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Fall 2003 in Inyo County (1/'04)

Believe it or not, fall migration lasts for almost half a year! The first southbound migrants are usually female Wilsons Phalaropes who return by mid June after laying the eggs in a nest and placing responsibilities on the males. This year the ladies were spinning around at Tinemaha Reservoir on 11 June, right on time. Concurrently some species, e.g. Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Common Nighthawk, are still winging their way north to breed.

This Fall, like all others, brought with it surprises such as early arriving birds, late departing birds, vagrants from the east, and sightings in locations or habitats that they wouldnt be found dead in the rest of the year! Some of the most surprising observations follow, but first thanks must be given to those who work very hard at gathering and substantiating county records that contribute to the valuable science that citizens can conduct following rigid standards. We want to acknowledge these important contributors: Paul Clark, Chris Conard, Jon Dunn, River Gates, John & Ros Gorham, Carolyn Honer, Chris Howard & Rosie Beach, Andrew & Vern Howe, Bob Hudson, Andrew & Leah Kirk, Sandy Koonce, Amy Lauterback, Kelli Levinson, Cathy McFadden, Jim & Debby Parker, Mike Prather, Bob & Susan Steele, Derrick & Mary Vocelka, Todd Vogel, Jim Weigard, Judy Wickman, James & Kay Wilson, Jim Yurchenko, and Jerry Zatorski.

Pacific Loons are often unreported but this year at least five were found between 30 Oct & 25 Nov. A Red-Necked Grebe, only the third one found in the county, was at Tinemaha Reservoir 16-19 November. Great Egrets are regular in small numbers but an amazing 59, the most ever recorded in Inyo, were at Tinemaha Reservoir 7 Oct. Wood Ducks had a successful breeding season based on the 31 seen at Tinemaha Reservoir 26 Aug. Single Surf Scoters, rarely reported, were at Klondike Lake 16 & 30 Oct. A pair of Barrows Goldeneyes, 11th county record, were at Death Valley Junction 16 Nov. A casual (not seen every year) White-Tailed Kite was in Bishop 7 Nov. Another casual species, Common Moorhen, was at Owens Lake 8 Oct.

A very late Spotted Sandpiper was at Tinemaha Reservoir 9 Dec. Red Knot, a casual shorebird, was at Owens Lake 20 Sep, and 11 Sanderlings, the high county count, were there 21 Sep. Two rare Semipalmated Sandpipers were found, one at Tinemaha Reservoir 24 Aug and the other at Klondike Lake 12 Sep. Two juvenile Stilt Sandpipers at Tinemaha Reservoir 21 Aug were the 6th county record. The seven Herring Gulls seen between 25 Oct & 9 Dec were the most ever recorded in fall. Five Sabines Gulls were more than normally reported and one seen at Owens Lake 2 Nov was the latest ever.

Two Eurasian Collared-Doves, recent colonizers in the county, were seen with one being the first found away from Bishop when found in Independence. Some observers mistake the captive reared and very similar Ringed Turtle-Dove for this species. Flocks of free-flying Ringed Turtle-Dove have been photographed in Bishop. A White-Winged Dove was at Owens Lake 5 Oct while 15 Inca Doves and 3 Ruddy Ground-Doves continue exciting observers at Furnace Creek Ranch.

The two latest ever goatsuckers were interesting with a Lesser Nighthawk near Trona 11 Nov and a Common Poorwill near Fish Springs 2 Dec. Annas Hummingbirds continue their new winter expansion visiting various feeders in the Owens Valley. Thirty Lewiss Woodpeckers are wintering in the date palms at Furnace Creek Ranch. Acorn Woodpeckers continue their expansion in the county with 3 reported from DVNP and 1 on top of Mt. Barnard (13,990) on 11 Sep setting a new high elevation record and suggesting that this species may not see the Sierra as much of a barrier as thought.

