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.


birdboymatt said...

Sweet Neil, you have some great sightings there out west!!

Alf said...

I went kayaking today and we found a NEGI demonstrating a fear of commitment...

I also was the first one to find the Belted Kingfisher! *pats self on back*

Regrettably we missed that LOSH...