Desert Get Away

10 10 2016

American Redstart – Luke Tiller

I’ve been running a few local walks just to enjoy the process of fall migration and to get to meet a few local birders. That said there’s only so much fun you can have birding in a couple of hours, so I suggested to the group that maybe we could try something more extensive. Enough people seemed to like the idea and so for that reason this Thursday we found ourselves meeting at a park and ride on the 210 at La Canada in the wee hours of the morning in order to get to birding in the desert as near dawn as humanly possible.

We started our morning at what has rapidly become one of my favorite LA birding sites: Rancho Sierra Golf Course (which is either in Palmdale or Lancaster depending on who you believe). Our trip got off to a pretty explosive start when after spotting a couple of Black-throated Gray Warblers another sweep of my binoculars yielded a female type American Redstart. Views were brief at best before it flew and the group split to try cover as much territory as possible. In a couple of minutes though I had relocated the bird and it posed nicely in the bare twigs of a half dead cottonwood allowing good views for the group. What a nice start.  There was a nice mix of species at Rancho and it felt birdy but though we tried we didn’t come up with anything more exciting than the Redstart. That said a Rock Wren perched on the only rocky habitat there (an old concrete pipe) and two early Ferruginous Hawks (that had perhaps come in with the Turkey Vultures that were roosting in the trees at the course) were a nice bonus.


Rock Wren – Luke Tiller

A quick stop at the farms on West 50th produced next to nothing and the diversionary drive to Apollo Park via Blackbird Park (the planes not the birds) was probably more entertaining. Apollo was quiet with almost nothing in the park of interest. It’s always interesting to me how one park in Lancaster can be busy and another almost dead. Perhaps timing or maybe where the migrants have arrived from? Probably the highlight of the visit to Apollo was finding a somewhat uncommon Horned Grebe. This was certainly my first for the park and there are just a couple of records of this species each year. It was also nice enough to be sat with one lone Eared Grebe which provided nice comparisons for the group.

Galileo Hills Silver Saddle Resort is an incredible and somewhat bizarre oasis in the south eastern corner of Kern County, just outside of California City. California City (the self-styled third biggest city in California) is itself an interesting failed suburban development (more here). The resort isn’t open to groups at the weekends which is what prompted me to hold this weekday trip. As you drive in from what is essentially the Mojave Desert, it’s amazing to come upon this small area of lush greenery. The lawns, ponds, fountains and trees here are a magnet and a safe haven for any number of wayward (and not so wayward) migrant birds. Silver Saddle boasts a number of incredible local records including such anomalies as Arctic Warbler (check out the eBird hotspot checklist here). Though not particularly busy on our visit a hybrid sapsucker was an interesting find.


Hammond’s Flycatcher – Luke Tiller

On our way back to Mojave for the evening we made a quick stop at California City Central Park, the somewhat crumbling focal point for the areas development. Here we added a couple of new species for the trip including a latish Hammond’s Flycatcher that provided us the chance to work through empidonax flycatcher identification. This identification is more complicated than usual because, as well as the usual west coast empidonax suspects, between Galileo and the Central Park California City boasts multiple records of Least Flycatchers and one each of Yellow-bellied and Buff-breasted. We ended our day in Mojave at Mojave Thai Cuisine (yelp reviews here), enjoying great food and conversation about all things birding before heading for an early night in anticipation of more birding adventures the next day.

Friday we started our day bright and early at Silver Saddle. Again it wasn’t overly birdy but we did manage to add a couple of new species to our list including brief views of a Cassin’s Vireo and long and accommodating views of an Ovenbird. This eastern vagrant showed particularly well and allowed all that wanted to to get some nice photographic records of the bird.


Ovenbird – Luke Tiller

With many of the group having evening plans in Los Angeles we decided to cut our adventure a little short. We however had time for a brief stop in California City back at the Central Park where we managed to add a handful of new birds for the trip including Western Wood-Pewee and Wilson’s Warbler. One of our last sightings of the tour was perhaps one of our best: a Lewis’s Woodpecker perched in a pondside snag around California Central Park. We got decent views of the bird perched and then got to witness its distinctive flight as it circled the lake a few times before heading off for a quieter spot along the golf course. A nice way to end the trip, with the Lewis’s and the American Redstart providing exciting bookends to a really fun trip.

I posted a few photos from the adventure on my flickr page (here) and am already thinking about where we might run something like this again in the future!


Say’s Phoebe – Luke Tiller

Raptors of Panama

12 09 2016

Bicolored Hawk

Last week I was lucky enough to spend five days co-leading a tour with the incredible Carlos Bethancourt in Darien Province, Panama with Sunrise Birding. Though raptors were not our specific focus at Canopy Camp we did have plenty of great encounters with them including one with perhaps the most sought after raptor in the world, a Harpy Eagle.

Our first day was taken up with a drive from Panama City down to the Darien where we encountered our first raptors of the trip. Our first was a beautiful little adult Double-toothed Kite. Though superficially they look somewhat like an accipiter these neat birds generally hunt lizards and insects by following troops of monkeys, picking off creatures that are escaping the commotion of a roving group of primates.

