Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Gulf Fritillaries in Paradise or a Caterpillar's Tale.

         Over the weekend my good friend Jim Monk sent us an email.  Suddenly, in the bushes around his home, he had lots of butterflies. Jim lives in a house that he had built on  a bluff, surrounded by ten acres of coffee trees.  All this is perched at about 2,000 feet  with a sweeping view of the South Kona coastline.  His home is a mile or two north of Paradise,  which is a collection of homes built on roads that split off form a precarious artery that winds steeply down to the Pacific.

Sandra and Jim Admiring the Rosemary and the Butterflies

    Jim had sent a couple pictures of the butterflies and wondered if they were monarchs.  It wasn't the best picture, but these butterflies, albeit out of focus, were the color of cheddar cheese.  In Hawaii, that makes them Gulf Fritillaries.  As I explained to Jim, our monarchs are more bronzy and the hind wing is usually a soft yellow.  

       Suffice it to say, I immediately invited myself, and my lovely companion, down to Paradise for a gander at the butterflies.  We decided that Monday in the late morning would be perfect for butterfly watching.

       Sandra and I arrived about 10:30, having been held up by road construction on the Mamalahoa Highway.  Jim greeted us at the car and led us only a few steps to a wall covered with a woody vine that reminded me of pyracntha.  A second vine was intertwined with the pyracantha and offered up delicate blue flowers which were attracting butterflies galore.  One would presume those flowers were full of fragrant nectar.

Gulf Fritillary Butterflies on Blooming Rosemary

     The first butterfly I saw was a monarch, but after that it was all Gulf Frits.   We hung around the wall for a bit taking pictures and  enjoying the beautiful butterflies.  We then made our way through the garage into the back yard. 

   As we passed through the garage, much to our delight, we came upon our friend Mort. We had met Mort at Jim's house at a couple parties.  He's a Jewish guy with a charming Japanese wife, which makes them a perfect Hawaiian couple.  As an example, our senator, Brian Schatz has an equivalent, and apparently very happy, marriage.  Samurai shalom!  And it must be a successful marriage; how much more successful can a politician be than holding a seat in the US Senate?  But I digress.

  Mort has an understated sense of humor and a wide ranging interest in the world around us.  Although he practices as an accountant, at the party two years ago we had a chance to look at his entomological research, which was being carried out in  our host's back yard.  And who says chardonnay and fruit flies don't mix? 

Mort with his digital dissecting microscope.

    In the garage Mort was working with a small computer.  Whether he was doing Jim's taxes or cataloguing fruit fly data, he didn't say.

     Out in the back yard Jim had a raised bed full of rosemary.  The rosemary was blooming and it was full of butterflies.  Here we found a plethora of Gulf Frits, but also a fiery skipper who permitted a quick snapshot and several Orange Sulfur butterflies, who were two fast for us.

     Looking at his raised bed full of butterflies, I commented to Jim that someone must have a lilikoi around to account for all the Gulf Fritillaries, which are also known as Passion Butterflies.  This is because their obligate host plant is passionfruit, or lilikoi.  Although it may seem like this single host plant relationship would restrict the Gulf Frit, passionfruit (which, like the eponymos butterfly, must be native to south Florida and the Carribean) is popular, both for its fruit and for its lovely passion flowers. Thus, wherever lilikoi is grown,  the Gulf Frit is found as a garden butterfly. Jim allowed that just over yonder he had lilikoi growing on an arbor.  However, it was in a state of decline.  

A Gulf Frit caterpillar on a lilikoi leaf, Panasonic Lumix.

     We walked the fifty feet towards the Pacific and considered his planting.  The arbor was ten feet tall and twenty feet long, and mostly bare.  A sad lilikoi plant clung to the trellis at the north end, nearest the house.  There might have been as few as one hundred leaves remaining on the lilikoi. Que triste!

    As it turned out the paltry number of leaves worked to our advantage. A lush lillikoi vine would have thousands of leaves.  Here we had relatively few to peruse.  And we were able to concentrate on the ones that had small fenestrations suggestive of munching caterpillars.  It took only a minute or so before we started seeing tiny caterpillars. 

    And tiny is the critical word.  Sandra and I are used to ogling Monarch caterpillars, the smallest of which dwarf what we saw here.  These caterpillars ranged in size from tiny to very small.  The largest we saw was about a millimeter across and a centimeter long.  We used the camera to get a picture of a feeding caterpillar in hopes that the photo would better show us what the caterpillar looked like.  As you can see, the caterpillar has a brown body from which projects numerous black spikes.

