Monday, November 20, 2017

California Birds: The Newest, The Next, and The Blocked

While the occurrence of many rarities can be predicted, some just seem to fly in from left field. Earlier this fall, one Adam Searcy found himself entombed in a deep and birdless fog on top of Southeast Farallon Island. The last thing he expected was a first state record to Kermadec Petrel to uncloak itself and make a couple passes before heading back out to sea. What will be the next bird to join the ranks of California's long and lovely state list? Photo by Adam Searcy.

California. With 665 species on the official state list tenderly and affectionately curated by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC), California has the largest state list in the country. This has been made by possible not only from California's size, but because of its habitat diversity and unique location; species from the Old World, the far north, central and eastern North America, Mexico, and all over the Pacific make their way here on a regular basis. To give you a sample of the sometimes bizarre diversity of birds California gets, my last five state birds were Red-footed Booby, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Scarlet Tanager, Parakeet Auklet and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay. Sometimes (like when I wrote the previous sentence) I feel extraordinarily lucky to be a birder here. But just like birders everywhere, I am sometimes left wondering what will be next? What mega will leave me in utter shock and disbelief?What is the next bird that will set off statewide episodes of catatonic grip-off?

Maybe if we take a look at the newest species the CBRC has accepted to the state list, that will give us an inkling of rarities to come. Beginning with the most recent additions, they are:

1. Buff-breasted Flycatcher
2. Purple Sandpiper
3. Kelp Gull
4. Common Scoter
5. Tundra Bean-Goose
6. Salvin's Albatross
7. Nazca Booby
8. Marsh Sandpiper
9. Common Swift
10. Great Black-backed Gull

Recent, well-documented sightings of Kermadec and Jouanin's Petrels, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Eurasian Wryneck are likely to be accepted by the CBRC as well.

I think \these additions are a good representative sample of our vagrant composition - on the continent, California is the best state/province for seabird diversity, hands down, so it makes sense that so many of our recent state additions are ocean wanderers. We also get more Old World species than any state outside of Alaska (usually "Sibes" found in eastern Russia), so the goose and Marsh Sandpiper fit in with that pattern; the scoter and swift were shocking though. Great Black-backed Gull is a bird that seemed inevitable, but Kelp Gull was comparatively surprising - this Southern Hemisphere resident is rare north of Ecuador, so it is fitting that the bird that visited California (and seen in multiple counties!) was found by a gull expert who also spends lots of time south of the equator. With past records of Belcher's and Swallow-tailed Gulls, the Kelp Gull record does fit into a pattern of sorts.

A spring overshoot Buff-breasted Flycatcher really caught us with our collective pants down, but California does bring in a modest number of migrants/vagrants from Mexico or even further south - for example, Greater Pewees, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Painted Redstarts, Grace's and Red-faced Warblers all occur with some regularity. Purple Sandpiper was a longshot to get here and a longshot to identify correctly due to the presence of Rock Sandpipers, but since it first appeared at a very unusual location (the Salton Sea), suspicious birders were able to eventually able to identify it correctly.

So with those birds in mind, what are the next state firsts? In no particular order, here are my Top 10:

1. Taiga Bean-Goose - Many birders believe that there has already been a well-documented bird in the state, but it was ultimately accepted (not without controversy) by the CBRC as Taiga/Tundra Bean-Goose. Luckily I did not see this bird (after trying and dipping for days on end) so I don't have to attempt to come to terms with that label. Anyways, a Taiga Bean-Goose will eventually be sucked in to the California vagrant vortex and provide redemption for us all. Or the record will be recirculated.

2. Arctic Warbler or Kamchatka Leaf Warbler - Ok, this is two species, so I might be cheating, but hear me out...before these species were split, California had a number of Arctic Warbler records. Of course, once they were split, the CBRC realized that they could not prove with complete confidence which species were involved with any particular record, which at present even includes this bird (left) that was in hand on Southeast Farallon Island. Vocalizations are the key. Only a couple months ago, an Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf Warbler was seen in San Luis Obispo County, but frustratingly never called. Photo by Dan Maxwell.

3. Juan Fernandez Petrel - Honestly, this entire list could be comprised of tubenoses and it would be pretty reasonable still, but that is boring so I'm just going to pick one. It is bizarre that Arizona would get a species of seabird before California, but birds do bizarre things, particularly when hurricanes are involved.

