Category: Deep Thoughts (Page 1 of 4)

Birding Bob and the Ethics of Playback

The Ethics of Playback

The New York Times recently ran an opinion documentary centered on the ethics of using playback while birding. It’a fun watch, and does a nice job of laying out the various positions on the complicated practice. The playback protagonist is a guy known as Birding Bob, and I’ve never encountered anyone in the field who is such a playback enthusiast. He seems genuinely motivated by a desire to see birds and show them to others. But he also enrages people.

You can find plenty of opinions about playback and birding on the web: here are David Sibley’s thoughts. There are studies of the impact of playback on birds, some of which are discussed here.

The ultimate playback setup, able to draw in warblers from miles away

What are my views? I’m not a fan of playback for reasons well-explained here. But I’ve done it. The difference between when I’m fine with it and when it bothers me is mainly about motivation and moderation. The best use was when I was taking some non-birders for a walk around the marsh, and was able to get a Least Bittern to call out from the reeds, and a Marsh Wren to pop into view. The crowd was delighted. I also used it in our backyard one afternoon when a Northern Rough-winged Swallow was perched on the electrical wires behind our house. I played its call, and the bird flew in and hovered and circled feet above our picnic table. Such close encounters are magical. 

When playback is deployed to provoke a rare vagrant to pop into view, or really to add any bird to your fill-in-the-blank list, I’m much less enthusiastic. It’s too much like dumping trash behind the Yellowstone lodge and then bragging that you saw a bear for me. Such garbage-induced bear shows used to be hugely popular.

I recently saw a use of playback I hadn’t seen before. Down at the ocean jetty at Playa Vista, a couple of folks with gigantic zoom lenses on their cameras were taking pictures of an Eared Grebe as it swam feet away. They were playing an Eared Grebe call loudly on repeat as they did so (I’m guessing to keep it close). As with the use of playback to find rarities, I wasn’t a fan of this use of playback. Not sure if it was the selfishness or the laziness or the silliness of it. It didn’t make me mad, but I did chuckle.

I have no coherent theory of the ethics of playback, and I’m no absolutist. But if you find yourself turning to playback regularly, it’s worth reconsidering why you’re doing it and how much you’re using it.  

The 5MR: 2020 Recap & 2021 Targets

Sandpiper Trifecta Ballona Creek

5MR Sandpiper Trifecta: Semipalmated, Western, Least

5MR 2020 Recap

I don’t go many posts around here without talking about my 5MR. It’s been the focus of my birding since I discovered the idea in late 2017 (thank you Jen Sanford). I did a 5MR Big Year in 2018. And with the pandemic narrowing our worlds, I did a lot of 5MR birding again in 2020.

I saw 211 species in my 5MR last year according to eBird. It’s exactly the same number of species that I saw in 2019. Weird. Outside of world lifers, a 5MR lifer is the next best thing. I added nine 5MR lifers in 2020, bringing the total number of species I’ve seen in my circle to 286 species. Here are the newest additions to the list:

  1. Masked Booby – In February, the San Bernardino Audubon sponsored a pelagic trip out of Marina del Rey. My 5MR circle extends 1.25 miles out into Santa Monica Bay at the Marina del Rey jetty, so I get pelagic species in my 5MR. But for a reason that I can’t remember, I missed the boat ride this year. Luckily for me, the Masked Booby they spotted spent a couple of weeks hanging out on the jetty, where you could see it from land. Which I did.
  2. Green-tailed Towhee – Not super rare in the L.A. Basin, but a good find nevertheless. I’d failed to find reported Green-tailed Towhees in my circle on a couple of occasions in the past. But this bird, spotted in late March at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh, stayed around. In fact, the same bird appears to have come back to the marsh for the winter.
  3. Red Phalarope – Unlike Red-necked Phalaropes, which are found on the concrete creek a block from my house, Red Phalaropes tend to stay out over the ocean. And when they are seen, they usually don’t have any red feathers on them. But Ballona Creek warrior Walter Lamb found a breeding-plumaged bird in early May, and I was able to track it down.
  4. Semipalmated Sandpiper – This one was years in the making. I recounted the story here.  I am now free of the burden of checking every peep flock for one of these birds.
  5. Budgerigar – This one doesn’t “count”, not even in eBird. This prompted me to do a whole post about exotics. An absolutely beautiful bird, and proudly on my list.
  6. Hooded Warbler – This bird was found by an out-of-town birder wandering the closed LMU campus during the COVID pandemic. Since I am able to access campus, I was the only other eBirder who was able to see it. At the current pace of one Hooded Warbler every 2 years in my 5MR, I’ll have to wait until 2022 to see one again. 
  7. Pine Siskin – Late this fall, there was a movement of Pine Siskin into the L.A. Basin. Maybe it was the huge Bobcat fire in the mountains this September. Or maybe it was just one of those years. In any event, I found one at a goldfinch friendly feeder in Kenneth Hahn Park.
  8. Red-necked Grebe – I take a lot of rides on the Ballona Creek bike path. On those bike rides, I have found (not twitched, but found myself) Pacific Golden-Plover, Sabine’s Gull, Mountain Plover, Harlan’s Hawk, Black-legged Kittiwake, and the second ever sighting of Bar-tailed Godwit in L.A. County. It’s a great place for rare birds. In December, on one of my mid-day bike rides to get out of the house, I spotted a Red-necked Grebe in the channel to Marina del Rey. It flew off not long after I saw it, never to be seen again. Happy to pick this one up after missing it on the Pasadena Audubon pelagic out of Marina del Rey (why wasn’t I on those pre-pandemic boat trips this year?).
  9. Indian Peafowl – You can find Indian Peafowl in established populations in a couple parts of L.A. County, but not in my 5MR. However, in April, people started reporting a male and a female strutting through the westside neighborhood of Mar Vista. Indeed, the pair became internet famous. The male was given a name, Tivoli, for the street he favored. National Geographic did a story on them. Someone created a map that tracked sightings. Interest in the birds faded in July. The last report I can find is from early November, so maybe at least one is still around. 

