A few years ago, birders were invited to predict the next five new species to make it on the Santa Barbara County bird list. It was an interesting exercise, and birders put much thought into their predictions.
Most of the birds on the lists were species considered long overdue, and some have indeed made their first appearance. The species on most lists was the lesser black-backed gull, and an individual was found not long after the predictions by fellow expat Nick Lethaby. The LeConte’s sparrow was on three lists, including mine, and I was fortunate enough to find one at the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. This species had been seen in many California coastal counties, as was the case with another first, the blue-winged warbler found last fall by Mr. Lethaby.
A bird that was on many lists was the neotropic cormorant. I have spent much time sifting through groups of the common double-crested cormorant in hopes of picking out one of their much smaller cousins, which as the name suggests, are usually found in more southerly latitudes.
On the morning of May 31, as I was at school with my fifth-graders, my phone buzzed. I took a surreptitious glance and saw the call was from Mr. Lethaby. I knew he must have found something good to be phoning me in the middle of the workday, but I couldn’t take the call. Shortly after, texts started coming in. Mr. Lethaby thought he had found a neotropic cormorant at Devereux Slough. It was almost lunchtime. If I got the kids promptly out of the door, I could perhaps make it to the slough, see the bird and get back before my 45-minute lunch break was over — but it would be tight, and the traffic lights would have to be in my favor.
I did, indeed, get mostly green lights on my way to the freeway. I called Mr. Lethaby as I was getting close to the slough (all hands-free calling, in case you were worrying) and received news that, though he was still watching the bird, it had flown from next to the road to the southern end of the slough; this would necessitate parking and legging it around Coal Oil Point and along the beach to see the bid. It was a heart-sinker. There was no way I could make it in time.
As I drove down Storke Road, another call came through. The cormorant had flown north again. There was hope. On Slough Road now, I could see cars pulled over at the bend where birders are permitted to stop and scan. I parked and ran up to the two birders who were glassing the slough. There were two cormorants sitting on a log, holding their wings out to dry. One was miniscule compared to the other: It was the neotropic cormorant next to a double-crested cormorant for a terrific size comparison.
I had 10 minutes to observe the bird and attempt photographs, though it was distant and the light poor. In that time, several other birders showed up. I enjoyed a more leisurely drive back to school, though I only made it with a couple of minutes to spare. Later, I heard news of the bird’s movements after my sighting. It flew east from Devereux, was relocated at the UCSB Campus Lagoon, and then was last seen flying toward Goleta Bay.
The next day, the bird was found resting at Goleta Beach before it again relocated to Devereux Slough. I was able to catch up with it again at Devereux, this time at close quarters. So, what will be the next new bird to show up in our county? All I can say is that if Mr. Lethaby finds it, I shan’t be at all surprised..