Gray Jay – Perisoreus canadensis

Gray Jay in forest habitat

The Gray Jay ranges from east to west across the northern boreal forests of America. They are popularly known as “camp robbers” and may even fly onto peoples hands or heads for food.

Description and Family

Gray Jay is unique in appearance, relative to the other crow, jay, and magpie members of the Corvidae family. The most notable difference is its small black bill which leads to it sometimes being described as looking like an oversized chickadee.

Gray Jay is a medium sized, fluffy, pale gray jay with a light underside and no crest. All races have black eyes, feet, legs, and bill. In North America there are three readily distinguishable populations of Gray Jay. The photos here show the Rocky Mountain version or color pattern. Pacific birds have a darker head and brownish tinged backs. Taiga (northern) populations are grayer above and have a slight grayish belly. 11 defined races are distributed among these three color morphs. Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , , |

Vermilion Flycatcher

Male-Vermilion-Flycatcher

Male Vermilion Flycatcher, Mazatlan, Mexico

The Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) is a small tyrant flycatcher in the family, Tyrannidae. Vermilion Flycatchers have a huge range in the New World, being found as far south as central Argentina and covering much of South and Central America. Across this vast range, there are at least 12 sub-species of Vermilion Flycatcher recognized by ornithologists, including one race on the Galapagos Islands that some regard as a separate species. In the United States, Vermilion Flycatchers are mostly limited to the desert southwest, where their range extends as far north as southern Nevada. Their California range includes much of the Mojave Desert, in San Bernardino County, across most of Riverside and Imperial Counties and across into Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. In coastal California, they are less common and more likely found as winter visitors, though there are indications that their breeding range is expanding towards the coast. Here, Vermilion Flycatchers often use edge habitat like golf courses and athletic fields. Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , , , , , |

Magpies – Black-billed and Yellow-billed

Black-billed Magpie

This Black-billed Magpie was photographed in Denver Colorado. It is common to see either of the American Magpie species walking on the ground foraging for food.

Magpie Origin

The magpies of North America are very visually distinctive from other birds and thus easy to identify. Although the Black-billed Magpie is very similar in appearance to the European Magpie, it is larger and genetically unique. DNA analysis places our two magpies as separate from the European Magpie. Under the same DNA distinctions that the American Magpies were divided from the European Magpies, the Korean subspecies should also be divided as a unique species. The ancestral magpies, after dispersing across Eurasia and becoming isolated in Korea, then crossed over the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas at about 3 to 4 million years ago. Strictly speaking, using DNA comparisons our two magpie species could also potentially be merged as a single species. Continue reading

Posted in Birding, Digiscoping |

Olive-backed Pipit

Christmas arrived early in Orange County this weekend when, on November 1st, local birder, Jeff Bray, made the find of a lifetime: an Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni) at Yorba Regional Park. It may not sound like much, but it’s a really big deal.

Olive-backed Pipit – Previous Continental Records

Olive-backed Pipit 9565

Olive-backed Pipit, Yorba Regional Park, 01-NOV-14

For starters, there were only 3 previous records of this species in North America away from Alaska. (Here, North America is defined geographically as including Mexico – not the birding definition). Olive-backed Pipits had previously been found in Washoe, Nevada in 1967, in Baja in 1996 and on the Farallon Islands in California in 1998. So the take-home message is, these guys don’t show up very often! Whenever a call like this goes out, birders do their version of a ‘flash mob’, and the one at Yorba Regional Park on Saturday was very impressive! I was among the first 20 birders there, but soon birders began arriving from all over the map in minutes. And soon it was a who’s who of southern California birders. And why not? This little Olive-backed Pipit really put on a show! It led us a merry dance at first, flying from place to place within the park, landing in heavy cover and skulking around so low that often the only visible indication it was there was movement of the vegetation it was walking under. But eventually, it came out on the lawn between the picnic tables where it fed calmly for about an hour, giving everyone incredible looks. In fact, the bird was remarkably cooperative, seemingly oblivious to the constant whir of camera shutters and the quiet conversation of excited birders. Continue reading

Posted in Birding, Digiscoping, Spotting Scopes, Video | Tagged , , , , |

Rufous-backed Robin

Rufous-backed Robin 0747

The Rufous-backed Robin at 29 Palms Inn

Last weekend, we drove out to Twentynine Palms, CA to look for a Rufous-backed Robin that had been reported there. The bird had been present for at least a week on the lush grounds of the 29 Palms Inn resort. This resort is a 70-acre oasis of greenery and water for wildlife in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and the owners and operators of the inn are very birder friendly. The 29 Palms Inn is located close to Joshua Tree National Park, in extreme south central San Bernardino County, CA. Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , , , , |

