Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Power Of A Bluetail

Vagrancy in birds is one of the most thrilling, thought-provoking, and driving aspects to the birding hobby.  Whenever a birder finds a rare bird that many other birders are going to want to chase and see, there's always a great story that goes behind it.  These tales of fortune can vary in all shapes and sizes, just like the birds we are looking at.  I've heard of birders finding rare birds because they needed to take a step aside to use the wilderness room.  One may scan a huge flock to find a diamond in the rough.  Another may be casually birding somewhere and looking for a region's most common birds only to stumble across a bird that has never been found in the region.  Or there is one that may be odd enough and turn into a North American record.  Other stories suggest thinking a bird was something when it really wasn't or when something seems off and words run out as, "Oh, what's this odd blue-tailed thrush".  This example is countered by birders who know to look for certain vagrants, vagrants they dream of finding.  They know what to look for, they know what to listen for, and they know how to look.  In midst of all of these examples, you know what I love about all of this?  It's that any birder can win the vagrant "lottery" anytime, and anywhere.  That's one of the many reasons why we shouldn't stop birding.

The Pacific Ocean

Recently, a remarkable ABA rarity and Arizona first White-throated Thrush was found by Linda Grant in southeastern Arizona's famously renowned Madera Canyon.  This discovery was epic and drove birders not only from Arizona, but throughout parts of the United States to see the bird.  As Texas has had it's records of the Thrush, it was now Arizona's turn.  This bird was found close to three weeks ago, and is still there as I write.  It seems as if every Arizona birder has gotten to see it, except for me.  I'm hoping my chance will come soon, granted if the bird continues.  I was going to chase the bird during the first weekend after it was discovered, but sickness prevented me in doing so, and on my following days off, I made plans with buddy Caleb Strand to go to the Salton Sea.  Caleb was as pumped to bird the Salton Sea as I have ever seen him pumped to bird a location.  The Salton Sea was a place I've always wanted to bird extensively, and I wanted to bird California more than going for the White-throated Thrush on those days.  My fingers were crossed White-throated would stick a little longer, and it would constantly remain in the back of my mind...

Caleb is one of the most dedicated, hardcore, and gifted birders I have ever known.  I knew that a trip to the Salton Sea with him would be one for the record books.  And I knew that we would find good birds.  But The Boy is also a loose cannon and can change his mind in seconds.  As I got off of work on a Tuesday afternoon and headed into my usual Wednesday-Thursday weekend, I got to Caleb's house to leave for our trip on Tuesday evening.  Right when I first talked to him, he immediately said, "Hey Tommy, it's up to you, but we don't absolotely have to go to the Salton Sea.  There's a Red-flanked Bluetail in Los Angeles, that would be awesome.  Plus there's other lifers we could get in the area".  The idea was better than the Salton Sea to me right away, and we agreed to head for L.A.  It was only a six hour drive, not too long when your having a serious birding conference en route.  We got to Los Angeles, what a crowded place it was, as expected.  LeBron James was everywhere, and so where Hollywood actors and actresses.  We decided we were too cool for them and camped in a Walmart parking lot.

The Red-flanked Bluetail was found by a birder named Rebecca Marschall at William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles.  It's discovery was quite interesting by the sounds of it, and as I mentioned above earlier in an example, Rebecca, who also works at the library, took it to be, "some odd looking blue tailed thrush".  Once the pictures were submitted, California birders and a handful of other ABA birders took vast interest in it.  For California, I believe it's the third record of this species, but most importantly according to what Caleb told me, the first chaseable Red-flanked Bluetail in Cali.  The other I know about was found on an island and only seen by a few lucky birders before it was thought to be killed by a Loggerhead Shrike.  I think the other was found an another island.  With an inland Red-flanked Bluetail being within our grasp, we knew it was the most important bird of the trip.  I'll get to that chase soon.

