Saturday, January 31, 2009

How to Find a Rare Bird

Seeing a rare bird in Orange County, California is not as hard as you might think. First, you have to know the birds that are Orange County Residents or who regularly spend part of the year here. Why do rare birds end up in Orange County or anywhere for that matter? Well, although we may not know all the answers, we do know some reasons for rare birds landing in places we don't expect them to be. Some rare birds like the American Bittern winter here in small numbers and can be seen if you look in areas like the places they are normally found. Some birds get off schedule and touch down in a place they don't usually stop off at and just stay. Some touch down for a few days on the way to somewhere else like South America or Canada. Some like the Eurasian Wigeon (who starts migration up north were North America and Russia are close together) get on the wrong flyway and just end up in the wrong place. In addition, stormy weather, extreme heat, or strong winds can send a bird off course away from its usual stomping grounds. Some birds like the Cattle Egret wander and appear sporadically in areas with little rhyme or reason. It may be food, weather, or something we do not even understand.

If you want to see a rare bird, follow these steps:

Bald Eagle from the OC Zoo at Irvine Regional Park in Orange, California.

1) Check the rare bird alert. See what's flying into Orange County. Go to those places it has recently been seen and see if it is still there.

Eurasian Wigeon at Huntington Central Park in February--either wintering or headed south.

2) If you have a rare bird that you want to see, then do an advanced search for the species on the Orange County Rare Bird Alert. Discover where and when it has appeared in the past. Try to be there in similar times. For example, Snow Geese and Bitterns most often appear in winter. So if you want to see them, the best bet is in winter. Find out its preferred food and habitat. If it is a wetlands bird, then look in wetlands habitats. In other words, look for places that are very much like its normal habitat.

Ross's Goose in the San Fernando Valley

4) Pray. There are no guarantees with rare birds. Persistence is what pays off. If you are out in the field often birding, you will most likely see more rare birds than if you are watching videos.

Reddish Egret at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve .

Spotting a rare bird is I would say 60% knowledge about the species and 40% serendipity.

There is great birding out there even if you are looking at really familiar birds. Don't become immune to the beauty of a Spotted Towhee or a Willet. They are just as amazing in their own ways as a Redstart or an American Bittern. No matter what birds you see, whether resident birds or rare birds, have fun birding in Orange County!

OC Birder Girl Links

Reddish Egret--A Rare Bird

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak--A Rare Bird

Birding Hot Spots in Orange County, California

Beginning Birders in Orange County

Birding Code of Ethics from American Birding Association

About Binoculars

Orange County Bird Checklists

Parts of a Bird


Bird Guide Reviews

External Links


Online real-time checklist from Cornell.

Orange County Rare Bird Alert

Sea and Sage Audubon: Information on Rare Bird Alerts

List of rare bird alert resources.

What to Do When You See a Rare Bird: Reporting Your Observations to the IBRC

This is a great article by Portneuf Audubon Society in Idaho that has practical application for all birders. Just make sure you report to the rare bird alert in your area and not in Idaho.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Wet and Wild at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Stormy morning at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

When I woke up, it was raining. In a moment of weakness, I thought, "Should I go birding in the rain?" It was only a momentary weakness. What's a bit of rain to a birder? So of course, my answer to myself was "Yes, I should, I can, and I am going birding." And the AccuWeather site said the rain was about to stop. So I got ready, rain or not, and headed out to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. There was a very damp Osprey on the light post outside the parking lot that I noticed as I pulled in. He looked wet and miserable. I checked him out, and kept up a brisk pace into the reserve to warm up. It was so beautiful with the with masses of dark storm clouds over the gray water. But boy, was it cold! I kept going, hoping my fast pace would generate heat and scanning the pickleweed for the American Bittern that keeps popping up in the Rare Bird Alert. I'd seen him before, but I wanted another chance.

A Long-billed Curlew and several Marbled Godwits make a knobby kneed line up on the shore.

At first, there did not appear to be much to see.

A bedraggled Belding's Savannah Sparrow forages in the shrubs and pickleweed with a flock of equally wet comrades.

A small flock of Belding's Savannah Sparrows, looking wet and cold, foraged in the pickleweed and the undergrowth at the edges of the pickleweed.  They flittered here and there, landing on scattered pieces of  branches and on pickleweed, and then dropping back down to the wet ground. How cold must they be with their little bare feet on the cold, wet ground?   I hear they don't have much feeling in their feet, but I am still glad that I am not a bird today.

Huddled group of Snowy Egrets at the bottom of a bank which gives them some protection from the wind.

