Tag Archives: Yellow-billed Magpie

Magpie – Black-billed and Yellow-billed

Magpie Origin

Black-billed Magpie

This Black-billed Magpie was photographed in Denver Colorado. It is common to see either of the American Magpie species walking on the ground foraging for food.

The magpies of North America are very visually distinctive from other birds and thus easy to identify. Although the Black-billed Magpie is very similar in appearance to the European Magpie, it is larger and genetically unique. DNA analysis places our two magpies as separate from the European Magpie. DNA distinctions caused the AOS to divide the American Magpies from the European Magpies. The same logic should apply to the Korean subspecies. The ancestral magpies, after dispersing across Eurasia and becoming isolated in Korea, then crossed over the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas at about 3 to 4 million years ago.Strictly speaking, using DNA comparisons, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) could potentially merge our two magpie species. Continue reading

Quick trip to Paso Robles

Fathers day in Paso Robles

Northern Bobwhite in Paso Robles

Northern Bobwhite

For Father’s Day weekend my daughter and I went up to Paso Robles, CA to visit family. It was not a trip where I got much time to go explore or bird watch. We did happen upon a few birds of interest while there. The first of these was a nice Northern Bobwhite. I had never seen a Bobwhite in Paso Robles before. Bobwhites not often seen in the Western US. Experts consider these to be domestic birds that have escaped. Well, escaped or not, she was very beautiful and certainly running around free. I was really surprised when I had trained my Nikon EDG II binoculars on her expecting to see a California Quail. Continue reading

Yellow-billed Magpie: Another Roadside Attraction

We were driving back from central California when we stopped at the rest stop near Camp Roberts on U.S. Route 101. We consistently find Yellow-billed Magpie at this particular rest stop and did on this visit as well. We had only been there for a few minutes when 4 or 5 of these handsome birds flew in and began feeding in the leaf litter under the large, spreading oaks.


Yellow-billed Magpie is endemic to California, meaning they live no place else on the planet besides here. Birders always prize endemics over those more widespread species.  They are big, beautiful and intelligent members of the family Corvidae, which includes all crows, ravens and jays worldwide. As such, they are often pretty skittish and seldom allow close approach. At this rest stop, however, they became habituated to being around people, which means they are easier to photograph. Even so, we chose to digiscope them from distance rather than approach closely. From farther away, the birds relax some and act naturally in our presence. This video was taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 digital camera attached to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope.

Notice also how little yellow skin these magpies show around the face. The amount of yellow facial skin shown by a Yellow-billed Magpie varies with the individual. It may also vary with differing molt states. In our experience, the magpies at this particular site show more yellow than those in other places we’ve been.

 (If the video doesn’t load properly, try refreshing the screen and then retry. We’re seeing this a lot lately.)

YouTube video

Arctic Loon-acy

In January of 2012, birders at the Morro Bay Birding Festival discovered an Arctic Loon in San Simeon. Instantly, we knew we needed to chase it. You just cannot pass up a bird this good! So we started planning. We would leave before dawn, travel light, and take in a bunch of other spots on the way back… Which is why three of us met at 4 am on a Sunday morning. We stuffed a bunch of scopes and other gear into the back of an SUV and took off. Staying awake on the way there wasn’t hard. Rarity chases get the blood flowing! Hopes run high (this was a life bird for two of us) and the conversation never lags.

Arctic Loon, basic plumage

Arctic Loon in basic plumage

Arctic Loon!

When we got to the spot at 8:15 am, two of California’s best-known birders greeted us warmly: “What took you so long?!” The loon sat there right in front of us at close range, a total anticlimax! It fished in the same small lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek. There it rubbed shoulders with the gulls, coots, cormorants and grebes, pretty much slumming it. This Arctic Loon was not at all shy, swimming about and preening unconcernedly while allowing close approach of multiple birders with their scopes, tripods and cameras with big lenses. We got stunning looks and took tons of pictures, some of which even came out!

Blinking Arctic Loon

Blinking Arctic Loon

These shots were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 camera, attached with a Sayegh Digidapter for Kowa TE-10Z and TE-11WZ to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope equipped with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Zoom Eyepiece. That’s it. Just point and shoot. The loon did make things challenging occasionally by diving – loon watching is frequently an intermittent occupation. With the bird as close as this, sometimes it was hard to actually keep it in frame, but who’s complaining?! And of course sometimes there’s a bit of luck involved. Here, the camera accidentally caught the bird blinking the nictitating membrane after coming up from a dive. The only difficulty here was in picking which of the hundred photographs to use for this post!

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie

Other Local Attractions

You would think it would be all downhill from there. However, on this fabulous whirlwind birding trip, hits just kept coming. Chestnut-backed Chickadee – probably a dirt-bird to the locals, but we don’t get to see those very often in Orange County. In the day, we saw 4 of the world’s 5 loon species, all three scoters and 6 of our 7 grebe species.

Tracking inland from there and making our way back south, we saw a pair of Golden Eagles and a brilliant male Lapland Longspur in the company of about a hundred Horned Larks. We also saw one of California’s two endemic bird species: Yellow-billed Magpies. This provided a showcase for what digiscoping can do by way of photo-documentation. This magpie was easily 75 yards distant and crawling through obscuring grass on a hillside beneath live oaks, yet the camera still did a passable job with it. In the end though, the best bird of the day was still that magnificent loon.

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed MagpieFor Memorial Day weekend this year I went up to visit my family in Paso Robles. Cooking and visiting with family consumed most of my time. I got very little time to look at the birds and animals. I did though run across a few birds and managed to take a couple photos. One of the local birds that is fairly common near my folk’s ranch is the Yellow-billed Magpie. Yellow-billed Magpie is one of California’s two truly endemic birds the other being the Island Scrub-Jay of Santa Cruz Island.

Yellow-billed MagpieNacimiento Road to the north of town is a very good place to find this bird. In the morning on Memorial Day I took a very quick look for these unique and beautiful birds. Declining populations due to such factors as West Nile Disease and loss of habitat has caused great concern lately. They are quite vocal and their distinctive plumage makes them easy to find in the oak habitats that they frequent. The Black-billed Magpie is almost identical. Yellow-billed Magpie has always been my favorite of the two because of their striking yellow bill.

Barn OwlIn my brief birding time I also took a walk one night in my brother’s vineyards. This was just irresistible since I could hear Great Horned, Barn and Western Screech-Owls at night. This young Barn Owl, who did not yet fly very well, fluttered out of a nearby tree and onto the ground right in front of me. It is such a pleasure to see so many Barn Owl boxes in the agricultural areas in the Central Valley of California.

Many places across the US have seen tremendous declines in Barn Owl populations due to loss of habitat and in particular nest site availability. In a drive through the Central Valley of California you can see that many of the vineyards have put up Barn Owl nesting boxes on poles about 10-15 feet high dispersed throughout the fields. Ranchers and vineyard owners like to attract the Barn Owls because they help to control rodent populations.