On a trip out to the desert with my sister this Saturday, we stopped for 30 minutes to bird the area atop Montezuma Grade near Big Spring.
As soon as we got out of the car at the pullout we were greeted by a singing Sage Thrasher atop a nearby rock. It was an auspicious sign since it was the exact bird I was hoping to find here, and a lifelist bird for me, and not the only one for the day!
We crossed the street and started hiking down towards Big Spring and Tubb Canyon. The desert was still cool and we quietly walked through nearly-blooming agaves that looked exactly like 15-foot-tall spears of asparagus. It was very birdy, and the rocky hillsides were a buzz of avian activity. Brewer’s and Black-throated sparrows sang loudly, Cactus Wrens chased each other from cholla to cholla, and Rock Wrens darted in and out of cracks on the huge boulders like hyper free-climbers
Since this was just a short stop to try to find a Sage Thrasher before we headed down to the valley floor for some longer hikes, we turned around after a short time. On the way back however, I noticed a bird being harassed by an angry Cactus Wren. At first I thought it was one of the resident sparrows, but it seemed larger and darker to me. I quickly moved towards it and got one long-distance photo before it flew over a rocky outcropping and out of view to the east.
It wasn’t until I got home and looked through my pictures that I realized it definitely wasn’t one of the birds I would have expected. I had some suspicions it might be a Lark Bunting, and they were confirmed by local bird guru, Gary Nunn. Lark Buntings usually occur in the dry plains in the middle of US, and are very rarely found in Southern California during Spring migration. This individual is a male, and is currently molting from its brown, streaked winter plumage into its black and white summer form. What a nice surprise, another lifelist bird for me during a super-short roadside stop, and I didn’t have to go to North Dakota to find it!