Birding Without Borders

Day 147: Magpies and Oil

A few last birds in SoCal, then home to Oregon.

May 27, 2015, Eugene, Oregon — If you want to see a Yellow-billed Magpie, you must go to California, where it is endemic. Logically, then, if you go to California, you must want to see a Yellow-billed Magpie! (If only all if/then statements worked in vice versa…) This morning, my last in SoCal, I joined Susan and Frank Gilliland and Dessi Sieburth, the 12-year-old superbirder who came with us to Anacapa Island a couple of days ago, to track down a magpie.

The plan was simple: Head north from L.A. until we spotted one. The magpies are mostly found in California’s central valley and don’t venture far enough south to reach Los Angeles, so the four of us had to cover some distance this morning to get into their range.

When we passed Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara on Highway 101 (locals call it “The 101”), the road shoulder was lined with traffic cones, port-a-potties, and people in khaki-colored uniforms. Last week, a pipeline ruptured at this exact spot and spilled up to 100,000 gallons of oil, killing about a dozen birds, a sea lion, and “an undisclosed number of lobsters” (in the words of CNN). Offshore, I could see boats with long booms attempting to sweep oil off the ocean’s surface. Audubon’s coverage of this spill is here.

We eventually found the magpies feeding on road kill and had great looks at nine of them. Even in this habitat of asphalt and 18-wheelers, the birds were beautiful: Boldly patterned in iridescent black and white with a long, graceful tail and that banana-colored beak. Magpies are probably among the world’s smartest birds; they can recognize their own reflection, and observations suggest that they feel self-aware emotions like grief and sympathy. As we watched each other, I wondered what they were thinking.

In mid-afternoon, the Gillilands and Dessi dropped me at LAX for my onward flight to Oregon. For the first and only time this year, I am home this week! In the next few days, I’ll hope to add about 50 new birds in Oregon while getting caught up on some logistics for the rest of the year. I touched down in Eugene near midnight, where my dad was waiting at the gate. I haven’t been home since Christmas, and, after this week, won’t be back until 2016. It’s nice to be sleeping in my own bed tonight!

New birds today: 5

Year list: 2677

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