2006 Birding Articles by Tom and Jo Heindel

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Jan/Feb 2006: Broad-billed Hummingbirds

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 3, Jan-Feb 2006 - click here for original with photos]

Broad-billed Hummingbird, Photo by Todd Vogel

Broad-billed Hummingbird, Photo by Todd Vogel

Broad-billed Hummingbirds (Cynanthus latirostris) are common throughout much of their Mexican range with the northern populations being migratory and the southern populations sedentary. During the late spring and summer breeding season the migratory birds move north to breed primarily in riparian washes in the arid Sonoran desert, just barely pusing into southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and the Big Bend portion of Texas. So why write about this species instead of an Eastern Sierra species? Because two immature male Broad-billed Hummingbirds have occurred in Inyo County.

Broad-bills reach Arizona and New Mexico in mid March but are not recorded in Texas until mid May. In Arizona males depart in late August while females and immatures hang around until mid September, with a few lingerers until early October. They are primarily nectar feeders with forays to capture insects in the air or off foliage to meet the needs for amino acids and electrolytes. Studies have shown they prefer flowers whose nectar ranged from 13-32% sugar which mimics the "nectar" found in artificial feeders.

Any hummingbird, regardless of size, can be displaced from a flower or feeder by any other. With that said, there is a dominance factor that reflects size and aggressiveness with the various species. All who watch hummers note that certain species always seem to "win" and guard a feeder with all comers chased off. An Arizona study determined that Broad-bills consistently acquiesced to Violet-crowned and Rufous while they dominated Black-chinned and Costa's.

In mid September 1992, Marge Irwin and her family pulled into the Lone Pine Campground and set up their temporary home. As part of settling in, Marge, as she always does, hung a hummingbird feeder in a nearby tree. The following day her family began to climb Mt. Whitney and she busied herself around camp. Very quickly she heard and saw a hummingbird come in to the feeder and equally quickly recognized it as one she was used to seeing in southeast Arizona, a Broad-billed Hummingbird! Knowing the significance of the sighting, she went the extra mile to notify the locals of its presence and a number of people rushed to the campsite to see and photograph Inyo County's first ever vagrant hummingbird. It remained from 12-14 September.

On 29 October 2005, Tom & Jo were sitting in their backyard enjoying their morning coffee break when they saw a red-billed hummer sitting on the fence near a feeder. When it turned around it obviously was an immature male Broad-billed Hummingbird with a teal and dark blue gorget less than half molted in, dark metallic blue lobed tail, and a red decurved bill. Over the next nineteen days it was well watched by two dozen observers. Many set up telescopes and from twenty-five feet away had in-the-hand views. Chris Howard noted the striations on the bill, which are lost quickly, indicating that this was a very young male; this was substantiated by the underdeveloped gorget. The feeder mixture provided 33% sugar nectar and for a week he would sit right next to or over "his" feeder and chase any hummer who dared to try to drink from it. The two Anna's and three Costa's who thought the yard and feeders were theirs found out that one feeder was no longer Open for Business. Even though the nearby hummingbird garden was filled with blooming sages the Broad-bill was never tempted to taste natural nectar, preferring high-octane homebrew. After a week he became secure enough to visit other parts of the yard and then the neighbors' yards. At these times the Costa's Hummingbirds would sneak in and guzzle at the forbidden feeder until the Broad-billed returned and used his bill to move them out!

Both the Inyo County birds were immature males but, to add to the story, another Broad-billed Hummingbird, an immature female, was found at Inyokern by Susan Steele just a few days earlier on.26 October and remained to the 31 st . Data from Arizona indicates that immatures move by mid September and those born with broken compasses react to the drive to migrate by going in the wrong direction. Vagrants have been found in Louisiana, southern and southeast Texas, New Mexico, west and central Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California primarily along the coast from San Diego north to Santa Barbara.

A number of Eastern Sierra residents maintain hummingbird feeders and all have the opportunity of seeing some very fancy and rare guests. All it takes is a sharp eye, a nearby field guide to birds, and a little luck!

Mar/Apr 2006: The Winter That Was Not

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2006 - click here for original with photos]

Each fall, as migration slows down, birders begin looking forward to winter with anticipation. The Winter Season is the most unpredictable of all when trying to guess which species will visit us and in what numbers and when will they arrive and depart. The hope is that it will be a winter that brings visitors from the far north and drives mountain dwellers down out of the pines and into our parks, towns, backyards, and golf courses.

Bald Eagles and Tundra Swans are always welcome guests and this winter they arrived later than the average, but at least they got here! When the hunting pressure becomes too great they disappear for a few days but then return. This winter we had up to 16 swans and 3 Bald Eagles.

