Sunday, December 18, 2011


Elysian Park
White-throated Swift, Townsend's Warbler, Painted Redstart
Total: 3
The Painted Redstart is generally considered a scarce vagrant (or migrant) to California. The bird breeds pretty much entirely in Central America, and it's range only just extends into the States; Arizona and New Mexico are probably the only place you could expect to see this bird in North America, and even then I hear they are downright hard to locate.
Occasionally this gorgeous wood-warbler turns up in the Warbler state (AKA California), and as the bird is my most wanted bird of course I am jealous of people who manage to find them here. Recently, starting from around the 28th November, a Paintstart was reported at Elysian Park in downtown LA. And it was a male in its peak plumage. Meh. Wood-warblers don't stay that long anyway. Literally all reports of vagrant warblers have been passing birds, and thus are untwitchable*.

*Twitchable: A rare bird that remains in the same location long enough for other birders to see it themselves. Okay the definition varies, but this is the basic idea.

So I dismissed the case, but I recently found a report of the same bird on the 14th December, and going back I see multiple reports in between. That's almost two weeks that its been still. But it meant little to me because I had no opportunity to get to the location to see the bird.

Though today I found myself with a route to the park planned specifically for this bird; my parents were not happy at my lack of enthusiasm for wanting things for Christmas, so we were to return to Venice Beach as I saw some Native-styled T-shirts I liked the look of. Venice Beach was only a 15-minute drive from Elysian Park. And that's how it started.

It was my first "twitch"* since I started getting into birds when I was around about 12(ish). The only reason I haven't already accumulated a decent twitch/dip list is because of the location. While my family isn't poor, these drives into the wilderness are often a bit pricy with today's petrel (sorry couldn't resist) prices. Did I have hope? I was kind of unbiased. The last time I attempted to set up a drive to twitch a bird (Scissor-tailed Fly) my parents found out we didn't have enough money to get there.

I spent the night before extensively researching the sightings and pinpointing the exact location of the bird, because the last thing I wanted was to miss it because we couldn't find the right road. Luckily it sounded like the bird stayed in a single tree throughout its entire stay.

*Twitch: The act of attempting to locate a rare bird, often a vagrant to the area.

So far, so good. But my parents were very unhappy about the area; there had been some crime spree recently, and even if the actual location was 20 minutes away from here (which it infact was) it was enough to keep them on edge.

On the way I was rewarded with a flock of swifts, easily identified by their shape and flight. However I had yet to see any swifts in North America, so it was a clear lifer. I managed to get a few hazy shots through the car window, but they were enough to identify them as White-throated Swifts. Migratory swifts make regular but erratic appearances where they are found, and in North America it was no exception. They are the kind of bird that as a general rule cannot be looked for, but instead are found "by accident". Regardless I was happy to find this bird.

Believe it or not the park was actually located without any difficulty. I picked out the correct tree as we drived past, and all it took was to find the closest car park and walk towards it. I was kindly (?) given the following instructions:

1. If someone points a gun at you then give them everything.
2. If someone approaches you then return to the car.

and I set off towards the relative oak tree. In the few minutes it took to get there I heard a great deal of birds. It was mostly Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers, Titmice etc. but there were a few high-pitched chip notes I was unfamiliar to and were obviously something new. You may or may not know that each Warbler has a unique call (chip) with very little variation, and there was little doubt that the source was something I had not encountered. It could have either been a Townsend's or a Black-throated Grey, but with the strict time limit I had I was more concerned about finding the Paintstart. After all, from what I hear apparently Townsend's and Black-throats are considered "common". Maybe if you are in the forest more than once every month (which tends to be my status because of restricting factors i.e. money) they are common.

So by ignoring the idea of a life bird within metres of me (though I did check just in case they were in the open) I made my way to the nearly completely bare oak tree. The only decoration was a few scattered brown leaves that had yet to fall. The tree itself was only about 6 or so metres tall, and I shed my concerns about it being in a shady canopy where it could only be seen passing through as a black shadow. After ten seconds of searching the tree I found the first bird; it was a pale brown Audubon's Warbler. Seconds later I found this hopping around a branch:

 And there it was. Words failed me, and they still do.

It was a very bouncy and acrobatic bird, and I did somewhat expect bit, but it was no where near as flamboyant as an American Redstart. But what was I expecting? The Painted and American Redstarts are about as closely related as a Yellow Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush. In fact I should probably be calling it a Painted Whitestart to reference its true relation to the tropical genus Myioborus. I still prefer Paintstart. It certainly had some active-ness, but it was nothing like videos I've seen of the Am. Redstart.

The bird spent most of its time at the top of the tree gleaning the bark but it did come down occasionally, and at one point it swooped to the ground to catch a fly within a metre of me. It also called quite a bit, and it certainly has a very unique call, shunning the chip-like notes of its Parulid brethren.

Sometimes it switched to a nearby tree for a minute or two before resuming its foraging of the derelict looking oak. At that point the strange chipper returned and flew a couple of metres above my head. With a gleaming golden apparel what could it have been other than a Townsend's Warbler?  That only leaves Black-throated Grey to go (and the uncommon and irruptive Hermit, but I doubt this is a bird I will encounter).

The question is, which bird do I tick off first? I heard the Townsend's Warbler well before the Painted Redstart, but I never saw it. Is my 494th bird a Painted Redstart or a Townsend's Warbler? Perhaps a better answer to that question is to find the 495th bird; then the argument of the 494th will be more obsolete.

The Townsend's switched to the maple tree nearby and the Redstart followed. The Painted Redstart appeared to be at least twice the size of the Townsend and from where I stood the latter looked even tinier than a Yellow-rumped. Apparently the Townsend's, despite being a family member was not in the Paintstart's tolerance and it was chased off several times. Around this time an even larger, mostly white bird (at least underneath) perched higher up and I was left with fleeting glimpses. I could have sworn it was a Downy Woodpecker, and fortunately it soon returned in a position where I could nail it. I had seen many Downy Woodpeckers before, but this was the first I had seen in California. Speaking of woodpeckers, there were a few Acorns in the vicinity as well, but I already had good shots of this species so I ignored them for the most part.
The Paintstart switched to the Eucalyptus, but thankfully not in the lightless canopy. Instead it perched in the sunny branches at head height. I think focus was the only thing that stopped me from getting perfect shots.

Believe me if I had the time I'd spend all day here, but my parents were very keen to leave this neighbourhood. Venice Beach was called off in the end because of the belief that there was no parking after lunch time, so I guess the Surfbirds at Marina del Rey would have to wait for now.

And that was my day. How was yours?

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