Updated date:

Changing Flyways–a Checklist for Birders on the Move

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

From Texas to Southern California

A Rock Wren suveying the landscape from Volcanic Rocks.

A Rock Wren suveying the landscape from Volcanic Rocks.

Leaving Home Territory

Oh, wow! You have been offered a great new job, a chance to retire in your dream location, or some other exciting opportunity! It was a big decision, but you accepted it happily. That meant it was time to relocate to a new place far from your present home. As you packed, you found yourself taking quick trips to visit your favorite birding spots one last time. You said goodbye to your backyard friends, gave your plants away and shed a tear or two as you had lived in one spot for a long time. It was all so bittersweet, but you were prepared. During my own move, I developed a checklist for a birder changing flyways.

#1 Your Records

Some people don’t sweat birding records and some people get absolutely anal about it. Even if you don’t keep a bird diary or have all your sightings carefully recorded on E-bird, you might want to gather up all those picture files, location maps and such for scrapbooking or just to put to bed the past and clear space for the future. As birding and photography go hand in hand with me, I had thousands of picture files in my computer to get through. I do make a point of clearing it out at the end of each year. Those files are archived on DVDs. Even so, it was October when crunch time came. I had to get all that done earlier than usual. Plus, just my ongoing bird species photo collection is getting huge. All that needed to be archived or at least collected into one or two boxes before heading into new territory.

That part was almost as painful as going through my kid’s stuff while packing. Just as I can remember the boys using each and every toy, I can remember my first trip to Anahuac NWR, the day I found my first rare species and my first bird festival at Port Aransas. Oh, the memories.

Sigh. . . Take a deep breath. Get it all into boxes and put it on the truck.

California Flyways

California, part of the Pacific Flyway

California, part of the Pacific Flyway

Common Ravens, they take the place of crows here. These were local in Ridgecrest, Ca.

Common Ravens, they take the place of crows here. These were local in Ridgecrest, Ca.

#2 Researching Your New Home

  • Ok, where are you going?
  • Which flyway is it?
  • What is the timing of spring and fall migration?
  • Are there new birds to be found, or will it be all your old friends in a new setting?

My first action upon knowing we were moving was to announce my new location to birding friends on the internet birding sites I frequent. I didn’t find anyone in the town I will be going to that way, but I did find people who knew of the area and assured me it was a fantastic birding location. They, in turn, referred me to other birding sites that might help me along.

The second thing I did was attempt a search for local birding information on the internet. Ouch, that wasn’t easy. I am heading into the South California desert valleys. There was an e-book, Birds of East Kern County, written by a gentleman I’m hoping to meet, but that is about it locally. On the county level, the American Birding Association has a newsletter. There was also an Audubon chapter discovered, but getting hold of them was difficult at a distance (members only websites). There were, however, plenty of online birding guides and location maps.

If you have read my articles much, you will know I am all about having a good on hand paper reference library. So my next step was getting in touch with my friend, Amazon Books. California has about as many birding books as Texas, so trying to decide on just the most relevant starter books I could order without upsetting the bank account required careful thought. Definitely read the reviews if you find yourself in this predicament. Make sure they are relevant to your needs. Otherwise, you will be returning books as I ended up doing with one purchase. See this list if you are interested in good reads on California Birding. I finally settled on two state bird guides, one for Northern California and one for the South end and a location guide. I have given Amazon links to them in this article.

California is a big state with different regional climates, like Texas. As such, one book for the north and one for the south is warranted. I will be visiting throughout the state, so this also justifies the expense. I have experience with Lone Pine Field Guides through my Texas Guide already. I love their organization and informative readable text. Their book for Northern California was no disappointment. If I were to ever write a bird guide, I would look to this publisher to do it with. The book, Birds of Southern California, is more abbreviated, but their information is still well organized and relevant. It is also a smaller format, which makes it easier to carry into the field.

The ABA Birder's Guide to Southern California is all about bird finding and turned out to be a good choice. Don't buy this book for bird identification, that's not its purpose. It is not organized as well as I would have wanted. You will see comments on that in reviews for this book, but it appears to be well researched. This book is nine years old, so it shouldn't be too dated. Many location guides published before 911 have needed revisions as some areas are no longer available to the public. I found this out painfully using older guides on a trip into Central Texas. It was the only such book I could find for Southern California.

