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Fall Migration (1/'95)

Who among us has not paged through the field guide and said, "Boy, would I love to see that one!" only to see by the map that it resides in far off parts of this terrific country. How great it would be to journey to southeastern United States and see such gems as Painted Buntings and Hooded Warblers! Or travel to the northeast and see Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Bobolinks! Or go further north yet to the Arctic for such beauties as Red-throated Loons, Pacific Loons, Lapland Longspurs and Tennessee Warblers!

Surprising to most is that you need not travel very far to see these beautiful birds, as all of the above, and many more, were reliably documented right here in Inyo County during the past four months! Why birds don't do as the books say they do is one of the fascinating mysteries of bird-watching.

Fall migration, defined as August through November, has been very exciting! Three Red-throated Loons appeared during November at Tinemaha & Haiwee Reservoirs and Diaz Lake and were the 4th, 5th, and 6th records ever for the county. A Pacific Loon was at Klondike Lake in late October. Most of these loons were juveniles who obviously were flying "to their own drummer".

Arguably the most exciting sighting was a Red-necked Grebe at Haiwee Reservoir during November which was seen by many county residents. This was only the second time in history that this beautiful apricot, brown and white grebe was seen here, and the last one was 17 years ago at Stovepipe Wells!

More Cattle Egrets (56) and Greater White-fronted Geese (134) were found than ever recorded on a single day before. At least 3 of the small Ross' Geese were seen in November. The bright red and buff-headed Eurasian Wigeon is back to winter again at Little Lake. Three Oldsquaw's, whitish ducks with a dark smudgy ear patch, were at Haiwee 24 Nov for only the 5th record in the county. Both Surf and White-winged Scoters, ducks usually seen in the ocean, were here along with about two dozen striking Hooded Mergansers.

Many will be glad to know that the Bald Eagles, adults and an immature, have returned to Tinemaha and Haiwee Reservoirs. Two rare Northern Goshawks were seen at Whitney Portal and Round Valley and a Peregrine Falcon was at Tinemaha Reservoir from 25 August to 11 September.

Thanksgiving weekend was appropriate timing for 3 great gull sightings at Tinemaha Reservoir. One Herring (7th record), 2 Thayer's (2nd record) and a never before recorded Glaucous-winged Gull were eventually seen to occupy the same sand spit within 10 feet of each other. All were pale brown immature birds lost in their first winter trip.

A Common Nighthawk, common during summer but usually heading to South America by early September, was lingering over Independence on 29 September and is the latest ever recorded in the entire state! A pretty, salmon-colored female Vermilion Flycatcher spent most of the fall at Furnace Creek Ranch while Eastern Kingbirds, black and white flycatchers with a broad white tail bands, were reported from Tinemaha Reservoir and Stovepipe Wells. Varied Thrushes, striking orange and gray (male), or brown (female) birds, showed up at half a dozen places. In mid-October a bright rusty Brown Thrasher visited Furnace Creek Ranch.

Numerous exciting warblers were reported from all over the county. Best were Tennessee, Northern Parula, Palm, Blackpoll, Black-and-White, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush and Hooded Warbler. A look at your bird book will remind you of what they look like and where they belong.

Four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were reported including one that frequented a feeder in Big Pine the last week of November. Excellent photographs were taken to document this record. There were also multiple records of Indigo and Painted Buntings and Dickcissels, the "little meadowlark".

The less colorful sparrows were not to be outdone by the warblers as many were out of range. Eight Clay-colored Sparrows were at Furnace Creek Ranch along with three American Tree Sparrows and three Lark Buntings. Flat-headed Grasshopper Sparrows, gray and ochre-faced Le Conte's Sparrows, rusty-winged Swamp Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and black-bibbed Harris' Sparrows were throughout the county, many at backyard feeding stations. All three longspurs were recorded with many Chestnut-collared, one Lapland and one very rare McCown's in the county. Several Bobolinks and Rusty Blackbirds were also reported.

Fall migration is now history, and we look forward to the exciting events winter will bring. Today, while writing this article, we received an early morning call from Dave Shuford, ornithologist from Point Reyes Bird Observatory, who said he'd just seen 100 Bohemian Waxwings flying south over Lee Vining. Four hours later we received a call from Bob Toth of Bishop; he'd just heard and seen 15-25 in the tree in his yard and perfectly described the cinnamon undertail coverts and unique wing pattern. What a great early warning system! Keep looking up!

