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A Fall to Remember: 1997 (1/'98)

Seasons come and go but from a birding viewpoint some are better than others. Most birders have experienced migrations that are easily forgettable; such was not the case for the fall of 1997. It was arguably the best one ever for Inyo County. Three species were recorded in the county for the first time ever. A Purple Gallinule, found by Jon Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Society's Field Guide to North American Birds, at Furnace Creek Ranch on 23 September was not only a first for the county but only the third record for the state of California and the only adult as the other two were juveniles. Dozens of birders poured in from all over to view this bird and add it to their state bird list. On 30 September at Keeler a Ruff, a large shorebird with an inordinately small head and bill, was photographed. China Lake, just south of Inyo County, has a handful of records so this was a long overdue addition to the county bird list. On 5 October a Smith's Longspur was found at Furnace Creek Ranch which is only the fifth record for the state. This fall to remember boosted the Inyo County list total to 409 species! Several other species were discovered for which there are only 1 or 2 other records. A Parasitic Jaeger was found at North Haiwee Reservoir on 13 October which was a third county record. A Dusky-capped Flycatcher was found by Debby Parker just north of Bishop on 7 November which was only the third time that bird had been seen in the county. It stayed for three days allowing excellent views to many observers. A Sprague's Pipit was at Furnace Creek Ranch 10-18 October and was either the second or third county record. One was at Furnace Creek Ranch 2 October 1979 and 23 October 1979 and not found between those dates even though great birders searched. We are not convinced that these were two different birds and the fact that this is an especially rare bird in the state and only one other was found in all of CA during that fall makes us feel that it was probably one bird that was hiding where the birders were not birding. No one will ever know the answer to that dilemma. Many other species occurred which are considered rare in the entire state or rare away from the California coast. An Eurasian Wigeon was at North Haiwee Reservoir 8 November. Eight Surf Scoters and a White-winged Scoter (found by visiting birder Steve Glover) were unprecedented. A Red Phalarope was at Keeler 12 September and another one found by Bob Hudson at Independence 27 November was the latest ever seen in the county. An adult Sabine's Gull was at Tinemaha Reservoir 7 September and another at Klondike Lake, 10 miles north, the next day. Did this rare bird reverse its course and fly north the next day? Or were there two rare birds? Both were adults in similar plumage. Another enigma! A Gray Catbird was heard in north Bishop on 17 October and found the next day by Debby Parker. A Brown Thrasher was banded in Big Pine on 22 November. A Red-eyed Vireo was along the Owens River below Tinemaha dam 9 October. A beautiful male Black-throated Blue Warbler was at North Haiwee Reservoir 13 October. A Blackburnian Warbler spent 13-19 October in north Bishop. A Prairie Warbler was found by visiting birder Kathi Ellsworth near Grandview Campground in the White Mountains 2 September. A Prothonotary Warbler , found by visiting birder Michael Patten, was at Furnace Creek Ranch 10-12 October and an immature Painted Bunting, also found by Michael Patten, was there 24 September to 10 October. Other more regularly occurring species but still considered rare to very uncommon included: Pacific Loon, Greater Scaup, Hooded Merganser, White-tailed Kite, Peregrine Falcon, Vermilion Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Varied Thrush, Hermit Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Dickcissel, American Tree Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Harris's Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Bobolink, and Rusty Blackbird. WOW! Did you see all of these? Well, no matter. No one else did either although some tried! Take a deep breath because it is time to get ready for winter. Rough-legged Hawks are back and the first Northern Shrike has been in our backyard for the last few days. May the holidays and New Year bring you all the birds you desire!

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Spring Migration (3/'98)