There have been no credible reports of Rough-legged Hawks this winter. In fall, one was well documented from Bishop 13 Nov 2005 by Jim and Debby Parker. Last year, 5 Feb 2005, they had one which was the only one reported that winter. This paucity is a continuing trend in recent decades. In the 1970s ten to twenty could be seen in a day, sometimes outnumbering Red-tailed Hawks.

There have been no reports of Northern Shrikes. They also seem to be in a down cycle with few reports over the last decade or two. There have been no reports of Barrows Goldeneye from the Eastern Sierra this winter. In recent times they have appeared at Pleasant Valley Reservoir but not this year.

There were no Rusty Blackbird reports either. This species has become so rare throughout the state that the California Bird Records Committee recently (January 2006) returned it to the review list. Now, if one is found, documentation must be submitted to the committee for peer review to determine if it qualifies as a record.

Nor has this been a winter for mountains birds. Ted Williams found one, a Brown Creeper, feeding in the junipers at the East Line Street cemetery in Bishop 17 Dec. Compared to other winters the reports of both Western Scrub-Jays and Stellers Jays have been in short supply. The same is true of Mountain Chickadees and Juniper Titmice. There have been no reports of special sparrows like Harris, Swamp, and White-throated.

On the upside, there was a 12 Jan report by Debby House of a Turkey Vulture flying over Bishop. There are only a few reports in Jan as this species is not expected until late February. Unexpected were Barn

Swallows, seen in Inyo and Mono counties this winter. They usually depart in October and dont begin to return until mid March. After the early January snow storm Kay Wilson had a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch consuming seeds at her feeder in Bishop. This species is seldom seen on the valley floor but when their food supply in the mountains is covered by deep snow they are forced down and can only be delighted to find certain restaurants open for business.

Another winter highlight was from the southwest of Inyo County where Susan Steele, Inyokern, has been conducting regular bird surveys in the Sierra canyons. She has found Winter Wrens in at least three canyons. While we have many reports of fall migrants in Oct and Nov we were surprised that these birds appear to be wintering; there are precious few data for the winter months of this species.

Chris and Rosie Howard found a very rare Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the Bishop Country Club on 17 Dec in the same tree where they had one a year ago! Gerry Wolfe reported from Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, that a Gray Flycatcher has spent the winter.

But Spring is about to spring because Larry Nahm reported the first spring migrant, a Cinnamon Teal in late January! This is typically our earliest spring migrant and it always arrives in winter! Near Big Pine the Great Horned Owls are sitting on eggs and the Great Blue Herons are testing their nests. True migrant swallows will be arriving in February and March preceding only slightly our gale force spring winds. Birders, always hopeful, are eager to see what new birds the new season will bring.

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May/June 2006: Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the Owens Valley

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 5, May-Jun 2006 - click here for original with photos]

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

As a result of the proposed Yellow-billed Cuckoo projects at Baker Meadow and Hogback Creek areas we have fielded a number of questions and comments from concerned neighbors. Some of them indicate that misinformation is being disseminated as fact. We would like to offer some clarification on cuckoo distribution, habitat needs, and occurrence in our area, as well as costs, access, and fencing. 

Myth: The cuckoo barely reaches Inyo County and doesn't really belong here. 

While the Owens Valley is now on the eastern edge of its range it was not always so. The Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo was originally found in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada as well as throughout California (San Diego to Sonoma Counties, San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, Kern to Shasta Counties, plus Siskiyou, Inyo, San Bernardino, and Imperial Counties). They have been extirpated from British Columbia (in the 1920s), Washington (by 1934), and Oregon (by 1945) and there are no proven breeding records in Nevada since the 1970s. The more than 15,000 pairs of breeding Yellow-billed Cuckoos in California have been reduced to 30 pairs in less than a century. This is recognized by science as a catastrophic range reduction and will result in the total extirpation of the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo unless significant steps are taken to intervene. The primary causes of this precipitous decline are destruction or degradation of their preferred riparian habitat, pesticide use directly in orchards and indirectly through their prey, and grazing which removes or reduces the understory and prevents willow and cottonwood growth.

Myth: There is very little or no cuckoo habitat in the Owens Valley. 