Early on Wednesday morning our first stop was at McDonald's before going to the Ballona Area via Playa Del Rey, a good birding location along the coast.  This spot was productive for us, as we had close to fifty species.  An awesome highlight was Caleb getting his first Surfbirds, as they scurried back-and-fourth on a jettie adjacent to a jettie that we were walking out to the ocean on.  Seeing a contrasty black-and-white patterned dorsal view of the Surfbirds in flight made for a good learning experience.  Other highlights along the jetties, beach, and open water were Wandering Tattler, Black Oystercatcher, Willet, a variety of gulls, Sanderling, Surf Scoter, and Horned Grebe.  It was only my second time of getting to see Wanderling Tattler and Black Oystercatcher, and the latter was too distant for photographs while having their heads tucked down while resting for most of the observation.


Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler, best views I have had


Western Gull

Male-female Surf Scoter pair

Male Surf Scoter in flight

Horned Grebe

The Memorial Library opened at 9 A.M., which was the reason for Caleb and I to start off elsewhere.  As that right time was approaching, we made our way to the library where that Red-flanked Bluetail was being seen.  It didn't take very long for us to find a group of birders shortly after 9.

Birders flying out to Attu and others on the Aleutian Islands as well as Berring Sea Islands, all in Alaska, have been the groups that have had most previous luck with Red-flanked Bluetail in the ABA area.  One mainland Alaska record has been recorded, as well as two California records on different islands.  The record Caleb and I had now chased was California's first known inland record, as well as California's first chaseable record, which created a massive addictive chasing effect among birders throughout the States other than the legions already twitching it within state.  Reading about our target, we informed ourselves that Red-flanked Bluetails are small songbirds in the diverse Muscicapidae family which consists of chats and old world flycatchers,  are about 5.5" in length, and are distinctive in their field marks among the other birds in North America with their reddish flank coloration and light blue tail.  They often forage on the ground, as well as feed well up into the trees.  "Their main home haunts in the world lie within coniferous forests from NE Europe across Eurasia to NE Russia, south to China and north Japan.  The species winters in SE Asia north to south Japan"  (Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Russel, and Lewington).  I knew that a six hour drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles for this bird was worth it, as Caleb and I had never seen a species within the family of the Bluetail, which is the found in the genus Tarsiger.

The group of birders we joined at the library were all standing in one spot.  At first, I assumed that everyone would see the bird right from that standpoint that everyone was standing around.  A bird flitting up in the trees got the group excited, and all it was was a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Minutes before we got there, a man had photographed the Bluetail at close range right on the ground along a line of bushes.  We waited patiently for awhile, and then Caleb decided to walk off and find the bird on his own at a different side of the garden where the bird actually spent it's time frequenting and not just at the spot where the group was staked out at.  I ran towards Caleb as he signaled me to come over.  He said the bird popped up briefly in a tree, and then flew low into a line of bushes within the garden.  I snuck slowly around to the bushy areas and was looking low for the bird to be foraging on the ground, which it did a lot of according to reports.  After a few minutes, I came around a corner and saw a small bird sitting on a raised tin top about a foot off the ground.  It was flicking it's tail up and down while sitting still, almost like an empid.  I knew it was the bird, and a look through my binoculars confirmed my first Red-flanked Bluetail!  Caleb came running over as I re-found it, and we both enjoyed looks at the bird before it took flight to nearby trees and bushes.  It's light blue tail was very evident, distinctive among the rest of it's darker toned body, and the pattern and the way it flew stood out from any neighboring birds.  After these looks at our latest lifer, all we could want was more and more of it.

My first looks at Red-flanked Bluetail, January 16th, 2019.  LA!

Rain clouded up the Los Angeles forecast for the day, but while we got to watch the mega Asian vagrant, the rain only came down at times and while it dripped down, it never got to a point we'd call negative.  The Bluetail was fun to study and observe.  It would fly up to and forage in trees to feed on insects and berries (it's main food source), it would fly and perch low at times, and then it would feed and hop around on the ground.  The garden within the library had it's rows of bushes, with brick paths going between them.  Some of the brick paths were closed to foot usage, and those paths were what the bird really frequented at times.  A group of over ten birders gathered at the base of one of the bush lines to watch the Bluetail forage on the cement and soil under the bases of the bushes.  The lighting was hard to capture in photographs when the bird was down this low, but it did make for excellent binocular study.

Caleb photographing the Bluetail.  Can you find the Bluetail on the ground?

