Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Long Beach, CA

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Long Beach, CA

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in L.A.

Straight-up lifers are becoming hard to come by here in Los Angeles. Trips to SE Arizona, Texas, Costa Rica and Mexico in the last two years mean even delicious vagrants may already be on my life list. Since I mainly bird my 5MR, rather than chase, I don’t mind. But every birder loves a chance at a lifer. And word went out on Wednesday of a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in a neighborhood in Long Beach. Our family’s slow emergence from the “quaran-time” meant I was shuttling kids around that afternoon, and couldn’t make the chase. I had to cross my fingers it’d be around the next day

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is a large flycatcher whose range stretches from Bolivia to Mexico. It’s regularly seen in the U.S. in southeastern Arizona during summer. But there had only been two prior sightings in L.A. County. It’s one of the finds that brings all the bnirds out, not just from L.A. but from all over California. It was seen all day long on Wednesday, until about 4:00pm, when it disappeared into a tree and wasn’t spotted again. Those who saw it were getting good looks. I had time the next morning to join the couple dozen birders who’d surely be there hunting.

With the exception of Costa Rica, when my son and I enjoyed regular 6:00am walks to see birds and mammals, I’ve never been good at getting up at the crack of dawn. It’s rewarding when I do, because the birding really is much, much better. But more often than not, I can’t get myself up and out until around 8am. Maybe part of me doesn’t want to go all-in. I managed a 7:45am departure, just ten minutes after word went out that the bird had been seen already that morning.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Long Beach, CA

The colors are more striking in real life

When I drove up to the spot, there were 20 birders pointing and taking pictures and staring intently through binoculars. But it was street-sweeping day in the neighborhood, and there weren’t any close spots. So I wandered a couple of blocks, found a spot, a made my way back to the crowd. The mood upon my arrival was post-coital jubilance. No one was staring through binoculars or pointing long lenses at the trees. They’d all just gotten their show, and the bird had vanished into some backyard trees. The group was thick with old-timers, a couple young whipper-snappers, curious neighbors, and Jon Dunn, who I was happy to finally meet.

Within 10 minutes, the large crowd had thinned. It was just me and 3 or 4 others. It was another 30 or 40 minutes of walking up and down the street until I spotted the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher on a utility wire. A marine layer of low clouds had moved in, making for terrible photos. But I got my document shots. And then I made sure the birders wandering the area knew we had found it. It moved around from tree to tree to wire to tree for about 15 minutes. And then we lost it.

I’m not sure what’s more remarkable – that vagrant birds end up in residential neighborhoods, or that somebody with enough knowledge happens to share the same space and notices an odd sound or sees a strangely colored bird. I’m convinced there’s many out-of-place birds working the trees of our urban areas. Indeed, if Kimball Garrett spent a September at my house, he’d probably pull out three east coast warblers, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a lost vireo. They’re there. But most of us aren’t walking our neighborhoods looking for them. Even if we are paying attention, our ID skills simply aren’t good enough.