As the sun began to break out, on this thus far cloudy day, so small groups of Swallow-tailed Kites began to drift up from the surrounding forest before kettling up and making their way southwards on their migration. Swallow-tailed Kites are resident in Panama but these kettling groups of up to thirty birds were definitely migrants. Also migrating in smaller numbers were groups of Plumbeous Kites. These migratory kites are very akin to Mississippi Kites, but with much fancier rufous and black primaries. Plumbeous Kites only get as far north as Mexico to breed but do cross paths with Mississippi Kites during migration and in winter.

Our day ended at the Canopy Camp in Darien, where we were greeted on arrival by a flyover Zone-tailed Hawk.


Crane Hawk

After waking to the sound of calling Mottled and Crested Owls, the morning of day two was spent mainly around the Canopy Camp itself. A Roadside Hawk or two are often patrolling the property and early morning a Savanna Hawk sailed over. As the morning warmed up, so did the raptor activity. Black and Turkey Vultures are abundant almost everywhere in Panama, but it’s foolish not to look at groups of them closely as there are often other similarly colored raptors hiding among them. In among the clouds of mainly Black Vultures we soon had Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and both adult and juvenile King Vultures. King Vultures must be up there with the most beautiful species of the vulture family, with the black and white adults much easier to pick out in the soaring throng than the all black juveniles.

During the day Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites again passed overhead pretty much constantly in ones and twos while resident species like Short-tailed Hawks caught some of the thermal activity. Later in the day we birded the very end of the Pan American Highway where roadsides offered us views of Bat Falcons and Roadside Hawks among the flocks of oropendolas and caciques. Another great day of raptor viewing in Panama.


Laughing Falcon

Day three started with a short boat ride up the Chucanaque River. Though ostensibly to search out the very localized Dusky-backed Jacamar and other glorious species like Blue Cotinga and Golden-green Woodpecker there was always plenty of raptor action to be had. Along the river we picked up a couple of new species for the trip including Gray-lined Hawk (a relatively recent split from the Gray Hawk) and Crane Hawk, a beautiful and interesting raptor noted for their long legs and double-jointed tarsal bones. The aforementioned features allow the crane hawk to hunt successfully for prey in tree cavities.

Later in the day we again birded a couple of local roads where we managed to do something that would be pretty tough to do in the US: have a four kite species day. Adding Gray-headed Kite to Double-toothed, Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous. It was amazing to just have Swallow-tailed Kites flowing over most days in decent numbers in and of itself.


Harpy Eagle Nest

Day four was one that will live long in my memory, an encounter with a Harpy Eagle. This bird had been recently discovered on a nest by a relatively nearby community and had only been seen by Carlos and our local guide thus far. It was a fair way away from where we were staying but was within the realms of possibility for a day trip.

The Harpy though wasn’t our first raptor of the day as we had to travel quite a distance to get to the nest site, first by car, then by boat and follow that up with a long walk through a sauna-like jungle. Boat rides are a great way to see raptors as they perch out along the river and our dugout “cruise” netted us a bunch of nice sightings of previously encountered species. The hike started in a plantain plantation where we encountered both Laughing Falcon and Black Hawk-eagle before setting off on our long march toward the Harpy. With temperatures hovering around 85 degrees and humidity right in that ballpark as well it wasn’t long before the hike had us pretty sweaty, pretty tired and a little sore. Harpy Eagles, however, are a pretty strong motivator so we shrugged off these minor inconveniences with good humor.

When we arrived at the nest site there was initial disappointment when nothing was visible in the nest, though that just made it all the sweeter when about fifteen minutes later there was some stirring of movement and one of the adult eagles stuck it’s head up above the parapet. We all did our best to oooh and aaaah in a respectfully hushed tone and enjoyed our wonderful scoped views from a deferential distance. After a short encounter with this magnificent bird we all hiked our way back to the boats with a definite spring in our step. This whole day was a magical one that I will have to write about more extensively another time.


Harpy Eagle

We had enjoyed incredible weather for our whole trip considering it was the green season (realtor like code for rainy season) but our last day did finally see some daytime rain catch up with us. That said it wasn’t heavy enough to deter the birds or us hardy birders. While drizzle doesn’t really encourage soaring raptors it did encourage a beautiful juvenile Bicolored Hawk to grab a snag-top shower in our presence on our route back to Panama City. This forest accipiter is quite rare in Panama and can be quite tricky to see anywhere and even more so tricky to see well. It was in fact just the first juvenile Carlos had definitively encountered and probably the best views any of our group had ever had. Usual views of this species tend to be quick ones as they dash across a trail, but this bird sat with us for a full 20 minutes before we left him to his preening.

The trip ended back in Panama City where after the heavens opened they cleared just enough in the late afternoon to allow me to view a few raptors continuing their migration or heading to their roosts for the day. My impromptu hotel parking lot hawkwatch therfore netted me both Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites and at least a couple of Ospreys. My last “hawks” of my trip were a steady stream of Common Nighthawks heading for their wintering grounds at dusk. An enchanting end to a magical trip to Panama.