I got my share of photographs of the bird perching higher up in trees when it did.  At one point, Caleb and I had the bird's location down while we saw another birder approaching that location and he was just feet away.  We decided to stay put to see what the Bluetail would do once that other birder got too close for it's comfort.  Luck hit us hard as the Bluetail flew from the guy and landed right in front of Caleb and I.  Between the two of us, we must have snapped a million photographs of the bird as it sat right by us for a minute.  Right after that, it remained cooperative again for more up close looks at one of those small lights planted just a foot or so off of the ground.  With these looks, we were content with our observations after an hour and a half of seeing the bird on-and-off quite regularly.

Good grief!

Caleb pointed out that the Red-flanked Bluetail's appearance and behavior reminded him of a mix of a Hermit Thrush and an empidonax flycatcher, and he couldn't have been more right.  We observed a bird we weren't used to, and it was great to be a part of the fun that has included hundreds and hundreds of other birders who have enjoyed this bird.  Before our visit to the library, the Bluetail had been present for over a month but wasn't accessable for public viewing until a week or so prior to our visit.  While the species doesn't have as far to fly across the ocean when it shows up in Alaska's far western islands, I read that it's vagrancy pattern is more unknown for southern records.  Rather than fly directly across the Pacific and into California, it is speculated that the birds might go south after reaching a northern point and continue south along the coast as a result of being lost and out of place.  Whether if I can land my state's first White-throated Thrush or not, this bird has certainly made up for it.

Caleb and I still had a lot of ground to cover.  We went back to the coast for the remaining majority of the day, and we started that up as we went back to a roadside section salt pan of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.  This was a location sitting just off of the coast.  It was here we were after another lifer for the both of us, the Pacific Golden-Plover.  This species was a fairly recent split-off from American Golden-Plover in 1993, and is one that winters in small numbers along the Pacific Coast.  Caleb scoured eBird en route to California on our way to Los Angeles, and he found a recent report of a Pacific Golden-Plover that was in midst of a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers.  We went to the spot and found some shallow pools of water with some mudflats.  Large numbers of shorebirds were evident on the water before we got out of the car, and right away, we started to scan through a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers.  Barely into our scan, Caleb picked out the Pacific Golden-Plover among the other plovers.  It's bright yellowish-brown coloration really stood out from the rest of the birds.  As the bird was a lifer for both of us, it also gave me a fun milestone as it was my 550th life bird.

Ballona Wetlands

Pacific Golden-Plover with Black-bellied Plovers and Killdeer.  #550, January 16th, 2019

Caleb really enjoys shorebirds, I mean, really!  This lifer would be his favorite bird of the trip, even over the mega rarity we had previously landed.  When something that remains mysterious spooked the plover flock, our target was still just as obvious while scanning the flock.  Pacific Golden-Plovers breed in arctic and subarctic regions in western Siberia east to western Alaska.  In the U.S., they winter in small numbers along the Pacific Coast, especially in California.  Small numbers in the U.S. are countered by most of the population wintering in Somalia, China, New Zealand, and Oceania.  This species has a rather small world population, and like it's close American Golden-Plover relative, is an extreme long distance migrant.  My first Pacific Golden-Plover here in California, who was nestled within an exact flock of 399 Black-bellied Plovers clicked off by Caleb, gave me excellent scope views but more distant photographs.  Regardless of distance, it was a great lifer and a neat bird to reach the 550 milestone with.  What will my 600th bird be?  Hmmm, only time will tell....

We continued south along the Coast for about another hour, both of us in good moods after lifering more than once.  What awaited us next were the rocky shorelines and towering cliffs of the scenic Royal Palms Beach.  Rain hit Los Angeles more and more on the drive, and by the time we got to Royal Palms, it did die off considerably.  We looked over the cliffs and scanned the rocky shores below for our next life bird.  Caleb scanned while I had to get something, but it didn't take him long to find our target and then lose it quickly after finding it.  After I started scanning, it didn't take me long to find it either.  I placed my scope in the general area and ironically and luckily right on my third lifer of the day, an American Oystercatcher.  This would be Caleb's lifer too, his fourth of the day.  Within seconds of finding the American Oystercatcher, which is rare but annual in southern California, it took flight and headed to a nearby stretch of rocks further south along the Coast.  It was with a few of the much more common Black Oystercatchers, and they took flight too.  At times, the two species will hybridize, but Caleb pointed out key field marks on the American's white upper rump and solid white wingstripe to eliminate a hybrid.  A series of loud, high-pitched, clear, and rather goofy calls confirmed the vocal presence of the Oystercatchers in many places throughout the rocky stretches of the Coast.

