Photo Essay – Swainson’s Hawks in Bakersfield

12 09 2017

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I drove up from Los Angeles to Sonoma for the Sonoma Birding Optics Festival to go talk about optics for ZEISS Birding (blog here). Though I love the incredible diversity of habitat and species in Los Angeles County the one thing it doesn’t have much of is raptor migration.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

The lack of raptors in migration is almost made up for by the incredible winter raptor spectacle that can be found out in the Antelope Valley in winter (see post here), but for an ex-professional hawkwatcher there is nothing that quite competes with watching raptors on migration.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Last Friday I was winging my way north along the somewhat desolate I5 when I spotted some hawks kettling in some Ag fields by the side of the road. I of course got off at the next exit and was excited to find a few Swainson’s Hawks loafing in a field just next to the off ramp.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Though it was almost exactly hot high noon and the heat haze and bright sunlight wasn’t exactly optimal for photography I couldn’t pass up grabbing my camera and getting a few record shots of the moment.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

It’s amazing the individual variation in these beautiful birds and it was nice to be able to study them fairly close up rather than watching them way up in the sky as often happens at a hawkwatch. A few birds even drifted close enough to the roadside for me to capture at least a few different individuals somewhat well with the camera.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

In October I’ll be in Panama for the peak of this species migration through the country. I wonder if I’ll unwittingly connect with any of these birds again. Other highlights of the weekend trip to Sonoma included Black Swifts, Black Rail, Tule Elk and best of all getting to see some old friends at Hawk Hill Hawkwatch.

Los Angeles: Summer in the City?

12 07 2017

San Gabriel Mountains at dusk – Luke Tiller

Though breeding season everywhere tends to be somewhat slower for birding than most other times of year, there is still plenty to like when it comes to birding in Los Angeles. When it comes to summer birding here it’s hard to beat the San Gabriel Mountains, and not just because the elevation tends to provide a little relief from the warmer temperatures to be found down in the basin.


White-headed Woodpecker – Luke Tiller

Though most people know Los Angeles is in a basin, not many people realize quite how amazing the mountains that surround that basin can be. Less than twenty miles from Downtown, and just about thirty from LAX, one can find oneself seemingly well away from the hubbub of the city. Quickly climbing up in elevation, one can start to find an array of exciting mountain specialties including Bell’s Sparrow, White-headed Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee, “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and more.


Northern Pygmy Owl – Luke Tiller

At night the mountains and foothills can come alive with owls and goatsuckers, which when you include rarities, can include up to seven species of owl. As well as the more common species these might include such sought after goodies as Spotted Owl and Flammulated Owl. One owl often more easily found during the day is the tiny, but fierce, Northern Pygmy-Owl. I love pygmy-owls anyway, but the potential for this bird to be split from those Northern Pygmy-Owls found in the Rocky Mountains adds to the interest.


Black Swift – Luke Tiller

One of North Americas most enigmatic and sought after species can also be found in the Los Angeles area: Black Swift. This highly specialized aerial acrobat breeds in just a handful of spots in Southern California, due to a reliance on waterfall nesting sites in what is a relatively dry region, but at least one pair is relatively accessible from Los Angeles. Every July I take a group out from the local Audubon group to enjoy seeing this neat species.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Perhaps even more elusive and desirable, summer is not the worst time to be looking for Mountain Quail. Though they are a little easier to find earlier in the year when the birds are still vocal, they can be found in the warmer months too. In fact the best photographs I ever captured of these sneaky little quail were in July. This may just be a coincidence, but I suspect it was because the birds were at least somewhat focused on maintaining contact with chicks at the time rather than what I was up to.


Lawrence’s Goldfinch – Luke Tiller

Though I love migration more than any other time (who doesn’t?), I have to say I’m thankful for all that summer birding in Los Angeles has to offer. It’s always amazing to me that you can escape a population of 19 million people and find yourself alone and surrounded by birds just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Los Angeles.

Southern Texas in Spring

24 04 2017

I spent a fun time in Southern Texas last week with Alex Lamoureax and Wildside Nature Tours. It was a new time of year for me as far as the Rio Grande Valley is concerned and highlighted how great this corner of Texas can be at almost any time of the year. I still have the urge to get here in September to see what it is like when the Broad-winged Hawks are returning south, perhaps next year.

There were many highlights over the week, but if I were to pick just a handful they would be as follows:


Common Pauraque and chick – Luke Tiller

Finding Common Pauraques with chicks One of my coolest sightings of my last tour to Texas was finding a Pauraque that wasn’t the most photographed Pauraque in the whole of the world. There’s at least one that everyone and their dog knows about, so it’s always good to find your own one. The coolest sighting this year was following up on that bird and discovering that this time it had two chicks snuggled up underneath it. We also saw the well known bird with chicks too. If there was just one good reason to go to Texas in April it would have to be baby Pauraques!


Botteri’s Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Exploring Palo Alto Battlefield Whenever I find myself in Texas I like to try and find somewhere new to visit. It feels like a lot of visitors just hit the same old spots over and over again. Thanks to a tip off from a couple of ex locals I decided to check out Palo Alto Battlefield. Not only did it provide some interesting and different habitat to most of the other stops, it also provided some interesting history and a beautifully appointed visitors center. Highlight there was getting to see numerous Botteri’s Sparrows. They aren’t around during winter (at least according to most sources) so they were a new Texas bird for me. Their range is at best spotty between southern Texas and Costa Rica (up to nine subspecies) and so they were a real joy to see. What made the sighting even better was that, unprovoked, one of these usually skulky birds popped up and started singing vociferously, giving the group killer views.