Next year I will be back in Panama with the Hawk Migration Association of North America especially for raptor migration. The Harpy Eagle is a long shot on this tour, but the tour is  just about perfectly timed if they repeat one of those two million raptor flight days over Panama City like they had in 2014. It certainly promises a more raptor focused trip with a few species that were not in the range of this tour. More on the HMANA website here. I’m also hoping I might convince Sunrise Birding to let me run their Darien trip again – more on that in the future I hope.

Raptor list for this five day tour of the Darien:

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, King Vulture, Osprey, Gray-headed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, Black Hawk-eagle, Double-toothed Kite, Bicolored Hawk, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Mottled Owl, Crested Owl, Red-throated Caracara, Northern Crested Caracara, Yellow-headed Caracara, Laughing Falcon, American Kestrel, Bat Falcon


Mother of all Mountain Quail

28 07 2016

Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Mountain Quail must be right up there with one of the most sought after species in Southern California, so when I took some friends from the east coast out birding today I had hoped that we might manage to have a brief encounter with a bird or two. Instead we had an incredible and prolonged encounter with at least a half dozen birds.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Even if you are lucky enough to run into Mountain Quail, views are generally brief as they dash across a road or disappear under brush as they scarper away up a nearby slope. If you are a tasty looking little chicken sized bird it is probably good to be pretty wary and these birds generally are.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

It was interesting though to note that even in the relative open these birds blend quite nicely with their surrounds. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to show this beautiful species to numbers of tour participants in recent years but this encounter is probably the most spectacular. You can find out how to join me on my trips, tours and private guiding page.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Of course being friends with incredible photographers online means that I know that these shots aren’t perfect, but considering I have just a 300mm lens I’m pretty ecstatic with how they turned out. We also picked up a bunch of other goodies but after the quail experience it was hard to get motivated to take more photos. Amazing to think this is all just a stones throw from LAX!!!!


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Pasadena Audubon Society Ode Walk

25 07 2016

Red Rock Skimmer – Luke Tiller

Following David Bell’s talk at the Pasadena Audubon Society monthly meeting this past May we decided it would be nice to follow that up with a walk introducing PAS members to the world of dragonflies and damselflies (odanata or odes). This trip was scheduled for 10:00am Sunday July 17th and lead by Kimball Garrett and David Bell.

Unlike birds, dragonflies are not early risers, so those that hadn’t spent their morning on the LA River (see previous post) got a rather more leisurely start time for a PAS walk than usual.  Participants met at the new (and rather attractively laid out) Oro Vista Park in Sunland/Tujunga and even prior to the official start David had managed to both point out and explain the differences between a couple of glider dragonflies (Wandering and Spot-winged) that were milling about near the park parking lot.


Flame Skimmer – Luke Tiller

After the group assembled we made a two minute drive down to Haines Creek a weedy, riparian area created by runoff from the local neighborhood. Here we picked up a few relatively common dragonfly and damselfly species that often inhabit these kind of habitats including a brief sighting of a Cardinal Meadowhawk before it was unceremoniously grabbed from its perch by a passing Black Phoebe! Among the common species we managed to work on a few basic ID challenges: Neon vs Flame Skimmer and Western Pondhawk vs Blue Dasher.

As well as having a nice mix of odes at Haine’s Creek we also had a couple of interesting  bird species to look at and listen to including a European Goldfinch (which I’d photographed here a few days before). Most exciting though surely was a Golden Eagle that was being initially harassed by a Red-tailed Hawk as it soared over us and slowly glided away. Haine’s Creek is an interesting riparian pond area that has hosted a number of interesting birds in migration and is one of those sites I’m contemplating for my series of local free walks this fall (details here).


Sooty Dancer – Luke Tiller


With a nice selection of odes under our belt our next stop was a at Wildwood Picnic area in the Angeles National Forest. Here we hoped to pick up a few species along the creek that required slightly different habitats and water. The initial immediate hit here were the incredible views of arguably the regions prettiest damselfly: American Rubyspot (images and information here). As well as the rubyspot we also managed to find a number of other species of damselflies including three species of dancer: Vivid, Lavender and Sooty as well as two species of bluet: Northern and Arroyo.

Some of these damselflies are much easier to ID in the hand than they are in binoculars and David managed to skillfully net a couple to show people up close in the hand. Even more impressively a couple of the PAS Young Birders Club were quick enough to carefully grab a couple from the rocks with their bare hands!

As well as the damselflies we picked up a few nice new dragonflies at our second stop including a Pale-faced Clubskimmer and a couple of Red Rock Skimmers.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 10.24.08 AM

Serpent Ringtail – David Bell

Our last stop for the day was at Stonyvale Picnic Area a little further up Big Tujunga Canyon. Here we found two neat new odes for the day. Perhaps the hardest to find on the day simply because of its minute size: Desert Firetail, a truly tiny but beautiful little ode (more here) and the rather neat Gray Sanddraggon (photographed below).

