Bird watching in Santa Barbara: scarcity of migrations


After a bad start, the fall bird migration has seen many surprises, especially in places where many rare birds have appeared. Traditionally, bird watchers have devoted much of their effort to locating migrants along our local streams, but even the few who have water have recently seen a shortage of birds. No, the hot spots for bird watching have been parking lots!

In recent years, bird watchers have noticed that Tipuana tipu trees, native to South America and found in parking lots throughout the city, have a habit of concentrating birds. Recently, these trees have been attacked by an insect, the tipu psyllid. The adults and nymphs of these insects produce large amounts of honeydew which in turn attracts birds looking for a quick energy fix.

This fall, a patch of tipu in a business park in Goleta, just west of Costco along Hollister Avenue, attracted an astonishing variety of Western migrants, and among them, vireo-eyed bird watchers. , black pollinators, thicket birds, warblers and Canada warblers, to name a few. These are birds that can be seen perhaps once every fall in the county, and having them concentrated in a small area was remarkable.

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Due to professional commitments, I was unable to get to the parking lot until the end of the party. The number of birds reported had decreased, but I tried. Luckily the Canada Warbler lingered and I had a case of an ornithologist’s neck as I watched it foraging high in the canopy above me. Then the warbler dislodged a large spider which landed with an audible click a few feet away from me. To my delight, the bird followed its prize to the ground, where it spent a few minutes trying to find a way to consume the spider. I remained motionless, and the bird seemed indifferent to my presence. I admired its bright yellow and gray plumage and the collar of spots across the chest. After a few minutes of shaking the spider, the Canada warbler managed to swallow it all at once.

Other introduced trees also attract parasitic bugs which attract birds due to their secretions. Eucalyptuses attract another species of juice-sucking psyllid from plants that birds seem to find as tasty as those of the tipus. As I write these lines, looking at the living coastal oak in my yard which is ravaged by clouds of oak moths and their caterpillars, I have noticed with sorrow that this infestation is not attracting all birds; in fact, birds seem to have been fewer in my garden since the arrival of the moths. Despite widespread feelings to the contrary, introduced plantings may be beneficial in helping migrating birds on their way.

I often wonder how many of these bird-friendly microhabitats there are in the city. Surely much more than what has been discovered to date.

I encourage you to check out the latest presentation from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society at 7:30 p.m. on October 27. It is called Plain of Carrizo: where mountains meet meadows, and the presenter is Chuck Graham.

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