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.


Bosque Bill said...

Congratulations! Not only were you in the right place at the right time, but you were observant and knowledgeable enough to realize you might be seeing something special and then stuck with it.

Tucker L said...

Great bird!

Kristin said...

Terrific find! Well done!

Cathy Carroll said...

Neil, nice find and good post to your blog. I've never seen a Bar-tailed Godwit wo it was great to read about your experience.

Jerry Jourdan said...

Congratulations, Neil! Wonderful bird!


Alf said...

I will be going down there tomorrow to spot it! Wish me luck!

Donna said...


Jeff Schultz said...

Good job and congrats, Neil!!

Alf said...

I got it! I just got back from Newport Back Bay five minutes ago and got lengthy observations. We also ran into a friend of yours who confirmed my identification. She seems to be associating with a Willet and is spending most of her time under the bridge.

Jim Royer said...

Great sighting! So how many species do you have for the 2009 BIGBY now? Please tell the Bar-tailed to stay for the Thanksgiving weekend as that is the first time I can drive down there. It would be a life bird for me!