November 4, 2003
All atwitter in Compton: When a bird wanders off course, the Internet
starts chirping. The next thing you know, Sue Horton reports, a
supposedly genteel breed bristles with competitive bloodlust.
By Sue Horton, Times Staff Writer
It was Dick Barth who first saw the bird, in Compton, on a trash-strewn
stretch of the concrete-sided Los Angeles River. It flew into view at
about 8:30 on the morning of Sept. 10 and stayed only a minute or two.
But it was long enough for Barth, a West Hollywood retiree and avid
birder, to realize that this small perching bird, or passerine, didn't
belong in Compton. Or California.
r North America.
The bird was a black-backed wagtail, 7 1/2 inches or so, with
markings of brown, gray, white and black. The species is native to
Asia, so only if a bird gets horribly off course during migration —
while it's trying to get, say, from breeding grounds in Siberia down to
Taiwan for the winter — does it end up on this continent.
Because it was so unusual, Barth's sighting got attention. Two people
alerted by him saw the bird that afternoon, and Kimball Garrett,
director of ornithology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural
History, quickly put up an advisory on an Internet list for local
birders: "It would be worthwhile to cover much of the L.A. River
channel from above Rosecrans to south of Alondra," his posting
concluded. But despite dozens of birders who scoured the river in the
days that followed, the bird wasn't seen.
Things would have ended there, as rarity sightings often do, with a
couple of people happy to have been in the right place at the right
time for a one-day wonder. But then, on Sept. 23, remarkably, Barth saw
the bird again, this time a mile farther south. It looked a bit
different now, more black on the breast, but, as Barth noted in his
Internet posting, "that might be explained by 13 days of molt time…. No
way we could have two Wagtails in the river this fall, and so close
Then the frenzy began. At times, over the 10 days that followed,
birders outnumbered the wagtail 12 to 1. Along the river, $1,500
telescopes were lined up, waiting, as people who'd made the pilgrimage
to Compton scanned the channel with state-of-the-art binoculars trying,
often in vain, to spot the bird. One afternoon a puzzled man in the
Home Depot parking lot near the river gestured toward the telescopes on
the bank. "Why are all these people here?" he asked. When told of the
wagtail, he seemed even more mystified. "Just one bird? All these
people are here to see a bird?"
Why did a single and often elusive wagtail cause such a stir? Because
birders are intensely competitive. Anyone can see a bird in its normal
habitat. But when a vagrant is discovered far off course, a birder's
juices start flowing.
Through most of the 19th century, bird-watching was a predominantly
male pastime. A day of birding also was a day of shooting, because
identifying a bird in the era before binoculars and spotting scopes
required a shotgun. Then, in the 1890s, two things happened: Optics got
better and women got involved. The women were outraged at the rapid
decline of many species — in part because their feathers were prized by
hat makers — and so defined a new kind of bird-watching that was about
looking at birds and educating people about them. They were enormously
successful, which is why, when you think of bird-watching, you probably
think of someone like your grandmother.
Today, men have rejoined the sport, and it is once again an intensely
competitive undertaking (though without the firearms). The gear carried
by a serious birder can cost thousands of dollars, and that's before
the travel — the trips to bird-rich places such as Peru and Siberia and
the Alaskan island of Attu. Devoted birders, almost to a person, love
nature and being outdoors and studying every aspect of a bird's life
history. But they also love their lists. In bird-watching's original
incarnation, a birder cared about only one list: the life list that
cataloged every bird he or she had seen. For today's birders, that's
just the beginning. They keep all kinds of lists, tracking birds seen
in particular states or in the American Birding Assn.'s "listing area,"
which encompasses the continental United States and Canada. They keep
lists by country, by year — sometimes even by day. (Three Los Angeles
birders doing a "big day" several weeks ago logged 172 species,
starting before dawn with a great-horned owl.) The most serious listers
are intensely aware of who's got how many birds on which list.
All of which brings us back to Barth's wagtail sighting. In the last
several decades, only 11 black-backed wagtails have been recorded
officially in California. So having one on your California list — or
even your North American list — is a big deal. When one arrives,
especially if it's cooperative about staying around, as the Compton
bird eventually was, the faithful flock to see it.