Broad-winged Hawk – Luke Tiller

Morning raptor liftoff Southern Texas is excellent for a bunch of species that are uncommon or even essentially absent from the rest of the country. Included in this are a couple of raptors. While looking for one of them, Hook-billed Kite, we were able to witness a bunch of raptor migration as hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites and some Swainson’s Hawks lifted off from forests on both sides of the border in order to continue their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. As a hawkwatching fan it was nice to get to see some raptor migration, something one gets a little starved of in Southern California!


Least Bittern – Luke Tiller

South Padre Island migration It’s amazing what a little coastal habitat can produce in terms of migrant traps on South Padre Island. Even the most rudimentary drip and a couple of trees can produce wonderful migrant species like Painted Buntings, Summer Tanagers, Kentucky Warblers and more. Though we didn’t quite hit the fallout conditions that are possible there, we did get a wonderful mix of mainly southern US migrants. Throw in perhaps the most accommodating Least Bitterns on the planet and some great shorebirds at Boca Chica and you have yourself a pretty great day.


Red-bordered Metalmark – Luke Tiller

National Butterfly Center The National Butterfly Center is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a little more expensive than most of the sites but the incredible butterflies, great feeders and numbers of great birds always make it worth a stop in my opinion. Last time it was a male Varied Bunting, this time it was killer views of a group of Groove-billed Anis (website here).

You can see some more photos from the trip on my flickr page (here). You can see a collection of Texas photos in another album (here).

Anna’s Hummingbird – Photo Essay

13 04 2017

Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

While birding at Santa Fe Dam the other day I stumbled upon this fairly co-operative Anna’s Hummingbird. I approached it a couple of times for shots. I basically figured that it was somewhat guarding a patch of flowers and that it might be a little more tolerant of approach than usual.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I have what I feel is a pretty decent setup for bird photography: a Canon 7D and the 300mm f4. Rightly or wrongly, I generally still take shots like I used to when I had my old 35mm Praktica as a teenager but will take bursts of shots when it seems appropriate (like when this bird stretched and preened).


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think the main thing about getting good bird photos is getting close to them, whatever lens you have. I think among birders (or maybe even beginner bird photographers) the thought is that a long lens allows you to get great shots from miles away, which in my experience is certainly not the case .


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I think being a birder first, you can parlay your bird knowledge into good photography. This means using the field skills you would use to approach a bird to get close for shots, but also understanding how birds are likely to react and how sensitive different species might be, even tailoring that experience to dealing with birds in different circumstances.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

In the end through slow and indirect approach I managed to work my way within about ten feet of this hummingbird. The overcast skies helped to produce a nice picture, as hummingbird gorgets tend to blow out in any direct sunlight. I tried to follow the few little bits of advice I have picked up along the way: shoot with the sun behind you and get to the birds level.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I was also thinking about the background, but didn’t have much to work with. After taking a couple of shots against a pure sky background (not my preference) I moved a little to try get the hazy gray mountains behind the bird. I’m not sure it made a huge difference? The main thing was to try line up with the bird so that I was catching the flare of the gorget as he faced me. Anyway I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out.

Birding the Kill Bill Superbloom

3 04 2017

Superbloom at dawn – Luke Tiller

This Sunday David Bell and I ventured out into the wilds of Northeast LA County to check out what was happening with this years superbloom. This year has been an incredible one for wildflowers across the Southwest.  As well as the flowers, I was intrigued as to what might turn up there bird wise. Adding to the potential interest was the fact that Jonathan Feenstra had found what appears to be Los Angeles County’s first record of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher in over eighty years just a stones throw away on Edward’s Airforce Base, on a section that isn’t open to the public.

The thing I like about birding with David is that he’s always up for trying somewhere different rather than chasing birds or hitting the same old birding sites. It was for this reason that we found ourselves stopping at dawn amid a sea of yellow desert wildflowers at the Kill Bill Church (more here) in Hi Vista to see what might have stopped off in this one horse town during migration. It actually turned out to be a fairly productive stop with highlights including specialist local breeders like Black-throated Sparrow as well as a couple of out of place migrants including a beautiful Yellow-headed Blackbird.


Kill Bill Church – JG Klein

We then worked our way north on East 200th Street past the Phacelia Wildlife Sanctuary to explore the very northern edge of the county, stopping only when the road would take us no further. Here at the end of the line, a gate blocked our entrance to Edward’s Airforce Base. It was a surprisingly productive end of the line however with singing Le Conte’s Thrasher (or LeConte’s Thrasher depending on what the AOS decide) and five species of sparrows that included three real beauties: Bell’s, Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrow.

We were soon stumbling on more birds as we worked our way through the Creosote Bush and Joshua Tree covered landscape. In my experience this habitat often seems to be pretty birdless, but today we kept stumbling upon little flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and in among them other birds would appear. Some expected, like the Rock Wrens and Verdins, some much less so like the migrants that seemed to have joined in these little roving flocks: Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and House Wren. It seemed like almost every bird freaked out the local eBird filters however, highlighting how little this area gets birded.


Black-throated Sparrow – Luke Tiller

Of course usually this area is pretty barren desert, but this year there are plenty of flowers for these birds to enjoy, and looking carefully at my photos from the day, plenty of accompanying bugs. With the superbloom it makes me wonder how the usual desert migrant traps will fair this Spring. With the desert somewhat greener than usual I wonder if those places will be less of a draw for wandering birds or whether the abundance of growth in the desert may somehow end up helping waifs and strays survive and similar or greater numbers will find their way to those weird little desert oases? It will be interesting to find out.

As well as a fairly constant turnover of birds there was much else to enjoy including lots of neat flowers. Almost everywhere you looked was a carpet of yellow flowers mainly formed by millions upon millions of little California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) but there were other pretty ones in among them including the purple Phacelia that the nearby wildlife sanctuary is named for. You can find LA County Parks and Wildlife Refuges using their parks locator tool (here).


