#438 Stalking the Elusive Phainopepla

This weekend there weren’t any local Audubon trips so I decided to go after a specific bird, the Phainopepla, the only Silky Flycatcher whose range extends into the United States. One had shown up practically across the street from me at San Joaquin in March, but I didn’t hear about it until June, so I was going to have go a little further afield. Most of these hang around the mountains and foothills, especially favoring mistletoe. (That proved to be a valuable hint. Previously I didn’t even know we had mistletoe in Orange County.)

Saturday Beth and I tried the Oak Canyon Nature Center, where they’ve been found before, without much success. Lots of Acorn Woodpeckers, a few Western Scrub-jays, the usual Mourning Doves and House Finches, and a couple of Oak Titmice, but no sign of Phainopepla.

Sunday I went a little further out and drove down to San Juan Capistrano and then inland about 9 miles to Casper’s Wilderness Park. I got there about 9:15, and that was already too late. the sun was absolutely brutal. Memo to self: when birding in June in southern California, leave early!

I didn’t really know the area so I just pulled over wherever looked good. The first playground turned up California Towhee, House Finch, Mourning Dove, and Oak Titmouse but not much else. I continued down the road and found a sign to the Nature Center. This was a little better (though by this time it was even hotter.) Here I got California Thrasher, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, California Quail, and Wrentit!

Wrentit Skulking

This is a great bird to see. I’ve heard Wrentits for years (and counted them on my life list as a result) but I’ve never before seen one. They are extremely loud but otherwise secretive small birds that rarely come out of the undergrowth. However two were foraging in circles around the nature center, offering good looks about every two minutes when they came back around to my position.

I picked up a map at the nature center, and drive down to the end of the road at the Old Corral where a a nature trail was marked. By this point (10:20 A.M.) the sun was just devastating, but I persevered. I wandered around a bit looking for the entrance to the nature trail. I found many Ash-throated Flycatches, several Acorn Woodpeckers, lots of Western Yellowjackets, and a Grasshopper or two. I never did find the nature trail, but I did find the Pinhead Peak Trail. I can only imagine it was so named because one would have to be an utter pinhead to hike it in the middle of summer. Naturally I headed straight down it:

Pinhead Peak this way; no bikes, no dogs

Maybe 100 meters in after crossing a dry creekbed, I saw three clumps of mistletoe high in some trees:

Mistletoe clusters in leafy trees

And before I knew what happening a male Phainopepla flew out, flashing its white wing patches. In flight it looks a lot like the much more common Acorn Woodpecker, except that there’s no white or red on the head and the flight pattern is different.

I waited around to see if it would come back, but it didn’t so I walked a little further down the trail. However I almost immediately began to feel a little dizzy (Did I mention it was hot?) so I drank some water and turned around. Then, on the other side of the trail, I saw a perched male Phainopepla at the top of a bush. I don’t know whether it was the same one or a different one, but this time, I got a good look at its classic ragged crest. I snapped one photo that didn’t come out, but then it flew off fairly quickly.

I walked back to the car (though I did stop at the men’s room along the way to snap some pictures of the usual moths that hang out in these places.)

I added one more species on the way out: Cliff Swallow, several of which were hawking for insects around the guard booth at the entrance to the park. Total species count was only 19, but that included some great birds:

  • California Quail
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Ash-throated Flycatcher
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • Common Raven
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Oak Titmouse
  • Bushtit
  • Wrentit
  • California Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Phainopepla
  • Spotted Towhee
  • California Towhee
  • House Finch

Casper’s is a gorgeous location, and I’m going to have to explore it a little more thoroughly in the cooler fall months (you know, January and February.)

One Response to “#438 Stalking the Elusive Phainopepla”

  1. Phainopepla, Phainopepla nitens | Birds of the World Says:

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