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Open Mic: Apparent Japanese Murrelet in California…

At the Mic: Steve N.G. Howell

Birding is supposed to be fun, and usually it is. But sometimes it can be downright frustrating. I gather rumors have been flying coast to coast about a Japanese Murrelet (Synthliboramphus wumizusume – how about that for a great scientific name!) at Point Reyes, California. Well, here’s the story so far… For brevity, JAMU = Japanese Murrelet, ANMU = Ancient Murrelet.

The photos here (the best of 6 serendipitously (?) snapped) show the broad and apparently solid white wedge-shaped, or flared, head patches that ostensibly meet on the nape, isolating a narrow black crown patch (a bit like a Kiskadee). One could interpret the one side view as showing a longer and more pointed bill than ANMU – or is that just part of a pale wave behind the bird’s head (I don’t think so, but can one be certain)? Wouldn’t it be nice if that one ANMU weren’t in the way, but it is, so the pattern on the sides of the bird’s neck is not visible. Also here are 2 images of real Japanese Murrelets, in breeding plumage – they look different from the Point Reyes bird, but what does that mean?

Point Reyes, CA (29 of 55)

Mystery murrelet (back) w/ Ancient Murrelets – Point Reyes, Ca, 11/25/2014

Point Reyes, CA (30 of 55)

Mystery murrelet (back right) w/ Ancient Murrelets – Point Reyes, Ca, 11/25/2014

Point Reyes, CA (33 of 55)

Mystery murrelet (back) w/ Ancient Murrelets – Point Reyes, Ca, 11/25/2014

Japanese Murrelets - Miyake Jima, Japan, 5/3/2008

Japanese Murrelets – Miyake Jima, Japan, 5/3/2008

Japanese Murrelets - Miyaki Jima, Japan, 5/18/2011

Japanese Murrelets – Miyake Jima, Japan, 5/18/2011

Monday 24 November 2014. Hoping for some winter raptors and waterbirds, Burr Heneman and I went birding on Point Reyes for the morning. After a wonderful roadside Golden Eagle, 4 surprise Barn Swallows, and some other nice odds and ends, we arrived at the Fish Docks about 10.35. Scanning the bay I spotted 2 groups of 4 ANMUs diving, along with 100s of ducks, loons, grebes, etc. The light was excellent and the sea gentle and seemingly easy viewing. After covering the trees a bit (late Black-throated Gray Warbler, etc.) we looked back on the bay at about 11.40, scanning for alcids and anything else. I was using my scope and Burr said something like “Hey Steve, what are these things? Are these more murrelets? There are 5 of them” I looked up and glanced with bins at 5 ‘ANMUs’ swimming away at near mid-distance – the gray backs and black-and-white heads were obvious through bins and I said something like “Yeah, nice, Ancients.” They weren’t close but not that far either (perhaps about 500m), easy to see in the light with the naked eye, so just as a record shot I snapped a few images (Canon 7D with 100-400 zoom) as they swam basically away and then dived (original camera time stamp 12.41; I hadn’t yet corrected to the time change, which I did the next day).

To check my exposure I looked at the camera LCD and noticed that the back bird showed big white stripes on its head sides, meeting at the nape, obvious even (or especially) when swimming away. Having seen JAMU a couple of times in Japan I thought something like “You’ve got to be %*$#ing kidding…” We then spent about 45 minutes not relocating the bird – after 30 minutes we found a single ANMU and 3 ANMUs, and even those 3 ‘vanished’ easily at closer range than had the group of 5. At 12.30 Burr needed to leave, but when we got in cell phone range near Spaletta Ranch he called a few folks and then dropped me back at the Fish Docks about 1.30 pm. Keith Hansen arrived about 2 pm, and we looked for about an hour, then at about 3 pm Diana Humple, Ryan DiGaudio, and Renée Cormier arrived and we all watched until 4.30 pm or so as the light became poor, finding several 1s and 2s of ANMU but not ‘the bird.’