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Inyo Swallows (3/'95)

They are coming. They are definitely on the way. A few have already been seen but the masses are far to the south. They are getting closer. It won't be long now. Who are they? Probably one of the most important members of the avian community. They are the swallows whose taste for flyinq insects makes them one of man's best friends.

Two of the seven species recorded in Inyo County do not breed here but pass through on their way north in spring and south in fall. The rare Purple Martin has only been seen about a half-dozen times from March (1954: Furnace Creek Ranch, the first historical record) to 30 May (1976: Furnace Creek Ranch) and another half-dozen times from 17 August (1993: Furnace Creek Ranch) to 29 Oct (1977: Furnace Creek Ranch). The other non-breeder is the beautiful bicolored Tree Swallow first recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch 23 Mar 1891. This mosquito eater has numbered as many as 2000 at Tinemaha Reservoir on 22 April 1975 where they were seen coursing back and forth across the reservoir removing untold pounds of flying insects. This hardiest of swallows has been recorded every month of the year in Inyo though from November to early February only singles have been found. They likely perished because their food supply was either missing or in very low quantity or, more hopefully, returned south to a more hospitable climate. Most spring migration is from late February, numbers by early March are 300 in a flock, to early May. Fall migration starts in mid-July and lingerers can be seen in early October.

The breeders use a variety of habitats in which to nest and abate the flying insects in their own way. The flashy Violet-green Swallow nests in both the Sierra and desert mountains at higher elevations where it finds tree holes or rock cracks as safe homes for their young. This species was first recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch on 10 April 1891. Spring migration begins 12 February (1978: Furnace Creek Ranch) , up to 200 have been found on 31 March (1974: Big Pine) and fall migration ends 12 November (1991: Tinemaha Reservoir).

The brown and buff Northern Rough-winged Swallow nests in vertical cliffs along the Owens River. They arrive as early as 25 February (1992: Tinemaha Reservoir) and are gone by 12 October (1991: Furnace Creek Ranch) but are found mostly from late March to early September. The most seen were 500 at Big Pine and Bishop on 6 April 1975. The first historical record was at Panamint Valley on 22 April 1891 by the A. K. Fisher Expedition.

The Bank Swallow, a fairly common migrant and locally uncommon summer resident, is on the state threatened list at nesting sites. The only remaining nest colonies in the southern half of the state have been a few attempts at gravel pits in north Bishop for the last four years. These have often been disrupted by operations there resulting in total nest failure. This swallow was first recorded breeding along the river at Alvord (Big Pine) on 26 June 1891. The earliest spring arrival is 25 February (1992: Tinemaha Reservoir) and the latest fall departure is 12 October (1991: Furnace Creek Ranch). As many as 500 were seen at Big Pine and Bishop on 6 April 1975.

The buff-rumped Cliff Swallow, a common migrant and summer resident, arrives as early as 12 February (1975: Tinemaha and 1978: Furnace Creek Ranch) and is the earliest to depart with most leaving the county by late August. Surprising was one found at Furnace Creek Ranch on 23 November 1977, the latest county record ever. On 19 April 1993 in Bishop and Round Valley as many as 230 were seen building nests under bridges and road culverts. A large colony nests every year on the outflow structure at Tinemaha Reservoir. The first county record was at Haiwee Meadows 12 May 1891.

The Barn Swallow, steel blue above with a long forked tail and rusty breast, is the bird most people think of when they think of a swallow. These common migrants and summer residents were first found on migration between Panamint and Saline Valley in late May 1891. Earliest spring arrival was 12 February (1978: Furnace Creek Ranch) though most pass through late March to late May on their way north to Alaska and the Northwest Territories. These most elegant of all swallows nest around houses, under bridges and in other man-made structures, like barns. Fall migration begins late August and lasts to mid October. Three thousand , seen on 13 September 1992 (Tinemaha Reservoir) ranks this as our most abundant swallow.

Many of the historical first records for the county are from the A. K. Fisher Death Valley Expedition of 1891 which included all of Inyo County and took place from December 1890 to the summer of 1891 Many contemporary researchers are using the shoulders of this giant and his co-workers upon which to stand because it offers a much better view.

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Rarest of the Rare (5/'95)

Some 400 species of birds have been reliably documented in Inyo County. Of these, twenty-three have been recorded just once and an additional eleven have been recorded twice. These thirty-four species comprise 8.5% of the total county list.

A few of these very rare species will undoubtedly occur again and, in fact, we wonder why more have not been found. Examples of expected rarities might include Glaucous-winged Gull, Pine Grosbeak and Cordilleran Flycatcher (recently separated from Western Flycatcher). But a number of these very rare species may never be seen in Inyo again. We have chosen ten as examples of the rarest of the rare.

