2010 Birding Articles by Tom and Jo Heindel

Return to Index of Articles

Fall 2009: Unexpected Bird Species Recorded in Inyo County

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 3, Jan-Feb 2010 - click here for original with photos]

As stated repeatedly, each season brings its own sur- prises and this Fall was no exception. The biggest bolt- from-the-blue was a Little Stint, a Eurasian sandpiper, at Owens Lake 29-30 Aug found by Chris Howard and confirmed by Jon Dunn. This species has been found in CA only ten previous times and is a difficult identi- fication problem, looking very similar to Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers as well as another vagrant shorebird from Eurasia, the Red-necked Stint. The ar- ray of photographs raises this sighting to the level of a scientific record, since they are as close to a specimen- in-a-drawer as is achievable sans specimen.

The next most unexpected sighting was the 4th Inyo County record of a Western Gull at Tinemaha Res- ervoir 25-29 Aug found by Jon Dunn and seen and photographed by many observers. This is a common species along the coast but seldom ventures far from the smell of salty air. The 9th Inyo County record of a Yellow-throated Vireo occurred 22 Sep when Debby Parker found and photographed it in Birchim Can- yon. This is the earliest fall record for Inyo but Mono County has a 26 Aug record (1987 at Mono Lake) and CA has a coastal record for 23 Aug.

A male Common Ground-Dove was photographed at Furnace Creek Inn 10 Oct by Bob & Susan Steel and many other observers for the 25th Inyo County record. A Black-throated Green Warbler was seen at Deep Springs 18 Oct by Susan who wrote a description and provided a drawing. Two Gray Catbirds were in Inyo this fall; one photographed at Birchim Canyon 22-26 Sep (Jim & Debby Parker, et al.) and another photo- graphed at Furnace Creek Ranch 18 Nov (Justin Hite). An amazing 4 Baltimore Orioles were found from 10 Sep to 15 Oct in the southeast region of Inyo (Jim Pike, Bob & Susan Steele, Debbie House, and Jon Dunn). The species in this paragraph have been found only 20- 30 times in Inyo over the last 150 years!

A White-tailed Kite was found (Kelli Levinson) and photographed (Tom Heindel) at Olancha 8 Nov. An immature male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was photo- graphed at Shoshone 15 Oct (Jim Pike) while another brown juvenile was at Deep Springs 18 Oct (Bob & Susan Steele). A female/immature Blackpoll was at Deep Springs 7 Sep (Chris & Rosie Howard, well- documented), a Lark Bunting was photographed at Furnace Creek Ranch 3-4 Oct (Chris & Rosie Howard, Carl Lundblad), and 2 Grasshopper Sparrows were photographed in Inyo: 1 at China Ranch 14-15 Oct (Jim Pike) and 1 at Furnace Creek Ranch 31 Oct (Debbie House). The species in this paragraph have been only recorded 35-50 times in Inyo over 150 years!

The Inyo County Fall 2009 report contained 213 important records, accompanied by 94 pictures of 128 species with 61 species significant enough in Southern California that they were submitted to the editors of North American Birds for consideration to publish. This chronicle could not be completed without the exceptional effort of many... in this case 36 people. This cadre of serious birders recognizes that science is served best by providing evidence in the form of a picture, documentation, or a 1-3 sentence description to substantiate their claims thus providing material for an archive that will exist long after we are all gone and forgotten. In the last two decades they have filled a 4-drawer file cabinet with priceless proof of what happened in Inyo County during their tenure. Our deepest gratitude to all of them for leaving so much of themselves behind and insuring that a reliable record of avian fieldwork endures for the future.

“Oh boy, an obscure sparrow!”

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2010 - click here for original with photos]

He was right. We were wrong!

Thirty years ago in an Ecuadorian forest, we were complaining about how difficult a group of greenish, seemingly unmarked flycatchers were to identify. At that same moment, down the trail came a new friend we had not yet met. He looked at what we were looking at and said, “Oh boy, an obscure flycatcher!” We both burst into spontaneous laughter at the epiphany that he had the right attitude. That was only the first of many lessons we learned from him that week.

As beginning birdwatchers, we’ve all encountered the dreaded LBJ, that is, the “little brown job,” that totally befuddles us. As beginners we prefer an adult Red-tailed Hawk, a male Red-winged or Yellow-headed Blackbird and may have even wished for a pair of binoculars that would flip up the bird’s name every time a bird was focused upon! There were groups that we avoided, like sandpipers or sparrows, because they were little brown birds that seemed to look all the same. But as days turned into years, we began to enjoy looking at a bird that we couldn’t name because the challenge invigorated us.

