Lifers for the 5MR, LA County, and ABA Area

The first few months of 2024 have been busy at work. That means I’ve had less time for birding. Having less time has inspired me to go on chases when I get the chance. Nothing clears the head of the stress and drag of work like heading out into the world to find a good bird. And there have been some good birds to find around here this year. So far, I’ve added two new birds to my 5MR tally, sending me officially over 300 according to eBird (and up to 309 if you count exotics/escapees). I’ve also added 7 new birds to my LA County list. Four of those were new to my ABA area list (that is, they were birds I’d seen before, but only outside the U.S.). Two birds were world lifers – I’ll cover them in a separate post.

5MR Lifers

Close to home, I’ve added two new birds to my five-mile radius list so far in 2024. The first was a Common Murre, a black and white seabird that is the closest looking thing we have to a penguin in these parts. They don’t often come close to shore, but in February I lucked into one at the Playa Del Rey jetty. I had spent the morning driving out to Glendora to find a Broad-billed Hummingbird (see below). On my way back, I decided to see if a Long-tailed Duck that had been spending this winter in the Marina del Rey channel was still around. Because that duck had been reliably staying along the northern jetty, I decided to park over there this day. As I walked out to the jetty, ubiquitous LA Birder Tom Miko was walking in with his scope. We chatted, and he asked if the Common Murre out by the breakwater was a known, continuing bird. It wasn’t. So he generously walked back out to the end of the jetty with me, and got the murre in his scope. It was swimming around at the end of the breakwater, barely in ID range. A couple more Common Murre showed up at the jetty during spring this year. Not sure what explains the irruption (several were seen from land along the LA coast this winter), but it was a nice addition to my 5MR list. 

The second addition to my 5MR list was a wayward warbler in May. One Saturday, word went out one that a Virginia’s Warbler had been spotted at a hummingbird garden at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Virginia’s Warblers typically summer in pinyon / juniper / oak habitat of the interior Southwest. They are rare in LA County, more likely to be found in fall than in spring. So when I heard one was 15 minutes away, I hopped in my car and headed over. The finder, Mitchell Bailey, was still at the bottlebrush where the bird was making occasional appearances. I didn’t have to wait long before it showed. It moved a bit more deliberately through the bushes than the Townsend’s and Orange-crowned warblers that were present. And it had a frustrating tendency of staying on the back side of the bush. This is the 23rd species of warbler I’ve seen in my 5MR.

LA County Lifer Hummingbird

I don’t do all my birding inside my 5MR. From time to time, a good bird will be found further afield, and I’ll seize the excuse to explore somewhere new. In the middle of February, a homeowner with a great garden of native plants and feeders reported that a Broad-billed Hummingbird was a regular visitor to the front yard. These are beautiful hummingbirds, with a green back, blue-green iridescent chest and throat, and a bill with a fiery-orange base and black tip. It’s common in central and northern Mexico, and is a regular summer resident in southern Arizona. That’s where I’d seen my first Broad-billed, in the legendary Madera Canyon on a 2019 trip with my Dad. I arrived at the reported suburban stakeout at 9:30am on a Saturday morning. Within 10 minutes, the magical hummingbird was visiting the flowers in the front yard. It would feed, then perch for some photos, and then zip across the street. 

The other new LA County birds for the year were the Winter Wren, Hepatic Tanager I saw in January, some Sagebrush Sparrows (world lifer!) I found in the Antelope Valley, the Yellow-footed Gull described below, and two crazy birds I saw in one week (Tropical Parula and Yellow-headed Caracara).

ABA Lifer: Yellow-footed Gull

Gulls can be hard. At first, they basically all look the same: gray backs, white bellies, and a yellow bill. But it doesn’t take long to confidently separate the adults amongst the 9 regular gull species we have in L.A. County. Size, bill markings, the darkness of the gray on the back, and leg color matter, as do subtler features like eye color and the tips of the primary feathers. Yet, the more you learn, the less you seem to know when it comes to gulls. After you start paying attention,  you realize gulls come in a thousand slightly different variations. Part of this is because most go through three or four molt cycles before they reach adult plumage. In addition, their propensity for hybridizing makes gull ID quite a challenge. 