In the end we tallied an impressive twenty three species of dragonfly and damselfly on the day somehow missing perhaps one of the regions commonest: Variable Meadowhawk. You can see the PDF list put together by Kimball here: ODONATA FIELD TRIP DB edits. I think everyone had a great time, enjoyed seeing some beautiful insects and learned a great deal about our local odonata. Thanks to Kimball Garrett and David Bell for their expert guidance. If you want to learn more about dragonflies then Odonata Central is a good place to start (link here). David’s company put together their recently released  iPhone App which you can download for free!

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 10.24.45 AM

Gray Sanddragon – David Bell


LAR Peeps

17 07 2016
image (13)

Semipalmated Sandpiper

A couple of meh digiscoped pics of a couple of vaguely interesting shorebirds prior to the PAS Dragonfly walk today down on the Los Angeles River. A Semipalmated Sandpiper (I think we ruled out something more interesting) and a crazily bright Western Sandpiper. Why when I was looking on the East Coast didn’t all Western Sandpipers look like this? Talk about making life easier.

image (14)

Western Sandpiper – Luke Tiller


Summer of Snakes?

1 07 2016

A couple of days ago I was reading an article about an abundance of rattlesnake sightings in yards in Southern California . The suggestion in the article being that the drought is pushing them into closer contact with people? Perhaps mere coincidence, but in the last two days I have encountered two Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes in Eaton Canyon where in normal years I’m lucky if I see one anywhere.

At least one of my encounters was on a busy trail where I might have stepped on it without a little less care and attention. Though thus far they have seemed very docile, during interactions, it is making me more and more aware of where I and Possum the wonderdog are putting out feet while we are hiking.

The first one I ran into was pretty small – maybe 2 1/3 feet the other one was significantly larger. There’s loads of great info on local snakes on the California Herps website (here). They even have recordings of their rattle!


Pacific Southern Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller

These first three images are of the smaller individual that I found while hiking down from the bridge that goes across to the Mount Wilson Toll Rd. The images below are of a much larger individual found near the nature center. I’m sure everyone knows you can’t age rattlesnakes by the number of rattles, that’s just an old wives tale. Apparently size and perhaps darkness of coloration might be a better clue.


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller

Anza Borrego – Circle of life

20 03 2016

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I led an awesome trip for Pasadena Audubon Society to Borrego Springs in San Diego County. The trip was ostensibly to visit the Borrego Valley Hawkwatch but also just to enjoy some of the great flora and fauna that call this desert area home. Part of the Colorado Desert the nearby Anza Borrego State Park, at 600,000 acres, is the second largest State Park in the county behind the Adirondacks (more about the park here).

We started out our morning adventure pre-sunrise at the area that is commonly known locally as the mesquite sink or mesquite bosque. Here we picked up a host of regular desert species that are not commonly found in Pasadena: Verdin, White-winged Dove, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher as well as one that is found almost solely in this little corner of California: Crissal Thrasher. Thrashers are difficult to see at most times of the year, but at least in the breeding season they tend to be relatively vocal. We stumbled upon at least two birds in this little breeding enclave thanks partly to the sharp eyes of Grace Wong who first spotted a bird while it perched low in a bush below a Sage Thrasher that we had been looking at.

We then endured a cat and mouse game of hide and seek with at least two birds while we tried to work a way to get clear views of the Crissals in good light. In the end most of the group enjoyed good views but unfortunately without a chance for good photos. We weren’t so lucky with Lucy’s Warbler though, another species that is hanging on in this rapidly dying mesquite bosque (thanks to water being pumped from the aquifer).


Desert Sand Verbena – Luke Tiller

With at least one target bird under our belt and the sun starting to rise in the sky we headed out to the Borrego Valley hawkwatch with hopes that the Swainson’s Hawks that make up the bulk of the flight at the watch were starting to get active. With a brief stop to check out some Swainson’s that were lounging in a field en route (or maybe hunting some ubiquitous caterpillars) we got to the hawkwatch just in time to enjoy watching distant, but large numbers of Swainson’s Hawks kettling from out of their nearby roosts. You can read more about the watch, and check out the great photo opps provided by roosting Swainson’s, on their blog (here). You can check out daily migrant counts on their hawkcount page too (here).

Though the hawks always come through Borrego Springs in migration ,this year they were taking advantage of the caterpillars that were busily devouring an impressive desert wildflower show.  Millions of mainly White-lined Sphinx caterpillars (more on those attractive moths here) were eating everything in sight and were so thick in many areas it was all one could do to not to step on them. I’m sure the myriad of beetles and a impressive Northern Desert Iguana (useful CA herp info here) we found near the watch were making the most of this bounteous food supply too.


