This post is old news to those who pay attention to what I say on Facebook but I am still pleased as punch to point out that I have finally reached the 500-bird milestone in the American Birding Association area (basically North America north of Mexico). How did I finally reach this lofty peak?

After my adventure on 22 December with Seagull Steve during which we saw Gray Hawk, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Yellow-billed Magpie, a magnificent trio of lifers, I was stuck at 499 birds. Because I have birded southern California in winter several times there weren’t any of the normally occurring birds that I could get within easy reach of my in-laws house in Orange County. There were, however, several rarities around that would get me to 500 birds. I even made a brief attempt at spotting the Dusky-capped Flycatcher hanging out in Bell Gardens but the lack of time I had to do it meant my run for the bird was destined for failure. Looking at the local listservs I came up with the following four possibilities.

  1. I could make another attempt at the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. This didn’t appeal to me because a Myiarchus flycatcher just isn’t a dramatic enough 500th bird.
  2. I could go for the American Dipper that was reported in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles. I ruled this option out because I have had terrible luck with the species and because I wasn’t sure enough of the bird’s exact location.
  3. The Zone-tailed Hawk that had been reliably viewed in Irvine seemed like a nice idea but it was only really reliable in the afternoon, which meant I would have to find a way out of family obligations for the day and fight rush-hour traffic after seeing the bird. Neither of those obstacles were obstacles I was willing to try to surmount.
  4. I could try for a Painted Redstart showing up at Lacy Park in San Marino. This option seemed perfect. Painted Redstarts are gorgeous wood-warblers, there were reports down to the exact tree it liked to frequent, I could make the 40-minute drive early in the morning before rush hour, and the ride back to Yorba Linda would be in the opposite direction that the commuters were traveling.

Permission to use the car was obtained from the brother-in-law and permission to be missing until 10 AM was obtained from Daisy. The stars were aligning but would the bird be there?

The drive from Yorba Linda to San Marino in the pre-dawn darkness on the day after Christmas was drizzly. Early morning freeways mostly empty of traffic seem to make my foot heavier so I ended up arriving before it was really light enough to bird. The continuing drizzlymist didn’t help either. I got my binoculars and my camera and got out of the car anyway.

I walked to the large oak tree mostly devoid of leaves that the bird had been reported frequenting. An unfamiliar and interesting chip note reached my ears from the top branches. Of course, there are lots of unfamiliar and interesting chip notes that reach my ears in southern California but this one wasn’t one that I had heard before. Binoculars up into the dark and wet and YES!

Foraging up on the branches was a study in black and white and red. The gorgeous colors of Myioborus pictus shining through despite the poor viewing conditions. I watched the bird for a full fifteen minutes as it foraged, chased a Lesser Goldfinch off its branch, was chased off a branch in turn by an Acorn Woodpecker, and chipped its now familiar chip the entire time.

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart Myioborus pictus

Then, wonder of wonders, the sun started to break through the clouds. I would be able to get even better looks and hopefully much better pictures of the stunning little bird! Sadly, just as the sun fought through the heavy clouds and rain, a Red-tailed Hawk with a kill in its talons flew into the tree right next to the redstart. The hawk settled down to eat and the redstart skedaddled. A search through the rest of Lacy Park and a couple of subsequent checks of its favorite tree before I had to leave at 9 AM did not turn the bird up again. Nonetheless, I was pleased with the looks I did get and pleased to reach 500 birds in the ABA area. On to 600!

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.