First local sighting brings flocks of birders to Berkeley

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The lone Painted Redstart in a Berkeley tree on Sunday Nov. 17: the first time this species has been seen in Alameda County. Photo: Cal Walters

This weekend, hundreds of bird enthusiasts flocked to a quiet southside Berkeley neighborhood to catch a glimpse of a beautiful North American breeding bird that has never before been sighted in Alameda County.

The colorful Painted Redstart was still in the Elmwood neighborhood this morning, flitting between three large trees located on three adjacent streets.

Richmond-based graphic designer Lory Poulson, who came to the neighborhood with her partner Susan Gluck to investigate, said they heard the warbler before they saw it.

“It has a distinctive call that sounds like ‘too weet’ with the emphasis on the ‘weet,'” she said using her binoculars to scan a large birch tree on Lewiston Street where the pair had seen the Redstart just before 10 a.m.

The story started Wednesday last week when Katie Bertsche, a scientific illustrator who lives on Prince Street, spotted a flash of bright red in a poplar tree while sitting on her deck.

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Birders Susan Gluck (left) and Lory Poulson watch for a sighting of the Painted Redstart in an oak tree off Prince Street in Berkeley on the morning of Nov. 18. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“I thought, what is that? There are no red birds in California,” she told Berkeleyside. Bertsche ran inside to look up the bird in a reference book and to grab her camera. She had seen a Painted Redstart before, in South-East Arizona which is its natural habitat, and was fairly certain this was the same bird.

Bertsche tried to snap some photos but the battery in her camera was dead. By this time she was cursing, she said, laughing.

Eventually Bertsche was able both to take photographs and record the sound the bird was making.

“It was calling a lot, not singing,” she said.

Bertsche posted her findings on the Golden Gate Audubon Facebook page and reached out to a contact at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “A lot of people will want to see it,” she was told.

That day, local bird experts Bob Lewis and Rusty Scalf came to see the Redstart for themselves. They didn’t find it but spotted it the following day.

Lewis, who runs Bay Area birding site Wingbeats, said the last sighting of a Painted Redstart reported for Northern California was in November 2012. “This is the first sighting for Alameda County,” he said via email.

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The Painted Redstart has been spotted in three different trees on Prince Street, Woolsey Street and Lewiston Street in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. Image: Google Maps

The Painted Redstart belongs to a group of passerines called Wood-Warblers, some of the most colorful of North American breeding birds, according to Lewis.

“The normal range of this bird is in Arizona, south into Mexico,” he said. “When the California Bird Records Committee published Rare Birds of California in 2007, only six records were known for the state of California, and all were from Southern California. Since that time, one was seen in Auburn in 2010, one in Point Reyes in 2012.”

Lewis said there may be a gap in sightings because Rare Birds of California only records to 2006, and the global online tool for birders, eBird, doesn’t have a lot of data pre-2009.

“In any regard, it’s an exciting find,” he said.

Lewis said males and females of the Painted Redstart species are identical, so it’s not known whether this is a male or female.

How or why this particular bird ended up in Berkeley is something of a mystery.

“Many of these species migrate to Central and South America to spend the winter, and some few individuals get lost on their route, sometimes migrating in reverse direction, sometimes blown off course by storms, or overshooting their targets,” Lewis said.

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The Painted Redstart on a telephone cable in Berkeley. Why it came to the city is a mystery. Photo: Cal Walters

Once the news was out that the bird was in Berkeley — Bertsche had posted a Rare Bird Alert for the benefit of the birding community — it was clear there would be a rush to see it.

Sensitive to the fact that her neighborhood could become “a mob scene” if many birders descended on the area, Bertsche made a flyer which she posted in neighbors’ mailboxes around Prince, Woolsey and Lewiston — the three streets on which the Redstart had been spotted, in, respectively, a poplar, an oak, and a birch.

“Dear Neighbors, I wanted to let you know about the sudden proliferation of Birdwatchers with Binoculars and cameras in the neighborhood!,” she wrote. “There has been a rare sighting of a bird called a Painted Redstart which is often seen between Prince St. and Woolsey St. Normally this bird lives in Arizona and this is the first record of this bird being seen in Alameda county. As a result a lot of people are interested in seeing it while it is here.