Caterpillar on dissecting microscope screen

     I wasn't satisfied with the look that I was getting and headed back to the car for my reading glasses.  On the way, i passed Mort, still working with the computer in the cool garage, who asked what we were up to.  On hearing about the tiny caterpillars, he volunteered to get a device better suited for looking at tiny animals and departed post haste. 

     The reading glasses helped a little, but it appeared that we would need to be satisfied with our modest photographs.  Then out of the blue, who should appear, but Mort, bearing a small instrument associated with a compact monitor.  We walked with him over to the lanai.  Jim plopped down in a comfy chair (I fear he had been working hard in the garden prior to our arrival) with Sandra to keep him company.  Mort set up his contraption on a convenient counter.  It turned out to be a digital dissecting microscope. Once he had it turned on, he proceeded to show me dried fruit flies that were left on the device after his last series of observations.  He was particularly enthusiastic about the unusual mouth parts of this miniscule fly.

Another look at the Gulf Frit Cat under the microscope.

    It was the group consensus that we could sacrifice a portion of one of the few remaining leaves on Jim's lilikoi, and so I found a larger caterpillar, ripped off a portion of the leaf on which he was both dining and residing. (Did it ever occur to you that it is  a caterpillar's fate to eat himself out of house and home?)   Here you see a picture of Mort's monitor with the caterpillar magnified.  As we watched, the caterpillar moved around the leaf, either trying to escape or looking for the tasty part.

    The show drew to a conclusion.  I took the caterpillar back to the arbor and maneuvered him onto a fresh leaf.  Sandra and I took one more look at the wonderful butterflies and Jim gave Sandra a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary.  If the butterflies like it, I'm sure we will, too!


If you have a hankering for some delicious Kona coffee, we highly recommend Jim's grind.  I can personally attest that it is the perfect beverage to end an evening full of wine, food and friendship.  You can order the coffee at:


There may or may not be a butterfly on the label!

A Gulf Frit prepares to nectar on one of those blue flowers.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Tiger Cowries at Kahalu'u

    As an older gentleman (and I use that term loosely) of the Caucasian  persuasion living in this tropical paradise, I am afflicted with skin cancers.  Two weeks ago my evil dermatologist convinced me to treat a handful of  pre-cancerous skin lesions with chemotherapy cream.  This medicine has the unfortunate side effect of creating a sunburn type rash which can only be treated by staying out of the sun until it goes away.  And that is my excuse for the hiatus in Kona Beach Blogs.

Tiger Cowrie, Kahalu'u  November 2021

    Yesterday morning we made it down to Kahalu'u.  As we arrived we greeted our friend Yasuko as she fastened the Reef Teacher Banner to an electric pole.  Ohayo goziemas!

    As we started to change into our winter snorkeling outfit,  the redoubtable Kathleen Clark arrived.  Although she was shepherding a couple young acolytes, she took time to smile and tell us how nice it was that we had returned   Awww.  Greetings accomplished, she also told us that Kahalu'u had not experienced a significant bleaching event during the past summer.  Of course, the Pocillipora branching corals, which are more sensitive to the stress of warm water, than other stony corals,  have been effectively wiped out at K Bay.  Parenthetically, I would add that this last summer the branching corals were mostly left unharmed at the pier, where they are making a modest comeback. 

    Soon it was time to get in the water.  The wet stuff was not as cold as I feared it might be and was fairly clear.  Mercifully, there was very little current.  I made it out to the middle, where many heads of  Evermann's coral continue to thrive.  There I spotted a small hermit, fumbled it into a depression,  and then saw a larger pale colored hermit.  Hoping for a picture, I discovered that the camera was set to take land pictures.  By the time I had adjusted the settings, I was unable to relocate the hermit crab.  

    As I searched, however, I looked under a ledge, where I found a large white cowrie with black spots hiding in the recess.  As far as I could tell, this was not a huge animal, but I was only seeing the top of the shell and it could have been larger than I realized.  The camera was now set to go and I nabbed two pictures of this Caucasian cowrie. 

   When I made it back to shore, Kathleen suggested that this might be a Tiger Cowrie.  Yasuko found the critter book and, with my pictures, we verified that this was indeed what I had seen.  This was a life cowrie for me. Cue the fireworks and pop the champagne.  

