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Fall Feathers of 1998 (1/'99)

Fall begins early in the bird world. While the non-birder may think fall begins in late September, the birder recognizes fall not as a particular month but the period of time when birds start to leave their breeding grounds and move to their winter grounds. These wintering areas may be here in the Owens Valley, nearby in southern CA or Mexico, or further in Central or South America.

Our earliest fall migrants are shorebirds, and they begin passing south in late June. Wilson's Phalaropes, Greater Yellowlegs, Western and Least Sandpipers were headed for their wintering grounds before July. But what about our more exotic, unpredictable visitors? It has been an exciting fall. Space constraints allow only a listing of the most unusual.

A RED-THROATED LOON was at Tinemaha Reservoir 30 Nov. This species has been found in seven of the last nine falls after first being recorded in the county in 1990. Two SURF SCOTERS, a marine duck that is not found in Inyo every year, were found , one at Klondike Lake 11 Oct and one north of Bishop 3-17 Nov by John Finkbeiner. An ARCTIC TERN, only the fifth county record, was at Tinemaha Reservoir 9 Oct. A COMMON GROUND-DOVE was at Cartago 10 Sep and was only the second ever for the Owens Valley. Two RUDDY GROUND-DOVES were found, 1 at Furnace Creek Ranch 7 Oct and one at Independence. Bob Hudson found the Independence bird which was the first ever recorded in Owens Valley! An unprecedented three YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKERS were reported during Oct and Nov. A very rare EASTERN PHOEBE, the 14th county record, was at Scotty's Castle 7-10 Oct. A PURPLE MARTIN, not seen every year, was at Cottonwood Marsh 17 Sep. An excellent photo was received by a visiting Canadian birder, Jerry Pilny, who captured a pure albino COMMON BUSHTIT in flight at Whitney Portal campground in Aug. Most spectacular find all fall was a BLUE-WINGED WARBLER, only the 3rd for Inyo, at Birchim Canyon found by Debby Parker on 6 Sep while looking for the CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER she had found the previous day. A MAGNOLIA WARBLER, found 30 Sep, could not be refound by others searching later that day. A PROTHONOTARY WARBLER, found by Jim Parker, was at North Haiwee Reservoir 19-24 Sep and a different one was there 10 Oct found by Rosie Beach. Furnace Creek Ranch had an OVENBIRD on 17 Oct and two McCOWN'S LONGSPURS were seen at Independence 24-28 Oct. The Longspurs were found by Andrew & Leah Kirk - only the 6th county record, and first for Owens Valley. A CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR was at Furnace Creek Ranch 17 Oct and a female PAINTED BUNTING was there 21 Sep. A record tying eight BOBOLINKS were photographed by Andrew Kirk at Independence during their brief stay 16-19 Sep. Two COMMON GRACKLES were found, one at Bishop 13 Sep by the Parkers and one at Panamint Springs 17 Oct by Tom Wurster. A female ORCHARD ORIOLE was at Furnace Creek Ranch 6 Oct.

This is only half of the four dozen excellent finds that the birders of the Owens Valley found this fall. Now we await the winter invasion of species such as Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, and who knows what else. Your guess is as good as ours. If you find one of the winter's bonus birds, remember the procedure for turning a sighting into a scientific record: take notes immediately, photograph if possible, and call the nearest good birder you know to confirm. May your holiday season and new year be filled with beautiful feathers.

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Cyber-Birding (3/'99)

If you want to spend an afternoon birding the entire state of California from the comfort of your own home, plug in this URL and enjoy:

Joe Morlan, a member of the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC), has created a website, "California Birding Pages", that sets a standard to which others aspire. If you are interested in taking his birding classes, or reading his publications, they are listed. Most fascinating is the California Birding section that lists the rare birds recently seen; when, where, and often with photographs. He also puts up two mystery photographs monthly and the birding community engages in debate as to the identification. The next month the discussion and answers are given and two more mystery birds are started. Here is a college class in bird identification for those who want it...and no tuition cost. One would do well to sit with a field guide and pen and enter all the unpublished and 'known only to the best of the state' identification marks that won't make it into the next field guide for a decade or more. Talk about the cutting edge of identification! Another section is the CBRC, where photographs submitted to the committee as part of the documentation for state listed birds, are available to the public, captioned with the date and location. Some are from Inyo County! There also are audio and Los Angeles County sections. From the main page you can choose Links and see National, California, and Bay Area, CBRC, Other Birders' Webpages, Bird Research, and Weather Webpages. There is a Search function if you know it is on Joe's website, but not where. Treat yourself to cyber-birding. It is especially fun when it is too windy to bird Inyo County!