Then I came across about 15 Snowy Egrets puffed up and scrunched down to keep warm. They were down at the bottom of the bank that fell away from the path to the water. It was shelter from the wind.

The Snowies long necks were hidden in their feathers as they fluffed and conserved heat on the cold rainy morning.

They made me feel even colder.

Another huddled Snowy.

Brrrr. I hot-footed it back to the back toward the Wintersburg Channel and the flooded area in the back. Wanted to get into the back area and see what was happening.

Green-winged Teals, Willets, and a Black-necked Stilt swim and forage in the back waters.

In the back--by the Wintersburg Channel--there is an area that flooded a some years ago, and the trees have died.  But in nature nothing is wasted. Those dead trees now provide perches for all kinds of birds: Osprey, American Kestrels, Red-Tailed Hawks, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Belted King Fishers, Black Phoebes, Peregrine Falcons, Great Blue Herons, and much more. The waters that flooded the area provide lots of shallow water for ducks, herons and egrets and other shore birds. It is a great place to bird watch. The nearby Wintersburg Channel is very eroded, and officials are worried that it may give way in a heavy storm. Read about it here. The repair will be very costly. Lots of tax dollars to fix the channel.


As I watched the ducks and shorebirds, something that looked different caught my eye. Up on the bank above the back water just above me, I saw something large and brown moving. I looked up and saw a set of furry ears. Then a coyote moved out of the undergrowth. Then another. I decided to move away from the coyotes coming down the bank, and started heading up onto the mesa.

The rest of the coyote. One of two on the bank above the back water after 9AM in the morning. Hungry after night and early morning rain.

A lady, against all rules on the many posted signs, was walking her wet dog who had evidently been swimming which was also against the rules. He was off leash and headed for the coyotes. I said to her, "There are some coyotes here." And pointed. She seemed to think they were far away. I told her, "No, they are right here and coming this way." Then she began calling her dog with more urgency. The dog-walking problem is getting bad again here. Don't these people realize that there is a dog park very close by at Central Park and also at the Huntington Dog Beach. Don't they realize that there are wild animals here that make walking your dog on or off leash dangerous? A dog can make a tasty snack.  Plus the owner can get fined. Some people don't have a lick of sense. What is it about "No Dogs Allowed" that they do not understand? This rule includes the Bolsa Chica area by Wintersburg Channel and the mesa. No dogs. For the safety of the wildlife and the dogs.  Grrrr.  rant over.

This coyote is one of the many reasons dogs are not allowed at Bolsa Chica and why children should be closely supervised and not allowed to run off by themselves.

As I started to go up onto the mesa, I came face to face with a coyote. I stayed still, and he stayed still, then sauntered away. There seemed to be lots of people up on the mesa, so after a decent interval, I went up, but he was still there. I heard later that he and the second coyote had had some encounters with dogs on the mesa. It is good to keep in mind that coyotes can run up to 40 miles an hour and can leap 8 foot fences. Read more about this and how to react to coyotes from the Newport Bay Naturalists and Friends here.

He left after giving me the once over.

I went to the look-out. There below me were the wetlands, Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the ocean covered with now slightly scattered storm clouds.

Where the guns where poised in WWII. Up on the mesa overlooking PCH and the ocean.

I checked out the WWII artillery mount. Just a large round circle, but it is part of our history.

A Common Yellowthroat--Geothlypis trichas. Click picture to enlarge.

I saw a Common Yellowthroat in a bush. It flew, as they usually do, the moment I spotted it.  It landed on a chain link fence and disappeared into the field.

Incredible view of Bolsa Chica and the storm clouds.

I stood and gazed at the wetlands covered with storm clouds.   It was awesome as we used to say in the Valley. The clouds reflected in the water and the shadows and silhouettes of the marsh plants made it look so dramatic.

An American Kestrel devouring its prey.   Looks like a female Kestrel.
As I walked on, I saw what looked like a female American Kestrel devouring some small prey. Maybe an insect. I met a docent named Steve who shared a lot of great information about the wetlands and the animals and birds in the wetlands.

Another encounter with a coyote.

We encountered a coyote again.

Checking us out.

The Coyote checked out Steve, another lady, and me.

Moving on.

We were of only passing interest.

A Peregrine Falcon up on a tree on the mesa.

Steve also pointed out the Peregrine Falcon to us .

A closer look.
I had a family party to go to, so I had to really walk fast back. Was running out of space on my card and batteries to power my digital camera.

Great Egret back near the bridge.

