I Nearly Ran Over a Lifer

A Chukar in the road, (c) Stephen John Davies

Why did the lifer cross the road?

When you teach a teenager how to drive, you realize how frightening and chaotic driving really is. Potential dangers lurk in every direction. Death and destruction can arise in a flash. Whether you’re driving in traffic on the freeway, cruising surface streets in your neighborhood, or touring the lonely backroads of America, you must remain vigilant. At any moment, a distracted driver, somebody in a hurry, children at play, bicyclists, or a neighborhood dog might wander into your lane, dart out from the sidewalk, or speed past you along the median.

It also turns out that, while on a quiet 2-lane highway in Kingston Canyon, Utah, a lifer Chukar might stroll across the road directly in front of you. It happened to me on a recent drive home from a wonderful vacation in southern Utah. We were on a beautiful stretch of windy highway following the East Fork of the Sevier River. As I came around a bend, a quail-sized bird strolled across the road. It wasn’t dawdling, and it wasn’t in a hurry. It appeared to slightly turn in my direction as it neared the bushes on the side of the road, but otherwise ignored my rapid approach. Thanks to its distinctive facial and side markings, I was 100% sure it was a Chukar.

A non-countable Chukar at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA, June 2015

The Chukar is a quail-like bird native to Asia and the Middle East. It’s been introduced across the western United States as a game bird. They’re also bred on farms for training hunting dogs and competitions. They are established in some spots of the U.S. I’d actually seen a Chukar once before, on the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery called St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, California. That’s in L.A. County, in the Antelope Valley between Palmdale and Victorville. It was back in 2015, when a trio of Chukar showed up at the abbey for a few weeks. 

So how could the Utah Chukar be a lifer if I’d seen them before in California? The ones at the monastery were apparently escapees from a nearby ranch. As a result, they didn’t “count” as a lifer. But that thought didn’t cross my mind when I caught a glimpse of a Chukar on the highway. Indeed, I didn’t realize it was a lifer until we got home and I entered the sighting into eBird. Instead, my thought was about finally adding Chukar to my Utah list. They used to be infrequently reported in Capitol Reef National Park, where we vacation. But despite many tries, I’ve never stumbled across one. The Chukars in Utah “count” for life lists because, I guess, the populations there have been established for decades now.

The birding rocked on the trip as a whole. There weren’t any other lifers, but I saw and heard more Yellow-breasted Chats than I knew even existed as we floated down the San Juan River on a raft. Over 4 hot days, we cruised 27 miles downstream from Bluff to Mexican Hat. Violet-Green Swallows and Cliff Swallows were often around, families of Canada Geese appeared every few miles, and the songs of Black-headed Grosbeak and Yellow Warbler was never far away.

The chocolate-milk colored San Juan River in southeastern Utah

After running the river, we drove to Torrey for a week-long stay. I’ve scoped out a lot of great birding spots in this high elevation arid landscape. I managed 4 new county birds this trip: Gray Vireo (3 different birds encountered singing  along backcountry trails), Hammond’s Flycatcher (on Boulder Mountain), Gadwall, and Wilson’s Snipe (on a fence post just outside of town). One day my son and I went out on the Awapa Plateau (Parker Mountain) looking for Greater Sage Grouse. We found miles and miles of great sage brush habitat, but never found a single grouse. We did nearly collide with a Ferruginous Hawk. And we came across several small groups of Pronghorn, spotting at least 30 individuals in total, which was cool. 

Our trips to Utah are great for the chance to see bird species that aren’t as regular in Los Angeles. The blue of the Mountain Bluebird never ceases to amaze. Sandhill Cranes bugle from the tall grass in Bicknell Bottoms. Black-billed Magpie are stunning every time you see them. Common Nighthawks take to the air at sunset along the Fremont River to feed on insects. Grace’s Warblers flitter about the pines (I saw one feeding a gigantic Brown-headed Cowbird juvenile in an absurd scene). Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays move about in small groups. Sage Thrashers pop up in all sorts of places. And Broad-tailed Hummingbirds find every stocked feeder.

I didn’t get to Thousand Lake Mountain during this trip – the only spot I’ve ever seen Canada Jay. And we were a couple of weeks lake to visit on ongoing dinosaur dig near Hanksville, Utah. But the Torrey-Capitol Reef-Boulder Mountain area is always wonderful to visit.



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.



« Older posts