   You will notice that this cowrie was essentially white with large irregular black spots.  John Hoover

Star Eye Parrotfish,  Kahalu'u,  November 2021
tells us that at times there may be so many spots that the cowrie appears to be black.  This one had just a hint of orange.  Some Tiger Cowries have so much orange that one would say they are orange, as opposed to white. Since tigers have stripes, not spots, I assume that it is the orange color that gave the Tiger Cowrie its common name.  John says that in Hawaii this species is usually found below ten feet.  Elsewhere in the Pacific they range into the intertidal zone.  Our cowrie was two feet below the surface.

    You may recall that about six months ago we reported a friend seeing a Tiger Cowrie at Kahalu'u.  Mrs. Clark took time away from her water analysis to tell us that not so long ago she had seen two Tiger Cowries in the bay engaged in such a way that she thought they might be preparing to make the two headed mollusc. Virtually all snails are bilaterally hermaphroditic, so the sex act involves each fertilizing the other in passing, as it were.  Morris Fitzcowrie and Cowrie Fitzmorris.  Or something like that.  The Deaconess of K Bay was hoping that the specimen I observed might be a result of that coupling.

Here's lookin' at you, kid.

    Word play aside, it seems like Tiger Cowries are becoming more prevalent at Kahalu'u.  If you need this species for your list a swim or two at K Bay would be warranted.

     The Tiger Cowrie was the only unusual species I saw.  But I did see a very handsome Star Eye Parrotfish.  I hope you find these two picture entertaining.  Even though this parrot is far from uncommon, the pink asterisk radiating from its eye never fails to amuse.

    That's the report from the beach for today.  



Tuesday, October 19, 2021

On the Trail of the Kailua Reef Shark

     There was an up-tick in the number of tourists last week.  This led to more traffic on the Kuakini Highway and more old people navigating the aisles at Costco during Kapuna Hours..  I suppose that this was because it was Ironman week.  Although the powers that be cancelled the Ironman a month ago,  it would appear that a number of folks who had reservations for air travel and accommodations decided they just might as well go to Kona for the week as opposed to going to all the trouble to cancel and hanging out in Tacoma.  If anything, the water is warmer in Hawaii than it is in Puget Sound. 

The usual suspects.  Four Spot and Moorish Idol at Kahalu'u

    Kona has been going through a period of high surf.  I don't think that this had much effect on the tourists, but we had a small hiatus in snorkeling.  Things flattened out two days ago and I was able to convince Sandra to go swimming with me at Kahalu'u.  The water is still cool, as opposed to cold, and with the low surf it was fairly clear.  It was late in the morning and there were plenty of swimmers, but not nearly so many as we had encountered the week before. 

    And there were lots of fish.  I'm including a couple pictures of the usual suspects that we encountered, as we didn't see anything particularly noteworthy.  I hope you like the Moorish idol and the Four spot Butterflyfish swimming together.  And who doesn't have a soft spot in his heart for a fat freckled hawkfish pretending that he's just part of the coral?

    With a pleasant hour of fish watching under her sarong, it wasn't difficult to get Sandra down to the pier the following morning.  The focusof this excursion was to locate the bait ball and, with some luck, see the white tipped reef shark that had been accompanying it.  And I had another goal.   Since our return, I had yet to see an Oval Butterflyfish, which should be a dependable species at the pier.  On this day we would look specifically for this regularly occurring beauty.

Freckled Hawkfish  Kahalu'u 2021

    As we arrived, we were delighted to find almost no one at the cubbies.  The only ones around were a gentleman wearing flotation and a lady, perhaps in the vicinity of sixty who had been for a recreational swim.  They were talking about the Ironman, which is scheduled to return to Kona next October.  The lady revealed that she had competed in the ersatz world championships, held two weeks ago in St. George, Utah.  Her report was that the event was well supported by organizers and volunteers, there were remarkably few contestants and absolutely nobody was wearing a mask.  As we made our way down to the beach, home of the real Ironman swim, she was muttering about shark and bait ball.  And I was thinking, "Let's hope so."