Owens Valley has a new listserve available to those who want to be kept informed of birding information, primarily sightings, from the valley. This replaces the telephone tree that was the quickest way to get rare bird alert information disseminated in the "old" days. If anyone on the list sees a bird that they don't recognize, or that they do recognize and know that it is unusual for this area at this time of year, they can write up one post and everybody has access to the info as soon as they download their mail. It can not be emphasized enough that this kind of information needs to be put out as soon as physically possible, as a rare bird today is a gone bird tomorrow. Birders have been known to go out as the sun sets with spot beams to try to see the bird before it continues its migration that night. Not that any of us are that compulsive...but maybe we should let you speak for yourselves. This is not a replacement for the excellent Eastern California Bird Sightings Page by Chris Howard: They serve two different but related functions. All good, interesting, and/or rare sightings should be put on Chris's page so people can access them and learn about the local birds. This new listserve serves the function of a rare bird alert where time is of the essence as well as informing the recipients of miscellaneous birding information. It is an informal, irregular, and unmoderated list. If you are interested, please post us at and we will put you on the list. You can withdraw at any time with no early withdrawal penalties, and there are no age restrictions to this offer!

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Inyo Exotics (5/'99)

Inyo County has 410 bird species reliably documented as having occurred within its borders. Not all of these species are native, that is, some are here because of the activities of man. The most obvious birds, those with which non-birders are well acquainted, are House (English) Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Doves (pigeons). These are very common birds around our homes, ranches, and businesses. A second group of introduced birds that inhabit Inyo are game birds such as Chukar, Ring-necked Pheasant, and White-tailed Ptarmigan all released for hunters with various degrees of success. One species, Gambels Quail, occurs naturally at the extreme southeast corner of the county at Tecopa, Resting Springs, Shoshone, and Death Valley Junction but some of those birds were taken out prior to 1890 and introduced to Furnace Creek Ranch where they were first recorded 24 Jan 1891 by the Death Valley Expedition. Almost every Death Valley Christmas Bird Count from 1972-1982 reported from one to twenty. Because years went by with no reports that population was thought to have died out until 2-3 were seen 10 Oct 1998 by Guy McCaskie at the Furnace Creek Ranch airport. These may be remnants from the original introduced flock or colonizers from the east or south. While the origins of some introduced species remain obscure, a few have been well documented. The House Sparrow was well established in the United States at New York City by 1860-1864. By 1872 it had been recorded in San Francisco. None were found in Inyo County when the Death Valley Expedition conducted its thorough survey in 1891. In 1917 Dr. Joseph Grinnell, the ornithological giant from UC Berkeley, began his work in Death Valley and was surprised to find a small population at Furnace Creek Ranch. He said that Mr. Denton, the ranch manager, first found them there in 1914 when the Death Valley spur of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was built to the nearby town of Ryan. Grinnell believed the sparrows followed the construction camps and the livestock of these workers. House Sparrows are now found in all the towns and most of the ranches throughout the county and compete with native species for food and nesting material. The European Starling was also introduced into the New York area in the late 19th century. They spread west through towns and agricultural areas and first appeared in California in 1942. The first Inyo County record was 3 Jan 1947 when eleven were found at Furnace Creek Ranch. They are now found countywide and compete with native species for food and nest cavities. A Northern Flicker spent part of a week drilling a new nesting hole in a cottonwood tree only to be removed physically by a starling who pulled the larger flicker out of the just finished nest hole and climbed in to occupy and raise young in its stolen residence. The Rock Dove, commonly called a pigeon, had been domesticated and kept by man for thousands of years. It was introduced into North America in Nova Scotia by the French in 1606 and spread across the United States with the western movement. No mention is made of the species by the Death Valley Expedition, nor is it mentioned by Grinnell in his Observations on the Birds of Death Valley (1923) but in 1944 Grinnell, in his classic Distribution of the Birds of California, noted that the species was widespread. While the species has certainly been in Inyo County for most of this century we have no earlier information than 1972 when we recorded them in Big Pine. Help! Jane Fisher, long time resident, does not recall them when she was growing up. Most of the towns, parks, and many ranches now support small populations but on 9 May 1998 a couple dozen birders, on International Migratory Bird Day, counted 114 in the Owens Valley. Chukar, originally brought from Calcutta, India, were released in California in 1932. They were introduced into Inyo County in the mid 1930s and appear to be doing very well in rocky, dry, and often steep terrain. They react quickly to drought with quick reductions in numbers and just as quickly recover with a couple of wet years. The best site for viewing this species is Tollhouse Spring from May to Sep when a hen or two can be seen escorting a bushel basket full of fuzzy young across the highway. Ring-necked Pheasant were introduced into California as early as 1855. A.B. Howell noted them quite common and increasing in the Owens Valley in 1917 but said that the habitat was so limited that he doubted the population would last two years if hunting was allowed. In 1925 3000 more were released in the Owens Valley and other releases were continued by the California Department of Fish and Game until 1977. Small introductions have been made since the late 1980s by local sportsman groups. White-tailed Ptarmigan from Colorado were released near Eagle Peak, Mono County, in 1971-72 when 72 birds were planted. They have since spread both north and south of the release point. They reached Inyo the second week of April 1990 when one was seen at Pine Creek and 24 Mar 1997 when 5 or 6 were seen at Green Lake. These sites are 10,000-11,000 ft and obviously this species occurs above and below that range especially during harsh winters when they may descend to lower elevations according to David Gaines. Most people pay little attention to introduced birds, because, after all, they dont belong here. It is a fact that they are a part of the avifauna and for better or, usually worse, they impact our native species. It is in the best interest of our native species that we know and understand these interlopers.

