2009 Birding Articles by Tom and Jo Heindel

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Jan/Feb 2009: Fall Birds Did Not Disappoint

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 27, No. 3, Jan-Feb 2009 - click here for original with photos]

Barrow's Goldeneye, photo by Jim Pike

Barrow's Goldeneye, Photo by Jim Pike

"Wow, I wouldn't have put that bird on the list of what I would see today!"

"Me either!"

This conversation is repeated every season and is much of the stimulus responsible for making people want to go birding. After a time, birders know what species to expect, where to go, and what numbers are considered normal. Finding the unexpected provides the rush of choice for many. Fall 2008 did not disappoint.

Lapland Longspur Kelli Levinson

Lapland Longspur, Photo by Kelli Levinson

Most of the records came from two general areas: water and oases. Luckily for Inyo County birds and birders, there are many of both habitat types. A casual species is not expected to occur in the county every year and is recorded less than 6.5 years per decade. The following are all casual species and the size of the list of unexpected visitors is staggering.

Birds found at watering holes were a juvenile blue morph Snow Goose and a Thayer's Gull at Owens Lake (both SLS), a White-winged Scoter at Pleasant Valley Reservoir (BJK), a female Barrow's Goldeneye at Furnace Creek Ranch (JEP), 2 Franklin's Gulls, one at Klondike Lake (T&JH) and another at Tinemaha Reservoir (JLD), and a Lapland Longspur at the edge of Owens Lake (KHL, T&JH).

Black-throated Blue Warbler Bob Steele

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Photo by Bob Steele

Also casual species but preferring oases were a Hutton's Vireo at China Ranch (ADeM), a Red-throated Pipit at Shoshone (JEP), and a wealth of warblers. There were 2 Blue-winged Warblers, one at Crystal Springs (JEP, et al.) and the other at China Ranch (SLS). Three Northern Parula Warblers were found, 1 at Birchim Canyon, n. of Bishop (J&DP), 1 at Shoshone (JEP) and 1 at Furnace Creek Ranch (JMH).

A Black-throated Blue Warbler was at China Ranch (SLS), a Blackburnian Warbler in north Bishop (J&DP), a Bay-breasted Warbler in Tecopa (TEW, LLA, SJM), and a Worm-eating Warbler at Furnace Creek Ranch (C&RH).

Blackburnian Warbler Debby Parker

Blackburnian Warbler
Photo by Debby Parker

Other oasis birds were an Ovenbird at Death Valley Junction (JEP), 2 Grasshopper Sparrows at Furnace Creek Ranch (JLD, C&RH), a Snow Bunting near Emigrant Pass (PJ), and a Baltimore Oriole at Furnace Creek Ranch (JLD, C&RH).

The list of rare species, annually seen in very small numbers (often one bird), was many times the number of casual species. It really was a Fall to remember. The status and distribution of Inyo bird species was greatly enhanced by the efforts of Al DeMartini (ADeM), Barb Kelley (BJK), Chris & Rosie Howard (C&RH), Jim & Debby Parker (J&DP), Jim Pike (JEP), Jon Dunn (JLD), Justin Hite (JMH), Kelli Levinson (KHL), Liga Auzins (LLA), Phil Johnson (PJ), Stephen Myers (SJM), Susan Steele (SLS), and Tom Wurster (TEW). What "Wow!" birds will excite us this Winter?

Bay-breasted Warbler Stephen Myers

Bay-breasted Warbler, Photo by Stephen Myers

Mar/Apr 2009: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches in Inyo County

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 27, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2009 - click here for original with photos]

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Bob Steele

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Photo by Bob Steele

Independent birders and professional bird tours come to Inyo County annually to see the special birds that occur here. One such magnet is a small black, gray, and brown bird that is splashed with bright pink, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. The premier destination for a first-hand experience with these unique and colorful birds is nationally renowned Aspendell, which has provided first-ever views, or “lifers,” to untold numbers of birders. The attraction is the bird feeders that residents hang and luckily they are gracious in sharing their birds with visitors from all over the world. The best time to see rosy-finches is after a heavy snow storm between November and April, which covers the food supply higher up in the mountains and turns the feeders into gathering places for hundreds of birds, mostly rosy-finches. Without a deep snow one is lucky to see more than just a few birds on a visit but they have been seen in Summer. Some visitors even pay for the privilege of seeing these birds by bringing bags of seed in exchange for permission to invade private property!