Is it possible? Is it time to think of spring migrants already? Not only is it time to think of spring birds but, be advised, that a handful have already made an appearance. On 14 January two Barn Swallows were at Fish Springs; the first January records ever! On 17 January Chris Howard had the first Cinnamon Teal of spring at Furnace Creek Ranch. The same day Earl Gann's field trip had the first Turkey Vulture of the year and four Tree Swallows were at Tinemaha Reservoir. It has started. Winter often persists in the eastern Sierra until quite late. Visiting southern California birders are often surprised that our trees are still leafless in early April because theirs have been leafed out for a month. Our land bird migration does not have a major push until late April or early May. Our shorebirds, however, have been on the move long before this land bird movement began. Greater Yellowlegs often begin to migrate in February. As a few winter, it may be difficult to determine if a bird is wintering or moving through. If a person is able to bird the same area repeatedly they would know whether the bird had been there through the winter or not. Over the last decade we have February records of fifteen (1993), thirty-nine (1994), and thirteen (1997), for example, where only a few had been seen in December and January trips to the same location. Black-bellied Plovers begin moving through by late March. Our earliest record is 11 March 1996 at Farmer's Pond, north of Bishop found by Floyd & Sandy Bero. Killdeer begin to reappear in large numbers during March while in the winter they are seen in very small numbers. By late March our first Black-necked Stilts have returned. The earliest Inyo record is 19 March 1995 at Haiwee Reservoir. Similarly, large numbers of American Avocets have returned by the third week of March to brace the still icy weather. By the last of March our first Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers have returned. By late March or early April our two most common small sandpipers, the Western and Least, are moving through in great numbers. A few Long-billed Dowitchers are moving in February and by mid March in some years may be found by the dozens. While Wilson's Phalaropes don't normally appear until mid-April, there is a 27 Mar 1990 record for Bishop. If these regular spring migrants are not enough to get you out to your favorite shorebird area, keep in mind the possibility of finding a truly rare visitor such as Red Phalarope (2 spring records over the last decade), Baird's Sandpiper (2 spring records over the last decade), and Pectoral Sandpiper (2 spring records over the last four decades)! Where might we find these migrant water birds? Anywhere there is standing water. The best shorebird area in the county is probably Cottonwood Marsh, about ten miles south of Lone Pine (see the ESAS WWW site for a map and photo-Ed.), along the west shore of Owens Lake. A fresh water pond overflows providing birds water to drink and bathe. Other good areas include Tinemaha Reservoir, Nik & Nik gravel ponds, north of Bishop, and Crowley Lake to the north in Mono County. Spring has sprung!

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Ravens are Nothing to Crow About (5/'98)

Judging by the questions we receive from people interested in birds, possibly no greater confusion exists between other similar appearing species in Inyo County than between the American Crow and the Common Raven. While the experienced birder has few problems distinguishing a crow from a raven, the less experienced find this a difficult identification problem. They are both large, all black birds. There is a difference in size as crows are 17 inches and ravens are 24 inches, but this is difficult to discern, especially when they are at a distance. The raven is obviously larger but not just in length. It has a proportionately larger bill and the tail is larger because of the wedge shape of the tip. A crow is smaller, its bill is smaller not as massive as the raven's, and the tail is slightly rounded at the tip. The best mark for separating these two birds in flight it the shape of the tail. Once you focus on this mark you will seriously reduce your confusion over the separation. Vocalizations are a big help as well, and these two species are often heard calling, so listen for the higher pitched CAW-CAW of the crow versus the deeper croak of the raven. Ravens also give gurgling notes and clucks which crows do not. Their distribution over the U.S. is different. The Common Raven is found over most of Canada, western U.S. and the Appalachians while the American Crow is found throughout the U.S. (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) and summers throughout most of Canada. In Inyo County the raven occupies virtually every habitat and is found from below sea level in Death Valley to above tree line, while the crow is restricted to towns and agricultural areas. Both species are considered resident, that is, found in the county all year. However, the American Crow is also a migrant as populations to the north move south through Inyo in fall and back north again in spring. This undoubtedly explains records of American Crows at isolated areas such as Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley National Park, and also at Deep Springs - well away from their stronghold in the Owens Valley, where each town supports a resident population. The 1891 Death Valley Expedition (a misnomer because it covered the entire county) found no American Crows, but did find the raven over the entire county with the first being recorded at Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, during the first week of January 1891. The first crow was found by UC Berkeley's Joseph Grinnell at Furnace Creek Ranch, DVNP, 6 Apr 1920. The museum at the visitor center contains an albino Common Raven which was first sighted 21 June 1960 and died following an apparent hawk attack on 14 Sep 1961. Our advice is to look and listen to these large, black birds and see if their differences don't become more apparent with effort and time. Crows and ravens belong to the family Corvidae considered by many to be the smartest family of birds. Maybe their similarities are designed to test just how smart Homo sapiens is!

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International Migratory Bird Day, 1998 (9/'98)

From dawn until almost dusk twenty-one observers covered the Owens Valley, White Mountains, eastern Sierra canyons, and Death Valley, searching for all the birds they could find. The goal of the day was to see how many different species of birds could be seen in one day. Some interesting statistics: 180 (up 15 from last year) different species were found totaling over 7100 (up 827 from last year) individual birds; of the 180 species 134 (up 7 from last year) were neotropical migrants, that is, birds who spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and migrate north to breed in Alaska, Canada, and North America; most common bird was the European Starling (360) followed closely by the Cliff Swallow (350). About 195 observer hours were recorded which is like one observer looking for birds for 195 hours or over 8 straight days and nights! Thirty species seen this year were new to the count as they were not seen last year, our first count. Thirteen species were seen in larger numbers than ever recorded before: Turkey Vulture (199), Rock Dove (114), Black-chinned Hummingbird (75), Nuttall's Woodpecker (10), Dusky Flycatcher (31), Steller's Jay (55), Cassin's Vireo (26), Warbling Vireo (25), Townsend's Warbler (91), Western Tanager (87), Black-headed Grosbeak (82), Bullock's Oriole (87), and Lesser Goldfinch (123).