The three most important factors in identifying a LBJ are 1) seeing the bird really well, 2) knowing what parts of the bird need to be scrutinized, and 3) seeing the bird really well. OK, so there is one really important factor...seeing the bird really well. If you can’t tell if the lores are light or dark, you are not seeing the bird well enough to identify it. The second factor is equally important but if you can’t see the bird well, it won’t much help to know that you are supposed to be looking at the lores.

What’s a ‘lore’ you ask! Those who already know are well on their way to collecting LBJs on their lists. In the introductory section of all field guides is a drawing of the topography of a bird. Even a fisherman/hunter/skier knows some of the parts of a bird such as crown, cheek, chin, throat, breast, belly, sides, flanks, back, rump, etc. This leaves a shorter list that includes lores, median crown stripe, superciliary, postocular eyeline, auricular, malar, vent, scapulars, etc. With these new tools, LBJs will learn to fear your identification skills!

Three species in our area that are full-fledged LBJs are sparrows all belonging to the same genus, Spizella. The Brewer’s, Clay-colored, and Chipping Sparrows are small, slender sparrows with long tails and muted brown and cream patterns. But each one has a combination of a couple of marks that the other two don’t have. Brewer’s and Clay-colored have brown rumps and Chipping has gray. Brewer’s and Clay-colored have pale lores and Chipping has dark lores. Obviously, Chipping can be quickly distinguished from the other two Spizellas, given a good view. If the rumps are brown and the lores are pale focus on the median crown stripe. Is it an obvious light, white to buffy, line down the center of the skull or is there no or a very short dull colored line in the forehead only? If it is obvious you are looking at a rare Clay-colored Sparrow and need to begin writing a description! If you aren’t sure it has a median crown strip, you are looking at the common Brewer’s Sparrow. The most confusing plumages of these three look-alikes are fall and winter dress, especially that worn by immatures. Given very good looks and knowing which parts of the bird to focus on, you, too, can make a confident and correct identification.

If you embrace the difficult LBJs and the challenge they offer, impossible tasks turn into the possible and the pursuit becomes more and more enjoyable. Let your mantra become, “Oh boy, an obscure ...!”

Eastern Sierra Thrushes

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 5, May-Jun 2010 - click here for original with photos]

The thrush family, Turdidae, is found almost worldwide and, with over 300 species, is one of the largest families in the avian world. Just over twenty species have been documented in the United States and Canada and ten of them have occurred in Inyo and Mono Counties. Many thrushes are recognized as some of the finest songsters in nature with an appearance that can vary from cryptic to colorful. Not all thrushes contain that word in their common name, ergo bluebirds, solitaires, and robins are all thrushes.

Of the ten species found locally, seven occur annually and three are casual vagrants, meaning they not seen every year and not expected to be seen at all in the Eastern Sierra. Of the seven species found here, only two are not found year-round; the Swainson’s Thrush is a migrant and the Varied Thrush is a winter visitor.
Bluebirds are the most brightly colored thrushes that occur in our region. The Western Bluebird has been recorded throughout Inyo County and throughout the year but it is not a permanent resi- dent because different populations occur during different seasons. This species is a local and uncommon breeder in Inyo County choosing the pinyon belt of the Panamint Range and a few lower elevation locations scattered along the east slope of the Sierra. They are hole-nesters and compete with other hole-nesters for sites, such as Western Screech-Owls and Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers. One of the most reliable winter locations is China Ranch in the southeast corner of the county near Tecopa. There are a few breeding records in Mono County but Western Bluebirds are not regular breeders there.

The Mountain Bluebird is found widespread in Inyo and Mono, and in fact are the state bird of Nevada. They also are hole-nesters and are most often found in summer near mountain meadows with forest-lined borders, which supply the nest cavities they need. They are also known to nest at slightly lower elevations in pinyon-juniper woodland bordering open areas, which they use for foraging. In winter, when snow covers their breeding grounds, they move downslope and 200-300 birds have been found in alfalfa fields in the Owens Valley and smaller numbers can stake out pyracantha bushes where they stay until the last berry is eaten.
The Townsend’s Solitaire, owner of a supreme voice, is an uncommon resident of the Sierra where it breeds in coniferous forest; it is also found in the mountain ranges to the east but in fewer numbers. In winter, they may be locally fairly common where one of their favorite foods, juniper berries, is abundant.

