Tern Spectacle; Bird Refuge Aug 21

Florence Sanchez

I went to Santa Barbara Harbor at 6:30 this morning to walk out to the Sandspit.  With a minus low tide early this morning, I figured it might be good for shorebirds.  Forget about shorebirds!  I found the entire flock of Elegant Terns there, just starting to break off into groups to go foraging out over the ocean.  By the time I got to the end of the breakwater, I estimate about 200 terns had flown out to sea.  Then the flock still on land took to the air and resettled for no particular reason as it seems to be wont to do.  And the size of the flock blew me away!  There were at least 600 terns on one group a little closer to the end of the breakwater, while a second group seems to prefer resting space nearer the end of the Sandspit.  The birds were so densely packed in the air and on the ground that there could have been even more by a factor of 50%.  It was impossible to get any sort of accurate count because of the constant shifting of the flock.  While walking the length of the Sandspit (staying close to the jetty rocks so as not to spook the flock, I combed through the birds as best I could to look for other species and turned up 3 Royal Terns, nothing else.  My conservative estimate of the number of Elegant terns I saw this morning is 1000+.  It was a wonderful sight.

At the end of the sandspit, I found the Black Skimmer flock, still numbering 34 birds.  I noted that 9 of these birds were juveniles.  Also resting on the sandspit with and near the Terns were a lot of Brown Pelicans and scattered Western Gulls (including at least 6 juveniles).  I had only 1 shorebird on the sandspit, and that was a Willet.  Checking the outside of the breakwater carefully, I turned up 13 Black Turnstones.  The only cormorants hanging around were Doubled-Crested.

Next, I checked the Mission Creek outfall at East Beach to see if there were any Elegant Terns there.  When I arrived, I found a few of them with the Skimmer Flock, which had moved from the Sandspit during the time I made the transition.  (Same number, same Number of juveniles).  As I observed the flock, a few more terns flew in; then a few more, and so on.  By the time I left, there were about 50 Terns there and more arriving.  

My next stop was the Bird Refuge.  It was a good day for herons, with lots of Snowy Egrets around plus a few Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, and a fly-by Green Heron.  The only Cormorants roosting on the islands were Doubled Crested.  I checked the Refuge from each platform.  From the second, I could see on the mud patch near the third platform a few nice shorebirds, including 5 American Avocets (basic plumage), a dozen Stilts, 2 Western Sandpipers, 2 Greater Yellowlegs, and 2 Dowitchers.  Through my scope, it looked liked one of the Dows was a juvenile Short-billed (gold marks on the tertials) but that was a 50 power from a good distance away.  Unfortunately when I got to the Third Platform, I found that most of the shorebirds were "around the corner" so to speak and not visible from there.  In the water were three Shovelers among the many Mallards.  

I heard a Marsh Wren scolding in the reeds.

Florence Sanchez