Blue Mockingbird Melanotis caerulescens
El Dorado Park, Long Beach
Los Angeles County, California
17-19 December 1999
Finally around 1:30pm I located the Blue Mockingbird in dense shrubbery adjacent to where it had been singing about an hour earlier. I alerted others and we all got fairly decent views for about the next 15 minutes. I first was attracted to its size and shape. It was a long sleek bird with a long tail and flat crown, about the size of a California Towhee or perhaps larger. The dappled sunlight hit the tail and it looked strikingly blue, lighter than I expected. Others observers seeing the bird at the time included Chet McGough, Dave Goodward, Larry Allen and Nathan Moorhatch. Chet had a camera but did not attempt photos. Observations were with 8x42 B&L Elite binoculars.
The following is based on notes taken during and immediately after the observation:
Overall, it was rather uniformly blue on its tail, back, head and wings. The underparts were also mostly blue. I felt the shade of blue was similar to that of a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. However the color seemed to vary with the light. In deep shade the bird appeared dark gray, but in sunlight the blue stood out clearly. Some observers suggested that it might be called "gun-metal blue." A white patch showed up near the bend of the left wing. I judged this patch to be either the alula or the primary coverts. Combined with the black mask, and white wing patch, this bird bore a superficial resemblance to a giant Black-throated Blue Warbler.
At one point the bird sat perched facing us for a long time turning its head from side to side. In the shade the eye appeared reddish-brown, but when the sun hit the eye, it appeared decidedly red, with only a slight hint of brown. I felt the eye color was similar to that of a Spotted Towhee. The eye was set off by a black mask extending from the lores across the face to the rear of the ear-coverts. The lower border of the mask curved down and then back up to the rear of the auricular area. At times I felt the forehead was slightly paler blue than the crown, but I was never able to confirm this. The coloration changed so much with the dappled sunlight that it was impossible to be sure.
When the bird faced us, we could clearly see that the throat was very pale and the breast was heavily marked by broad blurry, darker blue streaks across a much paler blue background. The overall pattern on the breast was thus reminiscent of female Pinyon Jay.
The bird had a rather long, slightly graduated tail, which it often held cocked up at a jaunty angle as it moved furtively through the tangles. The tip of the tail was spread occasionally creating an apparent gash between the two central feathers, but I noticed no evidence of excessive wear. The bird also occasionally flicked its wings. It's behavior and overall appearance reminded me of a Gray Catbird.
The bill was very striking. It seemed very long and thin, but only slightly curved. The feet and legs were black.
On 19 December 1999, I returned to El Dorado Park with Robbie Fischer in hopes of seeing the bird again. We arrived early and soon learned that the bird had been seen yesterday at its alternate site (grid C8 on the Nature Center map). I decided to check that area and found a group of birders had just seen the bird. I could hear it singing again from deep inside the shrubbery. I moved to the other side and soon the bird came out in full sunlight to feed on bright red berries. At this time Jack Nash took several photographs. I called Robbie and soon she arrived and we had several more excellent sightings. We left the area about 10am. I was able to confirm most of my initial observations and noted some additional features.
The bird is somewhat larger than a towhee, closer to Scrub Jay in size. The white patch is on the left wing only and appears to consist of a single feather on the alula. The crown is the same blue color as the rest of the bird, but there are fine whitish streaks over the crown and nape which become more pronounced above the eye and across the forehead, contrasting nicely with the black mask. The belly is darker than the body with a dark charcoal gray cast, lacking the paler blue coloration of the rest of the bird.
The tail is in molt. At least one central rectrix appears to be half grown. Thus the gap in the tail noted on Friday is caused by the molting central rectrix. There is also an obvious step on the outer border to the tail which might be an artifact of molt. The new feather is the same bluish color as the rest of the tail, but it is nicely rounded at the tip. The old tail-feathers are worn fairly heavily. The wear could best be seen when the bird perched atop a berry bush against the sky. It could be cage-wear or it could be normal wear-and-tear.
Sunlight again confirmed that the eye is bright red when lit by the sun, but dark reddish brown in the shade. The streaks on the upper breast are quite pronounced.
The song is highly varied including a lot of sounds most of which I was unable to place. Several times I heard what I felt was the song of Northern Cardinal. Other throaty sounds, musical trills and whistles were not recognizable to me at all. Sometimes when it dived from the berries into the depths of the shrubs it uttered a surprising loud two parted whistle with a slightly harsh quality.
Additional photos of the bird and pictures of birders at the event have been posted by Joel Weintraub here. A map of El Dorado Park Nature Center showing the locations of recent sightings is here.
The bird was originally thought to be an immature (See Calbird discussion) but that assessment has been questioned by others (Robb Hamilton, pers. comm.). I have no first-hand knowledge of how to age these birds reliably, but Howell & Webb (A Guide to the Birds of Mexico, 1995) state that immatures lack the pale streaking on the throat which this bird shows. In good light, the eye color was as bright as shown in the plate in that guide which is of an adult. I suspect that the bird is an adult, not an immature. Also I wonder if an immature would be singing as well as this bird.
If my understanding of the bird's age is correct, it may have implications with regard to its natural occurrence. There has been the inevitable speculation regarding whether the bird was wild or an escaped captive. I did not notice any direct evidence of captivity; but the bird is a long way from its normal range. Some other sightings in the United States are thought to have been escapes. According to the database at Roy Jones's site, there are three previous records from Arizona, one of which was thought to have been an escape. A photo of the one that wintered near Portal January-April 1995 may be seen at Gary Rosenberg's site. The natural occurrence of one at the Weslaco Audubon Center, Hidalgo County, Texas, May 10-20, 1999 has been questioned. It was almost certainly the same bird seen in a residential area near the center October 4-23, 1999. Photos of that individual are here. The New Mexico Checklist regards the species as hypothetical.
Two excellent photographs of the Long Beach bird by Monte Taylor have been posted here.