Thursday, December 19, 2013

Western subspecies: different-looking birds that don't count

This is a followup to my last couple posts (overview and woodpeckers) about birding around Los Angeles California. So be sure to check those out if you haven't already!

I finished up the woodpecker recap on the topic of flickers, and as I was saying...

The Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker is dramatically different than our eastern "Yellow-shafted" version, what with it's rosier shafts.  But these two superficially different birds are considered to make up one and the same "species," with intergrade/hybrids not all that difficult to find.

In this "sport" we call birding, points are awarded after a current list of species puported to be based on the most up-to-date taxonomic understanding.  It's a flawed system to be sure and one of the tragic consequences is that subspecies often get ignored.  Even when birders go to the trouble to try to pick out the "races" of birds that can be readily discerned in the field, it's usually a hedge against a potential future "split" that might one day turn into the beloved "armchair tick."

Western subspecies, those birds that clearly look different than the eastern versions with which I am familiar, but don't "count," is the theme of this post.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover that one of the most abundant passerines around Los Angeles is the Yellow-rumped Warbler.  At least this "Audubon's" Warbler has a bright yellow throat and is a candidate to be re-split from it's eastern relative, the "Myrtle" Warbler.

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler, El Dorado Park, Los Angeles
This one isn't going to make any noise, but the chip note sounds quite different to my ear as well.

I'm not too ashamed to admit that this raptor had me puzzled at first.  I thought it looked like a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it was just so red!

California Red-shouldered Hawk, Los Angeles

So much different than the ones I see in North Carolina.

Same with this Red-tailed Hawk...

Western Red-tailed Hawk, Veterens Memorial Park, Sylmar

Way darker and redder than the pale eastern Red-tails.

And continuing on the western-birds-are-redder theme is this pelican:

California Brown Pelican, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve
It would be cool if they could inflate the red throat like a frigatebird can.

Possibly the most strikingly different bird that still doesn't count as a separate species is the Oregon Junco:

Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, San Gabriel Mountains
How can you take a gray bird, make it black and brown and still call it the same species?

And contrast that with this Great-tailed Grackle, which I only know is not Boat-tailed because of where I found it. 

Great-tailed Grackle, Ventura
If this bird appeared on a lawn in Wilmington, NC or someplace in Florida it would be called Boat-tailed Grackle automatically without more than a glance. 

This relatively unspectacular blackbird represents the only life bird in this post!

If these subspecific nuances haven't already driven you away from this blog and from birding entirely, these last two Savannah Sparrows should provide all the convincing you need that birding is a silly silly thing...

Non-birders are generally pretty unimpressed by sparrows (little brown jobs)...I'll admit that I found them a bit overwhelming when I first began birding, but when you start getting into subspecies, things get really crazy.

There are some 25 subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, for example, and I had the (mis)fortune to stumble upon two of the handful that are readily identifiable in the field.

Supposedly this is a Belding's Savannah Sparrow (can't you see the beldings?)
Belding's Savannah Sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve

And this House Finch is actually the "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow. 

Large-billed Savannah Sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve
Don't blame me if you're confused though!  If it weren't for Sibley we would still be calling these all Savannah Sparrow or "little brown job."  Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

Phew!  That's about all the subspecies birding I can handle for now.  There were more interesting birds in the last couple posts about LA.  Maybe you prefer woodpeckers? Or Boobies/Scrub Jays/Curlews/etc/etc?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Los Angeles: Land of Woodpeckers?

Dear readers,

Here is the promised follow-up to my first post on Los Angeles birding about the area's wonderful woodpeckers.

You may be wondering how the desert wasteland I described in the last post is able to support wood-bearing trees, not to mention the advertised 'peckers. 

OK, I may have exaggerated the bleakness of the landscape a bit last time 'round.  There are actually plenty of trees in Los Angeles County and the woodpecker diversity surprised me.

Acorn Woodpecker, Los Angeles
One of the most ubiquitous is the charming Acorn Woodpecker, famous for caching acorns in tree-trunks. I don't know how they keep the squirrels at bay.  In the east, our Gray Squirrels would rob these poor birds blind as they do inevitably to just about all bird seed feeder-ers. 

Nuttall's Woodpecker, San Gabriel Mountains

And then there are the underrated Nuttal's Woodpeckers. I would say they are like the western equivalent of Downy woodpecker except that Downies are in California too (we saw one in the San Gabriel Mountains). 