Royal Palms overlook

Yours truly enjoying the Coast

While the main recreation area of Royal Palms Beach was closed off to vehicles for the day, it didn't stop us from hiking down to the beach level, well below the cliffs.  Sea salt rapidly sprayed us and everything else as we got closer and closer to the ocean and lasted for a good half-hour before dissolving.  It made us put our optics safely away and it also confirmed how hardcore we both are as we were still willing to get close to Oystercatchers for brief photo chances.  As luck continued to be on our side, the sea salt left before we got further south along the rocky shores.  Scanning an overlook resulted in a flock of about ten Black Oystercatchers and the single American Oystercatcher directly below us.  This was a fun experience for me, as my only Black Oystercatcher sightings before this were mainly of distant birds with resting heads.  Looking down at this close range gifted us with close views of both species actively feeding.  These well named birds do eat oysters as a big part of their diet, but their sharp, long, and wide bills also allow them to feed on clams, starfish, mussels, starfish, worms, and sea urchins.  We enjoyed the striking rocky-coast-favoring shorebirds for awhile before I got greedy with wanting to get closer.  While American Oystercatcher has more of a three-toned color appearance, the widespread Pacific Coast Black Oystercatcher isn't so variable and can actually be quite difficult to spot on the same-colored rocks.

Black Oystercatchers

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

American and Black Oystercatcher direct comparison

Black Oystercatchers

Black and American Oystercatchers in flight

Walking back in the direction traveled, the fun lived on with more Black Oystercatchers, my best looks I've ever had with Whimbrel, and a solid flock of Heerman's Gulls.

Black Oystercatcher in midst of the rocky Coast

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher and Whimbrel side-by-side


Heerman's Gulls and Western Gull

Caleb "The Boy" Strand scanning the ocean.  He picked out a distant Black-vented Shearwater over the mass, a bird that I missed during our scan.

Rains continued to pick up and the weather got cooler and cooler as we headed south to our last location and stop of the day, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve.  This location is an epic one, and harbors an incredible variety and number of birds.  In the 1.5 hours that Caleb and I birded it, we had over 60 species.  Rain prevented me from attempting photographs, but highlights were many and they included an impressive count of 390 Brant, many waterfowl, Black-bellied Plover, Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew, my second ever Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, high numbers of Western Sandpiper, a flyby Mew Gull, a Thayer's Iceland Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, 3 Reddish Egrets, and Merlin.

After a long day of birding and traveling to five different birding locations, we headed off to the Salton Sea for our second day of birding.  Following a Walmart stop to get loads of food, we camped out right by the Salton Sea and looked forward to more bird abundance for the second day.  Caleb and Colorado birder David Tonnessen had recently discovered a Ruff out there and at the northern part of the Sea birders had found a Black-headed Gull.  Both were wanted lifers for me, and the latter was one that has been returning for several winters.

The Salton Sea is filled with birds, perhaps one of the most bird-abundant locations in the country, but outside of that, it sure is ugly.  The surrounding habitat around the water is even uglier.  But when there's an abundance of birds, what else matters, right?  The next morning was filled with fog, thick thick fog.  We could barely see in front of us for the first several hours of the day.  Several stops were made, and we had to walk further out along the shore of the Salton Sea before the fog would fade to see more birds and get better counts.  As we walked, the numbers of shorebirds, gulls, and waterfowl were impressive.  I enjoyed seeing inland Western Gulls as well as more good numbers of Black-bellied Plover.  One stop gave us views of several Bonaparte's Gulls up close.  Bonaparte's Gulls were being seen in high numbers at the Sea, and they are quite often a host for that rare Black-headed Gull that Caleb and I were keeping sharp eyes out for.