Sage Sparrow at Fossil Falls

Sage Sparrow at Fossil Falls

A winter Goldfinch.  I will have them here too. Found at Kern River Preserve

A winter Goldfinch. I will have them here too. Found at Kern River Preserve

#3 Read, Read, Read

I suspected moving from the Central Flyway to the west, would be a big change. It wasn’t just in climate and terrain (dense woodlands to high altitude desert), but also in species availability. I don’t really know much about California. When doing a big move like this to unknown territory, you have to ask a lot of questions. Then you have to hit your go to spots to get answers. Here is a list, just for starters

  1. What will the terrain be like?
  2. What birding spots are nearby?
  3. What new species will I be finding?
  4. Are there birding groups nearby?
  5. Where are the migration paths?
  6. Where are the traditional stop overs in Spring and Autumn?
  7. Where are the wintering spots, if any?
  8. Where are the breeding grounds, if any?
  9. What will be on your "got to see" list in this new territory?

For me, in new territory, I didn't know where to start. Some answers had to wait until after my arrival.

South Lake in the Inyo National Forest

South Lake in the Inyo National Forest

Water savers,  worn away holes in the rock that save rain water for wildlife.

Water savers, worn away holes in the rock that save rain water for wildlife.

#4 Check Out the New Surroundings

The next step comes after you arrive. All those unanswered questions can be cleared up best once you reach your new nesting ground, so to speak. Lucky for me, my husband has become an avid birder, as I have. He relocated ahead of me for employment. He did most of the local research on location. Once on site, Greg treated me to a number of day trips to see the area.

Our first stops for getting to know the territory included the Kern River Preserve in the mountains (to prove to this Thicket girl that there are tall trees around here). We just have to get higher into the mountains to see them. This is a great spot in the Spring and Autumn. Hummingbirds seem to flock here. In the Spring, my husband said he saw 30 to 40 hummers at a time. There are five species to be had.

We later visited Fossil Falls. This was a great geological learning trip, but also a lesson in birding. Tiny birds live in this rocky terrain. Someone trained to watch for movement will see them if they are careful. The desert was blessed with a day of rain the week I arrived. Two weeks later, we could still find water in worn holes were the Owens river flowed through Fossil Falls ages ago (picture included). Where there is water, even just a little, there will be birds. This goes for the hidden canyons where many birds winter too. I have visited only one so far and found Long-eared Owls, warblers, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

The Inyo National forest is also close by for day tripping. So far, we have been to South lake, west of Bishop Ca and the Bristle-cone Forest, 11,000 feet above sea level. I had not seen such beautiful alpine scenic beauty since leaving Washington State. Imagine a clear lake nestled 8000 or more feet above sea level. Never mind imagining, I have included a picture of it for you.

One blustery morning we also dropped altitude to check out Death Valley. Even this time of year there were birds, just not in large numbers. A local flock of English Sparrows fluttered about when we reached Stovepipe Wells and a Red-tail hawk was found resting up in a power tower.

In between those trips, I also have been using E-bird to find out where the local birder hot spots are around town. Parks and the local college campus seem to be the best places.

Western Bluebirds at Kern River Preserve

Western Bluebirds at Kern River Preserve

Red-shafted Flicker found at Kern River Preserve

Red-shafted Flicker found at Kern River Preserve

Final Word

There are other places we plan to see; but I have only been here for a four weeks. We plan to be here many years, so there is time. So far, I have found a Pink-sided Oregon Junco, a Sage Sparrow, and a Rock Wren and Say’s Pheobe, (two birds that eluded me back in Texas). There have also been familiar friends, such as American Robins, English Sparrows, Kestrels, and Red-tail Hawks.

While excitement is high, I have to remember that birding is a matter of timing and looking up to see what the day has in store. No matter where a wandering birder may go, the birds will be there to enjoy.

Happy Birding, wherever you are

© 2016 Sherry Thornburg