Tag: Chukar

I Nearly Ran Over a Lifer

A Chukar in the road, (c) Stephen John Davies

Why did the lifer cross the road?

When you teach a teenager how to drive, you realize how frightening and chaotic driving really is. Potential dangers lurk in every direction. Death and destruction can arise in a flash. Whether you’re driving in traffic on the freeway, cruising surface streets in your neighborhood, or touring the lonely backroads of America, you must remain vigilant. At any moment, a distracted driver, somebody in a hurry, children at play, bicyclists, or a neighborhood dog might wander into your lane, dart out from the sidewalk, or speed past you along the median.

It also turns out that, while on a quiet 2-lane highway in Kingston Canyon, Utah, a lifer Chukar might stroll across the road directly in front of you. It happened to me on a recent drive home from a wonderful vacation in southern Utah. We were on a beautiful stretch of windy highway following the East Fork of the Sevier River. As I came around a bend, a quail-sized bird strolled across the road. It wasn’t dawdling, and it wasn’t in a hurry. It appeared to slightly turn in my direction as it neared the bushes on the side of the road, but otherwise ignored my rapid approach. Thanks to its distinctive facial and side markings, I was 100% sure it was a Chukar.

A non-countable Chukar at St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA, June 2015

The Chukar is a quail-like bird native to Asia and the Middle East. It’s been introduced across the western United States as a game bird. They’re also bred on farms for training hunting dogs and competitions. They are established in some spots of the U.S. I’d actually seen a Chukar once before, on the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery called St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, California. That’s in L.A. County, in the Antelope Valley between Palmdale and Victorville. It was back in 2015, when a trio of Chukar showed up at the abbey for a few weeks. 

So how could the Utah Chukar be a lifer if I’d seen them before in California? The ones at the monastery were apparently escapees from a nearby ranch. As a result, they didn’t “count” as a lifer. But that thought didn’t cross my mind when I caught a glimpse of a Chukar on the highway. Indeed, I didn’t realize it was a lifer until we got home and I entered the sighting into eBird. Instead, my thought was about finally adding Chukar to my Utah list. They used to be infrequently reported in Capitol Reef National Park, where we vacation. But despite many tries, I’ve never stumbled across one. The Chukars in Utah “count” for life lists because, I guess, the populations there have been established for decades now.

The birding rocked on the trip as a whole. There weren’t any other lifers, but I saw and heard more Yellow-breasted Chats than I knew even existed as we floated down the San Juan River on a raft. Over 4 hot days, we cruised 27 miles downstream from Bluff to Mexican Hat. Violet-Green Swallows and Cliff Swallows were often around, families of Canada Geese appeared every few miles, and the songs of Black-headed Grosbeak and Yellow Warbler was never far away.

The chocolate-milk colored San Juan River in southeastern Utah

After running the river, we drove to Torrey for a week-long stay. I’ve scoped out a lot of great birding spots in this high elevation arid landscape. I managed 4 new county birds this trip: Gray Vireo (3 different birds encountered singing  along backcountry trails), Hammond’s Flycatcher (on Boulder Mountain), Gadwall, and Wilson’s Snipe (on a fence post just outside of town). One day my son and I went out on the Awapa Plateau (Parker Mountain) looking for Greater Sage Grouse. We found miles and miles of great sage brush habitat, but never found a single grouse. We did nearly collide with a Ferruginous Hawk. And we came across several small groups of Pronghorn, spotting at least 30 individuals in total, which was cool. 

Our trips to Utah are great for the chance to see bird species that aren’t as regular in Los Angeles. The blue of the Mountain Bluebird never ceases to amaze. Sandhill Cranes bugle from the tall grass in Bicknell Bottoms. Black-billed Magpie are stunning every time you see them. Common Nighthawks take to the air at sunset along the Fremont River to feed on insects. Grace’s Warblers flitter about the pines (I saw one feeding a gigantic Brown-headed Cowbird juvenile in an absurd scene). Clark’s Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays move about in small groups. Sage Thrashers pop up in all sorts of places. And Broad-tailed Hummingbirds find every stocked feeder.

I didn’t get to Thousand Lake Mountain during this trip – the only spot I’ve ever seen Canada Jay. And we were a couple of weeks lake to visit on ongoing dinosaur dig near Hanksville, Utah. But the Torrey-Capitol Reef-Boulder Mountain area is always wonderful to visit.



Budgerigar and Exotics

Budgerigar Playa Vista

California: the land of fruits and nuts … and exotic birds, like this Budgerigar

Budgerigar in the 5MR

I was recently having a conversation with a birding friend about whether to chase exotic birds. It was prompted by a sighting on back-to-back days of a Rosy-faced Lovebird in Harbor City. I’d seen one on Maui a couple years ago, and got a countable Rosy-faced Lovebird in Phoenix last year. Those birds were part of non-native breeding populations. Any Lovebird in L.A. is going to be somebody’s pet that flew away. Even though I’d never seen one in L.A. County, I decided not to chase it. More below on the tension between life lists and escaped cage birds.