     The water was as clear as we have seen it since our return and Sandra said, "Where's all the fish?"  At least currently, the Ironman side of the pier is not swarming with reef  fish.  We made a bee line for the third of a mile buoy. On the way past the last swim buoy I spotted a small fish wiggling around near the bottom.  The water here was about twenty feet deep, so i was only able to dive half way to this little fellow, which turned out to be a small juvenile Peacock Razorfish.  I have seen one of these here before many years ago.  I think this might be my fourth such juvenile.  And it was the first unusual fish we have seen since our return three weeks ago.  Although not particularly uncommon, razorfish, a medium size wrasse, live their lives buried in the sand and are not often seen by snorkelers.

Oval Butterflyfish, Kailua Kona Pier March 2016

      We swam concentric circles around the third of a mile buoy, eventually extending twenty yards seaward and south without finding the bait ball.  I couldn't imagine where all those fish have gone.  Suffice it to say, without the multitude of big eye scads there was no chance to see the reef shark.  we did see a nice adolescent Big Eye Emperor and a Red Bar Kawkfish, but we did not see the Oval Butterflyfish.  We hope to go to Kawaihae tomorrow which is a good spot for oval butterfly and a possibility for sharks.  We'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Back in the Water KOA.

    We have been back in Kona for about two weeks.  Much of our time has been taken up with re-provisioning, gardening and repairing stuff.  Hawaii takes its toll even when you aren't here to use things. Truth be told, we also spend an excessive amount of time loafing around in front of the fan as we while away these hot October afternoons. 

     We have also found time to get in the water and see a few fish.  

     On my first excursion to the beach I went to Kahalu'u.  Here we were greeted with barrier webbing surrounding the pavilion and a sign stating Hawaii's current battle against Covid 19 as it relates to gathering at the beach.  Whether or not we are going to out live this plague is anyone's guess. 

   I hadn't been snorkeling in almost six months and failed to do an adequate job of barbering.  So instead of watching  fish I spent an hour mostly dealing with  my mask.  Water boarding, anyone?

     On our second trip to the beach we went to the pier.  Now with a functional mask, we were able to

Speckled Sorpionfish, Kona Pier, October 2021

do some diving.  Cowering in a healthy head of cauliflower coral, I found and photographed a Speckeld Scorpiofish,  S.coniorta.  Assuming you are in an area where cauliflower coral is growing, and this valuable group of corals is hanging on by a thread in the face of climate change and the associated warming of the oceans,  the speckled scorpion is not all that hard to find.

     Photography is another matter.  I have never seen one of these tiny fish other than hiding as deep between the leaves of the coral as it can wedge its small, colorful body.  Thus, capturing the beast in a photograph depends heavily on the camera's ability to choose the object of your desire and focus upon same.  In this instance, the TG 5 did a remarkably good job.  This picture was taken with flash and massaged with Corel.  The colors were not altered.  Considering this was the first time in six months that the camera was fired in anger, I think the results are, at the very minimum, acceptable. 

    On the way in, Sandra and I enjoyed chasing a pair of saddleback butterflies, but didn't see much else of note. 

Pontifical Miter and a partner to be named later.  Kahalu'u  10/21
However, on shore Sandra was engaged in an apres la douche schmooze when her counterpart revealed that there are sharks about.  She discovered that on that day a single reef shark was associated with the bait ball, which was only twenty yards further out in the bay that we had ventured.  We were that close.  Today I spoke with an authoritative lady recreational swimmer, who said that she hadn't seen a shark in a week, but they were indeed associated with the bait ball which is hanging on the pier side of the little three quarter mile buoy.  

     A couple days ago I returned to Kahalu'u well shaved.  For most of the outing I did not see much but on the way in I happened upon this nice mollusc, almost certainly a Pontifical Miter, M. stictica.  I no longer pluck these probable living animals from the gravelly substrate for fear of ripping off their tender heads.  So the picture you see was taken in situ.  If you look carefully, perhaps you will see a shell of similar size but without the fancy whorls lying next to the miter. .This is  most likely a different species.  When loafing around in the afternoon I read, and recently I completed a biography of Malcolm X, by Les Payne.  Thus prepared, I would submit that one might put on his bed sheet and pointed hat and accuse that Pontifical Miter of mis-shell-genation.  As if just being pontifical wasn't enough to get the poor mollusc in trouble with the clan!