A Least Flycatcher, 10th county record, was at Birchim Canyon 10 Nov and a record setting late Pacific-Slope Flycatcher was there much of Nov and into Dec. Stellers Jays, Western Scrub-Jays and Mountain Chickadees are reported from the lowlands this fall as are Brown Creepers and Golden-Crowned Kinglets. An elevation record was set when a Mountain Chickadee was found on top of Mt. Tyndall (14,018). Lost Gray Catbirds were at Furnace Creek Ranch 20 Sep and Deep Springs 19 Oct. A Spragues Pipit, 3rd county record, was found at Furnace Creek Ranch 19 Oct. Warblers made their colorful appearance with a Magnolia in Big Pine 30 Sep, a stunning male Black-Throated Blue at Panamint Springs 18 Oct, a Blackpoll at

Surprise Canyon 11 Oct, American Redstarts at Birchim Canyon 12 Sep and Panamint Springs 18 Oct, and a Prothonotary at Deep Springs 28 Oct.

The latest ever Yellow-Breasted Chat was at Stovepipe Wells 13 Oct and a Summer Tanager

persisted at Rovana until 19 Nov.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks were at Independence 8 & 27 Nov and a male Indigo Bunting was at Big Pine 26 Aug. Three Painted Buntings were seen, Big Pine 18 Aug, Deep Springs 7 Sep, and Furnace Creek Ranch 20 Sep. A Common Grackle was at Independence 13 Nov and a Lawrences Goldfinch was there 16 Nov.

In summation, this was another interesting and sometimes spectacular fall thanks to all who helped find these feathered wonders and document them for posterity. The birds, too, are grateful, believe it or not!

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Eastern Sierra's Black-billed Magpie Mystery (3/'04)

Many visitors arrive in the eastern Sierra from southern California and are thrilled to see the flashy Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) as it crosses the road in front of them or flies alongside their car as if in welcome. They are not used to seeing this large, black-and-white member of the crow family, since the southern limit of its range in California is right here in Inyo County. The magpie occurs widely throughout the western United States, east of the Sierra Cascade axis, and north to Alaska.

There is an interesting mystery concerning the magpie's distribution in Inyo County. In the late 19th century, Dr. A. K. Fisher headed an expedition to conduct bird surveys in southern California, southern Nevada, southern Utah, and parts of Arizona. Many of the most prominent names in ornithology at the time helped in this comprehensive work. C. Hart Merriam, Vernon Bailey, Edward. W. Nelson, Theodore S. Palmer, and Frank Stephens plus a few lesser-known ornithologists took part in various areas of the survey. Some spent only a few months in Inyo while others spent most of a year here. The expedition covered not only all of what is now Death Valley National Park but all of the mountain ranges in Inyo, the east slope of the Sierra north to the headwaters of the Owens River, and the Owens Valley. They recorded most of the species we see today with many records from the vicinity of Little Owens Lake (Little Lake), Haiwee Meadows (Haiwee Reservoir), Olancha, Owens Lake, Long Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop.

Imagine our surprise back in the 1970s when we read the expedition report for the first time and saw that "The Black-billed Magpie was not seen by the expedition but is known to be a common resident in the neighborhood of Carson in western Nevada." Wow! We assumed that they had "always" been in the Owens Valley.

Enid Larsen, a chipmunk scientist, teacher, and dear friend, who had spent most of her life in the Owens Valley gave a one word retort when we told her that magpies were not here in 1890-1891, "Hogwash!" We told her about the expedition and highly respected ornithologists who conducted the surveys but she would not believe it. She remembered them as a little girl in southern Bishop as she played in the sage.

The next morning, just past dawn, there was a rap on our door?it was Enid. She was brimming with news to tell. It seemed that we were not the first ones she visited that morning. However, we will let her tell her story. "Well, I worried all night that I would die before I solved the Black-billed Magpie problem. If I had died and Saint Peter asked me to explain the distribution of the magpie in Inyo County, I would not have been able to answer and that would have killed me!" (She paused to let us enjoy her joke). "This morning I talked with my Native American friend who is much older than I" (another pause) "and I asked her if there were magpies in the valley when she was young. After thinking about it for some time, she told me that when she was a very little girl there were no magpies in the valley. Therefore, it is true! Now I have the answer for Saint Peter!" Happily, she did not need it for another couple of decades.

