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Life Birds

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 

My Lifer Island Scrub-Jay on Santa Cruz Island.

Let’s face it, everyone loves life birds. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing something new? Plenty of bird watchers will tell you they don’t keep lists, and don’t care about things like “lifers”. But I guarantee those same people know when they are seeing something new—a lifer. Life birds are fun. Life birds are exciting. Life birds breathe new life into birding for people who need a second wind. Life birds keep people interested in birding.

I will be the first to admit that I love life birds. I know what birds I haven’t seen and always look forward to seeing something new. The difference in how I act when “just” birding, or when I am seeing a life bird is like night and day. I enjoy birding and it is fun, but when a lifer comes into the picture, I get ecstatic! Carl and Jeff have both seen me “just” birding, and have seen me when I see a new Utah bird (similar to a lifer for me, new birds for my Utah list are exciting), they can vouch for the change in me.

So why the post about life birds? Well that is simple; I added a few to my life list this past weekend. On Wednesday of last week Sam and I headed to southern California. I haven’t been in almost 20 years and had a laundry list of species I could pick up. The 15 or so species that I haven’t seen from this area would fill a big hole in my life list and that had me excited before I had even seen my first bird of the trip. It wouldn’t be until Saturday that the birding really started and between Saturday and Monday I would tally 11 new life birds.

It started in Malibu with BLACK SKIMMER. I was able to view 4 sitting on a sandbar in a lagoon at some distance. I stupidly didn’t take and pictures because I had planned on seeing more further north. Little did I know these would be the only ones I would see all weekend. After the Skimmers I spotted an ALLEN’S HUMMINGBIRD displaying near the parking area at the Malibu Lagoon. Next I headed into Trancas Canyon and grabbed both CALIFORNIA TOWHEE and CALIFORNIA GNATCATCHER. That was followed by NANDAY PARAKEET that I first heard in the canyon then tracked down in a field by the Pacific Coast Highway.

Lifer Nanday Parakeet in Malibu.

Up the coast at Point Mugu I seemingly couldn’t find anything I had hoped for. No Black Skimmers as I had expected. No Tricolored Blackbird that were supposed to be there and no White-tailed Kite. I couldn’t complain too much though, 5 lifers in a day is a pretty good tally!

The following morning we hopped on a boat headed to Santa Cruz Island to look for Island Scrub-Jay. On the way out I had distant looks at a BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATER on the crest of the waves. I had expected more of these birds and was a little surprise that this was the only one seen. Alcids were few and far between with a couple Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murre—two species I had seen in Oregon previously. Otherwise the boat trip out was pretty lackluster for birds. Upon arrival it only took an hour to find the first ISLAND SCRUB-JAYS, of which we eventually saw 9 all together. I will post more about this later. That was it for lifers on the island—I didn’t expect anything else as the trip out was specifically for the jay. On the boat ride in there seemed to be a lot more birds on the water. On several occasions alcids zoomed by the boat and out of sight, many of which happened to fast to ID. But one bird in particular caught my eye. Coming form behind and flying past the boat a single XANTUS’S MURRELET made a pass before disappearing into the waves. I had high hopes of seeing this rare little alcid, but didn’t really expect it. Afterwards I was just happy that I had managed to snap a couple of shots that had the little dot in it, and one close enough that the bird actually showed up decently.

Lifer Xantus's Murrelet on the Santa Barbara Channel.

Monday morning we were up early to head back to Salt Lake. I wasn’t quite done yet though. I had a couple stops in Oxnard where I felt I could add at least two more lifers, and maybe even four. While driving I was continually scanning the fields for blackbirds hoping to pick up a Tricolored. By pure chance I pulled over to look at a map and in the field next to the car were tons of birds including 9 TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS! A few minutes later I pulled into Camarillo Regional Park and headed up the road. It was only a couple minutes before I heard my first NUTTALL’S WOODPECKER rattling off in the distance, followed by another nearer to me. Things were good, but only got better when a CALIFORNIA THRASHER started singing from the bushes along the road.

And that sums it up. 11 life birds in the course of three days. I had planned to drive about 70 miles north to an area where Yellow-billed Magpie are found but the weather was so bad on Saturday afternoon that we canceled. Aside from the magpie I likely would have picked up White-headed Woodpecker, and had a shot at Mountain Quail. Perhaps the biggest miss and my current North American nemesis bird the White-tailed Kite eluded me despite passing through plenty of great habitat and locations where they are often seen. Otherwise, who can complain about 11 life birds? Now I just have to get to south Texas and a few stops in Florida to fill out the remaining holes in my list.

What are your thoughts on life birds? Any good stories, or memorable lifer moments? Feel free to share by leaving a comment.

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Blogger Oliver Hansen said...

Thanks for the trip report.

February 23, 2011 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger Steve's Bird Blog said...

My most memorable life bird was also bird number 300 on my life list, it is the Black Redstart. I saw my first in Como Italy last September, we then went to Germany and I saw quite a few more of them there.

February 23, 2011 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Oliver No problem!

@Steve That's a pretty sweet #300. A fair number of my milestone birds have been cool birds, but all pretty common. 300 was a Magnificent Hummingbird in Arizona. 400 was a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Wyoming (how I got to 400 without that is mind boggling), and 500 was even more astonishingly common in a Cassin's Vireo at Callao in the West Desert. It seems like most of my really cool birds are random numbers!

Thanks for sharing!

February 23, 2011 at 2:50 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

When I was first getting into birding 3 years ago or so and made my first trip the Beaver Dam Slope and the St. George area, camping with Tim Avery, Carl Ingwell, and Colby Neuman I picked up a bunch of lifers. I'll always remember waking up and hearing the songs of Black-Throated Sparrows everywhere. And from there it just continued: Cactus Wren, Bell's Vireo, Common Blackhawk, Painted Redstart. The weekend of April 4-6, 2008, I picked up 29 lifers. An incredible 3 days. And Tim Avery had an epic and still joked about encounter with a camelbak and a barbed wire fence.

February 24, 2011 at 1:42 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Hey, that was the trip that made me get a new bladder for that pack. The damn thing leaked all over the car--it deserved to get chucked at a fence alright! It's lucky I didn't throw it 40' up in a Cottonwood!

February 24, 2011 at 2:35 PM  

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