Month: June 2020 (Page 1 of 6)

Budgerigar and Exotics

Budgerigar Playa Vista

California: the land of fruits and nuts … and exotic birds, like this Budgerigar

Budgerigar in the 5MR

I was recently having a conversation with a birding friend about whether to chase exotic birds. It was prompted by a sighting on back-to-back days of a Rosy-faced Lovebird in Harbor City. I’d seen one on Maui a couple years ago, and got a countable Rosy-faced Lovebird in Phoenix last year. Those birds were part of non-native breeding populations. Any Lovebird in L.A. is going to be somebody’s pet that flew away. Even though I’d never seen one in L.A. County, I decided not to chase it. More below on the tension between life lists and escaped cage birds.

Then, a couple of days later, while out on a casual walk down the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor, I heard an odd tink coming from bushes across the creek. Within seconds, I had a crazy parakeet in my sights. It wasn’t one of our many parrots or parakeets here in L.A. It was a Budgerigar. The Budgerigar is a small parrot native to Australia. They are kept as cage birds. You can buy them for $25. Wikipedia says they are the third most popular pet in the world, after dogs and cats. Apparently, they are pretty good mimics. My son and I found some funny videos online of Budgerigars “talking.”

The Budgerigar was actually pretty hard to see, despite its bright coloring. When two sets of walkers asked me what I was looking at, I told them and pointed them directly at the tree, 30 feet away. None could find the Budgerigar. I watched the bird for about ten minutes. It flew from tree to tree, pecking at branches occasionally. Its feathers were in good shape. It looked, if I can say it, brand new. It never said anything to me in English. It was a new L.A. County lifer for me, and even better, I found it while birding my 5MR.

Birding and Exotic Species

It turns out that a Budgerigar, presumably this same bird, had been reported in eBird at this very spot a week before. I never saw that report. And unless you know the exact checklist to view, you won’t find it by searching for Budgerigar sightings in Playa Vista. Reports of escaped cage birds like Budgerigar get filtered out of the public display in eBird. 

Rose-ringed Parakeet

Rose-ringed Parakeet: native to India, a small population lives in my 5MR

Not only that, an eBird reviewer contacted me after I reported the Budgerigar, asking me to switch my entry from “Budgerigar” to “Budgerigar (domestic type)”. The switch meant that the bird would not “count” in my eBird life list. That’s no big deal – I support the mission of eBird. I want it to be an accurate and complete database for scientists. Not reporting the bird, and others like it, deprives scientists of data about exotic populations. And this bird was certainly an escaped/released caged bird that was almost certainly domesticated and not a wild bird brought to the U.S. from Australia (though I couldn’t rule that out). 

Helmeted Guineafowl Kenneth Hahn

Helmeted Guineafowl: a domesticated species, this bird lasted a couple of months before a dog ended its life

It just so happened that the eBird reviewer who contacted me (a friend, a good birder, and a birding ambassador) is one of those never-ending L.A. County Big Year birders who chases birds all over our massive, enormous county, year after year. But neither the reviewer, nor a single eBird “Top 100” birder, had come to find the Budgerigar. Maybe they’ve all got Budgerigar on their life lists already. Maybe they all saw one already this year in L.A. Maybe this bird was too far away to chase. Maybe they never knew about it because it doesn’t appear in eBird public data or alerts. I don’t begrudge anyone for birding in their own way, but arbitrary eBird species tallies isn’t what guides me.

Note: I recognize the irony of a 5MR booster apparently criticizing birders for not chasing after a bird. It’s not the failure to chase this bird that bugs me. It’s what drives the chasing that I think is worth discussing.

Why do some species have a “Budgerigar (domestic type)” option and others, like the Japanese Tit that lurked in L.A. for some weeks, or the Rosy-faced Lovebird, don’t? Some species are actually domesticated – that is, they are bred rather than caught in the wild. That explains why there is such an option in eBird for Budgerigars but not some other exotic birds found in L.A. Why the domesticated escaped pets don’t “count” in eBird for life lists, but the one-off oddities that get found from time to time do count, is another story. An uninteresting and inconsequential story, but a story nonetheless.

Chukar Los Angeles

Chukar: an Asian native found throughout the American West

Whatever eBird does with regard to its tallies, I can put any birds I see on my own life list and 5MR list, which I did for the Budgerigar. And there are lots of exotic birds to see in L.A. Some, like the many species of parrots and parakeets, and Scaly-breasted Munia, Pin-tailed Whydah, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and Northern Red Bishop, are breeders in the county. While they may have begun as released or escaped birds, they have managed to find mates and build-up sustaining, if limited, populations. Others are one-off escapees. These include the occasional Cockatiel, and birds like a Venezuelan Troupial that gets reported every once in a while, and Red-cheeked Cordonbleus (I haven’t seen either of those last two).

