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Surprise Birds Aren’t Junk!

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In many ways birding is about anticipation and surprise—the first-time experience of seeing a new species. Nothing quite explains it like the first-time experience.

So, here I was on this exciting birding escapade and saw this particular bird for the very first time. In my excitement I exclaimed: Look! A Wood Thrush! The person next to me said: So? She strung out the 'o' in 'so' with a long inflection that made it sound singsong, sliding upward at the end like a Swainson's Thrush instead of a Veery. I got her point immediately, and my spirit dove for cover with this feeling of embarrassment. She finished off her 'so-oo' by remarking, "that's a junk bird".

My mind said: A junk bird? Well, now maybe it was to her because of it being so common in her neck of the woods. But to me the anticipation, surprise and fulfillment of seeing such a beauty— that was no junk bird! Her statement might have knocked the wind out of my pleasure but I was too excited to not enjoy the moment.

For some birders though, it's funny just how quickly a new "life-list" bird can become a "junk bird." I've been around certain birders that, if they have seen the same new species twice in one day, suddenly it's a junk bird. So-oo? What if someone lives in an area where they see a rare California condor nearly every day? Does their lack of excitement over a common sighting make that a junk bird? Hardly! Even a rare indigenous bird can become common and mundane to a local observer, but none are junk birds. As they say: "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."

Personally, I don't really think there is any such thing as a junk bird, only common, maybe, mundane birds like city pigeons and farmland starlings or house sparrows. But, even they, like vultures, are jewels in their own right, especially when they are carefully observed for the first time.

In the same way, over the past twenty five years or more, there have been some rare and unexpected birds that have shown up as surprises at my wild bird feeders. They were rare an unusual to me, but, maybe junk birds to another birder. I have kept some records of these surprise birds and it has made for an interesting journal to share with you.

Around my home here in southern California, I have a few hanging feeders that I keep filled with black oil sunflower seed and another of nijer thistle seed. The feeders are separated enough to give each species their space. I feed a wild-bird mix on the ground beneath the hanging feeders. In my case, I add cracked-corn in the form of chick scratch to the grain mix for the quail and doves. This cracked corn has been responsible for some surprising birds. I have two wild-bird feeding areas, one in front of the house and one in the back, each next to plenty of cover. So these feeding areas are active with a good selection of wild birds.

W Scrub Jay 7958 FsTMost of the birds are indigenous and common, like House Finches, English Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, Mourning Doves, California Quail and California Towhees and Scrub Jays. But, none are junk birds, never uninteresting—only common. In the winter a common pleasure at the feeding areas are the White-Crowned Sparrows. Depending on a particular season, the less common, but not a surprise, are the Spotted Towhee, California Thrasher, Song sparrows and the occasional Golden-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln Sparrow, Fox Sparrow and Dark-eyed Juncos.

Close by the feeders I have three water drips that drip in to Indian matates (acorn grinding stones). Using adjustable garden drips above the matate bowls, I adjust the drips to about a count of ten second intervals.

This dripping water attracts all sorts of birds, including seasonal songbirds. The food, the water, the flitting wings of busy bird activity, is magnet that attracts many different kinds of birds. Sometimes, the whole dynamic attracts a real surprise.

I have been feeding the wild birds here in Vista, California, at these same spots for more than twenty five years. Geographically, this is part of a micro-environment known as the coastal strip. It is a strip of geography parallel to the Pacific coast about eight to ten miles wide. It takes in the beaches, coastal foothills, savannahs and valleys. The temperatures are fairly moderate all year around. However, if one goes inland another ten or fifteen miles, the temperatures easily vary twenty degrees and more as the habitat becomes much more mountainous and arid, even desert. Much hotter in the summer and whole lot colder in the winter.

One would think that I would have run out of surprise sightings by now. But no in the spring, in 2007, here comes a Lark Sparrow, a handsome fellow dressed in a white satin T-shirt, with a black tie tack, and sporting fancy reddish dyed sideburns, like an Elvis Presley look-alike. This is only the second time in twenty years that I have briefly seen this sparrow at the feeders. Both times, once in the fall and now in the spring; each one was ill-mannered, it ate and ran. So, they make poor company. In this general area, Lark sparrows are usually found way inland, in the open country, usually above twenty five hundred feet. So this was a nice surprise sighting. In no way could it ever be a junk bird!

At virtually the same time on the same day—apparently traveling together—a pair of Lawrence's Goldfinches showed up. Both of these surprise species, the Lark Sparrow and Lawrence's Goldfinch are found in similar brush-land habitat. The goldfinches were a real surprise and a first time sighting at my feeders! Feeding on the ground, these lovely black-faced beauties, with no neck, strutted their yellow wings and gray-brown backs. The next day they were still here and, guess what? They invited another couple. Wow! What a treat! The following day, two more, and over a period of a week they developed in to a flock of sixteen! They were all paired up with eight males and eight females. What an opportunity to indulge the eyes on these normally flighty finches in the open field. I have always counted it a special treat to see them in the wild and open spaces, even though it is usually a brief encounter. They hung around for about month and gradually dispersed to higher ground.