Asian Swallowtail, Papilio xuthus, Kahalu'u 10/21

   On the way in I saw two snowflake moray eels, but both escaped before getting photographed.  After my shower, on the other hand, I was treated to a lepidopteran delight of the first order.  As I stood there, an Asian Swallowtail fluttered nearby.  I pulled out the camera, freshly rinsed, and, as if on command, the swallowtail landed in the wet sand only a few feet away.  The insect then engaged in a behavior known as puddling, in which the butterfly lands on a wet spot, sticks its drinking-straw-like proboscis into the wet muck and sucks up some mineral containing fluid.  I have been reading about puddling for a year  now, but never seen it.  Come to think of it, although this species is fairly common up at Casa Ono, I have never seen one at the beach.  If you look carefully you may identify the proboscis in action!

   So watch out for sharks, keep your proboscis out of other people's business and all will be well.


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Pipevine Swallowtails In Redding

The Eastern black Swallowtail raised by Lin Batkins
    Saturday night we dined sumptuously on home made lasagna and Sunday morning we headed north out of Oakland bound for PDX.  The day before, down by the Alameda salt marsh, we had seen the Anise Swallowtail.  This was September 11th, a day significant for something bigger than butterfly observation.  But that sighting cased me to pause and reflect.  If butterflies were still flying in Oakland, why should they not still be flying in Redding, which you will recall is the stake out for the Pipevine Swallowtail.

    If butterflies are flying, this absolutely means that they are mating and laying eggs on a host plant.  Many host plants no longer have succulent leaves by mid-September, but obviously some do.  When I reviewed my correspondence with Dan Greany of the Wintu Audubon Society of Redding, he had advised that the Pipevine Swallowtail would be flying into the early autumn.  With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, Redding was certainly not in late autumn, so it certainly seemed like a chance worth taking.

   While we are interested in any new butterfly, the PVS  hit a new category for us.  We had yet to see a predominantly black swallowtail butterfly.  If we lived east of the Rockies, that would almost certainly not be the case.  For example, the Anise Swallowtail, which we had seen the day before is considered by entomologists to be the west coast counterpart of the Eastern Black Swallowtail, which is black, beautiful and not particularly rare. Just last year, our friend Lin Batkins found a caterpillar of this species eating her dill in New Hampshire and raised it through the chrysalis to the adult you see above.  It is a charming story, but.the point here is that there are several species of black butterflies in the east and they are fairly common. Thee are only a couple here in the west and we had yet to see one.

A female CPVS.  Note the broken wing and the falling leaves.

   And so there we were, motoring across the delta of the Sacramento River and heading for Redding.  

   We arrived in Redding around 11:30.  Although it had been quite smoky here just five days before, the air was pretty clear, the sky was blue and it was only 88 degrees. It had been 108 as we motored south; that alone might have been reason enough to forego butterfly watching. 

   Finding the Sundial Bridge, with an assist from Google navigation, was a snap.  It was only five minutes from the freeway, parking was plentiful and there were nice people to point us on our way to the bridge.  



Sundial Bridge. The author and the gnommen.
    The bridge itself is somewhat of a marvel. a cantilever bridge, it has no footings in the Sacramento River, hence it does not disturb spawning salmon.  (Isn't it amazing that salmon traverse the bay and swim all this way up the river, almost 200 miles.?)  The Sacramento supplies water to, and suffers run off from, one of the prime bread baskets in our country.  The deck of the bridge is aquamarine glass which, when illuminated at night, produces a blue glow.  The soaring gnommen at the north end serves the dual purpose of supporting the cantilever and serving as one of the world's largest functional sundials, hence the name.

    We crossed the bridge and dutifully turned west on the macadam pathway.  Immediately we saw a few black butterflies fluttering in the ornamental trees planted along the path. This species of butterfly is nothing if not fluttery, constantly on the move.  We walked another 100 feet and down the slope by the river we saw many butterflies, a couple dozen at least.  Most of these were at least fifty feet away but occasionally one would flutter up too the pathway circle near us and fly off.  We stayed for about twenty minutes and in that time only two landed near enough for still butterfly photography.

A male Pipevine Swallowtail also with a broken wing.


Before leaving the butterflies fluttering around the Sacramento River, it's worth considering a few things.  First, especially in September. their reason on earth is to breed and produce eggs, which become caterpillars. I say especially. for it is very likely that the chrysalis these caterpillars form will be the one to over winter.  A new generation of swallowtails will emerge next spring, the progeny of these very butterflies.  

