Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Birds of Fantasy Island

A Red-whiskered Bulbul at the Los Angeles County Arboretum

The Los Angeles County Arboretum is the former estate of a 19th-century robber baron and nature lover. As any L.A.-raised kid who's ever been on a school field trip knows, it's now a lush series of gardens and plant collections inhabited by large, noisy colonies of feral guinea fowl and peafowl. And, as any L.A.-raised kid of older vintage knows, it's also the location of the Victorian cottage featured in the opening scenes of "Fantasy Island": the bell tower and even the bell that Tattoo rang every week are still there. (This important cultural fact is conspicuously absent from the commemorative plaques and educational placards surrounding the cottage.)

We spent the weekend in L.A., celebrating the Lunar New Year with my parents, and managed to fit in some birding and photography time with some of Glenn's L.A.-based photo buddies. We met at the Arboretum to see the Red-whiskered Bulbul the L.A. guys had seen there previously: It was not hard to find; indeed there was a biggish flock of them flitting about in the aloe/drought-resistant plant garden near the main entrance.

My personal, arguably more ambitious goal was to find the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that had also been seen in the aloe garden the week before. There was only one tree in the area that looked woodpecker-friendly, and it was riddled with sapsucker wells, which seemed promising. And it didn't take long before we found, well, some kind of sapsucker:

It had yellow on its throat and a yellowish wash to its breast and belly, so we were sure this was THE bird. But as the photo shows, it has way too much red on its head for a Yellow-bellied. And too much black on its face for a Red-breasted or Red-naped (at least, judging from the photos of these birds I've been Googling over the last few days when I should have been working.) I'm guessing it's a hybrid of some sort. Or not. (A birder I asked about this thinks it's a Red-breasted/Red-naped cross, with not a drop of Yellow-bellied blood involved.)

It seemed like the kind of thing that should happen to me at Fantasy Island: on the show, everyone got to live out his or her fantasy, but it never turned out exactly as planned. There was always some kind of humbling (and usually humiliating) life lesson involved. My humbling life lesson is that I shouldn't get excited about getting lifers without doing my homework first.

But if this bird is part Red-naped, can I still count it as half a new species on my list?

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