White-lined Sphinx Caterpillar – Luke Tiller

After enjoying the watch for a while we headed off to grab some refreshments, but a fortuitous stop to check out a couple of Swainson’s Hawks kettling by the roadside turned up a rather exciting and unexpected addition to the day’s sightings: a juvenile Zone-tailed Hawk (photographed by Darren Dowell). It put on quite the show and allowed for good views of it’s ability to mimic Turkey Vultures both in plumage and in flight style. There had been one juvenile reported in the area over two weeks ago but it wasn’t clear if this was the same bird (hard to believe the experts at the hawkwatch had missed if for over two weeks).

After a stop at the Roadrunner Club for a break we were on to our next couple of stops. With temperatures rising it was starting to become hard to find birds. There was however much to entertain including Costa’s Hummingbirds and lightning quick Western Zebra-tailed Lizards. We were also indebted to Rick Fisher for a wonderful introduction to desert wildflowers to keep us entertained. Even in the midday heat of a 94 degree day our intrepid group were still finding good birds (what is it they say about Mad Dogs and Englishmen…) and though stops weren’t exactly ‘birdy’ we were turning up some highly desirous species including both resident Le Conte’s and migrant Sage Thrashers inhabiting an incredibly bleak little portion of desert. Along with the thrashers we also turned up a rather neat, and endangered, Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard too (photo).


Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

After a welcome stop for lunch and an obligatory visit to the gift shop we headed to our last desert stop of the day: Tamarisk Grove Campground. The greenery of the campground and nearby Yaqui Wells seep (more here) offer a welcome respite for migrant birds in this rocky and desertlike environment as well as some shade to rapidly overheating birders. During the peak of migration who knows what you might find at these productive migrant trap sites? Previous years have yielded everything from Xantus’s Hummingbird, Kentucky Warbler and Red Phalarope!!!!!!

As it was mid-afternoon we avoided the hot hike out to the seep and birded the campground where we enjoyed a few nice desert specialties: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cactus and Rock Wren. Even more excitingly we managed to turn up a nice migrant of our own in the shape of a young male Vermilion Flycatcher. Best of all though we got to share that sighting with a young San Diego Birder and his parents.

The other highlight here was Rick again sharing his knowledge of the local succulents, and we enjoyed a variety of them in bloom including Beavertail Cactus, Hedgehog Cactus, Barrel Cactus and Ocotillo.


Beavertail Cactus – Luke Tiller

We ended our day wending our way back towards Pasadena. A final couple of roadside stops provided us with a number of nice birds including Tricolored Blackbirds (sadly declining precipitously in the state) and fittingly a bunch more raptors including White-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier and American Kestrel.

I think we can safely consider this inaugural Pasadena Audubon Society trip to Borrego Springs a success and I look forward to running it again next year. Thanks to everyone who came and made it such a fun and successful trip. If you want to see what other trips I have coming up locally and beyond check out my Trips and Tours Page (here). A couple more pics from the day are on my Flickr page (here).

Hawkwatching basics 3: Slang

19 09 2015

Peak Broad-winged Hawk season is almost upon us and many of you will be heading out to hawkwatches to catch the action. Are you up on hawkwatching slang and terms? Read on to make sure you know what to say and when, and avoid any unintentionally hilarious gaffs at your local hawkwatch.


ButtJam (Harlans) – Catherine Hamilton

The Birds:

Grey Ghost: (Adult male) Northern Harrier.  Weirdly I’ve heard people use Grey Ghost when talking about other grey raptors – WRONG!!!!!!!! If you want to suggest a slightly higher level of expertise, after seeing one, you might spend the next few minutes ruminating on why you see so few of them.

Buttjam: Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis. Weirdly I first heard this from someone who isn’t a hawkwatcher. If it isn’t in common use already it’s going to appeal to the puerile child in every hawkwatcher I know 😉 “Tail” is a more commonly used term among the knowing.

BDubs: Broad-winged Hawk. Not even sure where this came from, but all the cool kids use it. I’m guessing most hawkwatchers aren’t big fans of Dappy and North London rappers N-Dubz, so it can’t be that!

K-bird: Good old American Kestrel. Personally I like using AK – just cos it makes me think of that Da Lench Mob track – you know the one?!? Worth noting that hawkwatchers use the two letter codes from our data sheets not the four letter BBL codes – bird nerds and Richard Crossley you have been warned 😉

Blue Jack: (adult male) Merlin: after their top side coloration.

BDubs Kettle - Steve Beale

BDubs Kettle – Steve Beale

What’s happening/conditions:

Blue Skies of Death: My own little contribution to the vernacular – perhaps aging myself. Nicked from the description given to a crashed computer. This term describes those clear cyan blue skies that always seem to greet large movements of Broad-winged Hawks. Without contrasting pale clouds these skies make speck-watching hard work, frustrating and painful on the eyes. Ditto “Broad-wing Blue”.

Kettle/Kettling: When a bunch of birds get into a little thermal of activity and use it to soar to greater altitude. Why it’s called kettling I’m not sure – to me it looks nothing like a bubbling kettle (the explanation I’ve been given)? What constitutes a kettle is a whole different argument. Two birds is definitely not a kettle, three might be depending on your level of desperation, lack of birds and also on the species. Three Bald Eagles could be a kettle; three Bdubs (see above) not so much.

