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Migration varies from spring to fall and from year to year. Spring migration tends to be a period of hyperactivity when birds and birders are in a hurry to get where they are going and do what they do. Fall migration, on the other hand, is a more leisurely paced period where the numbers for a given species are fewer per day than in spring and the length of time from the first southbound migrants to the last is two to three times as long as in spring. That said, no fall is like another and this year proved that again. Many Inyo County birders felt that this fall migration was slower than most falls and that numbers and diversity of species was low. However, there were a few spectacular exceptions, as is usually the case.

The first spectacular exception was on 24 Sep when Gary Rosenberg and Scott Terrill found a LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH at Panamint Springs, only the second ever recorded in the county. About a dozen birders were able to see it and it remained at least until the next day. The first county record was 7 Aug 1985 at Deep Springs College when Jon Dunn found it while leading a bird tour there. This recent bird is only the 8th record for the state with 4 in spring from early May to early Jun, 3 in fall from early Aug to mid Sep and 1 in winter from early Feb to late Mar. These dates almost completely overlap the dates that Northern Waterthrushes have occurred in Inyo so extreme care and attention should be paid to all waterthrushes.

The second spectacular exception was in the early evening of 20 Nov when Tom Wurster found a RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN at Furnace Creek Ranch, only the second ever recorded in the county. This Mexican species has a nice habit of wandering north in late fall with many records existing for Arizona; however, it is very rare in California. The bird remained until at least 27 Nov and attracted birders from all over the state. The first county record was 5 Nov 1983 at Furnace Creek Ranch when one was found by Richard Webster. There is a 3rd record for Death Valley National Park at Saratoga Springs, just south into San Bernardino County, on 19 Nov 1974 when it was found by Bob Hudson of Independence and Merle Archie. This recent bird is the 9th record for the state with the window of opportunity from early Nov to mid Apr.

The third spectacular exception was on the morning of 21 Nov. Three observers were oohing and aahing over the Rufous-backed when Robin Tom Wurster called out, BAY-BREASTED WARBLER! Imagine having to stop looking and photographing a very rare robin to check out another very rare bird! This species was formerly much more common in California but this is the first reported in Inyo since 1982. The species breeds in the spruce forests of Canada and when the spruce budworm population crashed so did the Bay-breasted Warbler population as did other species that were largely dependent on the budworms.

The last spectacular exception was on 27 Nov when Steve Tucker found a male NORTHERN CARDINAL at China Ranch, near Tecopa. Brian Brown, the owner of China Ranch, said that this bird has been there since June. It appears to be the Arizona race with an extremely long crest, brighter rosy red than the eastern races and no black between the bill and the forehead. The question many are asking...Is this a true vagrant that wandered up from southern Nevada or along the Colorado River where a small population exists or is it an escaped caged bird? Since it has been in the wild at least since Jun normal indicators of a caged life, extreme feather wear and long claws, have long since molted or been worn down. Trying to decide the origin of this bird is a dilemma fit for King Solomon.

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Birding by Stages (3/'00)