Cuckoos breed in open woodlands with a low understory of dense and scrubby vegetation. They have also been found in abandoned farmlands, overgrown fruit orchards, and dense thickets along streams and marshes. Nests are often placed in willows but nearby cottonwoods are used extensively for foraging. Their main foods are primarily large insects such as caterpillars, katydids, grasshoppers and crickets. All of these requirements are available in the Owens Valley albeit in less than bountiful quantities. The restoration of 62 miles of the Owens River will significantly enhance habitat that appeals to cuckoos as well as quail, fish and many other species. Much can be gained by looking at the Kern River Preserve just south of us with a similar biogeography. A major effort was made to revegetate the riparian habitat along the Kern River, which had been degraded by man. The results were phenomenal with two endangered species, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, making a remarkable comeback. The residents, ranchers, and conservationists worked together on a program that would benefit all parties. But the biggest beneficiaries were the flora and fauna that existed a century or more ago - being allowed, in fact, encouraged to flourish once again. 

Myth: The cuckoo isn't being found in Inyo now. 

The paucity of professional researchers and serious birders is reflected in the few records of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The extent of cuckoo distribution or the numbers of this species in the Owens Valley for the last 150 years is not known by scientists or Owens Valley residents. There have been a few ornithological surveys throughout the last century and a half; none focused on the cuckoo. During the 1980s and early 1990s Dr. Steve Laymon, cuckoo expert, conducted studies in the Owens Valley that were cuckoo specific surveys. These most recent surveys were short-term and were but a peek into the biological picture but the results indicate that there is good habitat in the Owens Valley for the cuckoo. Without a concentrated cuckoo project where the protocol is specifically designed for that species and is a long-term study, no one can know how many there are in the county in an average year or decade and whether they are breeding or not. This bird is retiring and secretive and not easy to find. Therefore, the lack of proven records may reflect a lack of birds or a lack of looking for birds in general and not the result of cuckoo specific surveying. One found in Bishop 5-6 June 2002 was photographed by Chris Howard. 

Myth: The people of Inyo County should not have to pay all this money for just one bird on the edge of its range. 

The people of Inyo County will not pay for cuckoo habitat enhancement. The LADWP is charged by the court to enhance cuckoo habitat, as well as other enhancements, as restitution for the environmental damage they have caused to the Owens Valley due to their water export policies. The money comes out of their pockets, not from Inyo County residents. 

Myth: Motorized vehicle access will be denied to all and a chain link fence will be built all around Baker Meadow with human access denied. 

Motorized vehicle access is already denied at Baker Meadow to all without a key to the gate. There are no plans, or intent, for a chain link fence to enclose Baker Meadow and prevent access by people. You need not believe anything in this article or any comments made by LADWP, Sierra Club, Owens Valley Committee, Inyo County, or your neighbors. You are encouraged to research the Yellow-billed Cuckoo yourself and decide which rumors are factual and which are not. If mankind is to be judged by what he leaves behind, let it reflect his intelligence, not his ignorance.

Sept/Oct 2006: Mexican Grosbeak found in Inyo

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 1, Sept-Oct 2006 - click here for original with photos]

On 31 July, Eva Poole-Gilson looked at her bird feeders, as she often does, and saw a large yellow and black bird that was different from the other feathered visitors at her home in Keoughs Hot Springs. She called her next-door neighbor, Cindy Kamler, our Eastern Sierra wildlife rehab specialist, who looked at the bird and knew that it was really different. Cindy went through her bird books and found a bird that looked very similar. She called us and said that she believed she had a Yellow Grosbeak at her neighbors feeder. When asked if she knew how unexpected that would be, she said, Yes I do! It is not supposed to be found in the US!

Mexican Grosbeak, Photo by Bob Steele

Yellow Grosbeak, Photo by Bob Steele

Yellow Grosbeak is primarily a Mexican species that resides along the Pacific Slope from southern Sonora to northwestern Oaxaca plus a disjunct population in Guatemala. In summer (Mar-Sep) birds from the northern population move north to central Sonora and occasionally one forgets to stop and ends up in the U.S. Most of the few U.S. records are from Arizona, usually in the southern part, with the earliest arrival June 4th and the latest August 12th. A male spent the winter, 2005-2006, in Albuquerque, New Mexico and because it remained through May the report has not yet been ruled on by the State Bird Records Committee. A report of a wintering bird in Iowa was not accepted as a state record because it was felt it was an escaped caged bird and did not get there without human help.

Because of the male Yellow Grosbeak who wintered in New Mexico this year, many wondered if the Inyo bird could be one and the same. Curiously, both birds had deformed bills, that is, the upper mandible was shorter than the lower. But a search of the web turned up many pictures of the New Mexico bird. The right side of the bill was different from the Inyo bird and the plumages were different suggesting that these were different birds. See the Eastern Sierra Birds website for comparison photos.