Speaking of the San Gabiriel Mountains, the higher elevations are covered with some really pleasant parkland pine forests.  The trees seem to jut straight out of the bare rock in places and there's lots of space to stroll and see between the trunks. 

Up here we saw plenty of White-headed Woodpeckers.

White-headed Woodpecker, San Gabriel Mountains
And also the corvid that thinks it's a woodpecker, Clark's Nutcracker.
Clark's Nutcracker, San Gabriel Mountains
Or maybe it acts like a giant nuthatch?  Anyway I mentioned last time that it was a tossup between Corvids (the two scrub-jays, Steller's Jay, tame Ravens) and Woodpeckers for my favorite bird family of the trip.  And here I am blurring the lines again with this nutcracker!

But our best woodpecker moment came in one of those Los Angeles City Park, where we were able to sweep the North American sapsuckers.  In addition to the expected Red-breasted Sapsucker, this park also had a vagrant, like me, from the east: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker...

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker female, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar well as its very similar western cousin, the Red-naped Sapsucker...

Red-naped Sapsucker male, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
(come on, show us the nape!)

there's the red nape, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
(...there it is).

And the cherry on top was a female Williamson's Sapsucker.

Williamson's Sapsucker female, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
A big thanks to local birder named Doug, who found all these sapsuckers and then came out to the park to meet us and help track them all down! 

Thus far I've omitted the most common woodpecker, partly because I didn't get a photo of it, but mainly because it will help segue into the next post.  The Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker is dramatically different than our eastern "Yellow-shafted" version, what with it's rosier shafts.  But these two superficially different birds are considered to make up one and the same "species," with intergrade/hybrids not all that difficult to find. 

In this "sport" we call birding, points are awarded based upon contemporary lists of species.  It's a flawed system to be sure and one of the tragic consequences is that subspecies often get ignored.  And even when birders go to the trouble to try to pick out the ones that can be readily discerned in the field, it's often still a hedge against a potential future "split" that might one day turn into the beloved "armchair tick."

Western subspecies, those birds that clearly look different than the eastern versions with which I am familiar, but don't "count," will be the theme of the next post.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Snowy Owl at Cape Hatteras

Daytime owling at a North Carolina beach is not an activity one can normally do. But once every blue moon (the last time was 12 years ago) it becomes just so phenomenal that not just birders, but nature enthusiasts and photographers of all stripes come flocking from hundreds of miles away to give it a shot.

Snowy Owl at Cape Point, NC (town of Frisco in the background)
No, that's not a giant Muppet that washed ashore, but a living breathing Snowy Owl some 1500 miles south of its breeding grounds.
Snowy Owl trying to blend in like a Potoo
When these birds "irrupt" southward as they periodically do in winter, it is always a spectacle for birders and photographers.  Here's a great read on this phenomenon:

Snowy Owl scope line
It's hard to predict what will happen with this bird.  It has been reliably seen in the same general area of dunes west of Cape Point since word of its presence got out on November 26, and there isn't much of anywhere for it to go.  Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Pamlico Sound on the west, Cape Hatteras is a well-isolated patch of sand.

Snowy Owl - awake

Perhaps the bird doesn't want to go anywhere.  When I came upon it on Nov. 29, it had blood stains on its feet, so it has been eating something at least.  The Snowy Owl that appeared at Tybee Island, Georgia last winter survived for weeks by preying on gulls.

Snowy Owl - yawning
It may look a bit sanguine in these photos, but after we left, it was chased about a mile down the beach by over-exuberant observers. This daily stress of getting followed around by dozens of tripod-wielding apes probably isn't helping its chances of survival. A fact this owl cannot comprehend, which it is currently enduring, is that fame has its costs.
Snowy Owl asleep - note blood on the feet

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A North Carolinean Birds Los Angeles

I spent a long weekend visiting my brother, who recently immigrated to the Golden State.  This was my first trip to the west coast in more than 10 years, so with the opportunity to see lots of new birds, I fit in as much birding as possibly.  Luckily Natalia was able to come along, and with her superior west coast birding experience was able to pick out most of the lifers for me.

In this post I'm going to give an overview of the sites we visited with the plan to write a couple follow-ups: one about western woodpeckers, and another about western subspecies.

Playa del Rey

Our base was Venice, which turned out to be very conveniently situated for beating the infamous LA traffic.  In fact our first bird outing was done via bicycle. A bike path took us down through the Playa del Rey Marina to the mouth of Ballona Creek.