“I have been allowing birders access to my yard to look for it, birders should be polite about private property, please let me and them know if you are ok with allowing them to access your driveway or yard, or if people being a bother, and I will convey this information to the birder community.”

Bertsche included a photograph of a Redstart and her phone number on the flyer so that people could contact her for more information.

But quickly her “phone exploded,” she said, prompting her to leave voicemail messages for the dozens of callers with updates on the location of the small bird.

Bertsche said neighbors have been very gracious about having the birders in their midst. She estimates that more than 200 people have seen the bird since Wednesday.

Poulson said the Redstart was very “hyper” when she and Gluck saw it today. “It’s moving all the time, turning 180 degrees back and forth,” she said.

Bertsche has only lived in the area for a year and said this event has proved a great way for her to meet the neighbors, including one man on her street who, it turns out, leads bird walks.

“When these sorts of things happen, people who don’t know each other connect and get to know each other through a shared interest,” she said.

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Scientific illustrator Katie Bertsche was first to spot the Painted Redstart from her deck on Prince Street in Berkeley. She is working on a painting of the beautiful bird, starting with these rough sketches. Image: Katie Bertsche

Bertsche is keeping a guestbook for birders to sign and, so far, enthusiasts have come from as far as Chico, Point Reyes and Lodi.

Today she is working on a painting of the special bird. She said the only reason she spotted it originally was because she had told herself to start each day by getting a coffee and then taking it to her deck to do a drawing.

“I’d been spending too much time doing non-art work, in front of the computer,” she said.

A fortuitous decision that has made many bird enthusiasts very happy.

Cal Walters, whose close-ups of the Painted Redstart in Berkeley are included with this story, took the photographs Sunday, Nov. 17. Other photographs of the bird have been posted on eBird by Bob LewisVicki Robinson, and Michael Park, among others. And Jerry Ting has posted some striking shots on Flickr

The work of Katie Bertsche, along with that of other members of the California Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, is currently on show at the Environmental Education Center at Tilden Nature Area in Tilden Regional Park. View the exhibition’s flyer for details.

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  • Biker 94703

    It is migrant time again. The Cedar Waxwings were at my house this morning, eating pyracantha berries and pecking at ripe persimmons.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Its natural habit is Arizona. There have been a few sightings in southern California. This is the first sighting in northern California.

    Sounds like it has something to do with the fact that this is an exceptionally dry year in Northern California – I believe the driest on record.

    The bird’s natural habitat may be shifting because of climate change.

  • Chris

    Wonderful!

  • guest

    These photos are fantastic.

  • bingo

    I love everything about this article B-side. Vagrants and accidentals will be here for sure, near the shoreline as well.

  • Tim Ereneta

    “How or why this particular bird ended up in Berkeley is something of a mystery.”

    Word on the street is that it’s scouting locations to open an artisanal Oaxacan yogurt shoppe.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    And s/he also knew that the Elmwood needed just one more tasteful dash of color to warm up the neighborhood for rain and Thanksgiving.

    B-side, please keep the bird photos and stories coming.

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    More than happy to, M.E. Lawrence. I thoroughly enjoyed reporting this story!

  • Katie Bertsche

    I believe there’s also a Eurasian Wigeon down at the Marina, and of course the wintering Burrowing Owls are in at Cesar Chavez park as well :)

  • bingo

    ooh, thanks! I am on the shore, and often see a tremendous variety of marsh birds.

  • K-Moo

    A huge THANK YOU to Tracey, Berkeleyside, Katie, and the photographers! The instant I finished this article I grabbed my binocs and zipped over to Elmwood — and found our new little friend within 10 minutes (thanks to a birdwatcher who pointed me to one of his/her favorite trees). Gorgeous!

  • linda schacht

    Does anyone know if the bluebirds are still near San Pablo park?

  • Loni Gray

    For all the excitement of first sightings, it’s sad actually, if it’s here alone. It’s lost its way, and its flock. No mate to keep it here. Is the hyper activity because it’s alone and without orientation? As the winter sets in I hope it finds its way back to warmth.