Whether her friend remembered correctly after all those years is hard to say but we can state with certainty that this hard-to-overlook bird was not found by extremely competent observers in the late 19th century.

Today the species is fairly common throughout the Owens Valley although as one travels south they become fewer in number. Small numbers are reported south to Haiwee Reservoir. The earliest record for the county, so far, is an egg set collected near Laws 22 Apr 1916 that resides at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley. If anyone has further information regarding the early days and the arrival of the Black-billed Magpie in Inyo County, we would love to hear from them.

Another major mystery involves this species but that will have to wait for another time!

The Solitary Vireo Complex in Inyo County (5/'04)

        Until 1997, the Solitary Vireo in the United States consisted of four subspecies. Since then, based on additional research, the Solitary Vireo has been split into three full species. The eastern and northern races were merged as the Blue-headed Vireo, the Pacific coast birds became the Cassin's Vireo, and the Rocky Mountain form the Plumbeous Vireo.

        All three species have been documented in Inyo County. Only the Plumbeous Vireo is known as a breeder and regular summer resident in the pinyon-juniper habitats throughout the county. The Pacific coast Cassin's Vireo is a spring and fall migrant through the county and is more common in spring than in fall. The Blue-headed Vireo is a vagrant to our area with but two records, both from Death Valley National Park. One was at Panamint Springs 3 Oct 1989 (Jon Dunn, AB 44:164) and the other at Furnace Creek Ranch 23 September 1991 (Jon Dunn, AB 46:151).

        All field guides make identification seem rather straightforward in separating these three taxa, and often it is. However, there are pitfalls that are underappreciated and lead to misidentifications. Vireos are brightest in early fall immediately after molt when their new feathers are unworn and colors are not faded by UV rays and wear. They are most drab and dull in summer just before fall molt. Many are fairly dull in spring with females always tending to less color than males. Thus, a young female in spring or summer when one year old may be particularly dull. 

        The biggest challenge for Inyo birders is trying to separate a dull Cassin's from Plumbeous. We regularly receive reports of Plumbeous Vireo in April and even late March that undoubtedly are very dull, probably young female, Cassin's Vireos. Cassin's have been recorded as migrants throughout the state during April and a few earlier in late March with peak numbers in May. Plumbeous move later. The misconception is that if there is no yellow on the flanks then it must be a Plumbeous...or Gray, which is another article.

        Think about the habitat in which Plumbeous breed, pinyon-juniper, and then what it is like in April at 7000-9000'. It is still winter-like and these conditions may prevail well into May preventing the insect activity that is necessary for the vireos' food supply. Plumbeous Vireos winter, for the most part, in Mexico, although a few are known to winter along coastal California. The recently published Birds of the Salton Sea (Patten et al. 2003) lists two spring migrants sightings from late April and mid May as tentative only and state that "there are virtually no physically documented records at that season." Considering the number of highly qualified birders working this popular birding destination, if Plumbeous were coming through in March and April there would be unequivocal records.

        Any suspected Plumbeous Vireos in Inyo County prior to mid May should be meticulously documented with particular attention given to head and back color and contrast, flank color, and the color of the edges of the secondaries and tertials.

        As if that isn't enough, another problem involves separating very bright and freshly molted fall Cassin's from Blue-headed Vireo! The Blue-headed has strongly contrasting gray to blue-gray head and green back, pure white throat cut off sharply with gray cheeks, and white in the tail. With only two accepted records great detail is required and as this is a reviewable bird by the California Bird Records Committee one must submit the documentation to the Committee for peer review.  