The American Robin is recorded throughout the Eastern Sierra and throughout the year, but again different populations occur during different seasons. In Inyo County it is a common migrant and summer resident, found on lawns and riparian on the valley floor and meadows, riparian, and coniferous forest in the mountains. In winter they are regularly found at lower elevations but in much larger numbers than the rest of the year. While not unprec- edented, finding a flock of hundreds feeding on juniper berries is an exciting experience.
The Hermit Thrush is the expected spotted thrush from the high country of Inyo and Mono Counties. Many consider the flute-like song the most beautiful sound in nature. Fortunately, the species is fairly common along the east slope of the Sierra and in the mountains to the east and can be heard on hikes in coniferous forests from May to August.

The Swainson’s Thrush is a fairly common spring migrant throughout Inyo County in riparian and coniferous forest but it is rarely reported in fall. There is one Inyo breeding record when recently fledged juveniles were found at Coyote Flat, west of Bishop. Surprisingly, in Mono County it is much less often reported than in Inyo County.

The Varied Thrush is an uncommon winter visitor, escaping the winter in the Northwest and western Canada, found from early October through late May in Inyo County. This species is also found in many fewer numbers in Mono than in Inyo.

The three casual vagrants have been recorded a total of seven records in the last one hundred and fifty years. The Wood Thrush is a common Eastern species that is rarely seen in California. Three birds were recorded in the Eastern Sierra: one bird at Furnace Creek Ranch 15 November 1986, one bird at Dechambeau Creek, 2-7 June 1992, and one bird at Crystal Springs, east of Tecopa 19 August to 10 October 2006.

The Rufous-backed Robin, a west Mexican species, has been recorded three times, all in the southern part of Death Valley National Park. One bird was at Saratoga Springs, 19 November 1974, one bird was at Furnace Creek Ranch 5 November 1983, and another bird was there 20-27 November 1999.

The rarest of the rare thrushes, the Veery, is an eastern and northern species that breeds as close as northeastern Oregon, and yet it very rarely is recorded in California. There are two records for the Eastern Sierra: one bird photographed at Deep Springs College 17 May 1986 and one bird photographed and banded at Lower Rush Creek 19 June 2004. The Mono County bird was the eleventh State record and only one other record has been added since.

Two other casual thrushes have been recorded just south of us, at Galileo Hill, Kern County. The Gray-cheeked Thrush has been recorded twice, mid September to early October, and the Eyebrowed Thrush once in late May. That the Eastern Sierra lacks records for these species does not mean they have never occurred here. It does mean that if they were here, they did not cross paths with a birder who recognized them. Prepare yourself so that they won’t pass your path unnoticed!

Spring 2010 Highlights in Inyo County

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 1, Sept-Oct 2010 - click here for original with photos]

Our harsh winters are reflected in the few bird species that share the chill with us but the thought that spring will soon come, bringing the migration of birds, warms the cold cockles of our hearts. Birders follow a slightly different calendar than most people. The Spring season is March, April, and May, although some species jump-the-gun, like Cinnamon Teal which typically returns in January and the swallows by February.

Spring can start slowly with fancy birds being reported to the south of Inyo County for the first few weeks, causing the Eastern Sierra birders extreme agitation but by May the exciting gems, vagrants from the East, begin to arrive. A search of past May posts to Eastern Sierra Birds dramatically displays this annual phenomenon. This year the most exciting record was a Black Rosy-Finch that Bob & Susan Steele hosted at their feeders 7 March. They placed calls and posted the information so other birders we able to see the bird before it departed. The documentation and excellent photographs are circulating through the California Bird Records Committee, Record # 2010-022, and if accepted will be the fifteenth State record, all from either Mono or Inyo County.

This was a banner spring for Summer Tanagers with thirteen reported between 7 May and early Jun and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks with eight reported, four photographed, between 18 and 30 May. Greater Scaup, always rare in our area, were photographed at Owens Lake 1 May (C&RH) and 8 May (KHL). After a strenuous hike into Brown Lake on 15 May, six White-tailed Ptarmigan were found and photographed (B&SS). This species was introduced from Colorado into Mono County almost forty years ago and gradually spread south into Inyo County.