Those who are long time members of the birding fraternity can look back over the years and recognize the stages through which they have passed. There are plateaus that mark an advancement in knowledge, skills, and techniques from those held previously. Often the passage was facilitated by more experienced birder-friends who in turn got where they were with the help of other friends. None of the best birders got to the top alone...they had plenty of help. The first stage might be noticing the bright colors or interesting behavior of birds that pique your curiosity. Maybe it was a bird coming into your yard or a friend pointing out a special event that you were seeing but not focusing on. Who cannot be fascinated by the sun shining off an adult male hummingbird almost at arms length at a feeder or the barrel rolls and loop-the-loops of a pair of courting Northern Harriers! If this initial exposure occurred at just the right moment in ones life it often may be followed by old binocs being pulled out of storage and cleaned up and the purchase of a bird book. This is the beginning of the second stage that can result in a terminal disease known as birding-mania. The symptoms are a manic-like depression that sets in if one cannot look at birds; the cure is cheap and simple...go birding! Most birders keep a list of the birds they have identified with the name of the bird, the date and location it was first seen. This is called a Life List and denotes a level of seriousness and commitment which identifies the third stage. One might think that they would never forget the first time they saw any bird but after trips all over the state, then the nation, then the continent, and then overseas, human RAM becomes full and data are dumped. Besides, years later the Life List can be a document of great joy, embarrassment, laughter, and sweet memories. An adjunct to a Life List is called a Trip List where every day of a trip a list is compiled for each area visited with the numbers of each species listed. As experience is gained other facets are added such as special highlights and even a drawing or description of a bird you recognized as rare. This insidious stage is a major plateau as it quietly and without fanfare changes a birdwatcher into an amateur ornithologist who is attempting to document the birds so that other observers benefit from the experience. The next stage is keeping a list on an almost daily basis with birds around home, on the way to work, and at lunch noted. Unusual species are entered and the first dates of migrants returning in spring and fall are kept. These ground floor data are the foundation of population dynamics and an invaluable indicator of changes in abundance (numbers), status (when a species occurs) and distribution (where a species occurs). Birding can and should be done both alone and with others. Going on an Audubon field trip is a good way to be exposed to experienced birders from whose knowledge you will profit. Birding alone allows you to concentrate on movement and sounds in a way that a group will not allow. For suggestions and directions to the best birding hot spots in the Owens Valley go to or the Sep/Oct 1995 issue of the WAVE. Other WAVE articles have covered many topics to help one get started including beginning to bird in winter when there are fewer birds and how to document a rare bird (Nov/Dec 1995, Jan/Feb 1997). If you are serious about wanting to learn about the birds of this area join a local group which meets monthly for classroom and field studies. Call us for further information (938-2764). Skills are not required, enthusiasm is!

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Winter Birds in Inyo (5/'00)

The winter of 1999-2000 has been a relatively mild one east of the Sierra. It has also been a relatively dry season with late storms leaving the area with below normal precipitation levels but not the disaster predicted by some. Winter is ornithologically our most unpredictable season, and we are never able to say which northern visitors will arrive and in what numbers. It would be easy to try to correlate winter bird distribution to the weather, but the formula is far more complex than that. ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS appeared in Nov, and a few were found throughout the period. One particularly interesting bird, a rare dark morph individual, was found by Jon Dunn at Fish Springs in late Nov and was seen almost every day on the same telephone pole until mid Jan. A few remained into Mar before returning to the Arctic where they breed. NORTHERN SHRIKE, another winter visitor from the far north went unrecorded. One was reported from near Lake Isabella, Kern County, but none from Inyo. They are expected in very small numbers about 75% of the winters in our area. A GREAT EGRET, found by John & Ros Gorham on the Bishop Christmas Count, apparently wintered as there were reports of this bird through Feb. They are unrecorded most winters so this was a treat. Unprecedented was a SNOWY EGRET, found by Phill Kiddoo, at Furnace Creek Ranch 2 Feb and later seen there 18-20 Feb by Chris Howard. The earliest spring migrant is 26 Mar 1991 at the Bishop Sewer Ponds. This was an amazing discovery, and Phill and Chris are to be commended for documenting this sighting well enough that it is now considered a scientific record. ROSSS GEESE put in a spectacular showing with birds all through the season remaining into spring later than ever before. Jim & Debby Parker found an amazing flock of 23 at the Bishop Sewer Ponds in Mar increasing the county maxima from eight! TUNDRA SWANS were present in very small numbers from 29 Nov until 10 Jan which is the earliest departure in recent history. A WHITE-TAILED KITE was found 29 Jan at Klondike Lake and reports indicated a pair were in north Bishop by mid Feb. At least one has been seen regularly north of Hwy 395 near Brockman Lane and the hope is that the other is incubating. If you are lucky enough to see it/them please keep your distance so as not to make them decide to breed elsewhere. This species has tried on a couple of other occasions to breed in the Owens Valley and has not yet been successful. One to two BALD EAGLES remained at Tinemaha Reservoir throughout the winter and a few sub-adults persisted into Apr at Crowley Lake. Very rare in winter was an immature PEREGRINE FALCON at Tinemaha Reservoir 24 Dec, and an adult was found at Klondike Lake 10 Jan by Bob Maurer (Bird Bob of Saline Valley). A rarely reported SHORT-EARED OWL was found by Chris Howard in northwest Bishop 11 Feb. It was reported periodically into late Mar. Because of its crepuscular habits this species may occur more regularly than the reports suggest. A SWAMP SPARROW was at Furnace Creek Ranch 29 Jan (Jon Dunn) and 20 Feb (Chris Howard) as was a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW. These are regular winter visitors but in very small numbers and almost all are from Death Valley. The last report of the NORTHERN CARDINAL at China Ranch, near Tecopa, was in late Feb, and by all accounts the bird was doing well. Finally, a GRAY FLYCATCHER was first reported at Thanksgiving at Furnace Creek Ranch by Guy McCaskie. It was reported each month since then through Feb and is the first recent winter record which is extremely unusual for a bird that usually spends its winter in the land of cerveza and frijoles. Each season brings us nuggets of excitement, and this winter was no exception. Spring migration is well underway and will, no doubt, bring a few more. Get your binocs and go out panning as you may very well find the bird of the season!