Phacelia sp – Luke Tiller

The flowers were of course attracting insects and one of my main highlights of the day was not only seeing, but also photographing quite well a White-lined Sphinx moth. As well as poking around Hi Vista we also stopped at a couple of other spots that looked like they might hold potential for future exploration, but didn’t come up with anything particularly out of this world species wise.

It was a fun morning of birding and I’m hoping I can sneak out here for a little more before the bloom fades or I have to leave for a mid-April Texas Tour that I will be co-leading for Wildside Nature Tours. There’s still one open space if you are looking for a short but sweet adventure in that incredible part of the world (details here). There are some more photos from the day on my flickr page (here). Thanks to Naresh Satyan and Mickey Long for flower identification.


California Goldenfields – Luke Tiller

Trip Species Checklist:

American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawk, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, American Kestrel, Black Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, House Wren, Cactus Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Le Conte’s Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Bell’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow

Anza Borrego – Superbloom Hawkwatching.

27 03 2017

Desert Sunflowers – Anza Borrego

This Saturday I headed for Anza Borrego for Pasadena Audubon’s annual trip to the hawkwatch there. After a very early morning start I arrived in Borrego Springs for our dawn rendezvous. Our first port of call was the Mesquite woods in town which are usually home to Crissal Thrasher and historically it seems now to Lucy’s Warbler. Though we did find some nice desert denizens including Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Gnatcatcher we struggled to turn up any of the rarer species hoped for here. Still none of the above are very common in LA County so it’s always a treat to see them. The other highlights here were numbers of Western Kingbirds, including groups of migrants passing overhead and a couple of rare Lawrence’s Goldfinch that dropped in next to the group!.

Next stop turned from opportune bathroom break into an intensive birding stop. A stop in town lead us to both a nesting Great Horned Owl and from there we started to find a few interesting species dotted around town including a nesting Costa’s Hummingbird, White-winged and Common Ground Dove. The thing I’ve always loved most about birding is migration because you just never know what you are going to find next and as we walked around the block back to our cars from the owl nest we found ourselves a little flock of migrating passerines. In the mix were a decent number of birds and a mix of species including warblers, vireos and orioles. Highlights were almost certainly the stunning male Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles with runner up prizes going to Wilson’s and Nashville Warblers.


Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

Unfortunately the predicted winds that were forecast for the afternoon kicked up a little earlier than predicted which made both bird and bloom watching a little harder than anticipated. Still, we managed to find a nice couple of fields of flowers out on Di Giorgio Rd and Henderson Canyon Rd and a nice mix of different species out at Old Spring Rd. Though the winds were roaring luck was on our side and I randomly spotted some Swainson’s Hawks coursing out over a field and the group managed to walk out towards them for better looks. It was nice to be able to show people the differences in plumage between adults and juveniles and compare the different morphs too. We also pulled out a Red-tailed Hawk from the group as well.

Next stop was a quick lunch break over at the Tamarisk Grove campground. Here among the throngs of campers and visitors enjoying the wildflower and cactus show we managed to stumble upon a beautiful Long-eared Owl. The bird, though not more than a few feet from a busy parking lot, seemed very relaxed apart from when an Anna’s Hummingbird came buzzing around his head at which point he immediately opened his bright yellow eyes and stared angrily at this buzzing interloper.


Long-eared Owl – Luke Tiller

The last portion of our day we hiked out to Yaqui Wells. A mile and a half round trip from Tamarisk Grove campground that takes you through a mix of beautiful cactus dotted habitat before it eventually opens up on this natural seep. This year round water resource attracts all kinds of animals including a mix of birds. The further we got from the campground so it also allowed us to escape a little from the hordes of campers and even better we were also pretty shaded from the howling winds.

It was beautiful and quiet here and we eventually started to run into some birds here including locally breeding specialties: Phainopepla, Rock Wren and the incredibly stunning Scott’s Orioles, as well as small mixed flocks that included a nice variety of migrants. As we slowly worked our way along the trail we found groups of early arriving species that included Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers.


Tiny Checkerspot – Luke Tiller

As well as the birds, Yaqui Wells also provided us with a bunch of pretty butterflies among the blooming flowers including Desert Orange Tip, Arizona Powdered-Skipper, Becker’s White, Tiny Checkerspot and sadly, a recently deceased Sleepy Orange. The finale of our trip was highlighted by two beautiful orioles, Hooded and Bullock’s, that we found feeding on a stunning Ocotillo – a real cacophony of color!

We ended our day with a respectable 53 species of birds including two species of owl, three species of oriole with Lawrence’s Goldfinch and the Scott’s Orioles probably among the highlights. We also enjoyed the beautiful scenery, this years much lauded superbloom (even if things were a little past peak) and some attractive butterflies. It was sad to have to head home and I can’t wait to do it again next year. Next time I definitely need to make sure I schedule more time in town!


Ocotillo – Luke Tiller

Thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a fun day, especially Naresh for his wildflower knowledge and Hilary and Steve for providing our own private bathroom facilities on the day. I have posted a handful of shots from the day on my flickr page (here) and Naresh has kindly shared his photos from the day (here).

Bird Species List:

American Wigeon, Mallard, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Ground-Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher,Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Common Raven, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Phainopepla, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Scott’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, Lawrence’s Goldfinch

Winter Rio Grande Valley Tour 2017

19 03 2017

Great Kiskadee – Luke Tiller

Late this winter (2017) I was lucky enough to take a couple of friends on a private tour of Southern Texas. February is peak time for vagrant Mexican birds in the valley and so there were a number of nice birds out there to look for. My friends had a great relaxed approach to the tour in that they just wanted to see the birding sites of the Rio Grande Valley and pick up what birds we could along the way. Having a small group kept us flexible allowing us to adjust plans on the fly.

