Category: Species (Page 1 of 9)

Killing time Nets Lapland Longspur Lifer

Lapland Longspur, Ventura County sod fields

Lapland Longspur, Ventura County sod fields

A Lapland Longspur in Ventura County sod fields

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to meet up with some of his friends at Leo Carrillo State Beach. It’s almost an hour’s drive from our house, and he was going to spend several hours with them. As a result, it didn’t make sense to drive all the way home to just have to drive out there again to pick him up. Like any good birder, I checked eBird to see where I might wander during the wait. There weren’t any potential lifers reported in the area in the previous week. But Leo Carrillo is at the L.A./Ventura County border, so I figured it would be a chance to bump up my Ventura County list.

I decided I’d head to two spots that were just 20 minutes away – some sod fields south of Oxnard along Arnold Road, and the beach nearby. The sod fields are a birding special spot. In my only trip there a few years ago, I got a lifer Red-throated Pipit and a lifer Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Another Red-throated Pipit had been reported in the sod fields since late September, as well as Golden-Plovers, Mountain Plover, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Not sure what it is about these sod fields, but they are good for rarities.

I pulled up to the sod fields at about 11:00am. I don’t have a scope, so my hopes weren’t high. The birds usually stay far away from the road. So even if I was able to pick out something that looked different, I might not be able to figure out what it is. The first scan of the field produced a decent flock of pipits that weren’t terribly far off. I spent about 15 or 20 minutes going from American Pipit to another American Pipit. the flock flushed, so I drove down the road 100 yards and scanned some more. While I scanned the same pipit flock, another birder pulled up and (always a good sign) got a scope out of his car. Just as he was setting it up, I noticed a bird that was definitely not an American Pipit, just 30 yards or so from the road. Its head was distinctly patterned, with a strong creamy eyebrow and a dark edge on the cheek. It’s back was very streaky. There was a notable patch of chestnut in the wing. And there was a smudgy black area on its chest. I drew the other birder’s attention to it, he got it in his scope, and identified it as a longspur. 

Lapland Longspur Ventura County sod fields


Any kind of longspur would be a lifer for me. I didn’t know what field marks were important, but Devan (the Ventura County expert birder I was lucky to have next to me) did. It was a Lapland Longspur. These are high Arctic breeders who winter mainly in the Great Plains. But they can be found from coast to coast in winter. They like barren land and shortgrass fields. And it was just my luck to be killing time at a sod field when this rarity decided to pop up on an irrigation pipe. It was even close enough to get a photo that wasn’t total crap when zoomed in. The bird moved around for 5 minutes before we lost it, and I didn’t spot it again.

Red-throated Pipit in the same field

I spent another 15 minutes scanning the pipit flock looking for the Red-throated, but couldn’t pick it out. So I headed off to the beach. This spot is right next to Naval Air Station Point Mugu. The last time we went for a family hike in the area, a bunch of soldiers were doing target practice with automatic weapons. Today, just after I parked my car near the beach, an honest-to-goodness missile was launched from the military base. It took off like a rocket out over the ocean, where it disappeared into the clouds. There’s a marshy area, some dunes, and beach all within a short walk. I managed to spot a White-faced Ibis, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and a Loggerhead Shrike during my walk.

With hours still to kill, I stopped at the sod fields on my way back. I’d missed the Mountain Plover earlier (a tractor was working the field it preferred) in addition to the Red-throated Pipit, so I gave it a second look. Still no Mountain Plover, but I did find the Red-throated Pipit amongst the American Pipits. It was a bit further out than the Lapland Longspur had been, but was still close enough to get a photo showing the streaky back. The Red-throated Pipits are widespread in northern Europe and Asian, but  are found annually in the fall in fields with American Pipits on the west coast. A couple other birders were at the field looking for the Lapland Longspur (Devan had sent out an alert), but it was nowhere to be seen. All in all, it was a pretty productive day. 

Red-throated Pipit, Ventura County sod fields

Streaky-backed Red-throated Pipit, in front of an American Pipit

Pacific Golden-Plover on Ballona Creek

Pacific Golden-Plover Dockweiler Beach

Pacific Golden-Plover, Dockweiler Beach, CA, January 2018

Years of Pacific Golden-Plover in my 5MR

This is the story of Pacific Golden-Plover in my 5MR. Pacific Golden-Plovers have been occasionally reported in eBird on Dockweiler Beach and along Ballona Creek. For a long time, it was a rare sighting. Some meticulous record keepers back-entered a series of reports from the 70s and early 80s. After that, eBird sightings of Pacific Golden-Plover in the area vanish until one was reported over a couple of October days in 2010. A one-day wonder was seen in October 2015. Since November, 2017, however, there are hundreds of winter reports. All of them may be of a single returning individual.

In November 2017, I was making one my regular bike rides from my house down the Ballona Creek bike path and then south along the coast. I stopped, as I often do, at a Snowy Plover enclosure on Dockweiler Beach. Not only can you find banded Snowy Plovers there, but I’ve found Red Knot and even a Mountain Plover there before. On this day, a Golden-Plover was standing by itself inside the enclosure.  Distinguishing Pacific from American Golden-Plover was above my birding pay grade at the time, so I left it to the experts to make the ID.

Birders dutifully made their trip to the beach to see it. After 10 days, the reports stopped. On later bike rides along the beach, I didn’t see it again. Until I did see it again. On a stop in January, there it was, back in front of the Snowy Plover enclosure.  It continued on the beach until the end of February. I think it’s safe to assume that all these 2017/2018 sightings on Dockweiler Beach were the same bird.

Given historical reporting trends, it would probably be another 3-5 years before one was spotted in the area again. But on Halloween 2018, I found a Pacific Golden-Plover along the rocky Ballona Creek with a big flock of Black-bellied Plovers. Was it the same bird who spent the previous winter at the beach just a mile away? The bird and I had no way to communicate and resolve the mystery. This Pacific Golden-Plover, like the one the year before, stayed around  until mid-February 2019.

Pacific Golden-Plover Ballona Creek

The return? Pacific Golden-Plover, Ballona Creek, Halloween 2018

A single Pacific Golden-Plover was back on the creek in the fall of 2019. This one was found much earlier than the previous two: on August 30, 2019. And it ended up staying longer than the birds the previous two years, being reported on the creek until mid-March 2020. Like the bird the year before, this one stayed with a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers, and roamed up and down the creek with the tide., Was it, however, the same bird? Was it enjoying its L.A. winters so much that it decided to arrive earlier and stay later?

Pacific Golden-Plover Ballona Creek

On the creek, October 2019

Pacific Golden-Plover Ballona Creek

Still on the creek in March 2020

This fall, a Pacific Golden-Plover showed up again along the creek. I first spotted this one on September 1, 2020 (2 days later than the first report in 2019). Does this make it likely that it was the same bird as the one that spent the winter of 2019/2020 along the creek? The timing is right, but this bird had more black feathers on its belly than the bird that arrived in Fall 2019 did. Could that mean it’s not a juvenile, but is that same bird, this time coming back with a few breeding feathers still hanging on? If the world wasn’t so crazy these days, I might find some time to research Pacific Golden-Plover molt.

Pacific Golden-Plover with Black-bellied Plover) Ballona Creek

Back on the creek, with a Black-bellied Plover, September 2020

None of these unanswered questions may be as important as this one: how do you pronounce “Plover”? Is it a long “o”, as in Homer? Or is it a short “o”, as in cover? I’ve heard it both ways, from old-timers and newby birders alike. One birding blogger explored the issue, without resolution. For what it’s worth, I’m a long “o” plover pronouncer.


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