Tag: playback

Playback gets me a county lifer

Scott's Oriole Los Angeles CA

Scott’s Oriole visits the west side of Los Angeles

It wasn’t me playing the tape, but….

Today I saw a new L.A. County lifer: Scott’s Oriole. They’re uncommon but regular in the southern edge of the Antelope Valley (less frequent in winter). But that’s over an hour from my house, and I rarely get out there. They’re rare in the L.A. basin. As happy as I was to finally add it to my L.A. County list, if it wasn’t for playback, I wouldn’t have seen it. This made me both delighted (close looks at a bright male Scott’s Oriole just 20 minutes from my West L.A. home) and a little penitent. I’m on record as opposing the use of playback to add a rarity to your life list. It’s hard to convincingly explain why, but it’s some combination of it feeling like cheating, of it disturbing birds, and it being the behavior of someone whose priority is the list. So the fact that this sighting benefitted from playback will forever tar the memory.

A week ago, Jared Diamond found a Scott’s Oriole in the Bel Air neighborhood near UCLA. (I’m assuming this is the Guns, Germs, and Steel author, New Guinea bird researcher, and UCLA professor Jared Diamond, but I don’t know for sure.) A couple other folks went up Stone Canyon Drive in the days following and found the bird. Most recently, it was reported 4 days ago. I decided I’d go take a look this morning and see if it was still around. Some big winds had moved into town, which didn’t bode well, but it was worth the short trip.

The bird has been seen in cape honeysuckle bushes along a fence line. I parked at the spot, and walked up and down the hill a couple of times. I saw no oriole. Occasionally I heard a very oriole-like “chek” coming from the bushes, but never saw any movement. When a mockingbird flew out of the bush, I figured I’d been deceived. Later, I noticed that a nearby “no parking” sign was loose and blowing in the wind, occasionally making a similar sound. After 40 minutes, I decided to sit still for 10-15 minutes and see if it emerged. If not, I’d leave.

Scott's Oriole Los Angeles CA

While I sat on the curb, a trio of birders showed up. They were pleasant folks, and very determined to find the bird. They asked if I’d played its call. I told them I hadn’t and said no more. They split up to look for the bird, and I made one last walk up the hill. As I returned to my car, I heard the the oriole-like “chek” again. This time, it wasn’t a mockingbird, and it wasn’t the no parking sign. Nor was it the Scott’s oriole. It was one of the birders playing a Scott’s Oriole call with his smartphone. But then an oriole-like “chek” call came in response from the bushes. The playback continued, and the bird kept calling back. But we couldn’t find it. At one point, I got a quick glimpse at a yellow belly and black back on a robin-sized bird. The bird, frustratingly, stayed deep or at the back of the bushes. Astoundingly, despite the bird frequently calling and us standing 10 feet away with a direct view into the bushes with the sun at our back, it took us 15 minutes before we finally got a clean look at the bird.  The looks were worth the wait, and maybe worth the use of playback.

With Scott’s Oriole now in the bag, there aren’t that many birds readily seen in L.A. County that I haven’t seen. According to eBird’s target feature, the most frequently seen bird in L.A. County I’ve yet to see is Gambel’s Quail. But all of those sightings are from San Clemente Island, which is 65 miles off the coast and owned and operated by the U.S. Navy. Justyn Stahl and others work out there with Loggerhead Shrikes, and report the Gambel’s Quail. Next most frequent is Golden Eagle (0.233% of all reports include Golden Eagle). That requires more hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, which I intend to do over the next couple of years. The rest are either pelagic species, owls, or rare migrants.




Birding Bob and the Ethics of Playback

The Ethics of Playback

The New York Times recently ran an opinion documentary centered on the ethics of using playback while birding. It’a fun watch, and does a nice job of laying out the various positions on the complicated practice. The playback protagonist is a guy known as Birding Bob, and I’ve never encountered anyone in the field who is such a playback enthusiast. He seems genuinely motivated by a desire to see birds and show them to others. But he also enrages people.

You can find plenty of opinions about playback and birding on the web: here are David Sibley’s thoughts. There are studies of the impact of playback on birds, some of which are discussed here.

The ultimate playback setup, able to draw in warblers from miles away

What are my views? I’m not a fan of playback for reasons well-explained here. But I’ve done it. The difference between when I’m fine with it and when it bothers me is mainly about motivation and moderation. The best use was when I was taking some non-birders for a walk around the marsh, and was able to get a Least Bittern to call out from the reeds, and a Marsh Wren to pop into view. The crowd was delighted. I also used it in our backyard one afternoon when a Northern Rough-winged Swallow was perched on the electrical wires behind our house. I played its call, and the bird flew in and hovered and circled feet above our picnic table. Such close encounters are magical. 

When playback is deployed to provoke a rare vagrant to pop into view, or really to add any bird to your fill-in-the-blank list, I’m much less enthusiastic. It’s too much like dumping trash behind the Yellowstone lodge and then bragging that you saw a bear for me. Such garbage-induced bear shows used to be hugely popular.

I recently saw a use of playback I hadn’t seen before. Down at the ocean jetty at Playa Vista, a couple of folks with gigantic zoom lenses on their cameras were taking pictures of an Eared Grebe as it swam feet away. They were playing an Eared Grebe call loudly on repeat as they did so (I’m guessing to keep it close). As with the use of playback to find rarities, I wasn’t a fan of this use of playback. Not sure if it was the selfishness or the laziness or the silliness of it. It didn’t make me mad, but I did chuckle.

I have no coherent theory of the ethics of playback, and I’m no absolutist. But if you find yourself turning to playback regularly, it’s worth reconsidering why you’re doing it and how much you’re using it.