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.
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.