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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

A Coastal Stroll

A huge raft shaped like a giant black comma pulsates with life as it rises and falls with each advancing wave. The tail, an undulating train in motion, rides the surf with haste. This La Nina year seems to have impacted the accumulation of Surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata)

here in southern California. Perhaps it is the nutrient rich upwelling along the coast that has increased the growth of its favorite food of mussels and clams. Either way, to see these 1600 plus dark bodied diving ducks reveling among the combers is quite a spectacle indeed.

The innate ability of these birds to adjust and react to the constantly changing conditions is fun to watch. Some individuals will paddle feverishly against a cresting wave, dropping behind into its trough and staying afloat, whereas others must spear into the rising wall of water headfirst to avoid the compressing forces of crashing surf. The real eye opener is having this action juxtaposed with a surfer dude piercing a wave as it sends the flock pattering across the water beyond the break.

Scanning further up the coast, out towards the sea, I notice the protruding dorsal fins of Bottlenose dolphins ( Tursiops truncatus). As they break the surface, their backs glisten in the sun with each breath they take. Their progress is straightforward, deliberate, uncompromised. The scoters also seem undeterred, paddling along with nary a glance. Add to this the sounds of crashing surf, a blast of its salty spray and the whinny of soaring gulls and well,” What more can I say?”

My attention is diverted up the coast towards a mixed flock of resting gulls, our local “beach bums.” However, this is quite a distinguished group.

I could not ask for better tutors when it comes to gull identification – some still adorned in their winter garb. Most numerous are California, Western, Herring and Ring-billed gulls. The Western gull (Larus occidentalis) has an obvious darker mantle than all the other birds, pink legs and a red spot on its lower mandible.

The Herring gull (Larus argentatus) has a gray mantle, pink legs and a red spot [winter birds have an additional black spot, too] on its bill as well, whereas the 'smaller' California gull (Larus californicus) is similar in color, but has greenish-yellow legs and a dark iris.

The Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) has the same-colored legs, but is a little smaller, with its namesake field mark, a complete black “ring” encircling the bill. It also has a yellow eye. I notice a bird with a narrow red eye-ring encircling a brown iris, like the California, but its legs are pink. Comparing it to the yellow eye-ring and iris of the Herring gulls nearby makes for an easy read; it is a Thayer’s gull (Larus thayeri).

The last two beachcombers sally in and no introduction is required for this handsomely attired duo, an Elegant tern ( Thalasseus elegans and a Heermann's gull (Larus heermanni).

Silhouettes against the glistening beach reveal a lone Marbled godwit plus several Willets (Limosa fedoa & Catoptrophorus semipalmatus). A handful of short-billed, stout-legged birds

stand out among the other shorebirds. A quick focus of the lens identifies them as Surfbirds (Aphriza virgata). Did I mention, out on some exposed rocks, there was a pair of feeding Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani)?

It didn’t take me long to become mesmerized by the ebb and flow of feeding Sanderlings (Calidris alba). They’re like pale miniature wind-up toys as hundreds of tiny feet race towards the receding wave. Hastily they probe the sand for tiny invertebrates before the next swell drives them back - at times, it is hard to tell who is chasing whom!

The surf has become more violent. Calmer waters beyond seemed to please a large assemblage of western grebes.

I scope the “raft” [this is a Middle English noun that basically means, “A whole lot of something.”] for the two other species of scoter.

My first thought is to focus on the swollen orange knob against an all-black body. It is made more difficult as hundreds of birds appear to be sucked into the swells behind each advancing wall of water.

Patience perseveres as I find a Black scoter (Melanitta nigra), diving solo in the swirling white water closer to the beach. Further out I discover (Melanitta fusca), a White-winged scoter. It is a bit more robust with a subdued chocolate-brown and black color than the Surf scoter. The white “tear drop” around the eye helps clinch its identification.

It is hard to walk away with all this avian activity within this beautiful setting.

One last glance, I capture the grace of a Brown pelican (Pelicanus occidentalis) effortlessly skirting the waves, behind it, the raft of scoters rolling with the surf. I don’t know about you, but I look forward to my next coastal stroll.

Location: Dockweiler Beach, Los Angeles County, California - USA

Date: March of 2011

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