Each town had a team and each town turned up some interesting birds that none of the other teams had. The Lone Pine team, made up of Tom Heindel, Bob & Barb Toth, and Shawn Morrison had sixteen species that no other team recorded: Mountain Quail, Virginia Rail, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Bonaparte's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Long-eared Owl, Common Poorwill, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Cactus Wren, Nashville Warbler, and Scott's Oriole. The Independence team, made up of Leah & Andrew Kirk, Bob Hudson, and Larry Nahm, were the only ones to find Least Bittern and Townsend's Solitaire.

The Big Pine team, made up of Jo Heindel, Earl & Carolyn Gann, Penny Ashworth, Stan Kleinman, and John & Ros Gorham, were the only ones to see Western Grebe, Redhead, Greater Yellowlegs, Broad-tailed and Rufous hummingbirds, Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Mountain Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, and Lincoln's Sparrow.

The Bishop team, made up of Jim & Debby Parker, John Finkbeiner, and Chris Howard were the only ones to find Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, White-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Bank Swallow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Marsh Wren, Swainson's Thrush, Sage Thrasher, Virginia's Warbler, Harris's Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, and Pine Siskin.

The Death Valley team, made up of Judy Wickman and Mike Prather were the only ones to find Verdin, Lucy's and Black-and-white warblers.

The bad news is that we found 299 (up from 176 last year) Brown-headed Cowbirds. Some quick math. If half were females and each female lays 30 eggs this season (the accepted average) 4500 cowbird eggs will be laid. If a cowbird egg is added then most or all of the host species are dumped out of the nest by the newly hatched cowbird, pecked to death when hatched, or die from starvation while their parents feed the bigger mouth. Most female cowbirds will not lay an egg in a nest already containing a cowbird egg so each cowbird egg results in the death of most or all of the host young. Using the range of eggs per nest as 3-6, normal for small song birds, the cowbirds are insuring that 13,500-27,000 passerines like Willow Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, etc. will not be raised this year so that 4500 cowbirds can be. Mankind was responsible for introducing cowbirds into this area and should also be responsible for controlling the cowbird population so that we will have birds to look at besides the brown-headed wonder bird.

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Inyo County Longspurs (11/'98)

There are four species of longspurs in the world and all four have been reliably documented by specimens or photographs as having occurred in Inyo County. What is a longspur? It is a sparrow in the genus Calcarius that has a long hind claw, hence the name longspur. Two of the four species breed in the northern Great Plains and the other two in the arctic. Most of Inyo County's records are in fall when birds are dispersing from their northern breeding areas to their winter range which for the most part is to the southeast of us.

East of the Sierra the occurrence of longspurs is somewhat unpredictable, and one is always pleased to encounter them. Two of the four species are very rare both in Inyo County and in the entire state.

There is a single record of Smith's Longspur for Inyo and just five records for the state. Our visitor was at Furnace Creek Ranch golf course in Death Valley National Park from 4 - 11 October 1997. This bird was very tame and allowed viewers to within ten feet as it foraged on the short grass by the motel.

McCown's Longspur is also rare with just five records for the county. Other than Smith's Longspur, which is not recorded annually in California, this species is the next rarest in the state. Two of Inyo County's records are from Deep Springs Valley, two are from Furnace Creek Ranch and the last one is from near Panamint Springs. All five records are between 16 October and 11 November.

Lapland Longspur occurs annually in the state although it is not recorded annually in Inyo County. It may be here but the large size of the county and the limited number of birders mitigates against encounters. The situation is further complicated by difficulty in identifying birds in fall plumage. Although most often found singly, on 13 October 1949 Don McLean collected a female from a group of forty at Deep Springs (Condor 71:434). There are two spring records both from Furnace Creek Ranch and many fall records between 13 October and 30 November. There is one winter record 17 January 1976 from Furnace Creek Ranch (Larry Mangan, pers. comm.).

The Chestnut-collared Longspur is our most abundant longspur. It occurs annually with most records in fall between late September and late November. There are several very early records starting 5 August 1989 at Furnace Creek Ranch by Michael Patten (American Birds 44:165). Records extend into winter with the latest on 6 February. There are two spring records from Saline Valley and Furnace Creek Ranch. Again they are usually encountered singly, but on 20 November 1993 Andrew & Leah Kirk and Bob Hudson had about seventy in an alfalfa field near Independence.

To find longspurs one should be armed with information from a good field guide (we recommend National Geographic Society's Birds of North America) and search grasslands in fall. Listen for their distinctive calls and watch for their different tail patterns as they bound away. Good luck!

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