The arc of a rare-bird sighting is shaped like a bell curve. A lone
birder locates a bird and tells a few people; they come, more follow,
and the curve rises sharply. Within days, those who want to see the
bird have seen it. Crowds thin. At some point, perhaps, the bird takes
off. Stragglers still show up hoping for a sighting, but their numbers
trail off until the line goes flat.
With the wagtail, postings on the Internet built slowly, then became
more frequent as a growing number of birders headed to the river. Those
lucky enough to see it were ebullient: "From about 3:45 to 4:00 P.M., I
had excellent looks (as close as 40 feet) at the elusive but now famous
L.A. River Wagtail," reported Todd McGrath on Sept. 29. The unlucky
were more sober: "The L. A. River Black-backed Wagtail's erratic ways
continue," wrote Garrett the next day. "After being seen off and on by
many birders yesterday, 29 September, it failed to show this morning
(at least as of 9:30) even though 6-8 birders had the river from
Compton to Atlantic well covered."
On Oct. 5, Fred and Chris Pratt, retired schoolteachers from South
Duxbury, Vt., were among a dozen birders gathered in anticipation along
the bike path. They'd been in Monterey on a sea birding expedition, but
had heard about the wagtail — which would be a "life bird" or first
sighting for them — and quickly headed south. "We carry our laptop when
we travel, and we keep checking what's new," says Chris Pratt. Another
couple on the river, who identified themselves only as Gordon and
Sally, had come from Phoenix in hopes of seeing the bird. "We drove 388
miles to see this bird," Sally said. "Now he just needs to show up."
They all came, as local birder Dana Quincey put it, for the same
reason: "Once you've been birding for a while, it takes something out
of the ordinary to add a bird to your list."
But lest we get too caught up in the idiosyncrasies of birders, let's
get back to the really strange character in this story: the wagtail.
Here was a bird that had gone thousands of miles out of its way,
probably hopping the islands of the northern Pacific, only to end up in
… Compton. That's the way with migration.
Each fall, millions of birds travel hundreds or thousands of miles
from their breeding grounds to winter in warmer places. As the days get
shorter, calendar-linked hormones kick in, causing migratory birds to
bulk up by eating more. They become increasingly restless, and finally
take off on a dangerous journey. Many die along the way. Others get
"Some species of birds migrate in family groups," says Garrett. "But
many birds are just migrating on their own. They are hard-wired to
migrate…. They know which way to go and what to do when they get
there." But exactly how they know where to go is an enigma.To stay on
course, some species seem to navigate by the stars. Some rely on an
internal magnetic compass that enables them to navigate by the Earth's
magnetic fields. "An older bird that's made the trip before has a whole
additional set of cues: landmarks and things to navigate by," Garrett
says. "With young birds, the route is certainly not hard-wired into
their brains, 'turn right at the rock,' but instinct tells them to go
this far in this direction."
That some birds, usually first years, lose their way doesn't surprise
Garrett. "It's not hard to get lost," he says. "The impressive thing is
that birds have evolved this capability to go the right direction. We
just tend to fixate on the ones that don't make it."
The wagtail, one of the ones that didn't make it, became the subject
of a brief fixation in Southern California. It won't be until later
this winter that the governing body on such matters, the California
Bird Records Committee of the Western Field Ornithologists, formally
accepts or rejects Barth's bird as an official record of a black-backed
wagtail. But given the numerous detailed notes taken by experienced
birders who saw it, along with the couple of photographs people managed
to get, Garrett anticipates the record will be accepted.
Meanwhile, the bird that sparked the fury hasn't been seen since Oct
3. Both the Vermont couple and the Arizonans went home disappointed.
The bell curve flattened out. Dick Barth still checks the river
sporadically just in case his bird comes back but spends more time in
parks these days, where he's been seeing some good vagrants — though
nothing so rare as his Compton find.
On the day the wagtail was last sighted, one observer reported seeing
it duck as a predatory peregrine falcon flew over. The falcon didn't
get the wagtail that day, but who knows what happened the next? Or it
could have just moved on, maybe upriver, maybe inland, maybe farther
south, still looking for its wintering ground and others of its
species. It could be back next year, Garrett suggests, having concluded
that Compton is a stop the black-backed wagtail makes on its migration
path. In all likelihood, though, if it's left the area, it will live
out its days in obscurity, unaffected by the stir it caused and
unlikely to be recognized again for the remarkable anomaly it is.
Times staff writer Sue Horton got her look at the wagtail on Oct. 3 at
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