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Two Towhees Make an Unexpected Appearance in This Birder's Backyard

It took eight years to spot one. Could the holy grail of backyard birds in Half Moon Bay be possible?

Seeing two species of towhee in a day is not unusual in northern California, but it is unusual for my Half Moon Bay yard. In fact, today’s Spotted Towhee was the first I have ever seen here in the eight years at this house.

Any day with a yard bird is a good one, but what excites me is seeing the pattern of yard bird arrivals and their relative abundance, which is is pretty interesting and confusing at my location.

I am a stone’s throw away from the ocean, in a small town surrounded by agriculture, chaparral, grassland and forest. Being on the California coast makes for great birding, but unusual birding.

Believe it or not, I have seen 15 species of warblers in my yard, most of them lost “vagrants” from the east of the continent. But even more unbelievable is that Spotted Towhee probably breeds within a mile of my place, but it took eight years to see one.

In that time eastern Tennessee Warblers have visited me on at least three occasions. This is all to do with how migratory the species are. Although only a mile from Spotted Towhee country, these birds here appear to be solidly resident and unlikely to move and wind up in unusual habitats like a back yard.

Curiously Spotted Towhees are highly migratory in the eastern part of their range, but not here in California. They are also vocally different, and visually different too. I do not think this Spotted Towhee came from the more migratory eastern populations, but if some of you see something helpful in making this identification do let me know.

Vagrants on the other hand have messed up “guidance systems,” and they congregate along the coast, it seems that many do have some sense not to go off into the ocean thinking they are heading in the right direction. This is why the rarities show up more frequently here at my coastal location than residents, or even regular migrants.

My 15 species of warbler do not include Hermit, MacGillvray’s or Black-throated Grey — three species that breed in and migrate through the county. There is little good productive habitat for migrant warblers along the coast, experienced birds and adult locals likely move inland through nicer Douglas Fir or live oak forest rather than here where it is more shrubby, or where we have patches of willow thickets and scrub.

Bird banders have found that inexperienced birds tend to be the ones which use poorer quality coastal habitats, and this applies to east, west and Great Lakes coasts. Eventually I will get a Hermit Warbler here, it is a matter of time, but before that happens I bet another Blackpoll or Tennessee warbler or two will show up.

Back to the towhees. It was neat to see the two species side by side. Molecular work now confirms that these two birds are not closely related at all. They both are larger and long tailed sparrows but that is where similarities end. Something I had not noticed before was that the Spotted Towhee does a proper sparrow “hop” when it moves. The California Towhee, on the other hand, moves in a shuffling walk, not a noticeable gait like a Brewer’s Blackbird, but definitely not a hop. The very different shape was apparent as well with the California Towhee, looking large bodied and small headed, while the Spotted had a relatively large and domed head.

Pretty neat to watch these birds, neither of them rare, but enjoyable and a lot of questions came to mind. So if Spotted Towhee is possible, could the holy grail of backyard birds here be possible? The Wrentit? We shall see.

Alvaro Jaramillo is a biologist who lives in Half Moon Bay, where he enjoys looking for birds and wildlife on the Coastside. He's written two books on birds, including a field guide to the Birds of Chile and is currently working on a guide to the Warblers of North America with acclaimed birder and photographer Richard Crossley. Alvaro also writes a column on bird identification for the Bird Watcher’s Digest. He runs birding and nature tours both locally and internationally through his company Alvaro’s Adventures. Join him on a trip to watch birds, whales and seals off the Farallon Islands in August.

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Alvaro Jaramillo May 23, 2012 at 03:35 PM
Dee - Having quail in the backyard is extremely dependent on where you live. For most of us on the coast we do not see them, unless your yard backs up to extensive shrubby open space. The quail are absent from solidly built up areas, but if you have a stream or some chaparral nearby, you could see them. Quail are amazingly common in Cañada Cove off Miramontes Point Road for example, the creek and shrubbery adjacent to the neighborhood is enough to entice the quail. Also to have quail about, you need to have few outdoor cats as they do a number on them. Alvaro.
Andrea Shepard May 24, 2012 at 02:13 AM
I had a flock come in from somewhere...can't figure out where because my yard is fully fenced. They took over, lots of dust baths up in my retaining wall, fully enjoyed the bird bath, and then a few hours later: poof! Gone, and they haven't been in my yard since. Here in Clipper Ridge, if you live in a house next to a field, you will see them a lot. We had a killdeer hanging around in early spring for a few years in our front yard, but haven't seen (or heard, or see their distinctive white droppings all over our front sidewalk) in the last three years.
Andrea Shepard May 24, 2012 at 02:15 AM
As Alvaro said, the ground feeders have a tough time with cats. We used to get a lot of dove, but with the rise in outdoor cats, bird life has gone down. Makes me sad because we don't have cats, the neighbors do and I can't understand why their cats can't hunt and poop in their own yards and leave mine alone. Sigh.
pae May 24, 2012 at 11:16 PM
I have these birds at my feeders in the back of Montara this year for the first time as well. There seem to be several of them coming and going. Their preference is the hulled black oil sunflower seeds, and they use both the tube feeders (with some difficulty), tray feeders, and the ground. I have lots of goldfinches, juncos and chestnut backed chickadees as well. Peggy
Alvaro Jaramillo May 30, 2012 at 05:21 AM
Andrea - the quail can fly quite well, so they do not have a problem getting into a fenced yard. You are lucky you had them, such a neat looking creature! Peggy, I too dish out the black-oil sunflower (not hulled, I make them work for the food). Most of the mixed seed blend include a lot of filler that the birds do not care for much, so you might as well go for the black-oil sunflower and give them what they want.

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