What’s the point of all this jibber-jabber about exotics and eBird? It’s me trying to resolve the tension between adding to my L.A. County life list and the guilt of chasing birds that days before were somebody’s pet. So I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic rule for exotics – chase them if they are reported in my 5MR; wait at least a week to chase one anywhere else. If the bird can survive in the concrete jungle for a week, it deserves to be recognized and is worth chasing beyond my 5MR, whether it “counts” for my eBird list or not.

Here are a few more exotic bird species I’ve managed to see in L.A. county.


Yellow-crowned Bishop

Yellow-crowned Bishop: Sub-Saharan species seen in my 5MR for a couple of weeks

Northern Red Bishop

Northern Red Bishop: tack sharp shot worthy of @TheIneptBirder

Add Pigeon Guillemot: LA County Life List

Pigeon Guillemot Point Dume

Pigeon Guillemots glide in grayscale at Pt. Dume (Malibu)

Pigeon Guillemots at Point Dume

On Father’s Day, I often get to go out birding by myself. It is a gift to have alone time in nature. I’d honestly prefer it if my boys or my entire family came along with me. But they’re hard to rouse at 6:30am on Sunday mornings. They’re especially hard to rouse if the reason they’d be getting up is to search the June gloomy horizon for something called a Pigeon Guillemot.

Which is not to say that Pigeon Guillemots aren’t worth it. They are. Pigeon Guillemots are alcids: web-footed diving birds of the ocean. They’re related to puffins. Pigeon Guillemots are jet black from bill to tail, with the exception of red-orange legs and a white patch on the wings. They prefer rocky coasts, and are exclusively West Coast birds. (This video doesn’t involve Pigeon Guillemots, but it’s a stark introduction to how rough life can be for a baby alcid. Jump from a cliff having never flown before, land without really knowing how to put on the brakes, and if you don’t make it to the water, run for your life from the foxes.)

Los Angeles county waters are the southern end of the Pigeon Guillemots’ expected annual summer range. Not sure if it’s water temperature or our lack of rocky coastline that keeps them from going further south. This June, a handful of Pigeon Guillemots have been spotted along L.A. County’s western-most coast and at Palos Verdes. I decided to use my Father’s Day morning on a shot at adding a lifer to my LA County list.

I got up at 6:30am and made the drive to Pt. Dume in Malibu. The coast at Point Dume runs west-east, and Pt. Dume juts out into the ocean. Birds and whales migrating along the west coast often make a line from Pt. Dume to Palos Verdes. A friend had seen 4 Pigeon Guillemots there the day before. The biggest challenge of birding Pt. Dume is probably the parking. Next to the short trails atop the bluff, where the best seawatching happens, is a 9 car parking lot. You can park down on the beach in a large parking lot, but you’ve got to pay for that one. Being both cheap and hoping for some pelagic species, I headed to the bluff-top parking lot. When I pulled up at 7:10am, it was full.  I decided to give it until 7:30am before driving down to the beach. Happily, in 10 minutes, a surfer returned from his morning ritual. After he took off his wet suit, and changed his clothes, and poured water on his head, and then dried his hair with his towel, and then stowed his surfboard, and then chatted with his surfer dude friend, and then checked his phone, I had my parking spot. 

It’s a short walk out to a couple wooden viewing platforms at the point. Upon arrival, I immediately saw a pair of Pigeon Guillemots swimming together maybe 100 yards off shore. They drifted a bit before flying over to some exposed rocks. A birding couple that had joined me at the platform with scopes pointed out a third Pigeon Guillemot on the rocks.

Pigeon Guillemot Pt. Dume Malibu

I stayed for another half an hour watching the sea. The viewing conditions were great despite the lack of sun. The ocean was super calm, and any bird in the air or water stood out easily. The birders spotted a flock of shearwaters way out, but I couldn’t ever find them with my binoculars. A loon flew by, as did a tiny Least Tern, an oystercatcher moved around on the rocks below, and a Wrentit popped up in the bushes right below the viewing platform. But no good pelagic birds.

Wrentit Point Dume Malibu

Wrentits may spend their whole life in a 2 acre plot of land


On the way back home, I stopped at Malibu Lagoon. A breeding-plumaged Wilson’s Phalarope was hanging around, and an adult Song Sparrow was feeding a begging Brown-headed Cowbird chick. Then I walked up the lower part of Tuna Canyon just off PCH. That looks like a great spot that I plan to check out again in the early morning some day.


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