Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I have a couple of days free this week after the San Diego pelagics and the Bodega Bay trip on Friday. So - rather than catch up on my blog and actually update my readers (both of them) on what I've been doing, I decided to head out instead and do some "fun" birding. Wait - hasn't all this birding been fun? Well, yes, that's kind of the point of the year - but it's a lot more relaxing if I don't have important year targets to chase (and potentially miss.) Yeah, Big Year birding can get pretty stressful.

One of the birds I wanted to spend more time with was Bell's Sparrow - and San Diego is a great place to find them. Bell's Sparrow is a product of the recent (2013) split of Sage Sparrow into two (new) species - Bell's Sparrow (breeding in coastal and inland California) and Sagebrush Sparrow (breeding in the Great Basin - Nevada, Utah etc.)

Splits are great for birders - it's an opportunity to get an extra life bird on your list. And, even better, if you've already seen the subspecies that are now elevated to the species level, you can get an "armchair tick" - a new life bird without even having to leave home (or your proverbial, or actual, armchair.) [The opposite is the dreaded "lump", when birds you've already seen are combined into a single species, resulting in a diminution of your life list, and spending time in your actual armchair with a stiff drink.]

But for many birders the split of Sage Sparrow has been a head scratcher. The old Sage Sparrow had 3 main subspecies in the US:

(i)   bellia very dark-headed bird with no streaks on the back
(ii)  canescens - a pale bird with little or no streaks on the back
(ii)  nevadensis - a pale bird with some streaks on the back

The belli subspecies is extremely obvious because of the dark head, while the latter two are either (at best) very difficult to tell apart visually, or impossible to tell apart! So, it was rather surprising to most birders that Sage Sparrow was split into 2 species as follows:

(a) Bell's Sparrow - belli and canescens
(b) Sagebrush Sparrow - nevadensis

And while the summer breeding ranges are quite distinct, canescens and nevadensis do overlap in the winter, with the former ranging as far east as Phoenix. So - my pre-split winter "Sage Sparrows" at Buckeye Road, Phoenix, could have been either of the new species. So - I've taken that off my list, and added the canescens I saw in Kern County, CA this summer as the new Bell's. I'll have to track down Sagebrush this winter, but I'd also like to get a solid Bell's Sparrow - the distinctive dark-headed belli form - while I'm in San Diego.

Dan King, whom I met on one of the San Diego boats, suggested I try the Otay Lakes, just east of the city (this is the same Dan King who told me of Whitney Portal the fantastic Sooty Grouse location - thanks again Dan!) The Bell's Sparrow spot is a fairly easy place to find - just look for the giant graffiti-covered dam:

Giant graffiti-covered dam - 
Otay Lakes, San Diego

And after climbing up the dry sage- and laurel sumac-covered slopes I was rewarded with some great views of the tiny Bell's Sparrow:
 Bell's Sparrow - the subspecies belli.
Dark head, strong malar stripe and unstreaked back.

Now I just need to track down the Sagebrush Sparrow - probably in eastern AZ this winter (they range much further east than canescens Bell's.) Or try the Buckeye spot again - and try to separate the canescens from the nevadensis. David Vander Pluym posted an excellent article discussing field marks (especially malar stripe) that could be useful in separating the two. This is supported by photos by Tommy DeBardeleben of sparrows at the Buckeye location (he found and photographed both species there, with Sagebrush by far the more common, as expected.)

Anyway - back to California and the "fun birding." Another bird I really wanted to see while I was out here was Red-throated Pipit. In southern California they can be found on sod farms strutting around in full view - i.e. not like the shy, skulking birds I saw in Alaska this fall, where I'd only see them flying away after flushing them.

So, on my way back north I stopped at Arnold Road, Oxnard - the same place where I saw Tricolored Blackbird this summer. 

Arnold Road, Oxnard - a magnet for migrating and hungry pipits

It wasn't long before I located the pipit flock - with some great views of American Pipits

American Pipit (subspecies rubescens)
Unstreaked back and dark legs

While I'm sorting through the pipits, birds of prey would continually parade through the fields, hoping for an easy meal. 

 American Kestrel (female)

White-tailed Kite (adult)

And with each passing raptor, the flock would lift off, circle round calling, and then eventually resettle, reshuffled into new positions. And among the American Pipits I found two odd-looking birds with striped backs and bright pale legs - Red-throated Pipits:

Red-throated Pipit (in summer they really do have red throats!)
A breeder of the Russian Far East and western Alaska

It would be slightly ridiculous leaving California without trying to see at least one of the (many) Blue-footed Boobies that have invaded the state this year in unprecedented numbers. So - on the way to Los Angeles airport I stopped off at Playa del Rey to check out the breakwater, which has been hosting 3 Boobies this fall.

The Playa del Rey breakwater is popular with people fishing, walking and biking. And even the birds seem to like it.

Black Oystercatcher

Willet (Western)

And at the very end - I find the Boobies, hanging out...

Blue-footed Boobies (juveniles) - less than 5 miles from LAX! 
Two of 3 birds currently roosting here.

OK - that's it for the fun birds. Back to the hard core grind that is the Big Year. Friday I'm on a pelagic out of Bodega Bay, and then either I'm going home or off to Texas for the recently-found, and very rare, Golden-crowned Warbler. 

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 724 + 2 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart)



  1. Guadalupe Murrelet? Masked Booby?? Yellow-legged Gull now reported from St. Johns, Nfld...

  2. I have Masked Booby from the Dry Tortugas in the spring. Probably (definitely) missed Guadalupe now (should have gone on the Weds ABA boat.) And YL Gull -waiting to see if it sticks before heading there.

    Busy going after Golden-crowned Warbler now...

    - Neil

  3. There was a Tundra Bean-Goose at Salton Sea. Although I don't know if it has stuck around...

    - Brenton

    1. See next post. Yes - there was. No - it didn't stick :(

      - Neil

  4. Thanks for your reports from far and wide -- a real pleasure for the armchair birder, under domestic constraints! Best best wishes for your good success tracking down all and sundry these next months.

  5. I probably saw you out in the Oxnard fields looking for the Red-throated pipits. Crazy that was still off your list. See ya around next time.

    1. Hi John,

      What a great place to see the pipits! You should try in Alaska though where you have to wear 4 layers of clothing and hear the bird as it flushes away from you. That's the real way to see Red-throated Pipits!

      - Neil

  6. Birding for fun?! What's this birding for fun stuff you're talking about?! Don't you know there's no time for that. You're attempting to break a record here!! Now, knock off all that fun birding malarky and get back to it, Neil!! :)

    1. Hey!

      Yeah, I know. What was I thinking! Don't worry - back on track now. Reports on Golden-crowned Warbler and Eurasian Tree Sparrow coming to a blog near you soon.

      - Neil

  7. Also, best wishes on a successful Golden-crowned Warbler campaign. Based on the wikipedia photo, they look pretty cute.

    1. Thanks! See upcoming post. Yes they are cute ;)

      - Neil

  8. Replies
    1. Yep - although gone I think by the time I got home. Lucky I got them in AK (Nome and Gambell.)

      - Neil