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Another exciting fall in Inyo County: 2004 (1/'05)

Birdwatchers always look forward to migration when birds move north in spring to their breeding areas and south in fall to wintering grounds. Each migration brings the unexpected. This fall was an exceptionally exciting one.

Four species found in Inyo this fall are so rare in California that the observers' documentation must be sent to the Rare Birds Committee (CBRC) for review by ten members to determine if the report rises to the level of a scientific record. A Pine Warbler, 3rd record for Inyo, was photographed at China Ranch 16 October by Steven Myers. A Worm-eating Warbler, Inyo's 6th record, was found at Millpond 9 November by Claus Engelhardt and Bill Mitchel. It was seen by many local birders and photographed. A Black Rosy-Finch was found at Aspendell 14 November by Susan Steele of Ridgecrest and seen again at the same feeder 18 November by local ornithologist and author Jon Dunn of Rovana. This is the 2nd Inyo record since the species was split from Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch a few years ago. There are prior records for the county but this species is not of annual occurrence. A Painted Bunting was photographed at China Ranch 2 October by Jim Pike. The county has nearly ten records and the state is close to one hundred. The Committee is discussing the removal of this species from the state review list in the future.

A number of other species that are found more regularly in the state but very rarely in the county were reported this fall. A Stilt Sandpiper, 6th county record, was photographed at Klondike Lake on 30 August by Tom Heindel. A Ruddy Turnstone was photographed at Owens Lake on 9 August by Mike Prather. There are fewer than ten county records for the turnstone. A Common Moorhen was found at Deep Springs College on 9 October by Susan Steele. This species is not reported every year. Three Sanderlings and two to three Semipalmated Sandpipers were found at Tinemaha Reservoir and Owens Lake. As identification skills are increasing these two species are being reported more often than in past decades. A juvenile Sabine's Gull found by Susan Steele was photographed at Furnace Creek Ranch 2 October. That was only the 2nd documented record for that location. That same day Susan found a Ruddy Ground-Dove at the Ranch and it was photographed by husband Bob Steele. A Short-eared Owl was found and photographed by Tom Heindel at Klondike Lake on 9 November. Debby Parker found, photographed, and extensively documented a Calliope Hummingbird at her feeder as late as 9 October. While this species breeds here, it is astounding that one was still around then and it may be the latest record ever for the state!

A Varied Thrush was found by Vicki and Gerry Wolfe, from Death Valley, at Furnace Creek Ranch on 3 October, which is a couple of weeks earlier than they normally appear in the eastern Sierra.

Other species departed later than expected. Andrew Kirk found a Western Kingbird near the Bishop golf course on 2 November, almost a month later than the previous late date. Jim and Debby Parker found a Warbling Vireo 5 November near Bishop 18 days later than the late record. There were three Gray Catbirds this fall but the one found by Tom Wurster and Liga Auzins, southern CA birders, at Furnace Creek Ranch 21 November was a couple of weeks later than the latest record. A male Rusty Blackbird found 5 December by Tom Heindel at Tinemaha Reservoir remained for three days. This species has become increasingly rare and this is the first record for the Owens Valley.

An amazing four hybrid Ladder-backed X Nuttall's Woodpeckers were found and well documented. The Owens Valley is one of the few locations where these two similar species occur. The Nuttall's occupies the willow riparian along the Owens River and creeks. The Ladder-backed prefers the drier Joshua Tree habitat. The birders observed the seven distinguishing characteristics and noted that their bird had conflicting marks, that is, it shared genes of both species. Two White-headed Woodpeckers, normally found high in the mountains, were on the valley floor. A Vermilion Flycatcher, normally found in the Death Valley area, remained at the Bishop Sewer Pond for at least a month. An Eastern Kingbird, a vagrant from back east, was found at Blackrock on 30 August by Chris and Rosie Howard.

The warbler list was amazing and filled with vagrants from the east: Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Pine, Worm-eating, two Palm, two Bay-breasted, two American Redstarts, and three Northern Waterthrushes. It was a glorious fall and one that will not be soon forgotten by those who saw the rara aves.

