Santa Barbara Birding: Christmas Count Edition

Rare Painted Redstart and Summer Tanager Spotted at Rocky Nook Park

The painted redstart recently found at Rocky Nook Park is a jewel of a bird. | Credit: Hugh Ranson Photos

The birding event that I look forward to most, and I suspect many other birders feel the same way, is the annual Christmas Bird Count. Saturday afternoon found me scouting for the count at one of the many under-birded local habitats, namely the new Arroyo Burro Open Space. I hadn’t gone too far along the trail when a text came through from local birder Libby Patten. She was at Rocky Nook Park and had found a painted redstart, a stunner of a bird that is usually found no closer to us than southeast Arizona. They are found in our county perhaps once every three years.

Adult male summer tanagers have an all-red plumage. | Credit: Hugh Ranson Photos

Should I make a beeline for Rocky Nook or finish my census of the reserve? Dutifully, I chose the latter option, but perhaps with more of a spring in my step than had been there earlier. I arrived at Rocky Nook to find Libby still on-site, and we were soon enjoying terrific views of this little warbler as it pirouetted and darted about after insects in the coast live oaks at the top end of the park. It was lovely enough to be a tree ornament. It is predominantly black with white in the wings and tail, and there is a delicate silvery-white crescent under each eye. The outstanding feature, however, is a red chest that appears fluorescent when the bird moves into the sun. Unlike many warbler species, the sexes are similar, so this one has to remain an “it.” Because of its constant movement, it was a very difficult bird to photograph.

The name redstart is a misnomer. There is a European species, the common redstart, that our bird is named after. Steort, changed to “start,” is a word from Middle English that means “tail,” and the European bird does indeed have a flashy red tail. The painted redstart has a black-and-white tail, so there is a move afoot to change the name to painted whitestart.

Libby and I were soon joined by other appreciative birders. As if the redstart weren’t enough, a brilliant all-red male summer tanager — another locally rare bird — flew into the same tree as the warbler and began to feast on large spiders. If the redstart were an ornament, the tanager would be the tree topper.


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Our experience with the birds at Rocky Nook is one of the delights of scouting for the bird count — you never know just what you’ll find. Counts are held all across the Americas during the festive season. One of the benefits of the counts is census taking: with data now stretching back over a hundred years — the first counts were conducted in the early 1900s — we can get a clear picture of which birds are doing well and which are in decline. Sadly, the latter list grows longer every year.

Over the years, friendly rivalries have arisen over which count circle — each count is restricted by a diameter of 15 miles — can see the most species in a 24-hour period. Santa Barbara County has five counts: Guadalupe-Santa Maria, La Purisima, Cachuma, Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria. The Santa Barbara count does particularly well, often coming in with over 200 species, which usually places us in the top three in the state. The count has even come in first for the number of species seen in the whole nation, though in recent years a couple of circles in Texas have left us in the dust.

What constitutes a circle that is particularly productive? A good variety of habitats is key. The Santa Barbara circle includes sloughs, woodland, mountains, reservoirs, chaparral, beaches, and the circle even extends into the ocean so that a group on a boat will often add a good number of extra species that cannot be seen from shore. This year the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count will be held on January 1. In my next article, I’ll let you know how we did this year. For much more information on the count, visit santabarbaraaudubon.org.


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