Western Gull, Salton Sea, January 17th, 2019
Black-bellied Plover, Salton Sea, January 17th, 2019

Brown Pelican 

Bonaparte's Gull

Black-bellied Plover

Lots of birds to look through

Once the fog rolled out, Caleb and I found ourselves on the west side of the Sea, working our way from north to south.  Abundant numbers of waterbirds were everywhere, and it continued to be impressive.  Caleb spied an interesting shorebird in the distance way out on the shoreline and we had to make sure it wasn't a Ruff instead of the more common and hated Lesser Yellowlegs.  Driving to the spot where Caleb had had the Ruff weeks before had a closed gate which prevented any further access to that awesome stretch of the Sea.  Caleb not only had Ruff, but he also had this tremendous count of over 20 shorebird species, which included a standout count of over 200 Snowy Plovers.

We eventually reached this location called Poe Road and started to navigate it's shoreline.  As Caleb and I are both hardcore birders, I realized on this navigation that Caleb is not only hardcore, but is an extreme birder.  I remained in the hardcore level, quite below Caleb's extreme to be honest.  The birds along this navigation were worth it, at least that's what I thought.  Mud flats were common, and it was a muddy walk to go through the habitat in order to see the variety and impressive birds that were present.  At first it was rather smooth as far as muddy walks go, but we then entered this marsh where the mud was darker, not as stable, and was more thick.  Before I knew it, both of my legs were underground knee level, and stuck in the mud.  This was a lifer experience for me, sinking and getting stuck.  Caleb tried to pull me out numerous times with the fear the he would get stuck too.  It seemed like a dangerous situation, it probably was.  Every time I'd pull one leg out, the other would go deeper into the mud, and when I would pull another leg out, the other would go in deeper.  At one point, Caleb tripped and fell completely backwards into the mud.  It was crazy, and I'll admit I threw some sort of fit.  The peak of it was when I got on my knees and found it easier to crawl through the mud.  Bad mouth bombs were dropped, and when I thought the worst was over, one more step had me sinking further while one foot was safely out.  Trying to lift my leg and foot out of this last step was the worst, it was starting to strain muscles, and as I pulled, my shoe came off and was underneath the mud.  You know what I said next as I walked on the mud in my sock, I said many many many many words that shouldn't be repeated on here.  I wish it was on tape, it would have thousands laughing at me.  Caleb leaned in, put his hand down the mud hole about three to four feet in, and hilariously yanked my shoe out.  I don't think I've been dirtier at a point and time in my life, and if I wasn't sinking, I don't think I would have cared.  Both of us were soaked in mud, and we went back to scanning.  We even thought about going further, but it wasn't long before we encountered more of the dangerous mud, and we decided to not go any further.  The bird numbers were mind-blowing thanks to Caleb's count at about two hours spent at this location, and the highlights included birds and numbers of 15,000 Northern Shoveler, high numbers of waterfowl, 6 Sandhill Crane, 50 Black-bellied Plover, 32 Snowy Plover (one scan was awesome to see this many), 28 Stilt Sandpiper, 110 Willet, 1800 Least Sandpiper, 65 Western Sandpiper, 120 Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, etc.


Look at all the Snowy Plovers...

Here is a small series of four videos that were shot in the Salton Sea birding at Poe Road:

Birding the Salton Sea was a great time other than the mud, and the numbers of birds there are hard to pass up.  Waterfowl, gulls, shorebirds, you name it, the main three families with super high numbers.  A Red-shouldered Hawk was fun too.  Caleb and I concluded the day by going back up to the northern reaches of the Sea to search through Bonaparte's and other gulls for the much rarer Black-headed Gull.  We weren't successful, but we did put in a good effort.  In the future, I'd like to go back out to that mud again with The Boy and with snowshoes or some sort of shoe to walk right across the deep mud.  It's gotta be possible.

Red-shouldered Hawk at Salton Sea

The two days of southern California birding were two that will go down as great in my books.  I got 3 lifers, Caleb got 4.  Landing a rarity like the Red-flanked Bluetail is a rare chance in my birding life.  It had been awhile since I had birded outside of Arizona, hopefully 2019 will be one where I'll go out of Arizona more.  Thanks Caleb for the awesome trip.

Me and Caleb: Hardcore and Extreme birders.  Caleb's extreme, I'll stay hardcore