Bald Eagles, not expected after April, were reported from Round Valley 10 May (J&DP) and Bishop Creek 28 May (B&SS, WHM, KAD). A Common Moorhen, not at all common in the Eastern Sierra, was at Black Rock 4 Jun (DJH, CEA). A Band-tailed Pigeon, casual on the East Slope, was photographed at Division Creek 19 Apr (C&CE). White-winged Doves, casual visitors from south of here, were at Furnace Creek Ranch 8 May and two more were at Shoshone 23 May, all photographed (CGL). The only Lewis’s Woodpecker was reported at Sage Flat, southwest of Olancha, 8 May (KHL) and Acorn Woodpeckers, away from known occupied areas with oaks, were reported at Birchim Canyon 8 May (J&DP), on Hwy 168 west of Bishop at 6300ft 14 May (B&SS) and Division Creek 16 May where there are oaks (B&SS). Brown-crested Flycatchers, expected at China Ranch in the southeastern point of the county, were unexpected at Mesquite Springs 8 May (CGL) and Scotty’s Castle 29 May (AH) in Death Valley National Park.

For the third year, a singing male Bell’s Vireo returned to Big Pine 14 Apr (TSH) and a Red-eyed Vireo was photographed at Shepherd Creek, northwest of Manzanar 4 Jun (JMH). A male Purple Martin was at Haiwee Reservoir 1 May (ADeM) and was the first record since 2006.

Warblers, the most reliable vagrants, made their spectacular showing throughout May. Although

Virginia’s Warblers are regular breeders in the White Mountains, they are not often seen in migration so the one at Scotty’s Castle 8 May (CGL) was a surprise. Lucy’s Warblers are common in the southeast region of Inyo County but seen behaving territorially in the Panamint Valley 18 Apr (C&RH) and another one near Independence 19 May (JTZ) were unexpected. Three Northern Parula, two photographed, were found near Bishop, all different individuals, between 18 and 31 May (CBG, C&RH, DJH). A very rare in spring Hermit Warbler was photographed at Bishop 6 May (J&DP). Black-and-white Warblers were at Deep Springs photographed 8 May (C&RH) and east of Independence 20 May (DJH). American Redstarts were at Birch Creek 22 May (JEB, SMcL) and Shepherd Creek photographed 4 Jun (JMH). Hooded Warblers, both photographed were at Birchim Canyon 22 Apr (C&CE) and Bishop 24-28 May (J&DP, C&RH).
It was a good spring for Black-chinned Sparrows with eight singing males at Surprise Canyon, Panamint Mountains 17 Apr (C&RH), a single singing male at Division Creek 25 Apr (C&RH) and two-three singing males there 7 May (DJH) with four photographed 16 May (B&SS, ph.). The only Harris’s Sparrow was photographed at Furnace Creek Ranch 18 Mar (J&DP) and a Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Junco was along Tinemaha Creek 13 Apr (JEB, SMcL). And last, but certainly not least, was an Indigo Bunting photographed at Shepherd Creek 4 Jun (JMH).

We have an excellent picture of what happened Spring 2010 in Inyo County because of all the people cited above. They are an amazing, special group of birders who have fully embraced the concept of citizen scientist and have gone the extra mile to provide evidence to substantiate their claims. The photographic file they provide often exceeds one hundred pictures in spring and for the rarities they can’t photograph, they write detailed descriptions to convince others, and others not-yet-born, that their claim is credible and could not have been any other species.

Our respect, admiration, and gratitude go to: Al DeMartini (ADeM), Andrew Howe (AH), Bill Mitchel (WHM), Bob & Susan Steele (B&SS), Carl Lundblad (CGL), Carolyn Gann (CBG), Chris Allen (CEA), Chris & Rosie Howard (C&RH), Claus & Connie Engelhardt (C&CE), Debbie House (DJH), Jan Bowers (JEB), Jerry Zatorski (JTZ), Jim & Debby Parker (J&DP), Justin Hite (JMH), Kathy Duvall (KAD), Kelli Levinson (KHL), Steve McLaughlin (SMcL) and Tom Heindel (TSH).

Are You Ready for Winter?

[Originally appeared in the Siera Wave newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 2, Nov-Dec 2010 - click here for original with photos]

(Please go directly to article to view full version with photos)

Return to Index of Articles