Monday, June 15, 2020

Terns Of Endearment

Western Tiger Swallowtail
I wish we could have slowed down our time in California.  It was such a nice stay full of great birds and memories.  We stayed close to the beach and had fun looking at the birds along the shoreline. 

Arctic Tern-blood red/orange thickish shorter bill
Besides the many Brown Pelicans, we also saw many terns.  The previous week in Arizona, we had a super rare Arctic Tern show up at a local watering hole. It had been my only tern for the year which was rather surprising!  Usually a Forster's or Least Tern shows up in April first.  Instead it was the super rare Arctic Tern.  Okay!  I'll take it. 

We did well staying away from people, but people gravitated towards each other and we had to be conscience of this.  Thankfully Cheroot, the wonder dog, helped maintain social distance with his grouchy demeanor. He's really not grouchy.  He loves hanging with his friends, but he doesn't like strangers! Or dogs off their leash!  I don't have a dog because I'm a cat person but dog owners are sometimes so irresponsible. Sure, you're dog is friendly and so am I.  However, some dogs are not friendly and are put on a leash for a reason(besides it being the law! to protect wildlife) "Free dogs" who are social put themselves in danger by running up to defensive pooches.  It was a new element to our birding that I hadn't much thought about.  A lady in Balboa Park laughed and said her unleashed dog was friendly and that it was "okay".  Yes, we love your dog, but Cheroot will rip the dog apart because of your negligence!  If I were a cat, I'd hiss. 

Forster's Tern
Let's talk about birds. While at the beach, we were noticing a lot of terns flying over our heads.  And with a closer look, we noticed quite a few species of tern.  My friend Celeste mentioned there was black at the tip of the bill.  That narrowed the bird down to a Caspian or Forster's Tern.  I saw her bird and then noticed it had a thin orange bill with a beautiful tail pattern.  Forster's. But what were the other terns?!

The next tern we saw breeds in the same area as the Snowy Plovers.  And sure enough, a Least Tern flew over our heads.  They weren't as numerous as the other species and an easy one to ID.  Small tern with a yellow bill. 

Least Tern
Wildlife and visitors continued along the beach of Southern California.  In one area, we had both Harbor Seals (or Common Seal) in one colony while several rocks over, we saw a huge group of California Sea Lions.  

Harbor Seals
It's tricky for birders.  Terns are magnificent creatures, but they aren't always easy in their varied plumage.  Often I go with the bill as a field mark.  We were lucky as we had clear marks.  I start getting into trouble when both Arctic and Common terns are in the same area.  Then there's the Elegant Tern vs the Royal Tern.  We did see a few Royal Terns while we were there. Let's take a look.

Royal Tern
Here's a shot of both species.  Royal Terns will also have the black cap.  This one does not.  The bills are slightly thicker with the Royal Tern.  The tern also has a paler orange/yellow coloring. 

Elegant Tern
When you look at the Elegant Tern, you'll see a longer skinnier orange bill.  It's also a large and elegant tern. REALLY:)  These terns are more common along the coast of Southern California right now and were the predominant tern species over the waters. 

Another tern that I know well is the Caspian Tern. It breeds along the shores of Lake Michigan in my home state of Wisconsin.  This tern is widespread and a bulky tern with a heavy orange bill with a dark end. This was the second most common tern species along the coastal waters.  

Caspian Tern
During the in between time, we'd all sit and enjoy the shade.  The ocean is great but the sun can still be very strong.  We found shade and charged our batteries under a tree full of Allen's Hummingbirds. 

A tern that I had been wanting to observe in the wild finally happened on this trek.  All of my friends have seen this species except me:)  That was such a wonderful discovery.  I thought I had seen one fly over my head.  My heart skipped a beat and my pace quickened on the beach towards the salt marsh.  These birds were outside the clouds of terns over the estuary.  They were fishing from the calmer waters of the salt marsh.  Easy to ID with that nice black bill. 

