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The Vocal Yellow-Breasted Sulker

Water Lane, Pescadero.

This was my second attempt to see the yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens) in the green riparian tangle of Water Lane. In my first attempt I was looking in the wrong part of Water Lane and so finding out where the bird was actually being seen improves chances immensly. Go figure!

The last time I’d laid eyes on a chat was June of 2003 at the Ukiah Water Treatment Plant. So it was about time that I added one to my San Mateo County List.

Always a good sign for a birder.

It is actually much harder to lay eyes on a chat than it is to hear one. The yellow-breasted chat is a verbose songster than unlike other birds remains well hidden when singing. Pete Dunne defined the bird this way, “Both a histrionic showoff and a shy skulker.”

As I walked up Water Lane at 10:30, I heard the chat, chatting away. But seeing the singer was a whole different challenge. A challenge that would take time and patience.

A group of three birders were peering into the tangle. They had been there since 8 and had seen the chat in fleeting glimpses. But it had been singing up a storm interspersed with moments of silence.

Now it was a matter of picking a spot and waiting.

Like the chat, the Swanson’s thrush is more often heard than seem. It’s ethereal call is part of the summer soundtrack of my childhood.

I filled my time by watching the other birds in the riparian tangle, the fleeing flight of a yellow Wilson’s warbler giving a false sense of chat.

A white-tailed kite perched briefly above the tangle.

It was 45 minutes into my wait when I first spotted the chat. Previously I had felt sure the chat was in the bush right in front of me but the chat seemed to be a skilled ventriloquist. This time the bird in the bush was in plain sight and I was able to watch it singing away, it’s yellow throat pulsing with each liquid warble.

And when I mean plain sight, it was in plain sight to me and the birders on my left and right could not see the sulker thought my leafy window.

This reminded me of birding in the tropics where the birds can be sulky and your field of view is very narrow. Getting a quality view is a struggle as you are often looking at bird parts and not the whole.

But here I put all the parts together. The yellow throat and breast, the white spectacles, and the large size and long tail. This was a yellow-breasted chat! County lifer!

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Scope Gull

To the naked eye they are white specks on a rock. With binoculars you can discern the white front and grey back, the yellow beak (with maybe a smudge of red on the lower mandible) but the iris and orbital ring color are unknown at this distance. But with a scope the smaller gull,  just on the right, with a yellow bill, dark “earmuffs”, and black feet turns into North American Lifebird #510!

I set out on Saturday morning ,  heading south on Highway One with binos, scope, and tripod stowed in the back. My first detour of the day was in Pacifica to the Sharp Park Golf Course to check on the continuing emperor goose. A short walk south down the berm produced the rare goose, loosely feeding on the fairway with a group of Canada geese. Check.

Emperor

Journal page from the Emperor goose I saw at Seven Mile Slough, Lifebird #500. March 12, 2016.

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Digiscope shot of the goose in the rough, at Sharp Park Golf Course, January 29, 2017.

The next stop was Pillar Point Harbor to see if anything interesting had blown in. I checked the creekmouth and beaches for any interesting gulls with not much luck. I then returned to Highway One. My plan was to head to Pescadero to scope the rocks and sea to find something interesting.

On my way to Santa Cruz, I frequently stop here, scanning the rocks for one of my favorite rock dwellers, the black oystercatcher. Most times it’s banshee wail, issued as it flies, calls attention to this cryptic colored bird, especially when it tucks its bright orange-red bill into its feathers. I scoped the rocks from the Pescadero State Beach pockmarked parking lot.  I counted 11 oystercatchers among the gulls and pelicans.

I slowly picked through the gulls, noting the beautiful plumage of the Heerman’s gull that were preening near the brown pelicans. As I panned to the left I saw a small gull, one with dark earmuffs, that I had missed on my first pass. This gull was different. Through the scope I ticked off the details: black legs, earmuffs, yellow bill. This was my target bird: an adult black-legged kittiwake! Lifebird #510!

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A not so wonderful digiscope photo of the preening kittiwake (the top gull).