4.Olive warbler - As with tubenoses and Sibes, there are many vagrant candidates from Mexico. It was tough to settle on one, but for my Mexico pick I'm going to draft Olive Warbler, which are actually found with regularity in the mountains of western Arizona, intriguingly close to the state line. Olive Warblers are not long-distance migrants prone to overshoots, but they are close by, migratory, and easy to identify. There also should not be any provenance issues with this species.

5. Siberian Accentor - There are a number of scattered records north of California, and this species will come to feeders.  It's also one of the most distinctive Sibes we can possibly get; most birders will know that an accentor is, at the very least, something special when it pops up in front of them; the same can't be said about many of the other Sibe passerines. I'm waiting for one to put in an appearance in the northern half of the state (hopefully not on Southeast Farallon Island).

6. Gray-streaked Flycatcher - Not as obvious as a Siberian Accentor, but again, certainly a species that would stand out more than some other Sibes that could potentially occur. Common Sandpiper looks like Spotted Sandpiper, Temnick's Stint looks like Least Sandpiper, snipes look like grass, Phylloscopus warblers look like each other and stay hidden, Pechora Pipit looks like Red-throated get my drift. Most California birders would not be able to identify a Gray-streaked Flycatcher reflexively, but a lot of us would at least be able to call it an Old World flycatcher and go from there.

7. Black-tailed Godwit - Gotta have a shorebird in here. Despite being a fairly regular migrant in Alaska, this is not a bird showing up anywhere on the west coast south of there. Yet. California happens to be a lovely place to migrate through, if you can get past all the Peregrines.

8. Acadian Flycatcher - Like a certain warbler that dwells in the east, I don't think there is any reason one of these will not be found in California - we have records of pretty much every other eastern neotropical migrant. They are a common and broadly-distributed bird through much of the eastern U.S., and one is destined for the California state list. Maybe a vocalizing bird at Butterbredt in a future spring? Caught in a mist net on Southeast Farallon Island? The Acadian above was photographed on South Padre Island, TX.

9. Swainson's Warbler - I think we are going to get one. I feel strongly about's just a matter of time. Their powers of skulk are not to be underestimated, but California is due for this bird. If we can get a Golden-cheeked Warbler, we can get a Swainson's. This is BB&B's official position on the matter.

10. Red-bellied Woodpecker - Probably not on a lot of people's radar, but even Oregon has a recent record. A bird particularly stricken with wanderlust could make its way to one of the northernmost counties. 

How about some wildcard honorable mentions that are really against the odds? Pure speculative fiction? It doesn't hurt to prepare for Waved Albatross, Gray Heron, Eurasian Hobby, Brown Noddy, or Rose-throated Becard.

What do you think? Am I crazy? What's on your Top 10? I'm sure I'm missing an obvious bird or two. But we're not done yet...almost as drool-worthy as the new state additions are the blockers - birds that have occurred in the past, often repeatedly, but have been absent for so long that newer birders never got to see them. There are a great many species that belong on this list, but to make it more interesting I omitted the birds with only a single record (i.e. White-tailed Tropicbird, Greater Sand-Plover) or were not chaseable (e.g. Ringed Storm-Petrel, Least Auklet, Buff-collared Nightjar). Oh, and I have not seen any of these species in the state.

1. Whooper Swan - There are a modest 11 accepted state records, but just one in the last 10 years. What gives? My Sibe intuition tells me that one will show up again sooner than later.

2. Baikal Teal - Few waterfowl can wonderfully assault the eyes with the force of a male Baikal Teal. There are 7 records, one in the last 10 years...I believe that bird (in Humboldt) was shot, if I recall correctly. Seeing one of these would only feed the Sibe Fever I've been suffering from for years now, but that is a risk I am willing to take.

3. Streaked Shearwater - With 18 accepted records, it's safe to say that Streaked Shearwater was considered a regular bird in California for some time. However, there have been none since 2008, even though there are now more pelagic trips than ever. What happened? Hopefully population declines won't keep them away for good.

4. Anhinga - Five accepted records...but again, no records in the last 10 years. Unlike Streaked Shearwaters, there are a lot of Anhingas to go around, and their return to California is overdue. I'm looking at you, Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties, to make this dream a reality.