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International Migratory Bird Day: 8 May 1999 (9/'99)

This years IMBD dawned windless and beautiful, far from the day-long gale last years hardy teams withstood. From dawn until almost dusk thirty-five observers covered the Owens Valley, White Mountains, and eastern Sierra canyons, vacuuming with their eyes and ears 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 as well as how many individual birds are using our area as they migrate to their breeding grounds. Some interesting statistics from this years count: 182 different species were found (up 2 from last year and a new record) totaling over 10,340 individual birds (up 3240 from last year and another new record); of the 182 species 139 were neotropical migrants (up 5 from last year and another new record). Neotropical migrants are birds who spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and migrate north to breed in North America.

The most common bird was the Cliff Swallow (594) followed closely by the European Starling (535), just the opposite from last year when Starlings barely outnumbered Cliff Swallows. About 241 observer hours were recorded, which is like one observer looking for birds for 241 hours or over 10 straight days and nights! Nine species seen this year were new to the count as they were not seen the last two years bringing the total species seen during IMBDs to 210, a remarkable number for a county without an ocean. A staggering twenty-seven species were seen in larger numbers than ever recorded before: Osprey (9), Northern Harrier (11), Red-tailed Hawk (41), American Kestrel (55), Spotted Sandpiper (61), California Gull (437), Greater Roadrunner (7), Great Horned Owl (15), Vauxs Swift (117), Calliope Hummingbird (7), Belted Kingfisher (15), Nuttalls Woodpecker (14), Downy Woodpecker (15), Northern Flicker (80), Black Phoebe (45), Western Kingbird (129), Cliff Swallow (594), Nashville Warbler (22), Yellow-rumped Warbler (314), Blue Grosbeak (18), Spotted Towhee (139), Song Sparrow (76), Yellow-headed Blackbird (390), Brewers Blackbird (328), House Finch (206), Lesser Goldfinch (214) and, lastly, American Goldfinch (10).

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 Judy Wickman, Tom Heindel, Bob & Barb Toth, and Shawn Morrison were the only ones to find Ring-necked Pheasant, Greater Yellowlegs, Oak Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Black-and-white Warbler.

The Independence team made up of Leah & Andrew Kirk, Bob Hudson, Larry Nahm, and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory crew were the only ones to find Least Bittern, Blue-winged Teal, Prairie Falcon, Lesser Nighthawk, Western Bluebird, Swainsons Thrush and Hermit Warbler.

The Big Pine team made up of Jo Heindel, Earl, Eliot & Carolyn Gann, Penny Ashworth, Stan Kleinman and John and Ros Gorham were the only ones to see Western Grebe,Golden Eagle, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red-necked Phalarope, Western Screech-Owl, Common Poorwill, White-breasted Nuthatch, Sage Thrasher and Lawrences Goldfinch.

The Bishop team made up of Jim & Debby Parker, John & Dee Finkbeiner, Laurie Sada, Bea Cooley and Chuck Washburn, Jack Ferrell, Rosie Beach and Chris Howard and Chriss parents were the only ones to find Canada Goose, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Common Snipe, Franklins Gull, Bonapartes Gull, Pinyon Jay, Brown Creeper, American Dipper and Golden-crowned Kinglet.