Sierra Nevada Rosy-Finch, Photo by Tom Heindel

Sierra Nevada Rosy-Finch, Photo by Tom Heindel

Four sub-species of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches have been documented for Inyo County. The Sierra Nevada Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrosticte dawsoni) breeds here and is the rosy-finch hikers, skiers, fishermen, and birders find in the high county during the Summer. Those who have summited Mt. Whitney often share their lunch with these beggers who will eat out of their hands! Breeders in the Sierra Nevada are known from as far south as the Cottonwood Lakes area and in the higher sections of the White Mountains. There are no breeding records for any of the other ranges east of the Sierra Nevada but in winter they disperse and have been reported from the Inyo Mountains and Panamint Range. Some of the winter records are from the lowlands such as Panamint Springs (D. D. McLean, Condor 71:433) and south to Galileo Hill Park near California City, Kern Co. (M.T. Heindel, No. Amer. Birds 53:107). Other lower-than-expected locations have been along the roadsides in the Owens Valley after snow plows remove the snow down to the ground which is embedded with seeds as well as at feeders in Bishop (K. Wilson), Fish Springs (T. Heindel), and Big Pine (T. & J. Heindel).

Hepburn’s Rosy-Finch Sharon Ford

Hepburn’s Rosy-Finch, Photo by Sharon Ford

The three other races have been found here only in winter. The most often reported is Hepburn’s Rosy- Finch (L. t. littoralis) a breeder in central Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, and south to Mt. Shasta. They are easily identified by the extensive gray on the sides of their faces and most winters a few are at Aspendell. The remaining two races are documented only by specimens and the racial differences may be too subtle to allow field identification since they look very much like dawsoni. Cassin’s Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (L. t. tephrocotis) breeds in the Brook’s Range in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, and western Montana while the Wallowa Rosy-Finch (L. t. wallowa) breeds in northeastern Oregon. The only other rosy-finch that occurs in Inyo County is the Black Rosy-Finch for which there are just over a dozen records…but that is another story.

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May/June 2009: Vireos of the Eastern Sierra

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 27, No. 5, May-Jun 2009 - click here for original with photos]

White-eyed Vireo Jo Heindel

White-eyed Vireo, Photo by Jo Heindel

Vireos are small birds, in the genus Vireo, that superficially resemble warblers. While similar in size they are less colorful, slightly more heavy-bodied with thicker, slightly hooked bills, and less active than warblers. Although all species are in the same genus they are generally divided into two groups: those with wing bars and spectacles and those without wing bars but with light eyebrows.

There are fourteen to fifteen regularly occurring species in the United States, the number depending on which authority’s definition of “regularly” one accepts. Eleven vireo species are reliably documented for the Eastern Sierra. Only four regularly breed here with the rest occurring either as migrants or vagrants (species that are not breeders or regular migrants but for various reasons wander to the Eastern Sierra).

The White-eyed Vireo is a vagrant that has occurred only four times in Inyo, three times in Mono, and twice near Dyer, NV. This vireo summers in the eastern U.S. with a few wintering along the Gulf Coast while the majority head south to southern Texas south to Honduras, Cuba, and the Bahamas. While physically secretive, its loud and snappy “Chick, get me a beer, quick!” is often the first clue that an observer has of its presence.

Blue-headed Vireo Jo Heindel

Blue-headed Vireo, Photo by Jo Heindel

The Bell’s Vireo was fairly common in the Owens Valley as a summer resident and breeder through 1891. There followed, on a statewide basis, extensive habitat destruction, overgrazing by cattle, and the invasion of Brown-headed Cowbirds, nest predators that love these small, open-cup nesters. For over a century the damage done to the Owens Valley extirpated these little, bubbling singers as breeders from our area although they did persist as breeders in the southeast corner of Inyo, especially at China Ranch, south of Tecopa. During the last decade occasional reports of Bell’s Vireo occurred in the Owens Valley and in 2008 a pair was found breeding near Big Pine. This may be the result of extensive habitat improvement and intensive cowbird trapping in southern California where their population numbers have risen sharply during the same timeframe.

Gray Vireo, the most often mis-identified vireo, is only known in Inyo County from the Grapevine Mountains along the CA-NV border where it breeds. There are many published reports which are far more likely to be Plumbeous Vireos, based on habitat and timing. This species is interesting in that they are seldom found migrating. They magically appear on their summering grounds, disappear, and just as magically appear on their wintering grounds. There is a story that needs to be written about the biology of this vireo!

The Yellow-throated Vireo, a vagrant from the East, has made it seven times to Inyo County and six times to Mono County. Most birds are seen from late May with a few in October.

The Blue-headed Vireo, a fall vagrant from the East, has been found twice in Inyo County and once in Mono County. Any claim of this species requires the highest level of evidence to be accepted by the California Bird Records Committee as a state record.