Day 1:

Upon arrival at the first night’s hotel in San Antonio I ticked off a couple of year birds including my first Blue Jays of the year – a real treat for this westerner. After a night in San Antonio we got on the road towards Refugio hoping to run into a couple of rare warblers that had showed up in a little park there. On the drive down we picked up a few birds for our Bee County list including Vermilion Flycatcher and a number of Crested Caracaras. Also on our list was American Kestrel, which thanks to its abundance in Texas and proclivity for roadside telephone wires became a regular feature of our driveby county lists.

Our first stop was Lions/Shelly Park in Refugio where we were hoping for a couple of special warblers. Our first hour or so of birding turned up a Barred Owl, but the only rare (by date) bird we had stumbled upon among the mixed flocks was a wintering Louisiana Waterthrush. For a couple of first time Texas visitors, however, there were plenty of local specialties to enjoy including Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Black-crested Titmouse and Great Kiskadee.


Tropical Parula – Luke Tiller

Just as I was starting to think about what time we needed to start getting on with the rest of our day, we ran into another mixed flock and there among the Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcathers and Yellow-rumped Warblers was a stunning male Tropical Parula! We enjoyed great views and captured a couple of nice shots of the bird as it flitted across the stream to alight in a tree just above us. With spirts lifted we started to hunt anew for our other target Golden-crowned Warbler. After a couple of brief sightings or hearings we eventually tracked the bird down with the help of some other birders – watching as it moved surreptitiously though the shadows of some streamside brush. First stop completed with two great ABA birds and a couple of Texas specialties under our belts too.

Swinging our way west now from Refugio we birded mainly from the car, picking off a bunch of roadside species for our Duval, Webb and Live Oak County lists and made a few opportune stops to pick off Carolina Chickadee, Redhead and White-tailed Hawk among others.  Highlight had however to be getting our first Green Jay of the trip – incredibly beautiful birds that it is simply impossible to tire of!

We ended our day all the way west in Laredo Texas. Arriving just in time to end our day along the Rio Grande at the Max Mandel Golf course. We started by taking a drive around the course in a golf cart (which as always was great fun) to pick up White-collared Seedeater (an obliging breeding plumaged male putting on a bit of a show) and enjoyed a few other species along the way. We then headed over to the club house to sit on the veranda and look for Red-billed Pigeon. As we were about to second guess that approach and head out onto the links to look for them two flew right past us on the US side of the river before heading across to the Mexican side. Here we sat watching them at our leisure as they perched up in some riverside trees allowing us prolonged scoped views. A simply fantastic end to a great first day.


White-collared Seedeater – Luke Tiller

We rounded off our day with incredible Korean BBQ and a couple of cold beers at BBQ Park in Laredo. If you find yourself in town go check them out (link here). Over great Bulgogi I joked that maybe we should just quit while we were ahead and go home the next day!

Day 2:

Our next day we headed southeast to Falcon Dam State Park. With the drought that had hit this part of Texas the birding was noticeably harder than previous years, with sparrows and other regular winterers much harder to find. Still we enjoyed our time, especially enjoying the hospitality of a couple of RVers who were kind enough to let us enjoy their bountiful (and marshmallow festooned feeders). As well as the regular feeder birds, we also picked up a few nice species including a couple of accommodating Olive Sparrows and our only Gray Catbird of the trip. There were lots of nice “desert” passerines around to enjoy like Black-throated Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia too.

We birded our way west back towards Laredo over the day eking out species as we went. Highlights included great looks and listens too Cactus Wren at a park that’s a little off that beaten track where we also ran into RGV birder extraordinaire Mary Gustafson, Purple Martins and Neotropic Cormorants.

We ended our day poking around a couple of off-the-beaten-track parks in Laredo, adding to their eBird species lists, before hitting up a small roost of Green Parakeets and Monk Parakeets. Not quite as action packed as the previous day, but with plenty of nice birds enjoyed through the day


Red-billed Pigeon – Luke Tiller

Day 3:

We started our day heading south and east. First stop was Salineno where we picked up our first Plain Chachalacas and had another encounter with Red-billed Pigeon.  The (eight!) Red-billeds were perched upstream from us on an island a good mile away I would guess. They however did something I’ve never seen them do before when they took off heading right past us cutting across the boat launch directly behind us on the US side. Allowing me to fire off a handful of shots to document the moment, magical!

After spending a while along the river we decided to head over and check out the feeders. Between the near incessant forays of a couple of Cooper’s Hawks and the near constant din of many Red-winged Blackbirds we eventually picked off our target here: Audubon’s Oriole. While awaiting our quarry, we enjoyed other species and relished the wonderful photo ops the new setup here produced, including Altamira Orioles, Great Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and more.

After a quick stop in Roma we made our way over to Estero Llano State Park. Though ostensibly here to look for a reported becard, with the strong winds hampering land birding we eventually focused on picking up a few of the more regularly occurring species including Anhingha, Common Pauraque, Least Grebe, Mottled Duck and an impressively huge American Alligator. Our time patiently seeking out the becard not completely wasted as we picked up a nice consolation Ovenbird attending a sheltered drip.


Common Pauraque – Luke Tiller

We ended our day heading to dinner just a stone’s throw from a huge blackbird roost. Here we ran into a group of young Canadian birders who helped us find a White-winged Parakeet among a good number of Green Parakeets and we returned the favor by finding them some Bronzed Cowbirds among the thousands of Great-tailed Grackles. The Grackle roosts are quite spectacular and to me an integral part of the birding experience here. A fun end to the day!

