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. Or 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 together."
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 lost.
"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 7:42 a.m.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
How to know where to go
Here are some ways to track the latest unusual bird sightings in the Southland:
Red alert: The first place Los Angeles County birders usually post a good sighting online is groups.yahoo.com/group/lacobirds/messages.
State birding: If you're heading out of town, find out what's been spotted elsewhere in the state at groups.yahoo.com/group/calbirds.
South side: Orange County birders exchange information at groups.yahoo.com/group/orangecountybirding.
Spot checks: To hear news of rarities seen during the previous week, call the Los Angeles County rare bird alert at (323) 874-1318.
Tripping out: To find out about organized birding field trips, check the Web sites of local Audubon chapters. Links to Audubon Societies around the state are at ca.audubon.org/chapters.html.
On the front lines, binoculars in hand
If birds were predictable, there'd be no birding. Still, a hot tip can't hurt. Here are a few highlights of recent sightings.
Hummingbird: The bird of the moment in Southern California is a magnificent hummingbird in San Diego. This large hummingbird, native to Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico, is the first of its species to be documented in California. It's been hanging around for several weeks at Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park in San Diego. The bird is generally seen in the far, southeast corner of the park in blue flowers along the fence line.
Eastern phoebe: The smallish flycatcher, common in the east but not usually seen west of Texas, was still being seen as of Saturday at the Sepulveda Basin. One birder reported possibly seeing two. The phoebe was last reported near the bridge crossing Haskell Creek.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher: Two bicyclists reported seeing the Texas bird with an extremely long forked tail in La Verne on Sunday. It was seen fly catching from power wires near Bracket Airfield.
-- Sue Horton