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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sunrise surprise

It was 6 a.m.  I saw the flock in the distance, and I thought it looked different, but I didn't follow up on that instinct until they came closer.  And then I had to scramble for my binoculars and camera.

The birds kept flying to the south, and the light was still dim, so I didn't end up with sharp pictures but they're good enough for an interesting record!

Can you tell what species they are?

Here's another view (below).  I can also share that they had a distinctive flight style long glides alternating with a short series of relatively strong wing beats.

These are ibis, and likely White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi).  Scan carefully and note the long outstretched neck, long trailing legs, and long down-curved bill.

Did you count how many were in the flock?  It's easiest to use the first picture.  (My answer is below the next image.)

I counted 16 ibis that's a relatively high number for this area. White-faced Ibis don't nest here.  It's more likely these individuals were passing through on their way to breeding grounds further north.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Adding on

In December 2013, I posted about an 8-armed Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) and a 10-armed individual.  To review those images, see the posts from 17 December 2013 and 31 December 2013, respectively.  

I mentioned that Sunflower Stars add two arms at a time, and may end up with a total of 20 or more arms.  So you might be able to guess what's coming next!

It depends a little bit on exactly how you count, but this juvenile Sunflower Star has at least 12 active arms.  It also has two developing arm buds, so some people may count 14 arms.  The entire sea star, from arm tip to arm tip, was approximately 4 cm (1.5 inches) across.  It was photographed on 17 May 2014.

Remember that Sunflower Stars add two arms at a time and they add them bilaterally, or one on either side.  In the picture above, arms 11 and 12 are distinctive because they're shorter than all of the other arms, but they still have active tubefeet.  In the image above, they're at the top and bottom of the sea star.

Arms (or arm buds) 13 and 14 are very small.  They are adjacent to arms 11 and 12.  They have very pale tips.  

Below are two extreme close-ups that I hope will help you see all three arm typesthe regular-sized arms; arm 11, which is a little shorter than those; and arm 13, which is a tiny bud just to the right of arm 11.  [If you're wondering about the white circular disc on top of the sea starit's the madreporite (or sieve plate) that drives the sea star's water vascular system.]

It's been a lot of fun to see these Sunflower Stars growing up over the last 6 monthsfrom about 14 mm with 8 arms in mid-December to 40 mm with 12 (or 14?) arms in mid-May.

Here's one more picture of this recent individual exploring a local tidepool:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mouthfuls of mud

Eric and I watched a couple of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) gathering mud in a parking lot in Bodega Bay this morning. 

I've always been fascinated by this behavior, in part because it's hard to imagine having a mouthful of mud.

Barn Swallows use mud to build their nests.  Here's a picture of a male with both mud and grass (below).  He flew in with the grass and then started gathering mud.  Note his rust-colored forehead and underparts, and elongate tail feathers.  (The females typically have paler foreheads and underparts, and shorter tails.)

Although it's a little hard to tell, this may be a female that flew in and landed behind the male (see next image). Look for the more cream-colored underparts.

Here are a few quick trivia questions about Barn Swallow nest-building.  The answers are below the next image.

- How many trips per hour do Barn Swallows make while gathering materials for their nests?

- How many mud pellets make up one Barn Swallow nest?


Barn Swallows average about 30 trips/hour while gathering nest materials.  It's a busy time!

A Barn Swallow nest may contain between 750-1400 individual mud pellets.  Now that's a lot of mouthfuls of mud!

[Facts above from the Birds of North America account by Brown and Brown (1999).]

Friday, May 9, 2014

Along the banks of the creek

Scott reported 14 Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) at Salmon Creek yesterday, and I'll admit, when a phalarope is nearby, it's hard for me to stay away.

At the end of the day today (9 May 2014), I made a brief stop and spotted three phalaropes feeding along the sandy banks of the creek.

In phalaropes, there is reverse sexual dimorphism — the males and females are distinct, but the females are slightly larger and are more colorful than the males.

Although I don't have a lot of practice separating male and female phalaropes, I'm pretty sure this is a male and female (below).  The female is in the background, with a more distinct white eye-spot.  The male is in the foreground; his eye-spot connects to the red neck patch.

Here's one more picture of the male for comparison:

Somewhat surprisingly, I posted a little more information about Red-necked Phalaropes on this same date in 2012.  To read that post, click here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What's under there?

There were a couple of Red Knots (Calidris canutus) roosting and feeding along the shoreline near Porto Bodega at the north end of Bodega Harbor this evening (7 May 2014).

For more pictures and a little more information about Red Knots, see the post from 1 May 2012.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


A Laughing Gull was photographed in Bodega Harbor on 3 May 2014, so as we drove along Westshore Road this afternoon, I kept an eye out for dark-headed gulls.  I spotted a few, but there weren't any Laughing Gulls among them.  Still, we had beautiful looks at adult Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) in breeding plumage: 

All told there were about 22 Bonaparte's Gulls, but most were immature birds, lacking black hoods and red legs.  The immature birds had various amounts of gray smudging on their heads, pale pink legs, and darker feathers (carpal bars) interrupting their gray wings:

It was extremely windy throughout the day today (it's still blowing 25 mph at 8 p.m.).  I'm guessing these Bonaparte's Gulls were looking for a little shelter in Bodega Harbor. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Spotted at Dillon Beach

What fun to receive an e-mail from Carl Vogler this morning about an unusual fish at Dillon Beach:

Tom Carter (of Corte Madera) discovered this fish washed up on the beach.  It was ~35 inches (89 cm) long.  Cameron Vogler took pictures for documentation.  Here are two more (below).  Note the large eye, and how the head makes up a relatively small portion of the overall length.

They identified this fish as a Pacific Snake Eel (Ophichthus triserialis), and that identification looks good to me, too.

Below is an illustration of a Pacific Snake Eel showing the spots that help identify this species.

From McCosker, J.E. and R.H. Rosenblatt. 1998.  A revision of the Pacific snake-eel genus Ophichthus (Anguilliformes: Ophichthidae) with the description of six new species.  Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 50: 397-432.

Pacific Snake Eels are distributed from the Klamath River in northern California to Peru, but they're apparently rare north of Baja California.  

I searched the California Academy of Sciences online ichthyology collection and noted only three Pacific Snake Eel specimens from north of San Francisco: Black Point, San Francisco (1931); Tiburon, near Richardson Bay (1933); and one off Bodega Bay? (1977).

Thanks to the Voglers and Tom Carter, we all get to learn about a very intriguing fish, in a part of their range where they're rarely observed.