Thursday, January 15, 2015

Marin Birding: The Le Conte's Sparrow, A Suspect Sapsucker and Reversed Gender Roles

Most sparrows don't earn the title "crippling"....but most sparrows are not Le Conte's Sparrows. Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes, CA.

The rut is over.  The birding doom and gloom that plagued the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder late this fall has lifted, and the Vague Runts have been raining down upon me ever since I lurked back north from the Salton Sink.  Have you ever had a vagrant shower? Try it some is invigorating.  It is cathartic.  You are not immune to need birds, and rare birds will really jolt your system.

As 2014 drew to a close, a few things became apparent:

Despite my consistent denials, people think I am Nelson Briefer. The One True Nelson Briefer.

Since we are on the internet and you can't see me, I can neither confirm nor deny that I am Nelson Briefer.

Therefore, I am possibly Nelson Briefer.

In my mind, I really don't think I'm Nelson Briefer. But am I? Dark forces may be at work.

None of this is relevant today's post, of course, which features some fine recent birding in western Marin County.

Le Conte's Sparrows are well known as one of the most skulking passerines to be found north of Mexico, and in the past that's held true for me. That said, if I were to have written this bird up for the Bird Police (which I did not do), I would have used this phrase to characterize it's behavior: It didn't give a fuck.

It truly didn't. We were all surprised. This was by far the most confiding member of it's species I've seen, which is fantastic since it looms on the verge of facemelting and I've only seen a handful in the past. It's also blindingly rare here on the west coast. No wonder this very species was responsible for tearing the San Diego birding community asunder, as "Todd Ingress" knows so well.

Perhaps you would prefer a more panoramic view of the Le Conte's Sparrow. Here it is, surveying it's domain of lupine.

When winter storms come through and strong winds blow off the ocean, it is not unreasonable to expect to find Red Phalaropes in northern California's coastal wetlands. On this cold, rarity-infused morning, Red Phalaropes had come off the sea to take a mellow respite at Abbott's Lagoon.

Look at this face. How can one know this face? How can one truly come to grips with a pelagic sandpiper? I get the strong impression that this is the most didactic of all shorebirds. It is telling us something, of this there is no question....and I think that something is this: Reverse your gender roles. Wear hella red, have sex and get in fights for one month a year, then dress simply and live at the whim of the ocean for the other eleven months. And whatever you do, don't raise your own offspring.

If you ever thought Seagull Steve was some kind of pipit would be right. Here is an American Pipit, balancing on a pole. This is the sort of bird that makes casual bird enthusiasts not want to dive into actual birding...fuck that noise. I love pipits.

After Abbott's Lagoon, we headed back to Bear Valley Road, where both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers had been reported from the same tree. We saw this bird, which definitely had a red nape.

But wait...something is off. The red cap seems almost contiguous with the nape, which no California birder ever wants to see. But there's something else...something is missing...

What is wrong with its face????

That's right...the bird has no white eye line on either side of the face. Not even a hint. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It's not like the bird is a super obvious hybrid, it doesn't have red all over it's head, but where there should be white there is only a resolute and very definite blackness. I've never seen a bird like this, have you? In any case, due to the nape patterning and facial weirdness, I suspect this is a hybrid Red-naped X Red-breasted, possibly backcrossed with a Red-naped.


  1. We do have a specimen of a Red-naped Sapsucker from Arizona that lacks any white in the supercilium, for whatever it's worth. I can photograph it tomorrow if you're interested.

  2. What would Felonious say if he found out you were ALSO NB?

  3. This blog post inspired me to write a haiku.
    “The birding police will not take kindly to birders out in the field who don't have notebooks…” Kimball Garrett. Dec 31, 1969. “Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks? They won't help me survive.” Talking Heads. December 31, 1979. . “Red with purple flashes.” Todd Ingest. December 31, 2013. “I'm not part of the "birding police", and in fact I bristle at any suggestion that such a thing as "birding police" even exists.” Nelson Briefer. (Je Ne Suis Pas Nelson!) December 31, 2014

  4. Show me the goshawk.