Scissor-tailed Flycatcher brought visitors to Teague Park

October 22, 2014
Santa Paula News

By Karl Krause 

A miracle of nature unfolded in Santa Paula over the summer, and we were fortunate to be among the observers. The event brought many new visitors to Teague Park and caused different social communities within Santa Paula to share information and experiences with one another in a way that does not often happen. In June, local distance runner and birder Gary Tuttle noticed a bird with a very unusual tail in the park. He ran by on a couple of consecutive days and checked on it to make sure it was still there, before asking wildlife biologist Dave Pereksta to come and confirm its identification as a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. With Dave’s confirmation on June 21, word went out by e-mail to hundreds, if not thousands of birders that a bird not normally seen in California had taken up residence in Teague Park in Santa Paula.

Karl is one of the many birders who daily reviews e-mail traffic on this bird watching site (list serve).  Gary also made a personal call to Karl in case he hadn’t checked his e-mail yet. Within minutes Karl was on his way to Teague Park with his camera and captured some of the earliest photos of the bird. He posted photos to e-mail and Facebook, and soon out-of-town visitors began arriving.

On Karl’s first visit to the park, neighbors who frequent the park started asking questions and getting interested. It soon became clear that they, too, had noticed the unusual bird with its remarkable tail.

During the summer months the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is generally found in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, but spends its winters in Mexico. Some neighbors of the park mentioned that they were used to seeing this species in Mexico. Some reported seeing it in Texas where it has adapted to urban environments, catching bugs around the bright lights at shopping centers. This was useful information to the Southern California birders, as most were unfamiliar with the species and knew little about its habits. Apparently this was not a shy species.

But how did it get here? The Teague Park bird was one of three confirmed Scissor-tailed Flycatchers to visit Ventura County this summer, but as far as we know, the only one to settle in so completely. Quite possibly it took off from its wintering grounds in Mexico with its relatives, the Western Kingbirds, and ignored its instincts to return to where it was raised. Or, its normal route to nesting grounds may have been blocked by storms. There are many possible explanations.

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is a relative of the more common Western Kingbird and Cassin’s Kingbird, both of which also nested in Teague Park this year. The Scissor-tailed has a very different appearance because of its uniquely shaped tail. The day after the bird was identified as a Scissor-tailed, she was observed with a male Western Kingbird, a possible mate. This helped confirm that the Scissor-tailed was, in fact, a female. Historically, there are two other records of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers mating with Western Kingbirds in California. On June 24, just two days after the pair of birds was first seen together, a few of the neighbors pointed out the nest. The nest could hardly have been in a busier spot, sitting directly above two picnic tables that park neighbors use as an outdoor living room. It seemed that the pair chose constant human activity near the nest over the privacy that many birds seek, but this helped birders and the neighbors cooperatively keep track of the birds and their nest. 

Birders came from Santa Barbara, Thousand Oaks, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Orange County, and other areas from throughout California-Gary estimates 400-500 birders over the course of the summer. Nearly every time we went to the park, there were birders who had never been to Santa Paula before-thank goodness for Google maps and GPS. Park neighbors who were not previously familiar with the species quickly learned to identify its distinctive appearance and flight, and helped birders locate the rarity when they arrived at the park. 

One young man stood out among the park neighbors. He was a boy about 10 years of age, who visited the park regularly with his mother and twin preschool brothers. He would greet birders, (obvious because of their binoculars), and ask them if they had seen the Scissor-tailed yet. He let that word roll off his tongue with ease, and would get so excited when he was the first to see it fly over. He, of course, had eagle eyesight and was not using binoculars. He would even run over to help you, in case you had missed it from your vantage point. He move back and forth between English and Spanish, looking after his little brothers in one language and greeting visitors in another. When present, he was the Scissor-tailed Ambassador.

As time passed birders were despairing of ever finding a chick in the nest, as official reference sources seemed to say too many days had passed since the nest was built. Were the eggs infertile because the birds were different species? Did the Mom not sit on the nest enough to keep the eggs warm? Did crows steal the eggs? But on July 15, 24 days after the nest was discovered, the young Scissor-tailed Ambassador called a Ventura birder to tell her he saw chicks!! One or two downy heads were seen popping up as Mom and Dad came to feed them bugs.

Only one chick ever flew from the nest, and it was unfortunately precocious. It insisted on leaving the nest, or fell from it, before it was a strong flyer. On its first day out of the nest, the park neighbors were so worried that a roaming cat would get the chick that they fashioned a tool to lift the chick back into its nest for the night. They took cell phone photos to document what they had done. On its second night out of the nest, the ocean breeze was strong and the weak little bird barely made it into the lower branches of a nearby ficus tree, where its parents watched over it. By the third day, the chick was strong enough to fly where he wanted.

A week or so went by with both Mom and Dad bringing food to the chick, then suddenly all the Western Kingbirds in the park, including Dad, took off on their southern migration. Mom continued to feed the chick, and coax him to fly farther to strengthen his wings. Mom taught the chick to fly-catch, catching insects right out of the air. Mom also taught the chick to fly to trees north and south of the park where the good bugs, and a few good berries, were. We were often amused when Mom would disappear over Taco Bell, then return a few minutes later with “take out” bugs. 

When the chick had been out of the nest for about ten days, the park neighbors found an injured chick on the ground that they thought was “The Chick”. We assured them that we had seen “The Chick” that day. The neighbors then theorized that it was a second chick from the nest. They took it to a bird rescue organization, which took care of it and hand-raised it on the chance that it really was another Western Kingbird crossed with a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We saw early photos from the rescue organization, and believe the injured chick may have been a different species. What is remarkable about this is the caring and protective spirit that emerged among the park neighbors, and the lengths they went to, to protect a tiny chick that others might not consider so precious. 

None of us knew what to expect of a cross between two species of birds: would the fledged chick look only like the father? Like the mother? Would it be a mix of both? Until it is mature, we won’t know for sure, but as it grew it started out showing important characteristics of both its Mom and Dad. The chick had distinctive salmon-colored patches under its wings and a forked tail that was beginning to look a little like the blades on a pair of scissors, like its Mom, but it also had the bright yellow chest and belly like its Western Kingbird Dad. The birds are gone now but we are cautiously hoping to see the final result next year, as many bird species return to where they were raised to start their own families. Will there be a new miracle next year? Will more Scissor-tailed Flycatchers migrate to Santa Paula? We look forward to meeting up with the Teague Park community next summer to find out. 

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