Lincoln’s Sparrows

Lincoln's Sparrow 9205 psp

Lincoln’s Sparrow in shadows

The Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) is a smallish member of the same genus as the familiar Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) that is so common in many habitats across the continent. Lincoln’s Sparrows have nearly as broad a distribution as Song Sparrows, with the exception of some southeastern states like Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, but they are much more highly migratory, breeding in the far north of Canada and in the upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada ranges. Thus, Lincoln’s Sparrows are absent from much of their listed range except as passage migrants. Here in southern California, we see these beautiful little sparrows primarily in winter, though Lincoln’s Sparrows do breed as nearby as the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The winter range of Lincoln’s Sparrow stretches almost all the way south to Panama. Sometimes you can find upwards of 20-30 Lincoln’s Sparrows in a large, loose winter flock.
Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , , |

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars, top view

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars, top view

Some of you may already have heard about the Victory SF binoculars, the new high-end binocular from Zeiss. Victory SF binoculars are a completely re-imagined roof prism design. Zeiss now says that Victory SF binoculars will be available for purchase in January, 2015. We have first-hand experience with this binocular. I participated in the official Zeiss Victory SF Experience press event in Europe in June, 2014 and got to bird with a pre-production Victory SF for a week (For a travelogue of the press event birding, see Zeiss Victory SF Experience Tour, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it, so I happily took one for the team! We also had a pre-production Victory SF model in the store for a week this past August. Even though we haven’t seen a production model Victory SF, we can tell you already that it’s a spectacular nature viewing binocular. Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , |

Red-throated Pipits Return to SoCal

Red-throated Pipits

Red-throated Pipit

Migration of Red-throated Pipits

One of the most amazing migratory flights is that of the Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus. This pipit breeds primarily in eastern Europe and Asia, almost completely above the Arctic Circle, and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. There are also some breeding grounds in Alaska’s northwest coast, Bering Sea islands, and possibly also in the Yukon. Most Red-throated Pipits migrate down the western Pacific and winter in China and as far south as Australia. Some of the more eastern breeders take a more easterly route. These 6-inch passerines fatten up on the islands in the Bering Sea and then head off on a 3,000 mile flight across the Pacific Ocean to the California coast. While annual each October in southern California in small numbers, mostly on sod farms, Red-throated Pipits are almost unheard of much north of the San Francisco Bay Area. This tells us that they rarely follow land and fly straight across the ocean. The Red-throated Pipits that migrate through SoCal winter in Baja California. eBird records show them wintering near La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Continue reading

Posted in Birding, Digiscoping, Spotting Scopes | Tagged , , |

‘I’iwi (Scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper)

'I'iwi on Maui, Hawaii

‘I’iwi feeding on ‘Ōhi’a Lehua tree in Maui

‘I’iwi distribution

The ‘I’iwi (pronounced ee-EE-vee) is an endemic Hawaiian honeycreeper. We recently photographed this spectacular scarlet colored bird on Maui. It was once widely distributed throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Today 90% of its population is found on the big island of Hawai’i with most of the remaining population in Eastern Maui and Kaua’i. Very small groups of the ‘I’iwi are also present on the islands of Oahu and Moloka’i but their numbers are extremely low (below 50 birds). Continue reading

Posted in Birding |

A Fall Pelagic Trip Out of Dana Point

Heermann's Gull, Fall Pelagic, 20-SEP-14

Heermann’s Gull, Fall Pelagic, 20-SEP-14

I recently took the fall pelagic birding trip out of Dana Point Harbor. Recent sightings of a Red-billed Tropicbird in the Santa Barbara Channel and the presence of hurricane systems south of us off the west coast of Baja suggested that the fall pelagic might be a really good trip. There had already been greater than usual numbers of Craveri’s Murrelets in the channel, and many people were on the boat specifically looking for that species. Plus, with September being the peak of Blue Whale occurrence in the channel, we knew beforehand that this trip could end up being dominated by cetaceans rather than birds. In the end, all of those expectations were met. Well, except for the tropicbird… Rats! Continue reading

Posted in Birding | Tagged , , , , |