Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lewis' Woodpecker

Lewis' woodpecker is a fairly erratic winter visitor to Los Angeles, and as far as I'm aware its usually a mountain bird. However they have been seen on passage around here so it wasn't surprising when two were reported at a location within walking distance of Agoura at Cheeseboro Canyon. I have only been here once before and it certainly didn't fail to impress.

Only one of these woodpeckers stayed, and I immediately saw it when entering the parking lot. A long-awaited bird and a very unique woodpecker. No other species resembles its colouring, and its one of those odd flycatching woodpeckers that also pecks trees.

Unfortunately the colouring, while pretty, is rather odd in an indescribable way, so its very hard to get a good look at it and in most views it just looks black. Its like how a hummingbird's iridescence is black one way, but brilliant and resplendent when it simply turns its head an angle, but its a different concept of colour visualizing altogether.

In the best possible position it can look like this.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Laguna voyages

In the recent past I have managed to convince my parents to take me on two separate visits to the Laguna Rd. tamarisks. For those who don't know, this road, set in the middle of the rural farmland, is home to a line of trees known as tamarisks. For some reason, they create a migrant trap for birders (and for farming they create a windbreak to stop soil erosion). Also, blogger seems to decompress photos now so they won't look as high quality as they should be. Not sure what changed but you'll probably not notice anyway.

A migrant trap is best described as follows: You are walking in the middle of a desert, thirsty and starving. Suddenly you see a bench with a cup of water and a pizza. Clearly you'll instantly gravitate towards this place. And that is how the migrant traps work; birds from all over congregate in these traps, and thus it is basically a way to see all birds within a many mile square area in a small place. Naturally, all the rarities within the many mile square area place will also come, so as you can imagine these migrant traps become rather lucrative. Its nice to spend 10 minutes checking all the local birds, rather than over 40 minutes as is the usual case. Of course, birds do like to hide, so you will always miss some.

On September 28th was the first visit. The target was a vagrant yellow-green vireo and a vagrant American redstart which had been present in the days following up. Yellow-green vireos are a pretty big bird anywhere in North America, as shown by  this map. The pink shaded areas are all in Mexico, with a tiny region dripping over the right-hand side into North America. The red dots represent random vagrant sightings, such as the bird at Laguna.

I'd say that this first visit was the first time I've really encountered a "twitching party". Twitching parties are groups of people standing in one place with binoculars and stupidly long lenses focused in one place. There were probably only 13 people here but that is still a fair amount. I guess you could say the migrant traps are people traps too since similarly people are drawn in to these places from all over. There are two behaviours of twitching parties, which is either that they are standing in one place with all the lenses focused in one place (good) or they are all wandering around like lost sheep (bad). Fortunately behaviour #1 was being exhibited, and naturally they had already found the bird and saved me about 10 minutes+ of searching and possibly not finding it.

Yellow-green vireo.
Unfortunately they were all so in awe of the bird that no one even bothered to look for the other vagrant bird which was the Redstart. I didn't find it when I searched the far end of the trees, and no one had seen it that day (however it was found on the next day, so it must have been somewhere). Something else happened today, and its a rare thing to see. So there were two "twitching parties" here. One, which I was in, had the bird and yelled to the other group to get them over here. However, the second group yelled back, also saying they had the bird, which confused everyone. Behaviour #3.

The source of the confusion? There were actually two yellow-green vireos! The chances of even one appearing is pretty low so it was rather comical when people were running back and forth and switching "teams" constantly. I also picked up on a yellow-faced warbler which was my long-awaited hermit warbler, an uncommon migrant though regular through the state, which instantly disappeared and could not be refound. Its unusual how birds can just turn invisible in a single tree.

Fortunately I did refind it, and others confirmed my identification. However they weren't even looking at my bird, and it then occurred to me that there was another hermit warbler about 3 metres from my head just beside me, and sat in the open rather puzzled.

Hermit warbler in basic plumage.
Otherwise, the tree row was full of Townsend's warblers, along with a few black-throated grey, orange-crowned and yellow warblers. I understand some readers won't know what a Townsend's warbler is so I will post an image. They are fairly common and definitely under-rated.

The second visit was today. With the yellow-green vireos and redstart long gone (along with a few other nice vagrants which I missed out on being sat at home) there were some new birds to seek. I had to choose between going to Marina del Rey for blue-footed booby and Laguna for Prothonotary warbler. I couldn't resist the Prothon. There was a bit of a second motivation, with a nearby park holding recent sightings of a magnolia warbler, one of my all-time wanted birds.

Prothonotary warblers, as their latin name citrea may suggest, are rather yellow. They have a slightly different beauty that the yellow warblers that are common around here. Prothons are vagrants, as shown by this map. The map is actually rather old and doesn't even show any records for California, though there have been many. For those outside North America, California is that diagonal south-east facing region just above the red dot on the left-hand side. Its a fairly uncommon bird to see even in its natural range so there was not really a fear of wasting my time. In this sense I mean something like the following situation: let's say I dedicated all this time to finding a rare bird, but at some time in the future I end up in a country where the beaches are covered in them. Though there is something special about seeing a bird in a place where it is unusual, there is always a feeling of trying to prioritize species that you probably won't see at all in your future life.

So like last time, there was a twitching party, slightly smaller. They had the bird about 5 minutes before I arrived (generally the last thing anyone wants to hear) but were sure it was still present. You could tell how bored they were by their incessant pursuit of a Macgillivray's warbler, a generally regular migrant to the area. The tree row was flooding with birds this time, I'm not sure what it was that increased their numbers so much since last time. Townsend's was the majority, with well over 20 individuals, about 11 Wilson's warblers, followed by about 4 black-throated greys. Pacific-slope flycatcher was rather abundant also.

Macgillivray's warbler

Wilson's warbler; mostly included this image just to show the colour of them.

It took about 25 minutes to refind the prothonotary warbler; it was in the same place, and right above the party the whole time yet it still managed to hide itself all that time. It was rather tricky to find the bird among the just-as-yellow Wilson's. In the middle of this sighting was a surreptitious Tennessee warbler which I only barely saw behind all the cover. Only a few others actually saw the bird so it was a good sighting. Tennessee warblers are another vagrant from the east.

Prothonotary warbler.

Tennessee warbler; you may be wondering how anyone can identify a bird as obscured as this,
but there are really only two birds that this could be. The white eye-ring and overall dull yellow colour are fairly unique. Orange-crowned is the other species, a common species in California, but that white area just visible under the tail instantly rules that out, leaving the vagrant Tennessee. Kudos to whoever managed to ID this bird when
it was hopping around though.

I could have stayed longer for better opportunities on the above two birds, though I wanted to check the other park nearby. Someone told me that the magnolia was seen this morning so that made me feel positive about it, though since it was nearing midday it was possible that it had moved off. With the car parked along the Eston street side of Pleasant Valley Park, I started walking along the tamarisk row. It took 10 seconds from leaving the car to see a flash of yellow between the lower branches, and that was the bird. A record time for finding a rare bird! 3 rare birds within an hour isn't bad at all.

My dodgy photos don't do it justice.