Sur area is chock full of birds, thanks to the large, shallow bay and regular tides, as well as irrigated fields and a set of smelly sewage ponds. We spent all morning working our way around the Ensenada, ending at the ponds. There were no stake-out rarities this year, but past years have seen things like Terek Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, and Red-throated Pipit in this area. We had fun looking at the thousands of regular birds here anyway, the most abundant being Western Sandpiper.

There were a few American Oystercatchers, and I’m still waiting to hear from a local ornithologist about the band on this bird.

I didn’t take many photos of the many herons, egrets, and ibis, but this one Green Heron was particularly unwary and in amazing light.

Magnificent Frigatebirds were almost always visible overhead.

Or even perched on power lines.

We birded near some mangroves (there are three species together here). This is Avicennia germinans, Black Mangrove, which is now in the family Acanthaceae. (Other mangroves are actually in unrelated families).

This is of course where we would find the Mangrove Yellow Warbler. Looking and sounding very different from Northern Yellow Warblers and with a completely disjunct breeding range and habitat (overlapping only in the winter), it remains a puzzle as to why these two are considered the same species by the AOU. Even the females look different.

There were quite a few birds right along the waterfront in downtown La Paz, right across the street from our hotel.

Western Willet and Marbled Godwit

Yellow-footed Gull, an endemic of the Gulf of California

Turkey Vulture

This is Ammospermophilus leucurus, White-tailed Antelope Squirrel, one of three land mammals we saw on the tour (the others were Black-tailed Jackrabbit and Coyote).

I took this photo of an Orthemis ferruginea, Roseate Skimmer female at the sewage ponds to show my participants the little flanges on either side of the abdomen near the distal tip. They are probably used to scoop up droplets of water as they lay eggs and flick them onto the shore.

There were big flocks of Black-necked Stilts at the sewage ponds.

On our second morning at La Paz, before our long afternoon drive north to Puerto San Carlos, we explored the deserts and shores to the north of town.

There was zero movement of seabirds on the ocean, despite perfect visibility – sometimes we see shearwaters or boobies, even if distant, but this time we saw only the occasional Double-crested Cormorant and Eared Grebe. We walked a bit of a beach where we had this Snowy Plover and Semipalmated Plover.

My best guess on this skeleton, given the location washed up on a beach, would be a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake. I’ve never seen a live one.

It has been quite cool this week, and perhaps this is why butterfly numbers have seemed quite low. This one is Apodemia mejicanus maxima, an endemic subspecies of Mexican Metalmark.

This is Ascia monuste raza, an endemic subspecies of Great Southern White, and a new one for me.

As far as I can tell, this is the monotypic and widespread Erynnis funeralis, Funereal Duskywing.

The plants in this coastal desert scrub are fascinating. This is Stenocereus thurberi, the same Organpipe Cactus that occurs in SW Arizona.

This is a sandmat, formerly in the genus Chamaesyce, but now in the huge, unwieldy genus Euphorbia – Euphorbia leucophylla.

This devilish looking cactus is Echinocereus brandegeei, Brandegee's Hedgehog.

This identity of this red-stemmed beauty has eluded me, but I suspect it’s a Jatropha species.

This Jacquemontia eastwoodiana, Island Felt-leaf Morning-glory, was growing in a bush-like form. Later I saw one growing more like a vine up into a tree.

The white trunks of Lysiloma candidum, Palo Blanco, give the woodland along the arroyos a distinctive look.

Lunch was next to our hotel, and I had the delicious fried snapper, pargo frito, before we made the long drive north to Puerto San Carlos.