Then, a couple of days later, while out on a casual walk down the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor, I heard an odd tink coming from bushes across the creek. Within seconds, I had a crazy parakeet in my sights. It wasn’t one of our many parrots or parakeets here in L.A. It was a Budgerigar. The Budgerigar is a small parrot native to Australia. They are kept as cage birds. You can buy them for $25. Wikipedia says they are the third most popular pet in the world, after dogs and cats. Apparently, they are pretty good mimics. My son and I found some funny videos online of Budgerigars “talking.”

The Budgerigar was actually pretty hard to see, despite its bright coloring. When two sets of walkers asked me what I was looking at, I told them and pointed them directly at the tree, 30 feet away. None could find the Budgerigar. I watched the bird for about ten minutes. It flew from tree to tree, pecking at branches occasionally. Its feathers were in good shape. It looked, if I can say it, brand new. It never said anything to me in English. It was a new L.A. County lifer for me, and even better, I found it while birding my 5MR.

Birding and Exotic Species

It turns out that a Budgerigar, presumably this same bird, had been reported in eBird at this very spot a week before. I never saw that report. And unless you know the exact checklist to view, you won’t find it by searching for Budgerigar sightings in Playa Vista. Reports of escaped cage birds like Budgerigar get filtered out of the public display in eBird. 

Rose-ringed Parakeet

Rose-ringed Parakeet: native to India, a small population lives in my 5MR

Not only that, an eBird reviewer contacted me after I reported the Budgerigar, asking me to switch my entry from “Budgerigar” to “Budgerigar (domestic type)”. The switch meant that the bird would not “count” in my eBird life list. That’s no big deal – I support the mission of eBird. I want it to be an accurate and complete database for scientists. Not reporting the bird, and others like it, deprives scientists of data about exotic populations. And this bird was certainly an escaped/released caged bird that was almost certainly domesticated and not a wild bird brought to the U.S. from Australia (though I couldn’t rule that out). 

Helmeted Guineafowl Kenneth Hahn

Helmeted Guineafowl: a domesticated species, this bird lasted a couple of months before a dog ended its life

It just so happened that the eBird reviewer who contacted me (a friend, a good birder, and a birding ambassador) is one of those never-ending L.A. County Big Year birders who chases birds all over our massive, enormous county, year after year. But neither the reviewer, nor a single eBird “Top 100” birder, had come to find the Budgerigar. Maybe they’ve all got Budgerigar on their life lists already. Maybe they all saw one already this year in L.A. Maybe this bird was too far away to chase. Maybe they never knew about it because it doesn’t appear in eBird public data or alerts. I don’t begrudge anyone for birding in their own way, but arbitrary eBird species tallies isn’t what guides me.

Note: I recognize the irony of a 5MR booster apparently criticizing birders for not chasing after a bird. It’s not the failure to chase this bird that bugs me. It’s what drives the chasing that I think is worth discussing.

Why do some species have a “Budgerigar (domestic type)” option and others, like the Japanese Tit that lurked in L.A. for some weeks, or the Rosy-faced Lovebird, don’t? Some species are actually domesticated – that is, they are bred rather than caught in the wild. That explains why there is such an option in eBird for Budgerigars but not some other exotic birds found in L.A. Why the domesticated escaped pets don’t “count” in eBird for life lists, but the one-off oddities that get found from time to time do count, is another story. An uninteresting and inconsequential story, but a story nonetheless.

Chukar Los Angeles

Chukar: an Asian native found throughout the American West

Whatever eBird does with regard to its tallies, I can put any birds I see on my own life list and 5MR list, which I did for the Budgerigar. And there are lots of exotic birds to see in L.A. Some, like the many species of parrots and parakeets, and Scaly-breasted Munia, Pin-tailed Whydah, Red-whiskered Bulbul, and Northern Red Bishop, are breeders in the county. While they may have begun as released or escaped birds, they have managed to find mates and build-up sustaining, if limited, populations. Others are one-off escapees. These include the occasional Cockatiel, and birds like a Venezuelan Troupial that gets reported every once in a while, and Red-cheeked Cordonbleus (I haven’t seen either of those last two).

What’s the point of all this jibber-jabber about exotics and eBird? It’s me trying to resolve the tension between adding to my L.A. County life list and the guilt of chasing birds that days before were somebody’s pet. So I’ve come up with an idiosyncratic rule for exotics – chase them if they are reported in my 5MR; wait at least a week to chase one anywhere else. If the bird can survive in the concrete jungle for a week, it deserves to be recognized and is worth chasing beyond my 5MR, whether it “counts” for my eBird list or not.

Here are a few more exotic bird species I’ve managed to see in L.A. county.


Yellow-crowned Bishop

Yellow-crowned Bishop: Sub-Saharan species seen in my 5MR for a couple of weeks

Northern Red Bishop

Northern Red Bishop: tack sharp shot worthy of @TheIneptBirder