Chasing a Rare Bird in California – The Worm-eating Warbler

One evening the news came. Andrew Lee, a prominent eBirder, spotted a Worm-eating Warbler in Sacramento County at a park only minutes from our house. This species had not been seen in Northern California for almost 50 years. January had just begun, so it probably got lost in the recent storms during migration. No one knew how long it had been hiding there, but it had finally been found. Even a blurry, but identifiable photo was attached to the eBird sighting to prove it.

So, my dad and I drove to Reichmuth Park to chase after the Worm-eating Warbler that was so rare to California. If I saw it, this would be a lifer for me. Rain had been pouring continuously for the last few weeks. So when we reached the park, we found ourselves on trails that resembled small lakes. This park was different than most. One part of it contained lots of tall dead trees, small shrubs, and a marshy bog in the middle. It was supposed to be a frisbee golf course, but because of all the rain, the paths on the edge of the pond were flooded with several inches of water. The only remnants of the footpath seemed to be a narrow rim, lined with thorny bushes, poison oak, and sometimes a tree with its roots in the way.

However, this habitat was great for birding. Quite a few local birders have found rarities here often, and this park most closely resembled the Worm-eating Warbler’s natural habitat than any other park in the area I had visited. Unfortunately, every greenish-brown bird in the park could easily be mistaken for the similarly olive-colored Worm-eating Warbler. When we got to the area of the sighting, (30 feet East of the third tee), we searched for the drab olive-colored bird. The first bird we mistook for the warbler was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A few minutes later, another one followed. Then some more. I was checking each one for the telltale field marks. Eventually, we had to leave. It was getting cold, and it was on the verge of raining again. Even though we missed it that time, the bird was still being reported by the end of January. So we went back.

On the second attempt, I was accompanied by my mom, my younger sister, and my little brother. While my mom likes birds, let’s just say my siblings don’t share my passion. This time, trucks displaying eBird bumper stickers lined the curb. When we got to the spot to look again, there were ten other birders also looking for the Worm-eating Warbler. As we were watching a clump of leaves behind a log where several birds were flitting around, someone further down the path called out, “It’s over here!”  After running to his position, he pointed to where he had last seen it. But there were already so many birds in the 25 square feet he was facing. There were flocks of Bushtits, Oak Titmice, Orange-crowned Warblers, Hutton’s Vireos, White and Golden crowned Sparrows, both species of kinglets, and Pacific Wrens. Altogether they totaled well over 40 individuals. Every bird I examined was either a bushtit or a Hutton’s Vireo. When the flock of birds diminished I still had not seen the Worm-eating Warbler.

The next time when my  dad and I went looking for the Worm-eating Warbler, it was in the middle of February and it was still continuing on eBird. That day it actually was raining. A few minutes after we got there, another birder with a large camera came to look for the warbler. He slowly made his way over to us and said “did you find it yet?” We said “No”, and he introduced himself as Dan Murphy. We walked up and down the trail avoiding the dangerous plants until we had to go back home having tried our best. Later, a checklist posted by Dan Murphy on eBird proved that when he stayed after we left to go home, he had seen the Worm-eating Warbler.

We did not visit the park for about a month after that time because dad got poison oak. No doubt the marshy bog that was supposed to be a frisbee golf course had forced my dad to trek among clusters of the ubiquitous plant with reddish-green leaves of three. Finally, when the water had receded back into its rightful place and my dad wasn’t feeling so itchy anymore, we returned. Because it hadn’t rained for a while, the water on the path that had flooded the park had been drained back into the lake and it was almost dry except for a few patches of slippery and sticky mud. We looked for the Worm-eating Warbler again. There had still been sightings on eBird but not as many as before. We got some good looks at a Hermit Thrush, but we missed the warbler again.

Even though I didn’t see the Worm-eating Warbler, I managed to take this photo of a Hermit Thrush that flew into the open to eat some berries.

The last time we tried to find it, it was about 6:00 P.M. My dad and I walked all the way around the pond where two Canada Geese floated peacefully. Luckily, this trip to the park paid off when I located a Varied Thrush. A lifer for me! At first, I thought it might have been a Western Meadowlark because the yellowish feathered creature flew with a seemingly short tail, but I identified it correctly when it landed as a Varied Thrush by its orange supercilium and throat. It had been a week since the Worm-eating Warbler had been seen. We returned home not having seen the rarity that at least a hundred other eBirders had sighted over the past month. Even though this may have been the one that got away, I am still determined to add the Worm-eating Warbler to my life list one day.

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