Canada Geese in Inyo County (3/'05)

It is always exciting to see a bird with a USF&WS aluminum band on a leg in Inyo County. If the nine-digit number can be read it means it can be determined where and when the bird was banded as well as the age and sometimes the sex. But it is usually very difficult to be able to read a number on the band of a bird that is not in the hand. Recently Jon Dunn and Jo Heindel were able to do that at the Bishop City Park because the bird was a Canada Goose with a big leg band. On 17 November 2004 the banded goose was surrounded while it grazed on the brown grass and 0868-52185 was carefully read.

Later that afternoon the band number was sent to the Bird Banding Laboratory at Patuxent, Maryland (1-800-347-BAND or In a week a certificate was mailed out with the BBLs thanks for the effort and for information that had been sent. The certificate informed us that this bird was banded on 30 May 1997 at Sunnyside, Nevada, which is about 150 miles north of Las Vegas and about 195 miles east of Bishop. This is not a great distance as far as band recoveries go but considering that some of our visiting winter geese breed in northwest Alaska, it is an important piece of information. It was an AHY female (After Hatching Year) which means it was not born in 1997 but earlier, with the exact year unknown, making the bird at least eight years old. Through early December, there were eight geese in the Park with this bird the only one banded.

 This banded goose was found as the result of looking hard at Canada Geese, which used to be one species. In July 2004 the American Ornithologists Union split the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) into two species: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) which includes all the large subspecies and Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) which includes all the small subspecies. This has drawn birders back into the fields to look hard at white-cheeked geese to try to determine which are which. The smallest (Branta hutchinsii minima) is the only easy one because it is almost the size of a mallard and has a small bill and its size does not overlap any other subspecies. But the rest are challenging beyond belief. Sizes vary based on environmental and genetic factors which results in small birds of the larger group (Canada Geese) being smaller than large birds of the smaller group (Cackling Geese)! 

Three of the eight in the Park were identified as two large Canada Geese (Branta canadensis moffitti) and one small Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii minima). The other five birds generated much debate regarding their identity. Some observers felt they were small subspecies belonging to the Canada Goose group and others felt they were large subspecies belonging to the Cackling Goose group. Never have so many people looked at so many white-cheeked geese for so long! This issue has been studied for seven decades by a few and now, with the many, it will probably take a decade or more to sort this all out. Ahhhh, the joy of science!

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis moffitti)
Photo by Jo Heindel

Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii minima)
Photo by Jo Heindel

Winter Birding Highlights in Inyo County, 2004-2005 (5/'05)

One of the wettest winters on record brought three times as much rainfall to Death Valley National Park and almost two times the expected snowfall to the Sierra. It was an interesting winter for birds as well. Many species who regularly winter in the Sierra moved to the lowlands where food was easier to find and other species who are rarely reported in winter occurred. 

A Common Loon was at Pleasant Valley Reservoir (PVR) on 29 Jan (SS) and a Horned Grebe was at Tinemaha Reservoir (TR) on 5 Dec (T&JH). American White Pelicans appeared early when three were found at TR on 16 Feb (T&JH). An unexpected and early Turkey Vulture was found 11 Jan at Bishop (J&DP) followed by two more at PVR 29 Jan (SS). The most surprising bird of the winter was an immature male Eurasian Wigeon in the Bishop City Park pond 12 Jan (JZ) that has continued to 16 Apr. One to two Greater Scaup were reported by many observers at PVR and TR throughout the winter.

A very rare White-tailed Kite was found near Laws 5 Feb (AZ) and was seen there again 26 Feb (SS). A Rough-legged Hawk was at Laws 5 Feb (J&DP) and was the only one reported the entire winter. There were days in the 1970s when this species was as abundant as Red-tailed Hawks. Another exciting highlight was a Sandhill Crane found on the Bishop Christmas Count on 18 Dec (M&NP). Birders drove by the alfalfa fields along Sunland, Bishop, and regularly saw the bird until late Feb. A Black-bellied Plover at Bishop Sewer Ponds 19 Feb (J&DP) was three weeks earlier than the earliest record in a century of data.

