Tag: Winter Wren

New Year, New LA County Lifers

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.

Birding Downeast Maine (2021)

Bobolinks Maine

Bobolinks on alert

Birds from a Week in Maine (2021)

Every July for most of the last 12 years, we’ve taken a vacation to Maine. My spouse’s relatives all live in the northeast, and we converge on a spot right near Acadia National Park. COVID prevented us going out there last year. But with all 4 of us fully vaccinated, we braved the emerging wave of Delta variant cases and flew across the country. 

Since this year’s trip to Maine was our first since 2019, it meant that I got to see a lot of East Coast birds for the first time in a long while. There were several Bald Eagles around, perched in trees, on snags, waiting for a dead fish to turn up. Winter Wrens could regularly be heard singing their impossibly long and winding songs. Black-capped Chickadees flitted about in small groups. And one of my favorite North American warblers, the Blackburnian Warbler, was a regular high up in the pines (alongside Black-throated Green Warblers).

The habitat where we stay is dominated by pine forest, but there are also big fields of wild grasses and flowers, and trails take you past some small creeks and a couple of ponds. Deciduous trees line the clearings. There isn’t a lot of low bush cover. As a result, there aren’t very many birds on the ground. Still, in my 10 week-long visits, all in the first half of July, I’ve managed to find 84 species.

The fields provide critical breeding habitat for the declining Bobolink. Bobolinks winter in the pampas grasslands of South America, and fly 6,000 miles to breed in the northern United States. It’s always great to see the sharp outfits of the males. The same fields occasionally produce American Woodcocks, but the encounters are unexpected and brief. I’ve only managed to get a single blurry photograph of one flying away from me.

 One thing you get in Maine that you we don’t deal with in Los Angeles is mosquitos. In some spots, you’ve got 5 seconds of standing still to get a bird in the binoculars before the maddening buzz begins. Both the Common Yellowthroat and Common Grackle above were doing their job to keep the population down. Question: would more mosquitos mean more birds? If so, would it be worth it?

Wherever you do find bushes, you’re likely to find a Gray Catbird or two (and a family of Song Sparrows). The catbirds are fairly loud and conspicuous, so getting a good shot of one isn’t that much of a problem. Hidden in this photo is the rusty-red undertail. The Hairy Woodpecker below was part of a 3-bird group that was moving through the forest very loudly. The White-throated Sparrow was quiet while I saw it, but you frequently hear their “oh-sweet-Canada” song from far off. Cool story: a new White-throated Sparrow song has emerged in the 21sy century and is spreading across the continent.

Since it is July, and spring starts late in Maine, there were baby birds all over. There was even an active nest above the back porch. I reached up with my phone to check if there were eggs, and found 5. Our presence unfortunately kept the parent Eastern Phoebes away from the nest most of the day, and I’m worried it won’t be successful.

Eastern Phoebe nest Maine

Eastern Phoebe nest above the porch

American Robin hatchling

American Robin hatchling playing possum

The forests were also full of the entrancing song of thrushes. By the end of the week I was able to distinguish unseen Hermit Thrushes from Swainson Thrushes. These photos show the visual difference between the two: the Hermit Thrush on the left has a grayer head, white eyering, and a redder tail. The Swainson’s Thrush on the right is buffier around the eye, and the back and tail more uniformly colored.

For the second time during a Maine visit, a few of us went on a boat ride out of Bar Harbor to the Gulf of Maine. The first trip a few years ago went to Petit Manan Island and targeted seeing Atlantic Puffins. This one was a straight-up whale watching trip. That meant that our big catamaran spent most of the time going 35 knots headed 40 miles off-shore. With overcast skies, some wind, and chop, that made bird-spotting quite challenging. Whale-wise, it was a great success. We found a Humpback Whale, and stayed with it for just over an hour.

Bird-wise, there wasn’t a ton of action. We didn’t come across any big flocks of pelagic birds. When we did see birds, the naturalists on-board weren’t much help. “There’s a few shearwaters at our 2 o’clock” and “the small birds bounding across the surface are storm-petrels” is better than nothing, I guess, but not much better. Is one a Cory Shearwater, by chance? Care to help me pick out a Leach’s Storm-Petrel from the Wilson Storm-Petrels? 

I did manage my only lifer of the trip to Maine on the boat: a pair of South Polar Skuas. These dark, pot-bellied birds were flying low over the water while we were speeding back to harbor. They had a small white patch at the end of the wings, somewhat like a nighthawk. I wasn’t sure what they were, and put “skua?” down in my notes. I fired off some shots, hoping they wouldn’t be too blurry. Back ashore, it was pretty clear that they were South Polar Skuas. They breed further south on Earth than almost any other bird and “winter” (our summer) in waters across the globe, including the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They are aggressive bullies – chasing shearwaters and gulls and terns, forcing them to drop any food they catch. 

South Polar Skua Maine

South Polar Skua (lifer!) very far from the South Pole

The boat ride also produced some good looks at Great Shearwater, Northern Gannett, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. A couple of Razorbills flew over the bow, and a lone Atlantic Puffin cruised past. And we got a good show from the Humpback Whale. 

Great Shearwater Maine

Great Shearwater

Humpback whale Gulf of Maine

“Thar she blows!”

One last bird picture, of the boss of the chicken coop: El Guapo. He’s mean, he’s loud, and it’s a good thing there’s fencing between him and us. But god bless him for all his work, because there is nothing like fresh eggs in the morning.

Chicken Maine

El Guapo

I didn’t get to explore much during this trip outside of where we were staying. After our visit, we drove to Cape Ann in Massachusetts. A couple potential lifers were possible on the way. Upland Sandpipers had been seen outside Portland, Maine, but disappeared before we took the road. We stopped at Scarborough Marsh to try for Nelson’s Sparrow, but we didn’t get there until mid-day, and only had 30 minutes. Luck wasn’t on our side and I struck out. But I have no complaints. As always, it was a great trip.