Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Best Spring In Memory?

Vague Runts. Rarities. Drifters. Overshoots. Birds that make the jaw clench, the teeth grind, the hair stand on end. Most birders, to varying degrees, love Vague Runts, and I am one of them. One does not simply bird for 22 years without developing a taste for the rare.

In the U.S., there are a handful of states that are known for being the best places to find birds that do not belong...Alaska, Florida, Texas, Arizona come to mind, and of course California. That said, California differs significantly in one major way from all these other states...if you are hoping for rare birds, spring is not the time to be here. Sure we get a smattering of eastern passerines in late May/early June, but spring migration in most of the state lacks the rarities, the excitement and the sheer numbers of birds that much of the country gets to experience this time of year.

But not this year...not by a long shot. Something special is happening this spring. In all my years of birding in California, no spring has been the equal to this one as far as the number of MEGAs that have shown up. There have been birds of the Atlantic, birds of the southeast, birds of South America, and of course birds of Siberia. Absolutely brilliant.  Here is a quick run-down of the highlights...

Emperor Goose - A bird showed up in Sacramento County and stayed in the area for much of March. This lovely sea goose, known to some as "The Warden of The North", is not an annual visitor to the state, and rarely ventures this far south and inland.

Petrels - The last time El Nino struck, the waters off the California coast were plied by ridiculous numbers of Cook's Petrels the following year. Recent repositioning cruises have reported impressive numbers of them up and down the coast, as well as Murphy's and Hawaiian Petrels (now expected). Will Pterodroma cookii have another banner year?

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel - A deceased bird was found on a beach in Humboldt County. Several of these ABA MEGAs were found in the state last year, will pelagic birders turn more up this fall?

Northern Gannet - I hate the gannet, as you probably know. This bird (literally, this individual) is my Nemesis, and refuses to have anything to do with my state list. Still the one and only ever to be seen in California, it is currently hanging out in Half Moon Bay. And yes, I did just dip on it, again.

Swallow-tailed Kite - A fantastic bird on this side of the continent. The second state record was seen both in southern and northern San Diego County on the same day in April, never to be seen again. Maybe by now it is busy crippling birders in a place where it belongs.

Marsh Sandpiper - We love our Sibes here in California. This cooperative bird stuck around in Yolo County for a whole week and, as the saying goes, was enjoyed by many (WEBM). California now has three state records, all within the last three years. The rest of the Lower 48 has yet to get a single record...SORRY NOT SORRY.

Purple Sandpiper - A Rock/Purple Sandpiper was discovered at the Salton Sea in March, and by the time it disappeared most birders seemed to believe it was a Purple Sandpiper, a first for California. A more obvious Purple Sandpiper (which may or may not have been the Salton Sea bird, in more advanced alternate plumage) was then discovered hundreds of miles north in Marin County. It had a wing injury and was a one day wonder, so it either got eaten or used magic Purple Sandpiper healing powers and continued on its way.

Little Stint - No one is looking for stints in April, but perhaps they should be. A bird molting into alternate plumage hung out in Santa Clara County for several weeks and WEBM, thanks to an assist from eBird.

Little Gull - I envy birders who get access to large flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls, since that is what you need to find a Little Gull, a gull I hold in an esteem disproportionate to its size. Little Gulls are found on the California coast very rarely, so a spring bird in San Diego County was likely delicious to behold (it was too far for me to behold).

Kelp Gull - California's first Kelp Gull was found last year, and has recently returned to the Farallon Islands. We hope it can be relocated somewhere on the mainland...in the last year, it has been found in three different counties!

Red-throated Pipit - This is not a species that is heart attack rare in California, but there are very few spring records compared to fall. Multiple birds were seen in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties on the same day, both on San Clemente Island and on the mainland.

White (Black-backed) Wagtail - Yet another Sibe that is not at all expected in spring...have you noticed a pattern here? A crippling bird in alternate plumage was a one day wonder in San Luis Obispo County, and provided a first spring record for the state.

Spring is not over yet! There has been an awakening...have you felt it? If you are going out this week to flog your normal spring vagrant traps for warblers, don't stop there. Go to the lakes, the ponds, the ocean.  Scan those shorebirds for Asian strays like it was fucking September. Punish yourself with gull flocks like it was February. You just might be rewarded.

15 comments:

  1. We've had a Little Gull here in Utah County for the last week and a half or so. It's only the sixth state record, and it's been stupidly easy to see. Even if Utah can't compare with California's Vague Runt records, what a bird!

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    1. I was stoked to find a couple in Maine last year. Great birds, no doubt.

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  2. Something that is too often glossed over in field guides is that Purple Sandpipers get a 1D6+1 boost in magic use when outside of their normal range, so your theory is likely correct.

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  3. Seagull, you state (in reference to the WH(BB)WA) "A crippling bird in alternate plumage was a one day wonder in San Luis Obispo County, and provided a first spring record for the state.", but this is FALSE and also NOT TRUE. There are no fewer than four (4) previous spring records for California, including birds in Marin (22 May 1980), Humboldt (13 May 1985), Tulare (26 April 2003), and Inyo (10 May 2003). This does, of course, not count wintering birds that linger on into March and April.

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    1. I really need to stop using this: http://www.californiabirds.org/cbrcdb.html

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    2. Huh. Why is that website so incomplete? It only has half the White Wagtail records.

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    3. DEFINITELY stop using it. It still has records of Black-backed Wagtail!
      http://www.californiabirds.org/mydb.asp?species=black-backed+wagtail&partial=on&sort=date&STARTDATE=&ENDDATE=&county=

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    4. 200late. More importantly, the query page randomly does not include various records pre-1997...this doesn't irritate your love of accuracy?

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  4. Did not occur to me that they would not lump the records under the WHWA umbrella.

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  5. I will make it the plight of all San Mateo County birders to get you on the gannet. Or head out to the Farallons a few times? Peter Pyle is convinced, and I concur, that the Purple Sand is the same bird. The feather patterns line up nicely even with the intervening molt. Cheers.

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  6. There were at least two (!) Little Gulls at the Salton Sea this spring, but were reported a few days late and buried in the body of an email, because that's how we roll in the Inland Empire, apparently.

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    1. Mmmmmmmm suppressed rarities...

      The Sea is a great spot for LIGU of course, though I always fail to see them there.

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  7. Most of us folks living in San Bernardino County, when not dodging bullets, really do not admire Los Angeles County due to its unbelievable traffic snarls, urban sprawl, and the fact it gets every stinking vagrant known to man. So when you attribute all the Red-throated Pipits to L.A. Co., although two of them were in the San Bdno Mountains (SBE county records #2 & #3), it really stings.

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    1. I have wronged you Brad. For that, I am sorry.

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