One to three Herring Gulls were reported at TR throughout the winter. Two Northern Pygmy-Owls were found, one east of Bishop 6 Jan (JZ) and one at Power Plant #4 on 27 Feb (SS). A Costas Hummingbird at Bishop 5-21 Dec (CA) was most unusual and only the second Dec record for the Owens Valley ever. On 9 Feb a male Williamsons Sapsucker was found at Mendenhall Park, Big Pine (T&JH) and an adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a vagrant from the East, was found at the Bishop County Club on 18 Dec (C&RH, JDeM). This was the first ever Dec record and only the third record ever during the winter season. White-headed Woodpeckers are very rare and usually found only occasionally in the Sierra but this winter the numbers on the valley floor were unprecedented. Birds were found at Rovana (JD, SS), Bishop City Park (KD, C&CE, MTH), Bishop Elementary (C&RH), and Independence (LK).

Also unprecedented was a Hammonds Flycatcher at Round Valley 18 Dec (JD, DH) establishing the first winter record for the county. Stellers Jays, Western Scrub-Jays and Mountain Chickadees were widely reported from feeders throughout the Owens Valley and a few Clarks Nutcrackers were found in Bishop (C&RH) and Big Pine (T&JH). Also noteworthy were a White-breasted Nuthatch in Bishop during Dec (C&RH) and a Brown Creeper at Bishop City Park all winter. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at TR on 5 Dec (J&DP) was a late bird and a male Wilsons Warbler at Furnace Creek Ranch 19 Dec-2 Jan (V&GW) was the first documented winter record for the county. A Swamp Sparrow in north Bishop 18 Dec (KN) and 2 Jan (J&DP) was one of very few winter records for the Owens Valley. Another surprise was a male Rusty Blackbird at TR 5-7 Dec (T&JH), one of the very few found recently in the county and the first for the Owens Valley.

It is fun to go out into the field and enjoy finding exciting and unexpected birds but it is hard work to document a personal sighting, to ensure its acceptance as a scientific record. We are extremely grateful to the following observers for their contributions to the knowledge of bird distribution this past winter season: Chris Allen, Justin DeMoss, Jon Dunn, Kathy Duvall, Claus and Connie Engelhardt, Matt Heindel, Debbie House, Chris & Rosie Howard, Leah Kirk, Kristie Nelson, Jim & Debby Parker, Mike & Nancy Prather, Susan Steele, Vicki & Gerry Wolfe, Jerry Zatorski, and Andy Zdon. 

Spring has sprung and all these observers plus many others are already scouring the county for other surprising and exciting bird finds. If you decide to join us, bring, along with your binocs, a camera and/or pen and paper to document your finds. Become a part of the growing body of citizen scientists who are making significant contributions to the knowledge of the status and distribution of birds in Inyo County.

Summer 2005 in Inyo County

The summer of 2005 has come and gone leaving only memories of the coolest June most locals can ever remember. July, with temperatures in excess of 100F, quickly brought us back to the reality of an Eastern Sierra summer followed by the hot muggy days during the expected monsoons of August. 

Each season provides bird surprises and this summer was no exception. A Common Loon at Furnace Creek Ranch from 6-11 June was a very late spring migrant. Least Bitterns raised young at Nik & Nik's gravel quarry near Bishop, extending the known Inyo County breeding location further north. A male Bufflehead chose to summer at Nik & Nik's gravel quarry instead of breeding far to the north. 

A Greater Scaup dropped in to the sewer ponds at Stovepipe Wells in late May and remained through 10 June while the tenth Least Tern to occur in Inyo, a one-year-old bird, was found at Tinemaha Reservoir on 16 June. Panamint Springs was host to a White-winged Dove on 2 June and three Vermilion Flycatchers, including one brilliant male, were at Furnace Creek Ranch 11 June. American Crows are regular in the Owens Valley towns but rare elsewhere making the two at Furnace Creek Ranch from late May to mid June noteworthy. A Winter Wren returned to Pine Creek just above the pack station for the 4th summer. There he sang his heart out and again locals were unable to prove that he had a girlfriend with him. 

The most spectacular visitor of the summer was a singing male Yellow-throated Warbler in north Bishop on 17 June. This was only the 7th time this eastern visitor has been documented for Inyo County. Found by Debby Parker, it was seen and documented by the Parkers, Chris & Rosie Howard and Jon Dunn, ensuring its acceptance as a scientific record. It was not found again the following day but in its place was a singing male Summer Tanager. A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was at Birchim Canyon on 10 June and a male Indigo Bunting was in Bishop on 9 June. 