Chimping: Often used when referring to checking the screen of your camera on pelagics in order to arrive at an ID for a bird. This term seems to have gained some traction in the world of hawkwatching when it comes to going to get a better look at a difficult bird in your scope.


Chimping raptors

Conversely a couple of things you might not want to say:

Immature: Young raptors in fall are juveniles. In fact choosing to use the word immature when relating to describing raptors is rarely going to be a good choice. If you think you are seeing young birds, stick to using juvenile and you’ll rarely go wrong. I can envision experienced hawkwatchers eyes rolling whenever I hear this word.

Phase or Morph: The cool trend is now to just use “dark” or “light” when referring to the color of a specific bird that may come in a variety of colors, dropping the defining term. I must admit when I talking to or writing for intermediate hawkwatchers and birders I often use morph. I just think it makes things a bit clearer, cool or not!

There are plenty of other little bits of slang that get banded around at watches but often don’t more beyond the local watch. One of my favorites being Scamming: the act of scanning – but not very hard. Interestingly Jerry Liguori posted a slang term I hadn’t heard before on his recent blog post for HWI – check it out (here). feel free to share some of your favorites here in the comments!

Los Angeles County Big Day – April 26th 2015

29 04 2015
Say's Phoebe - Luke Tiller

Say’s Phoebe – Luke Tiller

Sunday April 26th saw Catherine Hamilton, David Bell, Brittany O’Connor and I taking on a Birding Big Day in Los Angeles County. Our aim was to see or hear as many species of birds as possible in a 24hr period in order to raise money for the Pasadena Audubon Society. We started our day just before dawn and ended some eighteen exhausting hours later, well after the sun had gone down.

Our route planning was influenced as much by a desire not to just follow the typical route that most teams try but was also influenced by some scouting that we undertook pre-trip (though we managed to miss the two rarest birds that the group found whilst scouting: White-winged Scoter and Palm Warbler) . Our handy spreadsheet of stops helped keep our day on a airtight schedule and until we hit a rather sharp bump in the road we were a little ahead of it all day. Our main focus for much of the day was ruthlessly keeping on track and leaving sites with or without the species we needed from them once our allotted time was up: whether this was a two minute stop for a Canvasback or a thirty minute sweep of a renowned migrant trap.

I have to say that Big Days kind of go against my usual mode of birding. I like to bird locally and I like to thoroughly cover spots to make sure there is nothing there left unearthed. I soon opened my eyes though to the beauty and wonder of big days. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we had such a stunning visual backdrop to much of our explorations. In Los Angeles County you can easily go from shorebirds feeding on Grunion eggs, through standing amongst pines at 6000 plus feet looking at Clarke’s Nutcrackers and remnants of snow to enjoying views of beautiful desert birds like Scott’s Oriole and we did all that and more between sunrise and sunset.

Spotted Towhee - Luke Tiller

Spotted Towhee – Luke Tiller

Highlights on the day included those incredible swarms of shorebirds at Playa and a beautiful Mojave Green Rattlesnake that was sauntering across a private road in the desert half-light. The only rare birds we found on the day were a couple of flyover Common Ground Doves along the San Gabriel River. There were however some other interesting sightings: a late Greater Scaup near Playa Del Rey, a lost Acorn Woodpecker out in the desert near Lancaster and a baby Le Contes Thrasher (a notoriously secretive bird) at Edwards Airforce Base.

Of course you always miss some easy birds out on a long day like this and as a professional hawk watcher it particularly burned to not have pulled out either an Osprey, Swainson’s Hawk or Golden Eagle somewhere along our route. We won’t even mention the White-crowned Sparrow one of our group had at an early stop but forgot to convey to the rest of the group!

It still seems incredible to me to think that you can see or hear over 200 species of bird in just one single county in under 24 hours. In fact right until the end of the day our team had seen or heard every bird together until one of us was distracted by a jogger who was keen to know why we were running around a park with binoculars. Personally I think our team worked particularly well together and our different skills coalesced nicely to bring together different key elements to the group.

Red-tailed Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-tailed Hawk – Luke Tiller

It was an amazingly fun day and showed off the outstanding diversity of habitat and birds that can be found in Los Angeles County nicely. Most outsiders when they think of LA think of city expanses, traffic and Hollywood. What they don’t think about are the majestic mountains, serene deserts as well as the river courses and green spaces where Angelenos play games, exercise, walk dogs and of course watch birds.

All in all a great days adventure. Even the bit where I learned how to rapidly change a tire on a Honda Odyssey! After carefully going over our list we discovered that in total we tallied 207 bird species (209 including non-countable birds: Yellow-chevroned Parakeet and Red-whiskered Bulbul).

