Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!"

Probably nothing. Nothing at all. Just a weird Marbled Godwit. My brain screamed at me to keep going and look for those Burrowing Owls that I was so desperate to see on the other side of Upper Newport Bay, but something made me turn around and take one quick look.

The bird stood there, looking so much like a Marbled Godwit that had gone through the wash. HOLY RABBIT FEMUR, THAT'S NOT A MARBLED GODWIT... IT'S A FLIPPING BAR-TAILED!! I immediately began trying to convince myself otherwise. I know next to nothing about Bar-tailed Godwits; it's an Asian bird that I've seen exactly one of. I barely knew what they looked like.

No, it's gotta be a weird Marbled, I thought. My mind raced. Leucistic Marbled. Bleached, been out in the sun too much. What do juvenile Marbled Godwits look like?

But if it was a Marbled, why did it have a bold supercilium? Why was it all grayish, with no buffy or cinnamon coloration anywhere? Why did have such strongly patterned upperparts, with almost silvery coverts? And, why did it have a barred black-and-white tail?

Because it was a Bar-tailed Godwit. I panicked.

I pulled out my phone and called Doug Willick. Apparently he has gotten so acclimated to me calling him about rare birds that he answered his phone with a terrified-sounding, "Uh-oh!" After listening to my description, Doug said, "Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!" Doug also surprised me by saying it would be a first county record. I knew they were rare, but not that rare! I was nervous about calling it a Bar-tailed, given my lack of experience, so I chalked it up as a "possible Bar-tailed" until I could get expert confirmation.

Doug was about half and hour away, birding along the Upper Santa Ana River (where else? I probably woke him up from his sleep under his favorite bridge!) He spread the word to other Orange County birders--Brian Daniels, Jim Pike, Leo Ohtsuki, Robert McNab, and even Jon Dunn, who happened to be in town. They all converged on the spot. At the moment, my job was to stay on the bird.

I had at least half and hour until people started showing up, so I called my friend John Garrett with some questions about godwit identification. Fortunately, he had some shorebird books handy. "Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!" he said after I finished my description.

The bird moved up the San Diego Creek under the Jamboree Road bridge, but I kept close tabs on it until Doug showed up. Doug doesn't know much more about Bar-tailed Godwits than I do, so together we puzzled over the bird. Sure, it looked good for a Bar-tailed, but neither of us had enough experience with the species to call it for sure. Fortunately, others started trickling in, including several birders who were very familiar with Bar-tailed Godwits. It was quickly confirmed. Handshakes, high-fives, and back-pounds all around.

More and more birders accumulated. It was turning into an informal meeting of the county's top birders. We followed the bird out from under the bridge into the open at the edge of the bay, where it gave excellent, close-up views to everyone. Discussing raged about primary extenstion, tertails, and the color of the fringing on the scapulars. Me? I could (barely) follow the conversation, but I enjoyed soaking in the bird, glad that I hadn't screwed up the identification. After a couple hours of watching the bird, we alternately gazed at the bird through our scopes and chatted about Bar-tailed Godwit records in southern California (this was only about the 6th in Southern California), that Painted Redstart at Mason Regional Park, and how Orange County needs a Hudsonian Godwit next. People began drifting away, only to be replaced by excited newcomers.

I finally drifted away myself after about three hours of watching the bird. I wish I could have stayed longer, but (1) I was starving (no food save one of those life-saving Chewy Chocolate Chip Snack Bars since breakfast), (2) I wanted to check Mason Regional park for that Painted Redstart on my way home, and (3) I had to be home by dark. As I pedaled away, I could barely believe what had just happened. I found a Bar-tailed Godwit. A Bar-tailed Godwit!

Not a bad day at all.

Here are some more photos:

Bar-tailed (front) and Marbled (back) Godwits

My best photo.

Bar-tailed (right) and Marbled (left) Godwits.

Bar-tailed in flight.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Life And Death of A Birding Blog

Whee, I've gone half a month without blogging, and I feel great. Actually, that's a lie. Before you begin accusing me of being a lazy, good-for-nothing teenager, listen to what I have to say.

I'll admit it. The element of laziness does have something to do with it. However, a terrible thing called school is the chief reason I haven't been blogging. I probably spend ninety percent of time eating, sleeping, or doing homework; I prefer to spend my little sliver of free time actually birding, rather than sitting on my butt and wasting time on my blog.

So, in this post, I'll try to sum up half a month of my pathetically small amount of free time. Even with my heavy school load, I've managed to get out and fine a few decent birds.