A pipevine pair flirting beneath the oaks

    As you must know by now, the California Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor hirsuta, is absolutely linked to the California Dutchman's Pipe, Aristolochia californica, sometimes known simply as California pipevineAdult females, using their antennae, which are very sensitive chemo receptors, can identify this plant even in the fall.  At this late date the plant is no longer bearing the flowers that look like a Meerschaum pipe, the sort smoked, presumably, by Peter Stuyvesant as he traded a pocket full of beads for Upper Manhattan.  Dutch colonial history aside, the leaves of these plants produce a toxic chemical, aristolochic acid, which renders the voracious catrepillars unpalaltable to predators.  As in the case of Monarchs and milkweed, this poison passes through the pupa stage and resides as well in the adult butterflies.  Butterflyologists suggest that the orange spots on the wings of the CPVS warn birds away.  This sort of trans species communication,  aposematism, keeps the butterflies from being eaten and the birds form getting sick.

   As you can see, the two butterflies who landed near us for picture taking were a little scruffy...they both had broken wings.  But we did get some pictures and we had a great time hanging with the pipevine swallowtails.  

Sandra is standing in the shadow of 12:10
    Don't forget, before butterflies a bird watcher fluttered inside this chest.  Here in the branches of the oak tree that shaded our path, Sandra and I were treated to the chippings of a family of Plain Titmouse.  This chickadee-like bird is one of three species that occur in North America.  A nice little  bird to add to this summer's list.

    On our way out of the park, we admired the sundial.  The park architects placed a curved piece of marble about 30 yards from the gnommen and on a clear day, of which Redding has many, you can look at the shadow and tell the time.  As you see, Sandra is standing in a shadow that corresponds to 12:10 and it is time to hop back in the car and head north, with a life butterfly in the bag.


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Fall Migration in Oakland Part Two.

    Saturday morning we returned to the scene of the crime.  This time we had two accomplices, three if you counted Cooper.  It was a bright blue morning on the Oakland bayshore, with the City rising out of the fog a few miles across the water.  Birding had been so spectacular the previous morning that our hosts, Andrew and Shawn were eager to take a gander at this profusion of sandpipers and their ilk.  Cooper, who is an 11 year old poodle maltese mix, was delighted to be included in the expedition.  

Shawn, Andrew, Yours Truly and Cooper.
   Unlike Friday morning, parking was unavailable right across the street from the Elsie Roemer Wildlife Sanctuary and we parked about a quarter mile down the road.  The walk back up the beach gave us a look at what would have happened had not enlightened minds stepped in to protect this patch of marshland.  Less environmentally conscious folk had turned the north part of the Alameda Island shoreline into a sandy beach, replete with sun worshipers,, bathers and kite fliers.  

    As we approached the spot where a fence separated the sandy beach from the preserved marsh, I spotted two dozen chunky black birds on an exposed gravel bar.  When we got a bit closer, I was able to confirm that this was a large group of Black Oystercatchers.  On the Oregon coast these birds occur singly or in pairs.  Up in Puget Sound, though, we have seen similar congregations of these amusing birds with their comical red bills.  It was a pleasure to add them to the Alameda list.  

Royal Terns.  NB the white foreheads.

    When we got down to the small pier there were not as many birds on the mudflat as had been the case the day before. We showed our hosts a half dozen species and admired the plaques that continued to serve as our field guide.  Cooper took the opportunity to stretch out and rest after his long walk. 

   After a few minutes we left the small pier and headed south.  Before we left the pavement, Andrew was asking what the group of birds were on a muddy bar at the water's edge, perhaps 50 yards away.  A quick look revealed that it was a squadron of terns.  These birds were a little smaller than the single Caspian Tern we had seen the day before and, with a modicum of effort on my part, I was able to impress my associates with the white forehead in front of the sweeping black crest.  I guessed these were Royal terns.  And I was right. I am including a picture borrowed from the web in which the photographer cleverly finds four Royal Terns in plumage varying from summer breeding to winter; the latter bears the most white on his pate.  The twenty or so birds we saw had distinct white foreheads similar to the bird second from the top.

Roger Tory Peterson , the Dean of American Birdwatching

   It wasn't until we made it all the way home to Vancouver that I was able to check them out in an actual bound field guide,  reviewing the terns in the traditional manner. The book we keep on our coffee table is a hard bound copy of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds, 1969.  As I prepared to write this blog I discovered that RTP has been in watching birds with Saint Peter low these last 25 years.  May the Dear Good Lord bless him and keep him.  With his landmark field guides he may have done more for American bird watching and,in the process, habitat preservation than anyone else of his generation.  And please note that he called himself a birdwatcher, not a birder.  