The species list in full:

  1. Greater White-fronted Goose
  2. Snow Goose
  3. Ross’s Goose
  4. Cackling Goose
  5. Canada Goose
  6. Gadwall
  7. American Wigeon
  8. Mallard
  9. Blue-winged Teal
  10. Cinnamon Teal
  11. Northern Shoveler
  12. Northern Pintail
  13. Canvasback
  14. Redhead
  15. Ring-necked Duck
  16. Lesser Scaup
  17. Greater Scaup
  18. Surf Scoter
  19. Bufflehead
  20. Red-breasted Merganser
  21. Ruddy Duck
  22. Mountain Quail
  23. California Quail
  24. Common Loon
  25. Pied-billed Grebe
  26. Horned Grebe
  27. Eared Grebe
  28. Western Grebe
  29. Clark’s Grebe
  30. Brandt’s Cormorant
  31. Double-crested Cormorant
  32. Pelagic Cormorant
  33. Brown Pelican
  34. Least Bittern
  35. Great Blue Heron
  36. Great Egret
  37. Snowy Egret
  38. Green Heron
  39. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  40. White-faced Ibis
  41. Turkey Vulture
  42. White-tailed Kite
  43. Northern Harrier
  44. Cooper’s Hawk
  45. Red-shouldered Hawk
  46. Red-tailed Hawk
  47. Virginia Rail
  48. Sora
  49. Common Gallinule
  50. American Coot
  51. Black-necked Stilt
  52. American Avocet
  53. Black Oystercatcher
  54. Black-bellied Plover
  55. Semipalmated Plover
  56. Killdeer
  57. Spotted Sandpiper
  58. Greater Yellowlegs
  59. Willet
  60. Whimbrel
  61. Marbled Godwit
  62. Ruddy Turnstone
  63. Black Turnstone
  64. Surfbird
  65. Sanderling
  66. Dunlin
  67. Least Sandpiper
  68. Western Sandpiper
  69. Short-billed Dowitcher
  70. Long-billed Dowitcher
  71. Wilson’s Phalarope
  72. Red-necked Phalarope
  73. Bonaparte’s Gull
  74. Heermann’s Gull
  75. Ring-billed Gull
  76. Western Gull
  77. California Gull
  78. Least Tern
  79. Caspian Tern
  80. Forster’s Tern
  81. Royal Tern
  82. Elegant Tern
  83. Black Skimmer
  84. Rock Pigeon
  85. Band-tailed Pigeon
  86. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  87. Common Ground-Dove
  88. Mourning Dove
  89. Barn Owl
  90. Western Screech-Owl
  91. Great Horned Owl
  92. Northern Pygmy-Owl
  93. Burrowing Owl
  94. Lesser Nighthawk
  95. Common Poorwill
  96. Vaux’s Swift
  97. White-throated Swift
  98. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  99. Anna’s Hummingbird
  100. Allen’s Hummingbird
  101. Lewis’s Woodpecker
  102. Acorn Woodpecker
  103. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  104. Nuttall’s Woodpecker
  105. Hairy Woodpecker
  106. White-headed Woodpecker
  107. Northern Flicker
  108. American Kestrel
  109. Merlin
  110. Peregrine Falcon
  111. Prairie Falcon
  112. Olive-sided Flycatcher
  113. Western Wood-Pewee
  114. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  115. Gray Flycatcher
  116. Pacific-slope Flycatcher
  117. Black Phoebe
  118. Say’s Phoebe
  119. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  120. Cassin’s Kingbird
  121. Western Kingbird
  122. Loggerhead Shrike
  123. Bell’s Vireo
  124. Cassin’s Vireo
  125. Hutton’s Vireo
  126. Warbling Vireo
  127. Steller’s Jay
  128. Western Scrub-Jay
  129. Clark’s Nutcracker
  130. American Crow
  131. Common Raven
  132. Horned Lark
  133. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  134. Tree Swallow
  135. Violet-green Swallow
  136. Bank Swallow
  137. Barn Swallow
  138. Cliff Swallow
  139. Mountain Chickadee
  140. Oak Titmouse
  141. Bushtit
  142. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  143. White-breasted Nuthatch
  144. Pygmy Nuthatch
  145. Brown Creeper
  146. Rock Wren
  147. Canyon Wren
  148. House Wren
  149. Marsh Wren
  150. Bewick’s Wren
  151. Cactus Wren
  152. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  153. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  154. Wrentit
  155. Western Bluebird
  156. Townsend’s Solitaire
  157. Swainson’s Thrush
  158. American Robin
  159. California Thrasher
  160. Le Conte’s Thrasher
  161. Northern Mockingbird
  162. European Starling
  163. American Pipit
  164. Cedar Waxwing
  165. Phainopepla
  166. Orange-crowned Warbler
  167. Nashville Warbler
  168. Common Yellowthroat
  169. American Redstart
  170. Yellow Warbler
  171. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  172. Black-throated Gray Warbler
  173. Townsend’s Warbler
  174. Hermit Warbler
  175. Wilson’s Warbler
  176. Yellow-breasted Chat
  177. Green-tailed Towhee
  178. Spotted Towhee
  179. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  180. California Towhee
  181. Chipping Sparrow
  182. Black-chinned Sparrow
  183. Black-throated Sparrow
  184. Savannah Sparrow
  185. Fox Sparrow
  186. Song Sparrow
  187. Dark-eyed Junco
  188. Western Tanager
  189. Black-headed Grosbeak
  190. Lazuli Bunting
  191. Red-winged Blackbird
  192. Western Meadowlark
  193. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  194. Brewer’s Blackbird
  195. Great-tailed Grackle
  196. Brown-headed Cowbird
  197. Hooded Oriole
  198. Bullock’s Oriole
  199. Scott’s Oriole
  200. House Finch
  201. Purple Finch
  202. Cassin’s Finch
  203. Pine Siskin
  204. Lesser Goldfinch
  205. Lawrence’s Goldfinch
  206. American Goldfinch
  207. House Sparrow