Heerman's Gull
This was my first experience with western North American gulls: Western Gull, California Gull, Heerman's Gull, which littered the marina, levees and beach.  Eared, Western and Clark's Grebes were shockingly abundant and I also got my first views of a couple of west coast 'rockpipers'--Black Turnstone and Surfbird.

Surfbird at Ballona Creek, Los Angeles
Of course there were also plenty of familiar cosmopolitan east coast species, such as Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Willet and this Surf Scoter.

Surf Scoter, at Ballona Creek, Los Angeles

City Parks

I developed mixed feelings about birding Los Angeles during my visit.  On the one hand, it is among the most over suburbanized, desolate landscapes in the country, an unending neighborhood-scape, somewhat poorly vascularized by 12-lane super freeways that often resemble parking lots, set in an already-harsh desert prior to human intervention.  But at the same time, Los Angeles County holds the title for 'birdiest county in America,' with a list 504 species long.  That huge list is largely the product of a large population of dedicated local birders, and like Central Park in New York, it's fragments of green space--parks, islands, rehabilitated wetlands--are oases that concentrate resident and vargant birds.

So we ended up doing quite a bit of unglamorous park birding while jaunting around this concrete desert. 

Allen's Hummingbirds were consistent companions and I kept thinking about the time Mark K. and I drove a couple hours for a glimpse of North Carolina's second record at a feeder.
immature male Allen's Hummingbird, Griffith Park, Los Angeles
 Other somewhat 'trashy' park birds that were rather exciting for a North Carolinean were:

Bushtit at El Dorado Park, Los Angeles
Western Scrub-Jay, common in parks and neighborhoods
Black Phoebe, common anywhere near water
City parks yielded many other beautiful and less common birds, such as:

Townsend's Warbler at El Dorado Park, Los Angeles

Wrentit at Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Ross's Goose at Apollo Park, Lancaster, California

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

One of Los Angeles' best bird oases is Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetland sandwiched between beach and city.  It was one of the few birding spots that made me wish for a spotting scope and several extra hours to explore and take photos.  The place was loaded with shorebirds, ducks and waders including some locally rare gems, such as Reddish Egret.  Check out this quick sampling of birds all captured in the space of an hour:

Black-crowned Night-Heron at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
American White Pelican at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Greater Scaup at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Lesser Scaup at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
American Wigeon at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Mind you these are all taken with my cheap point-and-shoot...I would put this place easily on the same level with Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina and Viera Wetland in Florida as one of the top locations in the country for easily getting 'hella-face-melting,' as SoCalifornians might put it, photographs of wetland birds. 

Snowy Egret at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Long-billed Curlew at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
I didn't realize they ate mussels whole!

Santa Cruz Island

The most important place for birding in the Los Angeles area is Santa Cruz Island, home to one of California's two endemics, the Island Scrub-Jay.  Birding Santa Cruz Island has been well-covered in the blogosphere, such as in this post by self-anointed 'greatest living birder,' Felonious Jive.

I actually found birding the island pretty ho-hum.  Where were all of the Rock Wrens and Rufous-crowned Sparrows?  We found a steady monotony of Hermit Thrushes and Ruby-crowned Kinglets...ho-hum indeed. This may have been the inevitable result of joining the guided hike into Nature Conservancy property.  It sounded like a good idea when we signed up, but the knowledgeable guide was obligated to keep the group moving at a swift pace and lecture the entire hike--not the kind of jaunt conducive to bird observation.

Beyond the endemic jays, I found the mammal-like and tame Ravens to be most interesting.  They seemed to have no fear of people and would croak at us from a few feet away hoping to earn a free meal.  On the Island they are renowned for their skill at burglury and all supplies must be stored in Raven-proof containers.

Common Raven, Santa Cruz Island

The birding on Santa Cruz Island was so mediocre I'm just going to show you this cute endemic fox:

Santa Cruz Island Fox
The birding from the ferry to and from the island, however, did not disappoint!  We came across feeding frenzies and racked up four alcid species, three shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers, and three cormants, plus huge pods of Common Dolphins, prides of sea lions and two humbpack whales! 

There was so much to look at I didn't want to put down my binoculars, plus this was a ferry, not a pelagic trip, so the photographic opportunities were few.

Antelope Valley

We met up with one local psychotic birder, Dan, who somehow convinced us to join him on a trip up to the Antelope Valley, a dusty trash-strewn wasteland with a couple of charmless Anywhere, America towns that were blended together by strips of big box stores and fast 'food' purveyors.  It's the perfect setting for the Lockheed Martin complex and Andrew's Airbase.  The scenery is almost enough to make one appreciate the potential moral and aesthetic merits of dropping bombs from jet planes.
Ferruginous Hawk, Antelope Valley

I had a fun time seeing Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Bluebirds and the recently split, Bell's Sparrow as we cruised up and down the endless square-grid streets, but we missed the rare-bird targets that Dan needed for his California big year: Mountain Plover and LeConte's Thrasher.