  Anyway, Roger Peterson tells us that San Fransisco Bay is the northern boundary of Royal Tern habitat, so this was a pretty good spot.

   After identifying the terns, we headed south onto the sandy trail.  As we stepped onto the sand I encountered an elderly birdwatcher replete with floppy hat, a fly fishing vest and a spotting scope balanced upon his left shoulder.  I asked if he had seen anything good and he inadvertently revealed that, despite his magnificent outfit, he wasn't much of a birdwatcher.  Many are called but few are chosen. Mathew 22:14.  

    Don't get me wrong.  If I am able to dotter out onto the flats in ten years and admire a few birds I will be more than pleased.  So God bless him , as well.

The Redoubtable SKG joins our hosts on the bay front.

     No worries.  Despite the lack of any hot tips we proceeded to spot many of the birds we had seen the day before, including several excellent looks at the long billed curlew.  A couple times we found a LBC near enough to a Whimbrel that we could clearly demonstrate the difference in bill length.  I think Shawn and Andrew were impressed, but they are both exceedingly polite, so it was tough to tell.  Additionally, we found a bevy willets with their bold black and white wing pattern and a few greater yellowlegs.  All in all, counting terns, pelicans, cormorants and gulls, we saw 22 species out on the mud flats.  This without a scope or a field guide. 

    Shawn and Andrew took off to find the house of one of his teaching colleagues, who has a home facing the bay front.  Alameda is adjacent to downtown Oakland so prices here,even for waterfront property are lower than you might expect.  Or so we are told.

     We caught up with Shawn, Andrew and Cooper and then the five of us headed back up the sandy path.  Suddenly a large butterfly flew over.  And then another floated into the area and landed in a stand of wild fennel that I had admired the day before.  the fennel grows as far north as Anacortes where it thrives on the edge of a beach only two blocks away from our favorite thrift store.  Because Anacortes is much further north, it is not clear if anise Swallowtails make it to that shoreline, despite the presence of this darn near nominative host plant.  How pleased was I to see the Anise Swallowtail in the fennel herein Oakland!

Anise Swallowtail San Francisco Bay

     The Anise Swallowtail flopped around in one clump of fennel, holding sufficiently still that we could see his distinctive black scapular cell on the dorsal forewing.  He then flew ten feet to another clump and paused in resting position.  I had a five to ten second look at his ventral wings and Boy Howdy were they good lookin'.  He had a line of blue dots going all the way from fore to aft.  I'm including somebody elses's picture of an anise swallowtail.which was taken on San Francisco Bay.  I leave it up to you to turn that blue gray line on the forewing into a series of blue dots.


    We wandered up the beach back towards Shore Front boulevard.  along the way we stopped to watch avocets marching through the shallows while simultaneously swishing their curved beaks back and forth.  By the time we made it to the small wooden pier, the tide had come in and there were many birds closer to shore.  This included a group of five Long Billed Curlews only ten yards away, four of them with their saber-like bills at the ready.  Even my ancient Lumix could not fail with subjects like these.  I hope you enjoy the picture.  


Long-billed Curlews on San Francisco Bay!  What's not to love?



Saturday, September 11, 2021

Fall Migration Shorebirding in Oakland

    This week we find ourselves staying with our nephew and his husband in the highlands of Oakland, California.  Naturally, they both work, so Sandra and I needed to find something to occupy a day in early September.  Luckily, I remembered that this was the time when fall shorebird migration occurs.  Not only that, but San Francisco Bay, in the past, had been well known as a very good spot for shore birding.

     But how would the birding be in 2021 in Oakland?  Well, in this day and age we naturally turn to our digital devices and Mr. Google suggested the Elsie B Roemer Bird Sanctuary in Alameda (a community on the bay front of Oakland) which, as it turns out,  is just a twenty minute drive from Andrew's home in Montclair.  

   So with Ms. Google as our navigator, we  headed down to the bay. We were prepared for few quick thrusts on a series of freeways, but those arteries were clogged and she directed us down a series of city streets,  As we descended, things got a bit older and shabbier.  When we passed under the  I-880 and made the turn south towards the bridge that would lead us into Alameda, (which is an island). We passed half a mile of shanties built under the freeway.  In Portland the homeless live mostly in tents, which lack a sense of permanence.  This village under the 880 is made of wooden pallets and nylon tarps and does not appear temporary in the least.  It reminded me of shanty towns outside places like Mazatlan and Buenos Aires that a few decades ago we had the luxury of deploring.  Not so any more.

