Category: Species (Page 1 of 13)

That Time I Saw a Mythical Bird in Utah

The stunning hood emblem of a 1963 Ford Thunderbird

Mythical Bird Sighting in Utah

I had just turned a corner when I spotted it walking casually along the side of the road, all by itself. I had never seen anything like it. By size and shape, it resembled a chicken. It walked like one, too. But there was something about this creature–several somethings, actually–that weren’t quite right. It appeared to be covered in fur, not feathers, and had the haggard look of having just showered or been recently shocked by a jolt of electricity. It looked to be wearing puffy leg warmers. It was black from head to foot. And its feet were really big. Upon close inspection, the feet on this beast had 5 or maybe even 6 toes.

Fawkes the Phoenix flames out in front of Harry Potter

What could it be? But for the shaggy hair, I would’ve said it was a chicken. And those 5-6 toed feet were weird. Perhaps it was a mythical bird-like creature here to fulfill its destiny. Native Americans tell of a gigantic Thunderbird, whose flapping wings sounded like thunder and who shot lighting out of its eyes. I couldn’t be sure that this creature had wings, to be honest. It certainly didn’t have wings big enough to create thunder. Greek mythology describes the immortal Phoenix, but this bird didn’t burst into flames. The Egyptians worshipped the Ra, the deity of the sun who had a falcon head, and Thoth, the scribe of the gods who had the head of an ibis. But this little creature had neither such a hear nor the body of a human. There weren’t enough legs for this to be a Griffin. Japanese texts refer to an “eerie bird”, or itsumade, that showed up around corpses. Thankfully, I didn’t see any corpses around. So I snapped a couple of pictures and went to do some research.

What in the world is this thing?

It turns out that my black woolly monster is a breed of chicken known as a Black Silkie. They originated somewhere in India maybe, or China, Marco Polo described a “furry chicken” he encountered during his 13th century travels, which seems to be the first historical record. They reportedly have a strong maternal instinct and calm disposition. It’s said that they like to sit in people’s laps. I saw nothing about whether the people liked this trait. This might explain why this bird was so casually walking along the side of the road as I crept by in my car. These birds actually have blackish skin and blackish bones, and you can find a bunch of youtube video online about cooking black silkie chicken (like this one).

Check out the feet. There are at least five, and maybe 6, toes on this freaky foot.

I guess the point is – you never know when you’ll stumble upon some kind of bird the likes of which you have never seen before.

 

 

Common Tern: LA County (and 5MR) lifer!

Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

A reminder to check flocks more than once, and bird every bird

Common Tern at Dockweiler Beach: LA County lifer!

If you aren’t traveling, July can be tough for a birder. The birding action around my house is suuuuuuuuuuuper slow during July. Yes, by the end of the month, shorebirds have started to arrive along the creek and at the beach. But it’s pretty small numbers, and mostly Willets. Songbirds aren’t moving through yet. At times, it feels like it’s all Mallards and House Finches out there. (The best action these days is probably off-shore, where those with access to boats are seeing birds like Black Storm Petrel and Guadalupe Murrelet and Craveri’s Murrelet that would all be lifers for me).

So as Saturday approached, I wasn’t sure where to go birding. Some stray migrants had already been showing up at the LA River near Long Beach, with Solitary and Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalarope’s seen recently. A budgerigar is also hanging out in the same area. But I have had all those birds in my 5MR (even a budgie!). LA Birders had organized a hike to Throop’s Peak, a beautiful hike at 9,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains that promised a long-elusive Golden Eagle for my LA County list. But I didn’t really want to drive 90 minutes to get there, or be on that hike with a big group. It’s a beautiful hike, and I treasure it for the solitude. (They saw a Golden Eagle). So, a little reluctantly I decided to check out the coast in my 5MR to see what was happening at the beach.

Artist’s rendering of a trash interceptor

First, I went to the creek mouth and jetties. There’s some construction happening on the long middle jetty, so you can’t walk out there. They’re constructing a “trash interceptor” that will skim the surface of the creek and capture the garbage that flows down it into the ocean. It’s a real mess after storms, and this aims to vacuum it up. It’s supposedly the first ever such trash interceptor to be installed in the United States. Sounds great, though I wonder how much it will disrupt the birds that swim up the lower channel from the breakwater. I guess we’ll see in September, when it’s supposed to be done. There wasn’t much going on at the jetty or lagoon, so I decided to see if there was free parking at Vista del Mar Park so I could check out Dockweiler Beach (I’m too cheap to pay $8+ for parking).

There was a parking spot open. First, I checked out the Snowy Plover enclosure, but there were people on the beach in front of it, and no birds. Then, I walked south. Not too far, I ran into a big flock of gulls and a big flock of terns. The gulls were mostly Western and Heermann’s, with a sprinkling of California Gulls about. The tern flock was big and noisy. I couple scans of it showed all Elegant Terns except for two big Caspian Terns on the periphery. The flock was constantly getting flushed by walkers and joggers and kids and dogs and lifeguard pickup trucks. They’d find a spot, settle in for 2-4 minutes, and then all erupt in flight before settling again. I watched this happen five times. After each, I scanned the flock, hoping to find a Forster’s Tern hidden in the crowd.  

Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

Finally, I spotted a smaller tern in the group, with a smaller black bill and a dark shoulder bar. I first though Forster’s Tern based on size, but it didn’t look right. There was too much black on the back of the head, and I didn’t remember seeing black on the shoulder of Forster’s Terns before. I snapped a couple of photos. The flock flushed, and settled, and I found it again and took a couple more shots. Then I pulled up my bird guide app, and checked Forster’s Tern. Nope – this was something different. Under “Common Tern”, the guide said “juveniles and fall adults have black should bar.” This was exciting. Common Terns are rare on the West Coast. In LA, they’re most often spotted in Malibu Lagoon and Long Beach, usually alone or in pairs. A couple have been reported at the Ballona Creek mouth, but none at Dockweiler Beach. I snapped a photo from the back of my phone, shared it on the LA birders WhatsApp chat, and got confirmation that it was a Common Tern. This is an LA County lifer for me! It’s especially fun to find those in my 5MR.

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, Massachusetts

Common Terns are long distance migrants. Our North America Common Terns breed in Canada, and winter in coastal South America (some go all the way to southern Argentina). European and Asian Common Terns breed from England to Siberia, and winter along the coast in Africa or the northern Indian Ocean (including Australia). Despite their rarity around Los Angeles (we have more Forster’s), they are the most numerous tern in the United States. They eat mainly fish. After their populations recovered from 19th century plumage hunters, their numbers are dropping again. Some blame gulls, though habitat loss can’t be helping.

Salter Grover, Pawtuxet Village, Rhode Island

I’ve seen Common Tern a few times before, typically when we visit the northeast. I also spotted a couple of them in Beijing during a trip there in 2017. But I never expected to see one in Los Angeles, especially not on a July walk along the beach in my 5MR. It goes to show – bird every bird. Even when it looks like a big uniform flock of some expected species, make sure to give it a careful look. And not just one look. I didn’t see the Common Tern until the 6th or 7th time that I scanned the flock of terns. 

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