Day 4:

With limitations on access to the dikes as Anzalduas and Bentsen it feels like Hook-billed Kite has become a much tougher find in Southern Texas these last couple of years. With just the one random sounding report in 2017 prior to our visit it wasn’t high on my list of expected species for the trip. It was therefore thrilling to find ourselves watching one fly overhead during our early morning hike out to the Kingfisher Overlook at Bentsen. Unfortunately focusing on getting everyone on it meant I didn’t have time to unpack my camera for a shot – not that I’m complaining as this was a most welcome and unexpected addition!

Next stop was at Anzalduas Park. Though our main target here was Sprague’s Pipit we initially had our focus drawn by a nice mixed flock of passerines that when carefully scrutinized finally yielded both Myrtle and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. We really enjoyed our time working through the flocks just picking off species as we went.

Eventually we settled into a designated hunt for Sprague’s Pipit. Though we were a small group we spread out across the pipit field as best we could in an attempt to flush up our quarry. Eventually we managed to locate a few (steadfastly ignoring Savannah Sparrows as we went) and eventually worked decent flight views of the birds as well as a few glimpses as they landed. The grass length was long enough however that they quickly disappeared upon touching down. That said the distinct “step up”  flight style was interesting to watch and pleased with views we left them to their day.


Plain Chachalaca – Luke Tiller

Next stop on our day was the awesome National Butterfly Center. Here upon arrival we were informed that someone had just captured a photo of a male Varied Bunting near one of the feeding stations, so imagine my surprise when we pulled up, got out the car and it was literally the first bird I laid my eyes on. Though views were somewhat obscured we finally worked decent views of this incredibly beautiful bird. Crazily we were the last people to see it that day. Though it did appear later in the week it was unreliable at best making our sighting even more fortuitous. As well as the Varied Bunting we enjoyed some photography time at the NBC’s feeders (picking off Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee and accommodating White-tipped Doves) and also enjoyed chatting to the groups of arriving birders.

We ended our day at a parrot roost in McAllen where among a group of about 80 Red-crowned Parrots we also picked out a handful of Lilac-crowned Parrots and a couple of Red-lored Parrots. We were also hoping for roosting Turkey Vultures, and maybe a similar flying buteo, but only one large kettle of vultures materialized and seemed to rapidly disappear to roost somewhere else.

Day 5:

Our day started easily enough as we picked up a pair of Aplomado Falcons over at Old Port Isabel Rd, which was as dry as I have ever seen it. We drove out much further than I would have usually exploring a little but only came up with a handful of the regular species expected here and missed a few others. A flyby Peregrine was nice as was a Long-billed Curlew and a White-tailed Hawk hunkered down on a nest, a well spotted bonus.


White-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

Santa Ana was our next stop and it was as I often find it, somewhat birdless. Not that there weren’t nice birds to have here including nice views of a Sora sat in the open, but we had to work hard for our birds. It was quite an effort to finally track down a singing Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, but once found it at least had the graciousness to show nicely for us. Weirdly one of the birds still missing from our trip was Green Kingfisher and I was shocked to only find one species of kingfisher in the whole park: Belted Kingfisher!

On the way to Santa Ana we had witnessed a sugar cane burn in progress, and upon leaving we found another burn that had been harvested already. Here we found huge numbers of circling Turkey Vultures and White-tailed Hawks but the heat haze made picking out species in the fields tough.

Our next stop was a return to hunt for the Rose-throated Becard. It had been on our itinerary for the day already but a lunchtime report meant that we wolfed down our lunch at Nana’s with a little more gusto than usual! We arrived at the park and within a few minutes I had located the beautiful young male perched in one of his favored trees. Incredible the difference a couple of days and about 20mph of wind makes when looking for passerines. We even managed to share it with a few other birders there on site and got a few decent photos too. Another mission accomplished. Seeing as we were there we decided we might as well use the opportunity to explore Estero a little more and we were blessed with some more great birds here including: Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis and White-faced Ibis.


Clay-colored Thrush – Luke Tiller

We ended our day at Frontera looking for Turkey Vultures and Zone-tailed Hawks coming in to roost but had to suffice with our first Black-bellied Whistling Duck (multiple flybys heading to roost) and Clay-colored Thrush.

Day 6:

With Green Kingfisher still not under our belt, we started our morning at Edinburg Scenic Wetlands where we soon picked up their resident pair in a nearby canal. We also added to our trip list a few nice and less expected species including Common Ground-Dove and a “rare at this time” first winter Orchard Oriole (another one for the rare bird alert). We also enjoyed good views of both thrasher species and a spanking male Lesser Goldfinch of the Black-backed variety.

Next we headed back to the spot where we had seen the raptors at the sugar cane burn the previous day, however, though viewing conditions were better we still didn’t manage to add anything new to our trip list there. An exploratory drive through some potentially interesting habitat did though earn us our first White-tailed Kites of the tour of which at least one proved somewhat photogenic.


Inca Dove – Luke Tiller

Our next official stop was Frontera, where of course we ran into another Green Kingfisher. We also enjoyed good looks at a couple of previously encountered species like Clay-colored Thrush and Inca Dove and added at least one new one in the form of a big Amazilia hummingbird: Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

McAllen Nature Center finally afforded us the sight (but more importantly the sound) of Tropical Kingbird. Here we also picked up another White-tailed Kite and two pretty smart looking Red-tailed Hawks including a nice rufous morph bird and one very pale individual. Our next brief stop was spent looking for kingfishers on a nearby canal but we were only rewarded with the odd sight of a young Cooper’s Hawk trying to attack ducks on the water – a seemingly fruitless task.

