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County Birding

As I slowly creep towards 600 ABA birds on my life list I have looked for other birding challenges in my home state of California.

California is a great place to bird because it has just over 600 species that have been found here, only Texas ranks higher in species total. It is also one of the most populated states which means more traffic, higher housing prices, and more expensive lattes but is also means more birders in the field, reporting more birds!

My latest challenge has been to increase my species totals by county. Three counties are the focus of my challenges: San Francisco (were I live), San Mateo (where I work), and Santa Cruz (where I relax). The goal for each county is to see 200 species in each county. Which means that previously a bird that is being seen in San Mateo County ( a black vulture, for instance) that I had already seen (in the Everglades, for instance), then I was less likely to chase it. But now I gave myself the challenge that if a rarity showed up in one of my three target counties, I would give chase, even if the bird was already on my ABA life list.

Which brings me to the subject of my featured sketch: the California thrasher (Toxostom redivivum). As the name implies, this mimid is endemic to California and I have seen this sometimes illusive and sulky bird in the North and East Bay Area and in Joshua Tree. In fact in it’s range it is listed as “common and widespread”. Normally if one is reported, I wouldn’t go but when one wintering individual was reported on a hillside off of  Diamond Heights in San Francisco, I grabbed my bins, and headed east! A California thrasher in San Francisco is considered rare for the county. A new bird to add to my City List was only 15 minutes away!

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A journal spread about my issues with thrashers, from Joshua tree.

So 15 minutes later I was on the sidewalk on Diamond Heights, peering into the dense bushes on the hillside. Nothing. I looked up to the west and saw a large congress of ravens, circling over Twin Peaks. Before the 1980’s the common raven was not so common in San Francisco. Their population has risen since that time and they are now very common on the west side of San Francisco. Could the same thing be happening to the California thrasher? Too early to tell.

After twenty minutes of searching I was still having no luck. And then off to my left I heard the unmistakable song of California’s coastal thrasher. I ran over and found the bird singing, perched on top of a bush. I had great views of the songster for over five minutes before it finally dove down into the bushes.

A new San Francisco City and County bird!

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In Pursuit of Phantoms

Just west of the Salton Sea, the road begins to rise, just out of Salton City. Slowly you climb up to above sea level and you keep climbing through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. My target bird for this little desert detour was the elusive Le Conte’s thrasher. This bird have eluded me all over Joshua Tree National Park and I hoping to add this bird to my life list at the known thrasher hotspot at Old Springs Road Open Space Preserve.

I walked the sand in ever widening circles, hoping to catch the bird that looked like a mouse darting from bush to bush, but the the only evidence of the thrasher were it’s footprints in the desert sands.

With one last day in Joshua Tree I decided to try one last place for Le Conte’s, a location I had tried before, Queen Valley Road. I walked the road, stopping every once in awhile to listen for the thrasher’s song. I was about 300 yards down the road, when I heard the warble of of a far of thrasher off to the left. I maddening ran through the desert brush, like Tuco the Ugly, in the famous “Ecstasy Of Gold” scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The song seemed to come from the rock outcrop. I scanned the area for any sign of the thrasher.

I finally spotted the thrasher in the upper branches of a tree, signing it’s heart out and mimicking a scrub-jay, which perched in the tree next to the singing thrasher. I was able to get great looks at the very light, sandy thrasher. Le Conte’s thrasher! I watched the thrasher as it moved around, singing from the highest perches around it’s territory.

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The singing thrasher on top of a boulder.

I then walked off to the Wall Street Mine. On the way out to the mine, doubt started to set in. There was something about the bird that didn’t fit. Would a Le Conte’s sing in the top of the tallest tree around? Is the Le Conte’s know for it’s mimicry in it’s songs? Everything I had read about the bird was that it was elusive and sang a quiet, hushed song. This was not the thrasher I had just seen. In my desire to see a Le Conte’s, I had convinced myself that this thrasher fit the part.

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The abandoned Wall Street Mine, Joshua Tree National Park.

On my return from the mine, I refound the thrasher and this time I confirmed that it was not a Le Conte’s but a California thrasher. And I so I left Joshua Tree without finding the elusive silent-sulker of a thrasher.

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Foot steps in the sand are the closest I came to “seeing” the mysterious, Le Conte’s thrasher.