Month: October 2022 (Page 1 of 2)

My First L.A. County First: Sedge Wren

The first Sedge Wren ever spotted in Los Angeles County

L.A. County First Record of Sedge Wren

Despite a Saturday morning plan for some birding, I nevertheless expected to end the day feeling like I had missed out. Just yesterday, L.A. County’s first-ever Cerulean Warbler was found on Catalina Island. Dozens of birders were headed out on the ferry this morning to add this distinctly un-vagranty and delicately beautiful warbler to their life and county lists. I, however, would be doing no such thing. Devoting six hours and spending $80 to chase a non-lifer outside my 5MR just isn’t my jam. I love my LA County life list, but I’m also cheap and a little lazy.

Instead, I was planning to bird a closed landfill in Griffith Park that reeks of burping methane and requires an arduous walk up a super, super, extremely steep hill to access. My target was a lifer Chestnut-collared Longspur.  The method here is to walk back and forth across the landfill and hope you flush a longspur, be ready to take flight photos and record flight calls, and pray the bird lands somewhere in view. The odds of success were low, but my friend and fellow 5MR enthusiast Andy had spotted one on two occasions this month here. After a couple of zig zags that produced mainly Savannah Sparrows, I came upon a patch of dried-out cocklebur that had a few birds moving around it, so I stopped to check it out. What I would find inside this bush turned me from a nameless bird chaser into a legendary bird finder.


Unassuming cocklebur patch where I achieved birding glory

One of the birds I saw inside the bushes was a tiny wren. It was generally skulky, but active. The quick views I got were of a tiny wren with a streaked upper back and a cocked tail. In these parts, that would be a Marsh Wren. But this habitat was decidedly wrong for a Marsh Wren. This place is bone dry (except the liquid methane gurgling through the PVC pipe all around), and is dominated by pokey scrub bushes, not bright green reeds. Sensing the oddity, I snapped a couple of pictures and resumed my search for longspurs. An hour later, I was back at the cocklebur, having failed to flush any longspurs or anything else super interesting. The tiny wren was still moving around and occasionally giving a slurpy chewp call that I didn’t associated with Marsh Wren. This prompted me to check my bird guide app to see what else it might be. The only other option was Sedge Wren – similar in size and appearance, but with a few distinctions that I could look for. Sedge Wren is a bird of the Upper Plains (in summer) and American South and northwest Mexico (in winter). One had never been reported in L.A. county in eBird. As a firm believer in the notion that a bird is most likely to be a likely bird, I was probably looking at a juvenile Marsh Wren.

But my binocular looks and photos seemed to show the distinguishing characteristics of a Sedge Wren. The bird lacked the obvious brown patches on the shoulders of a Marsh Wren. Instead, it had streaks and patterns all over its back and wings. The bird also lacked a prominent eyebrow of a Marsh Wren. Instead, it had a very inconspicuous line above its eye. Its tail was grayer than the rufous brown tails of Marsh Wrens. Its crown was streaky. Its belly had a brown wash, unlike the white belly of Marsh Wren. I was becoming convinced I had found a Sedge Wren, but I wasn’t confident enough to call the ID myself. It was time to reach out to experts. I sent some photos to my friend Andy, an excellent birder who is also often quick to respond. Sure enough, I heard back from him right away (he was on Catalina failing to find yesterday’s Cerulean Warbler). He said possibly a juvenile Marsh Wren, but it could be a Sedge. He asked for better head shots.

I then spent 15 minutes trying to get this skulky bird to put itself in view and stay there long enough for a decent headshot. I also used the Merlin app to see if it would identify the calls as a Sedge Wren. Despite that app’s astoundingly improved bird call ID feature, it didn’t identify any of the chirps as Sedge Wren (but it was correctly calling out the meadowlarks and pipits and swallows and sparrows that were around). I was able to get a few more photos. Andy’s response was “shit, it might be Sedge.” I shared the photos with others, and the consensus was that it was really good candidate for Sedge Wren. 

The first person to show up was a bird wizard named Marky.  We stood next to the cocklebur patch, and to my dismay, nothing moved or chewp’d. This bird had been in the same patch of bushes for over three hours. It had to still be there. After 10 or 15 minutes, it called from the bush, and Marky identified it as a Sedge Wren. It was much less active, and much more quiet, than it had been earlier in the morning. But patience produced good views. Confirmatory word went out to all the nerds.

I left at 12:30, tired, hungry, and with a dead phone battery. Happily, the bird stayed faithful to its little patch, and a stream of birders who made the trip up the hill were rewarded with looks at the Sedge Wren all afternoon. This was my second lifer Sedge Wren sighting. I first saw a Sedge Wren in Central Mexico in 2017. That Sedge Wren is now called a Grass Wren, having been split in 2021 as a distinct species, making the Sedge Wren sighting in Los Angeles a new lifer.