We ended our day back at the same parrot roost as the other night. Here we picked up a few nice species while we waited including a large group of kettling Anhingas, a couple of Lesser Goldfinch and another Yellow-throated Warbler. As the first parrots started coming in towards the roost (including at least one Yellow-headed Parrot) they were spooked by the attack run of a Peregrine Falcon that was roosting on a nearby radio tower. It took the parrots a while to recover from that shock and so it wasn’t until just after 6:00pm that they returned. We had already pretty much given up on the chance of seeing a Zone-tailed Hawk by that time, as it was almost dusk, when dramatically one suddenly appeared as the sun just began to set – amazing! We then enjoyed sharing the parrots with a group of Elderhostel birders that had appeared for the parrot show just in time to get all four species. A great end to our last full day.


Green Jay – Luke Tiller

Day 7:

Our last day of birding together started on our way north through Edinburg when a group of Northern Bobwhite hustled across the road in front of the car. We were ostensibly exploring an area which has held Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the past though our chances of finding one were slim. Still nothing ventured… Our next roadside stop produced a bunch of amorous Wild Turkeys, which was a treat and further poking around produced an uncommon Ash-throated Flycatcher and a couple of Lark Sparrows. It seemed however that the drought was having a similar effect here as it was in Zapata with mixed flocks hard to come by.

Winging our way north we stopped in Falfurrias as you do but turned up just a handful of the regular species. Continuing on our route we had a field with about 75 Sandhill Cranes feeding in it as well as the regular raptor show.

From there we made a handful of stops adding to our Jim Wells, Atascosa and Brexar County lists as we went. Lake Findley added a Cattle Egret or ten to our trip list but that was about it. Choke Canyon was however a little more profitable adding Common Gallinule and Forster’s Tern to our growing trip list> Highlight here was certainly a Great Horned Owl that was perhaps trying to draw our attention from a nearby nest which allowed for a couple of decent looks and a couple of in-flight photos too.


Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

We finished our trip together at Braunig Lake where we picked up a handful of nice species including a few new ones including Song Sparrow and Greater Scaup. I then packed up my optics and we headed to San Antonio airport for the flight home while my friends headed to Rockport to take the boat ride out in the morning for Whooping Cranes before catching their flights home the following afternoon.

All in all, a wonderful trip in which we picked up pretty much everything you might hope to. We got lucky with a couple of great birds too like the Varied Bunting and Hook-billed Kite. You just never quite know what you might find in Southern Texas in February and that is surely part of the allure. You can see a few more photos from my trip on flickr page (here).

HMANA SoCal Winter Tour 2017

14 03 2017

California Condor – Luke Tiller

Co-leading with fellow HMANA board member Tom Reed, I had the privilege of sharing  some of the incredible scenery and birds that make Southern California such a special place. It was a real pleasure to share my home turf with a great group of HMANA members. Here is the tour report:

Day one: 

We started our day down near LAX airport, so a logical first stop was therefore to explore a marina just a stones throw from the runways. Here we ran into local birding expert and author Kimball Garrett and eventually, with some work, a few of the rocky shoreline species we had hoped to run into here including Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher. We also enjoyed seeing a few gulls and terns including west coast specialties Glaucous-winged Gull and Western Gull as well as a couple of stunning Heerman’s Gulls! We also picked up our first raptor of the trip in the form of a Peregrine Falcon that was harassing the local beach pigeons.

After a quick lunch, we headed towards Eaton Canyon in Pasadena, but traffic and parking was bordering on the insane. It was great to see so many people out enjoying the outdoors on a beautiful holiday day but it wasn’t particularly conducive to our birding endeavors. That said we picked off a few birds between the melee of hikers including local specialties like the incredibly clownlike Acorn Woodpecker, the highly localized Nuttall’s Woodpecker and the recently split California Scrub Jay.  From there we checked a quieter little local park where we picked off Cassin’s Kingbird, California Towhees and a couple of California Thrashers.

We ended our day at what must be one of the most incredible birding spectacles in Southern California – the parrot roosts in Pasadena. Here hundreds, if not thousands of raucous Amazon parrots come to roost in winter. Scattered among trees and powerlines they descend on neighborhoods at dusk in order to roost communally. It’s quite the sight and even more so quite the sound. Among the throngs of mainly Red-crowned Parrots we picked out numerous Lilac-crowned Parrots and a handful of Yellow-headed Parrots. We ended our day out on the patio of an awesome pizza restaurant reflecting on a fun and productive first day.


California Thrasher – Luke Tiller

Day two:

After spending the night in Palmdale CA, we started our day with an early morning run to Alpine Butte Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we enjoyed surveying the Antelope Valley, Mojave, Southern Sierras and San Gabriel Mountains stretched out all around us! We also enjoyed seeing our first Joshua Trees of the trip too.

Our first raptor encounters of the day included a distant Prairie Falcon and a “rufous-morph” Red-tailed Hawk. Searching a mix of agricultural fields and a desert oasis provided by a local golf course meant we were soon picking up some nice localized species including Nuttall’s Woodpecker and California Quail. Some roosting Turkey Vultures picked up from their golf course roost with intent leading us to head onwards in search of more raptor activity. We were not to be disappointed as our next stop provided us with a wealth of stunning raptors. Ferruginous Hawks are perhaps the most sought after buteo in North America, thanks both to its incredible beauty and relative rarity. These regal raptors are rarely commonly found except it seems in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. Over the day we tallied double digit numbers of this spectacular raptor, enjoying both age classes and color morphs. Also putting on a show were a variety of Red-tailed Hawks including at least one stunning rufous-morph bird. We also managed to get decent looks at a staked out Great Horned Owl that was sharing its hunting grounds with these stunning diurnal raptors.


Great Horned Owl – Luke Tiller

After a great lunch at a nearby taqueria we headed over to Apollo Park, where among the domestic ducks we found Ross’s Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose and Snow Goose. As well as the geese, we also added two more merganser species to our trip list, Hooded Merganser and Common Merganser, regardless of their name they are both somewhat uncommon in the region.

