The Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport

While Grasshopper and I were birding Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon, a rare flycatcher for the West Coast was found on a barbed wire fence just north of Cement Plant Road in Davenport. I wasn’t going to able to look for it until the following Friday, that is, if it hung around.

This is arguably one of the most beautiful flycatchers in North America. This is Tyrannus forticatus, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher looks like a kingbird (it is actually related to the western kingbird) with a forked tailed that is twice the length of it’s body. In the book 100 Bird to See Before You Die by David Chandler & Dominic Couzens, the authors rank the scissor- tailed on the list at number 79, ahead of vermillion flycatcher, magnificent frigatebird, angel tern, paradise tanager, tufted puffin, and greater flamingo (all birds I have seen in the wild.)

The adult scissor-tailed was not where it was supposed to be (something all birders love). The bird summers and breeds in the southern middle of the United States, in Texas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Louisiana. But all this kingbird needs is an open pasture, some cows, lots of hunting perches( like a barbed wire fence), and a sky full of flying insects.

I got off work early because of a buy back day to pay us back for the extra hours of open house and I headed to the coast on Highway 92 and then south on Highway 1 toward Davenport.

Some birds are extremely hard to add to your life or county list such as rails, wayward warblers, and some thrashers but it is always nice to have a bird handed to you on a plate (a live bird of course!). This was the case with the “Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport”. As I rolled up, five birders where already peering into the cow pasture along Cement Plant Road. The flycatcher was perched on barbed wire about 30 yards out. This was much closer than it had been seen by others over the past six days!

This is not only a beautiful flycatcher but it is also a pleasure to watch as it is in motion for most of the time, pursuing flying insects from it’s fence perch. It would also fly down to the grass to catch insects on the ground.

This was a wonderful and unexpected Santa Cruz County bird!

You don’t see this combo everyday: California quail and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
The anchor for my sketch was a field sketch of the cow pasture where I first spotted the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Full disclosure: while there were many more cows in the pasture, I only drew two. I try to follow a whole foods, plant-based diet after all! And don’t get me started about cow farts.


The Gem of the Valley

At 8:35 AM, I found myself 40 feet above Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on top of the observation tower. This was my second hawk watch of the trip and my third attempt to add one of the most sought after birds in the entire Rio Grande Valley. This was and is the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax unicinatus). 

This tropical treesnail hunter is only found in the United States in the wide Rio Grande Valley, between Falcon Dam and Brownsville but Santa Ana NWR is the epicenter for most visitor’s kiteless search.

To prove this point, an hour later, I was joined by two Twitchers (very committed bird watchers) from Essex, England. It’s always good to have witnesses!

Scope view from the Santa Ana NWR observation tower.

Two days before I had hawk watched for three hours and there was a prolific northern movement of hawks, coming up from South and Central America. The most numerous raptor was the broad-winged hawk (thousands) and a good number of Swainson’s hawks, the raptor with the longest migration on planet earth.

This day the hawk migration was more of a trickle, allowing me time to explore the treetops of Santa Ana. What immediately stood out was the local Harris’s hawks that were perched along the canopy.

A pair of the local Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus). Two in one scope view!!

As the skies continued to be raptorless, I looked around at the treetops. A small black bird perched on a power pole caught my attention. What stood out, even at distance, was the birds intense red eyes, like it hadn’t gotten any sleep in a week or more. I focused my scope on the bird just to confirm lifer # 526, Bronzed cowbird!

Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus), flying from the power pole. 

There was plenty of downtime between raptors and, as always, I filled in the time with a sketch. This sketch is a birder peering off to the south, wearing his “birder’s bra”.

I noticed a mixed kettle of black and turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks. Then I saw a bird that clearly stood out, a bird that looked like no other. I trained my scope on the soaring raptor. I mentally ticked off the paddle-shaped wings, heavily barred underwing primaries, distinctive head and beak shape, lazy and deep wing beats.

“I got the kite!” I announce to the British birders and they were soon on the soaring Hook-billed. I was able to watch the kite in the scope for a good five minutes. The search for The Gem of the Valley was over!

One my way back from my triumphant kite watch, an added bonus was seeing the stunning scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannous forficatus). I got great looks at this seasonally common kingbird and as I raised my camera to my eye, just as I pushed the shutter button, it flew.