With just ten previous records for Inyo, the second most amazing record occurred when Jim & Debby Parker found an adult male Tricolored Blackbird near their Bishop backyard which remained 18-24 June. It also was well photographed and documented. Finally, a very rare Lawrence's Goldfinch was at Mahogany Flat in the Panamint Mountains on 11 June, providing a group celebrating Kathy Duvall's birthday with a very special gift! 

Again these enjoyable sightings would be but ephemeral events if it weren't for the extra effort many birders put into ensuring their acceptance as records in perpetuity. These summer records are immutable due to the efforts of Jon Dunn, Chris & Rosie Howard, Jim & Debby Parker, Susan Steele, Vicki & Gerry Wolfe, and Jerry Zatorski.  

Fall migration is already underway and exciting surprises will be there for the finding. We can predict the appearance of many species that are rare but seen each year. We cannot predict the special few that will make the observer drop their jaw and start dialing their birding friends to help them verify their vision and produce yet another county record.

A Colonist from Eurasia Immigrates to Inyo County

About three years ago we began to get calls from people in the Owens Valley who recognized that they had a bird species in their yard that they had never seen before. One even began the conversation with, "I have not been drinking but I have a bird at my feeder that Ive never seen before and it isnt in my bird book!" Some were able to imitate the vocalization it made: "coo-COO-coo." They were all thrilled that they could believe what they were seeing because they were playing host a new colonist in Inyo County, the Eurasian Collared-Dove. The name itself awakens an interest because birds with "Eurasian" are found in Eurasia, not in North America!

This Eurasian species was imported to the Bahamas in the mid-1970s. It is not certain if the birds escaped or were released but they became common in the wild there. In the early 1980s they were first reported in Florida where they quickly adapted to their new home. A decade later the population had expanded rapidly both north and west and the new century found them in the Far West. By 2002 this species had been added to the state lists of Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. The 2002 report of the California Bird Records Committee (Western Birds 35:14) accepted this species on the state list, which now stands at 620 species, noting that it is the 10th non-native species added to the list.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove was officially added to the Inyo County list when Debby Parker thoroughly documented and photographed a bird in Bishop on 8 March 2002. Since that time this species has been reported from all the towns in the Owens Valley as well as Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park. A few others had been reported earlier in Bishop but lacked documentation or photographic evidence. There is a look-alike domesticated dove, the Ringed Turtle-Dove, that is kept in cages in Bishop and the earlier sightings did not eliminate the possibility of an escaped turtle-dove. A recent edition of the Sierra Reader offered turtle-doves for sale.

How can we be sure we are looking at Eurasian Collared-Dove and not an escaped Ringed Turtle-Dove? The newer field guides, National Geographic Societys Field Guide or Sibleys Guide to Birds, have pictures that will be helpful. The Eurasian Collared-Dove is the size of a Rock Pigeon (Rock Dove) that is common in most towns. It is pale gray with a black half-collar around the back of the neck. The back, wings, and tail are mostly pale brown; the primaries (the longest, outer wing feathers) are black as is the base of the underside of the tail. The outer tail feathers are broadly tipped white. The Ringed Turtle-Dove is a smaller and paler version with the primaries dull gray and the base of the undertail has very little or no black. The main vocalizations are very different. The Eurasian Collared-Dove gives a series of 3 to 4 "coo" notes with the middle one(s) emphasized. The Ringed Turtle-Dove gives a soft, rolling series of "coos."

While some people disdain non-native species these birds have become part of the avifauna and should not be ignored. It is important that we learn as much as we can about them. Will they withstand our hardest winters? Can they survive an abundance of winter hawks that love to eat dove? How high into the mountains will they venture? Will they displace our native doves or pigeons? Where will they nest? Will they brave the temperatures of Mammoth Lakes? Will their choice of food items impact other species of birds? How regularly will they hybridize with turtle-doves? If there are many of their own species to mate with, will they hybridize? The slate is almost blank on the Inyo County biology of this newcomer. What interesting facts are you going to discover?

Photo Debby Parker