When I got home I checked eBird and this really is the first-ever report of a Sedge Wren in L.A. County. That makes it bird species #530 on eBird for L.A. County. It’s been an incredible fall here in Los Angeles for vagrants. Just this month there have been 4 county first records (Sedge Wren, Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Wood Warbler).  Despite that flurry, new county birds are typically only a once or twice a year phenomenon. In the last 5 years, L.A. has added 9 birds to its list. Six of them were spotted on Catalina Island or San Clemente Island, or at sea. Only three – the Sedge Wren, the Wood Warbler, and a 2017 Dusky Warbler–were found on the mainland. 





Wood Warbler in Los Angeles!!!

The first-ever Wood Warbler found in the Lower 48

Wood Warbler in Los Angeles for Some Reason

On Saturday afternoon, I was watching my son compete in a rock climbing tournament when word went out amongst LA bird nerds that a Wood Warbler had been photographed earlier in the day. It was initially, and erroneously, ID’d as a Tennessee Warbler. This was an easy mistake to make, since Wood Warbler’s aren’t even in the Sibley or Nat’l Geographic Field Guides to the Birds of the United States. And it looks somewhat like a Tennessee Warbler. 

A Wood Warbler is an Old World leaf warbler in the family phylloscopidae (not to be confused with the general, uncapitalized New World “wood warblers” of the family parulidae). That is, it’s a European bird. Wikipedia incorrectly states that the “entire population winters in tropical Africa,” because this morning I saw one very far from tropical Africa. But very nearly the entire population undoubtedly does so. Indeed, it’s rare anywhere east of Moscow. A few had been seen in Alaska, but there had never been a Wood Warbler seen in the Lower 48 states. When I saw the text, I just happened to be 7 minutes away from the park where it had been spotted. But it was raining, and the sun was setting in 30 minutes. I dashed over anyway. But I, and the half dozen birders who had assembled, struck out. We left, crossing our fingers that the rain would keep the bird around until the morning.

I returned at 6:30am the next day, 25 minutes before sunrise and just in time for the last parking lot spot. There were at least 50 birders already there, many from beyond Los Angeles county. And they kept streaming in. Upon learning that Wood Warblers like the top of tall trees, I predicted the bird would be found in the cemetery next to the park (more tall trees). I was told the habitat wasn’t any good in the cemetery. After about an hour of standing around, the bird was seen….in a tall silk oak in the cemetery bordering the park. This caused a whole bunch of middle and late-middled aged white people to move at a speed few of them had reached on foot since the pandemic began.

The bird was frantic, but gave everyone unobstructed looks

What followed was stressful for some and ultimately delightful for all. The views of the bird were fleeting and obscured from the park. Standing in the cemetery would be much better, but it was a 10 minute walk to get to the other side of the barbed-wire fence separating the park and the cemetery. Many made the move to the cemetery, including me. Naturally, when we arrived in the cemetery, the bird flew across the street. It was working some willow trees, happily in a spot that put the sun at our backs. I could see it over the fence, and that’s when I took the photos you see here. Some couldn’t see over the fence easily, or couldn’t find the bird despite the constant stream of commentary (“moving left . . . near the light pole . . . above the no parking sign . . . just below to the red flowers”). Those birders who couldn’t stand it (they really, really wanted to use their $5,000 camera set-up to get point-blank photos of this super rarity) headed out of the cemetery around to the street or the park. Just then, the bird flew back to the cemetery trees. The chase went on over short distances, across fences, and amongst trees for over an hour.

The upshot of this active bird was that if you stayed in one spot long enough, the bird would come to you. It was, all things considered, wonderfully cooperative. And save a few birders who’d been to remote Alaskan islands, and those who’d been to Europe, it was a lifer for a large crowd. It stuck around all day, too. Who knows, maybe it’s going to winter here.

Gather birders, find good birds

The Wood Warbler wasn’t the only good bird seen that morning. While we all waited and checked out every little thing that moved in the trees, a couple of rare and unusual birds were seen: Townsend’s Solitaire and Plumbeous Vireo. While those of us in the cemetery walked around it, we found some more: Clay-colored Sparrow and Palm Warbler.  It was a classic illustration of the Patagonia Picnic Table effect: a rare bird brings birders, and more birders mean more discovered rarities.  For those who love exotics, the cemetery also had Pin-tailed Whydahs and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets and Scaly-breasted Munias moving around.

The fascinating upshot of this effect is that there are “rare” birds everywhere. Send 150 birders to a park and a cemetery, and we find all manner of unusual birds. They’d been there all along, of course. The birders don’t bring the birds. But they’re not so easy to find. The guy who found the Wood Warbler had a few quick looks at it in the park before he lost it. Had he been looking the other way, or god forbid at his phone, it may have never been detected. And based on the bird’s behavior today–it spent very, very little time in the park–it’s even more of a miracle he saw it in the first place. Which leads me to the humbling upshot of the effect: I’m not a good enough birder to find the rarities that are lurking everywhere I go. Few among us are, for sure. It haunts me to think how many vagrants I miss when I’m out with my binoculars. My ID skills have improved significantly, but I wonder if I’ll ever become more of a finder than a chaser.



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