Fortunately, a recent lost gull that turned up in L.A. County wasn’t that hard to pick out. A Yellow-footed Gull was found out east at the Puddingstone Reservoir in Bonelli Park. Yellow-footed Gull used to be a Western Gull, but it was split back in the 1980s into its own species. The distinguishing feature of the Yellow-footed Gull is its yellow legs (they couldn’t call it a Yellow-legged Gull since there already is a European gull by that name). It’s range is restricted to the Gulf of California, though some occasionally show up at the Salton Sea. Seeing them this far north is quite rare. All the other gulls at the reservoir were either California Gulls (paler gray back, a bit smaller) or Ring-billed Gulls (smaller, distinct bill). The Yellow-footed Gull was conveniently perched on a buoy not far from shore when I drove up. I snapped a couple of photos, chatted with the other birders present, and called it a morning. It wasn’t a lifer – I’d seen them almost 30 years ago during a camping trip to Baja long before I was a birder (photos from my trip showed a group of them together with some Brown Pelicans).

You’d think that new additions to my 5MR, and and L.A. County, would start to dry up the bigger my list gets. But maybe I haven’t seen enough to get there yet. After all, Kimball Garrett has seen 83 more species in L.A. County than I have. So I suspect there will continue to be vagrants for me to see for years to come.



Yellow-headed Caracara in Popeye’s Parking Lot

Strange times are these in which we live

Popeye’s Dumpster + Halal Meat Market = Yellow-headed Caracara in Los Angeles

All rarities are not equal. Sometimes, a bird is found in a place so improbable that the biggest mystery is what in the wide world of sports the bird is doing there. The Snowy Owl we had in Los Angeles in December 2022 was one such bird. The wandering Steller’s Sea Eagle that has traveled since 2020 from Alaska to Texas and then to Newfoundland is another.

How these vagrants ended up out of place matters in a bunch of ways. If it escaped captivity as a pet, or as a falconry bird, or if it was sprung from a zoo like Flaco the Eurasian Eagle-Owl in New York City (may he rest in peace), it’s a fun curiosity. Same for those birds who (probably) hitched a ride on a cargo ship across the ocean. If it’s part of a group that was intentionally released (European Starling in the U.S.) or escaped captivity (parrots on Southern California), it might lead to a sustaining population. If it is naturally occurring–that is, if it flew on its own–it creates questions for science. Was it moved by a big storm? Is it out of range because of food stress, or habitat loss, or climate change? Is it a species that is thriving and expanding its range?

My first, distant, fuzzy look of an out-of-place raptor

We had one of those improbable birds in Los Angeles in April when a Yellow-headed Caracara was found dumpster diving behind a Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. Yellow-headed Caracara are a South American raptor that is a regular as far north as Costa Rica. That’s a long, long way from Hollywood. And yet, a Yellow-Headed Caracara spent a winter in Humboldt County, California in 2007-08. Another has been around Miami, Florida for two years (and is still there). Did this L.A. bird fly here on its own? Did it hitch a ride on a tanker going through the Panama Canal and disembark at nearby Long Beach harbor? The answer is almost certainly unknowable. That’s a bummer for those obsessed with their official list. Like the Snowy Owl, it probably won’t be considered “countable”, at least for now. But my list is my list, and it doesn’t play by the birding police rules. As I’ve said before, if a bird can survive for more than a week, however it got there, its counts on my list. 

So it was with a mixture of wonder and joy that I headed out to see the caracara. When I showed up at the Popeye’s parking lot, there were a half dozen birders, but no caracara. It had apparently been there before I arrived, and flew off to the west. So I went walking the neighborhood to the west (between sitting and wandering, I’m a wanderer). After a half hour, I found the Yellow-Headed Caracara. First, I saw a raptor fly in from the northwest and dip down behind a house. I walked down the street a bit hoping for a view, and found the caracara perched on a utility pole. Some crows were harassing it, and it flew to the cover of a big tree. I alerted the birders via WhatsApp, and a couple of folks scurried over to see it. The views at this point weren’t good. But the bird was calling occasionally, a loud screech. After 20 minutes or so without the bird moving, I left. It eventually made it back to Popeye’s, waiting for dumpster eats and looking for hand-outs. Two weeks later, it is still there.

It’s a wonder that more birds don’t hang around dumpsters and fast food parking lots. They’ve got to be reliable sources of food, and for scavengers like caracara or vultures, they’d seem to be prime targets. Apparently, the L.A. caracara had been around for at least 3 weeks before the birding world discovered it. Curious to see how long it remains.





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