5. Eurasian Dotterel - Want to know something odd? When I was a young birder, I always thought I would see a dotterel in California one day. That said, no one has ever said adolescents have a very well developed ability to see into the future. Not only has this not happened, there has only been one in California seen this century, which was never reported to the public. I'm still waiting patiently for this bird, my favorite plover that I have never seen and a bird that just generally makes me froth at the mouth.

6. Bristle-thighed Curlew - There are two accepted records from 1998, an invasion year, when this species appeared all over the Pacific Northwest. Two other reports from that time period were considered "credible" but were unaccepted. This species could easily slip by undetected - most birders would not know if they were looking at one. My understanding is that these birds arrived on our shores as a result of unusual Pacific weather patterns...the perfect storm for Bristle-thighed Curlews. With enough sacrifices to the bird gods (in the form of cats?), maybe one will blow our way in May, 2018. The birds above were photographed on Midway Atoll.

7. Steller's Eider - Three records from the state, including two wintering birds that were seen by many. The most recent accepted record in California is from 1992. I long to meet this exotic northerner. Past records were in Del Norte, Humboldt and Sonoma counties, and those are all perfectly good places to look for another. Del Norte County actually has records of three eider species!

8. Red-headed Woodpecker - Though declining in some areas, this bird is still fairly common in much of the country, but the last accepted record for the state is from 2000. If one of these popped up in the state right now (which could seemingly happen anywhere), there is no doubt in my mind that birders would go absolutely apeshit.

9. Violet-crowned Hummingbird - It's time for California to get another earth-shaking hummingbird species, and I think this bird is ready for a triumphant return. There are 6 records, none in the last 10 years. Xantus's Hummingbird may be a more classic blocker (I was too young to see the one in Ventura, though at the time I lived only a few minutes away!), but I would be pleasantly stunned if a Violet-crowned did not reappear here first. The bird above was photographed in Florida Canyon in southeast Arizona.

10. Black Rosy-Finch - It hasn't been that long since the state has had one of these cripplers, but how many California birders are looking at rosy-finches in winter? Hardly any. Out of all the species mentioned in this post, this one seems most likely to be found far away from population centers. Predictably, the last records are from Aspendell, and the next record may come from there as well.

11. Eastern Yellow Wagtail - I was going to stop at ten, but I 'm really feeling this one. Migrants of this species are very much expected on a number of Alaskan islands, and they breed on mainland Alaska. No wagtail this fall...yet...but sticking with our theme, it's been ten years, and I don't think it will be much longer.

If you've made it this far, thanks for nerding out with me. I know this read was intense, prolonged, and most of all, genuine. I'll end it all on this note...if I could have gotten this post out a couple weeks ago, Sedge Wren would have been #1 on the blocker list, but freaking Adam "Kermadec Petrel" Searcy just found and photographed this one on Santa Barbara Island. Ugh.


  1. You forgot Eurasian Wryneck...

  2. How about Eastern Bluebird and/or Eastern Meadowlark? Both way overdue!

    1. Eastern Bluebird is an interesting one - I never considered it overdue, and I would be pretty surprised if we got one. Eastern Meadowlark, on the other hand, seems like it probably has occurred here repeatedly but gone unobserved or unidentified. Good pick.

    2. On point w/ EAME! And w/ the EABLs in Portland last winter, your whole prediction seems even more likely.

  3. There is a single observer sight record of Eastern Bluebird from near Crowley Lake that I think was probably good but not accepted by CBRC. Another controversial report of Eastern Bluebird (photographed) turned out to be a Mountain Bluebird.

  4. So far in 2018
    666: Eurasian Wryneck
    667: Jouanin's Petrel
    668: Kermadec Petrel,

    and almost certainly the next ones are
    669: Citrine Wagtail
    670: Tropical Parula

    Amazingly hard to predict. I think the first state record that I would most like to find would be Great Knot.

    1. Not amazingly hard. Impossible! At least Oregon got a STEI this winter, that gives me a shred of vindication.

  5. Also White-winged Crossbill. Now that there are pictures that one is as good as accepted.

    1. That was actually on the state list already, but some people did correctly predict they would be returning this winter.

  6. Good call on the VCHU. I went after that one but alas I dipped. It was fun anyway. As for BTCU, it would be spectacular to see one of those here in California. But after looking at both of my shorebird field guides, I'm still not sure I'd pick on out if it was right in front of me. Hard to say though how the field guide experience correlates to real life. The orange-buff rump/tail is the mark to look for I think.