Our final SMER bird…? (August 19 and 20, 2012)

Who knows what the future holds, but for now it looks like our last SMER bird has shown up. What is it? Here are some photos for you to examine:

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The above photos show a bird that showed up at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve on the evening on August 19, 2012. I was on the balcony with my mom on the phone when I heard a very unusual and awesome song from the nearby tree.

“Hang on mom!” I shouted as I put the phone down and grabbed my binos and camera.

When the bird came into sight, I yelled to Anne and Ryan, imploring them to come quickly. Then I picked up the phone, apologized for my language, and took the photos above. The bird showed up on the San Diego County side of the driveway, flew across to the Riverside County side of the driveway and alighted on Dan Pittenger’s feeder. It was with a flock of House Finches (the new Haemorhous mexicanus), one of which is pictured in the last photo. The immediate location is a garden and the surrounding habitat is chaparral.

Judging by my photos, the bird is quite small, smaller than a House Finch. Its most prominent features include a very heavy and pointy red bill which is obviously a seed-crusher. The red bill in this species signifies a male, as the females have orange bills. Behind its bill, it has black and white stripes and large round chestnut cheek-patches – the cheeks again differentiate this male from gray-cheeked females. Moving down the body, it has a black breast-band which fades into zebra-like bars on its sides, which is the last sign of the male. Further down, the bird has a white belly with white-spotted deep chestnut flanks. The back of the bird is mostly plain gray, but it appears to have white wing-tips and a black-and-white barred tail. Finally, the feet are bright orange. What a cool looking bird!

You can search through your Sibley and Peterson guides from A to Zed, but most common North American field guides won’t help you identify this species. Being a geneticist, bird breeder, or pet bird owner, on the other hand, might. That’s because the bird at our feeders is the Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata! An Australasian species that often lives on dry grasslands, similar to California’s chaparral. Zebra Finches were once exported from Australia in droves, but that practice was eventually banned and the birds found in US pet stores today all come from decades of captive breeding.

Exotics at the feeders aren’t typically the most exciting thing to see, but I was curious about this bird’s origin, especially since SMER is somewhat remote. Our nearest neighbors are .35 miles away and the nearest neighborhood is over a mile.

The next day the bird returned and continued singing and feeding with the House Finch flock. We all took a walk and upon returning, noticed a Cooper’s Hawk flying out of the garden. Blood on the feeder suggested somebody met his end there, and the Zebra Finch was neither seen nor heard before we pulled out of SMER on our latest adventure…

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