This past week my wife and I made a trip over to California to spend time with family. While there, I took the opportunity to go birding early each morning, and even squeezed in additional birding as time permitted.
I spent time birding at Tri-City Park and along the Upper Santa Ana River drainage area in Anaheim, at Fullerton Arboretum, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and in an area south of Calabasas. It is a rare occasion when I add a new species to my life list. However, I actually saw something on this trip that I have never seen before—a pin-tailed whydah.
There are a lot of exotic, non-native species in southern California, and the whydah is an example of this. This is a species native to Africa. I am not sure of the circumstances on how this species ended up in California, but there is now an established feral population. The male is impressive, with an enormously long tail that makes identifying this species unmistakable.
I also saw some parrots, scaly-breasted munias, and Egyptian geese in the wild—three other examples of non-native birds that are now firmly established in southern California. I suspect some of these species originally came to the United States as part of the pet trade, perhaps as caged birds. Over time, however, they either escaped or were released, and they have now established sustainable populations.
One of the things I really enjoyed in southern California was seeing the coastal ‘counterparts’ to many of our interior bird species. When I was a teenager, it was not uncommon for bird species to be considered one species with separate ‘races’. Older bird books had different names for these species than our newer, more modern books.
For example, when I was growing up, a common yard bird for me in Tucson was the brown towhee. This species occurred in both Arizona and California, and was considered one species with two races—interior and coastal. Many years ago this species was split into two species.
The interior race (inter-mountain west area) was given a new name—canyon towhee—and the coastal race was named California towhee.
This pattern holds true for another species that at one time was considered one species with two races—again, coastal and interior. Older bird books show pictures of what used to be referred to as a plain titmouse. When this species was split into two, the interior race was named juniper titmouse and the coastal race was named oak titmouse.
The method of identifying and naming birds is a process that continues to evolve in our day and will probably never be completely ‘done’ as new scientific information becomes available. It was just three years ago when the western scrub-jay, which was common in Prescott, was split into two species. Our race, the interior race, was renamed Woodhouse’s scrub-jay, and the coastal race is now called California scrub-jay.
I enjoyed seeing the California scrub-jay, as well as the oak titmouse and California towhee on my trip last week. While there are similarities between the coastal and interior species that were formerly considered one species, there are also differences—and the decision to split these species into two different species makes a lot of sense to me.
It was also fun to see naturally occurring specialty birds that are native to California that we don’t get here in Arizona, such as wrentits and Nuttall’s woodpecker. One of the benefits of traveling to a different part of the country is the increased likelihood of encountering different bird species from what you see at your home.
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona – Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.