Tundra Bean-Goose in L.A. County

Tundra Bean-Goose: far away from home, far away from my camera

The wacky Arctic winter in Southern California continues

You may recall that my 2023 started off with an improbable Snowy Owl in a residential neighborhood of Orange County. This was followed by a long-staying Yellow-billed Loon in San Diego County. It was as if Santa had brought along some Arctic birds in his sleigh and deposited them in Southern California. Not to be outdone, Los Angeles County gots its Arctic wanderer recently when a Tundra Bean-Goose was spotted in the Antelope Valley. The sharp eyes that saw it first were those of Jonathan Feenstra, who has seen an astounding 489 species in L.A. County. He saw it flush from at a place called Piute Ponds – a high desert freshwater wetland fed by treated wastewater from the nearby city of Lancaster. Piute Ponds are located on Edwards Air Force Base, and you’ve got to have permission to visit the site. Like many others, I don’t have permission. Because permission to visit is granted by the military, it’s a slow process to get it. Combine that with the likelihood that the bird would move on quickly, it didn’t seem like I’d have the chance to see the bird.

Scattered purple dots of Tundra Bean-Goose sightings

But this goose wanted to be seen. It moved from Piute Ponds to the nearby Lancaster Water Treatment Plant (WTP), where it hung around with other geese. The WTP is closed to birders, as well, so you had to hope it was visible from the perimeter fence. (The kind staff at the WTP opened the place for birders during the week, making for some happy, if stinky, birders). As often as not over the next 10 days, it was visible. I finally took the drive up to Lancaster 2 weeks after the Bean-goose was first spotted. Since it was a weekend, I couldn’t go inside. To my delight, the bird was still there, wobbling around a big field visible through the chain-link fence surrounding the water treatment plant. It was with two Canada Geese and a Greater White-fronted Goose. It was far away, but it was there. Astounding to wonder how this bird got here. Presumably, it stopped here on its way north, maybe from Mexico. What was it doing in Mexico?

As the eBird map above shows, Tundra Bean-Goose is not a common sight anywhere in the lower 48. There’s been just over a dozen birds spotted, spread from the West Coast to New York. So it was delight to get to see one.

Further Antelope Valley Adventures

Since I had made the drive, I decided to wander the Antelope Valley for a few hours. The Antelope Valley is a marvelous place (except in summer, when it’s outrageously hot and feels empty and bleak) (and often in winter, when it’s frigid and windy). In March, I assure you, it can be stunning. California poppies were beginning to show in the western end of the valley. On account of all of our rain this winter, it’s sure to be a super-bloom this year. The hills of the Tejon Ranch were green with happy vegetation. It was beautiful.

There had been reports of a flock of 15 Chestnut-collared Longspurs on private land in the western Antelope Valley, which would be a lifer. I drove to the general area, cruised some fields and walked around hoping to flush them, but I struck out. Some Horned Larks, a curious Prairie Falcon, and a late Ferruginous Hawk were pleasant consolation prizes.

From there, I headed to Gorman Post Road, a spot along I-5 near the Grapevine where California Condors and Golden Eagles can show up. Indeed, both had been spotted a couple days previous. The weather, however, wasn’t being that cooperative. Low clouds and light rain were steadily moving through. During a brief break in the clouds, some ravens and a Red-tailed Hawk were joined briefly aloft by a Golden Eagle. Ten years in L.A., and this was the first time I’d ever seen a Golden Eagle in the county. But there were no condors soaring. Still, it was a productive and restorative day in the Antelope Valley.

Blue sky briefly peaks out above the pond at Gorman Post Road



Bird Tracks

Western Gull tracks

Western Gull tracks cross at Dockweiler Beach

Bird Tracks Are a Real Thing

Birding is primarily a visual activity. We go out to see birds. Our study aids are guidebooks dominated by pictures and written descriptions of birds’ appearance and behaviors. We bring binoculars and scopes with us to help us see the birds. As you get more field hours in, you will increasingly rely on sound to detect and identify birds. Still, birders will often stare at a bush or tree long after confidently identify the bird hiding inside by its call. That’s because they prefer to see the bird. Indeed, many birders will only reluctantly, if at all, list a “heard only” bird on their lists. For whatever reason, seeing is believing.

Still, one visual aspect of birding that gets little focus is bird tracks. If you pay attention, they’re actually quite abundant (though only moderately scrutable). But I can recall only two times when anyone I was around remarked about visible bird tracks. Both involved non-birders who noticed them. This neglect of bird footprints is in stark contrast to mammals. There are dozens of field guides that help you identify animal tracks. There are even guides to the tracks of animals (like snakes) that don’t have any feet. While birds are most definitely animals, and they have feet, these books typically don’t include a section on bird tracks. 

But birds leave tracks. They leave them in the sand, and in the snow. They leave ephemeral tracks after walking through a puddle. Spying for bird tracks is a form of birding that doesn’t involve seeing the bird. This post collects a few of the bird tracks I’ve seen in different places.

One good place to find them is at the beach.  I’ve got a bunch of photos of bird tracks from the beach. One of my favorite is the one below. They are Sanderling tracks. I know because I watched the birds running around and then took the picture. I’m not so sure I could ID bird tracks on the beach if the birds that made them weren’t around. Just about every bird track is three toes facing forward, and maybe one facing back (but see this mythical freak). My question about these Sanderling tracks is this — are these the tracks of two Sanderlings moving quickly side by side, or one Sanderling hopping along? If you’ve ever seen Sanderlings work the surf, you’ll probably guess the first. They run, in and out with the surf. I’m not sure I’ve ever seem hop around like a robin might. I found the tracks on the right in the frozen crust of a flood basin in Lancaster, California. They were huge, so I’m guessing a Great Blue Heron made them. 

Despite their delicate lightness, birds also leave prints is in the snow. I don’t get to be around snow all that often. But when I am, I’m on the lookout for bird tracks. During our winter trip to New Mexico, we got a good day of snow. Before it melted, I found all kinds of remnants of birds. Above are the backwards arrows left by Wild Turkeys. Below, a record of a lazy-toed raven crossing the street. Under that is one of my favorite snow prints – a Dark-eyed Junco that left a belly dent along with its feet impressions.

Toe drag, Common Raven

Dark-eyed Junco snow tracks

Dark-eyed Junco tracks, with belly impression, Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Bird tracks aren’t just found on land. If you’re quick about it, you can see them on water. Coots and cormorants and grebes and geese and other birds taking flight from the water often take a long series of steps on the surface before they get enough lift to fly. Bird tracks in water are about the only ones that you’re likely to find a bird at the end of. All those tracks in the sand and snow are memories of birds long, or impossible, separated from their former path.

The ephemeral tracks of a Cassin’s Auklet

Perhaps the coolest set of animal tracks I’ve ever found are not bird tracks. These Triassic Era track fossils are in Capitol Reef National Park. The animal that left these marks was not a bird, or even a pre-bird. Rather, it was apparently an alligator-like creature. It made these impressions over 200 million years ago with its claws on the sandy bottom of a body of water. They were filled in with sediment and then fossilized. Sadly, someone stole some of these fossilized tracks from the national park a few years ago.

Dinosaur Tracks Capitol Reef National Park

Triassic Era tracks preserved in Moenkopi, Capitol Reef National Park

So there you have it – a wide-ranging tour of the largely ignored world of bird tracks.

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