Way back on October 17th, I pedaled down to the beach for a bit of seawatching. A great idea; I needed some jaegers for my Bigby list. However, a thick fog bank foiled my efforts. I puttered around the rest of the day, finding nothing unusual, but doing a lot of photography. This very cooperative Black-bellied Plover was at Upper Newport Bay.

I guess I was not really telling the truth when I said I found nothing unusual. This beautiful juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper just barely enters the realm of unusualness. Really a very good-looking bird.

Perhaps even more unusual than the Pectoral Sandpiper was a nocturnal Eurasian Wigeon. Trying to make a bike day out of it, I drifted around Irvine Regional Park until dusk, finding a few new birds for my day list. While riding past the little lake in my neighborhood in the dark, I decided on a whim to stop and spotlight the duck flock on the lawn. My flashlight beam revealed a Mallard, a Mallard, a Mallard...Mallard, Mallard... EURASIAN WIGEON?! I don't know about you, but I think it's cool to have a Eurasian Wigeon a stone's throw from my house.

Last Sunday afternoon, I had two options: I could stay home and get a head start on the week's homework, or I could go bird the Santa Ana River. After a very (emphasis on very) short time of thinking, I decided to bird the river. After a forty-minute ride, I arrived, pulled out my phone, and found a message from Doug Willick.

Oh boy.

Turns out Doug had found a Blackburnian Warbler a couple miles upstream. Ho-hum. Seen one of those already this fall. Don't care.


Well, I guess the urge to chase it wasn't as strong as it would have been had I not found one along the river earlier in the month, but I still wanted to see it. How many people can say they've seen TWO (I repeat: TWO) Blackburnian Warblers this fall in Orange County? Exactly one. And that's me.

The bird was actually quite difficult to find. Doug, Doug's brother-in-law Phil, and I searched for about an hour before finding it quietly feeding in the top of Chinese Elm near the bike trail. Incidentally, I saw a Baltimore Oriole nearby literally seconds before Doug and Phil walked up. I felt bad about that one. It was another new Bigby bird.

I've done some low-key birding locally this week. Nothing unusual, and I mean it this time. Unless you consider a Merlin ripping the guts out of a Yellow-rumped Warbler unusual.

Western Bluebirds aren't unusual. In fact, they're downright common. Scum. However, they are beautiful, and that makes up for their banality. One of my favorite common birds.

Double-crested Cormorants aren't unusual. But this one was. When my mom reported a cormorant at the neighborhood lake that allowed her to walk within two feet of it, I was so intrigued that I had to investigate. Sure enough, as I walked up, the cormorant just sat there, asleep. It must have been sick. I crawled within a foot of the bird, shooting from various angles, and it barely even woke up. I wouldn't be surprised to find a cormorant carcass up there next time I go for a walk.

So, that sums up most of October for me. I'm still birding. I'm just not blogging.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet Maggie

A Yellow-rumped popped out from behind the leaves of the Chinese Elm, quickly followed by another. House Finches swirled down from the sky, perching precariously at the tips of branches and enquiring what was happening with up-slurred ‘sleeps? I kept pishing, doing my best to ignore the curious stares from the passing bikers and joggers.

Non-birders just don’t understand pishing. Thankfully, most of them don’t take offense.

Toward the back of the tree, a patch of leaves began dancing, betraying the presence of a bird. Through a gap in the offending leaves, I spied a small gray and yellow warbler with black streaks on the flanks and… MAGNOLIA WARBLER!

I’ve seen hundreds, thousands, of Magnolia Warblers during my birding career. I’ve seen scores during migration at Pt. Pelee in Ontario, I’ve seen them on their breeding grounds, and, above all, I used to see scads of them every spring and fall in my old yard.

This one was different.

It looked just like the Maggies I used to see in fall migration in my old yard. Indeed, had I seen it in my old yard, it would have been nothing special. But this particular Magnolia Warbler, flitting about over my head as I straddled my bike, was in Orange County, California. Not in Michigan, or anywhere else in the eastern half on the continent.

So, how did it end up on the wrong side of the country? The Magnolia’s reputation as an eastern bird is something of a fallacy. Check the range map in your field guide, and you’ll notice that the Magnolia’s breeding range extends westward well into British Columbia. However, much to the sorrow of California birders, Magnolias (and other “eastern” warblers) have the treacherous habit of flying eastward before forging south.

Fortunately for those warbler-deprived Californians, a few stupid and clueless young warblers head south instead of east, ending up in California. Digging these few waifs out from the hordes of Yellow-rumps is an annual headache for Californian birders, but it is one of the most fun parts of fall migration in California.

Most birders descend on well-known coastal vagrant traps such as Huntington Central Park to seek these vagrant warblers. Others never seem to have luck at these hotspots.

I just might be one of those luckless birders.