        Competent observers have reported Cassin's Vireos that they thought were breeding in the Sierra based on singing birds that seemed to be territorial. Subsequent searches revealed that they were just late migrants. Both sexes of vireos are known to sing and reportedly throughout the year. Two excellent sources for detailed information and photographs on the identification of these three species are: 1) Heindel, M.T. 1996. Birding 28: p. 459 and 2) Zimmer, K. 2000. Birding the American West, p. 242.

        The complexity and difficulty in separating some individuals in the Solitary Vireo complex rivals the infamous Empidonax flycatchers challenge. When in doubt claim a "Solitary Vireo" and you will ensure accuracy ...unless it is a Gray Vireo!

International Migratory Bird Day: Inyo County Shines in 2004 (9/'04)

On May 8th thirty-five participants joined the international celebration of migratory birds and scoured hills and dales, valleys and mountains, lakes, streams, and the Owens River from Round Valley south to Little Lake, east to China Ranch, and north to Deep Springs, Wyman Canyon and the White Mountains. Last year Inyo County received national recognition as the Inland County with the second most bird species found in one day - 219. Because this years count was so early - it is always the second Saturday in May - the expectations were not high that the group would come even close to last years record. But what a magnificent excuse to arise early, tramp long, and celebrate the return of our visitors who winter south of us from Mexico to southern South America!

While there were five fewer observers than last year, they put in over 331 hours of birding in one day! That is like one person birding non-stop for 13.8 days! In order for 35 people to gain as much coverage as possible in the states second largest county (many other counties have nearly 100 people covering much smaller areas), the group was divided into 19 parties with 7 parties made up of one person, 10 parties of two people, and 2 parties of four. Two parties even hog-tied visiting relatives into spending Saturday in celebration of birds!

The weather was delightful, the energy was high, and the birds were incredibly cooperative as 13,124 let the celebrants find them! Six new species were added to the IMBD count: Mike and Nancy Prather found a very late Marbled Godwit at Owens Lake, Larry Nahm and Carolyn Gann saw a very late Common Goldeneye at Black Rock Fish Hatchery, Chris and Rosie Howard were shocked to see a Lesser Yellowlegs in Wyman Canyon, Bob Mauer, Jr. located a Bendires Thrasher at Lee Flat, Debby Parker and her mom and Vicki and Gerry Wolfe spied Eurasian Collared-Doves in Bishop and Death Valley, and Kay Wilson and Jo Heindel stumbled upon a totally unexpected Hooded Warbler, a vagrant from the East.

The final tally was 213 species, far more than expected and second only to last years record. Forty-seven of those species were seen by only one party, indicating that "One" can make the difference! Wood Duck, Northern Shoveler, Bonapartes Gull, Forsters Tern, Barn Owl, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Dipper, & Sage Thrasher were seen by Jim & Debby Parker, Sandy Scofield & Andy Zdon. Swainsons Hawk, Gambels Quail, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bells Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, Lucys Warbler, & Hooded Oriole were found by Tom Heindel. Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Franklins Gull, Marbled Godwit, & American Pipit were located by Mike & Nancy Prather and Common Moorhen, Short-billed Dowitcher, White-winged Dove, & Plumbeous Vireo were noted by Vickie & Gerry Wolfe. American Wigeon, Lesser Yellowlegs, Vauxs Swift, & Broad-tailed Hummingbird showed off to Chris, Rosie, Barry & Bonnie Howard. Western & Clarks Grebes, & California Thrasher were pulled out by Kelli Levinson and Least Bittern, Acorn Woodpecker, & Le Contes Thrasher were observed by Andrew & Leah Kirk. Calliope Hummingbird, Willow Flycatcher, & Hooded Warbler were sighted by Kay Wilson & Jo Heindel while Coopers Hawk & Common Goldeneye were spotted by Larry Nahm & Carolyn Gann. Bendires Thrasher & Golden-crowned Sparrow were examined by Bob Mauer, Jr. and the lone Wrentit was ferreted out by Judy Wickman & Bob Hudson. One Ring-billed Gull was identified by John Williams and a Hermit Warbler was discovered by Debbie House. Others who added numbers and were often only the second party to find a certain species were Kathy Duvall, John & Ros Gorham, Steve Holland, Phill Kiddoo, Paul McFarland, Bill Mitchel, Todd Vogel, James Wilson, and Jerry Zatorski.