San Gabriel Mountains

Up above this dessicated blah-scape jut the rugged, but unspoilt San Gabriel Mountains.  We birded the Angeles Crest Highway from lower elevation chaparral up to through its higher coniferous forests around 6500 feet, picking up a nice diversity of birds along the way.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, San Gabriel Mountains
 Even though it wasn't particularly cold, the mountain was all but deserted (it was a Monday) and other than some power line work crews, we pretty much had the massif to ourselves.  The views were breath-taking, the air fresh and smog free, and we cleaned up nearly all the winter resident species of birds.
Townsend's Solitaire, San Gabriel Mountains

There were too many to name them all, but a few highlights were: Canyon Wren, Townsend's Solitaire, Steller's Jay and some neat woodpeckers (more on them later).  I'll have to return sometime for breeding season.


Ebird says I observed 157 species on this trip and ticked 49 lifers, a pretty decent haul!  The lifer total would have been greater had I not crossed paths with some vagrant western species in North Carolina over the past few years, and it may increase over the years as the taxonomic changes are made that split out some of the subspecies (more that later).

What was the best bird of the trip?  Well, that depends on the criteria...

In terms of spatio-temporal rarity, it would have to be Blue-footed Booby, which occurs very rarely within the US. Several happen to be loafing around coastal southern California this year.
Blue-footed Booby among cormorants at Playa Del Rey breakwater, Los Angeles
In terms of Absolute rarity, the best bird was Island Scrub-Jay, with it's population estimated at just 2300 individuals.

Fine, here's my terrible photo of the endemic jay everybody wants to see, Santa Cruz Island
I still can't decide which bird was my favorite...I just saw too many new ones that were so fascinating in too many different ways.  In fact it's a tie between my favorite family of this trip between Corvids and Woodpeckers.

Stay tuned for more to come on the western woodpecker front and on western subspecies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Birding Fort Fisher

Natalia and I decided to bird Fort Fisher on our way back from the Carolina Bird Club meeting in Litchfield Beach, SC.  It was a report of a Yellow-headed Blackbird that drew us to a patch of senescent sunflowers by the ferry terminal.  While we couldn't turn up the target bird, the area proved to be quite birdy and hold a few surprises.
Lark Sparrow, Fort Fisher
Of course the rarer birds didn't do a good job posing for photos.  Lark Sparrow can be a tricky bird to find in NC, but this was not a first for me (link to when it was a first for me). 

Dickcissel is also an irregular NC bird and this was only my second in the state.
Dickcissel, Fort Fisher
The more common birds were much more cooperative.
Eastern Kingbird, Fort Fisher
Prairie Warbler, Fort Fisher
Just when we were about to give up on the vagrant blackbird, Greg Massey, Harry Sell and Jamie Adams arrived.  So we stuck around to show them the Lark Sparrow.

Greg tried to convince me there were Bobolinks in the area, but Jamie and I thought they all looked like Blue Grosbeaks.
Blue Grosbeak, Fort Fisher
Despite our disagreements over the finer points of little brown job identification, they invited us on a run down the Fort Fisher spit.  This is one of the best shorebirding spots in the whole state and one I had never previously explored, so I was thrilled to go along for the ride. 

We cruised out in Harry's truck and got Natalia her lifer looks at both Saltmarsh and Nelson's Sparrows and then got some close range practice picking apart the three North American peeps (Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers).  The beach and marshes were littered with shorebirds.

A small flock of shorebirds in the marsh at Fort Fisher spit.  How many species can you see?
The best we found was a lone Red Knot, a species that may soon be added to the federal threatened species list.  I could check on its status if the Department of the Interior were not currently shut down.  
Red Knot, Fort Fisher

Just when we came up on a huge flock of a couple thousand shorebirds working the beach, Jamie realized that all our vehicles were parked in the ferry terminal lot, which was about to be shut behind a 15-foot razor wire fence.  So Harry bombed us back up the spit in record time so we could collect our vehicles before they were impounded. 

While we ended up getting back to Durham a lot later than we had planned, the excellent birding at Fort Fisher and the hilarious company of Harry, Jamie and Capt. Sell made it worthwhile.  Hope I cross paths with them again soon!