Gull-billed Tern
Where did we see all these terns?  Well, we found them at Imperial Beach along the Tijuana Slough that borders the ocean front.   Here is the list that we generated from our walk. Directions to get there are in the report.  One bird we did not see was the Ridgway's Rail which is often found there in good numbers.  But we didn't time our visits to the tide.  When the tide rises, you have a better chance of spotting this very cool and endangered rail. 

The end of the pier behind Celeste is where you can find the Pelagic Cormorants, when it opens again.  Great eats along that road as well
I want to also share with you that it's possible to observe all three cormorants in this area.  The most common cormorants seen are the Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants.  The more difficult one can be the Pelagic.  But for some reason, the purplish hues of the beautiful Pelagic Cormorant love the end of the big Imperial Beach pier.  Even though the pier was closed, I did spy one bird fly towards the end of it. 

Brandt's Cormorant
It was a lovely walk.  The past two posts covered 5 principal areas of what I think are San Diego's premier birding spots.  There's a few more but we avoided those areas due to high human traffic.  We stayed near Balboa Park which is a really nice walk and full of great birds including the exotics.  We spied Red-crowned and Yellow-headed Parrots with Red-headed Parakeets.  Also feeding from the grasses were the Scaly-breasted Munia. 

Other stops included the beautiful Imperial Beach and Tijuana Slough, La Jolla coastal area, Torrey-Pines State Park, the Bird and Butterfly Garden near the Tijuana border, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park where we saw this beautiful California Thrasher below. 

California Thrasher
If anything, this trek inspired me to get on the road soon.  But something was holding me back.  I'm glad I waited.  The bird gods have been kind to the birding community in Arizona. 

Maybe not exciting, but I think beautiful, the Western Gulls were nesting along the coastal cliffs. 

Western Gull
On our way home, we spied this very young Green Heron at a park in Yuma, AZ.  At one point I had to take this poor little heron out of the pond because a girl ran up to it and forced it into the water. It barely could swim. It needed a few days to get more strength. She knew what she was doing and it pissed me off. Back in the day, you could yell at kids freely(or talk to them nicely). I was hungry and grouchy and not in the mood to deal with kids. So instead, I had a talk with her mother while giving her the death stare. Then I rescued the little bird who couldn't get out of the pond due to the concrete pond wall being too high.  Hope this little one is okay.  Just needs a few days to strengthen up.  

juvenile Green Heron

So if you are chasing terns along the coast of Southern California, here are the terns we saw most to least being the Least:)

1. Elegant Tern-the most common
2. Caspian Tern
3. Forster's Tern
4. Gull-billed Tern
5. Royal Tern
6. Least Tern

We're back in Southern Arizona enduring the heat and wildfires.  Please think good thoughts for our Mt. Lemmon.  The Bighorn Fire was caused by a lightning strike for about a week now. As we were arriving back into Tucson, we hit the huge lightning storm. It has done some major damage to the mountain. I hope we can get it under control. Fire is good but it's not cool when you have your friend's home in danger of getting burned down.  It's painful to watch the wildlife flee their homes off the mountain.  June is already a stressful time for all the critters with water and heat being major factors. And the smoke! Is it covid or smoke that's causing the headaches? It's one thing after another these days. Next week, we take a longer and deeper look into the magic of Southeastern Arizona birding. 

Not my image, from ABC 15 news


  1. How wonderful to actually go somewhere other than your home. Looking closely at your Arctic tern photo I think we have them quite a few here. Lots of shallow ponds which attract a variety of gulls, herons, terns and plovers. As this year has been particularly wet we see small flocks regularly.

  2. great photos - I'm doing good to say that is a tern - can't much else - wonderful photos, beach doesn't look as bad as here in Florida with all the crazy people walking in a mob w/o a mask - our numbers are high for the virus

  3. I love seeing terns at the water here, but I had no idea there were so many different kinds! Your photos are great to see on my rainy wintery day!

    It's awesome to see you at 'My Corner of the World' this week! Thanks for linking up.


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