We ended our day on the eastern edge of Lancaster with a fly-in of 300 plus Snow Geese. In the surrounding desert scrub and agricultural fields, we added specialties like Tricolored Blackbird, Bell’s Sparrow and at least one more Ferruginous Hawk to our day’s tally!

Day three:

Most our third day was taken up with a visit to Bitter Creek NWR. The site is not open to the public and we were privileged to be allowed behind the scenes access to this incredible site. With the condors not being the earliest of risers we even were afforded a sleep in before we headed out to meet lead Condor biologist Joseph Brandt and his team.

After spending at least half an hour with Joseph answering all our questions concerning condors we headed off into the reserve in search of these incredible birds. We first spotted a distantly perched bird sat on the outside of a flight pen, but I think the memory that will be burned into everyone’s memory for the rest of their lives is when we came around a corner and there below us were a kettling group of eight California Condors – simply incredible! For the next thirty minutes we experienced the kind of condor encounter only a few ever get to experience. As the condors rose from the ravine below us, we obviously peeked their curiosity and they circled around us checking us out for a while. Joseph filled us in on more details of the project and answered a slew of further questions. We also got to see some of the tracking devices used on the birds in hand and got to touch a mind-bogglingly impressive primary feather from a California Condor. I think quite a few photos were taken as well! That experience must rate up there with any birding experience I have enjoyed.


California Condor – Luke Tiller

Though the condors were the main prize, they were not our only raptor prize on Bitter Creek. On the way in we had added our first “elegans” Red-shouldered Hawk of the trip and while touring the refuge we had picked up multiple flavors of Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin and more impressively a rare Rough-legged Hawk. Rough-legged Hawk must rate as many hawkwatchers favorite buteo and these tundra raptors are not common in Southern California, so this was a real added bonus.  We even picked up a couple more Ferruginous Hawks for the tour including a beautiful dark morph bird which soared over us while we ate our packed lunch at some picnic tables near the condor technicians bunk house.

Leaving the reserve, we again ran into a light morph Rough-legged Hawk but this was outdone by our next raptor encounter, a stunning adult Golden Eagle. The eagle was sat in a roadside meadow and when we stopped to view it rather than fly away from us she decided to head straight past our vehicle. As she flew off the edge of the canyon behind us she came into the airspace of a couple of soaring California Condors with which she briefly tangled before they both called truce and flew to their own roosting spots. These birds then allowed us prolonged scoped views. Simply magical!

A couple of stops on the way home provided us with great birds like Wrentit, Phainopepla and Mountain Bluebird and distant views of both White-tailed Kite and Sharp-shinned Hawk.


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Day four:

Next stop on our action-packed tour was a visit to Tejon Ranch where Senior Ecologist Ellery Mayence and volunteers Steve and Chris treated us to an incredible tour of this magical location. Here among a range of diverse habitats, from oak chaparral to Joshua Tree forests we were witness to just some of what this incredibly large and diverse property has to offer. Our first quick stop was at a lake that offered up a wealth of waterfowl including a nice sized flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, a couple of Snow Geese and at least one Cackling Goose among the Canada Geese. There was also at least one Redhead and a couple of Eared Grebe to enjoy.

Among the flocks of sparrows on the property we found Lark Sparrows in abundance, Dark-eyed Juncos and picked through the zonotrichias to discover Golden-crowned Sparrows among the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrow flocks.

There were plenty of raptor highlights to enjoy too including a juvenile Bald Eagle, at least five Golden Eagles and two different subspecies of Merlin: “taiga” and “prairie”.  All the while our erstwhile guides plied us with fascinating information about the area, the ranch and its rich history. Even our plein air lunch stop was interrupted by magnificent birds as both Ferruginous Hawks and Golden Eagles played in the air around us.


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Perhaps best of all, our day had been threatened by the promise of rain and yet we managed to get through almost the whole day with just a sprinkle or two. In fact the only real bad weather on the day almost just added to the atmosphere, when it started sleeting as we watched three Golden Eagles soar over the hills ahead of our convoy.

One of our last stops on site was one of the most memorable in terms of non-raptors as we enjoyed hundreds of Mountain Bluebirds fliting through a Joshua Tree forest like a wave of azure blue. We also picked out some cryptic but equally beautiful Sage Thrashers among them. Another memorable day in another magical place.

Day five:

At least in the last few years the concept of winter has been hard to come by in Southern California. However the winter of 2016/17 was something different, with rainfall way above average.  Day five of our tour had threatened to be a complete washout. Though plans to get to the mountains had to be scrapped we did at least have the time to seek out and find a few Mountain Plovers – a nice prize scooped between showers.


Mountain Plover – Luke Tiller

As we headed into the LA basin though the weather caught up with us and my co-leader Tom and I drove through what can only be described as a deluge. It was accompanied by howling winds which made driving interesting to say the very least, especially through some of the mountain passes.

We were not to be completely denied birding time on the day however as a brief intermission in the rain and a quick U-turn allowed us a damp but productive stop in Sylmar to track down a couple of North America’s most glamorous woodpeckers: Williamson’s Sapsucker and Red-breasted Sapsucker! As we wended our way over for our night in Chino we managed to sneak in a couple more stops, that although not particularly birdy, at least offered the chance to stretch our legs and witness the sun finally peeking out from behind the rainclouds.

Day six:

Our last day together. We started off with an early morning start to add another raptor to our trip list: Burrowing Owl. Out in a bare field near at a community college in Chino we picked out a couple of these little cuties standing around their burrows. A great start to our activities.

Next stop was at Bonelli Regional Park, here we finally get some great views of the California subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk. There was much else to enjoy here, including owl species number two for the day: Barn Owl. The stop here was a productive one overall with Clark’s Grebe, Hutton’s Vireo, and Costa’s Hummingbird among the mix of interesting and exciting new birds. The varied habitats at Bonelli make it a perennial favorite with birders, but our main target here was California Gnatcatcher. Though it took a little work we eventually tracked a couple down and were rewarded with stellar views and ample photographic opportunities of this bird.