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International Migratory Bird Day: 13 MAY 2000 (9/'00)

This years IMBD was the best ever regardless of which indicators are used. From dawn until dusk thirty-eight observers (a record) covered the Owens Valley, White & Inyo mountains, eastern Sierra canyons, Deep Springs and Death Valley (record coverage) looking and listening for all the birds they could find. The goal of the day was to see how many different bird species could be seen in one day as well as how many individual birds. Some interesting statistics from this years count: 196 different species were found (up 14 from last year and a new record) totaling just over 10,000 individuals; of the 196 species 147 were neotropical migrants (up 2 from last year and another new record). Neotropical migrants are birds who spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and migrate north to breed in North America. This years most numerous species were Mourning Dove (665), Wilsons Warbler (554), and Yellow-headed Blackbird (507) easily beaking out the European Starling the usual winner. Over 331 observer hours were recorded (a record) which is like one observer looking for birds for 331 continuous hours or almost 14 straight days and nights! Fifteen species seen this year were new to the count (a record) bringing the total species seen during IMBDs to 226. An amazing 17 species were seen in larger numbers than ever recorded in the county before: Spotted Sandpiper (165), Mourning Dove (665), Olive-sided Flycatcher (24), Western Wood-Pewee (132), Hammonds Flycatcher (34), Dusky Flycatcher (47), Western Kingbird (169), Warbling Vireo (55), Wilsons Warbler (554), Yellow-breasted Chat (22), Western Tanager (231), Song Sparrow (84), Black-headed Grosbeak (154), Blue Grosbeak (23), Lazuli Bunting (59), Yellow-headed Blackbird (507), and Bullocks Oriole (99),

Rather than having each town competing with each other the coverage was expanded to include the entire county (rather than just the Owens Valley and adjacent mountains as in the past). The observers devoting a day to this count were Bea Cooley, Jack Ferrell, John & Dee Finkbeiner, Noah & Erin Shafto, Debra Hawk & Troy Kelley, Steve Holland, Jim & Debby Parker, and Chuck Washburn doing the Bishop area; Penny Ashworth, Carolyn, Earl, & Eliot Gann, Ellen Harbert, & Jo Heindel in the Big Pine area; Bev Schroeder & Lynna Walker at Deep Springs; Rosie Beach, Chris Howard, Andrew & Leah Kirk, Larry Nahm, and the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory crew (Chris, Keith, Sue, Vera & Will) covered the Independence area; Mike and Nancy Prather, Bob & Barb Toth and Judy Wickman were near Lone Pine; Tom Heindel & Karen Gilbert covered the southeast area of the county from China Ranch to Keeler; and Bob Mauer, Jr. birded Saline Valley.

