“Near the start of the Lookout Trail this evening a very rich song came from within a tree. I can’t begin to describe it but it was way beyond anything I was expecting. I couldn’t trace the bird and then the song stopped. On starting to walk past, I noticed something very dark hopping up the branches. Steller’s jay, I thought from what I could see of it. It reached branches directly above me, about 50 feet up say, and began to preen.
“With the backlight all that was obvious was that the bird was dark with a long black tail but with no hint of the blue that would make it a jay. It also seemed smaller than that. However, as it preened it showed a very ragged crest, which seemed too wispy for Steller’s.
“I couldn’t figure it out then but, looking through my Sibley at home, I am struck by phainopepla. Is this possible?”
Local expert, Les Chibana, replied that phainopepla sightings in the Santa Cruz Mountains were rare enough that the last might have dated back to the 1970s. I didn’t let that rest and three weeks later wrote:
“I recently returned to the spot where I found this bird and looked up at the branch where it had perched. There was the same lighting as before (early evening). It seemed impossible that I could not have seen the blue of Steller’s jay. That, coupled with the fact that I have also never heard a jay do anything but screech, suggests that something pretty odd was going on.
“This is clearly not enough to make an identification but if I had to put money on anything, it would be phainopepla despite the unsuitability of the habitat. It was just one of those tantalising sightings…”
Oddly I see that the last couple of years have produced the species in Santa Clara County although not in the habitat I was claiming. Perhaps California’s drought is making the state more attractive to the bird. Certainly my first ever sighting earlier that year was at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Further California records then followed at the Salton Sea and Big Morongo – both pretty arid.
If Stevens Creek looks as it has recently, phainopeplas could soon be turning up there with regularity.