from the Field
The La Jolla Northern Wheatear
On Thursday, October 18, we decided on a lunch walk, a midday break from the lab where we both work as fishery biologists at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. We were hoping to find some interesting fall migrants. The walk took us through the neighboring residential area and out over a grassy knoll overlooking the ocean, the Scripps Coastal Reserve Biodiversity Trail, off La Jolla Farms Road near the UCSD campus. Most of the bluff is disturbed grassland, but there is still some scattered native vegetation like California sagebrush, lemonadeberry, buckwheat, prickly pear, chalk dudleya, cholla, and barrel cactus (thanks in part to replanting efforts by UCSD staff and students). It has a beautiful vista of the Pacific Ocean over Black's Beach and is bounded on the north and south by steep Black's and Sumner canyons. Among the birds that breed here are the California Thrasher, California Gnatcatcher, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Brown Towhee, and during migration we have seen various tanagers, hawks, warblers, grosbeaks, buntings, kingbirds, and other migrants there.
This day, as we were entering the preserve, Sue was grumbling about there being no birds in sight except Black Phoebes, mockingbirds, and House Finches, and wondering if the House Finch should be made the state bird. Then, as we made a turn on the southern part of the loop trail, Dave pointed to a bird about 125 feet away, beside the trail, hawking insects from a low perch near the base of a lemonadeberry bush about 2 to 3 feet above the ground. He said, "What's that, a Say's Phoebe?" Sue looked and saw it had a general Say's Phoebe coloration (grayish brown above, cinnamon below, with a dark eye/face mask and black tail), but something was wrong that did not fit the Say's Phoebe mold. The bird was closer to the bluebird mold. Dave also noticed that the throat and chest pattern looked wrong for a Say's. And there were two Say's Phoebes nearby, so we could see the difference. "No, " Sue said, "I don't think it's a Say's Phoebe, but I think it's a GREAT bird--like no bird I've seen before!" It had a definite bluebird look and size, including a very vertical posture and a bright cinnamon-orange bib on the breast with color most intense high up on the chest, higher than a Say's, which is dusky in the upper chest. It also had an unusual face pattern and a whitish throat faintly reminiscent of a female Vermilion Flycatcher. It was flicking its tail like a Palm or Prairie Warbler and bobbing its body, which a Say's does not do. As we moved closer we could see more details. The tail was very black and medium-short. Dave later said he was struck by the shortness of it. Sue saw thin slashes of white in the outer tail feathers as the bird was perched. The wings were very long in proportion to the tail, like a Mountain Bluebird's. There was also a subtle buff eyebrow that continued across the forehead like a pale diadem above the eyes. This Sue dimly remembered being a Wheatear characteristic (fitting with the bluebird "look" and white and black tail feathers), and at that point suggested that the bird might be a Wheatear. But we couldn't remember exactly what a Wheatear was supposed to look like, much less in fall! All we knew was that if it was a Northern Wheatear (an arctic bird that commutes between Alaska and Siberia), it would be a life bird for both of us, and a very good bird for San Diego.
So we simply kept on looking and hoping. Then, as we got closer and watched the bird flycatching for about a minute or so, Sue saw the rump, upper and undertail coverts, and upper tail flash bright white. She also saw that the eyes were black with a dark broken eyeline through them, and above and below were narrow whitish supra- and sub-ocular crescents. Other details were a creamy peach below the bright cinnamon bib fading to white ventrally, a uniform dark brownish gray color to the upper wing, pale edges to the primary tips, and black bill and feet.
After about 3 to 5 minutes of viewing time, we lost the bird as it dove toward a lemonadeberry bush on the ridge of the bluff, and after a search we were unable to refind it. We had hoped to get better looks (especially of the tail pattern, an important feature), but still felt lucky to have seen it, if only briefly. We hurried back to the lab, Sue wrote field notes, then called Guy McCaskie, Marjorie Hastings, and Pete Ginsburg, and broadcast the report and directions over the Internet. Marjorie, Stan Walens, and Mike Evans got the word out quickly, and many birders converged at the site within a few hours. Later that day (about 4:30 p.m.) Stan, Guy, and others resighted it. We breathed a sigh of relief.
If this report is accepted by the California Bird Records Committee, it will establish the first Northern Wheatear for San Diego County and only the second from southern California. It was an absolute thrill for us to stumble upon the bird, and we hoped it would linger for more people to see it. But most of all, we hope that everybody gets the chance someday to have that special unexpected moment when you look through your binoculars and realize, with wonder and awe, that you are seeing a bird that you have never seen before and know it is undeniably and deliciously very, very rare.
Sue Smith and Dave Au