Getting home I downloaded images (which were still ‘interesting’ – and perhaps definitive to somebody intimately familiar with JAMU and ANMU?), alerted a few people, left a message on the Northern California Rare Bird Alert about ‘an apparent JAMU’ (which later became simply a JAMU via persons apparently not cognizant with the English language…), and thought, well, that rhymes with duck.

Conclusion on Day 1: the bird I photographed looks like a JAMU, but it would have been nice to actually have ‘seen’ it consciously for even a few seconds! Going back out to look tomorrow…

Tuesday 25 November 2014. Went back out to the Fish Docks with Keith Hansen, where birded 7.05-10.35. At about 8.30 (?), Jon Dunn and Ed Harper arrived and the 4 of us teamed up to keep scanning the bay. Keith and I had seen a few ANMUs but nothing different, and as we were pointing out a group of 5 ANMUs to Jon and Ed I noticed 3 more murrelets behind them, one of which had big white stripes on the sides of its head! We watched this bird with 3 ANMU, 9.10-9.30, at ranges of about 1-1.5 km (much farther out than yesterday), and the ‘white-headed’ bird was always quite obvious unless its head was shadowed. The range, however, made it difficult to determine exact details of head pattern, but the throat and head sides were black with a big white stripe that appeared to be behind the eyes. The lower angle light and worse angle sun (than yesterday) meant I could not see the back of the head in full light, always slightly in shadow, and I didn’t see the white-naped effect evident in yesterday’s photos. Eventually the birds swam into bad enough light (sun coming from our right/east) that we lost track of them, as they were diving and covering good distances under water. Jon managed some digi-scoped images but the bird was too far for conventional cameras. Like me, he had seen JAMU in Japan and thought the Point Reyes bird looked like a good candidate.

At today’s distance, and actually looking at the bird, it looked overall similar in size, shape, and basic color pattern to ANMU, with a steely blue-gray back (like ANMU), darker wing-tips, a boldly patterned black/white head and neck, and white underparts as far as visible; it flapped once and showed white underwings with a dark trailing edge, basically just like ANMU (and JAMU). I could not discern any difference in shape of the pale bill relative to ANMU, it was just too far away.

However, it just didn’t look quite like a ‘classic’ ANMU for reasons that were not entirely clear, beyond the racing stripes on the head (which might be approximated (?) by an extreme breeding-plumage ANMU, not expected at this season but one could be hormonally messed up). The head was perhaps flatter and more gently sloping at the forehead (suggesting Horned Grebe) vs. slightly chunky on ANMU, and it did not show the classic pattern of big white neck patches on all the ANMUs we saw (perhaps 20 in total, mainly adults, plus a few 1st-years), having instead a more even black/white border down the sides of the neck. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, it would still be nice to see the bird close-up and really nail it, whatever it is.

To add to the cluster, the literature is contradictory on the appearance of winter/non-breeding Japanese Murrelet – some sources say such birds lack the big white head stripes, others indicate they have them…

So, an interesting bird. Is it a JAMU? In typical or seasonally atypical plumage? An atypical/aseasonal-plumaged ANMU? Or what? It’s a good example of the ‘dangers’ of digital images; of birds that are just that bit too far away to see really properly; and of the limitations of our knowledge about plumages and molts even in this modern age… Does its appearance have anything to do with the huge storm system off the coast of East Asia a couple of weeks ago? How might it relate to the huge flights of ANMUs recorded this fall off the West Coast? There’s no limit to our ignorance and maybe this will just be ‘one that got away…’

I hope not, though. With luck, somebody will see the bird close-up and ascertain what it is; there are differences between JAMU and ANMU in bill shape, neck pattern, and other things that we just haven’t been able to discern. It would be great if it proves to be a JAMU, but if it proves to be ‘just’ an ANMU then we will also have learned something.

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Steve N. G. Howell is a senior international bird tour leader for WINGS and has written several books including A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Gulls of the Americas (with Jon Dunn), Petrels, Shearwaters, and Albatrosses of North America, and Rare Birds of North America (with Will Russell and Ian Lewington), He lives near Point Reyes, California.

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