Month: May 2020 (Page 1 of 2)

California Gnatcatcher Tick

Just about every Sunday during the COVID-19 “quarantine” (it hasn’t ever been anything close to a lock-down here in Los Angeles — there’s been enough compliance to eliminate the traffic but not enough to stop the steady spread of the virus), our family has found a pleasant place to take a walk away from the other humans. Early, it was in the direction of Malibu, but the crowds on the opened trails there recently are too much for comfort, pandemic or not.  So this Sunday (on Day #80 since we stopped regularly participating in social society) we ventured to the bluffs of Palos Verdes.

Specifically, we headed to White Point Nature Preserve. It’s the site of a couple former Army gun batteries, reachable by a short walk up the slope from the parking lot. If you bring a couple of camping chairs, and the view is clear, you can sit in the shade, eat some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and read a book with a direct view of Catalina Island – which is exactly what we did.

For birders, the attraction here is the coastal sage scrub habitat and a resident population of California Gnatcatchers. The California Gnatcatcher wasn’t its own species until it was split from Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in 1989. Its range is quite limited – the bulk of the population lives in Baja California, Mexico. It only occurs in the United States in southern California. Unlike the migratory Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, which takes to all sorts of habitat, California Gnatcatchers only tolerate sage scrub. Since that habitat shrinks with every passing year, it’s a population in decline. Estimates put the California population at somewhere around 1,300 breeding pairs. It’s categorized as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (so leave your Audubon Hunting Rifle at home for this trip).

We didn’t hear or see any California Gnatcatchers as we walked through the nature garden around the visitor’s center (they’re often found there), but as we sat and rested at the gun battery, I heard a repeated buzzing and a distinctive mew coming from the bushes. As is typical with these birds, the mewing came from deep inside. Occasionally I’d see a bird moving about, though never offering a clear view. But as with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak the other day, I had patience on my side. Over 15 minutes, I got several good looks at both a female and a male California Gnatcatcher. The male was even kind enough to perch up and mew just long enough for me to get some good shots.

I hadn’t seen a California Gnatcatcher in a few years, and didn’t have a nice picture of a male, so this family walk earned a couple of bonus points.

California Gnatcatcher White Point Nature Preserve

California Gnatcatcher, Palos Verdes, May 2020

California Gnatcatcher White Point Nature Preserve

Add One: The County Life List

Like many birders, I keep a list of the birds I’ve seen. The tally of the different species you have ever seen, anywhere in the world, is known as a life list. The pursuit of new “lifers” drives a lot of birding decisions. And there’s no denying the thrill of seeing before your very eyes, flitting about in the field or soaring across the sky, a creature you’ve previously only known as a static sketch in field guides.

But nobody cares one bit about anybody else’s life list. And rightfully so – the length of a birder’s life list doesn’t necessarily reflect any particular skill in identifying birds. Rather, it predominantly reflects time spent birding and (more importantly) places visited around the world. Simply put, any fool with the money to travel and hire a guide can be led around Costa Rica and be told that he saw or heard 101 species during a six minute walk in Carara National Park. Of course, any fool can lie about the birds he’s seen, too.

The life list can be broken up into any number of smaller lists, defined by smaller chunks of time and place. There’s the “birds I’ve seen this year/month” list, the “birds I’ve seen in a particular state during my life” list, the “birds I’ve seen in a particular state this year/month” list, the county life list, the county year list, the 5MR life/year list, the backyard list, ….

I’m not a fan of the behavior necessary to pursue year lists on a scale any larger than a CBC circle. But I’m a sucker for local life lists. And it was the pursuit of adding a bird to my LA County life list that had me out the other morning to a Palos Verdes neighborhood. A Rose-breasted Grosbeak had been spotted, both morning and night, in the same silk oak tree. I figured there was a decent chance it’d still be there the next morning. This was a bird I have seen in other places, but had struck out on a couple of times before here in LA.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Palos Verdes, May 2020

I arrived at 8:30am (a late arrival by birding standards), and a group of nerds were peering through binoculars up into the silk oak tree, pointing. By the time I got out of the car, my COVID mask on, and my eyes up in the tree, it was gone. As time passed with no grosbeak in sight, the crowd slowly dispersed to try and find it. One birder reported hearing it a few blocks away, and some took off to get their sighting. The decision to wander and chase, or stay at a known spot favored by a bird, is a fraught one. I decided to stay put. The patience of the 3 of us who stuck around was rewarded 15 minutes later when we heard the grosbeak’s call. We found it, high up in the silk oak. It gave a decent show, moving haltingly from tall tree to tall tree. And after about 10 minutes, it took off, flying into the distance, maybe never to return (it was reported later that afternoon back in the same silk oak).

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