A few years ago, a Mountain Chickadee made a surprise visit, all decked out with its beautiful white eye-line, as if put on by a make-up artist! It gingerly took one sunflower seed at a time to a private place and cracked it open. Lo! And behold! Here follows a Red-breasted Nuthatch! It was obviously following the Mountain Chickadee, and it, too, took a few sunflower seeds. What a two-for-one surprise! Junk birds? —no, I don't think so.

Now these two were quite a ways out of their normal range of conifers and white oaks and high mountain elevations. True, they occasionally descend to lower elevations in severe winters, but this was early summer. They found the water drip and the food. So, I start thinking, maybe I can coax them to stick around.

The first thing I noticed is that they both acted annoyed by the activity of the other birds. They were timid about using the sunflower feeders. So, I quickly hung a small tubular wire feeder a good distance from the crowd. Sure enough, they found it and that became their private feeding area for two days, that is, until the house finches caught on and put an end to it.

Mt Chickadee 0334Well, house finches don't normally hang upside down like these two little guys, so I had this clever idea. I'll fashion a tubular feeder out of quarter-inch wire mesh about two inches in diameter and cover it with a half of a hollow limb that I had. I bound it together with baling wire. I added the sunflower seed and hung it up horizontal, with the seed exposed only on the bottom side, and bingo! To the chagrin of the House Finches, they began to feed on it by hanging upside down. Both birds hung around for about a week, feeding morning and evening, then they were gone. That is, until the Mountain Chickadee returned in a month or so without his tag-along friend. For nearly four years now, this single perky chickadee shows up at irregular intervals. Uncommon as he may be in this region, he has not yet become a junk bird, but a pleasurable surprise every time he comes and every time I am surprised.

Over the years I have had the pleasant surprise of a Brewer's Sparrow, a Slate-colored Junco and a brief visit of a Eurasian-collared Dove and a week long stint by two pair of Lazuli Buntings. In each case my surprise was much more surprising than the surprise found in the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks!

The winter of 1997 was a stand out for surprises. Beginning with the arrival of a Cassin's Finch with its crimson velvet top-knot. It hung around and showed off for about a week. Then, not to be outdone, came a Green-tailed Towhee showing off its rufous crown, and white, foo-man-choo goatee and mustachio stripes. It stayed for about a week also. Then suddenly descending on thistle feeders in mass, came a flock of Pine Siskins. They are frantic feeders with an anxious spirit. They gobble the nijer thistle and fly away then back, over and over again much like Cedar Waxwings on pyracantha berries. They stayed all winter but did not return everyday. Pine Siskins have come to my thistle feeders only twice in twenty years— so-oo? Are they junk birds?

Of all the seed-eaters, one particular bird tops the list. Not only was it a major surprise, it was a life-lister for me. On October 22, 1991, here comes an eastern bird way off track to the left coast, and right to my feeders—a Rose-breasted Grosbeak! Red-b Grossbeak 7499Now, I know that's like a junk bird to many easterners, like our Black-headed Grosbeak is to us southwesterners. But, even though it was fall and its plumage was a bit faded, it was a thrilling sight that I shall never forget. It fed on the black-oil sunflower seed for only a few minutes, but more than long enough for me to indulge my binocs and bulge my eyes. I have since seen many Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feeding on mulberries in their natural eastern habitat, but this western visitor could never be a junk bird.

The water drips have also attracted some nice spring and fall surprises, especially the western warblers in migration. Fifteen years ago one rare eastern migrant was a real surprise—a yellow-green with a ruby-red eye and a well-defined eyebrow? What do you know, a Red-eyed Vireo! That was another unexpected first, right in my own backyard.

But, nearly the greatest of all surprises was an eastern bird that I could only dream of seeing, as I had studied it in the Peterson Field Guide for years. It came to the water and before taking a drink it sat, staring at the drip, as it dripped into the matate. I was dumbfounded at what I was seeing but I had no doubt as to what I was observing for the first time! I exclaimed: Look! A Prothonotary Warbler! Prothonotary Warbler 0950Here it was late July and this dazzling, brilliant yellow, warbler with a contrasting dark back, poses for some unbelievable part of a pregnant moment, and then it takes a much-needed drink and moves on. Just one incredible moment in time I observed this high wattage bird! That's all it took to burn its male imprint in to my brain! What a grand surprise and another life-lister. Now, how could anyone ever call that a junk bird? Even if it nested in a knothole under my cabin porch, situated over some muggy Louisiana bayou, it will always be the fulfillment of a great surprise!

But, the 'drop-dead' surprise that prompts this article is the granddaddy of them all! I had stopped for my afternoon coffee on April 9, 2007. While looking out my dining room window at the drips and feeding area, Walla! Here comes an obvious yellow surprise seeking a bath beneath the drippers. After first landing on the arched dripper and hanging over the shallow stone puddle, it dropped down and walked. Sizing up the shallow pool, it did not hop around the edge of the large flat stone. No, it walked.

