Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hansen Dam Holidays

While Hansen Dam is a mere 35 miles away it is enough to feel like a holiday; not only is it extremely rare (perhaps annually or biannually) to get out this far from home but the environment was far out enough to be uniquely different to the same repetitive trees and chaparral canyons of Agoura.

The three targets for this location were yellow-breasted chat, Bell's vireo and the rather dubious Lawrence's goldfinch. I have not generally covered my many year long search for Lawrence's goldfinch on this blog, and since I probably won't see one anytime soon I still have time to speak of it.*1

Hansen Dam seemed like a good bet. This late in the year, it was the only location where the goldfinch was even being reported, and it had been seen in multiples every day for the past few weeks. They were even seen in greater numbers on the day I was there (and at the exact time I was there for that matter), but guess what, I didn't see any. I've spent a lot of money trying to see this bird but it isn't showing. The other two goldfinch species, lesser and American, were quite abundant in the location however.

Yellow-breasted chat (which is actually a warbler though if you see one yourself you'll wonder how a fat chubby harsh-sounding thing can be classified with the small singing warblers) showed itself on the top of a tree right away, and made a few casual appearances throughout the visit. It made its preemptive appearance with calls from the top of a bare tree, and in a way it was relatable to Australian birdlife where several species gave the same behaviour from more tropical canopies (though as I learned this was not the "typical" call of the bird). After that it resumed its expected row of mimicry, adding itself to the chorus of dreaded creatures by amateur birders with northern mockingbird, California thrasher, Bewick's wren, lesser goldfinch, among others (which I was perhaps not so distant in the past).

I pictured the chat as a skulker, and that it was generally, though the fact it even rose up to the open and on a regular basis was surprising enough.
While pursuing the chat I had heard the Bell's vireo singing its odd buzzy song from afar and went on a bit of an off-road excursion to find it (note: the bird definitely did not sing as frequently as in that link: realistically the spacing between the phrases was closer to 30 seconds+ which made it quite hard to follow when this song was the only indication of its location). The bird, despite having the reputation of its cousins, was simple to locate and see. Vireos are a tree-top bird that often favour cover and leafy trees, and can be an absolute nightmare to get good (or any) looks at. Perhaps the fact that these trees were low and not thick with leaves helped, but the birds did not act elusive at all. I had better views of this bird than the chat. Notably, unlike its cousins, its song was very quiet even when in close proximity. A unique member of its family for sure. 

Perhaps not the best looker in the bird world, but for what it lacked in distinction colour-wise it made up for
in behaviour -- but for those familiar with vireos, this bird is very visually unique.
Oh and uh...if anyone cares, here's a least bittern which found its way into the background of one of my pictures a few weeks back at Sepulveda while I was with Mr. Cooper on a local scouts outing. It's a rather rare bird but relatively well-known at the location (though, I did see it fly into the reeds, just not when it peeked its head out).

It's there. I promise.

////cue LAGO rant
There are very few birds that could be labelled as both ubiquitous yet elusive and erratic simultaneously. As a nomadic species, it is a rather random migrater, and overall it is rather uncommon. But they are funneled through the Los Angeles area (notably in March it seems) so they are, at times, considered "locally common". Yet, in what is coming to a 3 year residence in this state, it is the one bird I have not yet encountered, and as it happens it is inconveniently the only bird I actually genuinely cared about seeing here. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn't have seen one so far -- most people I meet don't believe me when I tell them my bird list along with the fact I have not seen this species -- its a random and unpredictable bird but going this long without seeing them really just doesn't happen. 

However, as an early rising bird that often disappears later than 8am, its difficult to even get at the location at the time under a family schedule. But that assumes I can even get to the location which generally is rare in itself. The bird has a very diagnostic high-pitched repeating call often given in quick succession. I've heard it many times before--but not from the species itself, instead from its close cousin the lesser goldfinch which is known for occasional mimicry. Drives me nuts.
////end rant

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