Park Week 11/17/23

Where Pelicans Sleep

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)

It was already past 8 in the morning, and early birds were getting worms. Not these Brown Pelicans. They were just waking up, having a morning stretch, and flying little loops to limber up. Cormorants and gulls shared their breakwater roost outside the parking circle at the end of Spinnaker Way.

I still don’t know where these birds go when they’re not here, and I don’t know where they make their nests, but now I know where they sleep. Some of them, anyway.

The pelicans with white necks are adults that have finished breeding for the year. The ones with grey necks are juveniles. They need to be 3-5 years old before they can breed. Pelicans can live a long time. The record is 43 years.


Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) and Willet (Tringa semipalmata)

Having wings in place of arms is a problem when you want to scratch the top of your head. Some birds manage to get their feet up there, and the rare bird persuades its BBF to do it (American Crows can), but this Western Gull chose the water cure. For much longer than the video shows, the bird vigorously dipped its head under water again and again as if it suffered from OCD. Eventually it had enough and climbed up on a rock. Not any rock, but the exact rock where a Willet had been quietly perching, minding its own business. For just a few frames of the video, both birds had their wings extended as they found their balance. The Willet wears the plainest of outer clothes, but its wings show a bold black-and-white pattern that the gull could only envy. Watching its twitchy new neighbor for a few moments, the Willet decided to find a quieter perch, and fluttered a short distance away.

So Small

The Willet, as we saw just above, is not a big bird. A gull can more or less push it around. But this sleeping Willet looked like a giant compared to the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) that scrambled around its foot. The Willet normally sleeps with one eye open and no doubt was aware what was going on, but those sandpipers were just too insignificant to lose a moment of sleep over them. Least Sandpipers are the smallest shorebird in the world. They weigh just about an ounce. But they can fly nonstop from their Arctic breeding grounds to South America, a journey of 1800-2500 miles.

This encounter took place on the eastern shoreline of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary. I was looking for an owl. Didn’t see one. Saw this instead.

Not the Rare One

Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

The east side grassland near the Flare Station has a concrete v-channel that has water in it, thanks to dog owners hosing down their pets at the drinking fountain. As I approached, I saw sparrows dipping into the water and then quickly fleeing as a dog walker came by with a dozen. When the scene quieted down, I set up my camera and waited. Sure enough, a pretty little brown bird came to the ditch and began drinking. For a moment I thought I had got lucky and snapped the rare Lapland Longspur that others have seen in the grassland around there. When I got the image home and looked it up, oops. The Longspur has brown or black legs. This pretty little pink-legged creature is a Savannah Sparrow. I do love Savannah Sparrows so I’m not disappointed.

New Bird to Me — Not

Two weeks ago a birder told me that there was a pair of White-winged Scoters off the west side. I found what may have been them, but they were so far out and the light was so grey that my photos weren’t much good. This week I had the good luck to run into a birder friend who pointed out a handful of White-winged Scoters off the north side, not so far out, with the sun shining. I saw five of them. I’d seen Surf Scoters several times, but never their sisters, the White-winged. They have the same enormous and bulbous beak, but this little flock had no color on the beak. Adult male White-winged Scoters have yellow on their beaks. These birds must have been females or immature males. And now that I look at reference photos, these are hard to tell apart from female or immature Surf Scoters. The white speculum that distinguishes the White-wing is often not visible when they sit in the water, as here. So in relying on my friend, who definitely knows more than I do, I called them Melanitta deglandi and not the more familiar M. perspicillata. HOWEVER, when I posted this on eBird, an even more expert birder than my friend ruled that these were in fact the familiar Surf Scoters, females and immature males, and not the rare white-wings. So I’ve corrected my eBird post and this post as well. It happens.

Infrequent Loon

Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata)

This bird definitely wanted its picture taken. It cruised very slowly close to the east shore of the park, and turned this way and that so that the morning rays could do it justice. I’ve seen them about every other year. Like many other current visitors, the Red-throated Loon breeds up in the Arctic, and not just in North America, but all around the pole. In winter it visits the coasts of many seas, including ours. In this season it dresses in a modest grey and white. The red throat that gives it its English common name brightens its breeding habitat, and is rarely seen this far south. However, I had the great luck to see one in breeding plumage right here, in August seven years ago. See “Red-throated Loon” Aug 11 2016.

A Run of Golden-Crowns

For some reason I saw Golden-crowned Sparrows everywhere this week. They weren’t shy about posing for their portraits. Here’s a sample:


As it happened, I also saw multiple Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius), west, north, and east. Here’s a couple:

Horned Grebe Season

For some reason, Horned Grebes (Podiceps auritus) showed up in the waters all around the park last week. Here’s some snapshots. Note the thin red line that runs from the eye to the base of the beak:

A Pipit Visit

There’s no Burrowing Owl, but there was an American Pipit in the area last Sunday morning.

American Pipit (Anthus rubescens)

As is its custom, this quick and slender songbird searched the ground for bugs and seeds to eat. This bird is another that has flown here from the high Arctic or from alpine habitats that are equally challenging. It tolerates and sometimes eats snow on the ground in its breeding area, and may go into shallow tide pools or fresh water ponds for marine protein. I saw this bird only once. Their winter destinations cover a broad swath from Oregon down to southern Mexico and all along the Gulf coast to Florida.

Other Pretty Birds this Week


If you want the surface of your yard loosened up, you could invite this gang of Wild Turkeys. They scratch up the soil energetically and with considerable power. Hunters in the wild use turkey scratches as clues that the birds were present and which way they went. The scratching uncovers edibles. Sparrows and other ground-dwelling songbirds do the same thing. They just don’t have the mass and muscle of these big guys.

Our Owl Away

Last week I published a photo of a Burrowing Owl at Point Isabel. That bird perched in the same location as an owl did last year and the year before. This, I assume, was the regular Pt. Isabel Burrowing Owl. Some of the locals call it “Rocky.” But, as I mentioned, Pt. Isabel this year also had a second owl. That’s new. This second owl perched in a different spot. Last week, professional photographer Louis Kruk, whose work has appeared here before, traveled to the site and got photos of both birds. Here is his photo of the second Pt. Isabel owl:

In my opinion, this second Pt. Isabel owl is our owl. It’s the Chavez Park owl that came here last year and the year before and possibly as far back as 2018. But when it arrived this year, it came on a scene of devastation. Parks management had clearcut all the established vegetation along the upper edge of the rip-rap, where this owl perched. Cut stumps and stubble everywhere. It didn’t look safe. I think this bird was shocked to find its winter habitat demolished, and decided to try Pt. Isabel instead.

Pt. Isabel is not ideal Burrowing Owl habitat. So I’m hoping that the bird reconsiders and gives our park a second chance. I still go to the park every morning and look. Fingers crossed. Owls have come here as late as Dec. 20. Keep your eyes peeled. If you see an owl, text or call 510-717-2414 or email

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2 thoughts on “Park Week 11/17/23

  • Pingback: Park Days 12/1/23

  • Wow!!! Our treasured Burrowing Owl made it back to the Bay Area, what a miracle 😉

    But to Pt Isabel…..

    I hope our Owl reconsiders too and returns to Chavez Park soon. I feel sad thinking about how the owl must have felt seeing its winter home in such sorry shape. There’s no excuse.

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