The Drought Bird

Steven's Creek
Steven’s Creek in Cupertino © Gordon Shukwit

Being unable to identify California species didn’t stop me from having a stab, with embarrassing results sometimes. After a visit to Stevens Creek on April 26th, 2001 I posted:

“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.

Southern Grey Shrike, Tenerife

Teide from El Fraile
Teide from El Fraile

In preparing for my Peru trip, I’ve discovered another lifer to take me up to 1,091, but not the American species you might think. It turns out that the shrike I saw at El Fraile in the Canary Islands was not great grey (Lanius excubitor) as my Collins suggested but at the very least L. meridionalis.

I say this because there’s doubt about whether the species is even this Iberian version of our northern bird. Some would split the complex further into Continue reading

Barn Swallow, New Cut

Not exactly the Bristol mega I’d previously posted but yesterday afternoon’s bird became my 50th species for the patch. It’s hard to imagine where swallows might be breeding around here and, given their propensity for two or three broods, they’re not likely to be migrating back yet: even the swifts are still present. Flying over the western end of the New Cut put this bird close to Ashton Court which I suppose may be the right habitat for bringing up youngsters.

Another highlight was an uncommon Continue reading

Normandy Marsh, Lymington

If coming in by train, don’t bother travelling on to the end of the line at Lymington Quay. Stop at the Town station and try to hug the left bank of the river, heading south. A detour into the High Street will be worthwhile to pick up water and other comestibles; otherwise you’re at the mercy of the mercenaries that follow.

You’ll then pass acres of marina, which have gobbled up the original habitat in the pursuit of Continue reading

Radipole Lake, Weymouth

This is a short five-minute walk from the station. Just hang a right, skirt round Halfords and B&Q, and head across a car park to the thatched RSPB hut. From here must be the easiest way to put Mediterranean gull on anyone’s car-free list. Mind you, the time of year may be important because previous visits have never yielded it. It wasn’t even on my Dorset list.

In the reed beds that stretch north of the car park, other good summer birds are Continue reading