Magnificient Frigatebird: On 8 April 1988 Gary & Joan Fellers drove near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park, and spied an immature flying into a strong headwind. This species is normally found in the warm seas of tropical latitudes. This individual probably wandered up the Gulf of California, overland to the Salton Sea where many have been found and then north to Inyo.

Garganey: Jon Dunn found this Eurasian duck at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley National Park, on 12 October 1990. It remained until 1 November 1990 and was seen by many observers. What route it took is beyond speculation!

Glaucous Gull: This species normally summers in the high arctic and during the winter it is rare along the coast and very rarely wanders inland. Inyo Countys only record was an adult at Tinemaha Reservoir 23-25 December 1990 found by Matt HeindeI.

Broad-billed Hummingbird: This Mexican species, found as far north as southeast Arizona, was seen by Marge Irwin at Lone Pine Campground 12-14 September 1992. Fortunate for those able to see it, it was enticed to a feeder by Marge who recognized it from her trips to Arizona and quickly got the word out.

Thick-billed Kingbird: Mark Stacy, a high school student, was visiting his aunt in Lone Pine for Christmas, when he went for a bird walk near the north end of town. He first heard, then saw this Mexican kingbird, made drawings, wrote a description and then started putting the word out. He also recognized it from his trips to southeast Arizona where it barely occurs. It was present from 24 December 1991 until 1 April 1992 surviving temperatures in the teens. Maybe this was a thick-skinned bird as well!

Blue Jay: This eastern jay was photographed by an eastern tourist, Susan DVincent, as she arrived at Panamint City on 24 October 1973. She was surprised to see it as she thought these were only found back home. How fortunate Inyo is that she was aware of its rareness, photographed it and sent it to the California Bird Records Committee where it was accepted! Rufous-backed Robin: This west Mexican robin was found at Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, on 5 November 1983 by Richard Webster. Occasionally they wander in winter to southeast Arizona but what caused this individual to continue north is unknown.

Louisiana Waterthrush: This eastern ground warbler is rarely found anywhere in California but Jon Dunn found one at Deep Springs on 7 August 1985. Many Northern Waterthrushes are misidentified as Louisianas, so all the field marks must be checked. One Northern found near Bishop 7 August 1986 was more likely a misidentified Louisiana because the timing is when you would expect a Louisiana; Northerns pass through at the end of August.

Varied Bunting: This beautiful bunting is normally found in Mexico and along the southern US border. California has several records but Inyos only record occurred when Donna Dittman found an individual at Mesquite Springs, DVNP, on 18 November 1977. All those who made the mad dash were grateful it stayed until the twenty-first!

Streak-backed Oriole: This colorful Mexican and Central American species was found by Jon Dunn at Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, on 6 November 1977. Most of Californias active birding community was able to make the trip and see this bird as it lingered until 11 December 1977.

So what lessons can we learn from these few examples? First, it would appear that almost anything is possible. Keep in mind that all the above species are migratory and that would seem to be a prerequisite. Birds that dont move around are not likely to show up here.

Second, the populations from which these birds originated are from Mexico, eastern US or far to the north. Therefore, no one factor, such as wind, can account for their appearance. Note that three of the ten records were found by one person, Jon Dunn. He is the editor of the National Geographic Societys guide to the Birds of North America. He is a highly disciplined, very hard working field observer who is a master at documenting what he sees. He regularly carries a camera and is frequently able to document photographically what he sees. He is also great at communicating his discoveries to the active birding community so that others are able to confirm his findings. One of Jons passions is finding rare birds and he is excellent at it. We can all learn from and follow the example he provides.

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Birding Hot Spots (5/'95)

The hottest birding spot in Inyo County in August is Death Valley! The hottest birding spot in Inyo County in May is... Death Valley! Obviously two different ways of describing hot. We will reveal the birding spots that consistently turn up hot birds, that is, the unexpected and unusual and at the same time entertain you with the expected. Each area is better at different seasons so choose the season and/or birds you are interested in and match with the best location.