Warbling Vireo Jo Heindel

Warbling Vireo, Photo by Jo Heindel

The Hutton’s Vireo, a mostly sedentary species from southern CA and west of the Sierra, has been reported six times from Inyo and twice from Mono. Serious documentation and/or photographs should support any claim of this species in the Eastern Sierra. Specimens and banded birds away from known breeding territories suggest that this bird can be found away from expected areas but evidence standards are high.

The Cassin’s Vireo can appear brightly colored but at times is almost as dull as a Plumbeous. This spring and fall migrant passes through mainly from April to June and again late August to October.

The Plumbeous Vireo is an uncommon to fairly common dull-gray, summer resident in the White-Inyo Range as well as other ranges east of the Owens Valley, primarily in pinyon woodland. They are very sparingly found along the east slope of the Sierra into Mono County.

The Warbling Vireo is a fairly common breeder in the Sierra and other ranges to the east. Its song has been rendered “If you squeeze me, will I squirt!” and they are known to sing while incubating eggs. There are also spring and fall migrants who use the Eastern Sierra as a freeway to and from their breeding areas.

Philadelphia Vireo Jo Heindel

Philadelphia Vireo, Photo by Jo Heindel

The Red-eyed Vireo, a vagrant that summers in the eastern U.S. and Canada, has been found about 50 times in Inyo County and over a dozen times in Mono County. Most birds are seen late May well into June and again late August into October.

The Philadelphia Vireo, a vagrant from northeast U.S. and Canada, has been recorded seven times in Inyo County with six birds seen from September to October and one in late May. In Mono County there are a few records from late 23-31 May with summer birds in June to July 2005 and June 1998. Observers are encouraged to gather breeding data of vireos and other species and submit them to the authors for inclusion in the county database. Courting birds, nest building, feeding nestlings or recent fledglings are all valuable data. Besides, it gives one the chance to hear the bubbling, rasping, melodious, complex, and funny songs of our vireos!

Sept/Oct 2009: Spring 2009 in Inyo: Just Like the Good Old Days

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 1, Sept-Oct 2009 - click here for original with photos]

 Many of the older birders said they could not remember a spring like this one for decades, while the younger ones experienced for the first time an abundance of rare birds that were being seen on an almost daily basis. They had heard tales about how-itused- to-be but couldn’t really imagine the magnitude described based on their experiences with what they knew as a “normal” spring. This past spring made believers out of most of them as they ran from one rare bird to another!

Mississippi Kite Bob Steele

Mississippi Kite, Photo by Bob Steele

A “good” spring can be loosely defined as one with a handful of birds not seen on a regular basis in the county and maybe one species so rare in the state that it requires review by the California Bird Records Committee. This spring produced 41 species that are considered rare (seen in very small numbers at least 7 out of 10 years) or casual (seen 6 or less out of 10 years) and four birds that are so rare in the State they are undergoing review before the records are added to the California list. Thirty of the species were photographed and the rest were adequately documented to convince those who didn’t see the bird that it could not have been anything else.

Those awaiting official acceptance by the CBRC are a photographed (MF, JLD, T&JH) Glossy Ibis at Nik & Nik Gravel Works, north Bishop, 19 April (JLD); a photographed Yellow-throated Warbler at Bishop 30 April (J&DP); a photographed (RJS) immature Mississippi Kite at Mesquite Springs, DVNP, 23 May (VH); and a photographed (RJS, CBH) White-eyed Vireo at Aspendell 31 May (B&SS). The Glossy Ibis will be the first record ever for Inyo County while the Yellow-throated Warbler will be the 8th, the Mississippi Kite the 18th, and the White-eyed Vireo the 4th.

There also was a surprising number of species unexpected in spring in Inyo that were recorded. One Pacific Loon at Owens Lake 25 May (KHL) was the 2nd spring record ever. One Arctic Tern at Owens Lake 30 May-1 June (WDS) was the 2nd spring record ever. Two Lapland Longspurs at Owens Lake 18 Apr (B&SS) was the 3rd spring record ever. One Red-necked Grebe at Klondike Lake 29 Apr-2 May (T&JH) was the 5th record ever. One Heermann’s Gull at Klondike Lake (T&JH) was the 5th record ever.

