Tag: Scott’s Oriole

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.




Joshua Tree in November

Greater Roadrunner Joshua Tree National Park

This desert icon at the Joshua Tree visitor’s center delighted the family

Beauty, peacefulness, and a few birds

Over the Thanksgiving break, we took a weekend trip to Yucca Valley, near Joshua Tree National Park. My parents were in town, and they hadn’t been to Joshua Tree in 50 years. November is a great time to enjoy the desert, and the boys love to scramble on the granite rock formations, so we snagged an airbnb and took the drive. We stopped at the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, which was shockingly disappointing on the birding front. With all its trees and bushes, it’s usually a pretty productive place. But we struggled to stir up much of anything. Dad got an Oak Titmouse lifer, but there was little else moving around. Maybe the recently spotted bear in the area had the birds in hiding (no kidding).

Cactus Wren Joshua Tree National Park

Campground Cactus Wrens are not shy

Joshua Tree National Park proved better, bird-wise, which is an unusual thing to say. The desert is beautiful and peaceful and wonderful in 70 degree weather, but it’s never hopping with bird activity. A visit to Black Rock campground produced a couple dozen scrub jays, some Black-throated Sparrow, a couple Bell’s Sparrows, and some sharp Cactus Wrens around a water-drip. Inside the park proper, we had a nice encounter with a male Phainopepla (another lifer for Dad). It was calling, and moving about, while we sat on the rocks and ate snacks. The visitor center provided a close-up view of a female Costa’s Hummingbird, and a fun encounter with a Greater Roadrunner in the parking lot. My mom, my wife, and my sons had never seen one before, and it posed for a minute or so, slowly bobbing its tail and occasionally raising its crest. Such cool birds. 

Our airbnb was just outside the park in Yucca Valley, a couple of miles from the highway. Cool, quiet evenings provided stunning sunsets and a star-filled sky. During a couple strolls around the neighborhood, I saw Gambel’s Quail, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the best bird of the trip: an out-of-season Scott’s Oriole.

Enjoying My Dad’s Enthusiasm

Of the many reasons I enjoy birding with my Dad, seeing his enthusiasm and optimism is near the top. He wants to see all the birds, and take photos of all the birds, and learn their names and something about their behaviors, and figure out how to identify them. Whereas I’ll stand in a spot and quickly get the sense that there’s nothing but White-crowned Sparrows and Scrub Jays around (and the odds say I’m right), he’ll eagerly pursue every flash of movement he sees, wondering what possible lifer just flashed into a bush in his peripheral vision. In the end, maybe he just finds another White-crowned Sparrow or Scrub Jay. But that approach–to bird every bird–is one that can be easy to leave behind the more time you get in the field. And that’s a shame when it happens. The wonder of birding we all felt early on, when every possible movement and sound was some field guide drawing come to life, is something we shouldn’t put behind us.


I reminded myself of the point of it all the other day, when my Dad and I were standing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh at dusk crossing our fingers that a Short-eared Owl that had been spotted the day before was still around. Another birder joined us, and lamented that his camera wasn’t good at low light pictures. “It’s not about the photo,” I said. “We’re here because we want to see an owl. ” As human nature and obsessive compulsiveness and eBird lure us into counting everything, documenting it with tack-sharp close-up photographs, and valuing a sighting most of all because it is a new one for our (fill-in-the-blank) list, it’s important to remember that we’re out in the field with our binoculars because, more than anything, we want to get eyes on that bird that just flew into the bush, and if we’re lucky, see an owl fly around.