This is the 8th year this international count has been conducted, and the third for the Owens Valley. The IMBD is a cooperative global effort to inventory birds during their migration. Many species are in serious trouble because of habitat destruction in both their wintering and summering grounds, so counts like this one help scientists determine the severity of the problem and which species are most heavily impacted. Fun was had by all and exhaustion by most, but the birds benefitted from another year of data collection by a dedicted group of concerned citizens. If you are interested in helping out, contact the town captain, the first one listed after each town, as soon as possible as some previous experience is an important help, and there is plenty of time to get ready for the Y2K count!

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Six Frequently Misidentified Birds of Inyo (11/'99)

As Inyo County coordinators for the journal NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS we receive reports from locals and visitors of sightings of birds that they believe are very rare in the county. Some of these reports are well documented, the bird was well seen by several knowledgeable and experienced observers, and perhaps the observer got lucky and was able to photograph it. These reports are evaluated by us, by the southern CA editor and sometimes by the CA Bird Records Committee (CBRC) if the species is rare in the state. Recently one county coordinator compiled a list of the most frequently misidentified species from his county and encouraged others to do the same. The result of this exercise is that often the reported rare bird has a common look-alike and the documentation did not eliminate the common bird as a possibility. While the observers should accept responsibility for their errors it must be emphasized that the best bird guides available often do not show the wide range of variation in plumages that all species have or the range maps are incorrect, and, therefore, mistaken identifications are easier to make than some would believe. While the Inyo County list of frequently misidentified species is over twenty we will cover the six most frequently occurring mistakes. First is the PURPLE FINCH which is rare in Inyo. Reports are received annually and almost every one proves to be the close relative and extremely similar Cassins Finch which is fairly common in the county. Most of these misidentifications are by visitors from back east or west of the Sierra where Purple Finch is the expected species. Even the recently released third edition of the National Geographic Societys Field Guide to the Birds of North America contributes to this problem with an incorrect range map. The illustrations, however, are accurate, and the careful observer should have no problem in a correct identification given a good view of the bird. Second is the SANDHILL CRANE, rare in Inyo, often reported feeding in flocks in alfalfa fields. A report of 37 Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields near Fish Springs morphed into 37 Great Blue Herons by the time we and our cameras arrived. The initial observers response was the widely held misconception, But herons are always found around water and they never gather together in flocks. He is usually right about them near water, but during migration and winter they do gather together and frequently feed in alfalfa fields. When looking at a field guide you will see a distinct difference in shape; the crane has a bustle and the heron does not and the color patterns are also quite different. Third is the GRAY VIREO, a rare species known only as a summer resident in the Grapevine Mountains along the eastern border of the county. Almost all reports of Gray Vireo turn out to be the common breeding Plumbeous Vireo which is all gray and white and looks very much like a Gray. These erroneous sightings are sometimes published exacerbating the problem. A quick look at a field guide will convince many that this is a difficult pair to separate. The lack of spectacles, much fainter wing bars and, especially, a tail that is waved about like a gnatcatcher separates the Gray Vireo from any other dull grayish colored vireo. Fourth is the BLACK-TAILED GNATCATCHER which is restricted to the dense mesquite areas in the southeast portion of the county. This species is very local and not expected away from there. Yet many reports are received from all over the county which usually involve Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Both species have black tails from above, but it is the underside that removes any question of identification. The Blue-gray tail is almost all white from below and the Black-tailed is almost all black! There are other subtle differences, but the underside of the tail is distinctively conclusive. Fifth is the COMMON GRACKLE a species so rare in the state that all records are sent to the CBRC for review. Often the documentation perfectly describes a Brewers Blackbird or a Great-tailed Grackle. On one occasion the CBRC received a frame-filling photograph of a Brewers Blackbird identified as a Common Grackle. The field guides show that all three species have yellow eyes and that the Common Grackle is mid-sized between a Brewers Blackbird and a Great-tailed Grackle. The Brewers does not have a keeled tail while the Great-tailed does. The Common Grackle has a smaller bill and smaller keeled tail than the Great-tailed. Both Brewers Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles are common in the Owens Valley. Last is the RUSTY BLACKBIRD which is often reported starting about Aug and often at feeders. These are all newly molted Red-winged Blackbirds that have rusty edges to the new feathers. When Red-wings are perched the bright red wing patches may be covered by relaxed scapular feathers. There are many other look-alike pairs and almost always one is rare and the other common. That is what makes the birding game so challenging. If you are looking at a bird that you think is the rare species it probably is the more common look-alike; but you just might be lucky and really are looking at a rare bird! The important thing is to keep looking!

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