Pt. Sur at dawn on 19 Dec 2004 (photo D. Roberson)
Pt. Sur territory
for Big Sur CBC, 19 Dec 2004
Don Roberson & Rita Carratello
It was an exceptionally beautiful day at Pt. Sur this morning. Clear, spectacular sunrise, no wind: we've never had better conditions. I assumed that the flat calm seas would mean “no birds offshore” — but this proved very wrong. The seas were alive with thousands of birds, and there were several ‘hot-spots’ attracting hundreds of gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and seabirds to apparent rich runs of small fish. I very quickly noted that a huge movement of Black-vented Shearwaters was underway. They were just streaming north. I took the 15 minute span from 0745-0800 to use a hand-clicker on just them: 820 in 15 minutes. They continued in good numbers for the full 2.5 hours we had at Pt. Sur before having to leave at 9:30 when the State Park tour group enters the gate at Hwy 1. After counting the 820/15 mins., I found that there were two major foraging flocks just right off the point — and I mean just a hundred yards off the point. Hundreds of Black-vents were in those flocks — perhaps 1500 between the two flocks — along with hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets — perhaps 1500 of them — plus countless gulls, hundreds of pelicans, dozens of cormorants and murres. I decided the most conservative figure for Black-vented Shearwater was to take the 15 minute count, assume the same rate for an hour, and use that figure: ~3300 Black-vented Shearwaters passing Pt. Sur this morning. The rate of passage decreased during the morning but there was the 1500 on the water just off the Point.
digiscoped view of seabird flock 19 Dec 2004, mostly Black-vented Shearwaters but Pacific Loon (upper left) and Rhinoceros Auklets (lower left)

Among those actively foraging flocks just a hundred or so yards off Pt. Sur were:

MANX SHEARWATER (1). This was found about 0900 after spending an hour scoping the flocks. There was one large glut of Black-vents sitting on the water, apparently satiated, as many others were swarming over the feeding frenzy. There were probably 100+ sitting in a tight homogeneous flock. The broad variation in Black-vented Shearwater was easily apparent in the flock: there were many typical Black-vents, some darker birds showing heavy mottling to breast, and some paler birds. All the Black-vents, though, looked “smudgy” (as they do) at the demarcation areas between dark brownish upperparts and white underparts. In particular, the faces and necks were smudgy. There were at least two “white-vented” Black-vented Shearwaters in the flock. It was easy to pick them out because the dark vents of 99% + of the birds were apparent on the water. These “white-vented” Black-vents were overall rather pale, being decidedly paler-faced than most, and showing more white along the waterline: which explains the whitish undertail coverts. Like all the other Black-vents, the demarcation lines were smudgy and mottled and the whitish undertail coverts, although not dark, didn't seem completely clean white.
    But then there was the Manx. In contrast to all the others, this bird was crisply black-and-white with clean, crisp demarcation between blackish upperparts and clean white underparts. In particular, the undertail coverts were bright, clean white (without any hint of smudginess) and contrasted starkly with the short black tail. The white undertail coverts almost reached the end of the tail (and the tail was held slightly cocked-up at rest, as is typical in this group). The entire underparts above waterline were also white except for an obvious blackish thigh patch which extended down through the white flanks very conspicuously. The neck and facial demarcations also looked crisp. The distance, though, was slightly too much to determine any further details of facial patterns. The bill was dark and rather short, and looked similar in size & shape to all the Black-venteds. In overall size and shape, the bird was like the many adjacent Black-vents, to wit, a small, short-tailed, squat shearwater.
 I got out my walkie-talkie to call Rita who was birding for landbirds elsewhere on the point. She arrived perhaps 5 minutes later, and during that time I was able to reconfirm all the points and refind the Manx easily was it sat with the flock. But, alas, just as Rita arrived to take up the scope, a dark-morph Pomarine Jaeger started working the shearwater flock, and many of the birds scattered while others took off in flight. I was not at the scope to watch the Manx take off — we were changing positions on the bench — and Rita did not see the Manx. I never refound it. Within minutes, the Pom had scattered this whole sitting group of shearwaters.
 I was looking northwest during the entire time, in flat calm conditions and with the sun to my back: I have never seen viewing conditions here so excellent. I was using my 25X60 zoom on a Leica Trinovid, and views were best at about 35-40X.

Pt. Sur Lighthouse
with Don scoping seabird flocks
photo by Rita Carratello

XANTUS’S MURRELET (2 together): This was earlier in the morning and much closer. The near edges of the foraging flock was right below the Pt. Sur Lighthouse. Most of the close birds were Rhinoceros Auklets, with a few larger loons and Common Murres and gulls and cormorants. Right at the nearest edge of the group were a pair of tiny alcids — black above and white below — that were actively diving so they were mostly underwater. When they'd come up briefly, I'd focus on one of them and, in fact, never scrutinized the second bird although my impression was that it was identical. The one I scoped intently had a very short and thin black bill, a dark cap that came down below the eye, but the entire throat and chin was white. The blackish upperparts had a slightly gray cast. The tail was very short and white undertail coverts were obvious during the dive. The underparts were clean white, no shoulder extensions. I could even see a tiny white half-eyelid above the eye [eye otherwise in dark of face]. After a couple dives I lost them as I got distracted with other things. They were obviously Xantus's Murrelets, either a pair or an adult and a full-grown youngster, by their tiny size — looking half the size of the Rhino Auklets — and the very short thin bills. 

Also in our Pt. Sur territory:

Snow Goose
Pt. Sur 19 Dec 2004
photo Don Roberson

Ferruginous Hawk
Pt. Sur 19 Dec 2004
photo Rita Carratello
SNOW GOOSE: an adult at a vernal pool below Pt. Sur — a large, heavy all-white goose with black primaries and a long, heavy bill with a very prominent 'grinning' patch on the pink bill.

FERRUGINOUS HAWK: an adult (e.g., much rufous to thighs) was watched both in flight and perched on a telephone pole. A large pale-headed Buteo with much rufous to upperwings, a pale and mostly whitish tail washed a bit with rusty on the dingy subterminal band, and large whitish patches at base of primaries when the upperwings were viewed in flight. Underparts very white except for rusty things and few flank spots; bill and eye yellow.

BARROW'S GOLDENEYE: a female with 3 female plumaged Common Goldeneyes in the Little Sur River lagoon. Identified by all-yellowish bill while the Common Goldeneyes had either all black bills (imms) or black bill with yellow tip (adult female). The Barrow's not only had an all-yellow bill, including basal portions, but looked short billed, had a very steep forehead, looked slightly darker rusty-brown on the head (which contrasted slightly more with white on foreneck), and looked to have less white in the wing than the Commons, showing just two patches of small white, rather than the three patches shown by the swimming adult female Common. All the goldeneyes were actively diving. This bird was scoped at 60X from a good distance but Rita was able to come view it and confirm the bill color.

All in all, an exceptional day for the "Pt. Sur Lighthouse" team. Alas, as always, the light conditions become progressively worse as the day passes and the sun moves to the west. But 'oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day'.....
view looking south from Pt. Sur towards the Big Sur R. mouth, now in the glare



Page created 19 Dec 2004