Another of those luckless birders is my friend Doug. He and I are the only ones who regularly bird the Upper Santa Ana River. I felt obliged to inform him about the Magnolia Warbler, since I was technically poaching on his local patch. I’ve only been consistently birding the river this past fall; Doug’s been birding it for an unspecified number of decades. I whipped out my phone and called Doug.

The phone rang. Good sign.

“Oh, hey Neil,” Doug answered.

“Hey. I just found a Magnolia Warbler along the river between Glassell and the Orange-Olive Railroad crossing,” I replied in one breath.

“That’s great!” Doug said. “My car’s in the shop right now but I’ll try to…”

Doug rambled for several minutes on end about the status of Magnolia Warblers in the county. If you’ve ever asked Doug a question about bird status and distribution in the county, you can relate. After all, he wrote the book on this subject… literally. Coauthor of The Birds of Orange County: Status and Distribution, he could tell me that Magnolias are one of the rare but regular (e.g., about one record per fall) warbler vagrants to the county and that several other Maggies had shown up at this exact spot over the years.

I talked to Doug for a few more minutes before hanging up. The warbler eventually flitted back into the bowels of the tree, shaking me off its track. I mounted my bike and continued on, inspired to scour the never-ending flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers more attentively.

Since then, I’ve found only Yellow-rumps. I’d like a Tennessee Warbler next, please.

I wouldn’t grumble about a Blackpoll, either.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rugged and Crazy Birding

I had the entire morning to run free, so I decided to do some exploring by mountain bike in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin a couple miles from my house. Several weeks ago, while flying home from Michigan (I know, I haven't posted more about the trip... *sigh*), I noticed that the lake bed behind the dam was completely dry and filled with weeds. Interesting. Any big patch of weeds is bound to have some neat birds.

After about an hour of weaving through the labyrinths of paths through the flood control basin, I finally found my way to the edge of the dry lake bed. Literally the first bird I flushed as I began walking through the weeds was a Vesper Sparrow; this species, now rather rare in the county, was a new Bigby bird. I continued on, flushing scores and scores of Song, White-crowned, and Savannah Sparrows ahead of me.

I headed straight toward the tallest, densest vegetation in the middle of the basin. That, I thought, looks perfect for a Bobolink. Within ten minutes, I flushed a bigger, buffy bird covered in stripes - a Bobolink! Several minutes later I kicked up another Bobolink, and was able to watch both at the same time. Bobolinks are rare but annual visitors to the county; usually only one or two show up every year. Needless to say, I was very excited to find them.

Vesper Sparrow and Bobolink are both great birds. How could it get any better?! I quickly found that it could. I noticed a big, chunky sparrow with white in the wings teed up on a nearby weed stalk as I floundered through the thick vegetation, trying to scare up more sparrows. I looked at it for a few seconds, confused, until it clicked - Lark Bunting! The chunky body, thick bill, and white wing bars all fit. I was shocked; this bird is downright rare in the county. This represents something like the sixth county record. I stealthily inched closer, firing away.

Though not overly impressive looking to the uninitiated ("Just another sparrow," as my grandma would say), I was very excited to see it. I've only seen one Lark Bunting before (in Texas.) This bird confirmed my growing suspicion: the lake bed is excellent for birding. In addition to the rarities I've already mentioned, I also saw a Plumbeous Vireo and hundreds of more common sparrows.

After about two hours of wandering through the lake bed, I still felt that I hadn't covered the entire area thoroughly. It is a large area, and there are lots of birds. Anything could be out there. I'm going to try to bird there at least once a week and see what else I can turn up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rare Stuffs

This afternoon I took a bike ride to the Upper Santa Ana River to chase a Virginia's Warbler found by Doug Willick yesterday. Vagrant warblers have a reputation of not sticking around, so I was happy to find the Virginia's without too much trouble in the same tree described by Doug. I actually ran into Doug there; I seem to see him every time I bird the river. If he's not careful, I'll start rumors that he sleeps under the bridges there...

In addition to the Virginia's (which, incidentally, was a life bird) I found some other good birds. Best of the bunch was a Blackburnian Warbler, actually a rarer bird in the county than Virginia's Warbler. Other notables included three Pectoral Sandpipers, a Hermit Warbler, and a weird wigeon that was either a Eurasian Wigeon or an American x Eurasian Wigeon hybrid.

Weird wigeon. Eclipse male Eurasian Wigeons are very similar to this, though the head stripe was very strong, more like an American. I know a hybrid has wintered near here recently, so I am hesitant to call it anything other than weird.

Blackburnian Warbler.

Hermit Warbler.

Virginia's Warbler

Warbling Vireo