The Yellow Grosbeak remained at Keoughs Hot Springs through August 2nd allowing 50-60 people to look, photograph, and marvel at this stunning bird. To determine if this sighting becomes a record, documentation and photographs must be submitted to the California Bird Records Committee for review. No one will question if the identification was wrong because this was an easy call. What must be determined is the origin of the bird. Did it get to Inyo County under its own power or was it a caged bird that was transported from somewhere in Mexico to the U.S. or along the Mexican border and escaped?

There are a number of factors that need to be explored. First is the abnormal plumage the bird was wearing. It had the black wings and tail of an adult combined with immature body feathers that included a white belly, instead of yellow, and a black back, instead of yellow, as well as a gray halo on its crown. Can this occur naturally or is it the result of captivity stress?

Second is the abnormal bill with an under-bite and the inability to close the bill completely. Bill abnormalities occur naturally, but can they be caused by captivity? Third is that captivity can cause extreme feather wear as a result of being kept in too small a cage and nail length can increase because of the less abrasive nature of cages. That said, one molt and a period of freedom will erase those indications of previous captivity.

Fourth is our distance from bird shops that might sell this species. It is illegal to sell Yellow Grosbeaks in the U.S. so the nearest source should be just south of the California-Mexico border. The fifth consideration is the timing. Based on the pattern indicated by Arizona vagrants, this is exactly the time one could appear here if this was a natural occurrence.

And lastly, there is a suite of primarily Mexican species that have already made it to Inyo County under their own power (Rufous-backed Robin, Streak-backed Oriole, Thick-billed Kingbird, Northern Caracara, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Painted Redstart, Red-faced Warbler, Varied Bunting, and Bronzed Cowbird). Is this just another who followed in the same wing beats as his predecessors?

If accepted as a natural vagrant it will be the first record of a Yellow Grosbeak for California. The decision will not be an easy one but CBRC members are used to unraveling this kind of conundrum.

Nov/Dec 2006: Fall Starts in Spring

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 2, Nov-Dec 2006 - click here for original with photos]

When most people think of fall, visions of falling multicolored leaves, the World Series or football come to mind. Conversely, when birders think of fall they have visions of vagrants (unexpected species) dancing in their heads.

The calendar concept of fall has little to do with fall for birds and birders. Fall begins in early June when the first female Wilsons Phalaropes arrive from their northern breeding grounds. The females lay their eggs and then depart leaving the domestic duties to the males as they head for the high Andean lakes of South America. By late June the first Rufous Hummingbirds return to Inyo from as far north as Alaska. For some species (e.g., shorebirds) the adults depart the northern tundra before the young who make their way without help and reach the wintering grounds on their own. Fall migration can extend into December with a few birds lingering into January. This is especially true for some ducks, such as White-winged Scoters and Barrows Goldeneyes, who visit for a time, then continue their southward journey.

Each species has a window or period of time during which they are expected to occur here. For some species it is very short, perhaps less than two weeks, while others move through during a two- to three-month span. The Connecticut Warbler, not surprising based on its name, is an eastern and northern species that is a vagrant to Inyo County. All five records are between 20 September and 1 October for one of the briefest windows for a bird occurring that often. Most migrants pass through quickly in spring and more leisurely in fall, often taking three months or more to reach their wintering grounds in southern California, South America or points in between.

The finding of an unexpected species is cause for a great deal of excitement among the birding community. The resulting behavior cannot be explained to nor understood by a non-birder but it requires no apology or accounting to compatriots. Vagrant fever has many bizarre side effects causing the afflicted to drive all night through rain and snow or fly a red-eye special to reach the location where a vagrant was reputed to be the previous day. The more rare the species, the more bizarre the behavior. There is no known cure nor is anybody working to find one. One could say that migrating birds often cause birders to migrate with them!

Wood Thrush, Photo by Jim Pike

Wood Thrush, Photo by Jim Pike

As just one example, on 19 August 2006 visiting birder Bill Deppe went to Crystal Spring southeast of Tecopa and China Ranch. It is an innocuous, small spring in a trashed mining site but there are water, bugs, and cover, making it perfect if you are a bird! Bill found and photographed a Wood Thrush, an eastern vagrant that had only been recorded once before in the county when Brian Daniels of Long Beach photographed one at Furnace Creek Ranch 15 November 1986. Shortly after its initial appearance it lost its tail and was forced to remain while it molted in a new one because a bird cannot migrate without its rudder. Birders from all over the state came to this out-of-the-way spot to see and be a part of an amazing avian event. Birders know that vagrants are in the county waiting to be found and that the more time they spend looking the greater are their changes of being rewarded with a gemand it may be a diamond!

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