BIRCHIM CANYON, located about 10 miles north of Bishop, has been put on the birding map by Jim & Debby Parker who first discovered its wonders. Park at the pulloff on Hwy 395 and walk down the dirt trail surrounded by prime riparian vegetation to the Pleasant Valley Dam power station. This area provides nesting habitat for threatened Yellow-breasted Chats and resting spots for unexpected Northern Parula and Blackburnian Warblers. Youll hear the raspy song of Belted Kingfishers and the tumbling delight of Canyon Wrens. Other similiar locations are BAKER CREEK, discovered by Earl Gann, and the recently burned CAMP INYO area, both just west of Big Pine. These areas also provide nesting habitats for the endangered Yellow-billed Cuckoo, threatened chat and Summer Tanager. Rarities, in spring and fall, are Worm-eating Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo. Anywhere along the OWENS RIVER provides the same exciting habitat but is more difficult to bird because of its extensiveness.

Because Inyo County is largely desert the watered sites provide critically important resting and feeding areas for a wide variety of birds. PLEASANT VALLEY RESERVOIR deserves a walk or bike ride from spring to fall when you can see loons, grebes and ducks in the water, wrens and sparrows on the canyon sides, and warblers in the willows. KLONDIKE AND WARREN LAKES, northeast and northwest, respectively, of Big Pine are worth checking regularly. The marsh at the north end of Klondike hides the nests of American Bittern, Red-winged & Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The tules along the sides contain chattering Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats singing whitchity, whitchity. Tundra Swans are regular here in winter. Ibis, egrets, herons and rails rest and feed during migration. TINEMAHA RESERVOIR can be birded from the overlook where you can see loons and pelicans (spring and fall), ducks, geese, swans and vagrant gulls (winter), or from the north and east side where you can get up close and personal views of myriad shorebirds (April to May & July to October). BILLY LAKE, east of Independence, has the only colony of nesting Least Bitterns and the swampy area at the north turned up a golden Prothonotary Warbler. The best shorebird area in the county is COTTONWOOD MARSH on the west side of Owens Lake. Because of quality bird sightings, birders from all over the country stop here to see what they can find. This area is also attractive to hunters because of the use by ducks and geese. The plan to mine soda ash, approved by the supervisors, requires pumping ground water which could be devastating to this unique marsh if the springs dry up as they have done throughout the valley. While at Owens Lake visit DIRTY SOCKS at the south end and the areas north and south of KEELER. Marshes are the least common habitat in the county and both have small but special ones that usually allow good views of rails and shorebirds and if you are lucky you might find the second county record of a Long-tailed Jaeger. WARM SPRINGS, southeast of Bishop, is another excellent marshy area where Northern Harriers regularly breed. Other proven hot spots are GRlMSHAW LAKE near Tecopa, FURNACE CREEK RANCH, the salt marsh at SALINE VALLEY, FARMERS POND, (northeast of Bishop), HAIWEE RESERVOIR and SEWER PONDS anywhere. Water level is the crucial factor in attracting shorebirds. Too high or too low and the birds wont be able to feed.

For excellent coniferous forest birding you have only to follow any of the roads that climb the Sierra. Some of the best can be found around NORTH & SOUTH LAKE, west of Bishop, GLACIER LODGE, west of Big Pine, ONION VALLEY, west of Independence, WHITNEY PORTAL and HORSESHOE MEADOW, west and southwest of Lone Pine. If visiting during the summer you will see the resident birds busy nesting; if you visit during the spring or fall you will also see some birds using the Sierra as a migratory route. GRANDVIEW CAMPGROUND and SCHULMAN GROVE in the White Mountains dish up Red Crossbill, Gray Flycatcher and Golden Eagle. WHIP-POOR-WILL FLAT in the Inyo Mountains and MAHOGANY FLAT in the Panamints provide the best in pinon-juniper birding with Plain Titmouse and Pinon Jay calling a welcome.

If RAPTORS are your interest you are in luck. Best time for variety and numbers is winter; best place is near alfalfa fields which provide the rodents. Each town in the Owens Valley has its fields. Wintertime sees the return of northern breeders like Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks, Prairie Falcon, and Merlin. Summertime sees the return from Argentina, of the Swainsons Hawk, whose bulky stick nests are easily seen near many ranches. This hawk is slowly declining throughout its range but seems to be hanging on here. Also obvious in summer are the resident Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel, the smallest North American falcon.

Good birds can be found just about anywhere in the county. One of the most enjoyable aspects of birding is to find your own favorite spot and keep track of what you see there. Over the years this information becomes data upon which you can help others determine if the species is doing well or not. This special spot can be your yard, a nearby park, a spot along the river or a mountain peak. Find such a place and enjoy!