This is the 9th year this international count has been conducted, the fourth for Inyo County, and is a cooperative global effort to inventory birds during migration. Many species are in serious trouble because of habitat destruction in both their wintering and summering grounds so counts like this one help scientists determine the severity of the problem and which species are most heavily impacted. Fun was had by all and exhaustion by most but the birds benefited from another year of data collection by a dedicated group of concerned citizens. If you are interested in helping out contact Jim Parker (872-4447) or Jo Heindel (938-2764) as soon as possible as some previous experience is important and there is plenty of time to get ready for the Y2K+1 count where the goal is to break 200 species!

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MOLTING, MIGRATING, AND MATING: Major cyclic events in the life of a bird (11/'00)

The energy output required of birds to molt, migrate and mate is so great that these events usually do not occur simultaneously. A bird's year is spent balancing the energy needs so that these events do not interfere with each other. It is no surprise that birds have developed a variety of strategies in order to balance a year's cycle.

Breeding results in a great deal of wear and tear on feathers. Repeatedly entering and exiting trees, bushes, rocks, etc., causes friction that wears away the edges and generally roughs up the surface of feathers. Singing from exposed perches increases the amount of insolation hitting the feathers causing them to bleach and breakdown chemically. By the end of the breeding season both body and flight feathers are badly worn and in need of replacement.

Birds migrate primarily to utilize different habitats and the foods associated with them. It is critical that food is abundant when the extra demands of feeding young occur. Migration may be short, such as with those that go from southern CA and Mexico to Canada or Alaska, or extremely long, as with those who fly from southern South America to northern North America. The energy needs during these biannual journeys are huge and none is left over to spend forming feathers, therefore, a bird must have plumage that is in good shape before undergoing migration.

Because creating new feathers places a big demand on the energy budget of birds, the need to molt has to be fitted around the energy needs of migration and breeding. Almost all species have a complete or nearly complete molt usually after breeding. One strategy is to molt on the breeding grounds (e.g. Lesser Nighthawk, most passerines, Baltimore Oriole, and the eastern Painted Bunting). Another strategy is to have a partial molt on the breeding grounds, then migrate and on reaching the winter grounds finish molting (e.g. shorebirds and terns). Yet another strategy is to begin migration without first molting, stop at feeding sites to molt, either partially or completely, and then continue to the winter grounds where the molt is finished, if necessary (e.g. Common Nighthawk, some passerines, Bullock's Oriole, and western Painted Bunting).

Most species maintain the same plumage throughout the year, although not the same feathers as discussed above. This is the basic plumage (formerly winter plumage), which in most species looks the same throughout the year (e.g. hawks, doves, owls, swifts, flycatchers, woodpeckers, swallows, shrikes, jays, crows, ravens, wrens, thrushes, thrashers, towhees, sparrows, blackbirds, and some warblers, etc.). A few species maintain the basic plumage throughout the year but wear results in a very different look (e.g. dickcissel, bobolink, finches, longspurs). When their basic plumage becomes worn, it produces a more colorful plumage because the dull colored edges of brightly colored feathers wear off revealing the hidden color. Because it is the same generation of feathers, this is not an alternate plumage even though some authors call it that. A minority of species adds another generation of feathers called the alternate plumage (formerly breeding plumage). This produces fancy looking ducks, shorebirds, tanagers and some warblers plus others.

It is especially useful to understand the different molt strategies of different species, as this is a critical criterion in separating some otherwise difficult species. It also helps in filling in the blanks between the plumages shown in field guides, as none show all plumages of all species. In addition, it helps in understanding the age and/or sex of a bird, which may also be a clue in determining the species. In other words, if you work at understanding molt and its impact on the appearance of a bird you will become a much better birder and will make far fewer identification mistakes.

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