A Winter Wren in the right season, but on the wrong coast

Two New LA County Lifers in the New Year

The New Year is an exciting time for birders because their precious year lists revert to zero. Every species, including the commonest of resident birds, is a new tick again. On top of that, it’s the season of Christmas Bird Counts – the annual ritual of counting all the birds in a designated 15-mile diameter circle. In addition to yearly snapshots of bird populations, Christmas Bird Counts have a tendency to produce good rarities. With so many birders covering not just the frequent haunts but places that folks don’t often check, all kinds of surprises turn up.

As the calendar turned to 2024, a couple of birds were in LA County that I’d never seen here before. One was a Hepatic Tanager. These birds range from the southwestern U.S. down to South America, but rarely make it to the west coast. This one had been found on November 20th in Griffith Park. It was found near a gold course by an out-of-town birder who didn’t ID and report the finding until 9 days later.  It was refound in the same area the next day and a couple of days later. And then reports quit. A few days before Christmas, Andy Birch found it again. It was still in the same area. I made one stop on January 4 during a lunch break, but couldn’t find it. A couple of days later I went in the morning and was lucky enough to spot it. While I’d seen one before in SE Arizona and Mexico, it was a lifer for several birders around me. 

The other good bird in the county was a Winter Wren. It’s part of a duo of tiny brown, short-tailed wrens with a dazzlingly long song that used to be just one species. But in 2010, the Winter Wren and Pacific Wren were split. West of the Rocky Mountains is the Pacific Wren. East of the Rocky Mountains is the Winter Wren. I’ve seen each before – the Pacific Wren a couple times in LA County and once up in Seattle. The Winter Wren is a resident in Maine that I see each summer when we visit. But I’d never seen a Winter Wren in LA County before. In fact, this was only the second county record for Winter Wren.

The Winter Wren was found on December 31st at Castaic Lagoon (which, I guess, technically, is a lagoon). I went up there the next day, the morning of January 1st, to see if I could find it. As I arrived at the spot at 7:30am, a couple of workers were 50 yards away running a chain saw. Despite this inauspicious start, I spotted a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring overhead. And then I quickly found the Winter Wren. After about 5 minutes, the chain-saw stopped. Ten seconds later, the Winter Wren popped up in the bushes in front of me and starting calling. It didn’t seem bothered by my close presence, and called away for 5 minutes before disappearing into the brush. I then walked the shore of the lagoon and spotted the Red-necked Grebe that’s been around. I was far from my 5MR, but it was a nice way to start the year.

Later on January 1st, LA-birding guru Kimball Garrett sent out a new year message on the LA County birding listserv, As he has done previously, he urged birders to take a break from county year-listing. Instead, he encouraged focus on a “birds found” list. That is, rather than chasing birds found by others, he hoped birders would prioritize finding birds themselves. The next day, I decided to chime in. As the original champion of 5MR birding in L.A., I felt this was a good chance to shout-out again for birders to focus on birding near home. As i said in my message, it’s a win for science, a win for the Earth, and a win for other birders because of the birds I find that otherwise would go undetected.

Unable to resist the temptation to take a shot at the perpetual county big-year listers, I called that approach to birding “gross.” Which it is. This meant I was openly criticizing a dozen or so of LA County’s long-time and well-known birders (and year-after-year-after-year eBird Top 100 list toppers). Maybe I went too far, or chose my words poorly. But I don’t regret it. As I said to the birder who complained about my characterization, there are downsides to year-list-driven long-distance car birding that we must acknowledge.