California Gnatcatcher – Luke Tiller

Next stop was another favorite site for birdwatchers: Bolsa Chica. This mixed habitat coastal marsh provides a great spot to pick up a slew of interesting birds that utilize such environment including the Belding’s subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet and “Western Willet”. To pick just a few. It’s always a neat place to photograph, with birds brought closer to you by the bridge that takes you from the parking lot to the first brackish pond.

Other highlights here included a Reddish Egret which is hard to find anywhere else in the area, Red Knot (ditto) and possibly of most interest of all a rare Glaucous Gull that was loafing with a group of some of the more regular gull species. Looking at eBird reports we were probably the last birders to see that gull in Orange County as we watched it take off and disappear over the ponds, seemingly never to be seen again!

Our next stop was a brief one at the mouth of the San Gabriel, where among other commonly occurring species we picked out a neat looking little Mew Gull, itself somewhat uncommon here. By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and our time in Southern California together drawing to a close. We had just enough minutes of daylight to make one final stop. Here in an urban park in Los Angeles we picked out a few final species for the tour including our first Black-necked Stilts and a jaunty little female Vermilion Flycatcher. Our last bird of the trip perhaps one to keep in the back pocket for an armchair tick in the form of a couple of neat looking Egyptian Geese.


“Western” Willet – Luke Tiller

In the end we had tallied an impressive 165 species of birds (HMANA SoCal Checklist 2017) in what, with the rain, amounted to little more than five days of active birding. We had tallied 17 species of diurnal raptors (20 including the owls). Memories of the incredible California Condor spectacle and the visit to Tejon Ranch will live long in the memory, as will the incredible number of Ferruginous Hawks and the bonus Rough-legged Hawk seen on the trip. A wonderful week in Southern California tasting some of the incredible birds and scenery this great state has to offer.

Los Angeles Raptors

20 11 2016

Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

When people think about Los Angeles I’m betting most of them aren’t thinking about raptors, and yet the deserts of Los Angeles County boast perhaps some of the better winter raptor watching in the country? Though Southern California generally isn’t great for witnessing raptor migration, beyond Borrego Valley Hawkwatch (see post here), winter does almost make up for it with plenty of stunning wintering raptors. Possibly the jewel in that crown is just an hour and a half or so from downtown Los Angeles: The Antelope Valley.

The Antelope Valley, though now sadly mainly devoid of the Pronghorn that gave the area its name, hosts a wealth of exciting winter raptors, among them a large number of highly prized Ferruginous Hawks.


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

While out birding today looking for Mountain Bluebirds and Mountain Plovers we managed to see at least ten of these impressive and beautiful buteos without much effort at all, which gives you some idea of their abundance. Most of them were light morphs, like the bird above, but one was a stunning dark bird (top) which is in keeping with the idea that about 10% of this species are dark. To find numbers of these birds all one needs do is drive back roads looking in the farm fields (they often perch on the ground) and atop the many telephone poles.

The mix of high desert scrub and agricultural habitat out in the valley seems to provide plenty of food for all including huge flocks of Horned Larks and mixed blackbird flocks. These in turn provide for plenty of prey items for falcons like the beautiful Prairie Falcon that we ran into below. This one had just plowed through a flock of Horned Larks before alighting just behind our vehicle.


Prairie Falcon – Luke Tiller

American Kestrel are easily the most common Antelope Valley falcon, but Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine are all usually quite find-able in a day’s birding. Excitingly, as well as your standard “Taiga” Merlin it is sometimes possible to find a couple of other subspecies of these feisty little falcons in Southern California. Though both are rare one can find both “Black” Merlin, generally on the coastal plain, and “Prairie” Merlin, like the one below, out in the deserts.


Merlin (Richardson’s) – Luke Tiller

Ferruginous Hawks are certainly up there with my favorite raptors and and in January I am looking forward to sharing these wonderful birds with some fellow members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and with a tour group from Sunrise Birding. Let’s hope the birds are being as cooperative then!

OK one more Ferruginous Hawk photo before we go, just because. Samuel Pepys was quoted as saying that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I think one can safely say the same about Ferruginous Hawks too!


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Patch Grasshopper Sparrow

8 11 2016

Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

When I picked my new patch out in Pasadena, CA it was based on the site providing an area of open ground among a patchwork of wooded suburban yards, gardens and parks. It was also home to a dog park which is what first took me there. Though Possum doesn’t like the off leash area there he does like walking around on a leash and getting a bunch of cookies for vague signs of good behavior.


Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

My thought was that this open area would provide good opportunities to find a bunch of sparrow species (which along with raptors are up there with my favorite families). So far I haven’t been disappointed with at least fifteen species found at the park, with potential for more if they ever split the Fox Sparrows. The park checklist now boast about 140 species including a wealth of good birds: Eastern Phoebe, White and Black-throated Sparrows, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Broad-winged Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher and more (eBird Hotspot list here).


Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

The thing I like about sparrows is that they offer a level of ID that is challenging but not impossible for most birders (so it’s fun to help people learn to ID them) and that they are often beautiful but in a subtle way. It would be hard to accuse the Grasshopper Sparrow of being a “Little Brown Job”.


Grasshopper Sparrow – Vina Vieja

It’s actually been a slow year so far at Vina for me in terms of new birds. In fact it was only yesterday that I added my first new species for the year. Today’s Grasshopper Sparrow was a little more exciting to me than yesterday’s Double-crested Cormorant. Grasshopper Sparrow is pretty uncommon in LA County generally with this seemingly just the third record for the county this year in eBird.