The hundreds of hours of birding resulted in Inyo County receiving National Recognition again! And again, as the second birdiest inland county but this time second to our neighbor to the southKern County! Just think what the possibilities would be if the lower Owens River was flowing and we had a few dozen more indefatigable birders!

Inyo County adds Brown Pelican to its Bird List (11/'04)

 This past summer has been a banner year for finding Brown Pelicans in the interior of the southwest U.S. Unlike American White Pelican, a common migrant through Inyo in spring and fall, the Brown Pelican prefers the coast and is very rare inland except at the Salton Sea where it is found regularly in summer and fall. This year a very successful Brown Pelican breeding season combined with a significant crash of the food supply, primarily anchovies, resulted in immature birds desperate for food dispersing inland. Rare Bird Alerts lit up with reports of birds in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mono and Inyo Counties!

There have been previous reports of Brown Pelican from Inyo County but none were photographed or documented in writing so they do not qualify as County records. In centuries past, a new species was added to the bird list of an area after it had been collected and placed in a museum. There was physical proof of the occurrence so that anyone, anytime, could examine the specimen and agree or disagree with the record. Times have changed, fortunately, and now photographs, audiotapes, videos, drawings, and/or written documentation can be submitted in lieu of a specimen and preferably by multiple observers. If the evidence is unequivocal, it becomes a scientific record. This is especially valuable when birds occur outside their known geographic or temporal range.

Credit for finding and reporting the first Inyo County Brown Pelican goes to Brad Schram who supported his observation with written documentation. Brad is an excellent and experienced birder, author of A Birder's Guide to Southern California, and an all around good guy. On 1 July, he was driving south on Hwy 395 and as he passed Owens Lake he observed an immature Brown Pelican flying north. He lives on the coast, sees Brown Pelicans all the time and knew that they are not expected inland. He posted the sighting on Calbird, a birding bulletin board, which helped spread the word.

Because we were out of the area, we were gnashing our teeth until we could return on 6 July. The next day a visit to Tinemaha Reservoir turned up an immature Brown Pelican! Phone calls and a posting to the Eastern Sierra Birds website helped alert local birders, some of whom dropped what they were doing to drive to the reservoir to see our newest neighbor. Photographs and documentation were submitted by almost everyone who saw the bird, insuring that the "Doubting Thomases" of the future would not have any room for doubts!

To complicate the issue, Steve Holland reported an immature Brown Pelican at June Lake on 3 July. Were all three sightings of one bird? Did the Owens Lake bird go north to June Lake and then return south to Tinemaha? Or, was each a different individual? Because it is such a rare species in the Eastern Sierra one should conservatively claim only one. However, there were dozens at reservoirs in Arizona so it is not impossible that there were three birds. A similar situation occurred on 6 July 1998. A Magnificent Frigatebird was seen at Tinemaha Reservoir at the exact same minute that one was seen over Mono Lake. A few hours later one was seen at Diaz Lake. Obviously there were at least two birds but there might have been three. Again, there were frigatebirds reported outside their normal range during the same time in many parts of the state.

The sad ending to this story is that on 10 July Susan Steele found the Tinemaha Reservoir bird floating dead. Unlike its cousin, the American White Pelican who feeds by scooping fish as it swims, the Brown Pelican feeds primarily by plunge diving. This is not a good idea in shallow water reservoirs like Tinemaha. In all probability it died of starvation, but a record of its occurrence was validated by the many photographs and documentation by observers who turned an exciting personal sighting into a scientific record that will easily pass the test of time.