Month: July 2023 (Page 1 of 2)

Tundra Bean-Goose in L.A. County: UPDATED

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

Update – July 2023

The Tundra Bean-Goose that has brought so many birders to Los Angeles County, and its aura of mystery, lives on. For background, the bird was first spotted in March at Piute Ponds, a high desert stopover point for many migrating birds. It then hung around the nearby Lancaster Wastewater Reclamation Plant until early May. In Mid-May, it was found five miles away at Apollo Park, one of those human landscape gathering spots for domestic geese and all manner of unnatural waterfowl offspring. It remained at Apollo Park, growing increasingly comfortable around humans, even approaching them hoping for handouts. Some said it walked with a limp. All reported its drooping and apparently injured right wing. It was last seen at Apollo Park on July 8th. 

Many assumed the bird had died, perhaps succumbing to its injury or not tolerating the increasing heat of the desert landscape it had made its home. Kimball Garrett sent a message to the LA Birders listserv on July 12th that noted the bird’s absence, and doubted that the bird would choose to leave such a cheeto-rich environment for browner and barer pastures. He concluded with “RIP bean-goose…although one can always hold out hope.”

The next day, ubiquitous LA birder Chris Dean re-found the Tundra Bean-Goose 60 miles due south of Apollo Park, in South Los Angeles. It was hanging around some Canada Geese and other creatively-jowled fowl at Earvin Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook. After initial questions about whether this might’ve been a second Tundra Bean-Goose, Occam’s Razor won out.  Apparently the orange markings on the bill were matched with photos of the bird from Apollo Park.

Magic Johnson Park has two big lakes, large expanses of short grass, and lots of humans. The Bean-Goose appeared to have lost its primary flight feathers on each wing. This prompted some speculation that the bird could not or would not have flown in such a condition, and might have been transported by a well-wisher (or deranged birder) out of the desert and into the megacity. But a message from Peter Pyle, an expert on waterfowl molt, indicated a post-migration molt is not unusual, and that primaries can be dropped in a day.

So the working theory now is that the bird flew to Magic Johnson Park on its own. Perhaps when its primaries grow back in, it will fly away for good. Or maybe some deranged birder will lay a popcorn path to lure the bird to Orange County. If it’s like most others who find themselves in Los Angeles and well-fed, I suspect it won’t leave until it can’t afford rent.



Birding Puerto Rico #2: Laguna Cartagena, Cabo Rojo

An eye-catching non-native Venezuelan Troupial

Birding Southwest Puerto Rico: Laguna Cartagena

Puerto Rico is a brick-shaped island that is 100 miles wide and 35 miles tall. That’s big enough to provide a good amount of habitat and species diversity. It’s small enough that any spot can be reached in 2-3 hours (traffic permitting). One popular area for birding is the southwest corner of the island, where there are a couple of national wildlife refuges. During my one full day of birding in Puerto Rico, I spent part of it in the southwest. I headed first to Laguna Cartagena, a big lake in the middle of dry forest. You get there by driving down a short flat dirt road through some hay fields. If it wasn’t already noon, and muggy and hot, when I arrived, the roadside birding would probably have been quite good. But my target was the lake itself where I hoped to spot three or four lifers.

If you’re headed to the observation tower, which I was, park here. At the parking area, Venezuelan Troupial, an introduced exotic native to South America that likes dry scrub, and Puerto Rican Woodpeckers were moving around the tall trees. It’s a 10 or 15 minute walk to a big wooden observation tower that offers views of the lake. Despite the mid-day heat, the walk to the observation tower was quite full of birds. A group of Smooth-billed Ani were making some noise. Turkey Vultures, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds were soaring above. Some Monk Parakeets went zooming past. And in the scrub along the path were Black-faced Grassquit and multiple super-bright Northern Red Bishops. 

The observation tower is pretty far from the lake, but it offers sweeping views of the area. I scanned the distant water looking for two target duck species. One was present – some West Indian Whistling Ducks. I struck out on White-cheeked Pintail. There were also some Ruddy Ducks and Coots out on the water as well. Next to the observation tower, there’s a wooden walkway that takes you out to the edge of the water. The water was mostly covered with lily-like vegetation. Walking around on those lilies were Green Heron, Common Gallinule, and a lifer Purple Gallinule.

The view from atop the observation tower at Laguna Cartagena

In some trees alongside the wooden path, a lifer Yellow-faced Grassquit appeared for a moment and then vanished. Some non-native Orange-cheeked Waxbill counted in eBird as a reluctant lifer, having established themselves in Puerto Rico. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo did some tail-lifting exercises. 


There is a lot of ground to cover at Laguna Cartagena. Just north of the path to the observation tower is an alternative path that gets you closer to the water. Had there been more ducks and whatnot around, I might’ve walked down it. Some mountain biking trails extended into the vegetation south of the lake. For the 90 minutes I was there on a Saturday at mid-day, I didn’t see anyone else.

Birding Southwest Puerto Rico: Cabo Rojo NWR

A main birding reason to go to southwest Puerto Rico is to find an endangered Yellow-Shouldered Blackbird. They live only on Puerto Rico and nearby tiny Mona Island. They favor coastal mangrove forests and scrub. EBird had reports from a few different spots in the southwest. I first tried to visit the Boqueron Wildlife Refuge (Refugio de Vida Silvestre de Boqueron), but I couldn’t find a way into the place. All I found were closed gates at a couple entrances. So I headed to Cabo Rojo NWR, which is a large area of coastal habitat, including some supposedly pink salt flats. Again, I was stymied here, finding first a closed gate and then a closed road between me and my destination.

I finally managed to find a way to a spot where Yellow-Shouldered Blackbirds had recently been reported. The eBird hotspot is a mouthful – “Salinas de Cabo Rojo NWR – camino villa pesquera Fraternidad.” It wasn’t clear that the spot was open to the public. But there was a road (called Short Road on google maps) that crossed a salt flat and led to some scruby bushes. It seemed like good habitat. As I walked, I spotted some Black-necked Stilts, Snowy Plovers, and a Ruddy Turnstone feeding in the shallow, stinky water. Then, I saw a half dozen black birds flying south towards me from the nearby residential area. I got one in my binoculars, and it was a Greater Antillean Grackle. They were flying right at me, and I enjoyed the views. After they passed, I lowered my binoculars and noticed another group of 3 blackbirds flying over the salt flat towards the coast. These birds had yellow patches on the wing!

Maybe if they weren’t so blurry, Yellow-Shouldered Blackbirds wouldn’t be endangered

I quickly snapped a record shot and walked to the patch of bushes where they’d flown. I couldn’t refind them. I did spot a lifer Caribbean Eleania while I wandered. There was also a pair of American Oystercatcher at water’s edge that my camera managed not to focus on.

I checked out a couple of other spots in the area, which is vast, often scenic, and occasionally stinky. The Interpretive Center for the Salt Flats was closed when I arrived at 4:30pm, so I didn’t get to wander there. Overall, though, it was pretty good birding in SW Puerto Rico. There are a bunch of different spots, all within 20 minutes or so of each other, with good species variety.


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