A Great Egret seemed to pose near the bridge. I had told Steve that I was looking for the American Bittern. As we looked out over the pickleweed, he asked, "So have you found Waldo, yet?" (A reference to a series of children's books about finding Waldo. The first is called, "Where's Waldo?") I tried to find old "Waldo." It does seem like playing " Where's Waldo" when you look for an American Bittern, but I could not find the Bittern this time. "I give up," I said, too tired to look anymore. He pointed him out. I located him and snapped a shot.

An American Bittern out in the pickleweed near the bridge. Thanks again to Steve for pointing out where "Waldo" was.

Thanks to Steve for locating the American Bittern in the pickleweed. And for all the other information he gave me that day about birds and animals at Bolsa Chica. Don't let rain or cloudy weather stop you from birding. That is when the best stuff can be seen.

Birds Seen Today

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe
Peregrine Falcon

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Ring-billed Gull-- Larus delawarensis

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage.

Cornell's "All About Birds" site refers to the Ring-billed gull as a "familiar parking lot gull." While this is true, I also see Ring-billed Gulls along the shore. They are seen inland often and like fresh water. They are not usually found in the open ocean. I often see them at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve . And parks like Huntington Central Park , Carr Park in Huntington Beach, and Mile Square Park. And of course I see them in the parking lot when I go to the market. They like large, open areas and are found--in addition to parking lots--in parks, fields, garbage dumps, and other large, open areas.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage.

Gulls are challenging. I once took an informal class about gulls, but without keeping up, it is easy to get lost. One of the challenges in telling gulls apart is this: they can have up to four or more different plumages. One for juveniles, one for the first year, one for the second year and then breeding plumage, non-breeding plumage..... Well you get the idea. The problem is that they may look like totally different species to the untrained eye.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage.

An adult Ring-billed Gull in breeding plumage has yellow eyes, a yellow bill with a ring near the end, and yellow feet. Its head and chest are pure white. Adult non-breeding plumage is almost the same except the head is sprinkled with gray marks like the one above.

Immature Ring-billed Gull.

Ring-billed Gulls will eat lots of different things from animal to vegetable: fish, insects, earthworms, grubs, aquatic invertebrates, grain, plant material, carrion, small-sized rodents, and garbage.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage on the Bolsa Chica Bridge.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage on the Bolsa Chica Bridge.

Ring-billed Gulls nest in large colonies with other gulls. As adults, they tend to return to return to the same area where they hatched to breed. Usually, the nest is located on an island. Their nest is on the ground and filled with twigs and plant matter such as leaves and lichen and grass.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage on the Bolsa Chica Bridge.

The Ring-billed Gull is found as far north as southern Alaska.

Ring-billed Gull at Carr Park in Huntington Beach.
And as far south as Mexico.

Ring-billed Gull at Carr Park in Huntington Beach.
They are not above taking a handout in the park.

Adult Ring-billed Gull in non-breeding plumage on the Bolsa Chica Bridge.

They are abundant and have easily adjusted to living near humans.

So the next time you are out birding in Orange County--or even going to the store--look carefully and you may see lots of Ring-billed Gulls in your neighborhood.

External Links and Resources

Detailed article about the Ring-billed Gull.

Very thorough article.

Very good article. Make sure you look at both tabs.

Good information.

From Seattle Audubon.

Good, high quality video of Ring-billed Gulls.

Good Article.

National Audubon Society

Good article on telling the difference between adults and younger birds.

Short article about the Ring-billed Gull.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

A Walk at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Great Blue Heron from behind. Golden morning light flooding the pickleweed at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

Don't have much to say on this one. So many great birds, it was hard to choose which ones to post. I am late posting these pictures. This is a walk I took early in the morning at the end of December. It was a beautiful morning.

A rare Redhead.

Blue-winged Teals heading up the "river."

Great Blue Heron posing.

Silhouette of a Northern Harrier hunting.

Ring-billed Gull. "Very interesting."

Male Anna's Hummingbird on Patrol

Great Egret balancing on the fence.

White-crowned Sparrows chased the Anna's Hummingbird away temporarily.

Ring-Billed Gull--First Winter.

The Snow-capped Mountains far off in the distance reflected in the water at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Male Bufflehead between dives.

The Marbled Godwits and Willets seem to be standing by little stones. But what looks like stones are actually lots and lots of little Western Sandpipers. Click on the picture for a closer look.

American Coot floats and forages.

Aw, what a wonderful morning! And filled with lots of wonderful birds. I kind of felt like this American Coot. Just floating through the day and chilling. Another fine day of birding in Orange County.

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