Category: Species (Page 1 of 11)

(Not very) Bay-breasted Warbler in L.A.

Bay-breasted Warbler Los Angeles, CA

Spread your wings and fly, little buddy

Cheating on my 5MR for some spice-y warbler action

I’ve been bored birding my 5MR recently. There, I said it. It’s not that it hasn’t been a good year in the 5MR. To the contrary, it has. It’s going to end up being my #2 year for species seen by the time the year is up. And I’ve added more 5MR lifers this year than I did last year. But I haven’t been enjoying it. Part of it has been the lack of vagrants – or, more likely, my inability to find the vagrants. While the gas guzzlers are chasing Manx Shearwater and Ruff and Bobolinks and Painted Buntings, I’m wandering my 5MR finding nothing. It’s been particularly disappointing for warblers. While folks are reporting megas like a Dusky Warbler in addition to Chestnut-Sided and Blackpoll and Lucy and Blackburnian and Magnolia and Virginia and Palm and Prothonotary and Canada Warblers, I’m stuck with endless Yellow-rumpeds and some Townsend’s Warblers.

So when a report came in Friday of a Bay-breasted Warbler near Long Beach, I decided that I needed the trip. I’d only ever seen one before, during a trip to Texas, so it would be a L.A. County lifer. I couldn’t go on Saturday because my son’s 13th birthday party was scheduled, and there was a bunch of prepping and shopping to do (and I wasn’t missing out on laser tag). I rose early on Sunday (the clocks fell back, and the eight thirteen-year-olds “sleeping” in tents in our backyard were up at the crack of dawn, hungry for pancakes), checked the listserv for a report of the Bay-headed that morning (check!), and headed out. 

Finding the bird was delightfully easy. I parked in the area where the bird had been seen, and saw 2-3 birders spread out scanning the trees. Figuring it wasn’t  in someone’s sights at the moment, I walked toward a couple tall leafy trees, and there it was. 

Bay-breasted Warbler Los Angeles

There are benefits to being a split-second slow on the shutter

It was a hyper-active bird, constantly in motion. It was mainly moving through the trees, in an area about the size of a football field. A couple of times, it went to the ground and fed, allowing for some nice close looks. 

Bay-breasted Warbler Los Angeles, CA

Bay-breasted Warbler blending in with Yellow-rumpeds

Bay-breasted Warblers summer in Canada and winter in Cuba and South America, and are mainly seen during migration in the eastern United States. The breeding makes look nothing like this bird: they’ve got a grayish back, a brick red cap, throat, and wash on the sides, and a creamy collar.

Sometimes it takes a little spark to get the birding mojo back. Hopefully this Bay-breasted Warbler was that spark. Like magic, during an afternoon bike ride to Playa del Rey beach the same day, I spotted a Long-tailed Duck that had been reported once a week ago. They’re pretty rare in Santa Monica Bay. Hoping the next few weeks includes more good finds. 

Long-tailed Duck Playa del Rey, CA

Long-tailed Duck at Playa del Rey beach

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Spooked and ready to flee, frustrating ID efforts

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

A few days ago, I spotted a dark hawk flying over the Ballona Creek. I  first saw the bird at a long distance. The coloring suggested a turkey vulture (white underwing, white undertail, otherwise dark), but it wasn’t wobbling.  I thought it could be a Zone-tailed (would be a 5MR lifer), but it was too far away to tell. Frustratingly, it went out of my view.

About 30 minutes later, I found what I assume was the same hawk perched on a low snag along the Ballona Creek bike path. The back and chest/belly were all pretty uniformly dark brown, with a little white splotching on the wing. It had yellow legs and pale eyes. The bird flushed, and I saw that its underwing and undertail was white with faint grey barring. The bird landed on the ground in the middle of a large field scattered with tall grasses. After 5 minutes, it moved 50-70 yards and landed on the ground again, this time out of view. 

I found the landing on the ground to be the most notable behavior I observed. I couldn’t recall ever seeing any Red-tailed Hawks settle on the ground in this field before. And this bird did it twice. That, with the dark coloring, had me thinking that I had found something other than a dark western Red-tailed Hawk. But I don’t have the birding chops to make an ID.

On top of that, my photos that first day were pretty bad. They were taken with a pocket zoom camera I bring along on bikes rides. The photos did show some barring on the white sections of the underwing and undertail. You could see that the upper undertail was dark. And the back and upper wings were, other than a few white speckles, uniformly dark dark brown.

I posted my photos and description to LACO Birds listserv (an invaluable resource for anyone, but especially those like me who don’t use facebook or eBird alerts. Indeed, I love local bird sighting listservs. Anytime I travel in the U.S., I look up the local birding listservs). The reactions were both unanimous (“better photos would help”) and mixed (Zone-tailed Hawk, dark morph juvenile Western Red-tailed Hawk (calarus), dark morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s), and dark morph Ferruginous Hawk were all mentioned). 

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles California

Seeking better photos and a more certain ID, I rode out to the spot a couple of days later. I found the dark hawk again, perched on a low snag in the same field. Once again, just after I started to take pictures, it flushed. And just as before, it flushed to the middle of the field and landed on the ground, out of view. I biked around the area, trying to re-find it. There were at least 4 obvious (though varied) Red-tailed Hawks in the field. One had a dark belly, but a rufous tail.

I re-found the target dark hawk after 20-30 minutes: in the middle of the field on the ground. It eventually flew to a low snag perch closer to the bike path. The bird was still all dark dark brown, but more white mottling on the upper wing and some white streaking on the chest were apparent. When it flushed, I was able to get better looks at the underwing. The barring on the white underwing areas was more obvious today, and the dark portion of the underwing looked more mottled with white. Again, it flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. None of the obvious western Red-tailed Hawks around (at one point I saw 3 perched and 3 soaring at the same time, so there were at least 6 others in the area) ever landed on the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Birders far more expert in hawk ID than me felt better about calling the bird a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk after the second round of photos. Features that these folks noted as supporting a Harlan’s Hawk ID were the uniform dark brown color, the dark upper undertail, and the pale iris. A couple of other birders have seen the bird, and got even better photos. My report of Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s) was confirmed in eBird, which I take to be the stamp of approval on the ID. Not everyone agrees, though.

Harlan’s Hawk has been a separate species in the past, but is now considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. They breed in Alaska and northwestern Canada in taiga. Many of them winter in the central U.S. plains. A Harlan’s Hawk is a good find for L.A. County.  There are a couple of reports of Harlan’s Hawk in the Antelope Valley (northern L.A. County over an hour from my house), a 2017 report from Long Beach, and a wintering Harlan’s Hawk in the very same Ballona area in 2013-2014.  They undoubtedly occur more frequently, but the variability of Red-tailed Hawks means they are likely overlooked. The best comparison of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks with Western Red-tailed Hawks is here

Harlan's Hawk Ballona California

I saw the hawk again on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon. Nothing had changed. I found it perched on a low snag not far from the bike path. It flushed as soon as I got off my bike and peered at it through binoculars. It flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. Maybe it will stay all winter like the 2013-2014 bird, and I can study it a bit and maybe get the bird to do a close flyover in good lighting.

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