I immediately thought it was a MacGillvary's Warbler. That's because, even though an uncommon possibility, they are present here in these semi-arid parts of SoCal. But they hop like a cottontail rabbit, not walk. So, something was not quite right. On closer examination, it was the large spectacles—the prominent white eye-ring and gray hood that demanded my scrutiny. Then it was the long yellow, under-tail coverts, extending clear to the tail feathers that made me grab my field guide off the table and confirm my guess. No question about it, way out of its eastern range, it was an extremely rare Connecticut Warbler! And then he was gone, certainly a rare and grand surprise! Now do you think that was a junk bird?! Possibly to an eastern birder, but even then, I doubt it.

Now here's the kicker. I was already scheduled for a trip to south-western Ohio for two weeks in early May—my destination? Crane Creek / McGee Marsh a premiere birding spot during spring migration. At the very top of my wish list—you guessed it—the Connecticut Warbler! I wanted to see this lifer in its natural habitat. I know, I know, there might be better places to try, but it's hard to beat this area for spring warbler migration if you miss April along the gulf coast.

Think about it. Here I am in early March, in sunny Vista, California, having my afternoon coffee; I'm wondering how I am going to convince those folks on the east coast that a Connecticut Warbler is not junk!

As I am compiling notes, I am treated to a real surprise—a Band-tailed pigeon! It came back three times in the same day and fed at both the front and back feeding areas. It had to be the cracked corn and the water drips that caught its attention. Now Band-tailed pigeons surely pass overhead more often than I know, but the only place I have ever seen them is in the oaks and pines on Palomar Mountain, at about 5,000 feet elevation. As the crow flies, the famous Palomar Mountain is about twenty-five miles inland from my feeders. Even then, these wild pigeons are extremely skiddish, so good views like this one are hard to come by, especially in the fall when hunters are still allowed to hunt these junk birds!

But, hold on. You won't believe this. A week later, here comes a P.S. to punctuate my point. Yes, right outside my den window, overlooking the front yard feeding area, here comes' a real surprise that I have yet to identify.

This was a very unusual dove about ten inches long. Overall it was slender, about the size of a cuckoo. It had a whitish-tan breast and belly. It's back and wings were a mottle of reddish brown and tan. It had red eyes with a prominent red eye ring, slightly almond shaped. Its feet and bill were orangey colored, and it walked like all doves. Its head motions were the characteristic bobble-head moves. In relation to its size, the tail was fairly long, terminating in a sharp point. This dove was very shy, and spooked by the other birds. When it flew it flitted with quick motions much like a budgie parakeet.

I observed this bird feeding on the ground and sitting on the rail fence for about ten minutes, long enough for me to take good ID notes. Then a Scrub Jay flew in with its aggressive and noisy behavior and scared off all the birds. That was the last I saw of the exotic little dove.

Now if anyone one can identify this demure little dove from my notes that would be great. It is my guess that it probably became a junk bird to some owner who allowed it to escape. Or, maybe it is a rare species that drifted up from Mexico. In any event it was a real surprise that left me searching for its identity!


As I finish this lengthy post, I realize it is actually not complete… maybe it never will be. There are a few more surprise birds in recent years. Two are worthy of special mention. Whether junk birds or treasures, here is what has shown up at my feeders in recent times.

I am peering out my den window to the front yard feeding area where I have both hanging seed feeders and grain on the ground. This most unusual bird lands on a twig in plain sight. No doubt it is an exotic escape or else I am seeing a migrator from a distant land. It is a surprise bird, I had never seen; neither for real or in any field guide. My first impression is that it is a finch of some sort.

SpiceFinch 7888 FsTIt hung around and fed on the ground and perched on a twig for about 30 minutes when a scrub jay came flying in with its aggressive yakety-yak and all the birds scattered. That was the last I saw of this contrasty-colored bird. It had coffee tones and a cream colored breast and belly and a dark brown head and neck. The sides of the breast and under parts were distinctly patterned with dark brown crochet scallops. The thick bill was dark brown to coffee black and unusually large for a bird of its size. The back and nape were deep coffee tones of varying shades. It had relatively large dark eyes.

So-ooo this was no ordinary "junk bird". I was able to get a decent enough picture of it and eventually tracked down its ID. It turned out to be a "Spice Finch". Either it became a junk bird to its owner and was released or it escaped. For sure this surprise bird was not junk!

W-winged Dove 6650And then just this summer—this pigeon size dove lands on the ground and starts feeding. I immediately recognized it as a common Arizona desert species—a White-winged Dove! An every-day bird in Arizona, but a first at my feeders in more than twenty five years! So-ooo...does that make it a common junk bird?

So, about me exclaiming: Look! A Wood Thrush! Do you realize how beautiful that bird is, dashing and posing with its sharp clean contrasting colors and reddish polka dots? Like stepping out of a bandbox, it is the epitome of impeccable dress and eye makeup so-oo...?

Well, one thing I have learned in more than seventy five years of birding is this; what is one person's junk bird is another person's treasure, so-oo... surprise birds aren't junk!

Ed Keenan © 04-07

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  • Guest
    Spencer Saturday, 09 November 2013

    Re: Surprise Birds

    Great article! Boy, you've maintained a great record of sightings. Your mysteries are resolved and you got a great shot of the Nutmeg Mannikin ... and many other birds.


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