A bevy of plovers, one still showing his summer black belly.

    Finally in Alameda we were directed to the waterfront, where a turn onto Shoreline Drive rewarded us with a long boulevard facing the water, and in a short half block, the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary.  I don't know what I expected, at the minimum a gate, and a parking lot.  Here we utilized ample street parking, walked across the thoroughfare and took advantage of a short, nicely maintained pier that extended just fifty feet over the salt marsh.   In addition to a short chain link fence, this was the Roemer Sanctuary.

    Up to this point I was relying on my ancient memories as to just when fall migration takes place and the quality of birding on the flats of the bay.  As we strode to the railing on this short pier, we found ourselves in bird watching heaven.  No more questions...this was fall migration in full swing.  Although it was halfway between low and high tide, there were lots of shorebirds.  Big ones, little ones, some with short beaks and, Hold the presses! Is that a long billed curlew?  Before we could enjoy the many pelicans that were sailing nearby, I had spotted a bird that I have seen only a couple times before, decades in the past.

Marbled Godwits Kibitzing on the Alameda Shore

     The long billed curlew has a bill significantly longer than his body.  Here we found many whimbrels, similar birds who sport long decurved bills. They are found occasionally on the sandy beaches of Oregon. The only time I have seen the long billed curlew was on its upland breeding grounds, in a field of grass in eastern Washington.  These birds had descended from their summer home on the prairie to the coast.  Some will winter as far north as San Francisco, but many will head south to Mexico and beyond. In this instance it was really useful to have the whimbrels there for comparison. 

     As we scanned the birds feeding near the pier, I spotted a small plover, buffy above and white below that was feeding just above the wet marsh.  I watched him for a while before deciding that this was a snowy plover. the snowy plover was never common; even in the 70s one didn't see them very often and I have only seen a few, none in a long time.  It is not uncommon when one goes to the beach to see signs directing you away from grassy dunes where these birds breed, but it actually seeing one of these rare birds is another matter.  

A Trio of Avocets Prancing Through the Shallows
    We had headed south to Oakland Dowitchers hanging out in with our binoculars, but without a field guide to the birds.  As we looked around the pier, that in essence constitutes the refuge, we found three placards, miraculously unblemished by grafitti, that served as a pretty good guide to the birds we were seeing.  Here we found both whimbrels and long billed curlew, but plovers were under represented.  Neither the semipalmated plover or the killdeer, both common birds, or the snowy plover, were pictured.  Later work on the internet confirmed this sighting.

    After a bit we noticed that about fifty yards south, where the road curves away from the beach, a trail leads along the marshy shoreline.  We walked south and down the trail.  Here, pathways lead a little further out into the marsh and we were in this way able to get closer to the birds, who seemed oblivious to this respectful approach.  There were huge congregations of larger plovers, both golden and black bellied, and lots of long billed dowitchers.  

God Bequeathing  the Avocet and her Bill.
   As we looked further down the beach, I spied some long legged white shorebirds that in a trice I identified as avocets.  I've seen a few more avocets than long billed curlews, but none in a very long time.  They breed in upland marshes and, at the end of the summer, migrate south and to the coast.  Here we found large number of these elegant birds.  

    In addition tho her distinctive plumage, the avocet has been blessed with a recurved bill, a bit unusual (though hardly unique) in the world of shore birds.  In his ongoing effort to fill every niche, the Dear Good Lord bequeathed upon the avocet a most curious manner in which to procure her daily bread.  Knee deep in the rich, marshy broth, she bends forward and briskly whisks that recurved bill back and forth just under the surface, capturing a beak full of toothsome organisms.  Yum. To our delight, Sandra and I both had a chance to witness this singular feeding behavior.

    On our way back up the beach we ran across several lovely flowers associated with a spreading succulent on the edge of the marsh.  We have found that this is ice plant, invasive and unwanted, but bearerof loveley blossoms..  After enjoying the ice plant we watched a group of avocets prance together through the shallows and we got one more excellent look at a long billed curlew showing off his magnificent proboscis.  It was a great day on the Alameda shore.

The invasive ice plant raises her happy blossoms to greet fall migration.