A map of the peacock and peahen with many more sightings than eBird     

While it gets harder and harder to add new birds to my 5MR life list, there are still plenty that I expect to find. I just need to put myself in the right place at the right time. Here is a list of birds I think are most likely to be added to my 5MR list. Note: I made this list in late December, and by the end of the first week of January I’ve already seen two.

  1. California Gnatcatcher – There is a small breeding population in my 5MR at the LAX Dunes near Dockweiler Beach. But there’s no public access to the dunes. My plan has been to volunteer for dune restoration, and hope I saw one that way. I struck out twice in 2019. And COVID put an end to those volunteer work days in 2020. UPDATE: Before I finished up this post, Don Sterba found a pair of California Gnatcatchers near West LA Community College during the 2020 L.A. CBC that happened on January 3, 2021. A couple of days later, I went over and found them. So that’s one down.
  2. Cattle Egret -These are reported every other year at Ballona Freshwater Marsh. But it’s usually a single bird, and it doesn’t hang around. I’ve never found one myself, or been quick enough to catch one spotted by someone else. One of these days, it’ll be my turn. Either at the marsh, or the lake at Kenneth Hahn. UPDATE 4/12/21: A generous and friendly message from eBird famous birder Naresh Satyan informed me that he’d seen a couple of Cattle Egrets on Ballona Creek, just 6 blocks from my house. My Dad and I hopped in the car, got on the creek, and found the two egrets still working a triangular patch of vegetation.
  3. Grasshopper Sparrow – These secretive sparrows are undoubtedly present in my 5MR, probably every year. The Ballona flatlands and Kenneth Hahn SRA/Baldwin Hills are two spots with good habitat for them. Quite a few have been spotted in L.A. this winter, and I tried in November to find one in my 5MR, but came up empty.
  4. Swainson’s Hawk – These are regular migrants through LA County, but rare on the westside. If I spend a couple of days at Kenneth Hahn in the spring doing a hawk watch, I just might be able to see one, or a whole kettle, of these hawks fly past. UPDATE 1/7/2021: I just saw a Swainson’s Hawk in my 5MR! I was birding a local cemetery looking for a wintering Vermilion Flycatcher when I saw a hawk soaring high. I figured it was a Red-tailed, but something about it that I couldn’t articulate was bothering me. My photos showed the bird lacked the dark patagial bars that are a hallmark of Red-tailed Hawk. Some friendly help from the LACO Birds community confirmed the ID of Swainson’s Hawk. One week down, and I’ve already seen 2 of my targets.
  5. Horned Lark – I feel like Horned Larks should be regular in the Ballona flatlands. But they don’t get reported. A stray bird on the beach seems equally likely. My best bet may be ID’ing a fly-by, but I don’t know the flight call well enough to do that.
  6. Rose-breasted Grosbeak – A regular enough vagrant in L.A. County that a park in my 5MR is bound to host one.
  7. Red-throated Pipit – My 5MR gets a couple of winter pipit flocks each year. There’s a decent chance that one of these will be hidden amongst them. One 2003 sighting in my 5MR, so it’s happened before.
  8. Northern Waterthrush – There are several warblers I’d like to add to my 5MR list. I’ve seen Lucy’s and Virginia’s Warbler at Sand Dune Park, which is just outside my 5MR circle. A Canada Warbler was at LMU a couple of years ago, but I didn’t see it. Magnolia Warblers have got to pass through every year. But my target is a Northern Waterthrush in the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor or at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. The habitat is good.
  9. Rock Sandpiper – Any number of super rare shorebirds could wander onto the beach in my 5MR, like a Ruff, a Wilson’s Plover, or a Curlew Sandpiper. But the beaches near me are popular with humans, and don’t have much wrack. So I think my best chance will be for a bird that likes rocky jetties. As far as I know, there’s just been one Rock Sandpiper ever reported south of Pismo Beach. And it was a winter bird at Marina del Rey. Maybe another one will get a fever for flying south and find the rocks in my 5MR to its liking.
  10. Snowy Owl – we can all dream.
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