The list of rare species, not unexpected but always a pleasant surprise, was lengthy. A Common Moorhen was at Buckley Ponds, Bishop (J&DP); a Herring Gull at Owens Lake (JLD); Least Terns at Klondike Lake (DJH), Tinemaha Reservoir (RJS), and Grimshaw Lake, near Tecopa (SG); Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling & a few Baird’s Sandpipers at Owens Lake (JLD, B&SS); Band-tailed Pigeon at Aspendell (B&SS); White-winged Doves at Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, (C&RH), Bishop (J&DP), and Pearsonville (L&CL); Black Swift near Big Pine (NJO); White-headed Woodpecker at Pine Creek (J&DP); Cassin’s Kingbird at Bishop (JLD), a species seldom reported in the last few years; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Death Valley Junction (SG); immature Northern Shrike near Bishop (J&DP); Tennessee Warbler in Bishop (C&RH); three Black-andwhite Warblers at China Ranch (DJH), Bishop (J&DP), and Deep Springs (B&SS); two American Redstarts at Deep Springs (KHL) and Bishop (J&DP), a singing male Prothonotary Warbler at Birchim (J&DP); two Northern Waterthrushes at Deep Springs (C&RH); Harris’s Sparrow at Big Pine (T&JH); one Dark-eyed “Pinksided” Junco at Big Pine (T&JH); six Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and 12 Indigo Buntings from mid to late May; a Dickcissel at Mesquite Springs (PC); male Bobolink at Death Valley Junction (PC); Bronzed Cowbird at China Ranch (JEP); four Evening Grosbeaks at Big Pine (T&JH); two Bell’s Vireos at Big Pine (T&JH) and Wyman Canyon (fide KHL, T&JH); and six Summer Tanagers!

A cursory look at the distribution maps of these species in your field guide will illustrate just how amazing this spring was. It is one that those who took part in will never forget and they will share their stories over and over. Nothing like redemption for us oldtimers!

Cited observers: Peter Colasanti, Jon L. Dunn, Mary Freeman, Steve Glover, Tom & Jo Heindel, Debbie J. House, Chris B. & Rosie Howard, Vern Howe, Kelli H. Levinson, Leslie & Cindy Lieurance, Nancy J. Overholtz, Jim & Debby A. Parker, Jim E. Pike, Bob (R.J.) & Susan Steele, W. Dave Shuford and 17 others who shared in this exciting avian event.

Nov/Dec 2009: Winter is an Unpredictable Avian Season

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 2, Nov-Dec 2009 - click here for original with photos]

With the approach of fall and winter in the Eastern Sierra, we bid farewell to species that arrived six months ago and won’t be seen for another six months. Virtually all flycatchers, vireos, swallows, warblers, and buntings move south towards milder temperatures and where insect food remains available all year. While a significant portion of the avifauna leaves, it is replaced by a suite of late fall migrants and winter visitors that spent the summer to the north of our area, some as far north as the Arctic.

Winter is the most unpredictable season, not just measured by how much or how little snow has fallen, but by how many of which bird species have occurred. Some species can be common one year and absent the next. The only predictability is that there will always be a few gems that delight the observers.

There is a long list of ducks that winter in the area but the highlights to look for are Eurasian Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, and all three species of scoters. Tundra Swans regularly return in early November but observers are encouraged to scrutinize all swans closely so that the very similar Trumpeter Swan doesn’t visit without leaving a record! Three loons can occur in one year with Common Loon a regular visitor in fall, Pacific Loon is seen a couple of times each year, and every few years a Red-throated Loon is documented. Not yet recorded is the Yellow-billed Loon, which has been found several times in nearby Nevada and is a definite possibility in the Eastern Sierra.
Raptor species are few in number but their bearing and style captures birders’ attention. Bald Eagles typically appear in early November and while Ferruginous Hawks have become more regular than in the past Rough-legged Hawks have become more scarce. Winter is an exciting time for gull-lovers with a few reports of Thayer’s Western, and Glaucous-winged Gulls and one report each of Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls. All Loggerhead Shrikes should be given full attention so that a Northern Shrike doesn’t evade ‘capture.’

The little-brown-jobs, LBJs, can provide excitement as well. American Tree Sparrows and Harris’s Sparrows are probably here every year. Flocks of Oregon Juncos may be hiding Slate-colored, Pink-sided and Gray-headed Juncos and if one is really lucky, the 2nd Inyo County record of a White-winged Junco may be found. Lapland and Chestnut-collared Longspurs are in alfalfa fields, golf courses, lake margins, and barren ground. McCown’s and Smith’s Longspurs are extremely rare but have occurred. Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks occasionally appear in good numbers... or not at all!

Some years many montane species descend to lower elevations and these invasions and their extent add to ornithological knowledge as well as provide birders with memorable experiences. Now is the time to review the birds mentioned so that when they cross your path you’ll be ready! Remember that many of these species are rare and require far more than raising your hand and saying, “I had a Warbling Widget!” to be considered a record in the ornithological history of the Eastern Sierra. Be ready to document your sighting with a photograph, a picture really is worth a thousand words, corroboration by other observers, or be willing to write a detailed description. It is a myth that this is a painful exercise!

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