Hawk Migration Studies Article

28 01 2015

Here’s a little piece I wrote for the next edition of Hawk Migration Studies HMANA’s Membership Magazine. Details on membership from their website (here).

Luke Tiller - Yuval Dax

Luke Tiller – Yuval Dax

In May 2014 I was lucky enough to meet with Yoav Perlman and Jonathan Meyrav from the Israel Ornithological Center (IOC) while they were undertaking a tour of North America that included taking in some birding at Braddock Bay. It was through that initial contact that I found myself touching down in Tel Aviv in September to spend the next few weeks witnessing perhaps one of the most spectacular raptor migration spectacles on earth as part of the IOC’s Fall Soaring Bird Survey team.

The five count sites were focused on the narrowest section of the county, stretching east/west with the western most site less than 20 km from the coast and the eastern most post sitting right on the border with the West Bank. Individual sites were just a few kilometers apart, which gives you an idea of just how incredibly narrow the country is at that particular point. This setup essentially provided a net to catch every bird passing through the center of the country, the kind of coverage unimaginable in the US. What we counted was also a little different as we monitored other large soaring birds including pelicans, stork and cranes as well as raptors.

Red-footed Falcon - Luke Tiller

Red-footed Falcon – Luke Tiller

With the sites situated relatively close together you could see birds that were being counted by your neighboring counter. A walkie-talkie was therefore an essential piece of kit which allowed you to discuss handing over of streams of drifting birds, kept you on your toes and helped check that you weren’t committing the cardinal sin of ‘double-counting’. This constant contact also helped build a great sense of camaraderie amongst the team and made me wish that something similar could be set up among US watches.

Most of the Israeli watch sites were not officially open to the public, so the centrally located Qasim site, which was, acted as the focus for education and public outreach. At weekends visitor numbers were often impressive (in the hundreds) and a team of naturalists helped interpret what was happening. Personally I enjoy the education and outreach side of things, in fact to me it’s almost as important as the count itself. The great thing about the flights in Israel is that they are pretty steady, even on the slower days, so it’s rare that you are scratching around for things to show people.

Juvenile Marsh Harrier - Luke Tiller

Juvenile Marsh Harrier – Luke Tiller

The focal point of the raptor survey were three distinct species. Early season the spotlight was on Honey Buzzards, a species that comes in a staggering array of plumage flavors from mainly white to almost black. Their stripes and bars make them initially look almost Hook-billed Kite-ish but with Rough-legged Hawk style carpal patches. To get an idea of the flight, imagine one of those crazy pepper spot Broad-winged days and add the kind of lift 100f degree temperatures gives you! My busiest day I tallied about 6000 individuals of that species, but that was because I had missed the starting weeks of the survey and the 30,000 bird days.

Mid-season the focus switched to Levant Sparrowhawk, an accipiter good-natured enough to travel in large groups. They often formed incredible swirling kettles of birds that looked like those glittering silvery balls of bait fish that are so beloved of cameramen in nature documentaries. A large kettle might number a few hundred to a couple of thousand birds, but their smaller size and rapid movements still made them surprisingly difficult to spot in cloudless blue skies, as was the norm.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

The season closed on the movement of Lesser Spotted Eagles. If you can imagine days where a stream of 8,000 small golden eagles passed your watch you have something analogous to the flight. Mixed in were a small number of exciting species including other Aquila eagles like Steppe, Imperial and Greater Spotted.

Over the season I tallied an impressive 22 different raptor species. Though from Europe initially myself, I am now much more knowledgeable about those raptors that are found in the northeastern part of the US. That said it was amazing how quickly hawkwatching skills translated from identifying North American raptors to European ones – translating shapes, plumage patterns, flight style and coloration into a crystallized identification.

Lesser Kestrel – Luke Tiller

When Israeli ornithologists started undertaking these raptor survey in the mid 1980’s they sometimes lacked the skilled local personnel to man the counts. With a burgeoning skilled birding community this is no longer the case and so participation is really now by special invite only. That said if you fancy going and seeing the spectacle for yourself the IOC has a great English language website which can help you plan your visit from when and where to go, to helping you attend a festival or find a tour leader for your stay:

Luke Tiller has counted hawks for a number of seasons in New England and Western New York State. He currently sits on the Board of HMANA and is the committee chair for our Tours and Events Committee You can read more about his adventures in Israel and elsewhere on his blog