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New What? Sighting to Scientific Record (11/'95)

It was the day before Christmas, and all through the cozy Lone Pine home the relatives were retelling family stories that Mark had heard before. It was time to go birding. He asked his mom if he could go to the park and she said fine, if hed take his cousin. Off they went in the cool, crisp, afternoon air to the park and Edwards Field just west of the park. He was looking forward to seeing birds that were not the same as those at home in Lemore, in the San Joaquin Valley. Little did he know!

It didnt take long before he heard a vocalization that he recognized as a kingbird. But in winter?! He ran to where he thought it was and again it called, Shredded wheat! He couldnt believe his eyes - a Thick-billed Kingbird! This Mexican species summers in southern Arizona where Mark had seen them & migrates south, not north! Kingbirds eat large flying insects and there arent any/many in Lone Pine in December.

Now what? Mark had been birding for only a few years but his mentors had taught him well. He knew exactly what he had to do to turn this spectacular sighting into a scientific record. While he watched the bird he wrote a description and, because he is an artist, drew pictures. His books were back home so he didnt commit the unethical sin of looking at the bird in the book while writing a description. He wrote what he saw, not what he knew was there based on his Arizona experiences. He described the habitat, time, call, his experience with the bird, sized it to a common bird (American Robin), a detailed description of head, bill, body, wings, & tail, and behavior.

Now what? Get the word out! He ran to the nearest pay phone, looked up our number (he remembered our names from the American Birds reports), and called us. We arrived just as daylight became a memory but he showed us where the bird had been. After talking with Mark, reading his notes and admiring his sketches we were convinced that, impossible though it seemed, he had indeed seen a Thick-billed Kingbird. It obviously had settled for the night so we told him wed be back at dawn the next morning. We called Andrew & Leah Kirk and made arrangements to meet the next morning. We searched and searched and no bird. Poor Mark had to leave & return to Lemore and was disappointed that no one else had seen it. He knew that even though his documentation was good that it might have a rough ride through the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) if no one could confirm the sighting of a 16 year old with only a few years experience. Especially of a bird thousands of miles from where it winters. The more qualified people that agree to the birds identity the better the chance of upgrading a sighting to a scientific record. It wasnt until almost noon before the first Shredded wheat jinked our chains and Tom found it immediately in a tall tree, the same tree in which Mark had found it!

Now what? Photographic documentation often proves the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words so photograph we did. Vary your exposure and snap anytime the bird changes its posture. A head bent away preening a tail feather just might provide the only picture of a critical mark of which the observer is unaware. These are not supposed to be prize winning portraits but instead are documentary evidence. A tape recording of the birds vocalization is also extremely valuable. We played a commercial tape very low in one ear and heard the birds call in the other. An identical match!

Now what? Many members of the CBRC were waiting for a second phone call telling them that yes, it was a Thick-billed Kingbird, and yes, it was still there, before they would jump in their cars to see this totally unexpected and totally unexplained sighting. So jump they did, one from San Diego, and the next day we scoured Edwards Field for the entire day. No bird! We drove all over town looking for it. No bird! Oh, the agony! We knew that with the photographs and additional substantiating documentation Mark Stacy would receive credit from the CBRC for the first Inyo County record of a Thick-billed Kingbird but it sure would be helpful if some members of the CBRC saw it with their own eyes. While they didnt see it that day, they did return later and enjoyed its company for a day.

Now what? Take all the notes and write a full description (form available on request). Start with size (compare to a common species, e.g. sparrow, robin, crow) and shape (slender like a cuckoo, plump like a quail) of the bird and, very importantly, size and shape of the bill; color of non-feathered parts, e.g. legs, bill, eyes; patterns and colors on head, back, underparts, wings & tail. It is critical to cover the characteristics that convinced you this is the rare bird not the more common look-alike bird. Never rely on one characteristic to separate them. Now is the time to use your bird books to do the research on your rare bird. Include which books you used and how they helped or hurt your identification. If you find information that conflicts with what you saw, state it. The kingbird showed the tertials of an immature and the crown stripe of an adult male. One of the committee members said that his book is wrong and since he published they have found a few young males that get their crowns earlier than most. If you took pictures or made tapes include this in your written description and enclose copies. It is important that you know a rare bird can be a common bird at a different time of year. Tundra Swans are common November to February but if you see one in June youd better document it as though it was the first Pterodactyl seen in millions of years! Send the package to us. We review it and may ask for more information. Then it is sent to the secretary of the CBRC. The reviewing process can take a couple of years but if sixteen year old Mark Stacy can follow this procedure and have a very rare bird accepted by the CBRC, you can too!

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